“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (2016) Review

Following on the heels of the success of 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”, I had expected the Warner Brothers Studios to follow up with another movie about Superman, starring Henry Cavill. To my surprise, the studio had announced another movie featuring Superman, only the comic book character would be sharing top billing with another from the pages of D.C. Comics.

Warner Brothers surprised me with the announcement that their next comic book movie would feature Superman aka Clark Kent co-starring with none other than Batman aka millionaire Bruce Wayne. And the latter would be portrayed by Ben Affleck. Needless to say, I was not pleased by this announcement. I saw it as a personal insult to Cavill, who had really impressed me as the Man of Steel. And I felt that Warner Brothers could have given Affleck his own stand-alone film about the Caped Crusader, before rushing into some attempt to rush into a “Justice League of America” situation, similar to the one featuring the Avengers for Marvel Films and the Disney Studios. About a week before “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was due to be released in movie theaters, I read a series of reviews that literally bashed the film. Now, I have never been a major fan of director Zack Synder in the past. And I was pleased that he did not go overboard with the angst factor in “MAN OF STEEL” as he has done with his previous films. But after reading so many negative reviews . . . well, I did not expect to like this movie. However, I had to see it just to satisfy my curiousity.

“BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” began during the last events of “MAN OF STEEL”. It began with billionaire Bruce Wayne aka Batman arrival in Metropolis to assist Wayne Enterprises employees caught up with the city’s citizens in the destruction caused by Superman’s battle against fellow Kryptonian General Zod. Unfortunately for Bruce, one of his top executives is killed and the legs of another employee named Wallace Keefe are permanently damaged from falling debris. Due to these events, Bruce begins to view Superman as a destructive threat to Earth and desires to find a way to bring down the Man of Steel. Nearly two years later, Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane is visiting a North African country to interview a political figure believed to be a terrorist. However, her interview is cut short when the men who had accompanied her kill the terrorist’s men and many local villagers. Superman aka Clark Kent manages to rescue her from the terrorist, but Lois ends up feeling very disturbed by the event. But she is not the only one. Many people, including a Kentucky senator named June Finch blame Superman for the incident and like Bruce, begin to view him as a threat. Many are unaware that Metropolis’ top billionaire, Lex Luthor, was behind the incident in Northern Africa. Like Bruce, he began to view Superman as a threat . . . but to his own plans and his sense of worth. Unlike Bruce, he commences upon a plan to exploit the distrust of Senator Finch and others to bring down Superman and other meta-humans of whom he has become aware.

When I first learned that Warner Brothers had decided to follow up “MAN OF STEEL” with a movie in which Superman was to share top billing with Batman, I was not thrilled. In fact, I had hoped they would do a second Superman movie. And while the movie was being shot, I was more than determined not to like this film. Reading the movie’s negative reviews made me believe that disliking it would come very easy to me. And then . . . lo and behold! I ended up leaving the theater with a positive view about the film.

Mind you, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” was not perfect in my eyes. I had two problems with it – one major and the other minor. My minor problem with “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” has a lot to do with my virulent dislike of Snyder’s 2009 movie, “THE WATCHMEN”. The director utilized a device that he had carried over from the 2009 movie – namely the use of graffiti in some scenes. I thought he had overused it in “THE WATCHMEN” and continued to do so in this film. And the graffiti only brought back unpleasant memories of the 2009 film.

My major complaint against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” has to do with the relationship between Batman and Lex Luthor. In one scene during the film’s last half hour, Luthor revealed to Clark that he had created situations not only to slowly direct public opinion against the latter, but also Bruce Wayne, whom he knew to be Batman. Luthor figured that Batman would go after the Man of Steel and the latter would eventually kill the former. I must admit that I found this very confusing, considering that the movie never hinted that Luthor was interested in killing Bruce in the movie’s first half. In fact, the Luthor Corp. files that Bruce had uploaded and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman had stolen did not even contain any information on Batman. I had assumed that Luthor only became interested in killing Batman . . . after the latter had stolen the Kryptonite his people had discovered in the Indian Ocean and destroyed a LexCorp lab. And the movie that I had seen in a theater seemed to verify my assumption. Like I said . . . confusing!

So . . . what did I like about “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”? Well, the story. Okay, I really enjoyed it. I liked the fact that the movie eventually promised what its title had hinted . . . a conflict between Superman and Batman that eventually led to the promise of the Justice League of America. And screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer presented this development with a very emotional and complex tale. What I found particularly interesting is that nearly everything in this tale is a direct result of the events from “MAN OF STEEL”. This was especially the case for both Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s hostility toward Superman. In fact, Luthor used the dead body of General Zod (courtesy of the U.S. government) to not only study Kryptonian physiology, but also create the monster Doomsday, which would prove to be a threat in the movie’s final action sequence.

The movie also featured some excellent emotional development for the main characters. Again, this seemed to be the case for Clark Kent’s growing despair from the public and the government’s reactions to the events in Northern Africa; his disapproval toward Batman’s more violent vigilante activities; the latter’s anger towards the events from “MAN OF STEEL” and the heady mixture of paranoia and ego that drove Lex Luthor to investigate other meta-humans and plot against Superman.

For a movie heavy on action, it featured some interesting dramatic moments. My favorites included Clark’s clashes with Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White over investigating Batman’s activities in Gotham City; the first meeting between Clark, Bruce and Diana Prince at a party held by Luthor in Metropolis; Bruce’s lingering anger over what happened in “MAN OF STEEL”; Luthor’s clashes with Senator Finch over his plans to deal with Superman; Clark’s conversations with his adoptive mother Martha Kent about his activities as Superman and with the ghost of his adoptive father, Jonathan Kent; Lois Lane confrontation with Luthor before the final action began; and also, Diana and Bruce’s comments on the public’s fickle attitude toward Superman. The movie also featured further development of the relationship between Clark and Lois, which culminated in a very charming and sexy moment in a bathtub. I thought Sndyer handled these scenes very well, which is not surprising. He has always managed to get great performances from his actors . . . even in his movies that I dislike.

