The Very Serious, Monotonous Business of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”

kiss already
Plot details discussed, major spoilers mostly avoided. Your call, but don’t yell at me.

I was never going to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This was a given, and has been for some time. What I didn’t expect was that I’d leave the theater feeling vaguely bad for Zack Snyder.

I realize this is a strange reaction. Snyder is a very successful film director, and Dawn of Justice has already made a great deal of money. (Even so, whether or not it has met its lofty financial expectations is still up for debate.) In addition, I have never particularly been a fan of Snyder’s. Sucker Punch was one of the most unpleasant theatrical experiences of my life. (Though I’d later watch the director’s cut and slightly adjust my judgment from “abomination” to “bad,” which ain’t nothing.) Watchmen and Man of Steel were often flashy but similarly suffered from his need to crank up the volume first and ask questions later. 300 was fine. Ultimately, he’s going to come out of this all right. Continue reading

Assembled Again, With Extra Parts

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On Avengers: Age of Ultron and the state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

In the three years since its release, it has become increasingly clear that The Avengers is one of the most significant movies ever released. Its impact on the modern film landscape has been massive, and what began as a nifty experiment by Marvel Studios eventually became a behemoth that caused every other studio in town to come up with their own “shared universe” properties. The most direct competition will come from DC Comics and Warner Bros., who jump headfirst into the game next year with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. There have also been attempts from Sony and 20th Century Fox, and there’s even been talk of a new Universal Monsters franchise. But try as they might, thus far, no one has come close to matching Marvel’s dominance. Continue reading

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a magnificent film about time, youth, family, and so much more

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Of all the impressive things about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and they are legion, one of the most extraordinary is how the film was able to be crafted into something that will be able to connect with just about anybody who watches it. The title, while accurate, is a bit limiting. This isn’t just a movie about a kid growing up, albeit one with a heck of a hook. Boyhood is ultimately about time itself, and Linklater wisely dodges the usual coming of age clichés by focusing on everyday events rather than major life events. It does not advertise its leaps forward through time. For instance, one moment that has stuck with me is a post-time jump scene in which our hero Mason (Ellar Coltrane) returns home late one night, visibly drunk, smoking pot and making out with a nameless girl in the back of his friend’s car. Other coming-of-age movies would show us how Mason matured to this point, but in this case it just happens and we are meant to accept the change. In Boyhood, there is no time to stop and explain. Life moves too quickly for that. Continue reading

“Deliver Us From Evil” is part horror film and part police procedural, but fails to add anything to either genre

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Scott Derrickson’s Deliver Us From Evil wants so badly to be a different kind of horror movie, and there are several moments when it seems as though it might succeed. Not many movies like this would start with a scene featuring a group of soldiers fighting in Iraq, and a slightly later sequence in the Bronx Zoo feels particularly unique. Horror films have typically been bound to claustrophobic, dimly-lit indoor spaces, but in the first act of Deliver Us From Evil, Derrickson makes a concerted effort to bring the darkness out into the open. If the film stuck to these concepts, it might have had something. Eventually, it turns into a below-average cop story with intermittently effective horror elements. Instead of hunting serial killers, the cops in Deliver Us From Evil are doing battle with the devil, and that doesn’t turn out to be quite as interesting as it may sound. Continue reading

With “22 Jump Street,” Phil Lord and Chris Miller maintain their remarkable winning streak

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There are two major factors driving the sudden and unlikely success of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in the world of comedy. The first, and most important, is that their movies are funny. Really funny. The second factor is their ability to turn the inherent silliness of their projects into virtues rather than hindrances. In particular, their last three movies, 21 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie, and now the sequel 22 Jump Street, are ostensibly cynical projects conceived out of creative laziness or pure commercialism. Instead of turning their back to such notions, Lord and Miller have attacked them head on, via self-referential jokes and an uncanny ability to weave them into the very themes of their films. 21 Jump Street worked not because it simply poked fun at its own existence, but also because it became a film about nostalgia and attempting to relive the past. If anything, 22 Jump Street doubles down on the self-awareness, and in the process becomes a comedy sequel about comedy sequels. Continue reading

“Edge of Tomorrow” hits the usual marks, but does so in thoroughly entertaining fashion

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As Edge of Tomorrow begins, we are greeted with the kind of montage that has kicked off many a science fiction film before, as director Doug Liman assembles a collection of fake news footage that sets the audience up for the world they are about to enter. Tom Cruise appears in a couple of these clips as well, and the film lets you know that he is not a typical soldier, but a sort of media spokesman. It’s not a particularly auspicious first couple minutes, but then an interesting thing happens: the film quiets down. The first proper scene in the movie is a long, engaging conversation between Cruise’s Major William Cage and Brendan Gleeson’s General Brigham. The editing is patient, and there’s no manipulative music trying to drive anything home. It’s entirely about the two actors, and it allows them to play the scene in a way that establishes who they are and their place in the world. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Edge of Tomorrow so successful. There’s nothing terribly surprising about the story it’s telling, but it presents this story with refreshing wit and personality. Continue reading

With “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” Seth MacFarlane blissfully (and frustratingly) stays right in his comfort zone

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Scarcely a scene goes by in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West without some joke related to the baser functions of the human body. Some are fairly simple—the passing of gas here is, of course, inherently funny—while others are far more elaborate. The most notable may be an extended bit of physical comedy on the part of Neil Patrick Harris, who takes a lowest-common-denominator gag involving the rather dramatic effects of laxatives and sells it harder than Daniel Day-Lewis could ever imagine. As far as gross-out jokes go, it’s an effective one—so much so that many audience members at my screening, myself included, literally gagged at what was being implied—but its impact might have been even greater had MacFarlane showed a bit more tact leading up to this poop de grâce. There’s something admirable and almost charming about a film so unpretentiously determined to live in the gutter, even though its effects can ultimately be numbing. Continue reading

Look upon “Godzilla,” ye mighty, and despair

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One of the great challenges in making a film like Godzilla is what to do with the human characters, and it’s an issue that’s inspired much debate in the last couple weeks. Ultimately, a $160 million film about a giant lizard monster is almost always going to spend far more time killing thousands of CGI humans than it will making us care about the motivations and emotions of our protagonists. As useless and troublesome as they may be, the humans are there to provide audiences with a way in to the action, and the best blockbusters use this concept to their advantage. I would argue this new Godzilla is one such film, and in many ways it approaches its subject matter in a similar fashion to what you see in Spielberg films like Jurassic ParkClose Encounters of the Third Kind and War of the Worlds. Spielberg is a master at making audiences feel as though they are experiencing these extraordinary events right alongside the human characters, thus creating the illusion of shared experience and a genuine sense of wonder. The characters in many of his blockbusters are no more fascinating than those in Godzilla, but he exploits their ability to be the “portal” audiences use to enter the world. Continue reading

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is a dumb, unholy mess of a movie, but at least it’s its own mess

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I hated 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man with every ounce of my being, and it’s not necessarily because the movie was all that terrible. It just felt like a waste of time for all involved; a cynical exercise that rehashed an origin story we had seen play out 10 years before, only with a tenth of the personality. There’s nothing wrong with making a Spider-Man movie with a new cast, but rebooting a franchise barely a decade old, and this blandly, was a dumb and dispiriting move all around. With the exception of Casino Royale, the Bond series never felt the need to start over whenever the actor was changed. It just kept on trucking and let each performer make the role their own thing. That’s what The Amazing Spider-Man should have done, and didn’t do. The sequel, at the very least, turns things a bit more in that direction. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, but at the very least it seems to be going for something. Any ambition at all is an improvement over its predecessor. Continue reading