Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvsBack in 1986, as Superman star Christopher Reeve was prepping work on the ill-fated Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he approached the writer of Superman I and II, the late, great Tom Mankiewicz, for advice. Reeve pitched Mankiewicz on his idea for Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons, a parallel to real-world social issues of the time. Mankiewicz replied with this advice:

Don’t ever get involved with something Superman could fix. He could disarm the world in fifteen minutes. He doesn’t have to go to the UN. If he feels that strongly about it, he could get rid of all the missiles. Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. He could establish agricultural fields in outer space. Don’t bring up things like that.

I would like to add an addendum to that. Don’t get Superman directly involved with real-world issues. Do not twist his mission of peace into a political struggle. Do not bog him down with the ugliness of reality, the superfluity of man’s government, or the problems of democracy, especially at the expense of his message of hope, of inspiring the best in humanity.

I write this, because my many concerns over the past few years with director Zack Snyder’s approach to Batman v Superman were finally realized last month. Not only has the filmmaker indulged in all the above missteps, he’s delivered the most vile, morally reprehensible depiction of Superman and DC Comics on film to date. The film is a brutal assault on our senses, on the spirituality and idealism of these characters, on our intelligence as moviegoers, and on the vitality of quality filmmaking in big-budget studio tentpoles. It’s not just a disappointment; it’s a resolute misstep for the future of the DC Universe on film.

The film centers on a middle-aged Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck getting first billing in a long history of big actors being billed before the guy playing Superman) who after witnessing Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod topple one of his company’s buildings at the end of Manbatman-v-superman of Steel two years ago, grows weary of such dangerous forces being left unchecked.  Rather than blaming the indulgences of the director in the previous film, we are to blame Superman for Metropolis’ destruction. Bruce’s fear is shared by a great deal of the public, who endlessly debate Superman’s heroics and the fact that he “answers to nobody.” Bruce returns to Gotham City plotting to neutralize, and kill if necessary, the Man of Steel, despite repeated claims by butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that “he is not our enemy.” “That son of a bitch brought the war to us!” replies Bruce. Blah blah post-9/11 themes.

Back in Metropolis, Clark Kent is living comfortably with fellow Daily Planet staffer Lois Lane (Amy Adams). I guess Lois knowing Clark’s secret identity from the get-go at the end of Man of Steel hasn’t yielded any interesting twists on their decades-long will they/won’t they relationship from the comics. Contrastingly, Superman has been entirely anti-social in public, saving the world yet not really interacting with it in any way beyond that for these two years. Meanwhile, wealthy philanthropist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) plots to acquire the recently-discovered Kryptonite to control Superman, by manipulating a senator (Holly Hunter) and indeed everyone else around him. Oh, and there’s also other DC characters like Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) lying in the wait for the eventual Justice League movie.

It’s an overflowing plot, but there are traces of intrigue. Chris Terrio of Argo fame uses the characters as players in a larger piece about terrorism, power, corruption, and security, the groundwork of an intriguing political thriller. It is critical of heroes like Batman and Superman, examining their failings and the real consequences of their actions. It’s also a huge deviation from the reverence Snyder and his Man of Steel team showed for the universe in that film. In part to blame is perhaps the director’s long-standing love of Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns; Snyder carts over that story’s older, world-wearier Batman, some talking-head-style political commentary, and perhaps intentionally or not, Miller’s own disdain for the Last Son of Krypton.

Indeed, Dawn of Justice continues the tradition of recent Superman media by placing the hero in no-win scenarios that go directly against the winning spirit the character has always been about. There is a scene wherein (avoiding spoilers) Superman enters a building and a bomb goes off, and Superman just watches somberly as everyone around him is vaporized. Uh, Zack? This is Superman. Not Doctor Manhattan.

That’s an issue I had with Man of Steel too, though to a lesser extent. The Superman mythology isn’t about “well, what if he were REAL? What if a humanoid that had all these powers came to earth?” I don’t care how the real world reacts to Superman’s presence. That’s not appealing to me. Superman is about fantasy, he’s an ESCAPE from the real world. He’s a guy flying around in a red cape who makes a difference in his community and inspires those Batman-V-Superman-Trailer-Fight-Heat-Visionaround him to pitch in themselves. Why is there debate about whether or not he’s doing the right thing? We KNOW he’s gonna do the right thing. He’s SUPERMAN. And yet here we are, watching Charlie Rose and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson (both make brief appearances) debate about a Superman that exists and whether or not his power should be checked. But this is a Superman that hasn’t even begun to build bridges with people publically, so he’s clearly failed in his mission. The Superman of the comics won people over with a smile and a wave as he flew above them. Pity Henry Cavill’s Superman isn’t allowed such joy, regulated to stand and mope idly about how people don’t understand him.

As for Ben Affleck’s Batman, he busies himself in these ridiculous, jarring dream sequences reflecting his fear of aliens from the sky. I had hope after one such sequence, wherein a bat-creature bursts from the tomb of Martha Wayne to attack him. It recalls the jump-scares of a horror movie, a cool new twist that might really transport audiences into Bruce’s tortured psyche. Yet the movie never goes anywhere with it, taking us into even more absurd (and immodestly-budgeted) nightmares, one of which is a full, unabashed teaser for the Justice League movie. Pity Affleck, who’s been suckered into this mess with the promise of redemption after the indignity of 2003’s Daredevil. The actor/filmmaker isn’t altogether unfitting in the cape and cowl, but is also far from the finest performer to fill it.

But I digress. After characters have waxed poetic enough, director Snyder yanks the film’s breaks and yells, “less talk, more EXPLOSIONS!” All political discussions or reflections on real-world politics (clumsy as they were) are gone, leaving all its ideas entirely unresolved, lost in Snyder’s blaring self-indulgence and Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer’s blatant, blaring, borderline parodical score. What of Scoot McNairy’s legless homeless guy? Why has Amy Adams’ role been all but reduced to damsel-in-distress? Shouldn’t Clark be getting in trouble every time Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) passes by his empty desk? No answers here, we only have enough time left in the already bloated two-and-a-half hour runtime for the movie to live up to its namesake – the bout between Batman and Superman.

And…it sucks. Not only does Snyder fail to build up their conflict in any meaningful way, their fisticuffs aren’t satisfying, nor are they really even warranted in the context of the film. It’s seriously the weakest explanation for pitting these two characters against each other. And it was at this point in the movie, after suddenly becoming aware of the intense grimace on my face, I wondered, “aren’t I supposed to be having fun?”

Apparently not. There’s actually a really ugly undercurrent to Dawn of Justice, boasting such brutality, such bloodlust, such hyper-machismo bullshit that makes for the most uncomfortable, punishing experience. That’s not just during the title fight too, that’s the whole movie. Snyder and his cinematographer Larry Fong absolutely do not know when to stop with the hypermasculinity, when enough is enough, to the point where one starts to feel ashamed at being a man at all. It’s more than enough to build a case accusing Snyder, who also shoots the death of Bruce’s parents with all the slow motion and heavy breathing of a sex scene, of using DC Comics characters to work through his own crippling manhood issues.

The studio is even prepping an R-rated cut of this movie for home video release. That’s right, your favorite childhood comic book characters have been perverted into a movie that, without certain cuts, was deemed too violent and too intense by anyone under 17 years old. Wow.batman-v-superman-the-complete-guide-to-frank-miller-dark-knight

So inevitably, we know Batman and Superman are to resolve their differences at some point. And after all that thirst for blood, all that shoddy build-up, their altercation is capped off in the most mind-bogglingly stupid, overwhelmingly left-field conclusion, that literally any idea you, the audience, could come up with as to why these characters should stop fighting, will better qualify you to write this movie than the filmmakers being paid hundreds of thousands to do so.

And then they’re friends, as if nothing had happened, teaming up to destroy an even more laughably stupid threat. And if you thought this film would be answering for Man of Steel’s destructive climax, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman v Superman doubles down on the needlessly high body count. In fact, in one scene Batman has the big baddie in a totally isolated area, but rather than returning to the city to bring the necessary tools to kill the baddie to him, he actually draws him BACK INTO THE POPULATED CITY to get HIM to the tools. Remember how Christopher Nolan’s Batman had that one rule about killing people? Apparently Zack Snyder doesn’t share that sentiment.

So we finally realize, Batman v Superman is a movie about uncomfortable extremes. Snyder has always been an overwrought mess of a filmmaker, favoring style over substance, but the responsibility of pitting together two beloved DC characters has done nothing to curb his sadist, ear-rapingly obnoxious hard-on for destruction. What the hell? Doesn’t this go against everything DC Comics characters have stood for the past 70 years? You bet. Both Batman and Superman are acting totally out of character here. Batman’s a crazy, single-minded bruiser who brands criminals and wants nothing short of Superman’s death, while Superman is totally willing to bend his own moral code if his family is threatened. In the comics, the two have had their quarrels, occasionally even violent ones, but they have never, ever been pushed to the point of foaming at the mouth, hungering for each other’s head on a spike like in this movie. Pity the children who have to witness such overt brutality by the hands of characters who should, ideally, be serving as their role models.

