Wonder Woman


Gal Gadot takes aim at stardom.

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey, James Cosmo, Wolf Kahler, Alexander Mercury, Martin Bishop, Flora Nicholson. Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

In a world where superheroes are nearly all men, the superhero movie reigns supreme at the moment. Audiences of superhero fans – also mostly male – have been streaming to these films for more than a decade, buoyed by advances in CGI technology which enable the deeds and superpowers to be rendered to live action. It’s a great time to be a fanboy.

But what about the women? While it’s true there are not very many female superheroes at either of the two major comic book houses – DC and Marvel – compared to male ones, there definitely are some and there have been few female-centric superhero movies, the not-well-remembered Elektra being the last one back in 2005. The most iconic distaff super heroine – DC’s Wonder Woman – hasn’t had a movie of her own, until now. Although her TV series starring Lynda Carter in the title role is fondly remembered from back in the 70s, there was a certain element of camp to it that gave it less serious consideration – which in many ways was true of all superhero TV shows until recently. Now it’s different for this is the age of the super heroine.

Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) lives on an island of all female Amazon warriors. Her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) is reluctant for her daughter to be trained in the arts of war, although her aunt Antiope (Wright) trains her in secret, recognizing that Diana is destined for greatness. When Hippolyta finds out, she is furious and Diana becomes frustrated, chafing at the bit to learn how to fight from her aunt who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all Amazon warriors.

The world of Themyscira has been hidden from the world of Men and for good reason but all this comes to an end when a biplane carrying an American spy, Steve Trevor (Pine), splashes into the lagoon of Themyscira. The First World War is raging in Europe and when a German flotilla of ships chasing Trevor manages to find Themyscira, an all-out battle rages on the sands of their beach. They manage to defeat the Germans but at great cost.

Diana finds out more about the conflict and immediately recognizes the hand of Ares, God of War, in the insanity. Bound and determined to go and kill Ares and thus save the world, she gets reluctant but tacit approval from her mother to go. Diana reaches the London of 1919 and it is a confusing place to her. However, Trevor reports to the war council that Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) is planning on unleashing a new poison gas perfected by the mad Dr. Maru (Anaya) – who is known among the rank and file as Doctor Poison – that could turn the tide of the war. Sir Patrick (Thewlis), a Parliamentarian who alone seems to take Diana seriously, sends Trevor and Diana deep into Germany to find and destroy the factory manufacturing the poison gas.

Trevor and Diana are accompanied by three of Trevor’s operatives; Chief (Brave Rock), Sameer (Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Bremner). The five of them pass beyond enemy lines to witness the horrors of war and of the world of men firsthand. Diana’s sensibilities are thrown into disarray but she must put that all aside if she is going to save millions of lives. In order to do that however she is going to have to confront a god.

There has been much critical praise here with some critics stumbling all over themselves to label this a feminist superhero movie. I don’t really know how to react to that; part of me doesn’t think that the term “feminist” has a very strict definition to be honest. There are all sorts of feminists believing in all sorts of ideals. I imagine you could shoehorn Wonder Woman into a category that believes that women can be superheroes and just as badass as men can and I would be okay with defining this as a feminist film from that standpoint.

One thing positive I think the movie will do is dispel the Hollywood myth that women directors can’t do big budget action CGI films, James Cameron’s criticisms notwithstanding. Clearly Jenkins proves here that she can handle the many facets that go into a production of this magnitude and in some ways comes out with a product better than that produced by a number of Hollywood heavyweights. No longer can women directors be ghettoized into smaller more intimate films about love, feelings and empowerment which seemed to be all Hollywood – and indie producers as well – were letting women direct. Who wouldn’t want to see a woman handling a Star Wars film or a war epic after seeing this?

Gal Gadot is one reason the movie succeeds. She has always had screen presence in her supporting roles; here she proves that she has more than enough to tackle a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. She handles the fight scenes convincingly (not true for all A-list Hollywood men) but then again she actually served in the Israeli army, an organization that knows a thing or two about kicking butt. She also does well with the comic overtones during her fish out of water scenes in London. In fact, I wish there would have been more of this element to the film – Gadot is that good.

There is a lot to be said about the set design here. Everything is terrific, from the imaginative Themyscira sets (shot on the Amalfi coast in Italy) to the note-perfect London of the Great War era. The world we see may be fantastic but it is always believable and there is much to be said for that. The action sequences are also imaginatively staged with one exception and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie falls down on two fronts; first, that irritating theme music first introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. We hear it again and again in this film and quite frankly it makes me want to stick a power drill in my ear. Secondly, the climactic battle is a nighttime set everything but the kitchen sink battle royal between Diana, Ares, the German army and Team Trevor. There is a lot of flying debris and dimly lit action sequences. It’s overwhelming considering the CGI overkill and I thought it almost came from a different movie, although there is a distinctly femme point of view to how the scene is resolved and that, I must admit, was much appreciated.

