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

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Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

king-of-knights-cup Contains mild spoilers.

Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy? About a young prince, a knight, sent by his father the King of the East, west into Egypt, to find a pearl, a pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king, forgot about the pearl, and fell into a deep sleep. The king didn’t forget his son, he continued to send word, messengers, guides…but the prince slept on.

The above is a direct quote from the opening voiceover of director Terrence Malick’s latest work, and heavily symbolic of the narrative to follow. Rick (Christian Bale) is a thirty-something screenwriter in Los Angeles, living in a beautiful apartment, regularly attending lavish parties, and always draped in an expensive black suit. But he does not feel. His inner turmoil consumes him. By most accounts, he is dead inside, trapped in a realm of meaningless, material boundaries.

This is no purgatory. Malick is known for his awe-inspiring photography of nature (credit also cinematographer/longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), but he shoots Knight of Cups’ California backdrop, the skyscrapers, the highways, the man-made creations, in bland, neutral greys, rendering them unsettlingly lifeless. No, this is Terrence Malick’s Hell on Earth, and Rick its fallen angel, gazing upward, striving to return to the beaches, the water, the sky, the heavens.

Knight of Cups examines the existential crisis as mythological struggle. Rick searches, wanders from person to person, soul to soul, experience to experience, longing for meaning, for feeling. The film separates these segments by title cards, “The High Priestess,” “Death,” etc. Rick sees his immature brother (Wes Bentley) kicking skateboards around his lackluster apartment and goading Rick into fights. Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) rambles about giving up his life for his children, and in voiceover, continually reminds Rick to “remember the pearl.” A fellow womanizer (Antonio Banderas) speaks of his surroundings with a playboy’s disdain – “The world’s a swamp. We have to fly above it, so it’s just a speck.” Then there are the women – Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a nurse who hates how he moved her out to California, an exotic dancer (Teresa Palmer) who talks of Rick’s potential to be anything he wants to be, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) Rick falls in love with.

If you’re unfamiliar with Malick’s style, one might best describe it as visual poetry, a hypnotic, complementary combination of sights and sounds that seem to capture the spontaneity and spirituality of life itself. Every shot an essay and every word a double meaning, Malick’s films are the kind film students will be analyzing shot-by-shot for years to come. And for good reason – Malick challenges you to pay attention to the little details, trusting your intelligence as a viewer to be able to make connections and piece together the story from bits of voiceover and dialogue. There is a scene in which Rick passes by a sleeping homeless man – in one shot, the camera lies on the ground with the man, and in the next, Rick is bending over to examine him, a look of sympathy in his eyes. Just two shots contain a novel’s worth of commentary, and evoke such simple meaning, such basic human sympathy. It is truly amazing how much Malick can say with so little.

We can also infer a good deal about Rick’s character with only minimal background. In tarot reading, the Knight of Cups signifies a charming and romantic knight in shining armor bearing a cup to the world, but the reverse can be a sign of moodiness, of life failing to sync with expectations. Much can be made of Rick’s relationship with water as well – after a wild party, he is seen immersing himself in a pool, walking along the bottom, arms outstretched like an angel. In other sequences, Rick is often seen walking barefoot along the beach, to feel something perhaps? Is he waiting to be whisked away by a passing ship, like a castaway on an island? Another party he attends plays a song in which the lyrics celebratorily decree, “never gonna take me out to sea.” But Rick is tormented by them, wandering around, knowing no one.

For another, Rick’s screenwriting career isn’t very impactful towards his existence. We never see him actually writing, only big businessmen meeting with him and offering him great opportunities leading to fame and fortune. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Malick himself being a part of such meetings with major Hollywood executives pitching projects of little interest to him. In fact, much of Knight of Cups feels autobiographical; for one, there are mentions of another of Rick’s brothers that committed suicide, paralleling the death of Malick’s own brother Emil.

