Mar 26, 2016

"Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice" - 2016 - movie review

Just saw this film again and it's even better the second time around if that's possible. Pretty much a perfect comic book movie.

Original review starts below the line.


Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is the best superhero movie since Tim Burton's original "Batman". Zack Snyder has done himself proud and in the process redeemed the Caped Crusader after Christopher Nolan's ponderous and insipid Batman butcher jobs "The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises".

Snyder instinctively understands something Nolan never did: that superhero's exist in an exaggerated version of our universe and that both the universe and the characters in it should reflect that. Nolan's silly embrace of "the real" had what's-his-name trying to act 'heavy' on the deserted streets of Chicago; streets that never looked like anything other than the deserted streets of Chicago. Here, Snyder puts some effort into world building and the results are magnificent.

Snyder thankfully deals with the perfunctory Batman origin story upfront. So upfront the montage serves as background to some of the opening credits before segueing seamlessly into the true opening scene which has Bruce Wayne arriving in Metropolis just as Superman and General Zod are going at it. It's a thrilling scene, beautifully crafted, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the film. Thankfully, the rest of the film delivers and then some.

There are no dead spots in BVS. At the end of its 2 1/2 hour runtime I could have happily sat through another half hour. Was it loud? Sure. But the sound design was appropriate to the action and never felt simply noisy. Was it dark? Oh yeah. Beautifully, poetically, apocalyptically dark like a Batman film should be. Did Ben Affleck ruin Batman? To my great surprise Affleck made Batman his own. Unlike some past wannabes his performance never felt forced or uncertain. He confidently shifted from womanizer on the make to vengeful son to determined champion of the human race.

On the other side of the BVS coin Henry Cavill has grown into his character and gives a far more nuanced performance than was suggested in the trailers. His Superman is a 20th century-style hero who is uncomfortable with the criticism powerful figures can attract in an almost democratic 21st century society. He thinks he should be left alone because he's not trying to undermine democracy, he simply understands that democracy has one major weakness: response times. As a result of being constantly hounded and second-guessed however he starts to lose interest in doing the right thing.

Between these two powerful figures we have Lex Luthor and Diana "Wonder Woman" Prince. The good news first; Gal Gadot is a revelation on par with Daisy Ridley. Her presence is such that she threatens to steal nearly every scene she's in. Her character seeps into the narrative over the course of the first two acts: occasionally parrying with Wayne and keeping up with events as they unfold. Slowly she begins to realize the time may be at hand when she'll need to shed nearly a century of voluntary retirement and get involved in human affairs again. When she finally ascends to the film's front ranks in the third act it seems both logical and necessary and she becomes a valuable asset to the film rather than a token distraction.

With that said I need to address the film's only weakness: Jesse Eisenberg. Mr Eisenberg has proven himself a capable actor over the years but he is in waaaay over his head here. Not sure what pictures he possesses of Zack Snyder that landed him this role but they must be doozies. A good villain is either physically menacing or radiates the sense that there's something lurking beneath their surface that would peel the paint on the walls if unleashed. Great villains possess both qualities. Eisenberg has neither. Thankfully his screen time is limited so he never becomes a significant drag on the film.

As for the story: I don't want to give away too much but basically Eisenberg's Luthor has decided to strengthen his own position by ridding the world of it's two super-powered crime fighters. In a nutshell; Superman will be given a powerful incentive to eliminate Batman, and then Lex will eliminate Superman with a weapon he fashioned from kryptonite he gleaned from the wreckage of one of the destroyed Kryptonian ships. The world will then be his oyster. It's a blissfully simple premise that manages to engage all the characters without losing the audience.

There are no huge head-scratching moments like in TDKR where you're left thinking "Why did they send the entire Gotham police department into the sewer at the same time?" or "How did bad guys that walked into the Gotham stock exchange wind up riding out on motorcycles?" Also, because the plot is straightforward there's no need for long expository monologues like the kind that weighed so heavily on TDKR. Things move forward crisply, logically and entertainingly. It's great.

Before I finish I want to go back one more time and touch on the look of this movie. Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice is a beautiful film. It's not just beautiful however. Every image here is in the service of the story and not simply inserted because of its 'awesomeness'. In this sense - the harmony between dialogue and imagery - it reminds me of nothing less than James Cameron's "Aliens", perhaps the best example ever of a film that's greater than the sum of its parts. Because of this symbiotic relationship between words and pictures I could probably watch BVS with the sound off and still know exactly what's going on. And that is the true sign of quality motion picture making.

Kudos to Zack Snyder for finally delivering a Batman-related property that I want to see a second time. I can't give it a full 5 stars due to Jesse Eisenberg but if there were someone more appropriate playing Lex Luthor it would be 5 stars all the way.

