"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Popcorn Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A well-made and fun exploration of the Spider-Man mythos that is original and unique.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman and directed by Rothman, Peter Ramsey and Bob Perischetti, is an Academy Award winning animated film that tells the mind-bending story of Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales and his introduction into Spidey-dom. The voice actors starring in the film are Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Bryan Tyree Henry, John Mulaney and Nicolas Cage.

This past Friday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day, so to celebrate this momentous occasion I tried to get as far away from women as I could, so I went to the movies. Much to my chagrin, when I got to the theatre I discovered that the female powered Captain Marvel had 36 showings going on that day and would no doubt draw a multitude of feminist harpies. Not wanting to get caught up in a tidal wave of man-hating and menses I instead chose to make a stand and rebelliously vote with my wallet, so I went and saw… Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse! Take that Girl Power brigade!!

Ok…to be completely honest, not everything is the previous paragraph is true. Yes, it was International Women’s Day. No, I did not go to the movies to escape being near women. Yes, there were 36 showings of Captain Marvel on the day at the theatre. No, I didn’t see Spider-Man as a form of protest. The truth is I figured Captain Marvel would be packed since it was opening day and I greatly dislike seeing movies in crowded theatres…so I chose Spider-Man because it had been out a long time already and probably wasn’t going to be crowded or in theatres for much longer. Sure enough, I was the only person at my screening for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which I was extremely happy about.

As for the film itself, I don’t have anything against animated movies, it is just rare that I actually see one. For this reason i really had no expectations heading into the theatre, so it was a nice surprise to discover that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse was a really energetic and compelling bit of fun.

Animation is very creatively freeing as it allows audiences to suspend their belief to a much greater degree than with live action which is a very useful tool with a superhero narrative and the directors use it to great effect in this movie. Animation also allows for interesting world-building and the New York City the film is set in is proof of that. The animated city is so vibrant and visceral it becomes a character all its own.

Animation is also useful when it comes to superhero movies in that it enables the action sequences to be much more “believable”. In Spider-Verse the filmmakers play this up by not just focusing on what their animated creations can do, but more importantly on what they can’t do. The world and characters of Spider-Verse have limitations, and that is what makes them so satisfying.

The lead character of the film is Miles Morales, a Latino teenager trying to navigate the perils of adolescence which in his case include a strict police officer father and a new and academically rigorous school. I am not a teenager, although absolutely EVERYONE says I look young enough to be one, but this film does a remarkable job of transporting the audience into the immediacy of Miles’ world. Miles feels like a very real kid trying to juggle all the demands placed upon him while hormones torment his body and the world barely acknowledges him.

As I watched Miles Morales on screen I couldn’t help but think of my neighbor, who is also a Black Latino teenager named Miles. My neighbor Miles is just the nicest kid on the planet and is always very kind, patient and generous with my own toddler son even when he doesn’t have to be, and what I appreciated about this movie was that it gave me an impression of the world through his eyes.

Considering this is an animated movie I was stunned at how thorough and genuine the relationships were. The characters were all multi-dimensional, even the villains, and the world they inhabited felt entirely real. This dramatic foundation in human relationship is what allows the film to expand its narrative into more and more complex areas. The movie’s multi-dimensions and multiple realities colliding would seem like a muddled mess if it weren’t for the film’s grounding in genuine human emotion and its established reality.

To its credit, Spider-Verse does not ignore the oddity of its premise, and is also able to poke fun at the superhero genre and its formulas while also using them to its storytelling advantage. This is a delicate balancing act, but the filmmakers are able to acknowledge the absurdity of the superhero genre while also taking their subject matter entirely seriously.

The film has an undeniable charisma to it, which is a function of both the first rate artistry of the animators, as the film is beautiful to look at, and also the pulsating soundtrack which includes Juice WRLD, Post Malone, Swae Lee and Nicki Minaj among others. The popular music in the film is not my taste but it is undeniably infectious and extremely effective in developing Miles as a character and conveying his perspective.

I hope the success of this film, it has made $366 million with a $90 million budget, will convince studios to create more high-end animated feature films of their superhero properties. The DC canon (Batman, Superman Etc.) has been flailing around in their most recent live action Justice League ventures, and it seems to me that Warner Bros. would be wise to try and package those characters in high end animated features like Spider-Verse. This would give Warner Bros. an opportunity to create dark live action films, like The Dark Knight Trilogy, and offset that darkness with animated features that are sophisticated yet fun and geared towards kids 10 and up.

