Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Marvel makes it look so easy.  They churn out one blockbuster after another, not all of them gems, but the overall quality is pretty impressive.  And they are making so much money that their corporate overlord Disney doesn’t feel the need to step in and interfere.  They’ve successfully branched out into television and streaming.  Marvel’s media arm has yet to make a serious misstep and they are establishing a model that others, like Star Wars are beginning to follow.

So why does DC struggle so to make just one decent movie from their most famous character?  Part of the reason is that the character of Superman is so hard to depict in an adult setting.  Most superheroes are born from adolescent power fantasies, the wish to have the power to fight back against our bullies and to impress the girls we crush on.  But to my mind Superman has always been from another place.  He represents the wish for an incorruptible, benevolent force that will always protect us.  He is a father figure; a patriarchal god who always provides and never disappoints.  The resemblance of his origin story to Jesus is well-documented and rather obvious.  So it is hard not to depict him as “the big blue Boy Scout,” giving rides to children and applying a simple moralistic code to crime and punishment.  This infantilizes the other characters in the story.

Adult narratives, however, require complication and nuance.  Part of the struggle is figuring out the best thing to do and then finding a way to do it.  Realistic stories include compromises and lesser evils.  And it is difficult to portray that in a Superman story and still have him be optimistic and determined to find and do the right thing.  The easy choice is change him; make him more like Batman.  But that’s not the most interesting choice.  It’s far cooler to keep Superman like he is and see him struggle with a complicated world.  Of course they’ve been doing exactly that in the comics and in the DC animated universe for years.   But then comics people run those two things.

All of DC’s movie rights are owned by Warner Brothers, a major studio.  It’s been this way for years.  There isn’t enough money on the table on the animated side of things for the studio to be tempted to get involved.  But the live action properties are another story.  A superhero movie is by definition a blockbuster.  A lot of money is invested and a lot more is expected to be made.  An established studio like Warner Brothers is simply not going to let a bunch of comic book writers and editors have ultimate creative control.  Something like that wouldn’t even occur to them.

This is the main reason I am nervous about DC, or rather Warner Brothers, trying to set up a mega-continuity ala Marvel.  Of course Marvel’s success makes it inevitable that they try.  But I am not optimistic about their chances of success.  I would much rather that they look to their own past success for a way to proceed in the future.  The Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films is the perfect model for Warner Brothers.  Hire an interesting director with a vision for a character.  Have him pick a production team, writers and a cast, lock everybody up for a three picture deal and let them do what they want in a separate continuity.  Then start over again.

But that’s not the way they are going.  With Avengers films routinely landing in the top ten grossing films of all time, Warner Brothers simply has to make a Justice League movie.  And they have to make movies based on the separate members leading up to it.  DC and Marvel have been stealing from each other for nearly a century.  It makes sense that Warner Brothers should get in on the act.

The plot of Batman v Superman is pretty simple.  Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck doesn’t trust Superman, played by Henry Cavill, after the near destruction of Metropolis during the events of Man of Steel.  Superman thinks Batman plays too rough, terrorizing Gotham’s criminals needlessly.  The two heroes are manipulated into fighting by Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who is working on a super weapon with tech salvaged from the earlier struggle with General Zod.

It’s not as bad as you’ve probably heard but it’s still pretty bad.  Part of it is the tone, which is unrelentingly grim.  Director and master of the DC universe Zack Snyder has created an unappealing world with no sunshine and very little hope.  This makes it hard to identify or root for the main characters.  I’m one who likes a little edge to his Batman but they’ve simply gone too far.  And I thought Ben Affleck did a decent job acting it.  Both the leads were decent.  Gal Godot as Wonder Woman was pretty good too.

Even technically the film falls short.  There were times when the computer generated effects looked fake.  In this day and age there’s no reason for that to happen.  The fights were confusing and not very visceral.  You don’t feel the punches for whatever reason.  The lighting is dark and dramatic but offputting.

I have no idea what kind of box office this film will do.  No doubt it will win the weekend but there isn’t much competition.  But it probably won’t put up Avengers type money either.  The audience I saw it with seemed unmoved.  There were a few of us who waited to see if there were any kind of post title sequence (there isn’t) but most people filed quietly out of the theatre.

Maybe it’s just Snyder’s vision for the project.  I’ve liked a lot of his films in the past: 300, The Watchmen, but he’s made some dogs too.  Perhaps if he were moved aside it would get better.

Frankly I don’t know what the answer is.  If I were Warner Brothers I would put some DC comics people in charge of the project.  They know the characters; they know how to make the stories work.  If you’re going to copy Marvel, do it right.

