Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

















Batman v Superman was the hotly anticipated pairing of the two biggest DC superheroes in a battle royale to see who comes out on top. Or at least that's what the title would have you believe. The actual result is something of a muddled mess of a movie.

It's been two years since the events of Man of Steel and the world is still trying to come to terms with Superman (played by Henry Cavill) and his place in the world. To some, he is a saviour and to others, such as Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck) and Senator Finch (played by Holly Hunter), he is seen as a potential threat. Things escalate when Superman intervenes on a terrorist hostage crisis to rescue Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). Several of the terrorists wind up dead, not at the hands of Superman but by a separate security team. As Superman and Lois escape, she is able to retrieve one of the bullets and sets out to use it to try and determine who the security team is run by. Meanwhile, young billionaire Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg as a sort of demented Mark Zuckerberg), is desperately trying to get a piece of kryptonite recovered from the Indian Ocean, along with access to the crashed Kryptonian scout ship and General Zod's dead body to use for his own nefarious and secretive purposes. Bruce Wayne has his eyes on the same chunk of Kryptonite, which he intends to use to fashion weaponry to take out Superman. While all this is going on Superman, under his human guise as Daily Reporter Clark Kent, is investigating the Gotham City "Bat Vigilante" aka Batman, which we all know is Bruce Wayne. It's only a matter of time before these two heroes butt heads with Lex Luthor in the background, stirring things up, after all that's why we bought the ticket.

I gave myself a few days to really wrap my head around this film before I wrote my review. There were individual scenes I liked. Anytime Alfred (played by Jeremy Irons) was on screen the movie was golden. This Alfred, technologically savvy and sassy was a bright spot in this film for sure. Likewise, Affleck made for a great Bruce Wayne/Batman and I really enjoyed his interpretation of the character. This is a different Batman than we've seen before. The years and years of crime fighting have left him hardened and on edge. He's violent and one might even say almost cruel. There's hints throughout the film as to what caused him to reach this point, but I wish the film had explored it more, as it was one of the many woefully underdeveloped subplots in the movie. I also loved the interactions between Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince (played by Gal Gadot) (aka Batman and Wonder Woman) throughout the movie. It will be interesting to see how that develops in future films. I also liked that the movie was seriously asking what Superman's place in the world would be and trying to realistically portray what having such a person in our world would be like. Again, I wish the movie had taken the time to properly explore this plot line, rather than lightly touch on it and then throw it away for a callous and grim plot twist.

Now, for the problems with the movie and there are many. I feel like there are pieces of this movie missing that explain things that desperately need to be explained. Character motivations are either scattershot at best, completely illogical or change on a whim as the screenwriter and director dictate. I'm still not sure of Lex Luthor's motivations behind all his scheming. None of it seems to be particularly well thought out and the weird, ticcy performance by Jesse Eisenberg did nothing to clarify it. Eisenberg certainly gives a unique interpretation of Luthor, but not one that seems to sync up with the character as established in the comics or previous iterations. Half-way through I found myself wondering, "Geez, where is Kevin Spacey or Gene Hackman when you need them?"  At least Batman's motivations for wanting to take out Superman were made clear (that the damage a gone rogue Superman could unleash outweighs any possible good he could do). Superman also seems to get the short shrift, being portrayed as one of the most passive, downtrodden and woeful heroes seen in recent memory. Between this and Man of Steel, I wonder if director Zack Snyder has even read a Superman comic. I even find myself wondering if he even likes the character and if so why does he seem so bound and determined to keep Superman in the darkness. As a lifelong Superman fan, I find it almost infuriating the way my favorite Superhero keeps being treated by these films. I barely even recognize this character anymore. Henry Cavill does what he can with the part, but he can only do so much with what is on the page, which is not much except I suspect variations of Superman broods or mopes.  

Then there is the climax. Oh, baby, the climax. Spoiler warning for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet (although if you've seen the trailers, you've basically seen the entire movie save one last "plot twist" that isn't really a twist to anyone who knows their comics). So, we finally get to the climax and the big showdown between Batman and Superman. Except it isn't a battle because their conflicting ideologies have brought them to this point. Nope, it is thrown together by Lex Luthor, who kidnaps Martha Kent (played by Diane Lane) and forces Superman to fight Batman or else she dies. Ok, let's stop things right there. How the hell did Lex Luthor figure out Clark Kent was Superman?! I'm genuinely asking because the movie doesn't bother to tell us! That's a pretty big and critical plot point, don't you think? Shouldn't that scene be in the movie, even if it's Lex pulling a Lois in Superman II and drawing glasses and a suit on a picture of Superman with a magic marker or Jimmy Kimmel showing up at the party and just telling him? Anyway, Superman flies off to go fight Batman and the two fight for a few minutes until Superman is able to get out the reason why he's fighting Batman. Batman realizes both their moms have the same name and somehow Batman is able to figure out Superman is not a threat as the two become instant best friends. Batman rescues Martha, reassuring her he's a friend of her son in a scene I saw coming but still kind of loved even if the movie didn't quite earn it, and Superman goes after Lex. Turns out Lex has a plan B, the mutated corpse of Zod into a monstrosity known as Doomsday (In all fairness, Batman's reaction to first seeing Doomsaday, "Oh shit," was pretty priceless and damn near made the movie for me). This is enough to coax Diana Prince out of hiding and suit up as Wonder Woman. It is in this admittingly kickass scene that the true point of this movie becomes crystal clear. It was never really about the fight of Batman and Superman. It was all just a cinematic ploy to set up the next movie, Justice League

That right there is the biggest problem with this movie. It fails to function as a cohesive and satisfying whole. There are individual scenes that are clearly designed to be crowd pleasers but it lacks a throughline of compelling and well written characters with clearly defined plot lines that work from beginning to the end. Instead, they all spin their wheels for the first two thirds of the film before finally casting everything aside for the same destruction laden climax all these movies seem to have these days (although bonus points for continuously working into the dialogue that the destruction this time was limited to abandoned areas of the cities or that the office buildings were empty since it was late at night, showing the filmmakers at least listened to some of the criticism from Man of Steel). So maybe they will listen to this criticism for the next movie. Write a real movie, with a definitive beginning, middle and end. Have the character's decisions and motivations make sense to the audience and keep any temptations to tease future films to a bare minimum. The entire movie should have a reason for being beyond setting up the next movie. It should have a point all of it's own, with it's own cohesive and satisfying plot. Zack Snyder can create a visually stunning movie. In the case of Batman v Superman, it's like a beautiful car with no engine. I didn't hate it exactly, but it had no real meaning to me either. It was just there, despite the best efforts of their cast. I genuinely hope they do better with the next one, otherwise the DC superhero film series may be over before it started.   

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Man of Steel






















I'm not sure I can think of a more frustrating movie than Man of Steel. When it works, it really works and when it doesn't, it really doesn't. There's not a lot of middle ground where it's just okay. Only parts I really liked and parts I really hated. 

This film opens on Krypton, much like the 1978 Richard Donner version, but portrays a very different Krypton than we saw before. This vision of the doomed planet shows one that was doomed by its very inhabitants exhausting the planet's natural resources. Jor-El (played by Russell Crowe), tries to warn his Government but is turned away. Seeing no other option, he prepares to send his only son, Kal-El, to Earth to survive. Kal was the first naturally born Kryptonian in a long time in a society where genetically engineered and bred children is the norm. Jor-El steals the codex device the genetically encodes all the new embryos and sends it with Kal-El in his rocket ship to Earth. Meanwhile, General Zod (played by Michael Shannon), begins trying to stage a coup to overtake the Kryptonian government and ensure the survival of their people, including seizing the codex. He is quickly taken down and sentenced to the Phantom Zone. 