There was much buzz surrounding this film, which was heralded as a different take on superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters in the DC Comics pantheon was finally getting her own live action big screen extravaganza and the film was to be directed by – *gasp* – a woman. Never mind that eight out of the ten producers are men as well as all five credited screenwriters; the glass ceiling has been shattered at last.

As any woman will tell you – well, not really. Certainly strides are made here and there is hope for the future as Marvel has a female superhero film (directed by a woman) in the pipeline and given its impressive box office receipts there is definitely going to be a sequel to this film and Jenkins is in line to direct it, although if she passes it will likely give another female director a chance to shine. This is to my mind the best DC comic book film not directed by Richard Donner, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan and certainly a huge step for the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to establish itself as a contender to Marvel.

This isn’t the greatest comic book superhero film ever. It isn’t even the best one being released this summer. However, it’s plenty good enough to be a worthy addition to one’s home movie library whether you are a feminist or a fanboy – or both. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive.

REASONS TO GO: Gadot is absolutely sensational in the title role. There’s enough action to make the film palatable to superhero fans but the different point of view will be attractive to those tired of the same old thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The climactic battle is a bit of sensory overload.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some superhero and war-related violence, some sexually suggestive content and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first female-directed film to have a budget over $100 million, the first female-directed film to have a $100 million plus opening weekend and currently holds the title as the female-directed film to earn the most box office revenue ever.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: The First Avenger
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Baywatch

 

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Suicide Squad


Wanna come out and play?

Wanna come out and play?

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Joel Kinnaman, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez, Jai Courtney, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Karen Fukuhara, Adam Beach, Kenneth Choi, Alain Chanoine, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Common, Jim Parrack, David Harbour, Shailyn Pierre-Dixon. Directed by David Ayer

 

There are those who maintain that a hero is nothing without a memorable villain to oppose him. That’s largely true; what would James Bond be without Blofeld, Holmes without Moriarty or Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader? We usually see things from the hero’s point of view but rarely do we get a glimpse into the world of the super villain.

Following the events of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, the American government is extremely nervous. What would happen, posits Amanda Waller (Davis) who works for a shadowy intelligence agency, if Superman had instead of saving the world decided to destroy it? Who would stop him? Waller has an idea, one that is magnificent in its simplicity and alarming at its utter amorality.

She “recruits” (i.e. forces) several super villains locked up in the Belle Reve black ops prison in the swamps of Louisiana to form up a team to take on certain situations which are essentially hopeless. Situations in which the superheroes that are out in public (which are essentially Batman (Affleck) and the Flash (Miller) at this point) shouldn’t be risked as they aren’t exactly expendable. These guys are exactly that. Waller knows that and at the same time, she knows they have nothing to lose by running. She has a solution that recalls The Running Man to a certain extent but absolutely doesn’t say anything particularly nice about the woman.

And who are these guys? For one, there’s Deadshot (Smith), an assassin for hire who never misses with any firearm you give him. Then there’s Harley Quinn (Robbie), the deranged ex-psychiatrist who is now the Joker’s (Leto) girlfriend but who is a formidable opponent of her own. Then there’s Diablo (Hernandez), a gang banger who can shoot flames in any direction but when his powers caused the death of his wife and son, is attempting to reform and has vowed to never use his powers again.

=Add to that list Killer Croc (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a horribly mutated man who is half man, half crocodile and eats people when he gets the chance. Then there’s Enchantress, a demonic spirit that has possessed archaeologist June Moon (Delevingne) and possesses incredible magic powers, Captain Boomerang (Courtney), an Aussie thief whose weapon of choice is a boomerang that he is absolutely deadly accurate with. Finally there’s Slipknot (Beach), whose ability to climb any surface makes him a useful scout.

Overseeing these representatives of the lunatic fringe is Captain Rick Flagg (Kinnaman), a Navy SEAL who just happens to be Professor Moon’s boyfriend – and who is himself tough as nails. Having his back is Katana (Fukuhara), a Japanese martial artist with an enchanted sword that captures the souls of its victims – which include her husband among their number. Katana is able to communicate with the spirits in the blade, including her late hubby.

They are battling a mystical opponent who wants to essentially open a rift in the dimension that will end civilization as we know it. The problem is that the Suicide Squad as they have come to be known as don’t really give a rat’s tush about civilization. If they can stop fighting amongst themselves, though, they might just come through of it alive. The odds are not good for either however.

Let’s be blunt to start out; the DC Extended Universe (what they call their cinematic division) has not had the kind of success that Marvel has and the critics have absolutely excoriated this movie. Now, I will be the first to say that DC’s cinematic path hasn’t caught on for a reason; in trying to duplicate the tone of the very successful Dark Knight trilogy of Christopher Nolan. You’ll notice that the Marvel cinematic universe is anything but.

