Archive for March, 2016

Directed by Zack Snyder. Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg and Gal Gadot.

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It is eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, and Superman has become a controversial figure. Is he messiah or menace? Is he a hero or merely a villain in waiting? In Gotham City Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has no doubts. He witnessed first-hand the damage wrought during Superman’s battle with General Zod.  Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) has similar fears about Superman and convenes senate hearings to discuss what kind of threat he poses. Meanwhile Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) tries to enlist Finch’s help to gain access to the crashed Krytonian ship, General Zod’s body and what remnants of Kryptonite that have been found on Earth.

Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent (Cavill) struggles to come to terms with Superman’s place in the world, but has no such doubts about his place in the heart of Lois Lane (Adams). Whilst Lois tries to track down who is behind a plot to discredit Superman, Clark has set his sights on his own journalistic investigation, into Bruce Wayne’s other identity as the masked vigilante Batman, though his editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is less enthusiastic about this.

As Bruce Wayne, aided by butler Alfred (Jeromy Irons almost stealing the film),and manipulated by Luthor, investigates how to take down Superman he comes across a mysterious woman (Gadot) who has her own secret identity as Wonder Woman.

As the pressure mounts against Superman a confrontation between the Man of Steel and the Bat of Gotham seems inevitable, but Lex Luthor is leaving nothing to chance, he’s using General Zod’s body to create a weapon that can seal Superman’s doom, if Batman can’t get the job done…

 

The first thing to say about BvS is that it’s not as terrible as many critics would have you believe. The second thing to say about BvS is that this doesn’t mean it’s a classic by any stretch of the imagination. It’s too long— way, waaaayyyy too long— too bloated, too dark and far too humourless. But there’s a lot to like about it by the same token.

The main problem with BvS is that it’s so very obvious that DC are furiously trying to play catch-up with Marvel, and like any organisation trying to replicate another’s success they want to cut as many corners as they can. Long before Marvel debuted their first Avengers film they’d been laying the groundwork. Iron Man had two standalone films prior to Avengers Assemble, and both Captain America and Thor had had one apiece. Nick Fury might not have had his own movie but he’d shown up in three other films beforehand, and we’d seen Black Widow, Loki and Agent Coulson in earlier films. Heck there’s even a sneak peak at Hawkeye in Thor. Really the only main cast member who’s new to the party is Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner.

By contrast whilst Superman, Lois, Perry and Martha Kent were all in Man of Steel, BvS gives us a new Batman, a new Alfred, a new Wonder Woman and a new Lex Luthor. And this is even before they try and shoehorn in Aquaman, The Flash and some kind of Cyborg thing. Oh and Doomsday!

In many ways it’s surprising that the film is as good as it is given there’s everything but the kitchen sink in there. In fact late in the film as Batman smashes a sink over someone’s head! Zach Snyder really doesn’t do subtle metaphors, and there’s very little that is subtle here. Superman is Jesus you see, and you will see because Snyder will hit you over the head until you do.

He is a divisive Director, and even I can’t be specific about how I feel about him. I thought his Dawn of the Dead remake was actually pretty good (not as good as the original obviously, but still…) I liked Man of Steel and his Watchmen was better than it had any right to be. But by the same token he made 300, a film that doubled its run time by virtue of so much of it being in sloooowwww moootiion, and he also made Sucker Punch, one of the most god awful films I’ve ever seen. He has an artistic eye for a well framed shot, but his background in comic book adaptations often means that his films can seem a little static. It’s about the defining image rather than the scene as a whole, and BvS is no exception. There’s lots of meaningful shots of Superman hovering in the air, or Batman hiding in the corner of a room, or of Wonder Woman readying to fight. Individually these moments look great, but they can give the film a slightly ponderous feel, especially once you factor in the two and a half hour run time, a length not helped by surreal flash forward/dream sequences (that one can only hope relate to future films) that do nothing to aid this film, and nor do the ham-fisted attempts to reference Aquaman etc. Too often it feels like you’re watching a film whose raison d’etre is to set up future films. I realise most Marvel films were the same, but the process at least felt more organic there.

I’ve been negative enough so I’ll go onto some positives, and the biggest ones for me relate to the characters who inhabit the caves under Stately Wayne Manor. Make no mistake, Affleck is the best leftfield casting as Bats since Michael Keaton (Bale was great but I think most people assumed he would be, Affleck’s casting, like Keaton’s, drew a lot of flak.)   My only doubts really came from the fact that I’ve always seen him as a very working class actor, but he plays the scion of a corporate empire to perfection and I like his weary, experienced take on the characters of both Batman and Bruce Wayne—and whilst I’m not saying he is the best Batman or the best Bruce Wayne, he might be the best balanced in that he convinces as both. There’s an anger in him that the character should have, and a midlife angst about needing to leave something behind beyond the capturing of low level punks who are replaced, as he puts it, like so many weeds. His Batman is not just about punching things though, because he also gets to play detective, which is often the aspect of Batman overlooked. If there is a fault to the portrayal of Batman it’s that he seems so easily manipulated by Luthor, but that’s hardly Affleck’s fault.