Another idea would be to do the darker material in animated form and the lighter material in live action. For instance, the film Sin City was a very dark, neo-noir animated drama that made a solid $158 million in 2005. The market for high end animation geared either partially or in full towards adults exists, and the studios, be it Warner Bros. or Disney, would be wise to exploit it.

At the very least, making quality animated superhero features helps to connect younger audiences with the characters and expands the life cycle of fandom. In addition, as Spider-Verse and the upcoming live action Spider-Man movie proves, you can have simultaneous story lines, one in live action and one in animation, that creates a scenario where studios can double dip into the wallets of superhero fans. As long as the movies are well-made, it is a win-win for everyone involved.

In conclusion, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is well-deserving of its Best Animated Feature Academy Award. While my son is far too young to go see a movie like this, when he gets older this is the type of film I’d want him to watch, not only because it is an example of well-made art, but also because it is a great myth for young adolescents to explore in order to help get them through the trials and tribulations of the teen years.

I don’t know how much longer this movie will be in theatres, but if you have a chance you should check it out, either at the cineplex or on Netflix/cable when it becomes available. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a joyous film that is perfect for kids 10 and up (your mileage for your kids may vary) that carries a message that even resonates with kids grown old…like me.

©2019

Justice League: A Review

***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!***

My Rating: 2.65 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT: See it in the theatre if you are a comic book/superhero film fan, it is worth the effort. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about comic book/superhero films then feel free to skip it in the theatre and see it on Netflix or cable. 

Justice League, written by Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio and directed by Zack Snyder (with re-shoots directed by Whedon), is the fifth film in the D.C. Extended Universe and is a sequel to Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film is the completion of the origin story of the Justice League, which is a collection of superheroes who join together to fight evil. The film stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Mamoa, Ezra Miller and Henry Cavill. 

My experience of Justice League was very similar to my experience of 2016's Batman v. Superman (BvS). I did not see Batman v. Superman until very late in its theatrical run, therefore even though I do not read reviews, I had seen enough headlines to understand that the film was not widely loved…or even mildly liked. With my expectations very low I went and saw Batman v. Superman and much to my shock and amazement I joined the rarest of groups, the handful of people who actually enjoyed Batman v Superman a great deal. It wasn't a perfect movie but it was certainly better than all of the negative buzz that was floating around about it.

When Justice League came out last month on November 17th, I once again avoided reviews but was still exposed to a deluge of negative buzz surrounding the film before I saw it on December 19. And just like when I saw Batman v. Superman, the theatre for Justice League was deserted except for the three other people.  And…just like with Batman v. Superman, my expectations were in the gutter for Justice League and either in spite of or because of that, the movie was able to greatly exceed them leaving me most pleasantly surprised. 

Justice League is supposed to be DC's attempt (at Warner Brothers insistence) at "lightening things up" from the dark themes and tone of BvS and being more "audience friendly". While I am not a fan of "lightening things up" in general and was attracted to the darkness of Batman v. Superman, I was not turned off by the more approachable tone of Justice League. Would I have liked a much darker version? Most definitely…but Justice League held onto enough darkness that it maintained a certain superhero gravitas that I found compelling. 

It has been my experience that while the rest of the world adores the Marvel franchise, I am more temperamentally suited for the brooding DC universe. The DC films have on the whole been pretty uneven, with Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman and Justice League being pretty good and Suicide Squad and Man of Steel being abysmally bad. What I liked about Batman v. Superman and Justice League are that they are both cloaked in a very heavy, existential angst that regular folk may find boring and impenetrable, but which I find very philosophically intriguing and creatively courageous. In contrast, I find the Marvel films to be much too light-hearted and frivolous and to be lacking in visual and narrative texture. Marvel films are made for kids while DC films, at least Batman v. Superman and Justice League, are made for tormented kids who've grown old. While Justice League is definitely not a great film, it is probably at best an average cinematic venture, but it is still considerably better than many of the Marvel/Avenger movies. 

Justice League benefits greatly from Zack Snyder's visual style that gives the film a distinct look and feel that the flat and cinematically dull Marvel films lack entirely. Snyder's Justice League world looks like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, which is only heightened by its being populated  by hordes of villains, para-demons, who may very well have flown out of a Bosch painting. Snyder has always thrived when it comes to giving a film a distinguishing and original look, and so it is with Justice League.

