Monday, March 28, 2016

[Review] Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

With Man of Steel, it was clear that director Zack Snyder attempted to entrench the brightly iconic Superman with the Nolan-ized tone of Dark Knight, only to misfire on all levels. So what happens when yet another incarnation of Batman is thrown into the equation during the blockbuster that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Well, the results aren't as great as you'd want them to be.

The opening scenes somewhat clumsily jump through several different countries and time frames, and in the process we revisit the explosive wreckage from the ending of Man of Steel. That's where we meet Bruce Wayne (aka Batman, played by Ben Affleck), who was caught amidst all those collapsing buildings. Flash forward 18 months later: Superman (Henry Cavill) is a highly divisive figure, blurring the lines between savior and criminal with prickly repercussions. Batman, a controversial vigilante himself, has a major beef with Superman. Meanwhile, the jittery Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) is plotting some evil endeavors and conspiring to finally pit Batman and Superman directly against each other.

It's almost as if Snyder took a story about two of the most beloved comic book heroes and siphoned all the soul and intrigue out of it. Midway through, I thought to myself: Shouldn't this be more exciting? The film's structure is disjointed and clunky from the very beginning, flowing as smoothly as a mountain of jagged metal. The plot lacks a gripping coherency, and of course there's the obligatory shoehorns for the sequel. It always feels like you're watching a big long chunk of something, rather than a fully established unit. And the pieces of that chunk aren't always bad, but they don't really form or transition well with each other. The film alternates between dour and slightly thrilling. Some scenes land, while others spark questions of why they're even included. Some scenes drag, while others are rushed. Such a monumental occasion should possess more momentum and escalation than this. Is a bit of jubilance within a Superman and Batman movie too much to ask for?

Henry Cavill's Superman carries over the detached, cardboard blandness from Man of Steel. Which is a shame, because the guy showed some nice flair in last year's Man from U.N.C.L.E., and I wish more of that was demonstrated here. Ben Affleck caught a lot of flack when his Batman casting was initially announced, and the rage of comic book fans intensified even more when Jesse Eisenberg was cast as Lex Luthor. But ironically, these two are the most interesting aspects of the whole film. Affleck's performance is brooding and controlled, and he does a perfectly swell job in the face of haters, even though when we first witness Batman operating in his Batcave alongside his white-haired British butler (Jeremy Irons), it can't help but give off a "Here we go again..." vibe. I mean, The Dark Knight trilogy ended only a few years ago.

Then there's Eisenberg's unhinged, sociopathic turn as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg does this thing incredibly well. Sure, he's not the Lex Luthor who comic book enthusiasts wanted (he's more of a Joker B-side), but he certainly commands every scene that he's in and emerges as the highlight. The film also gains a boost when Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) joins the party, and it's at this very point when the script produces its first amusing lines of dialogue and slight shreds of humor. You get the impression that this sort of flavor should've been injected into the series from the get-go.

So, Batman v Superman does have its moments. And it isn't the abomination that the Twittersphere might cause you to believe. In fact, despite often being shrouded in darkness, the production design of this thing looks really stellar (for the most part). However, it's completely fair to say we want a more compelling story, tweaked characterizations, and something that isn't so coldly one-dimensional. The film contains a line from the city's senator that goes like: "The world has been so caught up with what Superman can do that no one has asked what he should do." Well, he should be involved in a movie that doesn't leave us so exhaustingly numb.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

[Review] Knight of Cups

With his most recent run of Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and now Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick seems to be fully content with putting out glorified View-Master projects.

The film revolves around a Hollywood screenwriter (played by Christian Bale) and his escapades with various women, as they help him "find his place in the world." It's a loathsome point of view, especially within a setting that's already overly pretentious. There's hardly even any semblance of a coherent story here, and things have reached the point where the on-paper synopsis presents more detail than what the actual film conveys. It's the equivalent of someone having to explain their artwork to you because they're the only person who *gets* it. It also doesn't help that Knight of Cups is mostly dialogue free, except for some cryptic and disjointed voiceover narration.