However, first and foremost, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” is a comic book hero film . . . an action-adventure film. And Snyder was certainly in his element as a director. This especially seemed to be the case in those scenes that featured Lois and Superman’s adventures in northern Africa, Bruce’s dreams about leading a group of rebels against Superman, Batman’s attempt to steal the kryptonite from Luthor, his rescue of Martha from Luthor’s henchmen, and the attempt to rescue both Metropolis and Gotham from Luthor’s newly created monster, Doomsday.

However, one half of the movie’s title is called “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”. Many movie fans and critics had dismissed the idea of an effective battle between the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. So did I. After all, Batman was not really a meta-human – someone with super abilities – merely a highly trained costumed crime fighter. The movie made me realize that many of us had forgotten that Bruce Wayne also had brains. Through his investigation of a Russian weapon-trafficker named Anatoli Knyazev, he learned that Luthor was not only investigating meta-humans, but had found a possible weapon against Superman. Kryptonite. By creating weapons from the kryptonite he had stolen from Luthor Corp. and a powered exoskeleton suit, Batman was able to put up a good fight against the Man of Steel. And surprisingly, their battle proved to be very effective to me . . . even if many still believe otherwise.

The other half of the movie’s title was “DAWN OF JUSTICE”, which hinted the beginning of the Justice League of America aka the Super Friends. I found it interesting that Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor’s reactions to the events from “MAN OF STEEL” not only led to their fear of Superman and attempts to find a way to destroy the latter, but also to hints of the forthcoming creation of the Justice League of America. It all centered around Luthor’s investigation of other meta-humans and the files Bruce and Diana had found within Luthor Corp.’s computer mainframe. The file not only contained information and video clips on Diana’s past as Wonder Woman during World War I, but also on Barry Allen aka the Flash, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman and Victor Stone aka Cyborg. But it was that one scene in which Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman finally decided to form a team to battle the monster Doomsday . . .

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. . . that led to memories of the old ABC animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS” and its theme song going through my mind. It was a wonderful moment for me.

There was one aspect of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” that left a heavy imprint on my mind was the fickleness of human nature. We humans are a fickle, controlling and very selfish specie. Snyder and screenwriters Terrio and Goyer really did an excellent job in portraying those aspects of our nature through the character of Superman. I found it interesting that many viewed Superman as a savior or angel. This was apparent in the statues raised in his honor and this almost selfish demand that he serve as their savior and nothing else. I can recall one moment in which victims of a flood had left the symbol on his costume painted on their roof to attract his attention. On the other hand, there were many others viewed him as a real threat against humanity . . . even after he had saved them from General Zod’s plans in “MAN OF STEEL”. Both Bruce and Senator Finch blamed Superman for the destruction that had occurred in Metropolis nearly two years ago, conveniently forgetting that it was Zod’s arrival on Earth that had led to that destruction. I came away with the feeling that people like Bruce, Senator Finch and Wayne Enterprises employee Wallace Keefe used Superman as a scapegoat, since the latter ended up being the last Kryptonian left standing. I do not find this surprising for using others as scapegoats is a very human thing to do. After the Congress bombing, even those who had seen Superman as a savior began to think otherwise. They did not come to this conclusion via any investigation on their parts. Superman was the last person standing and ergo, became “Suspect Number One” . . . just as he had become following Zod’s death. No wonder Clark had fallen into despair and walked away for a while. And no wonder Diana had such contempt toward the public’s renewed good opinion of Superman following the battle against Doomsday.

I have been talking about the plot so much that I forgot about other aspects of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – namely its technical and artistic effects. I might as well start with Patrick Tatopoulos’ production design. Tatopoulos did not have to create an alien world or a setting from the past. But I was impressed by his duel designs for not only the cities of Metropolis and Gotham, but also the northern African town at the movie’s beginning, Washington D.C. and the damage caused by Doomsday in the two fictional cities. He had ample support from the art direction and visual effects teams. I was surprised that Zack Snyder did not use Larry Fong as cinematographer for “MAN OF STEEL”. Because the latter had worked with Snyder on both “300” and “THE WATCHMEN”. In a way, Fong’s style, which struck me as sleek, rich in color and slightly dark, reminded me of Wally Pfister’s work for many of Christopher Nolan’s films. I have noticed that a good of Han Zimmer’s movie scores have seemed a little heavy-handed lately. And it certainly seemed to be the case for “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. But there were moments when that heavy-handedness seemed to mesh rather well with certain scenes, especially during those that hinted the future Justice League of America and the battle against Doomsday.

Ben Affleck became the eighth actor to portray Bruce Wayne aka Batman on screen (television or movie) and the public had not reacted well to the news of his casting. I found this astounding, considering that Affleck is a first-rate actor, who had previous experience portraying a costume hero when he played Matt Murdock aka Daredevil in the 2003 movie about the character. Affleck did an excellent job in portraying the paranoid aspects of Wayne’s nature in a very intense and at times, slightly scary manner. Henry Cavill was equally effective in his continuing portrayal of Clark Kent aka Superman. The loneliness that seemed to mark his performance in “MAN OF STEEL” seemed to have been replaced by satisfaction in Clark’s relationship with Lois Lane, intense determination to investigate Batman’s activities and frustration with Perry White’s unwillingness to allow him to embark on that investigation. My favorite scene with Cavill involved Clark’s quarrel with Perry about investigating Batman. And my favorite Cavill moment was the “What the fuck is wrong with you?” expression he gave Luthor when the latter introduced him to the Doomsday monster. But following the Congress bombing, that old despair and loneliness returned in full force. When I first heard about this movie, I thought Amy Adams’ role would be reduced from what it was in “MAN OF STEEL”. Thankfully, my fears were abated, for not only did Lois continue to play a major role in this DC Comics universe, she also played a major role in exposing Luthor’s plans and eliminating Batman’s anger toward Superman. Being the consummate actress that she is, Adams did a superb job in conveying not only Lois’ emotional vulnerability regarding Clark and what happened in northern Africa, but also her intelligence and determination to discover the truth.