On the other hand, Snyder has always struggled with narrative clarity and cohesion and while he doesn't excel at that in Justice League, he doesn't entirely flounder either. Justice League is more coherently structured than Batman v. Superman and flows better, that comes at the expense of dumbing things down and settling for a standard and generic approach over a more complex and challenging one.

I had a chance to see the extended directors cut of Batman v Superman and thought it added a great deal to the film and I hope that Warner Brothers releases an extended Zack Snyder cut of Justice League as well at some point as I think that Snyder can be at his best when he is free of the restraints of running length and focus groups. 

Justice League is greatly enhanced by a top notch cast that all do solid if not spectacular work. I realize I am in the minority here but I think Ben Affleck does a terrific job as Batman. Affleck's caped crusader is a grizzled, aching and aging icon struggling to keep up with his more supernaturally endowed colleagues and keep the undefeated father time at bay. Affleck is not an actor whose work I have been impressed with over his career, but his brooding Batman is second only to Christian Bale, and it isn't a distant second either.

Gal Gadot is simply sublime as Wonder Woman for the second time this year. Gadot is such a charismatic, magnetic and dynamic power it is impossible to keep your eyes off of her when she is on screen. Gadot's commanding screen presence never feels forced or disingenuous, but always feels grounded, earthy and forceful.  

Jason Mamoa and Ezra Miller do solid supporting work as Aquaman and Flash. Their roles are used to good comedic effect in Justice League (they do most of the previously mentioned "lightening up") but they could have been greatly bungled in the hands of lesser actors. Both Mamoa and Miller never push too hard and they make specific choices for their characters while never settling for half measures when bringing them to life. I don't know if Aquaman or the Flash will be able to carry a film on their own, but we shall see soon enough. 

As for my biggest issues with Justice League…the first and most pressing issue was that the CGI seemed to be rather sub par. Steppenwolf was the arch villain in the film and instead of using a human actor, they made him entirely of CGI. The CGI simply did not look real or believable and so it felt like the members of the Justice League were fighting a really evil cartoon character. 

Another example of bad CGI is such a remarkable tale it demands retelling. The opening scene of the film shows a flashback of Henry Cavill as Superman being interviewed on a video phone by some local kids. Cavill, who is impossibly handsome, looks very...weird in the scene. I couldn't place it at first, but there was something wrong with his face. As I looked closer I could see his mouth was deformed. I started wondering if Henry Cavill in real life had an accident or been sick and was left with some sort of facial paralysis or something. I noticed the same issue at other points in the film featuring Cavill as well and was completely distracted by it every time. When I got home I searched the internet and found out the story behind the bizarre look of Superman. 

The story goes that Cavill was signed on to shoot Mission Impossible 6 (God help us all) once he wrapped shooting Justice League. Justice League director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film in post-production due to the death of his daughter and Joss Whedon stepped in to replace him. The studio wanted Whedon to do a plethora of re-shoots to change the tone of the film which they feared was too dark like Batman v. Superman. Whedon complied and did a great deal of re-shoots to the sum of $25 million. Bringing back Cavill for Superman was tricky though because he was currently shooting MI6 and had grown a mustache for his role and was contractually obligated to not shave it off for the duration of that shoot. So Warner Brothers, the studio of Justice League, which had a budget of $300 million, was at the mercy of Paramount, the home studio of Mission Impossible, in regards to their star Superman. Paramount, not surprisingly since they are not in the business of making life easy for their competition, wouldn't let Cavill get rid of the mustache. So billion dollar company Warner Brothers, who was spending $300 million on Justice League, was not allowed to walk down to CVS and get a Bic razor for 99 cents in order to shave the face of the star of their movie. The movie business is completely and utterly insane. 

Superman and Steppenwolf's faces aren't the only missteps in Justice League. The enormity of the plot was a bit burdensome as well. All of these superhero movies now revolve around end of the world cataclysms that seem to me to be overkill. Whether it is the Justice League or the Avengers or anyone else, the threat of global annihilation is so overplayed as to be ridiculously redundant. And as much as I think Steppenwolf in theory is an excellent villain (although as stated he didn't look right in the film) and his minions the para-demons are quality Miltonian/Boschean foils, the scenario presented by their assault on Earth felt much too similar to The Avengers plots with Loki or Ultron. In execution I think Justice League pulled that scenario off better than The Avengers, but that doesn't make their lack of originality any less of a creative sin. 