But is this movie really that bad? I don’t think so…for one thing it’s entertaining as all get out. Ayers is a director who has a very fine eye and a well-developed story-telling sense. He also knows how important it is for there to be fun in the equation, and there’s lots of great by-play between the characters and a lot of humor injected into the script.

He also has a helluva cast. Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, has rarely been better than he is here. Yes, his Deadshot is one of the more developed characters in the film, but Smith gets to play a villain who has some human qualities as well (he’s absolutely devoted to his daughter, played by Pierre-Dixon for one). He also shows the kind of leadership skills shown by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe. The DC Universe sorely needs that.

Robbie has almost as much time in the movie as Smith and her Harley Quinn took a different path to the silver screen; Harley Quinn didn’t initially come from the comic books but from the television animated shows. She went from there to the comic books which she became something of an icon, particularly to female comic book fangirls. Robbie fills the role well; while some have groused that the character has been overly sexualized here (including Robbie herself), she turns in an intense performance, particularly since she has to go up against Oscar winner Jared Leto as her boyfriend/abuser the Joker.

Leto has been very vocal in his disappointment about what the role turned out to be, and in all fairness the Joker was never supposed to be a central character here. However, it stands to reason that you can’t really have Harley Quinn with Mr. J; it doesn’t work. His take on the Joker is a lot different than that of Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger or even Cesar Romero. Not better, not worse, just different. I liked Leto’s Joker just fine; he’s supposed to be unpredictable and Leto certainly makes him that. He isn’t nearly as menacing as Ledger’s Joker, nor as twisted as Nicholson’s. However, this Joker is wilder, more untamed than either. It is a good interpretation.

There are a lot of special effects, particularly involving the mystical vortex thingy that the Big Bads are creating. There are an awful lot of trans-dimensional vortices in superhero movies as of late and as those sorts of things go, this one is no worse nor any better than most. It just isn’t all that impressive; neither are most of the practical effects. Also, there are moments when the plot gets a little bit, ahh, thick. I found it a touch confusing at times and perhaps more casual comic book fans might feel the same.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the heck out of the movie. These really aren’t the A-list of DC villains (although the Joker is present) but some of the mid-level guys. Quinn and Deadshot both look like slam-dunks coming back for more cinematic superhero goodness. And all things considered, this didn’t do the DC Extended Universe better; it might well be the best of the three that have appeared so far, at least in my book. However, it still isn’t slam dunk enough to really elevate the franchise into a place where I’m actually excited about it. Maybe Wonder Woman will bring that to the game.

REASONS TO GO: There is excellent interaction between an excellent cast. Smith is at his very best here. Brings some of DC’s lesser villains to light.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are unimpressive. The story is occasionally confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, plenty of violence and superhero action, some sexually suggestive material and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harley Quinn’s baseball bat was given to Kevin Smith to thank him for hosting the TV special Dawn of the Justice League shortly before this film came out.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deadpool
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gleason

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice


The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Brandon Spink, Lauren Cohan, Mark Edward Taylor, Michael Shannon, Ripley Sobo, Sammi Rotibi, Michael Cassidy, Harry Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Kevin Costner, Soledad O’Brien. Directed by Zack Snyder

I really wanted to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really, really did. I was hoping that this would set up the DC cinematic universe in the same way Iron Man set up Marvel’s. I was hopeful that there is room in the multiplex for competing comic book universes, just as there are on the newsstands. I was hoping for something that would make me eager to see more. Instead, I got this.

In the aftermath of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has gotten a mad on about Superman (Cavill). His Metropolis headquarters of Wayne Enterprises was destroyed during the battle with General Zod, although at the time he has no idea what’s going on and who is good and who is not. Friends of his die literally before his very eyes in a kind of 9-11 redux.

18 months later, the U.S. government isn’t quite sure how to handle Supes. Sure he comes in to save the day but often people die and buildings crumble as a result. After he rescues Lois Lane (Adams) from a terrorist cell which ends up with U.S. soldiers dead, Kentucky Senator Finch (Hunter) is calling for Superman to have some sort of oversight.

In the meantime, plots are afoot; Batman/Bruce Wayne is out to take our Superman once and for all; he’s too big a threat to be allowed to run free. However, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) has some plans of his own – and they involve the corpse of General Zod (Shannon) and keeping the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight at each other’s throats.

This is a very bare-bones explanation of the plot and doesn’t take into account all the little subplots that go on, some of which have to do with setting up the DC universe – and we get brief cameos of superheroes who have movies come out in the near future – although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) has a more extensive presence in the film.

