REVIEW: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

29 03 2016

I miss Christopher Nolan. Never mind that it has been less than four years since his final Batman film and fewer than 18 months since his most recent directorial effort, “Interstellar.” He understood that the scope of a sprawling comic book movie could be an epic canvas for ambitious thematic and aesthetic content, not just an excuse for bombast and branding.

He has, inexplicably, turned over the keys to the kingdom to Zack Snyder, a director full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. He has an eye and a knack for style, to give him some credit, but Snyder never deploys it in use of a story or an idea. He’s all showmanship for its own sake – surfaces above substance, declaration over development.

As if 2013’s “Man of Steel” was not nauseating enough, he arrives with an “Avengers”-ified sequel in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” It’s roughly the cinematic equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” magazine cover. Call it “Break the Box Office,” if you will, as it’s already crushing at the box office this year. The film is practically incoherent and only gets more pointless and frustrating with each new turn. With each successive insipid development, the experience is as numbing as it is infuriating.

Snyder is more concerned that we notice the giant CGI pearls snapped at the murder of Bruce Wayne’s mother than providing context or rationale for this universe in which the film takes place. So two superheroes, Batman and Superman, have been living across the water from each other … and that was not worth mentioning in “Man of Steel?” While it’s nice that the film does not waste time rehashing an origin story, clearly Ben Affleck’s Batman is much different than Christian Bale’s. He’s more overtly villainous and cynical – but why?

Perhaps these questions might have been answered in the many scenes left on the cutting room floor. These crucial contextual bits are more important than ever as they could give the franchise a headwind as it launches a bevy of spinoffs and sequels. Marvel movies are bearable because their brain trust actually cares about their characters. They might ultimately succumb to formulaic plots, sure, but they at least understand that audiences want to get attached to these larger-than-life figures. Come and forget the action, stay and remember the characters.

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REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

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REVIEW: The Rover

25 06 2014

The RoverUnlike many “apocalyptic” movies of our era, David Michod’s “The Rover” does not weigh itself down in giving the audience details of the calamity that befell civilization.  We get a few vague hints along the way, sure, but Michod lets us know all we need to know the characters populating the frame.  An opening close-up of Guy Pearce’s Eric, sitting motionless with anguish while flies land sporadically on his face, tells us far more than fake stock footage ever could.

For once, it’s the characters, not the catastrophe, that drive the action.  Without highly specific circumstances explaining their actions, “The Rover” assumes the feel of a tone poem.  It mulls over the trials of the human spirit amidst a desolate landscape as well as the need for connection in isolating times with its sweltering cinematography and pared-down screenplay.

Michod’s script, co-written with Joel Edgerton, follows Eric as he hunts down his stolen car in the unwelcoming Australian desert.  We don’t know why he wants the car back until the very end of “The Rover,” and a part of me almost wishes his motivation wasn’t realed.  Since Eric doesn’t seem to place any extreme importance on the vehicle, the quest takes on an existential dimension that yields far more insights into Eric’s character.

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REVIEW: Frank

17 06 2014

Los Angeles Film Festival

Early on in Lenny Abrahamson’s “Frank,” Domhnall Gleeson’s character Jon poses a question that might as well be on behalf of the audience: what’s the deal with the paper-mache head that Michael Fassbender’s Frank won’t take off?  Scoot McNairy’s Don, who has been working in a band with Frank for many years, tries to explain but ultimately admits, “You’re just going to have to go with this.”

The same mantra could apply to the rest of the film, where Abrahamson and screenwriter Jon Ronson string us along for a bizarre ride that offers very little explanation for itself.  It sometimes teeters on the verge of being a Dadaist piece, but it mostly just fizzles with forced quirkiness that never connects.  The scattershot tone of the piece makes it a real head-scratcher, too.

Frank

“Frank” is not without its amusing moments, nor is it an entirely meandering film.  At times, it feels like an ultra indie-fied version of “Almost Famous” as Jon attempts to be taken seriously by Frank’s bonkers band.  He takes over for a keyboardist who attempts to drown himself, presumptively because he is so frustrated with the unnecessarily rigorous creative process Frank demands.  I’ll stop short of saying I wished I could be in his position, being carted off in an ambulance rather than being forced to endure the whims of the giant head, but it’s overall pretty brutal.

I think many of the issues I had with “Frank” arose from the relatively minor progression of the plot.  It’s not a film carried by the characters; they all feel as if they’ve escaped from some “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking the esoteric kinds of hipster bands that play at Coachella.  (Not kidding, one song in the film sung by Maggie Gyllenhaal begins, “I want to marry a lighthouse keeper.”)

The performances aren’t particularly strong either, not even from Fassbender.  We don’t get to see him emote underneath the mask, which just made me realize how crucial his face is to conveying the inner turmoil of characters.  His nondescript body movements don’t communicate well in “Frank” either, and I found my thoughts drifting to ponder whether it was in fact Fassbender at all.