And again, pretty much all the problems posed by the movie would’ve been solved immediately had Superman simply TALKED OPENLY. A simple, “Bruce, we’re being played!” would’ve stopped the title fight altogether. And every single other problem of the movie could’ve been completely avoided had Superman simply stood up in front of the public after Man of Steel and been like, “Hey guys, my name’s Superman, I’m just here to help out with the problems you can’t solve yourselves and really just help everyone to do better. Sorry about that Zod character, he’s a bad guy on my home planet, and I was just trying to stop him. Next time we face a threat like this, I’ll do it in space or something so there’s not as many casualties. Again sorry, still new to the whole superhero thing. Anyway, up up and away and all that!” *woosh*

Boom. /conflict.

Even the other DC characters teased in this movie lack subtlety; they basically appear in mini-trailers for their upcoming solo movies. It’s a sad day when I’m longing for the more natural, thoughtful teases of Green Lantern.

I haven’t even mentioned Jesse Eisenberg, who gives the most abysmally misguided performance as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, known for his mousy-yet-charming teenage characters in Adventureland and _1436830197Zombieland, is not only insanely miscast as the powerful billionaire, he’s clearly never even glimpsed a Superman comic long enough to know who this character is supposed to be. So he instead plays Luthor the only way he knows how – by going over-the-top awkward, hammy, and creepy, his hands shaking as he speaks about power at a charity event, stumbling over the girth of his words. There’s even a point at the end where he actually hums the notes of the musical score. It’s just uncomfortable, a lot like…well, Zack Snyder’s id – angry, unrestrained, bratty, unlikable, and sadistic.

And that’s pretty much Batman v Superman too, the Donald Trump of superhero movies – loud, blunt, ugly, stupid, fear-mongering, extremist, tasteless, and bearing several cringe-worthy teases of what’s to come. Zack Snyder was always the wrong architect for the DC Universe on film, merely a loud, annoying kid bashing his action figures together. I don’t think Tom Mankiewicz could’ve envisioned anything like it, but if he could see Dawn of Justice now, there is no doubt he’d be shaking his head, collecting his valuables, and leaving the theater. I’d be right behind him.

3.5/10

 

QUOTE: Rossen, Jake; Millar, Mark (2008-02-01). Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (Cappella Books) (p. 164). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

IMAGES: cinemablend.com, mirror.co.uk, screenrant.com, cdn.idigitaltimes.com, i.ytimg.com

X-citing Changes: Highlights of Comic-Con 2015

ccdp“I’m touching myself tonight,” announces Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool in front of a packed Hall H crowd of over 6,000 people. The Con posits a reminder in front of panelists their audience may be under 18, but that didn’t stop anyone from blowing the roof off the hall with hard language, innuendo, and brutally violent imagery.

And it was beautiful.

It’s the people going against the grain that elevate Comic-Con from a mundane gathering of smelly nerds worshipping at the feet of a bunch of contractually obligated stars, themselves shoved out into the spotlight to recite canned answers to banal questions and collect their paycheck.

Yeah, I’m letting my bitter old fuck side show again, but I did quite enjoy what I saw of this years’ festivities online. And for my annual coverage I’ll be going against the grain myself, limiting myself to a single post recapping the whole of what I got out of the Con, rather than laboriously recounting panels you’ve likely already read about elsewhere. Lots to cover, little time.

Supergirl pilot screening

While San Diego glimpsed the official premiere of CBS’ new superhero series by “Arrow” and “Flash” showrunner Greg Berlanti, I treated myself to the leaked pilot from months prior. “Supergirl” centers on Kara Zor-El (Melissa Benoist), sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton just after her cousin Kal-El. But Kara is caught in the Phantom Zone and delayed in her arrival on Earth by 24 years, long enough for baby Kal to have already grown up into the Man of Steel. After some time to grow up herself, Kara now works in National City as a lowly coffee-fetcher, but is slowly beginning to follow in her cousin’s footsteps by using her powers to help others.

“Supergirl” owes a great deal to Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman: the Movie in tone, musical cues, design, and occasionally, cliché. Where the new cinematic Superman in Man of Steel abandoned Clark Kent’s mousy Bringing Up Baby routine, now “Supergirl” picks it up in its stead. Your mileage on that may vary, thoughSupergirl_Promo_SG6F30H_587252_640x360 undisputedly, every player in the pilot gives a pretty solid performance handling the usual clunky pilot writing, complete with Kara doing “woman things” like picking out what to wear on a date with an online match.

In the funny books, Supergirl is an inherently silly Silver-Age spinoff of the Superman mythos. She does all the same things the Man of Steel can do, except she’s a woman. “Supergirl” makes a valiant effort to remove the character from Superman’s world, but comparisons are inevitable. Superman is sorely missed from this series, referred to only as “the big man” or glimpsed briefly as a silhouette in the sun.

I do wonder, with the whole of the internet demanding studios for more female superhero adaptations, would it not be more beneficial for Warners to have picked someone like Zatanna or Power Girl to lead a new series? As an original adaptation not tied to any other male heroes, is that not making an even greater statement, that women don’t need to live in the shadow of men?

Still, this about as good as a Supergirl pilot gets, so if it fails, time to call out the aforementioned rabble-rousers for not supporting the type of quality product they incessantly demand more of.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

mayclylksn2pjygltivcAfter a brief look at Ezra Miller as the Flash (an interesting but highly questionable casting choice) and the Green Lantern Corps reboot, the Batman v Superman panel had a brand new trailer to showcase, released officially online afterward.

A lot of what I wrote in my editorial on the first trailer still stands – it’s all very overwrought, with the Batman/Superman conflict painted as more of a political struggle containing underlying themes of security/taking-the-fight-to-them-type stuff (what snooty critics would tiredly label “post-9/11 subtext”). Substance is always good, but the dark, Christopher Nolan-esque seriousness of the whole thing feels gloomy when it should be thrilling. I miss the fun, winking charm of previous Superman films, the ones where he’s solving things rather than creating more problems. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again – Batman is about having problems, Superman is about finding solutions.

We’ll see come March. This is a very important movie for the future of DC Comics on film, and I worry we’ll never again reach the heights of The Dark Knight or Superman: the Movie. Still, kudos to Warner for their filmmaker-driven approach, which should nonetheless deliver more satisfying adaptations than Marvel Studios.

Suicide Squad

Leaked from the con and later officially released by a comic-con-international-2015-warner-bros-presentationgrumbling Warner Bros, footage from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad has been rocking the internet, and for good reason – it looks far better than Zack Snyder’s dour team-up. Uniting some of DC’s more obscure villains to tackle impossible missions is great movie material not just because of its excellent source, but because it looks to be something bold and visionary, something DIFFERENT in the face of the same old superhero shtick Marvel continues to peddle. Even Jared Leto’s Joker looks quite solid, not that there was any doubt in my mind.

Here’s hoping for a movie that lives up to what Jon Ostrander accomplished with the comics. Provided director Ayer is channeling Fury and not Sabotage, I think he’ll do just fine.

Deadpool

Deadpool-Is-The-Ultimate-Comic-Con-Movie

Before Bryan Singer provided an intriguing, if expected look at X-Men: Apocalypse, it was director Tim Miller, star Ryan Reynolds, and the cast of Deadpool that brought the thunder Saturday night. In a bit of leaked footage from the upcoming film, as Reynolds is being wheeled away on a stretcher on the promise of gaining superpowers, he cries out, “Please don’t make the suit green. Or animated!” I’ve since watched the leaked footage several times over.

Deadpool’s hilarious panel followed suit, providing some uproariously funny commentary about Miller’s occasional on-set crying, cracking jokes about bestiality, and more. The panel proved the sweet irreverence the Con desperately needed; everyone involved appeared genuinely proud of what they’ve accomplished with the film thus far. Vulture wrote it first and I agree wholeheartedly; if Deadpool is as funny and entertaining as it looks, it could prove the most vital superhero movie of 2016.

Honorable Mentions

I’m not a big fan, but Ash vs. Evil Dead looks like a fun return to an old fan-favorite franchise. The Hateful Eight should have an incredible soundtrack now that Ennio Morricone is onboard for the score, and I may just have to travel to catch it in 70 mm from how passionately Tarantino speaks of the format. The ever-funny Bill Murray proved a welcome addition to the Con family appearing for Open Road’s Rock the Kasbah, which if the trailer is any indication, looks to be a great showcase for the actor’s brand of dry, cool-as-fuck humor.bm

Jay Garrick will appear in the second season of The Flash played by Teddy Sears, a welcome addition to a series that I quite enjoyed overall this past fall. But can we all agree that Legends of Tomorrow looks like shit?

