Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

March 27, 2016 at 10:21 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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As far as I can recall, never has a genre dominated the box office nearly so much as superheroes have over the past decade. Not even Sci-Fi or vampires have been asked to do so much of the heavy lifting of annual revenues. One cannot help but wonder when the fever will break. Well, it seems unlikely to any time soon, given that this film is, once again, breaking records; it has the highest earnings of all time for an Easter weekend, with a haul of over $170M. Not bad. Particularly for a movie that is, well, not good. Critics have bashed the self-serious tone but I think it’s disingenuous to be critical of that here, while loving Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series. In fact, dark and serious is what DC does. Look at their last “Superman” film, or the TV series “Gotham” and “Arrow.” Unlike Marvel, who has tended to embrace cartoonishness and humor, DC has chosen “gritty” and “real” as their interpretation of classic characters. So, the somber pensive mood of this film did not bother me. In fact, I find the idea of idol worship and it’s backlash to be a fascinating one to explore within the context of superheroes. I think the real shame of this film is how shallowly it was explored. The plot was a jumbled mess made up of two classic DC stories (“Batman vs Superman” and the “Doomsday” storyline, which I will leave cryptic, so as not to ruin it.) and set-ups for upcoming films; we are treated to micro-cameos of the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, Darkseid’s minions, and Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor. Blockbuster films have been particularly guilty recently of being less a stand-alone film then a set up for the franchise (e.g. “The Force Awakens”) but I can forgive that, if it doesn’t befuddle the plot. Here, they all felt like pointless add-ons in an already overstuffed film. In particular, a long Bruce Wayne dream sequence was nonsensical within the context of this plot. In fact, both he and Clark Kent had far too many dreams/visions/whatever the hell they were. They added nothing to an already overly long story. If director Sack Snyder (“300,” “Man of Steel,” “Watchmen”), or whoever else made the decisions, had just focused on one thing, we might have had a good film. A complex exploration of the central themes and the underlying motives of the characters would have been compelling and given much more weight to the two heroes’ battle. As it was, the title battle was so rushed that it was anti-climactic; I never quite believed what got them fighting to begin with and I laughed at what finally made them stop (you’re ready to kill this guy until you find out his mother shares the same name as yours? Really?). So much could have been done to pare this 2½ hour behemoth down to a reasonable size. They didn’t need to tease those other films; people are going to see them anyway. And they could have saved the “Doomsday” plot line for another movie, rather than for the last 30 minutes of this one. Snyder has an eye for mood and the visuals in this film were often stunning. His Batman moves more fluidly in action scenes than any previous incarnation. It was actually fun watching this Batman fight, as he looked more like the comic version than I have seen before. Also, with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Snyder may have found the first really arresting female superhero. DC certainly has faith in him; he’s involved in virtually everything coming up for them: Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Justice League and Suicide Squad. His tendency seems to be form over substance (think “300”) but, when given provocative material (“Watchman”) and a tight reign, he’s at the top of the game. Here, clearly, nobody was reigning anyone in. I’ll be curious to compare this to “Captain America: Civil War,” which is due out in a few weeks. The premise is very similar: classic heroes turn against each other after a concerned government wants to regulate them. Some feel they can self-police and others feel they should force compliance. It’s an evocative idea. I wonder if Marvel can do a better job of it.

10 Cloverfield Lane

March 13, 2016 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Admittedly, it’s a bit early in the year to be discussing favorites but, I so thoroughly enjoyed this film that it’s hard not to imagine it will end up near the top of my list. Eight years ago, JJ Abrams directed the film “Cloverfield.” He is now executive producing this one. It is by no means a sequel but it is related somehow. Whether or not this one is the sister film to the original or a distant cousin is entirely unclear and may require waiting until the next in what will apparently be a Cloverfield series. Fortunately, this story stands on it’s own and the less I tell you about it, the better. Shot mostly on a very small set with just 3 actors, it builds tension almost unrelentingly for its 105 minutes. The story is anchored by strong performances from all three actors but especially from John Goodman, whose paranoid, deluded and shockingly unself-aware “Howard” seemed to be the infinitely darker cousin of his character, “Walter,” from “The Big Lebowski.” Goodman was unnerving fun to watch as he imbued even the most benign scenes with a sense of dread. The pressure cooker built and built up steam until the inevitable, and satisfying, explosion. A significant improvement over the first film in the series, this one had me on the edge of my seat and guessing at every turn. What’s really going on? As in most stories, the question is almost always better than the answer, but part of the fun comes from the anticipation. There’s plenty of that here.

The Witch

March 6, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Over the last few years, films like “It Follows” and “The Babadook” have been expanding the boundaries of the Horror genre to great effect, and “The Witch” is a worthy addition to that collection. Set is 17th Century America, the story follows one family trying to eke out a living on the edge of a vast and daunting woods. The film is effused with a joyless atmosphere thanks to some brilliant, stark film-making that emphasizes the family’s aloneness with almost every shot. Lenses are used effectively to give the light a haunted, cold feel during the day and flickering candles add menace to the night shots. Likewise, the score is stark and discordant, ratcheting up anxiety effectively and then sometimes ceasing completely, allowing silence to build dis-ease and restlessness. This is a cleverly crafted film with an eye for realism. Director Robert Eggers was a production designer before tackling this, his first feature film, and it shows in all the little details: buildings, clothing, names and, especially, the dialogue feel absolutely period-real, all of which helps you get lost in the story. Eggers also shows a skill at getting strong performances from his cast. Rather than the sort of hamfisted, exaggerated terror one often sees in horror films, these characters were filled with a constant sense of generalized dread about everything (eg starving, displeasing God) that it gave the film emotional weight. In fact, this gets at how the film most effectively plays with the genre itself. Most often, films try to “scare” audiences by making them jump, but the startle-reflex is a cheap thrill; it doesn’t take much skill to trigger it. “The Witch” mostly forgoes this device in favor of creating a bone deep creepiness that pervades virtually every scene, even the most benign ones. I was chilled and disturbed several times by the film, as was the audience I was with and that is a much more satisfying kind of horror than most of what the genre has to offer. Horror films also love to trade in broad metaphors, none more common than “the wages of sin…” variety. As I have said before, 80s h0rror (filmed at the height of AIDS hysteria) was rife with warnings about the link between teen sex and death. This film seems to be playing with a similar sexual metaphor, with burgeoning adolescent sexuality as an undercurrent throughout the story. However, where I think the film drops the ball is in it’s bait and switch ending. What could have been a prescient metaphor of how patriarchal societies fear, stigmatize and attempt to control female sexuality, instead ended up feeling vaguely salacious and sexist. Eggers made a muddied phantasm of the last 10 minutes. What a shame. This film is so understated is so many ways, if only he had realized that some questions are better left unanswered.

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