Monthly Archives: March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — 4/10

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016, Zack Snyder)

It’s not inherently wrong to make a graceless blockbuster that sits inert like a rock weighted down by the chains of a gargantuan budget, four-quadrant appeal desperation, and fealty to the lord of comic book fandom. But if you’re going to saddle audiences with this amount of artless sludge, clouded by a humorless and sexless fog of self-righteousness, then you must justify it — you must have a point such that there’s no other way to tell the story than through decibel-exploding punishment.

Snyder, I’m afraid, has no such point or justification. In the beginning of this aircraft-carrier-sized superhero ship, Chris Terrio’s screenplay flirts with some interesting subject matter, equating the corruption of power with terrorism. The questions that poses regarding identities and worth of pure heroism are provocative, but such philosophies are squashed as soon as Snyder’s worst impulses take over in the second half, bloating this pitch-black MMA fight with a CG puke-fest, and a host of reasons for the franchise to continue until every dollar is bled dry from the lemming-like mob of brainwashed superhero junkies who line up dutifully to escape from the true impotence of their realistic lives.

Never one to miss an opportunity as a talented fish in a mediocre pond, Jesse Eisenberg comes out the best as Lex Luthor. He’s no Gene Hackman, but who is? Instead, Eisenberg plays Luthor as a ticking bomb of coiled insanity, one seizure away from shrieking until his throat burns up. Cavill and Affleck get swallowed by costumes and green screen, while Gal Gadot finds new ways to be an unbelievable bore when delivering lines. Nothing else sticks, as countless chances for the story to seep into fascinating nooks are wasted, dragged away from their original paths by a formulaic freight train charging along the central track, maintaining not only a dark, colorless, jagged visual palate but a morose sensibility worn down by a culture of excess, ego, bravado, and violence. This isn’t the dawn of justice; it’s the aging dead end of a genre.

 

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10 Cloverfield Lane — 7/10

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016, Dan Trachtenberg)

If you haven’t seen this movie yet and intend to, then you should stop reading and come back when you have. Most of my reviews are written for audiences who have already seen the films in question, but this one especially. Because it’s tough to write about without spoiling.

Quite a cool logical hole these guys have found in movies of this type. From the setup (creepy guy holding young woman prisoner in underground bomb shelter, raving about attacks with unsubstantiated paranoia), we’re programmed to think of a binary solution: either he’s right, or he’s crazy/evil. For some reason we haven’t yet seen a movie where both are true — and why can’t they be? It’s not mutually exclusive. Sometimes, the murderous evil weirdo is justified in his paranoia. Just because he’s creepy, doesn’t mean he can’t be right. So this film works precisely because a) Michelle is right to think Howard lied about his daughter and killed Brittany after keeping her prisoner; and b) Howard is right that there was an attack, the air is (often) poisonous, and he’s keeping them safe.

So that’s a fine premise, and it’s carried out nicely by writers Campbell and Stuecken (a producer and editor getting their first screen credit) and rewriter Chazelle (and who knows how many other hands it went through). But Trachtenberg (also a first-timer) elevates it with some really well-controlled direction. It’s suspenseful without resorting to cheap thrills; it paces itself beautifully, slowly raising the stakes and letting character detail drive the drama. Michelle is shown as plucky and resourceful (if a little dangerous) from the start — her attempt to smoke out the prison cell predicts her molotov cocktail performance at the end. Howard is socially awkward and emotionally stunted, nicely explored in the scenes where he can’t even hold together a dinner conversation and can’t come up with the word “woman.” Clearly Michelle’s needs and Howard’s desires won’t co-exist for long, so that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Goodman has been fantastic for a long time. From his early work in Coen Brothers movies to voice work in stuff like MONSTERS, INC. to scene-stealing supporting work in films such as THE GAMBLER, ARGO, and FLIGHT, it seems there’s nothing he can’t do. His measured work as Howard here is some of the best acting he’s done. By the end, each line and action he’s made throughout the film seems right. Winstead is pretty good herself, though she doesn’t sell the key scene where she cries after Emmett’s death. Gallagher is once again very strong, making this a solid three-hander with very few weak links. I don’t know that it’s too ambitious or in any way revelatory or profound, and the creature effects at the end are a little disappointing, but it’s a solid calling card for absolutely everyone involved.