I don’t want to spoil the film, but there is brief confirmation that the Oscar-nominated actor did film a scene for the film.  Though a part of me does have to wonder if maybe the real joke of “Frank” is pulling a fast one on its audience by putting someone else under the big head.  It would certainly be in line with the odd sense of humor that pervades the rest of the film.  C2stars





REVIEW: Non-Stop

10 06 2014

Liam Neeson’s career has taken one of the stranger trajectories in recent memory.  Beginning as a prestige dramatic actor whose stunning performance in “Schindler’s List” earned him an Oscar nomination, he was one of few with the gravitas to be the voice of God in the “Narnia” series.  Though he had a brief stint as a Jedi in the maligned 1999 “Star Wars” prequel, few would have thought of Neeson as an action star.

That was, until 2009’s game-changing hit “Taken,” the film that still sends chills down the spine of any student about travel abroad.  Playing the ultimate protective papa bear, Neeson channels Jack Bauer by way of Dick Cheney with such tenacity that it led to reprising various shades of the role in “Clash of the Titans.”  And “The A-Team.”  And “Unknown.”  (Heck, it’s already at the parodic stage as shown by “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”)  Neeson can now go on “Saturday Night Live” and threaten Vladimir Putin, presumptively as … himself.

Non-Stop” may well be the zenith of the Neeson craze, signaling the point at which pop culture accepts him as a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal-type figure.  His larger-than-life presence on the screen now apparently means we can and should accept a heightened state of suspension of disbelief.  Neeson might as well wear a cape because he’s a superhero in our real world that doesn’t involve aliens, time travel, or any other Marvel gimmick you can think of.

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REVIEW: Touchy Feely

5 08 2013

Touchy FeelyHow ironic that director Lynn Shelton should begin to lose her touch in the film “Touchy Feely,” a film about people who literally touch for a living.

All the seemingly effortless perceptiveness into our very humanity in Shelton’s prior two films “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister” have eluded her grasp in her latest feature.  “Touchy Feely” is a mess, unfocused and unorganized from the get-go.  Shelton writes plenty of interestingly odd characters, but they ultimately offer us nothing to take home and apply to our own lives because we can’t identify with them.

The film jumps from emotional non-sequitur to emotional non-sequitur as everyone seems to act in only the most bizarre and irrational ways possible.  Whether it’s taking ecstasy, forcing their significant other to strip in a bathroom at their place of business (only to then walk out), or going to an experimental massage therapist to improve their dentistry, Shelton’s got the sheer unpredictability of human nature cornered.  The problem is, however, that none of these quirks add up to anything – nor do they highlight anything about what it means to be alive, or in love, or a productive member of society.

The actors could have turned “Touchy Feely” into their showcase by picking up the slack from Shelton’s script, but they wind up falling into the same humdrum, forgettable pattern of the film.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s erratic Abby shows nowhere near the vitality and inner life of her titular bride in “Rachel Getting Married,” and Ellen Page just plays Juno on downers.  Not even Allison Janney could breathe any fresh air into the film.

On a final sad note, I was really hoping this would be a breakout role for Josh Pais, a stalwart character actor who first caught my eye as a cantankerous Harlem teacher in “Music of the Heart” when I was seven years old.  He’s been popping up in movies and TV shows for years, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing him.  But his role in “Touchy Feely,” a deadbeat dentist, was a droning monotone. Hopefully he gets another shot at a big part like this again; I just hope this wasn’t the first time a casting agent saw him on screen.  C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Monsters

25 01 2013

MonstersGareth Edwards, helmer the latest reincarnation of the Godzilla franchise, is about to work with monsters on a very big scale (and budget).  However, if you want to see the skill and directorial poise of Edwards on a more modest, personal level, there’s no other option than to check out his debut film, “Monsters.”

It’s not quite found-footage, but “Monsters” offers you the intimacy that the emerging subgenre always attempts to provide and usually fails to deliver.  Edwards makes the rare movie whose exposition might be more complicated than the story.  But if you decide to take the plunge into his subtly nightmarish world, you’ll discover that such simplicity of story is a noble quality, not a flaw.

The film follows the journey of Scoot McNairy’s Andrew Kaulder, a photojournalist sent down to Mexico to recover and return his boss’ daughter, Whitney Able’s Samantha Wynden.  And no, his search for her is not the main plot of the film.  In fact, he finds her within the first 10 minutes.

The titular monsters barely appear, and when they do late in the film, it’s anti-climatic and not exactly thrilling or terrifying.  “Monsters” is a movie about the effects of these creatures, extra-terrestrials who landed in Mexico six years before the events of the film.  There’s now a large “infected zone” that Andrew and Samantha have to pay a great deal to go around – or risk their lives to go through.

There are, of course, some allegorical implications for the alien invasion (creatures that Americans try to confine in Mexico by a giant fence along the border, anyone?).  But the thrill of “Monsters” is not in the political but in the personal.  It’s fascinating to watch the natural relationship and rapport develop between Andrew and Samantha in ways that are subtly affected by the presence of these monsters.  Though watching them becomes slowly less and less interesting as the movie progresses, the clever and subversive filmmaking on display from Gareth Edwards makes this 90 minutes fairly well spent.  B2halfstars