Knight of Cups is a bit colder than Malick’s last, the 2012 love odyssey To the Wonder. Perhaps that’s because Cups’ bleak portrayal of Hollywood excess comes across as alien to most of us; we are meant to be repulsed, yet I wanted to know more. In the end, the film leaves us with few answers to Rick’s struggle. We’re led to believe the film is building up to some great truth that never really materializes. But maybe that’s the point – Malick allows us to write our own ending. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths that we are left to navigate and overcome on our own. Malick is always overreaching with elements like this, but that’s what makes Malick Malick.

Above all, Knight of Cups is a breath of fresh air after a year so lacking in true art. As with any Malick film, its spirituality and existentialism open our minds, inspire us, and remind us to live in the moment, to feel at one with the world. It’s hard for someone like me not to want to interview Malick extensively on his technique, but such is near impossible given how notoriously reclusive the director is. Still, I hope to one day encounter him, perhaps on a beach somewhere, staring out at the water. I would probably just smile and nod at him. I like to think he’d smile back.

8/10

 

 

Sources: ew.com, biddytarot.com, keen.com

Review: Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

TFAAround the age of 8 or 9, I was experiencing Star Wars for the first time on a screen of 10 inches. I preferred watching movies in solitude, so I would set up our family’s box-sixed portable TV on one of the endtables in our living room, and insert one of three tapes – the edited-for-TV Special Edition of A New Hope taped off of PBS, the edited-for-TV Phantom Menace taped off Fox, or a rented copy of the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi (I’d deemed Empire to depressing for a rewatch). For the first time in my life I was part of a larger world, and a great love of film bloomed.

I’m like many with their own childhood Star Wars stories. The series holds a timeless, universal appeal that inspires the most passionate emotional attachment of any film franchise ever made. Perhaps that’s because of how Star Wars seems to blend every genre of film together in one big, beautiful mosaic. Star Wars practically IS film, and with its latest installment The Force Awakens, the vice versa can be true once again.

I’ve expressed my fears as Star Wars transferred hands from creator George Lucas, who’d pledged an end to the series on film, to the Disney corporation, who had instantly greenlit The Force Awakens and would surely whore it out tenfold. I expected, perhaps even wanted, to hate director J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm team for The Force Awakens being the one to drop the torch, to extinguish the light of the series for all time.

And that’s just me – Star Wars’ legacy spans nearly 40 years of films, TV, comic books, video games, merchandise, and more. The universe means so much to so many different generations with different takes on its many tales. Lucasfilm and Abrams have taken careful consideration of all this, and in an exhaustive effort to please everybody, The Force Awakens is actually a very likable, if familiar rebirth of the series.

Like its predecessors, the film is drawn in simple strokes – Luke Skywalker is missing. The Galactic Civil War rages on thirty years after Return of the Jedi, in the form of the New Order (bad guys) and the Resistance (good guys). Before being captured by the Empire on the planet Jakku, X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) gives droid BB-8 a secret map to Skywalker’s whereabouts. BB-8 then stumbles upon Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who traverses Jakku’s deserts for the remains of imperial machinery. There is also Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper horrified by war, who teams up with Rey to return the map to the Resistance. They are pursued by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a wannabe Darth Vader of the New Order wielding the power of the Dark Side. There are appearances from the older players of the saga as well, but I’ll leave those as nostalgic surprises for the viewer to discover, just as they are intended to be.

While watching The Force Awakens, I found myself internally berating its inane dialogue (“C’mon! We need a pilot!”) and hokey sentimentalism (“You came back for me?!”). But, I recalled, are these not qualities of the original Star Wars as well?

So I sat back, shut my mind up, and I let the movie work its magic. And I was whisked right back into that larger world.

If the original trilogy was George Lucas’ prize automobile, then J.J. Abrams has gone to Lucas’ old garage, studied the original blueprints, cosmetics of the machine, looked under the hood, memorized every detail of its design, and then built a pretty chewiewerehomedamn close replica. And it runs like a dream. I imagine a lot of that can be attributed to Abrams calling in all the old pit crew to put the vehicle together – we have Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan co-scribing, sound master Ben Burtt bringing back some familiar sounds from the series’ past, and John Williams rounding out with a rousing, triumphant score. Even Drew Struzan was enlisted to provide some poster art. And though Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is mugging at CGI monsters now, he’s still got that leading-man swagger that made him a star back in ‘77. And the new players are holding their own just as well amongst the veterans to boot.