People continue to jizz themselves over The Force Awakens. I will say that all involved seem very genuine about making the best movie they can, but I’ve still seen nothing to convince me the film won’t be anything more than ordinary and unessential, not unlike this summer’s Jurassic World.

Victor Frankenstein’s panel featured stars James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe exchanging unintentional innuendo about their character’s sexual proclivities, proving an entertaining break from the norm. And M. Night Shyamalan stopped by to promote his return-to-form of sorts in The Visit. It’s a prime vehicle for the director’s comeback, but I can’t help but feel that prospect is more cosmetic than anything – the first trailer looks just as awkward a mix of creepy and unintentionally hilarious as The Happening. We’ll see come September.

Dishonorable Mention

Quick bone to pick with the rapidly-devolving Arrow, a show which has producer Greg Berlanti claiming that season four will finally feature the hero’s transition from Arrow to Green Arrow. But isn’t that what viewers were promised each summer preceding the last two seasons? Then there’s the eye-rolling decision to turn classic Justice Society character Mr. Terrific gay on the show. I think Stan Lee said it best, why fundamentally change who these characters are when you can just create new ones? Aside from that, I may delve into the specifics of what I hated so much about Season 3 of “Arrow,” but suffice to say, they’ll have one less viewer tuning in this fall.

Reflection

Suicide_Squad_SDCC_trailer_-_620_x_400

We are in the midst of an evolving infrastructure at San Diego Comic-Con. People waiting in line for Hall H for days are now being treated to J.J. Abrams and Zack Snyder bringing them water, t-shirts, a surprise Batmobile appearance, and private invites to a John Williams concert.

And to big money-hungry studios bitching about your trailers leaking – fuck off. People are inevitably going to try to leak your footage, so instead of whining to news outlets about how your footage “wasn’t ready” for public consumption, either be ready to screen it, or don’t screen it at all. Leakage proves thousands of online viewers are interested in your product, and they shouldn’t be excluded just because they didn’t spend thousands to travel to San Diego.

When I started writing these Comic-Con posts, it was difficult to even find footage of the panels themselves. We’ve come a long way since then now that all of this years’ are readily available, however it’s time to take the next step. How about a paid VIP service giving online viewers a live streaming experience of the panels? There’s a huge online audience out there waiting and studios are too busy bitching to realize it.

Regardless, it takes a great panel to remind me why I follow this event in the first place and Deadpool’s was the one to do it. The film was not only the shake-up the convention needed, but that the movie industry will need as well; here’s hoping it delivers as positive an impact as it did in San Diego.

IMAGES: MetroUK, moviepilot, CBSstatic, Wall Street National, altpress, pagesix, flavorwire, nytimes

Dragged to Earth: How the ‘Batman v Superman’ Trailer Loses the ‘Super’

batman-v-superman-02It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a bleak social commentary!

I don’t usually write posts based on pre-release material anymore. More often than not, I’d rather give the movies a chance to speak for themselves, only tossing my two cents in when they can be properly judged in their final form. But my followers know well my adoration for Superman and DC Comics, so perhaps it was inevitable I’d be writing about the Batman v Superman trailer that rocked the internet this month after the new Force Awakens trailer already kind of did that.

Suffice to say, I’m a bit irked.

But before I begin, I highly recommend reading both SlashFilm and ScreenRant’s excellent analyses, which dive deeper into a trailer that seems to entirely lose the point of one-half of its principle protagonists.

I’m referring of course to the distinct anti-Superman attitude throughout the trailer, with actual commentators like Charlie Rose and Neil deGrasse Tyson debating his heroics, set over creepy images of zombie-like followers (pictured above), in one shot reaching out to him in an uncomfortably blinding light. Like its predecessor Man of Steel, Batman v Superman seems to be exploring the possibility that someone like Superman could exist in the real world, analyzing his every move, its implications for humanity, and commenting on society’s rather disturbing messiah complex.

This trailer hugely defies expectations of what a Superman movie is. I tried justifying this radical visage at first, thinking, “Well, lots of Superman comics have delved into his perceived negative effect on the populace, like the classic Elliot S. Maggin/Curt Swan ‘Must There Be a Superman?’, and this is like a darker version of that.” But in the end, I kept returning to the same conclusion. I’m tired of a dark DC Universe. I don’t want any darker a Superman.

Lights up, please.

Director Zack Snyder’s blinding visual flair is perhaps what lent viewers such strong reactions to the footage. It’s incredibly overwhelming, filling each and every frame batman-v-superman-05with vomit-inducing lighting and effects, and making an already dark, ugly color palette feel even darker and uglier. For a production supposedly seeking to answer critics of Man of Steel’s destruction-porn climax, Batman v Superman doesn’t seem to be letting up on the same overwrought approach that led to such miscalculations.

                                                                    Kneel before…Superman, apparently.

Indeed, the trailer goes far beyond the “dark, gritty, realistic” trend in comic book movies of late and extends to pure blackness, hopelessness, and dread. You could make the argument this trailer is presented from the viewpoint of humanity, and indeed its central representative Bruce Wayne, to set the stage for why Wayne might come into conflict with Superman. People are misinterpreting Superman’s mission of peace.

And my answer to all that is simple – it’s a fucking comic book movie.

I don’t go to see a comic book movie for a reflection of the real world, for an exposé on the flaws of society. An allegory maybe, but not a reflection. And I especially don’t go to see a Superman movie to glimpse the batman-v-superman-08ugliness of humanity. That’s not what the character is or has ever been about. I read, watch and consume Superman media to ESCAPE reality, to glimpse a fantasy world that society should be STRIVING towards. The character rarely brings out the worst in humanity; indeed, if anything, the mythology is centered around how Superman’s message of peace is very rarely misinterpreted by the populace, and how people of every creed, nation, and race can rally behind the idea that, hey, let’s all try to be like that guy and help each other out. Superman transcends those kinds of boundaries very quickly.

This idea that humanity could become uglier in his presence is about as far away from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster as we could possibly get.

I gave Man of Steel a pass on its darker moments under the pretense that that film was the first of a new series. The character needed a grittier, edgier portrayal to be taken seriously by audiences left rolling their eyes at the dated, mundane heroics of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Even within the context of the film, Superman is just beginning his career and entering a whole world of problems. It stands to reason the world is dull and gray without him actively serving it, and that after he’s established as a superhero, sequels would gladly brighten things up.

Yet the trailer for Dawn of Justice shows no such brightness. This is a sordid reality better served by a violent, armor-clad vigilante than a bright and friendly idealistbatman-v-superman-18 swooping in to save the day. But Batman and Superman have always proved a very organic combination in the past, paired together to compare and contrast each other’s respective strengths and ideals. So then shouldn’t this trailer be setting up that contrast? Why the one-sidedness? For shock value? Or just because Snyder has a hard-on for Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’?

For that matter, why is it that Superman media of the past five years seems to be all about stacking the character with the weight of the world in terms of problems? Why is it that even the solutions Superman finds, he just ends up causing more problems? Can’t he just WIN at some point? Isn’t that the satisfaction of the character, seeing him WIN against impossible odds?

Batman is about having PROBLEMS. Superman is about finding SOLUTIONS.

Teaming these two shouldn’t prove bleak or dark. It should pay off our investment in their adventures. It should balance their differing viewpoints. And above all, it should be FUN. batman-v-superman-09And that’s what Man of Steel, hell, even to an extent the Chistopher Nolan Batman trilogy, lacked – a sense of fun and wonder and joy and escapism that defines these movies.

Some might argue this is a natural maturation of the subgenre. If that’s the case, the subgenre is maturing right out of its core audience – kids. There is a timelessness to these characters; even as we grow old, they and their ideals never do. I’ll take Superman saving a cat from a tree over yet another existential crisis about the burden of wearing a mask any day of the week.

To its credit, Batman v Superman looks surprisingly sophisticated in its underlying power-struggle theme. I like Jeremy Irons’ Alfred monologue, drawing comparisons between the powerlessness Wayne felt witnessing the death of his parents to the powerlessness he might feel at the arrival of a figure like Superman. But there are ways to explore those kinds of ideas and still be FUN. Don’t believe me? Read the Andrew Kevin Walker/Akiva Goldsman Batman vs. Superman script from over a decade ago, which does a great job taking both heroes seriously while still balancing their strengths.

I will of course be reserving final judgment on Dawn of Justice for opening night. This is mere marketing, and clearly designed to elicit a range of responses. But Warner would be wise to re-evaluate their formula for superhero movies if they care to continue making them. I won’t keep paying to see Superman, much less the likes of Green Lantern and Shazam, being scribbled over with a sharpie on an already blackened canvas.

Because keeping Superman grounded just doesn’t fly.