The political subtext of Justice League is pretty interesting. Steppenwolf is a Putin-esque, power hungry warlord who begins his quest for total world domination in what is alleged to be a small Russian town but looks an awful lot like Chernobyl in Ukraine. Justice League accurately captures the divided mess that is our current world as we stagger and stumble from a uni-polar world protected by Superman/U.S. to a multi-polar world reigned over by God knows who, that acts like a bi-polar world. 

The Justice League itself is obviously a metaphor for the United Nations or the defunct League of Nations, in which the good guys protect the globe from the bad guys. Of course, life is never as clearly defined as that, and in our world it is becoming more and more difficult to discover who is good and who is bad. To Justice League's credit, the good guys aren't always so good and they struggle to find their place in the world.

After seeing Justice League I did something I rarely do, which is go read other reviews of the film. Critics have savaged the film with an unabashed glee and seem to have a pre-disposition against the movie. While it was never stated, I think that predisposition to critical displeasure with Justice League (and Batman V. Superman) may have to do with critics subconsciously comparing the film to the last "Batman" movies which were Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy which are a far, far superior collection of films. Any superhero films compared to the Dark Knight Trilogy will pale in comparison as Nolan has raised the superhero bar beyond anyone’s reach with those phenomenal films. To be extremely clear, Batman v. Superman and Justice League are not The Dark Knight series, not even remotely close, but that doesn't mean they are completely devoid of any redeeming value.

The mythic and archetypal energies at the core of all of these these superhero stories, be they DC or Marvel, is the same, it is just the window dressing that changes. The core archetypes at the heart of superhero stories are what resonate with our collective psyches. Just as the Greeks told stories of their Gods, we tell stories of our mythic gods…Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Flash. These comic book characters and the Greek gods are the same archetypes but are only wearing different masks. 

In conclusion, I found Justice League to be a pleasant surprise of a movie that wasn't great, but was certainly better than its buzz would indicate. Justice League is a solid companion piece to Batman v Superman and in fact enhances that film a great deal in hindsight. If you love superhero films then I recommend you go see Justice League in the theatre while it is still there. If you are lukewarm or ambivalent about superhero films then you can definitely skip it in the theatre and catch it at your leisure on cable or Netflix. And finally, in this holiday season when we anticipate a bounty of gifts beneath the Christmas tree, let Justice League be a lesson to us all, that low expectations are the golden key to a happy existence. 

©2017

 

Suicide Squad : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating : 0.75 STARS OUT OF 5

My Recommendation : Skip it.

Suicide Squad, written and directed by David Ayer, is the third film in the recent DC comics cinematic universe (Man of Steel 2013, Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice 2016) which tells the story of a ragtag group of super-villains and anti-heroes who are thrown together to use their evil talents for good. The film stars Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Jared Leto and Viola Davis to name just a few.

Suicide Squad was released last week on the heels of last March's much maligned Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I was one of those rare breed of people who, thanks to very low expectations, actually liked Batman v. Superman. Granted, I didn't think it was Citizen Kane, but I did think it was better than the horrible press it had received. Within that context, I was tentatively excited to see Suicide Squad when it came out. After having seen the film, I must report that my excitement was terribly, terribly misguided.

To put it as succinctly as possible, Suicide Squad made me want to kill myself…or someone else, namely the people who made it. If writer/director David Ayer or any studio executives from Warner Brothers are found in a shallow grave out in the desert, or wash ashore on Venice beach, or are discovered crucified to a Suicide Squad billboard, you'll know who's behind it. I am not worried about openly admitting my future crime as I am sure I can O.J. my way out of a conviction simply by showing Suicide Squad to the jury. No doubt a "justifiable homicide" determination would quickly follow.

From its marketing and trailers, Suicide Squad appears to be an anarchy and mayhem fueled, wild-ride rebellion of a film, which is right up my twisted alley. Sadly, in reality it is a relentlessly conventional, dull and formulaic film. Watching Suicide Squad is like watching someone else play a video game for two hours. The film is so vacuous it is little more than a commercial for itself and the films that will no doubt follow it. It is so sluggish as to be suffocating and is totally devoid of any intrigue, originality or life. 