Abrams is also one of those smart everyman directors who, like Lucas, puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you the full sensory experience of its speed. We nod. We like the way this engine sounds. We like the feel of it when it vrooms. And Abrams’ own tiny contributions feel like welcome twists on an old machine. The lightsaber duel, for one, is slower, more feral and akin to medieval fencing, a fresh perspective on the cartoonish acrobatics of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Abrams understands through and through why these movies worked so well; The Force Awakens, like Hope, Empire, and Jedi, are about idealism, comradery, friendship, loyalty, and on a deeper level, life and legacy. Awakens retains the tone, the spirit, and the fun, rah-rah attitude of the originals. Credit Lucasfilm for that too – The Force Awakens can stand among the best of the company’s Expanded Universe stories as a natural complement to the Original Trilogy before it.

Yes, there’s a “but” coming.

You might recognize the film’s key plot points, the cute little droid carrying secret plans, the captured Rebel leader being tortured for the location of said plans, the mysterious masked villain, the shadowy evil figure behind him, the old man mentor, the cantina of bizarre creatures, the giant space station that can destroy planets…are all retreads of A New Hope. Sure, the series has always called back to and paralleled itself (“like poetry” says Lucas), but a beat-for-beat recreation of Hope feels too safe, a concession to fans lying in the wait with pitchforks for anything deviating from the series’ past, and a studio with a very large investment to protect.

Which is the key problem with Awakens…it fails to innovate, to push the technological envelope in the same way its predecessors did. All stormtroopersthe planets look like rehashes of the original trilogy’s – desert planet, forest planet, and ice planet. The World War II symbolism of the originals also feels conspicuously foregrounded, not to mention dated. Abrams claims the New Order are like if the Nazis all fled to Argentina and reformed, and obviously fans would not object to bringing back such iconic enemies. I would’ve liked, however, to have seen Abrams do something a little ballsier to parallel more modern warfare…what if instead of Nazis, the bad guys were stand-ins for the Russians during the Cold War?

Abrams also struggles to find the visual comedy of the series. Awakens has some chuckle-worthy moments but nothing like the campy humor of the originals, which while occasionally cringe-worthy, provided a cutesy way of breaking up the action. Add to that some lingering continuity issues with the series as a whole, and Awakens isn’t quite as satisfying as it could’ve been.

My past posts have suggested a great distaste for Disney corporatizing the series. With The Force Awakens, I felt just as pumped up as I did watching the originals as a kid. And I think I’ve made peace with those anti-Disney sentiments now. The simple truth is, Star Wars isn’t mine anymore. It is being passed to a new generation. Episodes I-VI will always hold special places in my heart, and the series will continue to be a great influence on me as an artist and as a person. But when you love something, you let it go. Rather than selfishly denounce all future Star Wars material, I want the kids of today to see The Force Awakens and get as wide-eyed, as uplifted, and as inspired I was was watching the originals.

Though hopefully on a slightly bigger size screen.

7.5/10

luke-hand

Images: themarysue, dolimg.com, images.smh.com

Ryan’s Top Ten of 2014

2014filmTransitional. Tumultuous. Tiring. All words to describe one of the most eventful years of my life. Perhaps that’s why, in contrast to my lists of years’ past, I was more keen to appreciate dramatic, think-y flicks over the clang and clutter of the mainstream Hollywood machine. Once again, better late than never, I present my Top Ten films of last year.

I did not have the opportunity to see two films from 2014 which remained on my must-see list: A.J. Edwards’ The Better Angels and Kevin MacDonald’s Black Sea. Sometimes even waiting until January can’t produce a complete list, so if either of these films proves worthy, I will post it as an additional entry.

Other films of last year I quite liked: David Wain’s gut-busting rom-com sendup They Came Together, Jon Favreau’s deliciously meta Chef, Alexandre Aja’s clever and unique Horns, Peter Jackson’s epic Middle Earth finale The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, David Ayer’s real, grimy Fury, J.C. Chandor’s crime saga throwback A Most Violent Year, and Michael Cuesta’s poignant and home-hitting Kill the Messenger.