The movie also featured an exceptional performance from Jesse Eisenberg as main villain, Lex Luthor. Not only was his movie exceptional, but also rather surprising. It was not that I thought him incapable of portraying a villain, but I just could not see him as Lex Luthor. I was wrong. He gave a fantastic performance. It seemed both subtle and overly dramatic at the same time . . . in a good way. He made Luthor seem very eccentric . . . again, in a good way. Diane Lane returned to portray Clark’s adoptive mother, Martha Kent. Her portrayal of Martha struck me as rather unusual. In other comic book hero movies, maternal types like Martha tend to give speeches to the main hero in order to motivate them in serving the public. What I liked about Lane’s Martha is that she was more concerned about Clark’s well being and happiness than him fulfilling some destiny as a hero or savior. It may seem selfish, but it also seemed very real to me.

Gal Gadot became the first actress to portray Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman in a very long time. Ever since Lynda Carter ended her run with the ABC/CBS series in 1979, Hollywood seemed reluctant to bring the Amazonian Princess back to the screen. Thankfully, Warner Brothers, Snyder and Nolan ended that dry run by hiring Gadot for the role. And she was perfect . . . spot on. I never thought another actress could do justice to the role – except for Marvel alumni Jamie Alexander from “THOR”. But Gadot was perfect and I look forward to seeing her solo movie. Jeremy Irons, to my utmost surprise, became DC Comics’ new Alfred Pennyworth. His portrayal seemed so different from past performances – a little less of a servant and more of a companion for Bruce. More importantly, I really enjoyed the sardonic wit that Irons had infused into the character. But he was not the only one. Laurence Fishburne returned as Clark and Lois’ boss, Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White. In “MAN OF STEEL”, Fishburne had infused a touch of dry wit into his portrayal. In this movie, that wit was in full force and even more sharper – especially in the actor’s scenes with Cavill. I really enjoyed his presence in this film. The movie also featured some excellent supporting performances from the likes of Holly Hunter, who gave a wonderfully sarcastic speech to Luthor in her portrayal of Senator June Finch; Harry Lennix, who returned as former General now Secretary Calvin Swanwick; Scoot McNairy, who portrayed Wallace Keefe, the Wayne Enterprises employee who had been crippled during Superman’s battle with General Zod; and Kevin Costner, who returned with a poignant performance as the ghostly figure of Clark’s adoptive father, Jonathan Kent.

To this day, I am flabbergasted by the media’s negative campaign against “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. I do not understand it . . . period. I could have understood if the movie had drawn some criticism. But this unrelenting criticism struck me as unreal . . . especially after I had seen the film. But you know what? I realize that I should not care. I saw the movie twice and I enjoyed what I had seen. Yes, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” (what a mouthful!) had some flaws. What movie does not? But overall, I was very pleased by this film. I like to think that I understood what director Zack Snyder, along with screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer were trying to say. And I enjoyed the performances of the cast led by Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill very much. More importantly, I am glad that the cinematic version of the Justice League of America has finally commenced. Regardless of the opinions of others, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” more than satisfied me. It has become one of my favorite movies of 2016.

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“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

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“MAN OF STEEL” (2013) Review

When I first learned that Warner Brothers Studios and D.C. Comics planned to release another Superman movie, I did not greet the news with any enthusiasm. In fact, my first reaction was sheer frustration. The last D.C. Comics movie I wanted to see was another Superman movie.

There were so many reasons for my negative reaction to the news of a new Superman movie. The last one I saw was 2006’s “SUPERMAN RETURNS”, which had been directed by Bryan Singer. There had also been two television series about the Man of Steel in the past twenty (20) years – “LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN” (1993-1997) and “SMALLVILLE” (2001-2011). The film subsidiary for Marvel Comics have shown a willingness to release movies featuring a vast array of their comic book characters. On the other hand, D.C. Comics seems to be stuck on either Superman or Batman for television and movie material. There have been minor exceptions to the rule – including the Oliver Queen/Green Arrow character that became a regular on “SMALLVILLE”; the 2011 film, “THE GREEN LANTERN”; and the recent WB television series, “ARROW” (the Green Arrow again). Wonder Woman has not been a subject of a movie or television series in her own right since the Lynda Carter series from the 1970s. An unsuccessful television series about the Flash failed to last one season. And Aquaman merely served as a guest character on“SMALLVILLE” for a few episodes.

I had one other reservation regarding the announcement of a new Superman movie. The producers had chosen Zack Synder to direct the film. And I have never been a fan of his past films, at least the ones I have seen – namely the very successful “300”, the critically acclaimed “THE WATCHMEN” and “SUCKER PUNCH”. When I learned he had been selected to direct the new Superman film, “MAN OF STEEL”, my enthusiasm sunk even further. However, I saw the movie’s new trailer last spring and my opposition to the movie began to wane. What can I say? It impressed me. So, I decided to open my mind and give “MAN OF STEEL” a chance.