The premise is a fascinating one – what responsibility do superheroes have to the general public that they’re trying to protect, and should there be oversight to their actions. It’s a theme that we’re going to see once again this summer in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which will divide the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I suspect we’ll get a thumping good storyline from the Russo Brothers who did so marvelously with their own superhero films, Snyder displays his Michael Bay tendencies and turns this into a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to go see this, mind you. Affleck, the subject of much Internet fanboy venom, actually turns in an outstanding performance as Batman – maybe the best ever. Christian Bale always made, in my opinion, a better Batman than Bruce Wayne; Affleck carries both aspects of the character nicely.

I do appreciate that there is a larger-than-life quality to the film. While it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, it does give us an idea that the events we’re witnessing are changing the world that the movie exists in. There are some definitely epic battle scenes between Batman, Supes and a to-be-named supervillain who shows up in the third act as a kind of special surprise guest.

But the movie is sooooo dark, both literally and figuratively. Nearly all of the movie takes place at night, particularly when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and Bruce Wayne dons his cowl which I don’t necessarily mind; it’s the tone which gets to be more of a problem for me. Snyder did a magnificent job with Watchmen which needed this kind of darkness but here it becomes almost burdensome. Both Batman and Superman are supposed to stand for something good, but they are almost as bad as the villains, often caring little for lives of people who aren’t necessarily close to them. Batman aims to kill Superman which doesn’t seem to be in character with someone who had forsworn lethal force; Superman also shows little compunction in sending non-combatants to their early graves.

Another misstep was casting Eisenberg as Luthor. One of the hallmarks of Lex Luthor in the comic books is that he’s completely ruthless, but clearly brilliant. He often has plans within plans, schemes that aren’t so easily discernible. He is nothing like the tic-heavy loon that Eisenberg plays, unable to complete a single thought when giving a speech at a charity ball. If Luthor is completely insane, he should at least be lucid and Eisenberg plays him as the unholy offspring of Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Palin.

The pace is ponderous and at two and a half hours long, the movie gets a little bit monotonous. How many times can you see a building reduced to rubble before you start yawning? Maybe I’m a little jaded here, but shouldn’t superhero battles be more than just throwing people into masonry and punching their way through walls?

There are enough positive elements here to recommend the film somewhat, although I have to say that I was disappointed with it overall. I was hoping for something that would inspire me to submerge myself in a new cinematic universe but now I have almost no desire to see any of the ten or so films that are scheduled to follow this one, particularly if they are directed by Snyder who showed an absolute leaden touch here. I hope Suicide Squad can redeem the series and bring back some anticipation for the following movies, although at the moment I wonder if DC can bounce back from a debacle which may fill their coffers for the moment but long-term will render it much more difficult to get the attention of fans the same way Marvel has been able to.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is a terrific Batman. Some spectacular battle sequences. A definite epic quality to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and often hard to follow. Too bloodthirsty. Eisenberg as Luthor was a colossal mistake.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of superhero violence, and some suggestive scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gal Gadot is the first non-American actress to appear as Wonder Woman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern

Red 2


Helen Mirren takes aim.

Helen Mirren takes aim.

(2013) Spy Comedy (Summit) Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, Mary-Louise Parker, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Byung Hun Lee, Neal McDonough, Catherine Zeta-Jones, David Thewlis, Brian Cox, Tim Pigott-Smith, Garrick Hagon, Jong Kun Lee, Steven Berkoff, Philip Arditti, Mitchell Mullen, Martin Sims, Tristan D. Lalla, Nathalie Buscombe. Directed by Dean Parisot

That pesky Internet. Just when you think you’ve found peace and quiet in a suburban retirement far from the stresses of your job, WikiLeaks goes and publishes a document that links you to a CIA plot back in ’79 to smuggle a WMD into Moscow. Now you can’t even shop at Costco without having wackos taking a shot at you.

That’s just what happens to Frank Moses (Willis), once the CIA’s most skilled assassin but now enjoying his golden years with his new lady Sarah (Parker). In fact, he is shopping at Costco with his somewhat bored Sarah when they are accosted by Marvin (Malkovich), Frank’s twitchy partner (you’d be twitchy too if you were fed LSD every day for several years) in the power tools aisle.

He lets Frank know that the two of them have been linked to some operation called Nightshade that neither one of them can remember and now it looks like there’s a big nasty storm headed in their direction. Turns out he’s right.

It also turns out going on the run with assassins – including Han (Lee), the world’s best – after them is just the kick in the pants Frank and Sarah’s relationship needs. Of course having homicidal Victoria (Mirren), one of the finest killers-for-hire there is – on your side doesn’t hurt. Frank and his crew will need to break Dr. Bailey (Hopkins) out of jail, never mind that he’s supposed to be dead. Oh, and the CIA has sent Jack Horton (McDonough) to see that Frank is captured and interrogated none to gently and it turns out Han has a personal grudge against Han and all Frank wanted to do was get a new barbecue grill.

Movies like this need to be lighthearted and Parisot uses an undeniably light touch. Maybe too light – the movie is almost devoid of weight like it was filmed on the International Space Station using elaborate sets to make the audience think it was completely earthbound. There’s no substance here – and there isn’t required to be – but the lack of it might turn those who want a little meat with their mousse off.