 

Oscar Picks 2015

Once again, thanks to Goldderby.com I was in great shape when the nominations were announced. In fact I’d seen everything that had been in wide release up to that point and there were only three left to see. Anomalisa was released a week later and 45 Years shortly after that.
The problem, as always, is in the animated feature category. Boy and the World is a Brazilian film that was produced in 2013. As I understand it to be eligible for a nomination a film must be shown in the New York or Los Angeles area in the calendar year for which they want to be nominated. My guess is that Boy and the World was shown in the basement of a distributor in Encino where it was projected onto a bedsheet for his children and a few close friends. I have no idea when it will go into wide release. Why do they nominate these obscure films, especially when they know Inside Out’s going to win? Pixar always wins! Frankly, I’m about ready to give up on this category. If Boy and the World doesn’t show up in the next two weeks, I will have suffered through Anomalisa for nothing!
Anyway that ends my annual rant about the animated feature award. On to the picks. Keep in mind that as always these are not predictions. If you need to know who to bet on, go to Goldderby.com. These are the people who I would give the award to.

Best Supporting Actress

All the acting categories this year are strong. There’s nobody I would eliminate on the grounds of giving a bad performance in any of these four categories. One caveat is in the supporting actress category. Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander are actually in leading roles. In both cases they have as much if not more screen time as co-stars who are up for leading awards. Their studios ran them as supporting actresses because they thought they’d have a better chance of getting a nomination. I considered dismissing them on those grounds but it really isn’t their fault and they shouldn’t be punished for it. Assuming that being dismissed in a blog that they will probably never read can be counted as punishment.

Jennifer Jason Leigh has been such a brave and exciting actress over the years that it’s hard for me to not give her the nod for her first nomination for an Oscar. It was a good performance in a mediocre movie.

Rachel McAdams turned in an exemplary performance in Spotlight. It’s hard to stand out in that cast, however.

I take second place to no man in my admiration for Kate Winslet. But I didn’t even recognize her in Steve Jobs, not her voice, mannerisms or looks. It was a totally transformative performance.

Alicia Vikander gave a moving performance in The Danish Girl.

I would give the award to Rooney Mara. In Carol she expertly takes her character from young naïf to confident woman and it is inspiring to watch. Perhaps she has unfair advantage because this is actually a lead role but in my mind it is the best performance of the five.

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone plays a role he’s played many times before in Creed but the character is at a different point in his life. It was an enjoyable performance, like putting on an old comfortable shoe.

Mark Ruffalo gave a convincing performance as an eager investigative reporter in Spotlight. The performance I would have nominated from that film, however, is Michael Keaton’s.

Christian Bale likewise gave a convincing and immersive performance as fund manager in The Big Short. But the performance in that film that really stands out was Steve Carrell’s.

This is Tom Hardy’s first Oscar nomination and before he’s done he’s going to have a boatload of them. He is an exciting and talented actor. He’s definitely one of the highlights of The Revenant.

I’ve got to give it to Mark Rylance though. That outwardly stoic face which was somehow leaking emotion is basically a workshop in underplaying a role. He was the best thing in Bridge of Spies which is a very good movie.

Best Actress

I think Jennifer Lawrence’s collaboration with David O. Russell is starting to get a little stale. This performance in Joy, while excellent, feels somewhat rote and too familiar.

Saoirse Ronan gives us another portrait of a naïve young girl emerging into confident womanhood in Brooklyn. She is beginning to deliver on the promise she showed in Atonement.

Brie Larson is the prohibitive favorite for the award and with some reason. Room can be divided into two parts: before and after the escape. She believably shows us a traumatized woman who falls apart once her son no longer needs her to be strong.

Cate Blanchett turns in her usual brilliant performance, showing us an elegant and self-assured woman on the outside but sad beyond all consolation on the inside.

My choice is Charlotte Rampling for her performance in 45 Years. Like Mark Rylance her performance in brilliantly underplayed. Her character is keeping a stiff upper lip, pretending to be normal but you can see in her eyes that she is sad, threatened, furious and frustrated that there is no one she can talk to about it.

Best Actor

Matt Damon basically plays himself in The Martian. It’s a fun performance but hardly a stretch.

Bryan Cranston plays blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. He shows the personal costs to himself and his family that result from his struggle with the HUAC and conservative forces in Hollywood.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a strong performance as early explorer Hugh Glass in The Revenant. He takes us on a tortuous journey through the wilderness.

Michael Fassbender captures the essence of Apple founder Steve Jobs, capturing all his contradictions and passions.

I would give the Oscar to Eddie Redmayne who plays a transgender person without resorting to cliché and caricature. It is a physically transformative and demanding role, his second in as many years, and utterly moving and brilliant.