Even though the stars of this film are villains (Harley Quin, Joker, Deadshot et al), the film suffers from the lack of a credible and interesting foil to oppose these superstar anti-heroes. The enemy that the Suicide Squad faces is the "Enchantress", who is an ancient mystical being from deep in South America who has possessed the soul of a young archeologist named June Moon, remarkably poorly played by the wooden Cara Delevingne. The Enchantress' minions are the people she has taken control over and turned into what look like faceless asphalt people who have zero self preservation instincts. Doing battle with endless tidal waves of amorphous asphalt people is a good way to make a film feel like a video game, of which I am sure there will be one on the market in no time. In keeping with the rest of the film, the fight scenes are terribly monotonous, predictable and asinine. 

The film is so shallow and thoughtless that it repeats itself numerous times over with recurring shots, lines and sequences. If I had to see the asphalt people attack Special Forces soldier Rick Flag one more time, and the Suicide Squad want to let him die and then decide to save him with the line, "if he dies, WE die!" I was going to die…and take every poor bastard in the theatre with me. 

The script and story are absolutely incoherent and absurd. There are character changes of heart that come out of nowhere, such as the whole El Diablo character arc, and illogical and repetitive narrative choices that drive the story from one ditch to another. The feeling I get is that the original script was awful, then they brought in other writers to punch it up who made it even more awful, and then the studio heads put their two cents in and completed the mountain of poop for which they had just paid hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end it is just a giant stew of human, horse and dog shit haphazardly slapped together.

Were there any bright spots? Well…you have to look very very hard, but the unconscionably beautiful Margot Robbie does a great, if flawed job as Harley Quinn. Her accent comes and goes a bit, but she does develop an actual and intriguingly genuine character of depth. Jared Leto does an admirable job as the Joker even though he is terribly underused. Leto is following in the footsteps of the late Heath ledger's iconic performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, so he has big, crazy shoes to fill. Leto's Joker is not a continuation of Ledger's (which is a mistake by the studio, but that is a story for another day), they are two totally separate entities from different DC universes, but Leto does the best he can with the very little what he's given. Leto's Joker is more ghetto gangster than Ledger's genius anarchist sociopath, but it works well enough. Truth is I think The Joker and Harley Quinn's story should have been it's own film. It is a pretty fascinating tale and both Robbie and Leto have the skill, talent and charisma to carry a film like that…especially if it is just a B story in a Batman v. Joker film, but obviously I am not as brilliant as the numb nuts running Warner Brothers so feel free to ignore my suggestions.

Another "good" part of Suicide Squad is actually very telling as to why the movie is so appalling, namely that Will Smith is one of the best things in it. I loathe Will Smith as an actor ( or 'rapper" for that matter). He is as contrived and manufactured as it gets. There is not a genuine bone or performance lurking anywhere in Will Smith's body. He does well in Suicide Squad though because he can pose and preen with just enough star power to make him seem at home on the big screen, which isn't always the case with all of the other actors, Robbie and Leto being the notable exceptions. Smith being a bright spot is a black spot for the film as it highlights the film's stultifying conventionalism. 

As for bad performances, there are many. Rick Flag is played by Joel Kinnaman and he is just atrociously dreadful. The only other thing I have seen him in is last seasons House of Cards, where he is equally dreadful, which makes me think Mr. Kinnaman is just a plain dreadful actor who has been the recipient of a charisma bypass. Did I mention how dreadfully dreadful his dreadful performance was? Speaking of dreadful, Viola Davis is unquestionably a great actress, she has been nominated for an Oscar and won an Emmy, this lady can act. But in Suicide Squad she is absolutely ghastly, just abominable. She is so wooden and lifeless I was worried she had suffered a major stroke during filming and was just being propped up in front of the camera and had special effects puppetry people moving her mouth for her. It was inconceivable to me prior to Suicide Squad that Viola Davis would be capable of being so appallingly bad in a role and so uncomfortable on screen, but sadly, Suicide Squad and director David Ayer brought Viola Davis to new lows.

The thing that I find so frustrating about Suicide Squad in particular, and the recent Warner Brothers - DC comics films in general, are that they really have the potential to be truly great. The source material is stellar, with the DC mythology being as psychologically rich and complex as any in modern storytelling. Yet Warner Brothers has stumbled all over itself on this recent spate of DC films. Why is that?