Willis excels at these kind of roles these days, the weary hero. If you’ve seen his last three Die Hard movies you’ll know what I mean. He is a bit grumpy and a bit smart alecky but when the rubber hits the road the man is still one of the best action stars in Hollywood. Some might sniff that he’s playing the same part he has for 30 years but then again that’s true for most of the actors in Hollywood in one way or another.

Mirren steals the show though. She’s got that patrician look and accent and when she pulls out a big effin’ gun, she looks so gleeful it’s hard not to feel a surge of the same emotion yourself. She has some interesting byplay with Parker, who is a lot better here than she was in the first movie where she was a bit overwrought. She goes more subtle here and it works better.

Lee is impressive; I’m hoping that we see more of him in similar roles. With most of the great martial arts action stars aging, it’s nice to know that there are some guys ready to step in and fill the void. Malkovich, of course, is Malkovich. He does what he does

The first Red was fun, unusual and unexpected. While its sequel retains much of the first quality, it lacks the second two. Still, there’s enough of that one quality to allow the audience to have a pretty good time at the movies. It may be disposable, but sometimes that’s just what you need.  

REASONS TO GO: Mind-numbing fun. The cast is a hoot.

REASONS TO STAY: Exceedingly lightweight. Has lost its novelty.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action of the gunplay variety, some car chase property destruction, a little crude language and some drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hopkins and Cox have played Hannibal Lecter in the movies.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100; the critics weren’t so enamored of this one but at least they didn’t hate it.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Losers

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Back to the Future Part III

Man of Steel


I believe I can flyyyyyy...

I believe I can flyyyyyy…

(2013) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Antje Traue, Harry Lennix, Richard Schiff, Christopher Meloni, Ayelet Zurer, Dylan Sprayberry, Cooper Timberline, Richard Zetrone, Mackenzie Gray, Samantha Jo, Christina Wren. Directed by Zack Snyder 

 

Look! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! It’s a flying guy in blue tights! Superman is an iconic figure not only in pop culture but it can be argued in American literature as well. He represents the American ideal – powerful, invulnerable and unstoppable but just and fair as well. He was our self-image, America in the post-war years. One strong man against the world.

But times have changed and Supes has fallen out of style in favor of  the darker superheroes, particularly Batman. The optimism and idealism of Superman seemed to be something of an anachronism when the successful superheroes were brooding damaged men who faced demons who ravaged their souls. They may have superpowers but they have crappy lives just like us.

Resurrecting Superman in a film form was a daunting task. Superman Returns back in 2006 was considered a failure, unable to make back its pretty steep production and marketing costs at the box office. The studio assigned Zack Snyder, maker of 300 and Watchmen to take the reins of the property and hired Christopher Nolan who made the Batman franchise one of the most profitable for Warner Brothers as an executive producer (and co-writer of the script along with David Goyer). The execs at DC Comics and Warner Brothers were fully aware that while they’d had success with Batman, none of their other comic book properties had taken off yet and with Marvel essentially printing money with every film release, DC knew that they need to get in on that action and have a superhero hit that doesn’t have Batman in it.

Krypton is dying. Jor-El (Crowe) knows it as does his friend Zod (Shannon), general of Krypton’s military. The dithering High Council of Krypton doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of their situation so Zod acts by attempting a coup. In the chaos, Jor-El steals the Codex, a genetic directory of Krypton and downloads it, sending his infant son – the first naturally born Kryptonian in centuries – in a rocket headed for an obscure system orbiting an unimportant star. Zod is sent to the Phantom Zone along with his followers, chief of whom is Faora (Traue), after the coup fails leaving Jor-El murdered by Zod. Lara (Zurer), Jor-El’s wife and mother of the infant Kal-El (now rocketing to Earth) can only wait helplessly for her world to end, which it does in spectacular fashion.

The infant lands in Kansas and is raised by farmers Jonathan (Costner) and Martha (Lane) Kent. Realizing quickly that this boy is not only from somewhere else, he is possessed of great powers – x-ray vision, super hearing, heat vision, super strength and the ability to fly. Pa counsels young Clark (which is what they renamed Kal-El) to hide his powers from a world that was clearly not ready for them and although it involves a lot of soul-searching, loneliness and turning the other cheek, Clark complies.

Now grown to manhood Clark (Cavill) wanders around, doing odd jobs and flying below the radar. His father, who passed away some years before, would definitely approve but Clark is haunted by questions of who he really is and where he comes from. The only clue he has is a black object, with a stylized “S” on it.