10. 22 Jump Street

22jsBravo Jump Street series, for showing us that even Hollywood’s worst ideas can be made original and fresh with the right talent behind them. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as writer/star Jonah Hill, are that talent, turning the eye-rolling idea of adapting a forgotten 80’s TV show, into not one, but two uproariously funny, ultra self-aware parodies.

“Nobody gave a shit about the Jump Street reboot, but you got lucky. So now this department has invested a lot of money to make sure Jump Street keeps going,” comments police chief Nick Offerman dryly. “As if spending twice the money guaranteed twice the profit.”

Cue my shit-eating grin.

22 Jump Street takes the absurd, clichéd idea of a same-y buddy-cop sequel and runs, no, skips along delightedly with it. Not only does the film mock the very idea of the sequel, but it uses its predictability to play up a meta-relationship dynamic between leads Hill and Channing Tatum, who’re just two partners who must “investigate other people” before realizing what they’ve already got in each other. If these movies continue on for years to come as 22 Jump Street’s credits suggest, consider my tickets bought and paid for.

9. Exodus: Gods and Kings

exodus2014 proved that America still loves playing the race card, and Ridley Scott’s vastly underappreciated Exodus was an unfortunate casualty of society’s increasingly erratic and irrational views on race. These arguments, easily diffused if one knows even a shred of detail about the way Hollywood works, divert attention from the real issues Exodus brings to light on religion, interpretation, and mythologization.

Gods and Kings is a gritty, contemporary retelling of the myth of Moses (Christian Bale), how he rose up against brother Ramses (Joel Edgerton), and led the Jewish people to freedom. Yet refreshingly, the film occupies a closer approximation of the real world, portraying the events of the myth with objectivity, rather than rehashing the larger-than-life tale of religious folklore. And that’s exactly how modern society needs to start viewing its myths – from a more critical, objective, and rational perspective. Best of all, Exodus doesn’t pander to the faith-based market by forcing the viewer to accept the existence of God in the story. Rather, it allows them to come to their own conclusions based on the events that occur – does Moses truly wield the power of God, or is he just schizophrenic?

While its first act does drag, its third more than makes up for it, standing as a powerful look at how faith and religion can drive men insane, destroy nations, and change the world. The always-solid Scott evokes great performances, staging, and direction as always, and while Exodus isn’t his best, it’s certainly one of his ballsiest.

8. A Walk Among the Tombstones

a walk among the tombstones trailerIf Non-Stop was Liam Neeson’s finest actioner since Taken, then Tombstones is his best dramatic turn since…wait, when was the last time Neeson made a compelling drama? Perhaps that’s why audiences seeking thrills over thought ignored A Walk Among the Tombstones, a true showcase of the actor’s many talents. Based on the novels by Lawrence Block, Tombstones follows recovering-alcoholic detective Sam Scudder (Neeson) on a mission to find the man, or men, who kidnapped, raped, and murdered the wife of a drug dealer (Dan Stevens), in the process enlisting the help of computer-savvy orphan TJ (Astro). Tombstones is, by most accounts, standard detective fare and won’t win any points for originality. But who cares? It’s been far too long since we’ve seen a really good thriller of this kind, a grisly (yet never exploitative), hard-boiled, plot-driven neo-noir that’s well written, well-acted, and well-directed. Writer/director Scott Frank is wise to keep his original script’s Y2K setting, the perfect backdrop for a grim detective story, and the way he stages the final sequence set to Scudder’s reading of the 12 Steps to Recovery is brilliant editing. Tombstones is a rare subtle, smart film that proves familiar isn’t always bad.