And then there’s Jeromy Irons as Alfred. As with Batman it’s no mean task to bring something new to the role, but Irons manages it with his resigned, acerbic butler, who seems more of a technological handyman, and most of the film’s few laughs come courtesy of him. I really hope we get a solo Batman film now.

Henry Cavill is less well served as Superman, in part because he’s already established, but also because the character treads a fine line between noble and boring, because despite trying to paint him in shades of grey, he really is a boy scout, a decent man and often they can seem a little dull. Cavill has charisma (just watch The Man from UNLCE for proof) he just doesn’t get much opportunity to display it here, and even his Clark Kent feels too rigid and upstanding. He’s Dudley Do right in both roles, which just makes Batman even more interesting. The wonderful Amy Adams is similarly ill served as Lois, too often little more than rescue bait. Adams is a good actor and deserves better.

A lot of people have really taken against Eisenberg as Lex, but I actually quite liked his performance—though maybe it’s because I haven’t seen The Social Network as I understand he’s just doing a riff on his Zuckerberg performance. Still for me he was good (certainly a better Lex than Kevin Spacey, which sounds so wrong but is true) and any issues I have with the character again come down to the script rather than the actor.

As Diana Prince Gadot isn’t actually in the film very much, mostly swanning around fancy parties in a fancy frock. People seem to like her, I can’t say I was overly impressed, not even when she finally dons the outfit but when she’s the centre of attention in her own film perhaps she’ll display more screen presense.

On the whole the actors are very good, it’s just that the film has too much plot, and so much of it makes no sense. Yes Batman and Superman have fought before, but when Frank Miller had them battle it was a fight based on decades of animosity. Despite the plot telling us how much Batman has an issue with Superman, I never quite buy it. In a month or two we’re going to see Captain America go toe to toe with Iron Man, now that will have some emotional heft, because we’ve seen Evans and Downey Jr. butt heads before, we’ve seen them fight side by side and we’ve seen them be friends, BvS in contrast tries to force that kind of connection with no history and it just doesn’t work.

The fight, when it finally comes, between Batman and Superman is very good, probably better than the fight between the eventual trio of superheroes and Doomsday, which is just yet another CGI snooze fest to be honest. Batman’s battle with a bunch of kidnappers is very well realised, and Affleck’s regular batsuit seems more flexible than any iteration of Batman has had before (well to be fair Adam West’s wasn’t that cumbersome) and this really helps sell him as a real threat, and is another thing that adds to this version of Batman being a very good one.

The film is dark, which is fine, I’ve always thought of DC as being a little darker than Marvel anyway and I don’t want them to slavishly go down the witty Marvel route, but still, a bit of levity on occasion wouldn’t hurt, too often BvS is so rigid and serious you expect the film’s back to break, and even the film’s palette is muted—as was Man of Steel’s. Again Batman is best viewed in the shadows, but Superman has always been a much more colourful presence in the comic books and it’s a shame a better balance between the two couldn’t be found.

Much like the film, I fear this review is bloated and too long, so I’ll end soon. The most annoying thing about this is that it isn’t a terrible film, somehow despite the inconsistent plot jammed full of enough ideas for a trilogy, despite the at time ponderous direction, despite the excessive length, I did enjoy this, I just feel like DC should have created something punchier, something more fun. The aforementioned Captain America: Civil War is going to be dark, but that darkness will be balanced by at least the odd smidgen of light, and given the genuine history its protagonists have I’ll go on record right now and say I’ll be amazed if it isn’t a better film than BvS, and given we are talking two of the greatest superhero characters of all time here, that’s a shame.

See it. Enjoy it. Just don’t expect it to blow your Bat socks off.

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The Witch

Posted: March 17, 2016 in Film reviews, horror
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Directed by Robert Eggers. Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie.

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In 17th Century New England a man named William (Ineson) is sent into exile after disagreement with the religious leaders of the Puritan plantation that he and his family have been living at. William sets off with his wife Katherine (Dickie) his daughter Thomasin (Taylor-Joy) son Caleb, and young twins Mercy and Jonas. They locate a patch of land close to some woods and build a farmhouse there. After a while Katherine gives birth to a fifth child, Samuel.

One day Thomasin is playing with the baby when Samuel vanishes. William blames the child’s loss on wolves, but several within the family believe the baby was taken by a witch. As time passes and blight strikes their crops, hunger and paranoia see the notion that the family is cursed grow. But who is to blame? Is it Thomasin, whose own pubescence causes issues, or is it the twins who converse with one of the family’s goats, Black Phillip, or could it be that there is an external cause, a malevolent force living deep in the darkened woods?

And so Robert Eggers writing and directorial debut arrives trailing plaudits and awards from the Sundance film festival and cloaked in an advertising campaign that perhaps doesn’t do it any favours, emphasising the horror elements without necessarily preparing viewers for what they’re going to see.