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Knight of Cups — 5/10

KNIGHT OF CUPS (2016, Terrence Malick)

“That’s great, it starts with an earthquake / Birds and snakes and aeroplanes”

– R.E.M. “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”

And it does start with an earthquake (well, after a prologue where Christian Bale parties all night at the DTLA Standard with some Japanese girls), and there are plenty of shots of birds and airplanes. For Bale’s Rick, it might be the end of the world as he knows it, meaning he has to search for redemption at the spiritual apocalypse. The big question is, why should we give a shit if he finds it?

Malick’s early period (i.e. BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN) shows signs of his Transcendentalism, planting his soul-searching characters into narratives that took place at the edges of nature. Perhaps the finest few minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen involves Spacek and Sheen in the woods during BADLANDS’ first act. His middle period (i.e. THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD) still had some narrative centers, but allowed more for experimental storytelling that focused on the natural world and its proximity to whatever God Malick believes in. But for his later period, which started with THE TREE OF LIFE and was followed up by TO THE WONDER, Malick has gone full-force Transcendentalist: peering into the cosmos (space, dinosaurs, the earth’s creation, etc.) and finding some sort of oneness with the universe by drifting back to nature. This “later Malick” period also contains two features he shot back-to-back in 2012, one of which is finally out (KNIGHT OF CUPS) and the other (WEIGHTLESS) which is probably still in the editing room. (Both star Bale, Blanchett, and Portman). And by now, this style is not only tiresome, it’s becoming redundant and shruggable.

I’m fine with endless voiceover — it works beautifully in THE THIN RED LINE (one of a handful of movies I’d take to a desert island; such a gorgeous masterpiece I saw it four times upon its release just so I could spend at least 10 hours in a dark theater letting it wash over me) — and I’m even okay with showing the emotional stages of a relationship through physical movement within a frame (when characters keep evading each other like they’re playing some adult form of romantic tag, it likely symbolizes an inability to spiritually connect). I just don’t need to have all of that over and over. By TO THE WONDER it was already getting ridiculous, and now — within the constraints of this impermeable Bale character who never works but also has a steady stream of young, beautiful waifs — it’s spinning its wheels like a muddy truck.

This film is two hours long only because of its arbitrary adhesion to standardized modern cinema; it could easily have been 45 minutes or 5 hours and not really suffered. It just lets itself go and spins and spins and crawls inside its own philosophy until it just stops. Yes, Bale does steadily spend more and more time in nature (the first hour is mainly in houses, lofts, at parties, in Vegas, etc. and the second hour is in the ocean, on sand, on rocks, and in deserts) to lend credence to the Transcendentalism Malick is ever so forcefully preaching. But there isn’t any emotional crescendo. There isn’t a catharsis. It’s another beautifully shot (again by Lubezki) exercise, and a few moments shine brightly (the party sequence is a treat, and the modeling director who barks comments like “You’re a ’70s housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day!” is hilarious), but good performances (Palmer, and perhaps Portman and Bentley) drown like Go-Pros in Walden Pond. And the music is simply dreadful. During post on THE TREE OF LIFE, Hans Zimmer said he’d never work with Malick again. That’s a huge loss — Hanan Townshend’s score here is miserable, reminding us just how important music is when your entire audio track is basically just music and voiceover. Never has a film needed Zimmer, or at least someone like Clint Mansell, so badly.

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Zootopia — 6/10

ZOOTOPIA (2016, Howard/Moore/Bush)

Pixar sets such a high standard for animated family films that it’s tempting to underrate the perfectly serviceable entries from Disney’s regular animation wing like ZOOTOPIA. (In case you didn’t know it was Disney, though, it spends a good fifth of its running time self-promoting the brand: the entire city in which it takes place feels like the Anaheim theme park, there’s a character selling bootleg DVDs with titles that are only puns of actual Disney films, and there’s an extended callback and quote of FROZEN). Whereas Pixar recognizes actual pain, danger, and darkness in the world, films like ZOOTOPIA are much softer and anesthetized, merely paying some lip service to bullying and buried subtext about racial profiling.