Clark’s wanderings take him to the arctic where the government has found an ancient craft buried under the ice that has been there about 20,000 years. Reporter Lois Lane (Adams) has successfully sued for access, much to the chagrin of Colonel Hardy (Meloni) who is the military commander on the project, and Dr. Hamilton (Schiff), the scientific chief. Lois spies Clark walking in the Arctic ice apparently in jeans and a t-shirt in the frigid weather. Intrigued, she follows him and finds a recently melted hole (heat vision comes in handy). A protective robot attacks Lois but Clark saves her and delivers her to a place near the base where she can be attended to. In the meantime Clark discovers a keyhole which his object fits into. This brings out a holographic projection of his father who tries to explain to him who he is and what his hopes are for him.

It also sets off a beacon which brings back Zod looking for the codex and revenge. Having escaped the Phantom Zone during the destruction of Krypton, they make a beeline for some of Krypton’s abandoned deep space military outposts and are well-armed with advanced weapons and ships, and have all the powers that Kal-El possesses. Can Superman save the day?

The movie has been (depending on the source) decried or embraced as dark, and that’s absolutely true. How you’re going to react to it depends entirely how tied in you are to the Superman mythology; this is certainly no cream puff Clark. He kicks ass (more on that later) but this isn’t your father’s Superman, or your grandfather’s. This is a reinvention of the character for modern sensibilities, for better or for worse. I suspect older audiences are going to have a harder time reconciling this Superman with the one they grew up with than younger audiences are.

Cavill is given the ball in this movie and he runs with it. Superman is by nature a polite, gentle soul who happens to have the ability to throw a tanker truck like you and I would toss a Frisbee. Cavill captures that side of him. Peter Parker in another film was told with great power comes great responsibility but what if you have the powers of a God? How much more responsible do you have to be? The answer is exponentially more. It is a difficult thing to determine what is just and what is not when you literally have unlimited powers and that’s really the crux of Man of Steel.

Of course, there’s a whole lot of stuff getting blowed up real good.  The last 45 minutes of this more than 2 1/2 hour film are of big battles in Smallville and Metropolis to the point that I wondered “Who’s going to clean this mess up?” as the skyline of the latter undergoes a radical transformation. While the battles are pretty thrilling, there isn’t a whole lot of variety to them and they get old fast. These are definitely scenes that could have been trimmed.

It’s very easy to get caught in the trap of comparing Man of Steel to those that preceded it. I was going to write that the chemistry between this Lois and Clark isn’t as profound as that between Margo Kidder and the late Christopher Reeve (which is true) until I realized that I’m not here to review Superman: The Movie; that’s a whole different film experience than this. It isn’t fair to either film to compare them, even though the story is pretty similar (more so to Superman 2). In any case, if you go to the multiplex expecting something like the 1978 classic, you’re going to leave the theater disappointed.

The filmmakers have gone on record that they hope to use this as a jumping off point to create a shared DC Universe in much the way Marvel has created a shared film universe. Already there is a sequel to Man of Steel on the way and talk is it will be followed soon after by a Justice League film. I hope so. The DC Comics tradition is rich and has some amazing stories to draw on. Man of Steel isn’t a groundbreaking film by any means but it is an entertaining one and the box office numbers indicate that there are a lot of other people who think so as well. I look forward to see what comes of it.

REASONS TO GO: Good performances top to bottom. Epic scope befitting an icon.

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Fight sequences repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, destruction and mayhem on a mass scale as well as some brief language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cavill had become notorious for having other actors selected ahead of him for franchise roles, including Daniel Craig for Bond, Christian Bale for Batman, Robert Pattinson for Edward Cullen and Brandon Routh for Superman Returns before finally breaking through.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100; critics are very divided over this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Beneath the Darkness

The Dark Knight Rises


 

The Dark Knight Rises

Bane and Batman work on their ballroom dancing skills.

(2012) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Morgan Freeman, Matthew Modine, Cillian Murphy, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Burn Gorman, Ben Mendelsohn, Nestor Carbonell, Chris Ellis, Reggie Lee. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

The world needs heroes. We latch onto them whether or not they deserve our admiration or not – and some of them do. However, heroes are often shaped by the perception given us by the media and by the powers that be. One man’s hero, in other words, is another man’s villain – and vice versa.

Eight years after the events of The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Bale) a.k.a. Batman sits in isolation in Wayne Manor. Injured in his final fight with the Joker and with Harvey Dent, the Batman has been branded an outlaw for his role in the events of that film. Wayne is in a deep depression and despite the efforts of his faithful butler Alfred (Caine) remains so. There is no need for Batman, as legislation enacted in the aftermath of those events has helped the new police commissioner Jim Gordon (Oldman) clean  the city up. Gordon is assisted by Detective John Blake (Gordon-Levitt), a cop who believes in Batman and thinks that something stinks about his current outlaw status. Gotham is at peace and looking to the future at last.