Thanks to David S. Goyer’s screenplay and the story created by him and Christopher Nolan, “MAN OF STEEL” follows the origins of Superman. Well . . . somewhat. The movie begins on the planet of Krypton, where scientist Jor-El assists his wife in the birth of their newborn son, Kal-El. Due to years of exploiting the planet’s natural resources by the planet’s inhabitants, the planet has an unstable core and faces imminent destruction. Jor-El and Lara plans to send their son to Earth to ensure his survival. They also infuse his cells with a genetic codex of the entire Kryptonian race, something that the planet’s military commander, General Zod desires. Zod and his followers commit a military coup. And the general murders Jor-El, after learning what the latter did with the genetic codex. But Zod and his followers are immediately captured and banished to the Phantom Zone. When Krypton finally self-destructs, the explosion frees Zod and his people; setting them on a search for young Kal-El and the genetic codex at other worlds colonized by Kryptonians.

Kal-El eventually lands on Earth and in the middle of the Kansas countryside. A farmer and his wife – Jonathan and Martha Kent – adopts and raises him, renaming him Clark Kent. However, Clark’s Kryptonian physiology gives him super abilities on Earth, which raises a lot of social problems for him. Jonathan eventually reveals to Clark that he came from another planet and advises not to use his abilities in public. Following Jonathan’s death, a bereaved Clark spends several years roaming the country and working at odd jobs, while he deals with his grief and save people in secret. He eventually infiltrates a scientific discovery of a Kryptonian scout spaceship in the Arctic, which had been discovered by the military. Also there is a reporter from the Daily Planet named Lois Lane. Clark, who is unaware of being followed by Lois, enters the alien ship. It allows him to communicate with the preserved consciousness of Jor-El in the form of a hologram. Jor-El reveals Clark’s origins and the extinction of his race, and tells Clark that he was sent to Earth to bring hope to mankind. Meanwhile, General Zod and his crew pick up a Kryptonian distress signal sent from the ship Clark had discovered on Earth. Zod arrives and demands the humans surrender Kal-El, whom he believes has the codex, or else Earth will be destroyed.

So . . . what did I not like about “MAN OF STEEL”? For one, I disliked the shaky cam photography used by Amir Mokri. I disliked its use by Paul Greengrass in some of his movies. I disliked its use in “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. And I certainly did not like its use in this film. It made the final confrontations between Superman and the Kryptonians more confusing. Then again, David Brenner’s editing certainly did not help – not in this scene or in the burning oil rig sequence in the movie’s first half hour. I have been a fan of Hans Zimmer for years. But I found his score for this movie rather heavy-handed, especially his use of horns. Speaking of Superman and the Kryptonians’ final confrontations – I thought it was a bit over-the-top in regard to the destruction inflicted upon Metropolis. It reminded me of final action sequence in “IRON MAN 3”, which I also did not care for.

Fortunately, there was a great deal more about “MAN OF STEEL” that I liked. And I find this amazing, considering my past opinion of director Zack Synder. David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan wrote a first-rate origin story for Superman. I noticed that they utilized the same or a similar story structure that they had used in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Instead of allowing Superman to face his most famous adversary in the first film, Goyer and Nolan utilized Superman’s Kryptonian origins to play a major role in the film’s story. Instead of Lex Luthor, Superman’s main nemesis in “MAN OF STEEL” proved to be General Zod. Some fans of the franchise were annoyed by this. I was not. Goyer and Nolan also did a first-rate job in exploring Clark Kent/Superman’s emotional growth, the loneliness he had endured during his childhood in flashbacks and those years he wandered before discovering the Kryptonian ship in the Artic, and his wariness toward the human race. I especially do not recall any previous Superman story or television series exploring the latter. How very original of Goyer and Nolan. Some fans have complained about the different twists that Goyer, Nolan and director Zack Synder made to the Superman mythos – especially in his relationship with reporter Lois Lane. I do not understand the complaints, considering the number of twists and changes that have been made to the Superman mythos in movies and especially television during the past twenty years. And honestly? The twist to Clark/Superman’s relationship with Lois made the story fresher.

Although I did not particularly care for the over-the-top destruction featured in “MAN OF STEEL”, I must admit that the special effects featured in that last scene impressed me very much. I was also impressed by their work in the sequence that featured Superman’s fight against Faora-Ul and the other Kryptonian in Smallville. But the one sequence that featured some great special effects happened to be the one on Krypton. I found the effects very beautiful. In fact, there were other aspects of that sequence that really impressed me – namely Alex McDowell’s production designs, Anne Kuljian’s set decorations, Kim Sinclair and Chris Farmer’s art direction and especially James Acheson and Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs. Some have complained by the lack of red shorts for Superman’s costume. But I did not miss them. More importantly, I liked how Sinclair and Farmer linked Superman’s costume with those worn by many of the Kryptonians.

When I first heard that Henry Cavill had been hired to portray Clark Kent/Superman, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback. Mind you, the idea of a British actor portraying an American comic book character was nothing new, thanks to Christian Bale’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman and the Anglo-American Andrew Garfield’s recent portrayal of Spider-Man. I only felt uncertain if Cavill could portray a Midwesterner with the proper accent. Okay, I am not an expert in Midwestern accents. But Cavill handled the American accent rather well. More importantly, he gave a superb performance as the quiet, yet emotional Clark Kent who had spent a good number of years wallowing in loneliness. I was surprised that Amy Adams had signed on to portray Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. I did not expect her to appear in a comic book hero movie. But I must admit that I really enjoyed her performance, especially since her Lois proved to be a lot less blind about Superman’s secret identity and more willing to track down the truth. Michael Shannon effectively utilized that same intensity that provided for his Nelson Van Alden role in HBO’s “BOARDWALK EMPIRE” in his performance as the single-minded Kryptonian General Zod.

