Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

batman v superman

I was so excited to see this movie. I figured that — even if it didn’t blow my mind completely — it would still be extremely entertaining. But now, 24 hours after I saw it in beautiful RealD 3D, I still can’t believe how mediocre it was. The movie wasn’t necessarily bad… but it should have been so good. I mean, for shit’s sake, we’ve got Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (the Justice League coming together!) — along with glimpses of The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg — as well as Lex Luthor and Doomsday in a single film directed by one of the most visually stunning directors of our time!! How was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice not an utter face-melter?!?

As it so often happens, the studio simply bit off more than it could chew, attempting to fit way too much story line and character development into a two-and-a-half-hour time frame. The end result was the same as it always is: an emotionally flat film with glossed-over plot points and shallow caricatures. (I understand that Wonder Woman’s story will be fleshed out in a stand-alone movie next summer, but that didn’t help me enjoy her role in Dawn of Justice last night.) And Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch, Man of Steel), who I’ve always gone out on a limb to defend, seems to have finally lost control of the reins on the Warner Bros/DC Comics money-grab train. His gorgeous, colorful action sequences — usually done in slow motion — have devolved into incoherent, frenetically edited tornadoes of images that can barely be deciphered.

Personally, I don’t think I can keep watching these big-budget mockeries of my favorite superheroes, especially considering the fact that DC Comics has released 25 feature-length animated movies that are really cool! Why even bother with these lame live-action attempts anymore? Everything in Dawn of Justice, for example, had already been covered [better] in films like Justice League: The New Frontier, Wonder Woman, and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

I’m being particularly harsh on this movie because it honestly should have been better. The acting was fine — even Affleck and Eisenberg — but the trope-filled CGI action fails to impact its audience in any meaningful way. Roughly put: Warner Bros/DC should stop trying to be Disney/Marvel and just do its own thing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special

Now, this is some refreshing sci-fi! Midnight Special starts in mid-stride, with two men hustling a cooperative young boy into the back of a ’72 Chevelle as an AMBER alert describing the trio blares in the background. The driver of the car then puts on a pair of night vision goggles, switches off the headlights, and tears off into pre-dawn darkness. It’s a badass opening sequence — and it all takes place before the title screen — but, thankfully, the movie doesn’t proceed on some mindless chase, full of gunfights, explosions, and unlikely scenarios. (That kind of faux sci-fi has been done to death.) Midnight Special instead takes the high road, adopting a deliberate, albeit slow, pace that eventually yields a unique, character-driven sci-fi/drama rather than another trope-filled sci-fi/action flick.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose credits include Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, relies once again on Michael Shannon — one of the most interesting and expressive actors in Hollywood — as well as the American Deep South to tell a moving and meditative story. Taking cues from the sci-fi blockbusters of the 1980’s (Close Encounters, E.T., Starman, Cocoon), Midnight Special weaves together government agents, religious cult members, and a boy with seemingly “alien” abilities into an extremely suitable, though particularly subtle, tapestry. The script doesn’t spend much time explaining itself, and the dialogue doesn’t spoon-feed the audience any plot points. Viewers are forced to pay close attention if they want to put the whole story together, piece-by-piece. (And, as you surely know by now, I generally find that kind of “work” refreshing.)

Midnight Special is worth the slow ride because it ultimately pays off with an unforgettable conclusion, unlike any I can remember from the past two decades of cinema. With this film, Nichols’ certainly solidifies his status as one of the most fascinating (and uniquely American) writer/directors working today. (Actually, I tend to believe that he’s poised to excel in every way that his predecessors — directors like Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green — have failed. [Holler at me in the comments section if you need me to explain that rather brazen comment.])

Nichols is like that rare, good friend, who actually has very thought-provoking things to say, but never talks too much — and I’m really psyched to see what he does next.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Midnight Special (2016)

Self/less (2015)

Selfless

Eventually, I will completely trash a movie with a one-leaf rating. But Self/less barely managed to stay above my personal hate threshold. It starts out as a promising-enough, Twilight Zone-y science fiction flick, but then it quickly devolves into a gimmicky and predictable action flick — complete with multiple gun fights, chase scenes, flamethrowers, etc.

Actually, I can’t stand to spend much time thinking about this movie anymore: Self/less is a complete waste of… millions of dollars. Sir Ben Kingsley and Ryan Reynolds were both fine in (albeit it yawning through) their respective roles. But this one’s such a throwaway script, it shouldn’t even be blogged about. (My bad!) The movie has a decent-enough premise and, like I said, I can’t say that it offends the senses completely. But do rest assured that it’s a predictable, paint-by-numbers exercise, and you can totally skip it without losing any sleep.