To its credit, the film looks absolutely beautiful. Every single shot is gorgeous, perfectly framed, and filled with natural sunlight under evocative skies--Which makes it all the more frustrating that this thing is so narratively inept and frankly boring. The unconventional, fragmented editing is dressed as experimentalism, but this isn't pushing the medium into new places--it's robbing it of dimension, as well as emotion. And this makes it a painstakingly difficult two hours to sit through, and I got the impression that I could've just looked at a nice slideshow and saved a lot of time.

Knight of Cups is also a major waste of acting talent. Along with Christian Bale, the cast includes Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, and more. The actors and actresses stare blankly into the abyss most of duration, like they're not even sure what they should be doing, let alone know what's going on in the first place. This aspect makes all the performances incredibly bland, to the point of being maddening.

Apparently Malick's next film is called Weightless, and well, at least it's a good descriptor of his recent work.


Monday, March 14, 2016

[Review] 10 Cloverfield Lane

Lets' get this out of the way: Aside from its title, 10 Cloverfield Lane is almost a completely different beast from its "predecessor" Cloverfield. The mock-doc style and nauseating shaky cam is tossed out the window (thank goodness), and it takes place in a single confinement instead of an entire sky-scraping city. And what we have here is a tense horror/sci-fi thriller that stands on its own.

After suffering an accident, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up locked in the cellar of a nuclear bunker. Enter Howard (John Goodman), an avid Doomsday prepper. He informs Michelle that there was an "attack" outside, the air isn't safe, and that he saved her life. But of course, Michelle (and we as the audience) can't be too sure about what's really going on yet. There's also another dude in the bunker--the modest but overly talkative Emmett (John Gallagher Jr., Short Term 12).

Props to the premise for immediately sparking a great amount of intrigue and sustaining it for a good length of time. The source of fear brews from the outside and within. If the apocalypse is indeed in-play, then what caused it and what's happening to the world? As far as we know, chemical warfare, zombies, aliens, and good old-fashioned monsters are all on the table. If the apocalypse is a lie, then Michelle is being held hostage by a creepy dude, not unlike Brie Larson's situation in the recent Oscar-contender Room. And even if Howard is correct about the apocalypse, he still can't be trusted. There's conflict everywhere, and the tension is incredibly thick in an already claustrophobic space.

Winstead and Goodman put on a couple of stellar performances, and the characterizations definitely make things interesting. Michelle is extremely resourceful given the circumstances (MacGyver would be envious), and very keen on attempting to unravel Howard's secrets. Goodman is scary good as Howard. He's all at once intimidating, insecure, possibly crazy, a wise survivalist, and even caring and highly sentimental at times. But just when it looks like these people might become a happy family, there's a subtle line of dialogue or a visual hint that sets the uneasiness back on high alert.

I've seen and heard many complaints about the film's last 10 minutes or so. Personally, I was okay with the choice, but I can't go much further into it. Can you tell that I'm trying not to give too much away?


Friday, March 11, 2016

[Review] The Wave (Bolgen)

If you want to see a solid alternative to the typical Hollywood natural disaster flick, look no further than Norway's The Wave. (Not that I have anything against last year's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson epic, San Andreas.)

Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) & Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), along with their two kids, are a perfectly happy family living in a small Norwegian village located near a set of mountains. Kristian, a geologist, is beginning to notice some alarming signs of an impending shake-up. And he isn't wrong. The serene and picturesque landscape, as well as the family's well-being are upended when a massive rockslide tumbles into a fjord and causes a powerful flood.

The story's beginning stalls for a great while in order to build quiet dread and anticipation. In fact, the main event doesn't hit until after 45 minutes in. But once it hits, it really hits, and the film launches into emergency chaos. It's safe to say that this is an intense experience. Everything is so crisply shot, and the camera's focus makes sure to emphasize the jarring shift from how a scenic destination can turn into a destructive danger zone within minutes.