7. Joe

cage-joe2Original Review

Most would hesitate to label Nicolas Cage’s career as anything other than ‘wildly inconsistent.’ But undeniably, when the actor hits his mark, he hits it with shocking resonance. In his best performance since 2009’s The Bad Lieutenant, Cage plays Joe, a mysterious southern laborer who begins taking under his wing local boy Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s in need of both a job and a father. Director David Gordon Green captures some breathtaking, genuine southern imagery in a film that feels born and bred of the region. This is a place that raises generations of people succumbed to temptation and indulgence, including Gary’s abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). With Gary, Joe seeks to right his own wrongs and set the boy on the right path he himself has too often strayed from. Like a dirty, rural Gran Torino, Joe is quiet and poignant, traits which carry over into one of its leading man’s best roles.

6. Enemy

enemy_nws1If I could halt time for a week, I would spend that week delving into the many layers, puzzles, and intricacies of Enemy. Easily one of the most dense, complicated films of this year many years before it, Enemy deserves hearty praise for its ability to pull an audience into its web (pun intended) of complexion. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the dual role of Adam and Anthony, two very different men that nonetheless look the same. But why? How? Enemy is an examination of self, identity, relationships with women, and really big spiders. But it’s also an exploration of totalitarianism and domination, not in the form of physical dictators, but, through societal patterns and motifs, inevitable human nature. Are we doomed to repeat our same mistakes without even thinking about it? These and many, many more questions will be asked of viewers, thought we never feel taxed by them, only challenged.

Enemy is shot with a mesmerizing, beautifully-lit gold aura, supplemented by focused performances and a subtle, haunting score, adding up to some of the most memorable imagery of recent memory. Enemy demands you to think, scattering clues throughout the film to suggest deeper metaphorical truths than its surface narrative might suggest. Yet the film’s answers are never too out of reach, and allow intelligent audiences to come to their own interpretations when all’s said and done. Watch the film, then delve deeper with these two great analyses.

5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

DF-07401 - Logan/The Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) finds himself in the distant past as he becomes the catalyst in an epic battle that can save the future.Original Review

The latest installment of the rejuvenated X-franchise feels plucked directly from the Saturday morning cartoon vein, when this week, all your favorite characters travel back in time, meet their younger selves, then team up with each other to save the present. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way – Days of Future Past is a lot of fun, but what sets it apart from all the old cartoons is how deftly it juggles so many characters and subplots in one epic overarching narrative. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to First Class-era 1973 to prevent Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from using Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to create an army of sentinels, which threaten to plunge the present, last seen in The Last Stand, into a dystopian future. Featuring all A-listers at the top of their pulp-game, not only does Days of Future Past bring full-circle each of its many character arcs across the series’ 14-years-and-growing lifespan, the film proves even more entertaining and intelligent than any of its past installments.

Credit Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, and Matthew Vaughn, perhaps the only talent capable of fixing the X-franchise, as well as the major turnaround at home studio Fox, all of whom have finally realized the potential of the subgenre, and helped create one of its finest and most sophisticated entries. More, please.

4. Interstellar

interstellar trailerI’ve always found Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to be one of the most terrifying aspects of space travel. Mere hours to the traveler equals years, decades to everyone he/she knows and loves back home. Interstellar might be one of the first films to confront that pain, the pain of seeing your friends, your family, all moving on without you. In the film’s most heart-wrenching sequence, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) receives a video message from his daughter, now aged the same as him, and watches her relate to him all that he’s missed in the mere days he’s been away. Cooper cries openly, and I’m not too proud to admit, I’m holding back tears too.

Those are the kind of emotional cords Interstellar strums perfectly between its sophisticated, occasionally overwrought narrative of a group of scientists travelling into deep space to find and colonize a new world for humanity. Sophisticated and overwrought is Christopher Nolan for you, who’s also consciously channeling some great influences in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, right down to the soundtrack. Look past the breakneck pacing and regular leaps in logic. Interstellar is a better emotional ride than a logical one, an ambitious, complex film which bears a profound sense of wonder missing from most films today.

3. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

x011_BM_04337_04342_R2.JPGJournalist types who’ve hailed Birdman as “Michael Keaton’s comeback,” congratulations, you’ve been had by the very film you’re reviewing. Yes, Keaton did play Batman, and yes, he hasn’t been in a lot of high-profile movies since then, but to suggest a parallel there between him and his character is missing the point. Birdman seeks to subvert, among other things, journalists who sensationalize and critics who critique based on expectation rather than art itself. Birdman is, in part at least, about the ways commercialism hinders that art.