The director responsible, Tarsem Singh, has overseen some pretty visually stimulating movies in the past, including Immortals, Mirror Mirror, The Fall, and — my personal favorite — The Cell (with freakin’ Vince Vaughn and J-Lo)! But Self/less fails to engage on any emotional level, and I’m afraid to say that it’s also incredibly stupid. (Not that any of Singh’s other flicks are real genius pieces either…)

Anyway, I’m not going to pan it completely because it didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out. It is, in fact, a “production.” But I’m a serious science fiction fan, and Self/less is severely disappointing.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Self/less (2015)

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Hail Caesar

Let me just start by saying that I adore the Brothers Coen. Nobody does dark comedy better than they do. (Even their lightest fare tends to include a bit of murder, mayhem, or — at the very least — accidental suicide.) But Hail, Caesar! is a different story. For filmmakers who have spent the past 32 years defying convention, it still seems like a curve ball: It’s not hilarious. There’s no action. It has a full, homoerotic song-and-dance number involving a bar full of sailors. Nobody dies.

But if you’ve been paying really close attention to the writer/directors’ themes over the past 32 years — morality, mortality, etc. — you might be able to enjoy this excessively talky, but ultimately uplifting religious/political satire as well. Just don’t expect another Big Lebowski or O Brother, Where Art Thou? Think more along the lines of Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, or A Serious Man.

Hail, Caesar! opens with a somber shot of Jesus on the cross, followed by a scene in which Josh Brolin’s character — the PR manager of a major Hollywood studio in the 1930s — confesses his trivial sins to a rather bored priest. Shortly after that, the Hollywood PR manager assembles a priest, a rabbi, and an imam around a table to discuss the studio’s latest effort to portray the “Godhead,” or divine images of the “Christ.” A brilliant, rapid-fire “Who’s on First?”-type conversation ensues, and this kind of toying with religious orthodoxy more-or-less sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately, Hail, Caesar! was billed as a straight-up comedy — with images of George Clooney making funny faces, etc. But the truth is that it’s more of a light drama with a few chuckles included. At it’s core, I suspect that the movie is about the choices we make as humans, how they shape who we are, and how who we are, in turn, affects society. How do we know if we’re doing the right thing? the filmmakers seem to be asking. It’s the “lightest” flick that the Coens have ever made (e.g., what the viewer thinks are silenced gunshots turn out to be flashbulbs in a camera just a moment later). Hail, Caesar! also appears to serve as a sort of half-veiled vindication of what the Coen brothers have been doing for the past several decades: making movies for the masses.

I’m quite happy to disagree with most critics on this one. Hail, Caesar! is a strangely refreshing, offbeat gem.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)

Uncanny (aka Android) [2015]

Uncanny

I absolutely loved this movie, as I did Ex Machina and, less enthusiastically, The Machine. I think anyone who enjoys films of the AI genre should check out all three of these flicks. While Ex Machina has a much higher budget, Uncanny nonetheless delivers with a subtle charm that is fully backed up by a heady and intellectual script. Unfortunately, for me, the female lead seemed to be a bit plastered in at times. I didn’t care for — or identify with — her character, which may have been partly by design.

I should specify that the genre of these movies is not just “AI,” but also the genre of “theater as film.” Uncanny has a small, four-person cast, so the bulk of its content is in the script and the characters’ relationships, rather than special effects, action, or set design. And the movie made me think! The acting was sharp, focused, appropriately rational, and intellectually robotic. There was a very ominous undercurrent throughout the entire film, hinting at high-level conspiracy and the world-behind-the-world that we are only somewhat aware of in our daily lives. What captivated my attention most was how the film continually went back and forth between concepts of “machine as capable of consciousness” and “designer as illusionist.” It made me question my own neural programming as a human, and then juxtaposed that with the data-programming of a computer.

Some of the epiphanies I had while watching were actually nullified and confused by the end of the movie, which makes me think that I need to go back and watch it again. (I love movies that taunt me into watching them again in order to uncover what was really going on.) The most interesting question I had while watching Uncanny was, “If a computer that learns from humans calculates that a human has made a choice based on passion rather than logic, could that computer then learn programming based on chaos rather than order?” In a sense, computers, like children, learn early on that emotions, moods, and hidden agendas are used to manipulate and react to the environment. That’s my first impression, at least… But I really can’t wait to see this one again!