Images: ComingSoon.net

Publicity Stunt Casting: The Eisenberg-Luthor Issue

68th Annual Golden Globe Awards Arrivals Kk13rC1WKOulLoading up Bleeding Cool one afternoon last month, I glimpsed the headline, “Jesse Eisenberg cast as Lex Luthor in Batman/Superman movie.” Chuckling, I checked my calendar. Nope, April Fool’s was still months away. Odd. Good joke, though. Wonder how many sites will start circulating the obviously fake story as legitimate. Later, ComingSoon.net did just that, it’s headline reading the same. Then Deadline’s, featuring a press release from director Zack Snyder himself. Journalists, straining to remain as objective as possible, opted for a collective, “Well…didn’t see that one coming.”

Huh, I thought. Well that’s dumb. So…why, exactly, Eisenberg?

You may consider this a rant on the matter if you wish, but these days I don’t take these things nearly as seriously. To think it was a mere four years ago when I was pacing the floor agitatedly upon learning Snyder would direct Man of Steel. I have to think that angry college freshman would’ve flown through the roof upon reading this news. Regardless, such a bizarre announcement practically demands I toss my two cents in.

Since the casting announcement, I’ve largely steering clear of much of the internet’s, say, less informed discussion on the matter. Even so, I’m keenly aware it’s gotten fans riled up like Ben Affleck never could, with most people just curious as to what the flying fuck these filmmakers are thinking. Then you’ve got those anti-haters, the tools of the group discussion who post, “It totally makes sense guys. Eisenberg played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he’s a modern-day Luthor, a tech-savvy, self-made businessman. And he’s so mousy, so you’d never expect him to be a threat to the world’s greatest champion.” It’s a lot of flimsy, long-winded, run-around garbage, people trying to justify how these filmmakers couldn’t go wrong. They can’t go wrong. Zack Snyder is a fucking visionary.

Then you’ve got those people who complain about people who complain about the complainers, evidently Monty Python fans.

My opinion, boiled down to its most basic, obvious truth: this casting blows.

But let’s backtrack. After Ben Affleck was announced to be playing Batman in the new film, the actor says heben-affleck-23 was able to take his criticism on the chin, but that it “seems odd” to judge a film’s cast before even seeing the movie. To an extent I agree, and certainly I’m saving my final judgment of the film for 2016. As with the case of seemingly every major tentpole movie these days, a certain degree of secrecy is required to keep fans from dissecting every element, every frame, every detail before the movie’s even out. So naturally, it makes sense to adopt a “wait and see” attitude without knowing much about what the final film will look like. Fair enough.

But dropping a huge bomb like the Eisenberg announcement, and expecting fans NOT to judge? Expecting fans not to start questioning the difference between Snyder entering a room of casting executives and saying, “Hey guys, let’s be bold and unexpected. Let’s take a chance on this actor and see what he does with the role,” and entering a room saying, “Guys, fuck everything, let’s hit so far into left field, that dude sitting in the nosebleed section will see his car getting hit by the ball in the parking lot.”?

That’s expecting a lot.

Here’s the difference: Ben Affleck is a bold and daring choice. Affleck fits perfectly with the prospect of an older, wiser, yet still handsome and physically fit Bruce Wayne. Performance unseen, his casting defies nothing of the typical, expected image of Bruce Wayne we’ve all come to know and love, nor does it impede any possibilities for Affleck to portray the character accurately and true to the source material. He is sensible left-field. Though there remains the unanswered question, does the actor overshadow the character? Will Affleck’s celebrity status purport not Batman, but Ben Affleck in a cape and cowl? I’m inclined to vote for the former, simply because, as evidenced by Val Kilmer’s charisma-less Dark Knight in Batman Forever, you can pretty much cast most traditional Hollywood leading men in the role and they’ll probably do a solid job at the very least.

Another in the sensible left-field category: Jeremy Irons as Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth. Irons will no doubt put a fresh new spin on the character, and yet the actor still has the acting chops to play the traditional, fatherly Alfred of the comics we all know and love. That’s being faithful to the mythology while still doing something different and exciting that will get people talking.

Let’s say Snyder wants exactly that. Let’s say Eisenberg is exactly who the casting guys are looking for in an antagonist. In the furthest reaches of my logic, the best explanation I can come up with is this: after the (spoilers) neck-breaking climax of Man of Steel, Superman is left to grapple with his moral decision-making and overall code of ethics, to eventually and obviously settle upon a traditional “no-kill” policy. Then here comes “Luthor,” whom screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio have written to be mousy and meek, as a way of better challenging Supes to stay true to his new edict. Here is this absolute weakling, whom Supes knows he could snap in half with a flick of his finger, who nonetheless has power over him. Supes, in all his power, in all his strength, can do nothing when threatened by Luthor. It’s a continuation of the themes of Man of Steel, dealing with Superman’s everyday choice to let loose or exercise restraint.

Maybe this Luthor is designed to play up the contrasts between he and Superman. Maybe Luthor desires Superman’s strength and can’t have it, forced to compensate with his knowledge and technology. Maybe, where Clark earned his powers, Luthor had to work for his own abilities, leading him to hate Superman for his entitlement. All interesting contrasts to potentially be played up.

This all, of course, ignores the reality that Eisenberg’s casting completely flies in the face of who and what Lex Luthor is and always has been as a character. And Eisenberg cannot possibly hope to portray Luthor as written in any other medium, not now or ever.

To illustrate, this is Lex Luthor:

lexluthor

Note the physical stance in each of these images. Luthor is constantly in command, caught up in his own twisted vision of what society should be. He exudes one crucial element that sets him above not just Superman, but most of humanity – power. Luthor is a commanding presence, ruling LexCorp, Metropolis, and even the free world with an iron fist. He stands toe-to-toe with Superman both mentally, and in his power suit, physically. Luthor is power that can’t be found in a gym, or near a yellow sun, or even in a lifetime of experience. The guy is practically power personified, and suffice to say, power is not something that can be found from the shy, awkward kid from Adventureland.

I asked earlier if Affleck’s Batman will prove more Affleck than Batman. I pose the same question about Eisenberg: does the actor overshadow the character? In this case, absolutely. I could never see past Eisenberg to see Lex Luthor. He is senseless left-field, and unlike Affleck and Irons, could never hope to portray the Luthor of the source material. Eisenberg has no power. He has very little screen presence. He has no way to be taken seriously in any scenario involving power. He’s a fine actor, but his range is limited to arrested-development teenager roles and smug brats. He is everything that Luthor is not, to the point where suggesting him to play Superman’s greatest nemesis would have you laughed out of any respectable casting agency. Eisenberg is the internet troll’s ironic pick for Luthor in a fantasy casting discussion. And it’s ridiculous that this even has to be said, quite honestly.

I argue not only this, but that Eisenberg’s casting is a thoughtless maneuver designed merely to get people talking about the lore’s huge change in status quo. These days, comic book movies practically demand left-field casting, as anything less would almost surely be met with an indifferent yawn from audiences. But when you’re casting someone so blatantly unfitting for the role, now you’re no longer bringing the world of the comics to life. You’re no longer trying to faithfully adapt a beloved American mythology. You’re defying expectations for the sake of defying them, and spitting in the face of your predecessors’ legacy.

“But wait!” whine certain fans. “Remember how everyone hated the idea of Heath Ledger as Joker? Look how that turned out!” I regret I was among those who championed other actors above Ledger at the time of The Dark Knight, but these fans are missing the point. Nolan cast the left-field Ledger because he had a vision. Even in Man of Steel, Snyder’s cast is filled with big names for its own sake, the director merely aping Nolan’s casting methods on the Dark Knight films (and really, Richard Donner’s on Superman: the Movie). I argue that Snyder is casting Eisenberg not because he has a vision, but because he simply wants to defy expectations.

The casting also illustrates how Hollywood seems more concerned with casting names than complete unknowns. Why not branch out and search for a more fitting Lex Luthor, an actor who has a chance to embody the role? What happened to casting the best actor for the job, not simply going with the most unexpected choice for its own sake?

Imagine this. Back in 1976, both Christopher Reeve and Sylvester Stallone walk into Richard Donner’s office. Both have auditioned for the role of Superman in Richard Donner’s eponymous film. Donner turns to Reeve and says, “Kid, you’ve got all the right stuff, you’re a great actor, but we’ve decided to go with Sly here.”

“What?” says Reeve. “Why?”

“Well kid, he’s got some experience under his belt, that much is certain. And he’s Italian, which we hope will challenge a lot of the expectations that fans have for the character. After all, Superman isn’t just American, he’s a child of the world, right? Who says we can’t cast Sly just because he’s completely ill-fitting to portray the Superman people know and love?”

You get the picture. And because of it, a little bit of excitement for the ultimate DC Comics team-up movie dies inside me. All the same, best of luck to Eisenberg, no doubt the ultimate victim in all this, and destined to receive the tongue-lashing of a lifetime right up until the film’s release and possibly even after.