I’ve heard reports of people walking out or being very unhappy when the lights came up. This isn’t to suggest The Witch is an especially nasty film, it’s not (or at least no worse than most other horror films) but it isn’t quite the film it’s billed as (which isn’t any kind of fault of the film makers). I knew little about the film but I was at least prepared for what kind of film it is.

The first thing to say is that there’s a lot to like about The Witch. The second thing to say is that it’s a hard film to like. If those two things seem at odds with one another, well I’m sorry but that’s just how it is.

First the good. The film features a truly terrifying soundtrack that’s unsettling on its own, let alone when you play it over brooding shots of deep dark woods. Eggers chose his location well, and the woods are practically a character in themselves; unsettling even when only seen in the background.

The small cast do a good job all round, even the two youngsters playing the twins who are wonderfully annoying. Harvey Scrimshaw is good as the conflicted Caleb, troubled by his own perceived sin and terrified that he’s going to go to hell, and Ineson and Dickie bring all of their experience to bear as the puritan parents, who love their children yet are hamstrung by their own religious paranoia. The standout however is Taylor-Joy who, going on this evidence, is going to have a very successful career. She’s perfect as the poor benighted Thomasin, a young girl on the cusp of womanhood struggling to find her place in the world and haunted by the loss of her baby brother while she was supposed to be watching him. Remove her and the film wouldn’t work half as well.

Eggers and his crew have also recreated 17th Century New England and its people to perfection, even going as far as to draw on historical sources for the dialogue.

Unfortunately the authentic period setting and dialogue works as much against the film as for it. At times this world seems a little impenetrable, and in particular the language makes it hard to truly engage with. It’s a slow burn of a film as well, and because it’s played so completely straight, at times it treads a very fine line (as horror often does) between what is frightening, and what is ludicrous, and there are certain elements, like the hare and Black Phillip, that are liable to make some audience members laugh rather than scream.

When it works though the film is genuinely unsettling and I do plan to watch it again on the small screen where its effect may well be magnified. It is be lauded for trying to do something a little bit different and it does make a pleasant change from most modern horror, but sadly, at least on first viewing, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as I expected to.

Triple 9

Posted: March 3, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by John Hillcoat. Starring Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson.

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In Atlanta Georgia a bank is robbed by a crew comprised of former soldiers and corrupt cops. They aren’t interested in money however, their target is the contents of a single safety deposit box. They’ve been hired by Irina Vlaslov (Winslet) the wife of a Russian gangster currently imprisoned in a gulag. The contents of the safety deposit box form part of a plan to get her husband released. There’s a second element to this however, which is held inside a secure Federal building, and she withholds payment from the robbers, demanding they undertake the second job. She uses intimidation and blackmail, in particular against the crew’s leader Michael Atwood (Ejiofor) who has a son by Irina’s sister (a woefully underused Gal Gadot).

The crew know they won’t have enough time to complete the heist before the police turn up, but detectives Belmont and Rodriguez (Mackie and Clifton Collins, Jr.) have an idea, they want to pull a Triple 9, the code given when a police officer is killed, something guaranteed to draw pretty much every cop in the city towards a single point. They even have an officer in mind, straight arrow detective Chris Allen (Affleck) who just happens to be the nephew of Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson) the senior detective investigating the original heist.

As the day of the heist draws near it the scene is set for violence and double crosses aplenty, but will anyone survive the day?

When I first saw the trailer for Triple 9 I was hooked. I love a good heist thriller and the cast was superb, with the addition of The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul being the icing on the cake.

Sadly a great cast doesn’t always equal a great film, and Triple 9 is far from being a classic, in fact its main virtue seems to be to remind you just how fantastic films like Training Day actually are.

The script is unimaginative and pretty much every twist or double cross you can see coming a mile away. The action scenes are decent, if a little generic, but there are long gaps in between them. That’s fine, often I prefer the talky scenes to the action ones anyway, but the trouble is that the dialogue is flat, and because of the sheer number of actors involved no character gets fleshed out, they’re all two dimensional and therefore it’s hard to care about any of them. Harrelson stands out but even so he’s just playing a slightly scuzzier version of his character in True Detectives (Similarly Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul with their respective TV characters). As if with no space to establish a character many of the actors just fall back on type.

Ejiofor convinces as a mercenary and puts his all into it but even he feels sketchy. Similarly Winslet, whose performance seems to mainly revolve around her character’s dress sense and a vague hint of an accent (which is a nice touch, it would have been easy to overdo that). I don’t blame the actors, they can only work with what they have and I thought most of them did a good job, especially Mackie who at least manages to inflect his character with a hint of shade. Affleck is worst served as the white hat of the piece.

The Atlanta setting is at least a change from the standard New York/LA backdrop too many films of this ilk use, but even so at times we could be watching any city and it never comes alive as a character within the film, which to be honest is a problem the rest of the ensemble have.

It isn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just utterly average and forgettable.