Kal's ship finds it's way to Earth and we then cut to Kal, now known as Clark Kent (played by Henry Cavill), a young man traveling the Earth trying to find his place in it. He overhears word of a discovery of an odd ship in the Arctic from two Military men and travels north. Covering the discovery for the Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (played by Amy Adams). As Clark finds the ship and is able to enter it due to a special Kryptonian key sent in his ship with him, he is followed by an inquisitive Lois Lane, who is attacked by the ship's computer as an intruder. Clark saves her and gets her out of the ship before taking off in it. Once it lands in a remote place, Clark is able to access the computer and begins learning about himself and his home planet from his Father, Jor-El, who had downloaded his consciousness onto the Kryptonian key he carries with him (It's a sort of flash drive, I guess). Meanwhile, Lois begins retracing Clark's steps by all the reports of heroic acts he's done in secret, eventually landing on the doorstep of Martha Kent (played by Diane Lane). Soon after, Clark returns home and asks Lois to keep his identity secret, which she agrees. He then returns home to his mother and shortly after a strange ship is seen in the air. On it is General Zod, who has escaped from the Phantom Zone and come to Earth for two reasons, first to reclaim the codex to rebuild Krypton in his image and two terraform Earth to build a new Krypton on, destroying mankind in the process. The only one that can stand in the way of Zod and his Phantom Zone minions is Clark. 

There was a lot that I liked about Man of Steel. The reimagined Krypton was bold and different, but seemed a bit more realistic and realized than previous depictions. I really enjoyed the flashback scenes to Clark as a kid and his interactions with his adopted father, Jonathan (played by Kevin Costner), especially the scene when Jonathan tells Clark about who he really was and Clark responds that he just wants to be Jonathan's son and not the rest of it, prompting Jonathan to respond, "You are my son!" was deeply affecting and played beautifully by both Costner and Dylan Sprayberry, who plays young Clark. I also liked that they switched it up with Lois encountering Clark and discovering his secret pretty much from the outset and the way they set that up. It was an intriguing set up and change of pace from the previous incarnations. I really liked Henry Cavill as Clark/Superman. He adds a lot to the role and makes it his own, never trying to copy what came before. We primarily see him as Superman throughout the film, his traditional Clark Kent persona only showing at the end. I also really liked Amy Adams as Lois and I loved that she had so much involvement in the film rather than just being a damsel in distress. Michael Shannon was great as General Zod and brought some new layers to such a well known villain which was great. He portrayed a man whose only utility in life was that of a protector of Krypton and it's way of life and would be willing to do anything to carry out that duty. It was an intriguing take on the character and he captured it wonderfully.

But at the same time, there were things I really didn't like with the movie. First off, the second half of this movie is more or less an ongoing concussive blast of destruction starting in Smallville before ending up in Metropolis with very little to break it up. It's just scene after scene of Clark fighting Zod and the other Kryptonian criminals as building after building is smashed to smithereens. Once we hit Metropolis and skyscraper after skyscraper falls in ultra-realistic fashion with no doubt untold thousands of people dying as they disappear in large clouds of grey dust and smoke, provoking countless 9/11 flashbacks. I know it happened to me as I watched the film, sitting in the theatre, eating my popcorn, my 3-D glasses propped over my regular wire frames. Suddenly, as I sat there a Superman movie stopped being fun. I stopped eating my popcorn, forgot about my Coke and instead began having an anxiety attack. I went to Superman movies to have fun and leave the theatre with a silly grin on my face. But this film had turned into a grim outing indeed and I was no longer having fun. And I kind of hated the movie for that.

The other thing I hated and this I really hated was the scene that can best be described as the Tornado scene. Now, the previous complaint was more of a minor complaint at the sheer overkill of the climax compared to this. Unlike that, I have seething hatred towards this entire sequence. Let me set the scene for you. Jonathan, Martha and Clark are driving down a Kansas freeway one afternoon. Clark and Jonathan are having an argument and Clark says, "You're not my real father!" I immediately grimace and think to myself, Oh fuck you, movie. Not screw you or you suck, movie. I go right for the F-word, I hate it that much. Then, they happen across a group of stopped cars and notice a Tornado in the distance headed right for the highway. Martha, Jonathan and Clark get out of the car and start directing the others that have stopped as well to seek shelter under the nearby overpass. Ok, let's stop here again. Maybe it's because I actually am from the Midwest. Maybe it's because I have some relatives who know better. Maybe it's because I had a Meteorology teacher who beat this into my head. The worst possible place one can seek shelter when encountering a tornado on a highway IS UNDER AN OVERPASS! Now, I can imagine you're thinking, "But Nate, there was that one video done back in the 80's..." Yes, I know about that video. The thing is though is that tornado went behind them. If it went directly over them they would've all been sucked out or if they managed to hang on basically they would've been sandblasted to death. And here was a major motion picture perpetuating the same myth. To say it's a peeve is putting it mildly.  What one should do in this situation, ideally is simply get out of the path of the tornado. If that's not an option, get away from the cars, get to the lowest point of ground possible, lie completely flat with your hands over the back of your head and pray for daylight. 

But wait, that's not even the part that makes me seethe the most. Nope, it's what follows. So, they have everyone under the overpass when Jonathan realizes the beloved family dog is still in the car. Rather than let his indestructible, super strong son go get him, Jonathan elects to go himself. He is able to get the dog free, but is injured in the process. Clark is ready to run over and save him, most likely using his super speed, but Jonathan motions him to stop and lets the tornado take him instead. It was right there that my hatred for this one scene hit fever pitch as I could see what the filmmakers were trying to do. They were trying to create a reason for Clark to be all brooding like Batman and that is not who Superman is. Superman has always been about light and optimism and I hated Zach Snyder and screenwriter David S Goyer for trying to force it to go another way.

Overall, Man of Steel is very much a mixed bag of a movie for me. There are parts I really liked and parts I really hated, without much middle ground between the two. I've seen the movie a few times and my opinion really hasn't changed much, which makes me want to enter future installments in the burgeoning DC universe with some trepidation. 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Superman Returns
















There was a long gap of nineteen years before Superman would grace the silver screen again. In that time, he died and was resurrected, was the star of a television series for four years (which I actually liked and own all of on DVD), and the subject of several increasingly odd attempts to get to the silver screen, with the likes of Tim Burton, Brett Ratner and McG as possible directors. None came to fruition until Bryan Singer picked up the project. Crafting a film that picked up where Superman II left off and ignored parts III and IV, comes Superman Returns.

Superman (played by Brandon Routh) has been missing for five years, having journeyed deep into outer space to see if there are any remains of Krypton (there weren't). He returns home to his mother, Martha Kent (played by Eva Marie Saint), feeling more alone than ever. It's not long before he returns to Metropolis, resuming his identity as Clark Kent and job at the Daily Planet, reconnecting with Jimmy Olson (played by Sam Huntington) and Perry White (played by Frank Langella). He discovers that Lois (played by Kate Bosworth) has moved on and is married to Richard White (played by James Marsden), Perry's son, and they have a young son, Jason. She also won a Pulitizer Prize for an article entitled, "Why the World Doesn't Need Superman Anymore," so clearly she's stinging from all the abrupt leaving stuff that Superman did. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey), is out of jail and newly funded after inheriting the estate of a rich widow (played by former Lois Lane Noel Neill, in a cameo) he conned and ready to launch his latest world dominating scheme. Along with his cronies and new girlfriend, Kitty (played by Parker Posey), he is plotting to use crystals he retrieved from Superman's Fortress of Solitude to create a new land mass all his own to rule himself. Once again, the only one who can stop him is the newly returned  Superman.  

Bryan Singer labored hard in creating a film that not only continued on from the Richard Donner films, but also honored them and what they meant. From the very opening credits, perfectly replicating and building on the opening credits of the first film throughout the entire film, tonally this movie captures what the previous sequels failed to, backed by fantastic score from John Ottman who mixes the familiar John Williams themes with his own compositions to great effect. I just wish the script had been a little stronger and not feeling it had to retread so much of what the previous films already did. Once again we have Lex Luthor as the bad guy with another land based scheme for domination. It just feels a little been there, done that. I wish they had come up with a more unique plot for him. There's also this third act plot twist that I won't spoil, but continues to bug me to this day and I really wish they hadn't done it, if for no other reason than it is now sort of this thing left hanging that will never be explored further or resolved completely since they decided to reboot rather than make a sequel to this film.    