Verdict: ★★★★

Jan 31, 2016

"Black Mass" - 2015 - movie review

In "Black Mass" Jonny Depp finally foregoes the makeup (most of it anyway) and decides to face the camera and try his hand at adult acting. The result is a surprisingly strong and nuanced performance that is the undeniable (black) heart of the film.

The film tells the tale of James "Whitey" Bulger, brother of Massachusetts Senate President Billy Bulger and a big fish in the medium sized pond of South Boston. In just a few short years this unhinged thug went from local tough guy to the biggest name in Boston's crowded underworld scene. His rise was no accident however. Nor was it the result of a long term plan for world conquest on Bulger's part. Instead it was largely the doing of the FBI.

Drafting Bulger to be an FBI informant was the idea of one John Connelly. Connelly had known Bulger since childhood and owed some sort of street debt to him. When he became an FBI agent he used his position to keep the agency at arms length from his patron by selling him as an invaluable snitch. Since Bulger had intimate knowledge of the most arcane workings of Boston street power, Connelly argued, he could help them bring down Gennaro Angiulo, head of the Italian mob and a certified Big Target. Bulger did wind up playing a hand in Angiulo's downfall but beyond that gave up virtually nothing of value in nearly a decade on the government dole. And after Angiulo was sent to prison in the mid-80s Bulger, with the help of Connelly, stepped neatly into the power void.

While the art direction in Black Mass never seems to completely capture the time many of the characters seem perfectly drawn. The pacing is spot on and buttressed by a screenplay that acts like a kind of literary boa constrictor slowly squeezing the life out of the leads. Even if you aren't familiar with the real life events that inspired the story you can see, and more importantly feel, where this is all going from very early on.

Joel Egerton's Agent Connelly is beautifully crafted; a man who rose through the ranks when high school diplomas and a couple of connections were enough to get you 'made' in law enforcement. As time passed however his type slowly became anachronistic as more and more professionals from outside seeped into the important offices and trained a suspicious eye on these local holdovers.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job as the cooly detached Senate President Billy Bulger, a man who reached the highest office he could reach in Massachusetts while still retaining a level of anonymity. Bulger wielded enormous power as Senate President yet was never subjected to the spotlight he would have had on him were he to ascend to the governor's chair. And that was fine with him.

The rest of the supporting cast hold their own with a particular shout out going to Peter Sarsgaard for his rabid portrayal of a lunatic hitman who tries to rat out Bulger only to be turned back out to the streets by Bulger's boy Connelly.

All that said the real star of Black Mass in more ways than one is Depp who digs deep and most unexpectedly pulls an acting rabbit out of his hat. His Bulger takes Jack Nicholson's Bulger-inspired performance in The Departed and clears it off the table with the back of his hand. Depp conjures dread, loathing, fear, insanity and even sympathy without so much as raising his voice or moving at more than a snails pace.

There's one scene in particular that sums up Depp's performance. Early on in the film Bulger's son becomes mortally ill and lies dying in the hospital. We see Bulger and his girlfriend, the boy's mother, sitting by a window in the hospital cafeteria. The girlfriend says she'll pull the plug on her son herself rather than see him live life as a vegetable. Depp gazes deeply into her eyes at that statement. The camera switches to a wide shot profiling the two against the window with the table between them. Depp's Bulger gently reaches across the table and takes the bereaved mother's hand. I fully expected to hear "Hey. Don't say that. It's gonna be alright." or something to that effect. Instead after gently taking hold of his girlfriends hand he growls "What the fuck did you just say?" - cue the chills down my back.

Depp's work here is one of the best acting jobs of 2015. It's great stuff and I highly recommend you take a look. The fact that he didn't even get an Oscar nomination doesn't speak well for the Academy.

Verdict: ★★★★

Jan 11, 2016

RIP David Bowie. Rock star, movie star, artist, genius.

Jan 1, 2016

Star Wars: The Prediction Awakens

The Force Awakens is busy rewriting the US box office record books on pretty much a daily basis and will likely pass Avatar sometime in the next few days to become the new US box office champ (not adjusted for inflation of course). While that's all well and good I'm going to go on record here with my prediction that TFA will not unseat Avatar as all time worldwide box office champ. Sure, the film has yet to open in China but since it's performance in the rest of the world is currently mirroring that of the US it would need to do something like $1 billion in China alone to have a shot at Avatar's worldwide crown. And I don't see that happening.

So, for what it's worth - and because I have nothing better to do on New Year's Day - my prediction is that TFA will wind up comfortably besting Titanic but fall short of Avatar and become the new #2 movie of all time worldwide.

"It's true. Big blue people. Pandora. All of it. You won't beat them."