Antje Traue proved to be even more scary than Shannon as Zod’s second-in-command, the less verbal Faora-Ul. Laurence Fishburne gave an intense performance as Perry White, the no-nonsense editor of theDaily Planet. Russell Crowe’s Jor-El not only proved to be charismatic, but something of a bad ass. Ayelet Zurer provided a great deal of pathos and emotion in her performance as Superman’s mother, Lara Lor-Van. Diane Lane proved to be the movie’s emotional rock in her down-to-earth performance as Martha Kent, Superman’s adopted mother. And Kevin Costner’s portrayal of Jonathan Kent proved to be just as charismatic as Crowe’s Jor-El and as emotional as Zurer’s Lara. The movie also featured some solid performances from the likes of Richard Schiff, Michael Kelly and Christopher Meloni. I was really impressed with Harry Lennix’s performance as the commanding, yet paranoid General Swanwick.

“MAN OF STEEL” had a few problems. But I believe that the movie possessed a great deal more virtues, including a first-rate story created by David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan and a superb cast led by a talented Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. But I was very surprised by Zack Synder’s direction, especially since he managed to curtail some of his less-than-pleasant excesses in past films and at the same time effectively helm a first-rate movie. For the first time, I found myself being more than pleased by a movie directed by Synder.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

For the past three years, the career of David O. Russell seemed to be on a roll. During said period, he has directed, produced or both three movies that have garnered a great deal of acclaim and awards. The latest of this “Golden Trio” happened to be a period comedy drama called “AMERICAN HUSTLE”.

Set mainly in 1978, “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, set up by the F.B.I. as a sting operation against various government officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The movie begins with two con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are caught in a loan scam by F.B.I. Special Agent Richie Di Maso. The latter proposes to release them if Irving assists him in a sting operation against Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, New Jersey and other officials. Sydney tries to convince Irving not to agree with Richie’s proposal. But desperate to avoid prison and reluctant to leave his adopted son with his verbose and slightly unstable wife Rosalyn, Irving agrees to assist Richie and the F.B.I. The sting operation nearly starts off on the wrong foot, thanks to a clumsy tactic on Richie’s part, but Irving manages to woo back the charismatic and popular Carmine, who is seeking funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. The scam seems to be going fine, despite Sydney’s growing relationship with Richie. But when Carmine introduces Irving, Sydney and Richie to the notoriously violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio into the plan to raise money; and Rosalyn’s jealous nature and notoriously big mouth threatens to expose the sting operation; Irving realizes he has to come up with an alternate plan to save him and Sydney from the Mob and the F.B.I.

While watching “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it occurred to me that it is filled with some very interesting and eccentric characters. First, there are the two lovebirds – Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – with his odd toupee and her fake British accent. Then we have Richie Di Maso is an ambitious “Mama’s Boy” with hair permed into tight curls, who is a bit too eager to prove himself with the F.B.I. Irving’s wife Rosalyn is an unhappily married woman with a big mouth and a careless and self-involved personality. And Mayor Polito is a happy-go-lucky politician with a rather large pompadour hair-style and questionable connections to the Mob. The movie is also populated with a Latino F.B.I. agent recruited by Richie to potray a wealthy Arab sheik, a charming Mob soldier who ends up falling for Rosalyn, Richie’s frustrated and wary F.B.I. supervisor, and a very sinister Mob boss that can speak Arabic. If I have to be perfectly honest, I would have to say that the movie’s array of characters struck me as being the movie’s strong point.

This should not have been a surprise. “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is also filled with some great performances. Christian Bale gave a wonderfully subtle and complex performance as the aging and stressed out con man who reluctantly finds himself involved with a scam operation set up by the F.B.I. He certainly clicked with Amy Adams, who gave one of the most subtle performances of her career as the charming, yet desperate former stripper-turned-con artist, who found herself in a state of flux over her freedom and her relationship with her partner/lover. Bradley Cooper was practically a basket of fire as the aggressive F.B.I. Agent Richie Di Maso, who become over-eager to make a name for himself within the Bureau. Mind you, there were moments when Cooper’s performance seemed to border on hamminess. I could also say the same for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s not-so-stable wife, Rosalyn. However, I must admit that Lawrence also provided the movie with some of its best comic moments. Jeremy Renner was a joy to watch as the charismatic mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito. The latter must have been the most happy-go-lucky role he has ever done.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Louis C.K. was very effective Richie’s long suffering boss, Special Agent Stoddard Thorsen. Michael Peña provided some memorable comic moments as Special Agent Paco Hernandez, who surprised everyone with his ability to speak Arabic. Robert De Niro, who also made a surprising appearance as mobster Victor Tellegio, gave a subtle and intimidating appearance . . . especially in a scene in which he tested Agent Thorsen’s ability to speak Arabic. The movie also featured solid performances from Jack Huston as a young mobster, Alessandro Nivola as Richie and Thoren’s boss, Anthony Zerbe as a corrupt congressman, and Elisabeth Röhm as Mayor Polito’s equally happy-go-lucky wife Dolly.

I was also impressed by the production designs for “AMERICAN HUSTLE”. Judy Becker and her team did an exceptional job of bringing the late 1970s back to life. She was also assisted by Heather Loeffler’s set decorations and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs did an excellent job of not only capturing that particular era, but also representing the major character. This was especially apparent in his costumes for the Sydney Prosser, who used low-cut dresses and gowns to distract her marks. And I mean very low cut.