Best Director

I don’t really have a strong favorite here. These are all capable directors who’ve delivered quality films. A director’s job contains many elements that he/she must balance and these guys have all excelled in one or more of them.

I believe that I gave Mad Max: Fury Road the harshest review, although I like the film. George Miller has an eye for bizarre images that make his films stand out. And of course there are few directors that are better with action.

Lenny Abrahamson got great performances from his two leads, one of them being a kid. He also directed one of the most gripping set pieces in a movie this year with his depiction of Ma and Jack’s escape.

The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay, is a good film that deals with complex issues in an entertaining way. It kind of lost me at the end but the performances were good and the pace never flagged.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is about a team of reporters, working on a big investigative story. It has a huge talented cast that the director juggled expertly.

I’m leaning toward Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for The Revenant. Even though that movie missed with me, I do admire Inarritu’s command of the language of cinema. He controls image, symbolism, performances and even sound to get his message across. He really is at the height of his powers here.

Best Picture

I love science fiction so it really pains me to eliminate the two genre films among the best picture nominees right off the bat. While The Martian is better than I gave it credit for in my initial review, it still has problems.

Mad Max: Fury Road was just too long.

Brooklyn is a good film but I thought Carol, which was also set in New York at about the same period was better and it wasn’t nominated.

Room’s two halves were a little schizophrenic.

The Big Short fell apart at the end.

The Revenant cannot be criticized on any artistic or technical grounds. I simply didn’t care for it.

Spotlight is an important, well-paced exciting film with terrific performances. I would not be upset if it won.

The film I liked best this year, however, is Bridge of Spies. It is well-paced, has some terrific performances and an important theme. It is right up there with the best of Spielberg’s “serious” films.

So that’s it. The awards are handed out on February 28. As always, pop some popcorn and have fun.

Deadpool

Wade Wilson, played by Ryan Reynolds, is a former special operative for the military. He now makes his living as mercenary, taking only jobs he likes. At his regular hangout, a bar where other mercs gather, he meets Vanessa, played by Morena Baccarin, a hooker with an appreciation for Wade’s sense of humor. They move in together and after a year or so, he proposes.
Then he discovers that he has terminal cancer. He gets an offer from a secretive organization to not only cure him but make him into a hyper-talented mutant superhero. Wanting a life with his fiancé, he accepts. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the process of turning him into a superhero is injecting him with some chemicals and then torturing him until his new abilities manifest themselves. Those tortures leave him disfigured and he can’t bring himself to reunite with Vanessa. He makes himself a spandex suit and calls himself Deadpool.
This is a well-made film. The acting is fine. Ryan Reynolds is still in the better-looking than talented category but he is a decent comic actor who delivers his one-liners in good fashion. Morena Baccarin really stretches here from other roles I’ve seen her in, proving that she is a talented actress as well as one of the most beautiful women to ever grace the face of the planet.
The script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick is clever and well-written, jumping back and forth through time, breaking the fourth wall, dropping pop culture references, including to the X-men, which this is technically in the same universe as this and referring to the fact that this is a movie and is therefore not to be taken seriously. The direction is by Tim Miller and he gets good performances and keeps the pace lively. Technical elements are all top notch. Stunts, special effects and computer generated effects are as good as I’ve ever seen.
This is very much an R rated movie with raunchy humor and graphic violence. So it’s not for everyone. And I don’t think it’s for me.
I didn’t like the guy. I would tell you that his humor was reminiscent of my days in the frat house but I can’t because I never pledged a fraternity because I knew I’d run into guys like this. His chemistry with the girl was lost on me because it seemed to be solely based on dick jokes. It wasn’t quite as bad as The Green Hornet where by the end I had more sympathy for the bad guy, but Deadpool is really annoying.
And I realize that at best I’m not entering into the spirit of the thing and at worst I’m being a prude. The audience I saw it with applauded at the end of the film, so mine is a minority opinion. The only thing I can say is that I hope I’ve given you some idea of what the film is like and if you think you’d like it, go see it. I hope you enjoy it. Make sure you stay through the end credits. I also hope I never see so much as a frame of this ever again.
I didn’t like the guy.