The cast for this film is actually for the most part quite good. I really enjoyed Brandon Routh as both Superman and Clark Kent. I know people like to make fun of him for the role, but I think he did a good job in both parts and wished he could have played the role at least a couple more times, but that's apparently just me. Kevin Spacey killed it as Lex Luthor and is clearly having a blast in the role much in the same way that Gene Hackman did. However, prison time was not good to Lex and he has re-emerged this time around as a bit darker and crueler. It adds a welcome sharper edge to this entry. Kate Bosworth was okay as Lois Lane. I wouldn't rank her with Noel Neill, Margot Kidder or Teri Hatcher, but she isn't terrible either. James Marsden plays Richard White and I like that they resisted any urge to make him unlikeable or "the other guy." He's a good, decent man and husband to Lois and figures into the climax well as a dependable ally to both Lois and Superman, and Marsden does a good job capturing that. 

Overall, Superman Returns is a film I have generally speaking really loved. I do have some nitpicks, but overall it fits in nicely with the Richard Donner films quite nicely. I originally saw it opening night when it was released in the Summer of 2006. I actually won a full size theatrical movie poster from the film that night that is currently framed and hanging on my living room wall. At that point, it was also the first Superman movie I saw theatrically and I remember feeling a chill and getting goosebumps when that familiar John Williams theme came on and the credits started. (I have since rectified things and have seen the original Superman on the big screen at a revival screening). I know it's popular to hate on this one, but I just can't do it. I dug it then and I still dig it now, nitpicks and all. 

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace















After the disappointing Superman III, Christopher Reeve decided he was done with Superman and stated he had no interest in playing the role again. However, when Cannon-Globus bought the film rights to the Superman franchise from the Salkinds, they were able to tempt Reeve back with promise of more creative control. Reeve crafted a story of Superman getting involved in trying to end the Nuclear Arms race. It was an ambitious storyline but with a slashed budget, things began to fall apart with the film almost immediately.

Superman (played by Christopher Reeve) receives a letter from a young boy after nuclear disarmament talks break down asking Superman to get rid of all the nuclear weapons. Superman took a vow never to get involved or interfere in politics and initially turns the kid down. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing at the Daily Planet as the paper has a new publisher, David Warfield (played by Sam Wanamaker) and his daughter, Lacy (played by Mariel Hemingway). They intend to make the Daily Planet more like their other more tabloid-esque papers, which rubs many of the staff members the wrong way. Clark catches the eye of Lacy though, and a small romance begins to develop between the two. Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman) is broken out of prison by his nitwit nephew Lenny (played by Jon Cryer), who Lex amusingly refers to as the Dutch Elm's Disease of the Luthor family tree. The two set out to come up with a new way to destroy Superman. Stealing a strand of Superman's hair from a local museum, the two scheme to create a villain as powerful as Superman to destroy him. When Superman reconsiders and agrees to get rid of all the nukes, Lex sees his chance and sticks a device on one of the missiles, containing the genetic stew that when it's flung into the sun and detonated will create the new supervillain. This new creation, Nuclear Man (played by Mark Pillow and overdubbed by Gene Hackman) has only one goal: destroy Superman.     

There are a lot of problems with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Having it's budget slashed from $35 million dollars to $17 million just before filming began made a huge impact on the film, leaving the film with a decidedly smaller effects budget. It also left director Sidney J. Furie with fewer options in shooting scenes as they scrambled to get through a shorter shooting schedule, with scenes often being poorly lit with un-imaginative camera angles leaving the film looking rather bland. After the film had a poor test screening, Warner and Cannon editors chopped up the film from a movie slightly over two hours into one that is barely an hour and a half. This only adds to the incoherence of the overall film and it is pretty clear when you view the finished product (if you can call it that) that there are huge chunks missing. The time crunch also meant there were critical effects shots missing which led to Superman suddenly developing a new power, the super telekinetic glance where he can rebuild damaged property with just a glance. It was supposed to be of him rebuilding the damage done by Nuclear Man manually using his superspeed, but the shots were never done. Then there is the climactic scenes in space between Superman and Nuclear Man, as well as a captive Lacy, who is somehow able to survive on her own in the vacuum space, in one of the biggest and most laughable movie goofs of all time.

The cast tries their best to keep the ship afloat. Christopher Reeve anchors this sinking ship with another strong performance as Superman and really sells the conflict Superman feels over if he should take an active role in disarming the world of Nuclear weapons. Gene Hackman is a good sport for once again playing Lex Luthor (also they probably paid him well) and the movie certainly picks up any time he's around, slinging his little one liners, usually at Lenny's expense. Jon Cryer, who was clearly cast to help the movie appeal to a younger audience, is suitably amusing as the dimwitted Lenny, although I can see how he would be annoying to others. Mariel Hemingway was a good choice as well as the Daily Planet's new publisher, Lacy. Her budding potential romance with Clark was nice and I liked their scenes together. Her character is inconsistent though. In her first scene she is established as a bit of a spoiled brat, but then suddenly isn't, which is likely a cause of all the vicious editing the film went through.  

Overall, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was an ambitious attempt to bring the Superman series back to respectability after the disappointing third film only for it to be cut off at the knees and fall on it's face as it managed to create a film that was somehow even worse. It's an absolute trainwreck of a movie and you know you should look away but, you know, morbid curiosity...

Friday, March 25, 2016

Superman III














With Superman II being another big hit, it was a given that there would be a third entry, once again produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, with Richard Lester returning to direct and a screenplay by David and Leslie Newman would result in a decidedly mixed third outing, with the tonal problems that plagued the previous film return for this one, Superman III.

Gus Gorman (played by Richard Pryor) is a down on his luck man trying to find a job worthy of his time. After deciding to take a class in computer programming and discovering he has a talent for it, he is able to quickly land a job with Metropolis based corporation, Webscoe. Unsatisfied with his current pay, he reprograms the company computer to redeposit the fractions of cents normally rounded off into another account he set up (a plot point memorably referenced in Mike Judge's Office Space). This catches the attention of CEO Ross Webster (played by Robert Vaughn), who decides rather than fire Gus, he will use his computer talents to his advantage in a bid to rule the world financially. Meanwhile, Clark (played by Christopher Reeve) returns home to Smallville and reunites with fellow classmate Lana Lang (played by Annette O'Toole). Sparks begin to fly between the two as a small romance begins to kindle. When Superman interferes with Webster's attempts to corner the coffee market by manufacturing a huge storm in Colombia, he sets Gus on having the Webscoe labs synthesize some Kryptonite (since they can't find any of the real thing), but the synthetic stuff doesn't have the same impact and instead turns the Big Blue Boy Scout bad. With Superman out of the way, Webster, along with his sister Vera (played by Annie Ross) and girlfriend Lorelai Ambrosia (played by Patricia Stephenson), sets out to create a monster supercomputer that will allow him to gain the global control he desires as Gus finds his loyalties tested. Superman will have to battle his inner dark side to get back to the side of good to be able to stop Webster once and for all.  