If there is one problem I have with “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it is probably Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s screenplay. At first, it seemed perfectly fine to me. But eventually, there were aspects of the screenplay I found either troubling or confusing. One, I noticed that Russell tried utilize the use of multiple narrations that Martin Scorsese used in his 1995 movie, “CASINO”. At first, he used Irving and Sydney’s narration. Then he added Richie’s voice to the mix. The problem is that I can only recall Richie’s narration in one scene. Nor do I recall Sydney’s narration in the movie’s second half. Also, the first half of the movie seemed to hint that Richie’s mark in his operation was Camden’s Mayor Polito, who wanted to raise funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Why? Why would the mayor of Camden be interested in revitalizing the fortunes of another city, located in another county? And why was the F.B.I. so interested in Camden’s mayor? At first, I thought the agency was aware of his mob ties. But when Carmine introduced Irving and Richie to mobster Victor Tellegio, both the con man and the Federal agent seemed by the mobster’s appearance. So, why did Richie target Carmine in the first place? To make matters even more confusing, Richie extended his sting operation to several members of Congress. There seemed to be no focus in the operation and especially in the story.

Despite the confusing screenplay, I must admit that “AMERICAN HUSTLE” was an entertaining movie. Not only did it recaptured the era of the 1970s, but also featured some superb performances from a cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. I thought it was entertaining enough to overlook its flaws.

“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

the-master

“THE MASTER” (2012) Review

Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to be one of those filmmakers who embody what critics would categorize as a modern day “auteurist” that release a movie every few years to dazzle moviegoers and critics with his or her personal creative vision. During his sixteen years as a director and filmmaker, he has made four short films and six feature movies. One of the six feature films is his latest, “THE MASTER”

Believed by many to be an exposé on Scientology, “THE MASTER”tells of the story of a World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, who struggles to adjust to a post-war society. Freddie uses sex and alcohol to escape his personal demons. But when his drinking and violent behavior leads him to lose jobs as a department store photographer and a field worker on a cabbage farm, Freddie ends up in San Francisco, where he stows aboard a yacht that belongs to one Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause”. Dodd sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. But Freddie’s drunken and violent behavior fails to abate and Dodd’s wife, daughter and son-in-law begin to express doubt that the latter can help the World War II veteran.

What can I say about “THE MASTER”? Did it turn out to be the exposé on Scientology that many believed it would become? Not really. Despite its title, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more about Freddie Quell than Lancaster Dodd and “the Cause”. The movie did feature practices that are believed to be similar to those practiced by members of Scientology. But the movie’s deeper focus on Freddie’s personal demons has led me to believe that the Church of Scientology has nothing to fear. In the end, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more of a character study of the very disturbed Freddie Quell, along with a secondary study of Lancaster Dodd . . . and their friendship. And Paul Thomas Anderson revealed these two character studies in a movie with a running time of 143 minutes.

There were aspects of “THE MASTER” I found very admirable. The movie featured outstanding performances from Joaquin Phoenix, who gave a volatile portrayal of the disturbing Freddie Quell. I was also impressed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. His performance not only hinted in subtle ways, his understanding of Freddie’s demons, but the possibility that he once possessed similar demons. And Amy Adams was memorable as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s second or third wife, who not only seemed more dedicated to “the Cause” than her husband; but also seemed to understand both him and Freddie with a frankness the two men seemed unwilling to face. The movie also featured solid performances from Laura Dern, who portrayed a hardcore devotee to Dodd; Rami Malek, Dodd’s quiet and unassuming son-in-law who assumes a dislike of Freddie; Ambyr Childers, Dodd’s daughter, who hides a lusty attraction to Freddie; Jesse Plemons, who portrays Dodd’s disenchanted son; Madisen Beaty, who portrays Freddie’s love of his life; and Kevin J. O’Connor, a devotee of “the Cause” who is not impressed by Dodd’s writing.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production designs. David Frank and Jack Fisk did an excellent job in re-creating America during the post-World War II era and the beginning of the 1950s. Mark Bridges’ costumes were tasteful and at the same time, projected an accuracy of the era. And cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captured Anderson’s direction and the movie’s setting with some impressive photography.

So, did I enjoy “THE MASTER”? No. In fact, I dislike the movie . . . intensely. There is nothing more boring than a 143 minute character study, in which the main character does not evolve or devolve. Freddie Quell never changes. Perhaps this was the lesson that Anderson was trying to convey. But honestly, he could have done this with more solid writing, a shorter running time and with less pretentiousness. And I have never seen a movie with so much pretentiousness since Joe Wright’s movie, “HANNA”. While watching an early scene that featured Freddie dry humping a nude woman made from sand on a beach, I began to suspect that my patience might be tested with this film. I had no idea my patience would eventually slipped into sheer boredom. One cannot image the relief I felt when the movie finally ended.

I realize that “THE MASTER” has received a great deal of acclaim from critics and some moviegoers. But I simply failed to see the magic. And if this movie manages to acquire a great deal of nominations during the awards season (which it probably will), I will not be one of those cheering the movie for critical glory. I dislike it too much. Oh well. Perhaps I will like Anderson’s next film.

“LEAP YEAR” (2009/10) Review

“LEAP YEAR” (2009/10) Review

Every four years, the date February 29 appears, leading the West’s Georgian calendar to name the year it occurs as Leap Year. Although Leap Year occurred this year, Hollywood had decided to release a romantic comedy on the subject, some two years ago.

Directed by Anand Tucker, “LEAP YEAR” is a romantic comedy about a woman who learns from her father that Irish tradition holds that men cannot refuse a woman’s proposal for marriage on Leap Year. Upon learning this little Celtic tradition, an Irish-American woman named Anna Brady decides to head for Ireland, where her boyfriend is attending a medical conference, in order to force her boyfriend to accept her wedding proposal. Unfortunately, difficulties nearly disrupt Anna’s plans when a storm forces her plane to land in Wales. Determined to reach her boyfriend in Dublin by Leap Year, she risks a ferry over to Ireland and ends up at a small village on the Dingle Peninsula. There, she hires a surly Irish innkeeper, Declan O’Callaghan, to drive her across the country to Dublin in order to pull off the proposal in time. However, Anna begins to question her feelings about Jeremy, when she finds herself becoming attracted to Declan.