Still, good joke. Looking forward also to Florence Henderson as Doomsday.

lex__by_gavinmichelli-d74k4uu

Ryan’s Top Ten of 2013

2013Before I kick off my annual reflection on the past year in cinema, I’d like to take a brief moment to say how annoyed I am having to wait until halfway into January before I can even come close to completing my conclusive Top Ten list. Many of the year’s best offerings came either at the tail end of December or the very beginning of January, technically still counting as part of the prior year (in the Academy’s eyes, anyway) due to limited theater screenings. It’s an irritating practice which continues to be a thorn in my side; why not just keep the 2013 movies in 2013, instead of delaying their release to a month when Top Ten of the Year lists have become largely irrelevant?

I digress. On with my best ofs, beginning with a few honorable mentions:

42 – In spite of some of the more recent racially-minded biopics of Awards season, I toss my hat behind a more inspiring, enlightening film about African-American social liberation. Great performances and a solid script make 42 a poignant film about overcoming social hardship.

Don Jon – Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut is a touching look at modern sexual relationships, and the way both men and women carry distorted perceptions of them. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t feel concocted in a studio, instead living and breathing in the real world.

The Place Beyond the Pines – Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance’s latest is a mesmerizing odyssey of family pain. We watch two generations embody their father’s flaws, doomed to repeat their lineage. Shifting in characters and perspectives seamlessly, this April release proves a surprisingly meaningful experience.

Lone Survivor – While it doesn’t do anything new with the genre, Peter Berg’s pet project is a film about the qualities that separate humanity from the inhuman, the peacemakers from the warmongers. It is a film about why, in spite of overwhelming pain, we choose to sacrifice our lives for the good of others. And it’s powerful stuff.

The Counselor – Director Edgar Wright believes Ridley Scott’s epic crime drama to be a future cult film, and I completely agree. The unfairly reviled Counselor is one of the year’s most unforgivingly truthful films, boasting a great, if labored script by Cormac McCarthy. I suspect most critics had read the leaked script beforehand, and what they saw didn’t measure up to what they’d imagined. Or maybe they’re just dense. Probably a bit of both.

And finally, my picks for the best films of 2013:

10. Out of the Furnace

out-of-the-furnace-still-4One of the many things I admire about Scott Cooper’s modern western is its defiance of Hollywood and revenge-thriller conventions – the hero doesn’t get the girl in the end, its shootout sequences only take place during the third act, and even after its conflict is resolved, so many questions remain about its protagonist’s choices. Most importantly, Cooper understands that the best revenge stories aren’t about the chase or the final kill. They’re about people, and about pain.

Out of the Furnace is dirty, down-to-earth, and deliberate, staging a family where brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are torn apart in their differing ideals. One makes an honest living in the steel mill, the other is a fighter, unwilling to work with steel the rest of his life and ignoring his brother’s protests. After a fight for a dangerous drug-addicted employer (Woody Harrelson), Affleck’s character seems to disappear, leaving Bale’s character to determine how to deal with his pain.

With some great performances and thoughtful direction, Out of the Furnace is a simple, yet subtle film that sucks you in to its world of hurt. I’d love to see Cooper helm an actual period-piece western next.

9. Her

her-joaquin-phoenix-8Like last year’s Joaquin Phoenix-starring The Master, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Her, a story of a geeky, lonely man named Theodore (Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent program (voice of Scarlett Johansson). It portrays, rather objectively, a disturbingly impersonal world not far removed from our own. Here, personalized letters are dictated by staff writers in the buyer’s own handwriting. Everyone in sight is looking down at his/her phone and holding a Bluetooth device in one ear. Technology has sensationalized, altered, and masked us from reality. It has become pornographic, turning us into selfish people craving on-demand updates and searching for instant gratification. Real human relationships are fewer and more far between.

Observe the brief scene with Olivia Wilde, who plays a beautiful woman on a date with Theodore. She essentially throws herself at him, desperate for a connection, but Theodore disconnects when he learns she wants a serious relationship. She recoils, saying, “You’re a really creepy dude.” And he is; despite his people-reading skills, a lost love has kept him from forming connections with others. It’s a commentary on the world we may soon occupy; before the date, Theodore pulls up her Facebook pictures during a video game session, and a kid playing the game with him online sees the pics, telling Theodore, “She’s fat.”

One could go crazy analyzing all there is to experience in Her. It is a profound study of love and human relationships, a timely look at today’s world’s generally declining ability to cultivate connections with one another. What forms does love take? How do we define it? Can technology define and convey human emotion? The film poses infinite questions about this technology’s relationship with humanity, many of which parallel that of real-life committed relationships – how two people can grow apart, meet other people, etc.

Her is also one of the most challenging films of the year, and yanked me out of my comfort zone with its innately polarizing portrayal of humanized machinery. I’m cold to its romantic conventions (which adhere a bit too closely to formula between the second and third acts), but that’s not really the point. Technology can be a great tool in forming and maintaining new relationships. It can appear wonderful and understanding on the surface at first. But technology doesn’t feel, and when we let it take control of us, well…it can only end in loneliness. There are powerful and gripping qualities about Her, and I hope to god society hears its message.

8. Rush

Rush-2013In my review of Rush, I described a film about the contrasting ideologies and bitter opposition of two men driven in their professions. It is a film not so much about the racing of cars as it is the people behind the wheel. It’s an important stipulation, one which writer Peter Morgan indeed channeled while writing the film:

I thought no one was ever going to come to me and say ‘Please will you write a story about an Austrian and an Englishman and examine the cultural differences between the two?’ That would never occur to anybody. So I thought ‘I’ll write it because it interests me.’

The approach is all the better for Rush, an accessible yet sophisticated blockbuster in the typical Ron Howard biopic vein – it details both James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nikki Lauda’s (Daniel Bruhl) backstories, their characters, their respective love lives, and their tragic hubris. In the end, Rush has no winners or losers, just a lifelong relationship between two men with very different outlooks on racing, and in turn, life.

7. Saving Mr. Banks

Saving-Mr.-Banks-Reviews-starring-Tom-Hanks-and-Emma-Thompson-2013It took John Lee Hancock’s latest period piece to remind me just how much Mary Poppins meant to me as a kid. Is it strange that I still catch myself whistling “Spoonful of Sugar,” “Step in Time,” and countless others at my age? No matter; even more passionate than I about the film was the original novel’s author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). And in her and Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) conflicting visions for the film, Saving Mr. Banks presents the timeless and important message that even a reconciliation of truth and imagination can be just as, if not more poignant than the truth itself.

We watch Travers’ heartbreaking childhood as her father (Colin Farrell) fosters her creative energies, yet begins drinking himself into oblivion. We feel for her and her fight for her work as she clings tightly to the most minute details of the novel’s story, really her life story, on her quest to redeem her father. We feel for Disney, who just wants to make a fun, engaging picture for children, something to mask them from the reality of the world they live in. Both Thompson and Hanks nail the speech and mannerisms of their respective characters, and the script is an excellent one.

Saving Mr. Banks is one of the most heartfelt films of the year, a delightful walk down memory lane which hits all the right emotional notes. It’s charming, it’s poignant, and it’s sugarcoated, but…just a spoonful.

6. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

dos4What shines most in the second act of Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit saga is the incredible stuntwork and action sequences. The returning Legolas (Orlando Bloom) once more flies around in gravity-defying fashion, no doubt to the seething of die-hard fans still cringing from the archer’s shield-surfing abilities in The Two Towers. But above all, these stunts provide something we’ve never seen on film before – a fantastic mid-film barrel-riding sequence, which sees Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Co. travelling down an out-of-control river trapped in barrels, all while being pursued by a vicious pack of Orcs. Jackson’s camera is so integrated in the action, you’d swear you’d been whisked away onto a wet theme park ride.

As I’ve endlessly gushed before, The Hobbit films are some of the most well-designed, enchanting fantasies put to film. Not only are the effects outstanding, but the storytelling, combining the more fantastical leanings of the novel with Jackson’s more blockbuster approach, is equally brilliant. How do they get around the many talking animals of the novel, not present in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films? Make it so their speech can only be heard when Bilbo (Martin Freeman) puts on the ring. Smart. Then there’s the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, providing not just a deliciously evil voice for the dragon, but a deliciously evil mo-cap performance.

People will continue to bitch and moan about the Hobbit films not covering nearly as much story ground per film as the Lord of the Rings films did. And no, unfortunately, the films don’t seem to want to have much to do with their title protagonist. But The Desolation of Smaug is another Middle-Earth outing from a master of the escapist adventure yarn that yet again manages to deliver a brilliantly-crafted, outstandingly-designed piece of storytelling.

5. Nebraska

nebraskaIn discussing his latest film’s back-and-white color palette, writer/director Alexander Payne says he chose the look because, “[he] just knew it from when [he] read the script.” Yet only a true master of the art could make such a decision and have it work so beautifully. It’s a testament to Payne’s ability to downplay the thoughtfulness he exudes so fluently in his work.