Riggan (Keaton), former ‘Birdman’ actor of the 90’s, is now seeking a career in Broadway, struggling against an audience who cannot take him seriously. Among his obstacles are Mike (Edward Norton), a method actor impassioned by his own vision for his character, and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who sees her father as a failure. Riggan hears the voice of the Birdman character in his head, a voice of temptation and doubt. My favorite scene comes when Riggan aimlessly wanders the streets of New York, and in his mind, Birdman is flying right behind him, amidst CGI-fueled chaos of a giant robot bird attacking the city. Breaking the fourth wall, Birdman flies up to the camera and taunts, “This is what you want, isn’t it?!” And for many audiences, it is.

And therein lies the Unexpected Virtue in Ignorance. We as an audience use film to shroud ourselves from reality, escape from the harshness of challenge. We want that robot bird to fight Birdman because we don’t want to think, we want our movies quick and vapid, sensational and empty. What we don’t often realize is that the true artists out there are spilling blood, suffering, bearing their souls out trying to bring their art to life. And even when media sensationalism begins to overshadow the art itself, in the end, artists will take whatever exposure they can get, so long as their work gets seen. That’s the tragedy Riggan faces, and the one all true artists do too.

Birdman is shot and edited to give the impression of being captured in a single take, like its own longform Broadway play. It’s also funny, clever, and one of the most original movies of the year, commenting on success, failure, and scandal, all set to a smooth, jazzy soundtrack. Birdman is the type of movie that, the more you’re willing to think about it, the more you’ll get out of it. Which is why most people raised on the Hollywood machine won’t get it.

2. Gone Girl

HT_gone_girl_ben_affleck_sk_140708_16x9_992Of all the films this year that slyly held a mirror up to society, only Gone Girl had the balls to reflect the realest, rawest flaws in all of us. Nick Dunn (Ben Affleck) is accused of killing his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). The media is quick to paint him guilty of the murder, the 24-hour news cycle’s endless speculation fueling deeper and deeper anti-Nick sentiment. Yet what follows midway through the film, if it hasn’t already, will blow your mind. Suddenly, this is a film about something bigger than just a murder.

I offhandedly described Gone Girl to a friend as the anti-relationship movie. While it could certainly fill that role neatly, Gone Girl is moreso a brilliant social satire of marriage, relationships, and how men and women think, feel, and perceive each other, all in the foreground of a global, salivating audience ready to feast on scandal. We watch as gender-biased newscasters (hello Nancy Grace lookalike) are quick to judge. We cringe as we learn the truth behind the murder. We’re intrigued to see how Nick uses the media to share his own perception of reality. And we’re crushed to learn the shocking and disturbing conclusion he chooses to settle on. It’s an ending which, while unrealistic on the surface, remains all too real on a metaphorical level. And just like that, Gone Girl is about how the guns we hold to our loved ones’ heads aren’t just made of metal, resulting in the little metaphorical deaths we all face in relationships, the lies we tell our friends, our family, the world, even ourselves, that everything is okay.

Director David Fincher and writer Gillian Flynn, adapting her eponymous novel, create a genuinely twisted, terrifying murder mystery, set to a minimalist soundtrack and featuring pitch-perfect direction from Fincher. Gone Girl is simply a damn good film with a powerful message to send to the world – gender politics makes liars, even murderers, of us all.

1. Boyhood

boyhood_still2_ellarcoltrane_byboyhoodinc_2014-01-_87511657There are two directors whom I believe have come the closest to portraying absolute naturalism in their work. The first is Terrence Malick, crafting pieces that seem to mirror nature to a T. The second is Richard Linklater who, while a more traditional narrative filmmaker, is no less talented at conveying, not in words but pictures, what it means to be human.