The film demonstrates impressive technical prowess along the way, from the visual effects, to the direction within large amounts of water, and the sound design which often creates an effect of being submerged underwater. Some scenes are even reminiscent of James Cameron's Titanic. And the money shot of the approaching colossal wave is enough to make your heart pound out of your chest.

The Wave cuts back on any cheesy melodrama, it takes place in the now (instead of decades into the future), and it's steeped in treacherous realism--which all bodes well for a sudden catastrophe.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

[Review] Triple 9

Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Norman Reedus, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, and Michael K. Williams is an amazing ensemble cast for a gritty crime thriller. So the big question arises: Is the rest of the film as serviceable?

Set in a grim underbelly-like Atlanta where guns and drugs seem to grow from the cracks of the pavement, Triple 9's intricately detailed premise involves a lot of different parts and key players, so I'll just give you the gist of it: A group of thieves and dirty cops conspire to pull off a dangerously high stakes heist. And of course, it doesn't quite go as planned. If that isn't rough enough, the crew is also entangled with the Russian mafia, which is never a good thing.

Director John Hillcoat, who has a couple of great titles to his name (The Proposition, The Road), finds himself in messier and not-so-subtle territory here. So you kind of just have to sit back and submit yourself to the non-stop pulp, chaotic setpieces, and the ugliness of it all. The problem is that the film threatens to implode, and you might become desensitized to everything taking place on screen, as it all sort of becomes a big murky blur.

There's only so many Mexican gangbangers, stock Russian Mob types, informant prostitutes, greasy bankrobbers, and Alonzo Harris-es (Denzel Washington's character in Training Day) that the first 30 minutes of a movie can throw at you before you feel like you might get hit with a kitchen sink. And the cast--while all great--don't get a whole lot of opportunity to differentiate from each other. It's a major case of character overload. Still, the film packs some tense thrills as long as you can get a grip on who is who and what is transpiring, although this leads me to believe that this thing probably could've fared much better as a killer TV series on a Netflix platform or something.

Triple 9 is far from the top tier of this genre, but if you're a hardcore fan of this stuff either way, you probably won't be too disappointed.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

[Review] Zootopia

Walt Disney Animation Studios continue to deliver the goods with their latest outing, Zootopia. Not only is it a fun, clever, and fast-moving story, but it also slyly (as a fox) espouses some significant social messages. Yes, humanitarianism in a film that contains nothing but animal characters.

Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a relentlessly determined rabbit who leaves the farm life behind in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a police officer for the diverse metropolis of Zootopia (there's a wonderful montage sequence of the place when she first arrives). After graduating top of the class from the police academy, she is frustratingly designated to parking duty by Zootopia's police chief Bogo (Idris Elba). But eventually she maneuvers her way into being lead detective on a "missing mammals" case, and she enlists the help of a hustling fox named Nick (Jason Bateman).

From here, the film shifts from a colorful and cheery bunny-in-the-big-city story to a straight up detective noir mystery with an elaborate plot. It still contains a decent amount of humor though, beyond the abundance of available puns. There are some blatant references to The Godfather and "Breaking Bad" that turn out to be more amusingly fitting than they have any business being. There's also a hilarious and well-executed scene where Judy and Nick enter a DMV to run a license plate number, and the whole establishment is run by sloths. It's something you just have to see.

As mentioned earlier, the film provides some straightforward commentary on timely social issues. The themes span from tackling prejudice and corruption, to breaking through constructs in order to be whatever you want to be, as well as doing your best to make the world a better place. The same overtones were addressed in a similar way during 2014's lovely animated bear & mouse tale, Ernest & Celestine. These are highly agreeable concepts of acceptance that you think would be universal common sense by now, but considering that one of the culprits of the problems addressed in Zootopia is currently deep in the U.S. presidential race (in real life), these things cannot be overstated or echoed enough.