Nebraska is a film about fathers and sons, families and legacies. We laugh watching the older members of the family having short, trivial conversations with siblings they haven’t seen in ages. It always seems like family reaches a point where they simply run out of things to talk about. The exception is of course June Squibb’s character, who speaks candidly about her sex life as if she were 50 years younger. She has a great scene defending her husband Woody (Bruce Dern) against the vultures that are now their family members, asking for a share in Woody’s purported million-dollar winnings.

It’s another of Payne’s dramedies that captures both the pain and the humor of life, examining the true nature of people and creating characters that feel so genuine they could easily be real. This time, Payne provides quite a few flattering shots of the Midwestern state, painting a pitch-perfect image of the setting in gorgeous black-and-white. I’d speculate that color scheme is intended to reflect Woody’s single-mindedness in collecting his million. Maybe Payne just has an innate sense for these things.

4. Man of Steel

ffa54_man-steel-trailer-supermanLike Batman Begins before it, Man of Steel isn’t merely an excellent comic book movie, but an excellent film period. The traditional Superman mythology is rebirthed into something fresher and closer to reality, yet remains as hopeful and heartfelt as any of the character’s greatest adventures. And like Begins, it answers the simple question of why its hero exists as one of the greatest of his kind, not just for modern times, but for all time.

Henry Cavill was born to play this more human Superman, making for one of the best onscreen incarnations of the character yet. The rest of the cast, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, and more, all fill their roles memorably and ably. Clark’s relationship to Lois Lane is the story’s heart, the latter no longer acting as his damsel in distress, but his connection to humanity, his savior just as much as he is hers. The film’s final scene proves the most interesting moments of their new dynamic are yet to come.

It’s a shame that so many, including Superman: Birthright author Mark Waid, were so quick to dismiss Man of Steel based on its controversial resolution, which I felt to be the perfect way to illustrate exactly how Superman came to his immovable, unwavering ideals. Since my original review, I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is no Superman: the Movie, but truly, there is something here for every Superman fan to love, bits taken from every era of comicdom, yet a whole that rings an entirely new tune. For all his faults, director Zack Snyder musters a heroic iconography, a visual palette to this point unseen in the subgenre. And kudos to Goyer’s smart script, taking what could’ve been another predictable, mundane origin story to some unexpected places. Luckily, it doesn’t neuter the character in the slightest, only his surroundings, boiling the Superman mythology down to its core of a man lost and alone in the world, looking to find his niche and help people wherever he goes. It’s real, it has pathos, and proves that, above all, Superman is like us. A man.

3. American Hustle

American HustleHustle’s original script was titled “American Bullshit,” and for good reason – the film is a defining look at the fronts we put up, the masks we wear, and the lies we tell. There’s a reason why every character in the movie has bad hair – watch Christian Bale in the opening sequence, going through a lengthy morning comb-over ritual to mask his insecurities.

American Hustle sees bullshitters bullshitting each other in its tale of con men in search of riches. But no character is able to escape his/her flaws – Bale’s character’s wife (Jennifer Lawrence) has a set of lipstick and makeup which she uses to “keep him coming back.” The accessories are flower-scented, but “with a hint of garbage.” It’s that hint of garbage that Bale’s character can’t stand, and which is always there to send well-laid plans up in flames…literally.

I had a blast watching and dissecting director David O. Russell’s latest. His style doesn’t always work in the film’s favor, but when it does, it does beautifully. Set to a fantastic retro ‘70s soundtrack and boasting some excellent performances (including a surprise Russell alum who’s perfectly cast), Hustle is my early prediction for a well-deserved Best Picture win.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

wolfofwallstreetI saw Martin Scorsese’s bombastic new film in a packed Saturday matinee showing, where I was seated next to two elderly ladies, both of whom clearly hadn’t the slightest idea of the kind of film they’d walked into. Every time a scene involving over-the-top sex or drug use played, the women were taken aback, thoroughly offended. “This is disgusting,” one of them groaned in protest, amongst shared complaints about the film’s length and how much longer their bowels could stand to be held.

Ordinarily I’d be pissed. I wasn’t. I smiled at every comment, because their whining told me Mr. Scorsese had done his job and done it beautifully.

The Wolf of Wall Street packs three hours of hilariously indulgent black comedy portraying the unbelievable life of Wall Street broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Like Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Belfort occasionally addresses the audience directly, taking us through his exorbitant lifestyle fueled by greed and excess. Like a sort of Bizarro-Jesus, he inspires those around him to act the same way, saying, “Give me them young, hungry, and stupid, and in no time I’ll make them rich.” Eat your heart out, lady liberty.

It’s DiCaprio’s unforgettable performance that makes the film, his sheer amount of range bringing Belfort to life in a way no other actor could. If this film doesn’t prove to be his first Oscar win, the Academy are thieves. And it’s his director Scorsese, whom DiCaprio convinced to do the film in the first place, who once again knocks it out of the park, proving he’s one of the few remaining American New Wave directors who hasn’t lost a beat. Many have spread the idea that Wolf advocates for Belfort’s lifestyle. Are they daft? It’s no more a celebration of Belfort’s life than Goodfellas was of Henry Hill’s. And it has me praying that Scorsese isn’t as close to retirement as he may think.

1. To the Wonder

ttwI regret to admit that 2011’s Tree of Life led me to write off director Terrence Malick as pretentious, his lofty intentions exceeding his abilities to tell a coherent, compelling story. I was nonetheless inclined to check out this, the subject of critic Roger Ebert’s final, glowing review. To the Wonder is everything he claimed it to be and more, and I was left awestruck by the magnitude of its simple, majestic beauty.

It’s a story we’ve heard before: boy meets girl, boy plans to marry girl, boy has doubts, girl leaves, boy has flings elsewhere, boy returns to girl. And yet, there is a profound sense of unfamiliarity here, the story told more meaningfully than perhaps I’ve ever seen it told. Stars Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko shine in their deeply nuanced performances, conveying so much with so little.

In my original review, I described the film to be like a moving painting, or a homemade video of a family member stumbling upon a series of intimate moments. Perhaps To the Wonder is best described as visual poetry; as we listen to the monologues from character to character, we are inundated with Malick’s graceful, naturalistic visuals, the very grace that Javier Bardem’s priest character is struggling to find. It’s a style all it’s own, and truly, Malick’s work represents some of the highest-caliber art a film can reach. Many will dismiss it as too demanding, but I maintain To the Wonder rewards every ounce of attention you lend to it.

Review: Man of Steel

mosThis review contains minor spoilers.

For years, there has existed a sharp divide between hardcore and casual superhero fans. You’d often hear the latter group complaining that Superman, the first true superhero and arguably the best, was dull, dated, and too powerful to relate to. I can’t entirely fault those with that outlook – 2006’s Superman Returns, intended to re-establish the influence of the classic 1978 Richard Donner Superman, featured a Man of Steel that was indeed dull, dated, and too powerful to relate to. Fans of the comics and TV incarnations, however, knew that America’s greatest modern mythology had evolved well beyond the hackneyed convention of Returns. They knew there existed the potential for a great modern superhero adaptation, an entertaining and enlightening film exhibiting the leaps and bounds (or rather, aerial mileage) the character had covered since the late ‘70s. That film has finally arrived, and has since become perhaps the biggest, most talked-about release of the season. To those Superman fans pre-Man of Steel, give yourselves a hearty pat on the back for predicting right.

I’ll stay out of the group back-pat for now. Those of you who’ve been following my blog for any length of time knew well my severe anxiety towards this film before its release. I’ve said a lot of things to quell my excitement, maintaining reasonable doubt to shield from bitter disappointment. I’ve also said I would be the first to admit I was wrong if the film was actually any good. Today, I’m very happy to be able to do so.

Man of Steel opens with the screams of a woman in labor. This is Lara (Ayelet Zurer), at her side her husband Jor-El (Russell Crowe), newly christened parents of Kal-El, all citizens of Krypton, a planet facing impending destruction. But this is not the subtle, crystalized, Kubrickian Krypton of Donner’s film, but a world of bizarre, advanced alien culture and technology. We quickly cut to Jor-El chastising the planet’s council of elders for their lack of foresight in preventing the planet’s doom. Quicker still, the ruthless General Zod (Michael Shannon) bursts in and announces his plans to take over the government. Even quicker still, we watch Jor-El fly through Krypton on a pterodactyl-like creature, steal a small skull-shaped device called the Codex, which contains the entirety of the planet’s knowledge and culture, and imbue it into his infant son, before rocketing him to Earth to make his own destiny. Meanwhile, Zod’s coup is undone and he is banished to the Phantom Zone, after which the planet is destroyed in a fiery explosion. Enjoying the movie yet? If not, don’t worry. The sequence is ultimately the polar opposite of Donner’s Krypton – a trivial, non-stop CGI lightshow that’s neither emotionally charged nor particularly memorable, an all-too familiar flaw of director Zack Snyder’s past work.

