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

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For


Born to be wild.

Born to be wild.

(2014) Action (Dimension) Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Powers Boothe, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jessica Alba, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Meloni, Jamie King, Bruce Willis, Alexa Vega, Jeremy Piven, Christopher Lloyd, Stacey Keach, Martin Csokas, Ray Liotta, Juno Temple, Jude Ciccolella, Julia Garner, Kimberly Cox. Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

The world is a rough place and nowhere is it rougher than Sin City. A place where the corrupt wield absolute power with ruthless brutality, where tough guys hook up with even tougher dames, where anything can be had – for a price. That price might just be your soul.

Like the original Sin City, the story here is told in vignettes. In one, the ultra-lucky Johnny (Gordon-Levitt) finds a poker game which is run by Senator Roark (Boothe), the spider at the center of all the corruption of Sin City – and he doesn’t like to lose. It’s bad for business.

In the next, Dwight (Brolin), a former newspaper photographer turned private eye is looked up by his ex-girlfriend Ava (Green) who dumped him for a rich man (Csokas). He never could turn down a damsel in distress, and the brutish Manute (Haysbert) who watches Ava for her husband, isn’t about to let Dwight get in the way of the plan.

 

Nancy (Alba) still mourns the death of her love, Detective John Hartigan (Willis) who watches over Nancy from the other side. Nancy longs to take her revenge on Senator Roark who was responsible for Hartigan’s early exit, but she doesn’t have the nerve to pull the trigger. However, when Roark comes after her she knows that she has no choice but to take on the powerful senator. She can’t do it alone and so she enlists the aid of Marv (Rourke), the iron mountain of a man who protects her as best he can in a city that has no mercy.

It has been nine years since the first Sin City has been released and times as well as movie-going audiences have changed. However, the look of the sequel/prequel is pretty much the same as the first, shot in black and white with bursts of color – a headful of red hair, a bright blue coat, burning green eyes – with highly stylized backgrounds. I would imagine nearly the entire film was shot on green screen.

Still, if you like your noir hard-bitten with sexy dames more dangerous than the big guns of the guys, you’re in for a treat. The all-star cast all are down with the vision of Rodriguez and Miller, the latter of whom penned the graphic novels that the movie is based on; for the record, two of the vignettes are from the graphic novels, two were written by Miller especially for the movie.

 

Rourke, as Marv, is a force of nature. He’s grim, not too bright and damn near unstoppable, the kind of jamoke you’d want to have your back in a fight. Rourke gives him dignity and a love of violence in equal measures. He don’t remember things too good but he can be counted on when the chips are down.

Brolin takes over for Clive Owen who played Dwight in the first movie – his work on The Knick precluded his involvement here. Brolin is less suave than Owen but captures the inner demons of Dwight far more viscerally than Owen did. They do explain why Dwight’s face changed (and near the end Brolin is wearing prosthetics to look more like Owen) but they can’t explain away the English accent that Dwight affects in the first movie. Oops.

In fact, several roles have been recast. Michael Clarke Duncan passed away between films and Haysbert takes over the role of Manute nicely. Brittany Murphy, who also passed away between movies, had played Shellie in the first movie. Rather than recast her, Miller and Rodriguez instead wrote a new character to take over her part. Finally, Devon Aoki who played Miho in the first film was pregnant at the time of shooting, so Jamie Chung took over. Miho in either actress’ hands is one of my favorite roles in the series.

What is also missing from the first movie is attitude. There’s some of it here but the movie is a little more grim than the first, takes itself a little more seriously than the first one did. Whereas there is a ton of violence and gore here, it is missing the same kind of energy that the first film had. It feels more cynical and less fun.

There is enough going on here to make it worth your while and fans of Mickey Rourke are going to enjoy him cutting loose here as he does – he’s in nearly all of the vignettes. There are also some fun cameos, like Christopher Meloni as a besotted cop, Christopher Lloyd as a medico who doesn’t ask too many questions and Ray Liotta as an amoral husband having an affair who plans to end it the hard way.

I did enjoy parts of it enough to give it a very mild recommendation, but it simply doesn’t hold up next to the first film which was over the top, and balls to the wall. This one tries to be but ends up trying too hard.

REASONS TO GO: Still a visual treat. Some hard-bitten performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks panache. Grimmer than the first.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, bloodshed and foul language as well as a surfeit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film Eva Green and Martin Csokas play a married couple. In real life, they had a romantic relationship for four years.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold in July

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Carriers

The Last Samurai


The Last Samurai

Tom Cruise teaches modern warfare tactics to the Scientologists.

(2003) Action (Warner Brothers) Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe, William Atherton, Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn, Timothy Spall, Masato Harada, Togo Igawa, Shin Koyamada, Hiroyuki Sanada, Koyuki, Shun Sugata, Sosuki Ikematsu, Aoi Minato, Shichinosuke Nakamura. Scott Wilson. Directed by Edward Zwick

 

Over the lives of those who devote themselves to the art of war and a life of dealing death, a question of honor must always hover. For what cause does one fight, kill, die? What can be worth the moral choices of taking another human life?