When I first discovered Linklater in the simple, beautiful Before Sunrise, I felt a remarkable connection to the filmmaker. Dialogue from Ethan Hawke’s character, wherein he expressed desire to create a TV show running 24/7 and portraying the real, unedited life of an ordinary man, mirrored some of my own idle thoughts on using film to depict life, love, legacy, and how they are each affected by the passage of time. And over the past ten years, Linklater has been working in the shadows to do just that – create a sort of video time capsule, a chronology of some of the most vital years of a man’s life, illustrating with stunning accuracy how it feels to grow up and make connections with family and friends amidst a complicated world of adult problems.

Boyhood, a film which gathered its cast and crew once a year every ten years to shoot scenes for the film, realizes almost all of its ambitions. My only nitpick stems from something I think Linklater hadn’t counted on – the change in his lead Ellar Coltrane, playing the principle boy lead Mason. By the time the film begins to explore Mason’s teenage sexual dalliances, Coltrane seems to be straying from where the script intends to take his character, and all I can think about is, “Are we sure this kid even LIKES girls?” Props to Linklater for sticking to the template, but I suppose this is just one of the little ways the passage of time doesn’t completely work in the film’s favor.

All the same, Boyhood transported me back to a consciousness I haven’t occupied in years, seeing the world through bright, curious, unseasoned eyes. It excels at ushering us back to a time when life just sort of happened all around us, a time when we were simply along for the ride, learning and watching, before finally standing up and discovering who we really are. Linklater has an innate knack for making even the simplest of life’s moments profoundly meaningful, and Boyhood proves his most vital film yet.

Review: Dying of the Light

bfde9ccb6-1Paul Schrader is one of those big names in filmmaking I really want to cheer for. The man helped create some of the greatest American cinema has to offer, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and American Gigolo. I want to stand up on a chair and champion him as one of the industry’s most underrated filmmakers, constantly mistreated by ignorant, bloated studio executives. And when his latest thriller Dying of the Light came under scrutiny for being recut without Schrader’s sign-off, I wanted to join the protest in support of a filmmaker’s vision over mass-appeal studio tactics.

But if this Lionsgate-approved cut of Dying is any indication, Schrader’s work doesn’t really warrant the argument.

Dying follows CIA man Evan Lake (Nicolas Cage), survivor of ruthless torture at the hands of known terrorist Muhammad Benir (Alexander Karim). Benir is thought to be deceased, killed by the operatives that broke Lake loose. But years later, Lake receives intel from right-hand man Milton Schultz (Anton Yelchin) that Benir may still be alive. The CIA questions Lake’s conclusions – the aging official is suffering from dementia, and when Lake refuses to back down, he is terminated. Driven as ever, Lake and Schultz go rogue to track down and kill Benir.

At this point in Dying, I began to think the film would be a mind-bending thriller a la Shutter Island or Total Recall, where an unreliable protagonist puts everything the audience is seeing into question. Is Benir’s resurgence real or imagined? The film’s plot of a secret agent gone rogue, rekindling old romance, with lots of violence, adventure, and excitement, like Total Recall, are conventions too clichéd to believe. Are they all in his head?

That’s what I get for thinking ahead. Dying, or at least the Dying Lionsgate has chosen to present, is merely a straightforward, unremarkable tale of revenge with a deceptively clever title and a protagonist who has headaches, forgets things, and occasionally wanders off. Thrilling.

That’s not to discredit Cage, giving his all to the performance, or Schrader, who lends an otherwise lackluster film some compelling lighting and direction. But there’s simply not enough ambiguity to Dying, its chopped-down, brisk 90-minute runtime leaving little impact and few memorable moments. And when the ending comes, it’s more expected than satisfying.

Perhaps something was lost in the editing room. Schrader’s cut was reportedly heavier on “stylistic flourishes” surrounding Lake’s condition. I’m imagining something akin to the style of an earlier Cage/Schrader collaboration, Martin Scorsese’s underrated Bringing Out the Dead. That visual flair might’ve at least lent the film some compelling imagery.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the politics behind the film remain far more interesting than the film itself. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Lake sits face-to-face with his torturer and asks him if he thinks what he did mattered. Benir throws the question right back at Lake, to which Lake responds with silence. Perhaps that’s the real tragedy of Dying of the Light; for all the rabble-rousing of who disrespected who, whose cut is superior, ultimately the film doesn’t matter enough to demand even having the discussion. Which is a shame, because Schrader and Cage are big talents that deserve better.