This third film in the Superman series is perhaps even more dyslexic tonally than the previous film as it veers from slapstick routines to dark moments, such as an evil Superman trying to make the moves on a confused Lana even though both know he is desperately needed elsewhere. In fact, it is all the gags that work against the more serious and action based aspects of the film, especially the very long and drawn out opening comedy routine that opens the film as we move from one pratfall to the next (although the bit with Superman changing in the photo booth was cute, stopping to take the strip of photos and taking all but the last one, giving the last one to a nearby kid. Fun fact: that kid played the young Clark that emerged from the rocket at the beginning of Superman.). Likewise, the script is fairly thinly written, with only the character of Clark Kent/Superman getting any real attention. Richard Pryor is left adrift in the movie, doing the best he can with a thinly written character (I'd love to be fly on wall of the production meetings just to see who it was that first said, "You know what this movie really needs? Richard Pryor!"). Now don't get me wrong, the guy does the best he can with what he's given, but Pryor was always at his best when he was the guy stirring the pot. Gus is an innocent, naive guy who gets in over his head. There's not much there that plays to Pryor's strengths.

The movie isn't all bad though. Christopher Reeve and Annette O'Toole have some genuine chemistry with one another and their scenes are great. It was a refreshing change of pace from the other Superman films and also to have Lana falling for Clark, rather than Superman. Christopher Reeve also does well as the Evil Superman and the climactic showdown in the junkyard, where Evil Superman and good Clark Kent split entirely into two different people and have a throw down right there until finally Evil Superman is destroyed and Clark emerges as good Superman is a highlight of the film. The climactic showdown between Superman, the supercomputer and Ross and Vera Webster is a plenty of fun, even if it is all a bit over the top. Also, I thought it was a nice touch that Lorelai only played being an airhead blonde while secretly being an intellectual.    

Overall, Superman III isn't a terrible movie, but it's not a particularly great one either. I'm still able to get some enjoyment out of it, but the sharp tonal shifts are still jarring to me and the film doesn't begin to compare to the high adventure stylings of the first two films, nor is it as satisfying overall. But it could be worse...as we found out that one time when Superman went questing for peace...

Superman II
















There is a long history to Superman II that dates back to the inception of the original film. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind decided not to make just one Superman movie, but two simultaneously. Since both films shared many of the same sets, the bulk of Superman II was shot at the same time as the first film by that film's director, Richard Donner. It was an ambitious, but also kinda brilliant gamble that nearly paid off. Except that shooting on the sequel was put off as the release date for the first film got closer and the focus shifted to completing that film with the plan that Donner would return and finish the second film as well. Except tensions between the Salkinds and Donner reached a boiling point and he was fired off the film and replaced with Richard Lester.  

The film begins with Lois (played by Margot Kidder) covering a terrorist attack on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. When Clark (played by Christopher Reeve) discovers this, he quickly switches to Superman and flies straight for Paris. Turns out the terrorists are planning to detonate a hydrogen bomb. Superman is able to rescue Lois, who in typical fashion managed to find her way right into the middle of the crisis, and get rid of the bomb, jettisoning it into space. However, the detonation of the bomb manages to break free three Kryptonian criminals, Zod (played by Terence Stamp), Ursula (played by Sarah Douglas) and Non (played by Jack O'Halloran) from their floating jail known as the Phantom Zone. They head straight for Earth with only one goal in mind: Conquer it and rule it themselves. The only man that can stand in their way is Superman.

In order for Richard Lester to get credit as director for Superman II, he had to shoot at least 51% of the film. His contributions to the film included the Paris opening scene, as well as shooting segments of the segment of the film where Lois and Clark are off in Niagra Falls covering a possible honeymoon racket. It's there that Lois finally starts to suspect Clark is Superman, a fact confirmed when he trips in their ridiculous honeymoon suite and his hand goes into the fire, but is not burned when Lois inspects it. He also reshot segments of the climactic showdowns between Superman and the Kryptonian trio both in Metropolis and later at the Fortress of Solitude. Of course, if you watch the film with this knowledge in mind, you can tell what Donner shot and what Lester shot because with the exception of the first scene, everything else was pretty much all gag based, very silly and slapsticky, which is disappointing and leaves the film disjointed. Also anything with Gene Hackman in it, who returns as Lex Luthor, was shot with Donner. It's not that the Richard Lester version is terrible, he even made some good additions to the film with the Paris opening and Superman's appearance in Metropolis to face Zod and his cronies, with his epic line, "General would you care to step outside" kicking off a genuinely thrilling climax. It's just that the film has a very uneven tone that hurts it a little. It also stings a little that Donner, who had created a genuinely magical first film, wasn't allowed to continue that vision and complete the second film. Well, at least not right away.

In 2001, as the original Christopher Reeve films were being restored to be released on DVD, Warner Bros. managed to unearth the Superman II footage. All the Superman II footage. As news of this discovery became public, petitions quickly began to circulate asking for a Richard Donner cut of Superman II be assembled and released. It wasn't until late 2005 and all legal rights about ownership of the footage was cleaned up that work began in earnest by editor Michael Thau. Slowly, but surely he was able to tempt Donner into helping with the cut with the director initially very hesitant to be involved, but by the summer of 2006 was completely involved. The film was completely restored and released on DVD in the winter of 2006, just in time for Christmas. 

The result was night and day. The Richard Donner version was almost a completely different film. Tighter, faster paced and more consistent with the first film. It also had a completely new opening that ties directly in with the first film. Rather than a hydrogen bomb, it was the Hackensack, NJ bound nuke that Superman deflected into space that freed the Kryptonian trio. Following that is one of my favorite scenes in the Superman films as Lois, looking over her latest story and the pictures of Superman and then to Clark Kent starts to figure out who Clark really is. She then proceeds to draw a fedora and coat and tie over a picture of Superman to confirm it. There is just something about how Margot Kidder plays this moment that I absolutely love. Among the other alterations include all the Marlon Brando footage shot for Superman II had been restored, replacing the scenes in the Richard Lester version that had replaced Brando with Susanna York as Superman's mom to save having to pay Brando a second time. It's the smaller changes and the deletions of the more slapstick humor that makes the Donner cut the stronger film. The one downside is that the film repeats the ending of the first film with Superman turning back time. Now, the turning back time bit was always originally meant for Superman II, but when Donner and Mankiewicz realized they needed a stronger ending for the first film cannibalized their plans for the ending of the sequel intending to come up with a new ending when they resumed work on the sequel. Since that never happened and since Donner hated the Lester ending, we have a time turning reprise. I actually don't mind it personally and every time I watch it, I usually quip something along the lines of, "You gotta stop doing that Clark, you're gonna break something."

So, yeah, that became less a review of Superman II and more a look at the history of the film and the two very different versions. Of the two, I prefer the Richard Donner cut. I remember getting the DVD set for Christmas in 2006 from my mom and the first thing I did was watch the new cut of Superman II, feeling a chill as tears welled up in my eyes as the opening credits of the film ended with the words "Directed by Richard Donner" slamming into place as the theme music reached it's crescendo. It was an awesome moment. After it was finished and still now, I feel it's the better of the two films. I haven't even watched the Richard Lester film in several years. I may just have to check it out again, even if I'll wind up sitting there, wishing I was watching the Donner cut.     

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Superman














When I started this endeavour of rewatching all the Batman and Superman movies prior to the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this is the one I was looking forward to watching again the most. I just can't help but adore every bit of 1978's Superman. It may be too campy or too silly for some, but for me it is just the perfect Superman movie. 

The film begins at the very beginning, with Jor-El (played by Marlon Brando) placing his infant son in a specially built rocket ship designed to carry his son away from his doomed home planet of Krypton and across the galaxy to Earth. Upon his arrival there, his ship's crashing is witnessed by Jonathan and Martha Kent (played by Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter), who take him in as their own son, Clark Kent. We then flash forward to Clark as a teen (played by Jeff East), who is having trouble finding a place in the world. His world is rocked when his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Some time after that, he leaves his home, after making sure his mother will be looked after of course, and heads North to the Arctic. Using a special crystal packed in the ship by his father Jor-El (all Kryptonian technology is crystal based somehow. Whatever, it looks cool), He is able to create a piece of Krypton on Earth in a large structure dubbed his Fortress of Solitude. There, contained in a several crystals, are a series of recordings by Jor-El to his son. Clark remains there for several years as he learns from his father about both Krypton and Earth until he emerges as an adult (played by Christopher Reeve).    