For Nathan Algren (Cruise), the morality of being a warrior has become murky. A hero of the American Civil War, he has grown disillusioned and bitter, having seen carnage inflicted on women and children by cowardly officers bent more on making names for themselves than fulfilling their mission during the Indian Wars. Algren has become an alcoholic, a shell and a parody of himself, shilling the Winchester rifle and using whiskey to medicate his emotional pain.

For Katsumoto (Watanabe), the morality is clear. A samurai whose life is given in service to his emperor, the world is becoming a colder, crueler place. As Japan moves reluctantly to modernize and traffic with the rest of the world, the changes that are brought into that country are sometimes painful, and Katsumoto can clearly see the end of his way of life approaching. However, his unwavering devotion to his country and the emperor makes him and his kind targets of those who seek to create a new Japan, one that will profit them above all.

Algren is invited to Japan by his former commander Bagley (Goldwyn) and a Japanese railroad magnate Omura (Harada) to modernize the Imperial Japanese Army and teach it to use the weapons of Western war. Emperor Meiji (Nakamura) is enamored of the West and is a little weak, but his mentor, Katsumoto, still has his ear, making him dangerous to Omura and those like him. Katsumoto is trying to get the emperor to rethink his plans, but is ultimately forced from court and into rebellion when Omura’s assassins fail.

Algren at first is little more than a hired hand, but after being captured by Katsumoto, he is brought to a remote mountain village which is Katsumoto’s home, and is exposed to the samurai life and code, and begins to heal, not just from the wounds inflicted in the battle, but also in his spirit, where his pain has been festering for so long. Hired to destroy the samurai, Algren at last joins them, despite facing terrible odds.

The shadow of Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, is evident here. Director Edmund Zwick (Shakespeare in Love, Glory, Legends of the Fall) was heavily influenced by the man in the director’s chair for such classics as Ran, Rashomon and Yojimbo. In fact, a screening of Seven Samurai when Zwick was 14 provided the young man with a lifelong interest in Japan and in movies as well. In the battle scenes, particularly, Zwick pays the master a great deal of homage in the way he sets his scenes up, although not nearly as poetically and poignantly as did Kurosawa.

This interest in Japan led Zwick to read Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” the account of Saigo Takamori, a real-life samurai in the Meiji court who at first embraced but eventually renounced the modernization of Japan. The roots of The Last Samurai can be found here.

Zwick succeeds in creating a rich landscape of intrigue and honor, as the loyal, honorable samurai are faced with the treacherous, scheming industrialists. There is a love interest as Algren falls for the widow (Koyuki) of a samurai he had slain, and it is there that the two cultures meet most poignantly, and most awkwardly.

Cruise does a difficult job nicely here. In a role that changes from a washed-up, alcoholic, bitter man into a courageous, honorable warrior, Cruise carries both of these facets of the Algren character nicely, and allows us to see the progression from one to the other. Seeing this again reminds me that although he is best known as the charismatic movie star, Tom Cruise can really act when he gets the right part.

Although Cruise is the center of the movie, he is overshadowed by the spectacular performance of Watanabe. Katsumoto is a wise man, a beloved leader and a magnificent tactician, but also melancholy, knowing the life he has loved is slipping away and that he is unlikely to survive its passing. Watanabe is subtle, which is not something Japanese actors are traditionally known for. He creates a character rich in contradictions and complexities, and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He would be nominated for an Oscar for his performance and even though he didn’t win, the movie established him in Hollywood where he would go on to roles in major films including Batman Begins.

Character actors Billy Connelly and Timothy Spall also put in solid performances. The battle scenes are truly memorable – this is where the Kurosawa influence most obviously comes into play. Zwick is also very good at establishing a good sense of period. Although the visual Kurosawa references can be a little heavy-handed at times, Zwick wisely chooses to put his own stamp on The Last Samurai, and that’s what makes for a good movie. Sure, there are elements of Ran but there are elements of Glory in the battle sequences as well.

The film has epic, sweeping landscapes, wonderfully staged battle scenes and allows us to view a culture very much misunderstood even to this day, and gives us a chance to see how Japan started on the road into becoming the mega-commercial technological giant it is in the 21st century.

Still, what ultimately makes this an excellent movie is that it is about the journey of the people in it. It is much harder to comprehend the journeys of nations; we can’t relate to them as easily. It is far easier to relate to the growth of individuals, something we are (hopefully) all doing throughout our lives.

WHY RENT THIS: Exquisitely staged battle scenes. Watanabe gives a searing, career making performance. Beautiful Kurosawa-esque cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Probably about 20 minutes too long.

FAMILY MATTERS: The battle sequences are fairly realistic and might be disturbing for some. There is plenty of bloodshed and some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although the film implies the Americans trained the Imerial Army, historically it was the Prussians who actually did.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD contains a feature comparin the film to the actual historical events at the time. There’s also footage from the film’s Japanese premiere.  The Blu-Ray adds a text piece onbushido, the code of the samurai.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $456.8M on a production budget of $140M; the movie was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shogun

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Piranha 3DD