However for figures like the Batman, the world has a way of preventing them from remaining on the sidelines for too long. A sexy catburglar named Selena Kyle (Hathaway) – who goes by the name of Catwoman – has robbed Wayne Manor of the string of pearls Bruce’s mother was wearing the night she was murdered, along with something more subtle – and dangerous to Bruce and those around him. Arriving in Gotham as well is Bane (Hardy), a masked terrorist of terrifying strength and an agenda that makes it sound like the French Revolution is coming to Gotham.

Bruce is struggling to keep his company out of the hands of the rapacious venture capitalist Daggett (Mendelsohn) who is after some technology developed by Lucius Fox (Freeman) that might prove devastating in the wrong hands. On his side is Miranda Tate (Cotillard), a European CEO who is on the same page as Bruce and Lucius. However, the attacks on Gotham and Wayne Enterprises are linked with each other and both have their roots sunk deeply into Bruce Wayne’s past. Bane is much more malevolent than even this and what he has in store for Gotham is nothing less than a full measure of reckoning.  Could this be the end of Batman?

Well, it certainly is the end of this phase of Batman. Nolan has made it clear that this will be the last Batman movie under his stewardship and there’s no doubt that Warner Brothers and DC aren’t thrilled about his departure. Nolan revived the character as a viable franchise

Of course, that isn’t all Nolan’s doing. Bale will go down in history as the definitive Batman much as Sean Connery is the definitive Bond. Bale captures the brooding nature of the character (which none of the other screen versions had fully been able to portray) while reminding us of his brilliance at figuring things out. Batman is the ultimate superhero strategist and we see that side of him here.

Some have criticized Bane as being too one-dimensional but I disagree. Bane is a very complicated character not unlike a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces you don’t have until the very end. It takes a bit of patience but once you kind of get him you realize Hardy is doing a tremendous job with him, considering he is mostly acting with his eyes as his face is masked and his voice distorted. Those who can’t see anything deeper aren’t looking hard enough.

There are those who will look at this as a social commentary of some sort and to be honest, Nolan’s movies often are. Bane might be thought of as the sort of epitome of the Occupy movement, blaring one solipsism  after another proclaiming the rights of the people over the evil powers that be. However, that would be a simplistic interpretation. Quite frankly, the movie is our worst nightmares about the economy come to pass; a morality play about how easily economic chaos can lead to physical chaos. It’s certainly a cautionary tale.

For me, the heart and soul of this particular movie isn’t so much Batman as it is Alfred. I was a little surprised Caine took the part initially and this movie might well be one of the crowning achievements of his distinguished career; it’s not a large part but it’s the soul of the film and Caine delivers one of the most emotional performances I can ever remember. I just hope the Academy remembers him when the nominations start to come out next year.

If the question is whether or not this measures up to The Dark Knight, then the answer is a resounding yes. If the question is whether the movie is as good or an improvement on The Dark Knight, then I’d say that it is close but not quite as good. Hardy is terrific as Bane and Hathaway makes a sexy but savvy Catwoman but neither of them delivers the good quite as well as the late Heath Ledger did as The Joker. Batman needs an opponent at least as clever as he is and Bane isn’t quite to that level.

This is as good a summer movie as you’re likely to find out there, one which takes the gauntlet thrown down by The Avengers and answers the call. We are quite fortunate to have a summer in which the superhero movies have been as uniformly excellent as this year has been; hopefully that will set the bar for summers to come.

REASONS TO GO: A fitting end to a great movie trilogy that sets the bar high for future superhero movies. Well-orchestrated plot. Hardy and Hathaway make terrific villains; Bale is the definitive Batman and Caine gives an Oscar-worthy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Very dark in nature, maybe the darkest superhero film ever which might be too much for younger audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of comic book violence, some of it a little bit more realistic. There is a bit of simulated and implied sex, and a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Christian Bale becomes the first actor to play Batman in three live action films (Kevin Conroy has played the role seven times but all in animated features).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 2

FOOTBALL LOVERS: The football sequence was filmed at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. The kick returner was played by real life NFL star Hines Ward, who in the movie plays for the Gotham Rogues.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: An Unreasonable Man

Green Lantern


Green Lantern

Peter Sarsgaard discovers that a major supporting role in a franchise film can lead to a big head.

(2011) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Michael Clark Duncan, Geoffrey Rush, Tim Robbins, Angela Bassett, Jay O. Sanders, Temeura Morrison, Jon Tenney, Taika Waititi, Clancy Brown, Salome Jens, Warren Burton. Directed by Martin Campbell

The obvious and cheap line is that it isn’t easy being green. The Green Lantern is one of the most powerful figures in the DC comic book universe but never gets the respect or love of the heaviest hitters for the brand. In fact, none of the DC heroes other than Batman and Superman have found much success on the big screen, and this movie looked to finally get the DC brand on the same track that the Marvel brand has been on for more than a decade. Did it succeed?

Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is a cocky test pilot for Ferris Aviation. He has had an on-again, off-again (at the moment, off-again) romance with Carol Ferris (Lively), the daughter of CEO Carl Ferris (Sanders) and Not a Bad Pilot Herself. Jordan is a bit of a screw-up, one who has alienated his brothers (but not his nephew who idolizes him) and has just messed up a potentially lucrative government contract that has been ushered through by Senator Hammond (Robbins) by defeating some robotic drone aircraft that were thought to be unbeatable by violating the rules of engagement, a real no-no.

Meanwhile, out in the universe, the Guardians of Oa, a blue-skinned Yoda-like race, have created the Green Lantern Corps, a sort of cosmic Interpol. Each Green Lantern derives his power from the green light of willpower, which is channeled through their ring and allows them to convert thought to matter. They are given a sector of the universe to patrol.

One of their greatest warriors, Abin Sur (Morrison) once captured a being called ‘Parallax (Brown) who operates on the yellow power of fear. When Parallax is accidentally set free, he annihilates entire worlds in order to get at Abin Sur. The two battle and Abin Sur, mortally wounded, heads to the nearest planet – you guessed it, Earth – to pass on his ring to a worthy successor. Can you guess who the ring finds?

Jordan is summoned to Oa to train with Tomar-Re (Rush), a bird-like alien and Kilowog (Duncan) a hulking creature that looks like it eats Bigfoot for breakfast. However Sinestro (Strong) doesn’t hold out much hope that the human can overcome his own shortcomings to defeat Parallax who is on his way to wipe out Earth.

The reason Parallax – now kind of an octopus made up of brown smoke with a skull for a head – is making a bee-line for our world is that scientist Hector Hammond (Sarsgaard) has been infected with some of Parallax’s residual fear energy and has become something of a big-skulled big-brained villain who has the hots for Carol Ferris and a big time jealous rage over Hal.  

Hal on the other hand doesn’t think he’s up to the task. A Green Lantern should be fearless and Hal has a lot of fear, quite frankly – mostly of failure. As a child, he watched his dad die in a plane crash before his eyes. Ever since, he’s been trying to live up to the legacy of a father who knew no fear and was the epitome of a hero. Hal is going to have to channel that kind of inner hero if he is to save the Earth.

Director Campbell has plenty of experience with big budget franchise movies, having helmed two movies each of the James Bond and Zorro series. His job here is to introduce non-fans to the Green Lantern universe while at the same time not alienating the existing fan base of the hero.

He doesn’t quite succeed on either count. The backstory of the Green Lantern mythos is complex and doesn’t lend itself to easy summation. While he departs from comic book canon somewhat during the course of the film, it isn’t enough where he should be alienating the fans of the series much. The place where they have been kicking up a fuss is over the uniform of the Green Lantern, which is computer generated and to be quite honest, doesn’t look very realistic. This was a bit of a misfire.

Another was the casting of Reynolds, who is a very good actor with a flippant side. However, the elements that make Reynolds the near-perfect choice for Deadpool (a Marvel superhero who is due a movie of his own and appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine) are the same reasons that make him wrong for Jordan, who was more of an archetypical hero in the comics – nearly fearless and somewhat more straightlaced. Most of the best stories about Jordan are the ones that put him in extreme emotional duress, such as the “Emerald Twilight” storyline. Here, he comes off as a reject from Top Gun and it feels like the wrong fit here.  

Lively can be an arresting actress but here she isn’t given much to do but be Goose to Reynolds’ Maverick. She is one of the more interesting characters in the Green Lantern universe and she’s certainly given short shrift here. If there are to be any sequels, hopefully her strength will take a front seat. Waititi, as techie Tom Kalmaku (also a character from the comics) at least makes an impression.

The planet Oa is impressively rendered, although it is terribly underlit which makes the 3D effects darker still and the movie look like it was filmed during a brown-out. Apparently it’s always the middle of the night on Oa.

This movie had insane potential and it really makes me sad to say that it doesn’t live up to it. However, don’t mistake that for a warning to stay away at all costs. Many of the mainstream reviewers who took a crack at the movie seemed to have a hard time with the backstory, deriding it as preposterous and juvenile. First of all, this is based on a comic book – not Shakespeare. There’s supposed to be an element of wonder to it. At times, Green Lantern achieves that. Unfortunately, not as much as it should have.

REASONS TO GO: It’s great to see a DC hero onscreen that isn’t Superman or Batman.

REASONS TO STAY: Reynolds is miscast. Some of the Oa sequences are too underlit, making the 3D additionally annoying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly intense scenes of action and violence in a sci-fi medium.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s plot is based on the comic book stories “Emerald Dawn” and “Secret Origins.” The song Hal and Carol dance to, the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly to Me,” was released in 1959, the same year the comic book Jordan made his debut.

HOME OR THEATER: The outer space vistas of Oa need to be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Just Wright