Thankfully and refreshingly, Snyder’s excess takes a backseat as we settle in for the Earth scenes, where an adult Kal-El, raised Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), has been taking odd jobs around the world, each time helping people by using his powers, and every time having to move onto another job for fear of being discovered. It’s a dynamic that mirrors the opening sequences of 2005’s Batman Begins, when Bruce Wayne was also bearded, travelling internationally, and finding himself via flashback. In several of these flashbacks, we see Clark growing up on his adopted family farm in Smallville, Kansas, where he struggles to control his new senses, among them super-hearing and X-Ray vision. The new powers frighten him while he’s in the middle of class, forcing Ma Kent (Diane Lane) to come in and help him learn to control them. It doesn’t help that Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) tells him he has to keep his powers a secret, be the better man, and turn the other cheek until he feels the world is ready for him. These scenes work well to demonstrate not only how Clark gained his moral structure, but the constant sacrifice in keeping such incredible powers at bay.

Indeed, people who aren’t Superman fans often argue that Supes isn’t nearly as compelling as characters like Batman or Wolverine, because the latter two are unpredictable and fallible, mere mortals who bend morality like rubber. With Superman, they argue, there’s no tension, because you always know in the end he’s going to do the right thing. In reality, that’s exactly what makes Superman so compelling  – what does it take for someone to sacrifice their own life every day, just to keep the world safe for complete strangers? What burden does relative infallibility and an undying impulse to save lives carry? Happily, writer David S. Goyer poses these very questions of the character in his script.

Hot on adult Clark’s trail is Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who traces the hermit’s footsteps via his old jobs in the hopes of telling his story to the world. It’s a clever change-up to the characters’ expected romantic dynamic, and serves as a great example of how the film shatters many preconceived notions and age-old conventions of the mythology, while still remaining largely faithful to it. Meanwhile, Zod and his cohorts, having escaped from the Phantom Zone, discover Kal-El’s presence on Earth and threaten to destroy the entire planet, in its place building a new Krypton using the codex imbued in Clark. Clark now faces a decision – is it finally time to reveal himself to the rest of the world?

Man of Steel is the near-perfect Superman for the 21st Century, thanks to Goyer’s strong, action-packed script. It’s a rather brilliant amalgamation of elements from the best Superman stories post-1986, yet still a wholly modern, Goyer-esque take on the character that feels fresh and stands apart from all previous Superman material. As with his script for Batman Begins, Goyer takes the core of the title protagonist – played surprisingly well by Cavill, who not only physically matches Superman but also nails his heroic, down-to-earth persona – and boils him down to a more tangible, cynical universe. For better or worse, this is a more serious, less colorful, and even at times shocking portrayal of the Last Son of Krypton. Kudos also to producer Christopher Nolan, whose footprints all are over the film, for lending the film his stamp of approval. It’s the Batman filmmaker’s ability to keep so much behind the curtain up until a film’s release, and then make even the most predictable outcomes throughout the film feel fresh and exciting, that makes him such a pervasive influence on the industry.

About midway through the film, the US military enters to take control of the alien situation. I’ve criticized their presence in recent Superman comics, mainly because they only exist as antagonists for the hero,MAN OF STEEL treating him as if he were a misunderstood monster like the Hulk, not the humanoid, English-speaking, perfectly normal-looking guy that he is. Man of Steel is the first time I’ve seen them used properly – here, they are not malicious, xenophobic morons who automatically distrust Superman, but are merely cautious of him, only  distrusting him out of need to protect their country. The film ponders the idea of trust between both Superman and the military, neither side knowing whether or not the other will truly do what they say they will. In the end, the film shows that these men and women represent the best of us, the people who, if occasionally mistake-prone, are the core of the fighting spirit and undying desire for justice that America prides itself on. The patriotic philosophy wisely sidesteps cheesy, in-your-face flag-waving, showing rather than telling how Superman appeals to the best of humanity.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why so many different filmmakers – Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Duncan Jones (Source Code), and Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II) among them – passed on directing Man of Steel; they would’ve been executing Goyer’s take, not their own. Any additions these auteurs might’ve wanted to make would’ve entailed a page one rewrite, something Warner was likely unwilling to do given the script’s narrative strengths. Thus, Zack Snyder, far from an auteur, was likely hired in part because his insubstantial style would bring the balls-to-the-wall action fans craved, in addition to adapting the prepackaged Goyer script without unraveling its unique approach. Still, I can’t help but feel a better director, one that perhaps hadn’t directed three flops in a row for the studio, could’ve made an even better film in his own vein and still retained Goyer’s vision.

As it stands, Snyder brings with him an equal share of pluses and minuses. For one, his design for the classic red-and-blue suit and Kryptonian technology work well. Snyder also ably brings the script’s epic, heavyweight conflict to life, with every punch, every insurmountable obstacle realized on a massive scale. Scenes of Clark learning to fly are perhaps the best, most spellbinding sequences of the film; I believed a man could fly more than I ever have before. And from a technical standpoint, there’s little if anything to complain about – we have an excellent score from Hans Zimmer that proves the composer isn’t limited to “dark” films, and easily the best 3D conversion work I’ve seen on a film yet.

But the director’s affinity for handheld shots and almost all medium close-up shots feels claustrophobic compared to the lingering, natural imagery of Donner’s film. And with the director’s over-the-top, CGI-fueled visuals comes an obnoxious sense of self-satisfaction; observe Supes and Zod’s lengthy battle through Metropolis, wherein countless buildings come toppling down in the Kryptonians’ wake, to the point where I’m wondering what exactly Snyder’s got against tall buildings. Luckily, the action occasionally, and only just overextends its boundaries; the director’s trademark indulgence isn’t quite enough to break the film.

teaser-man-of-steel-shannon-e1365999108756Directorial faults aside, Man of Steel is still missing a crucial piece of the puzzle – charm. Fun. Child-like wonder. This Superman doesn’t so much save cats from trees as bellow at his foes and drag them against the dirt. Goyer’s humorlessness robs the Superman universe of its general light-heartedness, keeping the film from truly capturing the full essence of the mythology. And there’s certainly plenty of room for humor here, perhaps more banter between the abrasive Lois and the good-natured Clark. Even Goyer’s own Batman Begins script seemed to have more winking, wry humor than Man of Steel, and when Batman’s having more fun than Supes, it’s a problem.

The film’s darker philosophy follows right through to the film’s shocking conclusion, which for some will shake the very core of their Superman fandom. It’s a Catch-22 scenario, wherein Superman’s final decision is borrowed straight from (spoilers, fans) the classic Exile story arc. This is an ending that proves the stakes were personal, the threat was real, and the after-effects are clearly going to be felt for some time. In the end, it’s what Supes needed to be taken seriously by a modern audience, and to prove that he’ll do anything, anything, to save people, even if it means the scarring of his own soul. Not to mention, Man of Steel is an origin story, portraying a Superman still learning the ropes. With Zod, he received a big lesson that will no doubt shape his moral compass forever.

On a side note, Man of Steel poses some interesting questions about the future of Superman on film. Certainly the film’s final scene, which had me holding back a big, geeky grin, promises an interesting change-up, effectively eradicating the trademark love triangle between Lois, Clark, and Superman. I’ll miss that dynamic of the mythology, but I’m very interested to see where they take the new one. But does the decision to ground the character in pseudo-reality bode ill for bringing some of the character’s more cartoony antagonists, among them Bizarro, the Prankster, and Mr. Mxyzptlk, to this new screen universe? There’s also the much-discussed prospect of Goyer and Snyder being ported over to WB’s long-gestating, likely ill-fated Justice League adaptation. Personally, I’d rather the studio hire different talent to helm individual Flash and Wonder Woman adaptations first. Besides, I’m not exactly clamoring to see an entire DC Universe through Goyer’s super-serious eyes, especially when you consider how much color and fun are going into many of Marvel’s films. These are, after all, comic book movies.

Man of Steel is an epic, thrilling film that packs far more punch than any other comic book adaptation in half a decade. And with Man of Steel comes proof that studio Warner Brothers, opting for a balls-out approach in all aspects of production, is finally treating their comic book adaptations not like cartoony toy commercials, but actual films, legitimate epics that are just as viable enterprises as artsier fare. Even if Goyer’s isn’t the end-all-be-all interpretation of the character, the weight he and Snyder bring to the proceedings works as a much-needed update of a character that audiences will hopefully now be taking far more seriously. It’s proof to modern audiences that Superman isn’t just some dull, dated relic of yesteryear, and proof that the character can still be relate to people today. But you fans out there knew that, didn’t you?

 

Film Review Man of Steel

 

8.5/10

Top Ten Most Anticipated of 2013

 

It’s Heraldic Criticism’s belated one-year anniversary, and I’m once again kicking off the New Year with my top ten most eagerly anticipated films of the next twelve months.

You can expect my Top Ten list a bit later, as I still need to watch quite a few movies from 2012. Until then, enjoy my hopefuls of 2013!