Arriving in Metropolis, Clark lands a new job the newspaper The Daily Planet and has his first encounters with Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder), Jimmy Olsen (played by Marc McClure) and Perry White (played by Jackie Cooper). He strikes up a friendship with Lois as he deals with life in the big city for the first time. One night, Lois is supposed to take the Planet's helicopter on a quick ride to Metropolis airport to meet Air Force One. A freak accident just after taking off leaves the helicopter spiraling out of control before becoming perched precariously on the edge of the roof of the Daily Planet. Clark witnesses this from the ground and finally debuts himself to the world as Superman for the first time, saving Lois as she falls in an impressive mid-air catch and then moments later, catches the plummeting helicopter as well. Meanwhile, 200 feet below Metropolis is the scheming criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (played by Gene Hackman), taking residence in an abandoned subway station. Joining him are his faithful assistants Miss Teschmacher (played by Valerie Perrine) and the dimwitted but lovable Otis (played by Ned Beatty). He plotting the absolutely diabolical Crime of the Century. He intends to detonate a nuclear warhead square in the middle of the San Andreas fault, causing a massive earthquake and sending much of California into the sea and make his recently purchased, previously worthless, land much higher valued beach front property. He also has a second missile heading in the opposite direction, surmising that this newfound Superman won't possibly be able to stop both. It will be Superman's biggest challenge yet to manage to thwart Lex's scheme and keep California from being completely destroyed. 

There is something very charming about the first Superman movie to me. Director Richard Donner had a lot reverence for the source comics and the character as a whole and worked tirelessly to capture that on film with script writer Tom Mankiewicz, who was reworking previous scripts written by Mario Puzo and then later re-written by David and Leslie Newman. You can tell the filmmakers absolutely loved the characters and were having a great deal of fun bringing it all to the screen in a grand style. The film is brimming with fantastic action, brilliant special effects (and the ways they pulled them off, such as young Clark outrunning a passenger train are fascinating in their own right). All of this is capped off with the iconic score by John Williams, whose opening march may just be my favorite of all his compositions. 

The cast for the film is amazing. Christopher Reeve, who was unknown at the time, makes the role of Superman his own and was probably the role he will always be best known for. Gene Hackman makes a fantastic Lex Luthor and is clearly enjoying every minute of it, spouting off one-liner after one-liner as he has to deal with the screw-ups of the dimwitted Otis. He may even be my favorite Lex Luthor. Hackman just creates such a colorful character. Yes, he's a heartless psychopath, but there is just something endlessly amusing for me with the interplay between him and Ned Beatty as Otis as poor Miss Teschmacher looks on. Margot Kidder makes for a great Lois Lane as well, perfectly capturing the strong willed, independent and at times wreckless reporter who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the story. Although, her spelling skills are a bit dodgy, asking Jimmy in the space of a few minutes how to spell bloodletting, massacre and then further corrected by Perry that there is only one 'P' in rapist (Geez, Lois, what kind of horror story are you covering?!). Marlon Brando is decent as Jor-El, although he made no secret he took the role for the money alone and seems oddly sedate through the role. He works well, for the most part but it was never one that blew me away. 

Overall, I would call Superman a true classic. It has adventure, fantasy and a healthy dose of humor (the last one being something that seems to be bordering on verboten in today's DC Comic's films, which is a shame). It's a film that was made in the style of the classic Hollywood epics and with a lot of love for it's main character and the legacy he has had in our culture. It's a film that has never failed to put a smile on my face and what can I say, I just love every minute of it.     

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Dark Knight Rises


















The Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy comes to a close with the ambitious but somewhat flawed The Dark Knight Rises. Gotham finally meets it's reckoning in an epic finale that I actually found I enjoyed much more seeing it a second time and for the first time since it's theatrical release.

It's been eight long years since The Dark Knight and Gotham has mostly prospered in that time. Crime is low and the Batman has not been seen since the night Harvey Dent died. Dent is hailed as a hero, his vengeance driven crimes for the death of Rachel and his scarring were instead blamed on the Batman and Dent is a celebrated hero in Gotham. But Commissioner Gordon (played by Gary Oldman) has a heavy heart, weighed down by the guilt he feels over letting Batman take the blame. Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale), is living as a recluse in Wayne Manor, rarely seen by anyone but Alfred (played by Michael Caine). One night, during a charity event at the Manor, he stumbles on a woman named Selina Kyle (played by Anne Hathaway), who is snooping where she does not belong. Dressed as a maid, Bruce quickly deduces that she is in fact a thief, but allows her to escape. He realizes that in addition to his mother's pearls, she also stole his fingerprints off the vault keypad. She intended to sell them in exchange for a computer program that would erase her criminal record. The deal goes south and the men she was dealing with escape with Wayne's fingerprints. Turns out, they were needed to help pull off a raid at the Gotham Stock Exchange perpetrated by a group led by a real monster of a man named Bane (played by Tom Hardy). Bane is a mercenary for hire and former member of the League of Shadows. He is determined to finish what Ra's Al Ghul started. Step one, through a series of investments bankrupts Wayne Enterprises, allowing him to use his corporate cronies to gain control of the company and more importantly a nuclear fusion energy source Bruce Wayne had been working on. This energy source, if used incorrectly, could be used as a bomb with a blast radius of six miles. Using this device along with his own private army, Bane takes Gotham hostage. Now, Bruce Wayne needs to suit up for one last fight to face his toughest adversary, a man stronger and nastier than any he has encountered previously. 

That is just the broadest possible plot synopsis. There is a lot of things going on in this movie and I actually really rather dug the film as I watched it a second time. When I saw it in the theatre when it was first released, I think I was expecting a different movie. This movie is very much a sprawling epic. The scope is huge, dealing with the idea of someone taking over and essentially ruling a city that he allows to throw itself into chaos as he allows criminals to run rampant, patiently waiting for his bomb to go off. Bane was always an interesting choice of a villain for the closing chapter because in the comics he has always been a lesser villain. But it works and he turns out to be a worthy adversary for Bruce, brought wonderfully and frighteningly to life by a barely recognizable Tom Hardy. Bruce on the other hand has a nice character arc as he once again dons the cape and cowl even though at different points in the film both Selina and Alfred, who has always felt protective towards Bruce as if he were his own son, tell him he doesn't have to. It come down to does he do it because he feels it's his duty or has it come to a point where he is really enjoying it and wants to? Honestly, I think it's a bit of both. I also loved Selina Kyle being portrayed as a criminal trying to go straight and becomes an unlikely ally to Batman. I also liked the addition of young patrolman Blake (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who Gordon takes a shine to. 

The performances across the board are stellar as always. Christian Bale is relaxed and comfortable, giving a great performance as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Likewise, Anne Hathway makes a great foil for him that their interplay was some of the highlights for me. Gary Oldman was great as well as Jim Gordon, the moral compass of Gotham PD, as was Joseph Gordon Levitt as Blake, a young patrolman who becomes a protege to Gordon. Michael Caine is the film's MVP though, making the most of his few scenes as his practically begs Bruce not to put on the cape and cowl again, voicing his fears that he won't survive another go as the Batman. It's an absolutely fantastic performance. 

Christopher Nolan once again directs the film with an assured style, beautifully capturing both the big action sequences and smaller character moments. He shot a large chunk of the film in the IMAX format and the results are visually stunning to match the strong and ambitious storyline. He also wrote the film along with his brother Jonathan and the two crafted an impressive finale for their tale. There are a couple of nagging plot holes in the film that kind of make the film feel a little flawed. For example, I sure would love to know how Bruce Wayne managed to sneak back into Gotham after it was taken over by Bane and his gang. Hans Zimmer returns to score this film and once again turns in another magnificent score. What can I say, I just love that thumping Batman theme and it gets me going every time I hear it.          