45 Years

Kate and Geoff Mercer, played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are approaching their 45 year anniversary. They live an idyllic life in the flat countryside around Norwich, England and are outwardly very happy. All that changes when Geoff gets word that the body of his first love, Katia, is found in a Swiss glacier, where she died in a climbing accident before he and Kate ever met. This puts Geoff into a ruminative mood that alarms Kate, shaking her faith in Geoff’s feelings toward her.
I would imagine that the main challenge of this film is explaining why Kate should be threatened by a woman who died over fifty years ago, keeping in mind this is not a ghost story. After all forty five years is a lifetime together and a successful marriage by any standard. The script by Andrew Haigh who also directed, and Charlotte Rampling’s masterful performance sufficiently explain why Kate is upset.
This is a story about the secrets we keep both from friends and from loved ones. Geoff has never talked about the incident where Katia died. The story turns out to have many layers. At one point he admits that the Swiss authorities have him down as Katia’s next of kin because they had pretended to married during their trip so that they could sleep in the same rooms. And it gets worse. Kate asks him point blank if he would have married Katia if she’d lived. He’s honest and admits that he would have.
This causes Kate to become emotionally unmoored. She realizes that because the couple never had children they never really took any pictures to document their lives. The past becomes a blur to her, as if it were a dream and not real.
Charlotte Rampling’s performance is the centerpiece of the film. It is a workshop in understated performance. In almost every scene in the last half of the movie she is behaving properly, keeping up a cool English reserve but you can see her reeling underneath. There’s really no reason for her to be upset and yet you understand why she is.
The film has a stately pace and there are long shots of the English countryside, almost exclusively shot on overcast or rainy days so the whole film has a muted look. People stare into the distance and engage in meaningful silences a lot. There are no emotional fireworks and the climax impacts only Kate. No one else aware of her character arc.
Another secret, I suppose.

Anomalisa

The obvious reason for deciding to animate a story is if the story has fantastical elements in it that cannot be easily filmed. Of course with special effects being so good lately, that line is blurrier than ever. Look at the live action sequels to its classic animated films that Disney is doing. You almost never see it going the other way though, a film that could easily be a live action story being animated. Chomet’s The Illusionist comes to mind and there are probably a few others.
And now Charlie Kaufman gives us Anomalisa. It is about an author named Michael Stone, voiced by David Thewlis who is worn down by his mundane life. While on a business trip he meets a woman, Lisa Hesselman, voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and they have an encounter. Obviously, this seems closer to Youth or Clouds of Sils Maria than Inside Out.
If you look at the credits for the film on IMDB you will get a clue as to why this film needed to be animated. Thewlis and Leigh voice their characters and every other character in the film is voiced by an actor named Tom Noonan, even the women and children and he doesn’t really do anything to change his voice when he’s doing the characters. He acts but it’s in the voice of a middle aged man coming out of the mouth of a waitress or the main character’s son.
At first, Kaufman revels in the mundanity of the images. They use the stop motion animation to portray the blandest of actions, taking a pill, showering, ordering room service and a bunch of other things we do every time we travel and stay at a hotel. But gradually it sinks in that everybody except David and Lisa sound the same and the filmmaker’s intent dawns on you. This is a portrait of David’s mind.
And that would be fine if David weren’t such an unlikeable character. The world through his eyes is a dull monochromatic bore. Plus he’s being very unfair to the naïve Lisa. But even Lisa fails to gain any sympathy. At first her lack of self-confidence is endearing but after listening to her whine for a while, you just want to tell her to get help and then get as far away from her as possible.
There are layers of symbolism but they’re really not worth exploring. This is thankfully a ninety minute film but I was checking my watch after the first fifteen. It really is a slog.
Most Charlie Kaufman films have an innovative energy to them. The plot conceits are inventive. I suppose you could characterize the conceit here the same way but the story and the characters are so unlikeable that this thing is almost unwatchable.