While watching “LEAP YEAR”, it occurred to me that it reminded me of a good number of other romantic road trip movies like the 1934 Oscar winning movie, “IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT” and 1985’s “THE SURE THING”. Unfortunately for “LEAP YEAR”, it was not as original . . . or fresh. Even worse, it is not the funniest or fascinating romantic comedy I have ever seen. Hmmm. I see that I have to be brutally honest. I might as well state that thanks to Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan’s script, “LEAP YEAR” struck me as a trite and barely funny movie. Perhaps I had exaggerated a bit. There was a good deal about Elfont and Kaplan’s script – along with Tucker’s direction – that prevented “LEAP YEAR” from being funny as it could have been. Fortunately, it possessed a few elements that prevented the movie from becoming a complete waste.

One aspect of “LEAP YEAR” that I truly enjoyed was the movie’s Ireland locations. Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography took advantage of the Emerald Isle’s magic. Even in a torrential rainstorm. Another aspect of the movie that made it more than bearable for me, were the interesting array of eccentric Irish characters that Anna and Declan encounter during their journey to Dublin. My favorite sequences featured the couple’s encounter with a group of luggage thieves; an overnight stay at a bed-and-breakfast, while waiting for a Dublin-bound train; and a wild wedding party, where Anna eventually makes a fool of herself.

But the main aspect of “LEAP YEAR” that made it more than bearable for me were the two leads – Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. The screenwriters created two characters that struck me as a little extreme. Anna Brady is such a straitlaced and humorless character that she almost seemed out of place in a romantic comedy. By some magic of the cinema, Amy Adams managed to transcend the heavy-handed character, giving her a vulnerability and touch of humor that made her likable. While watching this movie, it occurred to me that in the hands of a lesser actor, the Declan O’Callaghan character could have ended up as a bitter man, with a heavy-handed sense of humor. But Matthew Goode’s performance did something to the role. I believe the actor may have injected the character with some whimsical humor and romance that made it easier for me to accept the idea of Anna’s view of Declan changing from dislike to love.

Although “LEAP YEAR” managed to earn as twice as its budget, it really did not earn very much at the box office. In some ways, I could see why. Anand Tucker’s direction, along with a script written by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan failed to do this movie any real justice. There is no way I would spend money to see this film at my local movie theater. However, I cannot complete dismiss “LEAP YEAR”. Thanks to Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography, an entertaining array of Irish supporting characters and especially the performances of Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, I ended up enjoying the movie . . . despite itself.

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007) Reviews

“NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” (2007) and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR” (2007)  Reviews

Three years ago, two movies were released in the theaters . . . two movies that could not be anymore different than if they had tried. I am speaking of “NATIONAL TREASURE 2: THE BOOK OF SECRETS” and “CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR”. The first movie, starring Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight, is a sequel to the 2004 Disney film, “NATIONAL TREASURE”. The other is a comedy-drama about a Texas congressman from the 1980s who found himself involved in Afghanistan’s attempts to free itself from a Soviet invasion.

“National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets”

This sequel to the 2004 movie – “National Treasure” – opens with the Gates family – Benjamin and Patrick (Nicholas Cage and Jon Voight) – learning from a black market dealer named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) that their Civil War ancestor Thomas Gates (Joel Gretsch) may have been the mastermind behind Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Wilkinson’s so-called proof came from assassin John Wilkes Booth’s diary. To prove their ancestor’s innocence and family honor, Ben and Patrick recruit the aid of family friend Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), Ben’s estranged girlfriend Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Patrick’s ex-wife Emily Appleton (Helen Mirren), FBI Agent Sadusky (Harvey Keitel) and even the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) to help them find the treasure of gold that would vindicate Thomas Gates and the family’s name.

In a nutshell, this sequel turned out to be just as fun and exciting as the first movie. Ben Gates and company follow clues that lead them from Paris to London to Washington D.C. and finally Mount Rushmore in the Dakota Black Hills. The cast were their usual competent selves and Ed Harris turned out to be just as effective as a villain as Sean Bean had been in the first film. My favorite sequences included Ben, Abigail and Riley’s attempt to gain access to one of the rooms at Buckingham Palace, Ben and Abigail’s minor adventures at the White House and Ben’s kidnapping of the President at Mount Vernon.

I did have a few problems with the movie. My biggest gripe turned out to be the treasure itself. I realize that the Templar treasure found in the first film could not be topped. But I must admit that the City of Gold found beneath Mount Rushmore had failed to impress me at all. And why end the movie at Mount Rushmore? Granted there was a war between American settlers and the Dakota Sioux in 1862, but what did that have to do with the Civil War? I would have been happier if the movie’s setting had remained on the East Coast.

Aside from these minor gripes, “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets” turned out to be as entertaining as the first film. I would highly recommend it.

“Charlie Wilson’s War”

This historical drama told the story of recently departed Texas congressman Charles Wilson (Tom Hanks)’s efforts to get the United States to aid the Mujahideen (Afghanistan freedom fighters) in their fight against the military invaders from the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Urged on by his staunchly anti-Communist friend and romantic interest, Texas heiress Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), Wilson became deeply involved to help the Afghans throw the Soviets out of their country without the world knowing about U.S. involvement. The film not only revealed Wilson’s growing disdain for the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it also gave moviegoers a look into his gregarious social life of women and partying.