Aside from a few nitpicks here and there, The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to a remarkable trilogy of Batman movies, unique entirely to themselves. While I wouldn't say it is better than The Dark Knight, it's still a fantastic piece of entertainment and they're not taking themselves quite as seriously this time either. So it has that going for it, which is nice.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Dark Knight

















It a rarity to have a sequel that is superior to the original, but in the case of The Dark Knight, that is exactly what we have. Picking up the themes of the original and carrying them forward, this follow-up explores the consequences that can come from standing up against evil can bring, not only towards the individual themselves but also their loved ones. With a rare intensity and dazzlingly good performances, this entry into the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy just may be a masterpiece.

The film opens with a daring mid-day bank heist perpetrated by a group of men in clown masks led by a mysterious man named The Joker (played by Heath Ledger). It turns out the bank was Mob owned and The Joker was stealing their money. This makes him a marked man by the various criminal organizations in Gotham, but rather than run and hide, Joker crashes their meeting and makes an intriguing offer, for half of their collective earnings he will do what none of the rest of them have been able to: Kill the Batman. Realizing that Batman has no sense of jurisdiction when he goes all the way to Hong Kong to aprehend a crooked accountant for mobster Sal Maroni (played by Eric Roberts), they eventually agree to The Joker's terms. Meanwhile, Batman (played by Christian Bale) is hunting The Joker, trying desperately to find the madman and teams up with District Attorney Harvey Dent (played by Aaron Eckhart) and Lt. Jim Gordon.   

This film takes the Superhero film and takes it up a notch, showing that it can be just a dark and gritty as crime drama. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan wrote the script with Christopher directing and the results are nothing short of impressive. The cast across the board is at the top of their game. Christian Bale's second go at the role of Batman is even better than the first. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over the role of Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes and brings a lot to the role, portraying a fiercely strong and independent woman. Aaron Eckhart brings a strong nobility in his turn as Harvey Dent. But the role that overshadows the rest is Heath Ledger's performance as The Joker. He's a character that is clearly insane and thoroughly unpredictable, which is what makes him truly scary. It's a memorable performance and a fantastic rendition of a character that I loved, even when I probably shouldn't have.

Overall, The Dark Knight raised the bar for the perception of what a comic book movie could be. It showed that it could be just as dark, bleak and intense as any crime thriller. It was the first comic book movie I saw where I felt like there were real stakes and maybe, just maybe, the good guys weren't going to win in the end. It's an intense and suspenseful film with a rich narrative. It's a fantastic accomplishment in the genre of comic book movies. The only downside is that since it's huge success, Warner Bros. has apparently decided that every one of it's DC Comics based films needs to be dark and gritty like this film, which frankly is not a one size fits all approach. But for this one, it fit it like a glove.  

Friday, March 18, 2016

Batman Begins

















After the catastrophe that was Batman & Robin, it was a long eight years before Batman would return to the silver screen. There were attempts to get a new film off the ground repeatedly, but nothing came to fruition. Finally, Christopher Nolan stepped up to create a unique and grounded vision of the Caped Crusader, starting the story over and rebuilding everything from the ground up with Batman Begins

Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale) is a man haunted by the night he witnessed both his parents being murdered right in front of him in an attempted robbery gone wrong. Traveling aimlessly around the world, trying to hide from his past and the world, he winds up meeting a man named Ducard (played by Liam Neeson), who sees potential in Bruce and offers to train him as part of an elite and secret crime fighting group known as the League of Shadows, led by a man named Ra's Al Ghul (played by Ken Watanabe). As Bruce trains with them and learns their ways, he gains the necessary skills he needs to fight crime, something he has been desperate to do since his parents died. Things take a turn when he learns the drastic and lethal measures the League takes in wiping out the criminal element. He is further horrified that they have set their next target as Gotham City, where Bruce Wayne grew up. Creating a diversion, Bruce flees and returns to Gotham, greeted by his faithful butler and guardian, Alfred (played by Michael Caine) as well as childhood friend and love interest Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes). He sets out in secret to create a persona to take on as he fights the criminal underworld that is causing his beloved city to fester and rot. He decides to use the image of the Bat, deciding it was time for the criminals to fear what he once did. Raiding the R&D department of Wayne Enterprises, Bruce Wayne is able to find many of the gadgets he needs with the assistance of Lucius Fox (played by Morgan Freeman), including an impressive all terrain vehicle designed for the military that Wayne adopts as the Batmobile. He also finds an ally with one of the few decent cops left, Jim Gordon (played by Gary Oldman). 

This film was a big breath of fresh air in the realm of Batman movies. Writer and Director Christopher Nolan, working with writer David S. Goyer, creates a world for Batman to exist in that is based entirely in reality. Basing the city of Gotham on Chicago (a novel touch, given the Mob heavy criminal element), the film feels more grounded and real than the previous Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films. In a way, that helps the movies by giving the audience more they can relate to, which the previous films always seemed to lean more towards the theatrical and fantasy. It's also a charge to see, finally, how Bruce Wayne got his start as Batman and his not entirely successful first attempts at it. Each time, he'd pick himself up, dust himself off and go back to Lucius, looking for another piece of equipment to help him out (and Lucius figures out what Bruce is really doing pretty quickly, seeing through his claims of trying out spelunking and base jumping). 

The film is also the first Batman movie to properly capture the relationship between Bruce and Alfred. Both Christian Bale and Michael Caine do a great job at capturing the deep love between the two as they give a sense of the lifelong history Bruce has with Alfred, who takes his job of looking after Bruce very seriously and proves to be his greatest ally in his latest crime fighting endeavor. The one area where the film falters for me is the relationship between Bruce and Rachel. While Katie Holmes is decent in the role, she pales in comparison to the heavyweight acting going on around her and for a love interest she has zero chemistry with Christian Bale. She's not awful or anything, but her role kind of falls flat when it should have had a feistiness or spikiness to it that another actress could have brought to it. 

Overall, Batman Begins is a solid effort and a strong opening chapter to what would be a trilogy of Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan. It took the Batman story seriously while grounding it in the real world and dropping the more fantastical elements to create a genuinely great film backed with an impressive cast. It ranks easily as one of my all time favorite Batman movies, and with good reason.   

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Batman & Robin





















I have a feeling that when I announced that I was revisiting all the Batman and Superman films in advance of the new film, people were waiting anxiously for me to get to this one. And why not? There is a certain joy in seeing a film critic rip into a bad movie. And let me tell you, this certainly is a bad movie. Hell, it isn't even a movie really. Rather, it's a $130 million dollar two hour toy commerical named Batman & Robin. Let's dig in, shall we?

Batman (played by George Clooney) and Robin (played by Chris O'Donnell) find themselves having to contend with Mr. Freeze (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger), who has been terrorizing Gotham stealing diamonds to fuel his freeze gun and the specially designed suit he wears to keep him cool (yeah, it didn't make much sense to me either). Meanwhile, in the Amazon jungle, Dr. Pamela Isley (played by Uma Thurman) is working on combining animal and plant DNA to create plants that are more defensive to man, I guess. Her work would have made more progress but her pesky boss (played by John Glover) keeps stealing her samples. Turns out he's using it to create a super soldier serum that she witnesses him test out on some poor sap, which quickly transforms him into a muscly rage monster referred to as Bane (played by Jeep Swenson). When said boss discovers she knows about his research, he quickly kills her by throwing her around the lab, dumping a bunch of her venom samples on top of her and watches as the earth below the broken floorboards inexplicably swallows her unconscious body. Some time later, she reemerges with bright red hair, a poison kiss and the ability to give off a powerful pheromone. She names herself Poison Ivy and heads off to Gotham City to confront Bruce Wayne, and Wayne Enterprises for their environmental impacts. Soon enough, her path crosses with Mr. Freeze and the two team up to take out Batman and Robin together. 