Carol

Working as a shopgirl in a New York department store during the Christmas Holidays in 1952, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, spies an elegant blond woman looking at the toy trains. The woman turns out to be Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, a rich woman in a loveless marriage. Therese helps Carol make her selection and a relationship develops. This being the 1950’s that relationship is very much frowned upon by society and Carol stands to lose custody of her five year old daughter.
This is a sumptuously filmed movie with beautiful fashions from the fifties, great sets and locations, which I guess they found in Cincinnati. The cinematography brings out the colors without overemphasizing them. In short all the technical aspects are perfect.
But the heart of this film are the performances of the two leads. As I’ve said before Cate Blanchett is one of the best actors working today. Her character is outwardly smooth and confidant, giving the impression that she’s comfortable and in control in any situation, the very model of strong femininity, but with a touch of detached sadness. However, she makes some very bad decisions in this film and in private moments is wracked with self-doubt.
Likewise Rooney Mara plays Therese as a young but thoughtful naïf, who has been dutifully doing the things she thinks society expects from her. She has a boyfriend, who is pressuring her to get married, and a group of bohemian friends, who seem like good guys, but to whom she doesn’t really relate. Upon first seeing Carol, a new set of feelings falls on her like a ton of bricks and she doesn’t even begin to know how to sort them out. There are scenes where she and Carol are eating somewhere and you can see Therese observing Carol’s mannerisms and habits and trying to copy them. She is growing before our eyes, even though she’s simply casting around for some sense of what’s happening to her.
The one cavil about the acting that I had was with Cory Michael Smith who plays a pivotal role in the middle of the film. As you may know Smith plays Edward Nygma on the series Gotham. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but they make him up to look exactly like his character on the TV show and his approach to the role is the same. When he makes his first appearance, I could only think, “Don’t trust him. He’s the Riddler.” A thought that is very out of place in this kind of drama. Other than that the performances were all top notch.
Carol is based upon the Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt and as the author said in an interview was inspired by seeing an elegant blond woman in the department store where Highsmith worked. That sparked the idea in her head and she wrote the novel over the next few years. Her usual publisher wouldn’t touch it but she placed it with another one and with a pseudonym was put out in the subgenre of lesbian literature, which I guess was a thing back in the fifties. The subgenre was considered pulp fiction at the time and the literary tone and quality of the novel stood out.
Still it was in and out of print until the producers of this film pick it up and made this excellent adaptation.

The Revenant

The Revenant is based on the true story of Hugh Glass, here played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In 1822 as a scout for a fur trapping expedition into unexplored territory, Glass surprises a grizzly bear and her cubs. He kills the bear but is mauled badly. Not expected to live, he is left with three volunteers, John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, Jim Bridger, played by Will Poulter and Glass’ son by a Pawnee woman, Hawk, played by Forrest Goodluck. They promise to stay with Glass until he dies and to give him a decent burial. But there are hostile Indians in the area and Fitzgerald gets nervous. While Bridger is away, he murders Hawk and hides the body. Then he convinces Bridger that the Indians are minutes away. They wrap Glass in the bear skin and put him in a shallow grave. Then they take his gun and supplies and report back to the expedition that he died.
But he didn’t. With a broken leg, festering open wounds, and no supplies or weapons, Glass stumbles and crawls his way back to civilization, looking to survive and looking for revenge on Fitzgerald. A lot has been written about this incident. There are even a couple of earlier movies and TV episodes. I’m tempted to call it one of the foundational stories of the western genre like the gunfight at the OK Corral or the Lincoln County war. But frankly I’d never heard of it before so it’s hard for me to think of it that way.
This grim material is ideally suited for the director and co-screenwriter Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose dark vision has informed many good films in the past few years. It is a stately film with long shots lingering over snow covered mountains and meandering riverbeds. Even in the chase scenes they cut to long panoramic shots that drain any momentum from the plot. Inarritu is too good a filmmaker for this to be a mistake. He is making a meditative revenge drama.
There is all kinds of visual symbolism in the film. Flowing water represents life, I guess. There are many shots of treetops swaying in the wind where the camera was set up on the ground, shooting straight up, echoing Glass’ wife relaying a Pawnee proverb about looking at the tops of the trees while knowing that the trunks are sound. In a flashback Glass holds his then young son, who has just been severely burned in a fire that took his wife, and says, “Just keep grabbing breaths.” So the sound of breathing permeates the soundtrack. There is also a theme of rebirth, of being a revenant, someone who comes back from the dead. At two points in the film he emerges from womblike conditions, once from a sweat lodge that a friendly Pawnee traveler makes him when he’s about to succumb to fever from his wounds and once from a dead horse he hollows out and crawls into to survive a blizzard.
No director is going to get a bad performance out of this cast. Inarritu guides them skillfully to great heights. DiCaprio gets a bad rap because he is a big movie star and people don’t like to believe that big movie stars can actually act. He can. This is a tremendous performance where he shows us things we’ve never seen from him before. He makes us feel every ounce of pain, both physical and psychological, that this character experiences.
Tom Hardy plays John Fitzgerald as self-serving amateur lawyer, always twisting events to his own advantage. He lies but his real damage is done in half-truths, faulty conclusions to fuzzily described events that only resemble what actually happened. As near as I can tell he never slips up in his frontier American accent.
I really can’t find anything to criticize about this film except for the fact that it didn’t really grab me. Maybe it was the pace, or the unpleasantness of the story. Revenge dramas are problematic in that it’s hard to sympathize with someone whose main objective is to kill someone else. Or it could be my deep suspicion that if I can understand symbolism without having to think about it too hard, it’s probably too heavy-handed.
Despite my grumbles this is an important film and well worth seeing for the performances and the scenery if nothing else.


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