The animation is clever if not overly creative, and there’s plenty of good laughs on the fringes (companies like “Zuber” assist in migration, lemmings are company drones who follow each other). And Jason Bateman is once again the best thing about a movie — his voice performance hitting all the right notes and filling out a character who’s another charming rapscallion. One thing that’s troublesome about the plot is how all problems are solved through Big Brother surveillance: traffic cameras everywhere cataloguing our every move is the greatest thing ever, and any conversation audio-recorded without someone’s knowledge is the only thing that lets the truth come out. Single-handedly endorsing the Patriot Act is not a good look. Otherwise, kids will have a grand time laughing at the animal anthropomorphizing on display, and adults will be decently entertained, especially at the DMV sloth sequence. It’s an early contender for Scene of the Year.

 

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Triple 9 — 7/10

TRIPLE 9 (2016, John Hillcoat)

My favorite moment in TRIPLE 9 comes early on, during the bank heist that incites the action of the movie. Our antiheroes storm the bank, sending customers and employees to the floor. Chaos ensues. The camera is frantic – jogging back and forth, cutting harshly, and operating in varying close-ups and wide shots. One of these wide shots is from the second floor, looking below towards a woman lying face down on the carpet with her arms outstretched in compliance. This shot lasts maybe one second, but it’s long enough to register a dark puddle on the carpet around her thighs. She has pissed herself from fear.

Although I wish there were more of these moments (and maybe there are – the soiled woman is so brief I almost missed it, so what else did I actually miss?), there’s an overwhelming sense of harsh reality in this otherwise predictable, genre-adhering cops-and-robbers Western noir. The world as presented by Hillcoat is damned from the start, because our selfish desires and loyalty to family trumps most moral codes. Everything unravels – quickly – because entropy rules and there’s little hope for redemption.

Speaking of redemption, Matt Cook’s screenplay leaks religious curiosity. But it also sets up a bizarre and somewhat troubling defense of white Christians as the good guys, while Jews, blacks, and Latinos are the bad guys. I can see an argument that this movie is almost flat-out neo-Nazi, but luckily there are enough complications to keep those disturbing accusations at bay. Gang leader Chiwetel Ejiofor (yet another great performance in a growing career full of them) may be a hardened military-trained criminal, but he’s the smartest person in the film and a loyal father. Mafioso wife Kate Winslet (her Russian accent a shaky cousin to the ill-fitting Polish she tried on for STEVE JOBS) wears a Star of David in every scene and commands terrible deeds, but her moral compass isn’t all that different from that of detective Woody Harrelson (a drug addict cop who nonetheless is one of our two tragic heroes), as they both understand their place in the world and what has to be done to protect their interests and their families.

Clifton Collins, Jr., a classic “that-guy” who has been great for a long time (check him out in the underrated TIGERLAND) is the most crooked of all the cops, and his Latino thuggishness is matched only by the street gang Latinos who spend their days either decapitating rivals or shooting at poor Casey Affleck (maybe the best performance in the movie, which is saying something – is he ever not great?), who wears a cross and returns home to his white family where hopefully no harm will come. Hillcoat makes sure to throw Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus to the wolves as well, just so there are as many screw-up degenerate whites as there are minorities.

Characters aren’t given a lot of back story, so we’re asked to invest time with them based on little more than the actions they take during the movie – they invent themselves with each scene (much like the context-less and masterful DRUG WAR by Johnnie To) even though the narrative itself takes a back seat to the world-building. Story and plot points aren’t as much a concern here, so we aren’t forced to endure scenes of exposition. Instead, attention is paid to gritty setpieces like a raid on a ghetto house (where Affleck is very happy to have one of those SWAT shields in front of his face) or a violent and suspenseful robbery with explosives strapped to guards’ faces and feet. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch – both because of the danger and suspense and the uneasy treatment of minorities – but it pulses with a veracity that’s missing from others of its genre. It reminded me of the films of Ric Roman Waugh (FELON, SNITCH), textured and macho.

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