That's more or less the plot of this film. It is such a jumbled mess of a film as it tries to pack in subplot after subplot, with character motivations changing on a whim as the plot, or lack thereof, dictates. In addition to the above, we also have Alfred (played by Michael Gough) falling ill and his niece Barbara (played by Alicia Silverstone) hanging out as well. She eventually becomes Batgirl (raising the ire of anyone who read a Batman comic book, where Batgirl was actually Commissioner Gordon's daughter, Barbara, not Alfred's heretofore unmentioned niece). It also turns out Alfred has the same condition that afflict's Mr. Freeze's wife, who Mr. Freeze is working to find a cure, keeping said wife in suspended animation until he does, and once cured a less advanced stage of. Gee, will Batman convince Mr. Freeze to have a change of heart and save his poor beloved butler? Of course. Just as Batman and Robin will no doubt fall under the charms of Poison Ivy and find themselves fighting over her with one another. There's another plot point of Bruce Wayne refurbishing the city's Obervatory with a large telescope that looks rather a lot like Mr. Freeze's freeze ray. Gee, I wonder where the climax will take place. The whole movie is woefully predictable. The script is cobbled together from various plot points from the previous two films. Mr. Freeze is an even less tolerable version of The Penguin, spouting off cheesy one liners left and right (although, full disclosure, I did legitimately laugh when he froze a minion trying to talk to him while he was watching home movies and then quipping, "I hate it when people talk during the movie.") Likewise, Poison Ivy's origin is a cheap knock-off of Catwoman's from Batman Returns. Only, instead of having John Glover, one of the few actors I know of that can go over the top and still be quite entertaining, for the entire movie he is instead quickly killed off. Joel Schumacher and his creative team certainly created a visually interesting rendition of Gotham City, but they should have focused more on the story than the visuals. Of course the whole movie is designed with toys in mind. All the vehicles, the sets, the costumes. They even have Batman, Robin and Batgirl switch into new costumes for the climax for the sole purpose of that can now become a whole new set of action figures for the kiddies to beg Mommy and Daddy for. 

The acting is resoundly terrible all around. George Clooney is basically playing Clooney. There's no real sense of the Bruce Wayne we know left, probably because it didn't exist in the script to begin with. This is no longer a man keeping to the shadows. Nope, now he's making public appearances at bachelorette auctions for charity, betting on beauties with a Bat Credit Card ("Never leave the cave without it," he quips as I groan loudly. Yes, Batman has a Bat Credit Card. You read that correctly.). Remember my review for Batman Forever, when I admitted to my innocent little crush on Chris O'Donnell? Well, this movie damn near fucking killed it. Dick Grayson is a migraine headache of a character in this film and O'Donnell isn't able to soften it at all for much of the run time, constantly whining about how Bruce doesn't trust him and how he wants a car of his own (because "Chicks dig the car," he says as I groan again. I did a lot of groaning watching this movie.). Alicia Silverstone is similarly terrible as Barbara, who arrives at Wayne Manor under the pretense of being on break from school. Actually, she was expelled because, surprise, British Boarding Schools frown on pupils engaging in motorcycle street races apparently. Beyond that tidbit of characterization, she really has no identity in the movie, aside from whining about how she wants to take Alfred away from his life of servitude, despite the fact that Alfred was basically a guardian to Bruce when his parents died and is pretty much family. It's not worth getting worked up though as it is a plot point that is quickly dropped. Then we have the villains, led by a woefully mis-cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was paid a reported $25 million dollars to play Mr. Freeze, spouting off one bad one-liner after another but otherwise offering little to the film. Equally terrible is Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, doing everything but literally chewing the scenery. It's never boring, but it is so over the top and campy, it makes the 60's tv series look almost restrained.     

Overall, Batman and Robin is a trainwreck of a movie. It takes all the worst qualities of the previous film and makes them even worse. The cheesiness and campiness is right in the forefront, with bad performances from everyone in the cast. The entire movie is shamelessly designed to sell toys, which is something director Joel Schumacher actually confirmed when he apologized for the film. But, on the upside it has given us nineteen years of self-deprecating jokes from George Clooney about the movie (who seriously reconsidered what he wanted his film career to be after making it), so we have that going for us, which is great.       

Monday, March 14, 2016

Batman Forever

















If anyone is wondering why Batman Forever wound up being the way it did, they need only look to the public response to Batman Returns. Parents decried the previous film's mature subject matter and dark tone. As a result, Warner Brothers called for the next entry in the series to be decidedly lighter in tone. Once Tim Burton stepped down as director, they hired Joel Schumacher to take over, resulting in a candy colored, neon infused spectacle. 

For the third outing, Batman (played by Val Kilmer) finds himself contending with the psychotic Two-Face (played by Tommy Lee Jones), who is a former district attorney named Harvey Dent who went psychotic when he was injured in a tragic accident, leaving half his face horribly scarred. One tragic night, Two-Face and his cronies crash the local circus, threatening to blow up the stadium if Batman does not show. The show's family of trapeze artists, The Flying Graysons, try to intervene and get rid of the bomb, which is suspended in the middle of the stadium. They are tragically killed when Two-Face shoots out the rigging from underneath them and they all tragically fall to their death except the youngest son, Dick Grayson (played by Chris O'Donnell). Bruce Wayne agrees to take the young man in after the tragedy. Meanwhile, at Wayne Enterprises, the brilliant but unstable Edward Nygma (played by Jim Carrey) is working on a new invention that manipulates brainwaves. However, he finds a curious side effect of using the device increases his own intellect in the process. After being turned down for a research grant by Bruce Wayne, Nygma decides to strike out on his own and takes on the visage of The Riddler. He then teams up with Two Face to help raise capital to put his plan into action to put one of his devices in every home in Gotham to milk everyone's brain waves and in the process hopefully discover the identity of Batman. Also hanging around is psychiatrist Dr. Chase Meridian (played by Nicole Kidman), who finds herself quite attracted to Batman. 

While Batman Forever more or less follows from the two Tim Burton directed films (who remained on board as a producer), this is a very different film from pretty much the get go. There is a lot more humor this time around and the campy sensibility that ultimately derailed the next film starts to make it's appearence here. Of course, with Jim Carrey as one of the two villains, this was to be expected. If Warner Brothers wanted to lighten things up, they got what they wanted in spades. We've got two villains, played by Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, who have both dialed their performances up to eleven and are constantly trying to out crazy one another. It never becomes obnoxious or annoying, at least to me, but they are way over the top. Two Face in particular is far removed from his comic book counterpart and closer to Joker 2.0. On the other side of the coin, we have Val Kilmer in the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman. He doesn't do quite as well as Michael Keaton did in the role, but he's decent and manages to give a nice, grounded performance in a rather cartoonish film. Chris O'Donnell makes his first of two appearances as Dick Grayson who over the course of the film becomes Batman's sidekick Robin. He's decent in the film, even if the character can be a bit bratty at times and his determination to take out Two-Face for killing his family adds what emotional weight the film has and establishes some commonality with Bruce Wayne, who initially became Batman to avenge his parents murder. In the interest of full disclosure, it probably also helps that for the better part of the early to mid 90's I had a bit of a Chris O'Donnell crush, between this movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Scent of a Woman and is something that reignites any time I watch any of those films.  We also have Nicole Kidman as the tragically underwritten Chase Meridian, who basically exists to throw herself at Batman and/or Bruce Wayne and be a damsel in distress. I feel like they could have done more with her character and is kind of wasted in the final film, which is disappointing. 

Much has been made of Joel Schumacher as director, and by Batman fans specifically how bad of a director he is. I respectfully disagree, he can be quite good when the material suits him, with such directorial efforts as St. Elmo's Fire, The Lost Boys, Flatliners, and his John Grisham adaptations of both The Client and A Time to Kill being very good films. He certainly brought he own sense of style to the film and delivered a lighter, more kid friendly Batman movie, which is exactly what he was hired by Warner Brothers to do. Is Batman Forever a bad movie? Not really, it's just very different than the two films that preceded it. It's a fluffy confection as opposed to the meatier and more fulfilling previous films. It didn't work as well for others and that's fine. I still enjoy the film, but agree it could be better if it found a better balance between the humor and the more serious aspects to be something closer to the first Tim Burton Batman movie. But still, the nitpicks with this movie, especially the campy humor, would only carry over and be amped up even higher in the next movie, which has led to this one being lumped in with that trainwreck.