The biggest problem with the current crop of WB/DC films is that the studio has placed its trust in deeply flawed writers and directors like Zack Snyder and David Ayer. The earlier Dark Knight trilogy, which was so financially and critically successful, was directed by Christopher Nolan, an innovative and creative master. Snyder and Ayer are nowhere near the talent of a visionary like Christopher Nolan. In addition, the studio itself has meddled far too much with the films during every stage of production, creating a 'too many cooks in the kitchen' scenario. As limited as Snyder and Ayer are as filmmakers, and boy are they limited, it hamstrings them even more to have studio clowns sticking their fingers in every pie and adding salt to every soup. Nolan's films succeeded because they set out to tell a great story and make quality cinema. The recent DC films have failed because the studio has set out to make gobs of money while ignoring story, character and cinematic integrity.

What Suicide Squad and all the rest of the DC films need is a strong, ambitious and creative leader with a distinct visual and storytelling style at the helm to steer the ship. Watching Suicide Squad I couldn't help but think of David Fincher's iconic Fight Club, which is what Suicide Squad should have stylistically tried to emulate. Wrangling a top director like Fincher to sign on to direct or produce DC films would no doubt be a tough get, but something dramatic along those lines needs to be done in order to save this run of films, which is scheduled to go well into the next decade, from being a studio destroying debacle. Whoever the studio gets to try and right the ship, it is clear that Zack Snyder must go…and he needs to take David Ayer with him, but sadly, all signs point to Warner Brothers holding steady with Snyder and company running the show for the foreseeable future. 

The one positive that may come from this disastrous run of WB/DC films is that they may get so bad that a re-boot will be in order in our near future. Frankly, a re-boot is what they need. Get a top notch visionary to direct and/or produce the films and start over. Not all the errors of this Zack Snyder run can be corrected, such as the decision to not continue the story lines and universe of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and expanding from there, but many of them can be corrected. For instance, Suicide Squad should have been made much further down the road in the series of DC films Warner Brothers is making. You need to establish the characters who star in Suicide Squad as villains in other films before you lump them all together in a big group film. WB, not surprisingly, got all of that backwards, while the folks over at Disney/Marvel have done it perfectly. 

In the end, Suicide Squad is making a ton of money, but it is fools gold. The studio may think they have a golden goose in their DC properties, but audiences will only tolerate so much garbage before the whole house of cards collapses. Warner Brothers is headed for a harsh reckoning in regards to their DC films, and the corporate bloodbath that will unfold will be eminently more entertaining than the slop they are putting on screen to sell to the public now.

In conclusion, Suicide Squad is a terrible waste of a film. It is an incoherent, tedious and annoying mess of a movie. Don't waste your money by seeing it in the theaters, and don't waste your time seeing it anywhere else for free. You'd be better served, and more entertained sticking your head in an oven for two hours than sitting in front of this dog of a movie for single second. 

©2016

 

Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice - A Review

****WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS!! CONSIDER THIS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER ALERT!!****

MY RATING : 2.5  OUT OF 5 STARS

MY RECOMMENDATION: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE, ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIKE SUPER HERO FILMS. IF YOU ARE LUKEWARM ABOUT SUPER HERO FILMS, WATCH IT ON CABLE/NETFLIX.

 

"LOW EXPECTATIONS ARE THE KEY TO A HAPPY LIFE." - METO EVERY WOMAN I HAVE EVER DATED.

As a general rule I never read movie reviews before I see a film. In fact, I don't even like to see trailers because studios so often undermine the power of a film by giving away its content in trailers. When I see a film, I want to see it with as close to virgin eyes as possible. If I don't understand a film, I will take the time to actually see it again. I love film so I don't mind investing time into it in trying to understand the art and craft of it all.  I understand that I am an outlier in this area as most people look upon films as consumers looking upon a product they may potentially buy, so they want as much information as they can get before hand, not afterwards. This is why studios reveal so much (too much!!) in trailers, they want to give as much of the film as possible in a two minute movie because they believe that audiences want to know what they are getting.

In regards to Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice, I found it very difficult to keep my cinematic virginity oath by avoiding news and information about the movie before I saw it. One reason this was such a struggle was that I saw the film just this past week and it was released two months ago, so I am definitely way behind the times. Another reason is that for the last two months my internet homepage has been giving me headlines telling me how awful critics thought the movie, and Ben Affleck were. I never read the articles, but I certainly got the message from the headlines, Batman V. Superman was an epic failure and Ben Affleck was back to his old tricks of ruining movies. And thus…my low expectations were unconsciously inseminated, then gestated for two months and were consciously born this past week.