After watching Uncanny last night, I decided to watch Ex Machina again — and I loved it the second time around as well. I’m truly impressed with the ability of two different directors to take the same basic story and make two completely different, enjoyable presentations that stimulated my intellect in different ways.

Four pot leafs out of five:
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Uncanny (aka Android) [2015]

Southpaw (2015)

southpaw

This film represents everything I love and hate about Hollywood. I’ll give it a fair rating. But let me be clear about one thing: The script is hot, soggy garbage. Calling Southpaw “trite” would be a serious understatement. It was definitely the most cliché, cookie-cutter production that I’ve sat through in a while. (I mean, the name of our protagonist — a light heavyweight boxing champ played by Jake Gyllenhaal — is Hope, for shit’s sake.) And the movie goes through all the typical motions we’ve grown to expect without unveiling a single unique quality.

But now that you know it’s traI did actually enjoy Southpaw. I never once wanted to turn it off. It’s bright and it’s shiny and it’s strangely well-acted (assuming you can overlook 50 Cent’s wooden role). It’s ultimately an uplifting flick — complete with angry/inspirational Eminem soundtrack — but the story puts a hurtin’ on the viewer during the first two acts. Rachel McAdams’ character is a breath of fresh air among the otherwise stereotypical cast, but she’s removed from the equation early on in what must be one of the saddest, most tragic death scenes in any movie. (And by lazily glossing over her murder, Southpaw inadvertently makes a rather searing statement regarding the pervasiveness of handgun violence in America.) Subsequently, Gyllenhaal’s tragic boxer loses custody of his daughter — a truly sympathetic role filled immaculately by young Oona Laurence — and he must do battle with his crippling anger management issues in order to get her back. Over the course of his inevitable redemption, he trains with a drunk, washed-up ex-boxer (Forest Whitaker) and mounts his comeback against the movie’s “villain,” a Columbian boxer played by Danny Henriquez.

For better or worse, this kind of shallow-but-engaging movie is what Antoine Fuqua is good at. The director takes terribly vapid scripts and turns them into halfway decent movies. Sometimes I fall for them (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, King Arthur) and sometimes I don’t (Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer). Southpaw is technically just another turd. But it’s also one of the most well-polished turds to come out all year — and it wrings a surprising amount of emotion out of its viewers. (Spoiler ahead.) It would have gotten an extra pot leaf if Hope had lost the big title fight at the end. I would have welcomed an unexpected sucker punch like that at the end of this ridiculously predictable flick.

Three pot leafs out of five:
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Southpaw (2015)

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)

peggy sue got married

Francis Ford Coppola has directed some of my favorite films of all time — The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Dracula, Youth Without Youth — so I decided that, at some point, I should sit down and watch all of his movies. (Call me a Coppola completest if you want.) With 17 under my belt so far, it’s obvious to me that the man is a masterful storyteller. I just don’t always like the stories he chooses to tell.

But that’s not really my problem with Peggy Sue Got Married. Actually, I thought the script was extremely heartfelt; the direction, engaging; and Kathleen Turner, absolutely adorable. It’s just that the production is riddled with so many strange and sporadic weak points that the whole thing comes across flat, overall: The young and recognizable cast relies on rather distracting makeup to appear 25 years older in certain scenes, Nicolas Cage gives birth to one of the most obnoxious characters ever committed to film, and the whole third act of the movie somehow manages to be both bizarre and deflating. The end result is one of my least favorite “time travel” movies to date — and I’m afraid that, in this case, there’s a real need for those quotation marks.

But I won’t trash Peggy Sue Got Married completely. After all, it does achieve a certain degree of charm and mysticism. The women of the cast — Catherine Hicks, Joan Allen, Barbara Harris, Helen Hunt, and a young Sofia Coppola (not to mention Ms. Turner again) — carry the plot a good distance, and it’s quite fun to see a young, scene-stealing Jim Carrey (two years before Earth Girls Are Easy). Plus, Kathleen Turner evokes some really powerful emotions during the scenes in which she finds herself transported back to her childhood home. The sense of nostalgia is almost overwhelming, and I couldn’t help but think of all of the bittersweet journeys I’ve made back to my parents’ house — the place where I weathered such life-molding storms as puberty and high school. There are also a couple of interesting “mirror” shots worth noting, in which Coppola hides the camera by employing two different groups of actors to play the subjects and their reflections. (They’re not always exactly in sync, but it’s a pretty neat trick nonetheless.)

Still… Nicolas Cage’s role in this one is ultimately unforgivable.

Two pot leafs out of five:
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Peggy Sue Got Married (1986)