Zootopia has plenty for all to equally enjoy. Plus, animals are cool.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

[Review] The Lady in the Van

The legendary Maggie Smith (a lot of people will know her as Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter) stars in The Lady in the Van--a "mostly true story" about an amusingly odd pairing.

Set in Camden Town, London during the 1970s. Alex Jennings plays the stately Alan Bennett (real life author and the writer of this film). In his own driveway, there happens to be a homeless woman living out of her rusty old van. This woman is the eccentric and stubborn Miss Mary Shepherd (Smith). The Lady in the Van revolves around Mary and Alan's unique relationship, as well as Mary's surprisingly poignant and revealing backstory.

It sounds like a vague cliche, but there's a certain set of pleasant, easygoing films with likable lead characters that are often described as "immensely watchable", and this is one of those films. There's a consistent sense of charm here, emphasized by the playful and theatrical musical score. The tone is feathery and comical, while also containing some emotional depth. Maggie Smith's performance is completely terrific. She's lively, vulnerable, mysterious, nuanced, and also very respectful of the subject.

In fact, the film is so light on its feet that, aside from Maggie Smith's greatness and the story's affecting ending, the rest risks being forgettable. Still, if this sounds like you're type of thing, The Lady in the Van is an easy one to recommend, and its cleverness makes sure to get the last laugh.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016

[Review] Gods of Egypt

If you've glimpsed at any of the recent box office headlines, you know that Gods of Egypt plunged into theaters like a wretched deuce during this past #OscarsSoWhite weekend. To be fair, this film appeared to be a steamy stinker from the very beginning, and it's almost lucky that not a lot people paid attention to its messy, sloppy, and un-wipeable release.

The film's intro sequence scans the Egyptian land, and the visuals look worse than most video games that were made over a decade ago. And evidently, the Earth is indeed flat during this time period (paging B.o.B). The opening scenes between the youthful Bek (Brenton Thwaites) and Zaya (Courtney Eaton) make it known that director Alex Proyas apparently didn't care about the acting in this movie being corny and terrible. Then we meet King Horus (or Jamie Lannister) in a scene that has a Game of Thrones porn parody vibe to it. At this point, I'm just hoping that Gods of Egypt can at least function like an unintentionally funny clunker, but it doesn't even succeed in that way.

Eventually, Gerard Butler shows up, adding to his wildly impressive streak of being in awful movies (that aren't animated). Chadwick Boseman (42, Get on Up) is basically the only African American actor in the main cast, and it's practically the cinematic equivalent of "I have a black friend." But the biggest crime of all might be that the filmmakers didn't just embrace the ridiculousness and bring in Nicolas Cage for the leading role. If that had been the case, this would be a cult classic. The tone is perfectly ripe for some Nic Cage greatness, so this is a major missed opportunity. I mean, the guy literally has his own pyramid tomb waiting for him after he dies. How could they NOT cast him in this?

The constantly loud and intrusive music attempts to compensate for the poor excuse for spectacle that is taking place on the screen. It's never quite clear what the hell is going on in this movie. Every character in the script is crudely under-established, and next thing you know, they're warping into winged creatures that you might recognize best from The History Channel's "Ancient Aliens". And I'm not making this up, but there is an actual sequence where Jamie Lannister's beast incarnation gloriously flies through a large rippled circle that seems to symbolize an anus.

There also is a scene in here that involves a herd of elephants hauling dumpster-like containers of gold. For a moment, I thought the filmmakers might have been self-aware about this thing being a heap of crap, but ultimately there isn't anything gold about Gods of Egypt, so it doesn't even get points for that. This very well may go down as one of the worst films of the past few years, and it'll be in many "How did this get made?" discussions, that is--if enough people even bother to see it. (Seriously, who okay'd this?) But instead of being praised for being so-bad-it's-good, it's going to be lambasted and blasphemed on all parts, like the massive pile of ungodly trash that it is.