Judging from the movie’s Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nomination, one could see that “Charlie Wilson’s War”has become a front-runner for Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve the acclamation? I do not know. Granted, Mike Nichols did a competent job in allowing moviegoers a peek into Washington and international politics, and C.I.A. policies. Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as C.I.A. operative Gust Avrakotos) were excellent. But if I must be honest, the movie did not give me a charge. I liked it. I really found it entertaining. But I did not love it. When leaving the theater, I had this feeling that something was missing. It could have been the unsatisfying ending, which I found to be rushed. Or perhaps I thought the story could have required a little more depth.

I cannot say that “Charlie Wilson’s War” was great. But I did find it entertaining. And if you are intrigued by a look into American politics during the 1980s, I would highly recommend it.

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Below is my review of Nora Ephron’s new comedy-drama, “JULIE AND JULIA”, about the life of celebrity chef, Julia Child and the New York blogger who was inspired by her, Julie Powell:

“JULIE AND JULIA” (2009) Review

Written and directed by Nora Ephron,  “JULIE AND JULIA” depicts events in the life of chef Julia Child during the early years in her culinary career; contrasting with the life of a woman named Julie Powell, who aspires to cook all 524 recipes from Child’s cookbook during a single year. Ephron had based her screenplay on two books – “My Life in France”, Child’s autobiography, written with Alex Prud’homme; and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by Powell. Two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep portrayed Julia Child and two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams portrayed Julie Powell.

The plot is simple. A New Yorker named Julie Powell, who works for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to help victims of the 9/11 bombings, has become disatisfied with her life when she realizes that her friends (or should I say acquaintances?) have more exciting professional lives. To help her deal with her apathy and knowing that she is an excellent cook, husband Eric (Chris Messina) suggests that she create a blog to record her experiences in cooking a recipe (each day) from Julia Child’s famous cookbook, ” Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. Woven in to Powell’s story is Child’s experiences as the wife of an American diplomat in Paris during the late 1940s and early 1950s. The movie also reveals Child’s entry into the world of French cuisine and her attempts to write and publish a cookbook on French cooking for Americans.

“JULIE AND JULIA” was not a movie that exactly shook my world. It was a warm and engaging look into the lives of two women whose interest in French cuisine attracted the attention of the public. In the case of Julia Child, her decade long attempt to write a cookbook on French cuisine led to her becoming a television celebrity and icon. Julie Powell’s attempt to recount her experiences in preparing the recipes from Child’s cookbook led to her blog, media attention and this movie. I have read a few reviews of the movie and most critics and filmgoers seemed more interested in Child’s early years as a chef in France than they were by Powell’s experiences with her blog. Granted, the Child sequences were a lot of fun, due to Streep’s performance of the charming, enthusiastic and fun-loving chef. But I must admit to being surprised by how much I had enjoyed Powell’s experiences with her blog. I realize that I am going to be bashed for this, but Powell’s experiences seemed to have more emotional substance to them.

I am not saying that the Powell sequences were better written or more entertaining. But due to Ephron’s portrayal of the Texan-turned-New Yorker, the Powell sequences seemed more complex and emotionally satisfying. In other words, Amy Adams – who portrayed Powell – had the meatier role. Most critics and fans of the film would disagree with me. After all, it seemed very obvious that Streep was having a ball portraying the enthusiastic and fun loving Julia Child. Her ability to easily befriend many of the French and her deepening love for French cuisine made it quite easy to see how she quickly became a celebrity. But Ephron never really delved into the darker aspects of Child’s character or marriage – except touch upon the chef’s disappointment at being childless. She certainly did with Powell. And Amy Adams did a superb job in re-creating a very complex and occasionally insecure personality. But I suspect that when the awards season rolls around the corner, it will be Streep who will earn most of the nominations . . . or perhaps all of them.

The rest of the cast of  “JULIE AND JULIA” were just as excellent as Streep and Adams. Stanley Tucci portrayed Child’s diplomat husband, Paul Child. He gave a warm, yet more restrained performance as a man happily caught up in his wife’s growing interest in becoming a chef; yet at the same time, conveyed his character’s unhappiness with his failing diplomatic career due to a change in the country’s political winds. Like Adams, Chris Messina had a more difficult role as Powell’s husband, Eric Powell. Unlike Child, he has to deal with his frustration in his wife’s growing obssession with her blog . . . along with her occasional bouts with arrogance, insecurity and self-absorption. And at one point in the film, he loses his temper in spectacular fashion. I also enjoyed Linda Emond’s performance as French cook Simone Beck, who co-authored Child’s cookbook; and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Powell’s acerbic friend, Amy. One other performance that really caught my eye belonged to Jane Lynch as Julia Child’s equally extroverted sister, Dorothy McWilliams. Watching Lynch and Streep portray the McWilliams sisters take Paris by storm was a joy to behold.

Although I had enjoyed  “JULIA AND JULIA” , I had a few problems with it. One, it was too long. The movie’s pacing started out fine. Unfortunately, I was ready for it to end at least twenty minutes before it actually did. By 100 minutes into the film, the pacing began to drag. And although I had no problems with the movie’s alternating storylines, I felt that it failed to seque smoothly between Child and Powell’s stories. The jump from Powell’s story to Child’s and back seemed ragged and uneven to me. And as I had pointed out before, the story surrounding Child’s story seemed less emotionally complex and more frothy in compare to Powell’s story, giving me another reason to view the movie as uneven.

Despite its flaws, “JULIE AND JULIA” is an entertaining film that many who are into cooking or food would enjoy. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams gave first-rate performances. And the movie also gave filmgoers a peek into life for Americans in post-World War II Paris. In the end, I found the movie enjoyable, but not earth-shattering. I would recommend it.