10. Gravity

gravityConsider this a placeholder for all sci-fi films coming next year. Of the bunch, Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men) long-delayed Gravity looks to be the most promising. While little is known of the actual plot, Gravity will star George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

 

9. Iron Man 3

iron-man-3-teaser-poster_cmykI was just as shocked as everyone at the more serious, less jokey tone of the trailer for the third Iron Man film and follow-up to The Avengers. But it was almost certainly the right way to go – the ballsy, epic feel aims to prove that serious shit can go down even in these heroes’ individual worlds. Among the film’s many draws are Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, the armored avenger’s greatest foe, playing what could easily be one of the most memorable villains in years, and co-writer/director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) providing a healthy change of pace from the meandering Iron Man 2.

 

 

8. The Wolf of Wall Street

First-Look-at-Leonardo-DiCaprio-in-Character-for-The-Wolf-of-Wall-StreetMartin Scorsese’s follow-up to 2011’s Hugo sees the return of frequent leading man Leo DeCaprio for a 90s-set true story about a broker who refuses participation in a mafia-tied Wall Street. To say that the fifth Scorsese-DeCaprio collaboration would be one to watch this year would be a no-brainer.

 

7. The Counselor

ridleyLooking at director Ridley Scott’s body of work over the past decade, I’m thrilled to see him tackling anything other than another hackneyed historical epic. Prometheus proves the director still has it in him to direct a great thriller, and with a script from Cormac McCarthy, it seems he may be able to add another to his already brimming resume. And while I haven’t read the author’s work, both The Road and No Country for Old Men are fantastic. Topped off with an all-star cast, this could easily be one of the highlights of the year.

6. The Wolverine

wolverine_jackman_660If Fox’s recent track record is anything to go by, the mistake that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine is all but a distant memory. Using the outstanding Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries as inspiration, the new Wolverine solo outing promises to get to the heart of the character like no movie before. Director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) will helm, citing a strong influence from films like The Outlaw Josey Whales. Spot on. Fox’s original choice to direct was Darren Aronofsky, a tantalizing prospect, but one which suggests a more A-list approach from the studio than in the past. Everything’s looking great, but what would really, truly sell me is the inclusion of the classic yellow-and-black suit in some form, provided it’s not ridiculous. Hey, they made it work for First Class.

5. Saving Mr. Banks

tom-hanks-as-walt-disney-in-saving-mr-banks-first-lookI can still point to Mary Poppins as one of the first films I ever saw, and one that inspired a strong bond between me and classic Disney. Some days, I still find myself humming Step in Time, We Love to Laugh, or Let’s Go Fly a Kite. As such, this Black List script-turned major awards contender is generating some serious buzz. I don’t know much about how the rights to the book were sold, but I’m very eager to hear the “based on a true story” version.

Plus, there’s Tom Hanks as Walt Disney. Why not?

 

4. Man of Steel

1man-of-steel-posterI am terrified for this movie. This is Superman’s last chance at being a box office draw, and it’s clear WB have gone balls-out to try to make a movie as A-list as the character deserves. As I’ve discussed, the approach leaves ample room for failure, and yet, a universally reviled movie will be forgotten. Worse yet is the chance that the film will blow and STILL manage to find an audience, guaranteeing an inferior version of the character permeating throughout all Superman media for years to come (see Captain America: The First Avenger).

I’ve been inclined to dismiss the film entirely for reasons I’ve already mentioned – the bizarre casting, WB’s cluelessness of how to handle DC properties, writer David Goyer’s sketchy track record, and most of all, the choice of Zack Snyder to helm. That last one especially – this is a man that not only directed three flops in a row for the studio, but arguably hasn’t made a good movie yet. Or at least one absent of the director’s trademark soulless, thoughtless visual ejaculate better suited to car commercials than the greatest superhero of all time. Top that off with DC Comics’ own misguided reinventions of the character, including a military presence that portrays the character as more Hulk than hero, seemingly being used as a partial influence. Suffice to say, there is more than enough potential for this movie to be dead on arrival.

The latest trailer, while still largely just an HD version of the leaked Comic-Con trailer from last July which I praised, polarizes me. Distracting faux-artsy flair, blinding high contrast, borderline pretentious musical selection…it’s all so completely unnecessary to simply telling a great Superman story. If they go with such a self-serious tone, trying too hard to go beyond the pulp roots of the character, they may very well end up with something even more moody and unpleasant than Superman Returns.

Having said all that, this is still Superman we’re talking about, and isn’t Superman all about hope in the face of certain doom? I’m optimistic for perhaps a more modern silver screen take on the character in spite of my better senses. In the end, this is a movie that will live and die based on how well it tells its story, not its overwrought presentation, looking to be a retelling of the character’s origins from a more grounded perspective, and perhaps treating Superman as if he were a real thing. It’s more important the filmmakers do the character justice and tell a meaningful, compelling story than stage a scene with a sun setting in the background and let the mindless, drooling masses hail it as “visionary.”

There exists plenty of potential for a great Superman series, on par or better than even The Dark Knight. And for what it’s worth, I have no reason to complain just yet. Consider my words more of a defense mechanism brought on by failures like Green Lantern. It’s all still, so to speak, up in the air.

3. The Lone Ranger

MV5BNDczODgyMjYzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzQ1OTU1OA@@._V1._SY317_Growing up watching Star Wars and playing Cowboys and Indians with Legos kind of gives one a false perception of what a western really is. Case in point, watching The Searchers for the first time after learning of its influence on the latter film, expecting Star Wars in the old west, leaves one bound for disappointment. I’ve since grown to appreciate the genre through films like Unforgiven and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but I’ve never lost the desire to see a more fun, kinetic (and well-made) western blockbuster. I get a sense that The Lone Ranger may very well be that film.

Here’s another yarn from my childhood – back in 2003, I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean at a drive-in and was suddenly infused with purpose. Film was where I wanted to be, and Pirates had everything I loved about blockbusters and more – an epic feel, great characters, explosive action, memorable writing, solid direction, and a score I’d be humming for years to come. Ten years later, watching The Lone Ranger trailer left me feeling that, maybe, that pure Disney magic I’d felt at seeing such a brilliant, fun, original film had returned.

Many will still scoff at my lofty placement for such a seemingly ho-hum summer tentpole, this grittier reimagining of an old radio hero. And sure, there have been valid concerns over the out-of-control budget and a first draft that boasted werewolves and other oddball supernatural occurrences. I still say the chance that The Lone Ranger delivers on its promise to do for westerns what Pirates did for pirate movies outweighs them. Verbinski looks to have delivered some breathtaking shots, and lines like, “There come a time, Kimosabe, when good man must wear mask,” are already infinitely memorable. Not to mention, the good sense of humor Pirates had in droves appears intact. I’m not expecting a masterpiece, just a fun time at the movies like I first felt all those years ago. Hi-ho indeed.

2. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Sin-City-A-Dame-to-Kill-For-teaser-posterEight years after 2005’s revolutionary Sin City, the sequel is finally arriving. It’s high time, given that the stories being adapted for this film also overlap with those of the first. And already, both former players Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan have passed, making perfect continuity with the first all but impossible. By any account, eight years was eight too many.

One of the greatest adaptations of all time, the first Sin City brought comic writer Frank Miller’s magnum opus to life and stood as director Robert Rodriguez’s greatest achievement. The visual style, the faux-noir dialogue, the style, the look…I love just how dark and dour this world is, and how many opportunities for great storytelling it yields. Adapting further tales from the depths of Basin City, A Dame to Kill For looks to be more of the same inspired CGI-based filmmaking, and hopefully not too far from the look of the first as Rodriguez suggests here.

Naturally, Frank Miller’s co-direction and co-writing of the script, which includes two original Sin City stories, leaves plenty of room for question. As great as the writer was in the 90s when the Dark Horse series was at its peak, the man’s work in the past decade has devolved into self-parody at best, twisted abomination at worst. Luckily, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed William Monahan was on hand to rewrite Miller’s draft, so pray A Dame to Kill For is more in the vein of the first than The Spirit.

The fact that the film adaptation didn’t explode into a full-fledged franchise is nothing short of a crime. Depending on how this film goes, let’s hope we won’t have to wait nearly as long for the third.

1. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

hobbit-desolation-smaugNo surprises here. An Unexpected Journey was excellent, a grand return to the kind of epic storytelling we’ve come to expect from director Peter Jackson. Though the trilogy conceit is a bit much, and even Unexpected Journey suffered from a meandering, over-elongated script, the second installment should prove to contain even more titillating moments for fans of the book. Among those will be an appearance from Smaug the dragon, voiced and acted via motion-capture by Benedict Cumberbacht (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). And as someone who regrettably skipped through the appendices of Return of the King when I read the book as a kid, I’m also very eager to see more of the Necromancer and how it all ties in to Lord of the Rings. In any case, more is not at all a bad thing.