5/10

Review: Godzilla (2014)

godzilla-attacks-golden-gateTurning a cheesy Japanese monster movie into a serious, solemn American blockbuster is no easy task, yet director Gareth Edwards has done just that. Perhaps even more difficult is actually taking it seriously, despite all intentions to the contrary. Edwards’ Godzilla is still as laughable as its predecessors, to the point when you wonder if a little self-awareness wouldn’t help make the proceedings at least a little more cheery.

Godzilla begins promising enough – after losing a loved one in a nuclear plant meltdown, a scientist (Bryan Cranston) becomes obsessed with discovering the source of the accident. There’s some depth here involving the nuclear element, and in turn the monsters, acting as metaphors for burying demons’ past. Annoyingly, the film also takes its good old time building up to the first appearance of the title monster, as if we didn’t already know what we’re in for. “There’s wave patterns in the water, this is not an earthquake!” shouts Cranston’s character. Yes, we know, there’s a giant, silly-looking dinosaur out there. Just get to it already. Meanwhile, his son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a bomb disposal guy, tries to get him to bury the past and return to the reality. But the past, as he soon discovers, is out there, and it will soon break free. And his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) may soon be caught in the crossfire of a big monster duel.

I’ll preface this review by saying fans will likely be pleased with this new Godzilla, which seems to have been designed primarily for them. The 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed remake was poorly received by fans for, among several other reasons, being too American, and the monster too lizard-like. This new beast not only has a huge foot in the creature’s Japanese origins (literally), but also looks far more like the classic Toho monster.

Still, I’ll be the buzzkill and say I believe Godzilla is best left a relic of the past. Following a lengthy first act, the film quickly devolves into unintentional hilarity, abandoning its pathos for lots of pseudo-scientific dialogue, awed reaction shots at giant CGI monsters, and large landmarks being eaten or destroyed. Everyone, director and actors, are taking this material so very seriously; if this is meant to be a reflection of the “real world,” as so many movies try to be post-The Dark Knight, is there not one person out there in Godzilla who thinks, “wow, I know people are dying and all, but…god damn, this is silly.”

The monster itself looks just as silly as the old Toho suit; the audience at my screening couldn’t help but giggle the entire time. I couldn’t blame them. Try keeping it together when Godzilla is swimming dramatically, swaying left and right, only his spikes visible above the water’s surface, all with a giant army of helicopters and battleships in hot pursuit.

Hollywood still struggles treating larger-than-life creatures like Godzilla as full-fledged characters in the narrative, and so the monster is portrayed more like a force of nature than an actual player in the story. That leaves the script to come up with a compelling human element, which takes center stage in the remake, yet bores after long. The humans will debate for a while, then finally Godzilla and another monster start to square off…before the movie abruptly cuts back to the humans. As much as I’m bored by these proceedings altogether, I’ll say at least a few more monster fights would’ve proven at least stupidly entertaining.

Among these humans is Ken Wantanabe, playing the stereotypical wise old Japanese scientist, who studies the creatures and concludes that Godzilla is there to restore balance and protect humanity, not destroy it. “Let them fight,” he tells a U.S. General. It’s just too bad that kind of cheese isn’t embraced more fully. Even more depressing is that this is a line of dialogue that survived drafts passed around to writing greats like Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) and David S. Goyer (Batman Begins).

Serious monster movies are difficult to pull off in the 21st century. Peter Jackson’s King Kong found a great balance between action and drama. I think a lot of these Kaiju movies miss that balance. Unlike Kong, I’m constantly questioning the reality of my surroundings, unable to take such inherently silly material seriously. Some self-awareness would do this reborn franchise good, otherwise my stance remains unchanged from that of last year’s similarly-Kaiju Pacific Rim – I’d rather play than watch.

All the same, I would love to see these guys try to grim-up Mecha-Godzilla.

 

5/10