Overall, Batman Forever has a lot of nostalgia for me. It's the one I saw the most times growing up. I enjoyed it then and I still enjoy it now, even if the flaws are more apparent and it certainly does favor style over substance. But even in that context, maybe a little lightweight Superhero themed eye candy isn't so bad once and awhile.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Batman Returns




















As we wind up to the new release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I thought it might be fun to take a look back at the previous Big Screen incarnations of both Batman and Superman. I begin with Batman Returns because I already reviewed the original Batman earlier on this blog. This one I was curious to revisit as well, since it always left me a bit cold when I saw it when I was younger and I never quite warmed to it the subsequent times I saw it. It is certainly one of the darkest Batman movies, both literally and figuratively. I suppose one should expect that when you give Tim Burton carte blanche to make the movie he wants, with the writer of Heathers on scripting duties. But much to my surprise, I actually found myself enjoying it much more this time around.

It's Christmas time in Gotham city as a new villain, The Penguin (played by Danny DeVito) is plotting to reign terror down on Gotham City. His gang, the Red Triangle Circus gang, attack the annual tree lighting ceremony, causing a riot in the process. As Batman (played by Michael Keaton) and the police deal with the chaos, Penguin kidnaps prominent businessman Max Schrek (played by Christopher Walken) and blackmails him into helping him become a revered citizen of Gotham. Meanwhile, Schrek's secretary Selina Kyle (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), discovers that the power plant Schrek is trying to build would not so much generate energy as drain it from the city. When Schrek discovers her snooping, he pushes her out a window, intending to kill her. A series of cloth awnings breaks her fall though and she lands on the snowy ground, injured but alive. When she is awoken by a group of alley cats, she returns home and is clearly suffering a mental breakdown. She fashions for herself a vinyl catsuit, reinventing herself as the costumed villain Catwoman.

Viewing the film now as a mostly mature adult, I have to say I enjoyed the film a lot more than I did as a kid. While there were still some nitpicks to be had, on the whole I was able to appreciate the film's darker, more noir sensibility much more. Standing out for me was the burgeoning romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, while being at odds as their alter-egos Batman and Catwoman. Also playing better for me this time around was Penguin and Max Schrek's failed attempt to get Penguin elected Mayor during a recall election (although that may have to do with being able to draw parallels to the current Republican primaries circus. I mean Penguin is at least as vile and disgusting as Donald Trump, right?). Tim Burton imbues the film with a strong gothic sensibility matched with film noir style that gives the film a unique feeling all it's own. Likewise, screenwriter Daniel Waters adds a certain darker tone to the film that is unafraid to explore the deeper chasms of the characters that inhabit it, which is both a strength to the film. It is certainly a film that is made for adults and within that context, it's easy to see when I didn't dig it as much as a kid. The film manages to skirt the line between PG-13 and R fairly closely, with sexually suggestive dialogue and increased violence (Selina being pushed out the window leaps to mind as one example, there are others but they would be spoilers).  

Michael Keaton remains as one of the best people to play Batman in his second outing in the role, capturing the conflicted nature of Bruce Wayne better than any actor who has played the role before or since. Likewise, Michelle Pfeiffer plays the definitive Catwoman as far as I'm concerned and does a magnificent job portraying someone who is psychologically melting down as well as someone who is both sexy and dangerous. Danny Devito as Penguin is an inspired choice and gives a great performance, but I feel like they went too far with his character by making him too repulsive and too freakish. I never really feared him and more pitied him.  Maybe that was the point and Max Schrek was supposed to be the real villain, but this rendition of the Penguin remains the one big nitpick of the film in that I was just repulsed by him and that distracted from Devito's performance. I get why they made the choices they did, I just wish they hadn't. Christopher Walken, on the other hand, does another villainous turn and honestly, even at this point it was a role he could play in his sleep. He's basically playing Max Zorin from A View to a Kill again, just with longer hair. It's not a terrible performance by any means, it just didn't blow me away.

Overall, Batman Returns is a comic book film that was clearly made with adults and not kids in mind. While watching the film it becomes readily apparent why parents got into such an uproar over the film when it was released in 1992 and why McDonalds pulled the Happy Meal toys that were supposed to be associated with the film. But that doesn't mean it was a bad film, just one wasn't meant for, nor do I think kids would enjoy nearly as much as adults, at least if my experience is any indication.  

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane
















It's an increasingly rare treat to be able to go into a movie and only have the vaguest idea of what a movie is about. You have just enough information to entice you to check out the film and get the whole story. That was the joy of seeing 10 Cloverfield Lane. That's also what is going to make this review tricky because I want anyone else seeing the film to have that same experience. 

Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes after a bad car accident to find herself in an almost empty cell. Disoriented and freaking out, she is introduced to Howard (played by John Goodman). She immediately doesn't trust him despite the fact that he tells her he saved her life. It probably has something to do with the fact that she is handcuffed to a pipe on the wall. A little later, he brings her some food and tosses her the key to the handcuffs. It is revealed that Howard found Michelle in her car and brought her to his bomb shelter. With them is Emmett (played by John Gallagher, Jr.), who we find out helped Howard build his underground bunker. Howard explains to Michelle that when he found her, there was an attack starting on the U.S and he had no choice but to bring her there. The bunker is outfitted with a fully functioning kitchen, years worth of food, air filtration, a jukebox and a TV with plenty of DVDs and cassettes. Overall, it's a fairly sweet setup for the three to ride out the apocalypse together. The problem is Michelle is not convinced she can trust Howard or that what he is saying is true as she sets out to piece together what is really going on.

This movie was a tension filled thriller from pretty much the word go. I love how this movie played it's cards close to it's vest both in the actual film and in the marketing. As I watched the film I kept going back and forth wondering is John Goodman's character a good guy or not? A lot of that has to do with how well Goodman plays Howard. The guy means well and in his mind he's protecting these two other people from the dangers outside, or so he says anyway. You just never know if he's on the level or not. One moment, he seems subtly crazy and then in the next he's perfectly normal, rocking out to the jukebox and making fluffernutters. At the same time though, he is incredibly controlling with a strong temper and being stuck with someone like that in a relatively confined space you can just feel the tensions rise. Mary Elizabeth Winstead likewise does well in her role as a girl who was literally running away from her problems when she finds herself smack dab in the middle of an all new one. Her character has a nice arc when she realizes she is going to have to rely on herself to get out of this situation and is able to find the strength and wits to start putting together a plan for escape. 

The film is directed by Dan Trachtenberg and was apparently his first feature film. He does a dynamite job telling this story, finding new and interesting ways to shoot the bunker and the three people occupying it while at the same time slowly turning up the tension.  Part of that is that he keeps the film so grounded for the most part. Everything seems so tangible and real. We could see something like this happening and that plausibility only adds to the suspense the film generates. The film was written by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle and they do a fantastic job charting out this little tale with several hidden layers and surprises to be found in the movie, peeling back each layer at the exact right moment. It made for an absolutely riveting film. I also have to call out that I'm thankful they decided to drop the "found footage" format the first film had, as that technique has more than worn out it's welcome with me.

Overall, 10 Cloverfield Lane was a superior thriller focusing on only three characters. I should clarify that this really isn't a sequel to Cloverfield, at least not in any sort of true sense. It seems like producer J.J Abrams is going more of an anthology route with it with each film being a separate stand alone story with some thematic similarities. I'm curious to see how it all plays out. If it's anything like this one, I eagerly anticipate whatever comes next.