When you have low expectations, anything good that happens is a pleasant surprise and you find yourself more grateful for things than if you had expected them. And so it was with my experience watching Batman v. Superman. I expected it to be really awful…and it just wasn't. Maybe it isn't as good as I thought it was, but it was certainly better than I ever thought it would be. And guess what…you know what made the film good…I hope you are sitting down for this…it was Ben Affleck's intricate, internally detailed and vibrant performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman. I know you think I am bullshitting you, but It's true, I promise, I am not in any way, shape or form, bullshitting you.

"DO YOU BLEED?" - BATMAN

When I heard that Affleck had taken the role of Batman I thought it was a very bad idea for both him and the film.  Affleck had worked so hard to rise up from being a punchline at the nadir of his acting career and reinvented himself as a respectable filmmaker and passable actor. I thought he was squandering all of the good will he had worked so hard to generate by chasing the "movie stardom" dream that had been the cause of his previous great downfall. Chasing stardom and money was what had scuttled Affleck's promising career once before, and I was sure it was going to do the same thing again. But, to his credit, Ben Affleck proved me a fool because he is damn good as Batman. I think it is his best performance…ever. Which, you know, isn't a very high bar, but he brings a brooding gravitas to the role of which I simply didn't believe he was capable.  Affleck's performance throughout is solid, but his inner rage and fury during his fight with Superman is absolutely dynamic. Affleck imbues Batman with such a tangible psychological wound that it gives him a visceral and volcanic rage, which erupts during this epic superhero brawl. Affleck's magnetic and potent performance is shocking considering his tepid work in most of his previous films. 

Sadly, the "Ben Affleck is dreadful" meme is out there in regards to his work as Batman. Prior to seeing the film, I saw headlines and videos mocking Affleck for having stepped in it again with Batman V. Superman. Maybe it was my exposure to this criticism which lowered my expectations for his work, which is why I was able to appreciate him so much in the role. Who knows? Regardless, if Ben Affleck keeps doing the strong work he did as Batman in future films, the critics will eventually quiet themselves. With all of that said…as much as I disagree with the sentiment, I found this video to be absolutely hysterical.

As much as I enjoyed the film, is Batman v. Superman perfect? Hell no. Director Zack Snyder can be pretty heavy handed at times, the abysmal Man of Steel being a perfect example, and he loses control of this film in the last quarter, but even with all his faults, he has a distinct visual style that works well here. Snyder also does a good job of keeping the storytelling coherent, which is no small accomplishment considering he is juggling multiple important narratives (Superman, Batman, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Wonder Woman etc.) that he must weave together. He does so, not seamlessly, but well enough for the film to make sense both internally and externally.

HELLO DARKNESS MY OLD FRIEND

Another key to the film's success is that it is dark…relentlessly dark. And it never wavers from that dark vision. It is a credit to the filmmaker that, unlike in the recent Captain America movie, Batman v. Superman sets its heavy tone and commits to it, taking its subject matter very seriously. The film is a dark psychological study, and I found it to be authentically compelling. There are no witty one liners to water down the mood, and no winks and nods to the audience that this is all in good fun. Batman v. Superman is not in good fun, it is deadly serious business, which to me is the film's great strength, but may also be its greatest weakness in the eyes of critics and a large part of its audience. 

On the downside, one of the glaring problems with the film is that in the final quarter of the picture, it sort of goes off the rails when the hybrid villain appears and we get a generic city destroying, knock down, drag out donnybrook. The hybrid monster is supposed to be a hybrid between General Zod and Lex Luthor, but it really looks more like a hybrid between the most recent Godzilla and the Hulk….and not in a good way. The whole fight sequence with the hybrid is dreadful, this is director Snyder at his worst, and should be cut because it feels as if it is from a very different, and very horrible film (like Man of Steel!!). The fight between Batman and Superman, which precedes the hybrid nonsense, feels epic and climactic and should have closed the movie. That said, even the Batman-Superman fight had a flaw, namely that there is a huge emotional turning point for Batman at the end of the struggle that felt rushed, watered down, and ignored, which was not because of Affleck's striking performance, but rather Snyder's weak grasp of dramatic storytelling. It is a shame because there could have been a truly powerful moment captured there, but Snyder was in too much of a rush to get to the hybrid battle to let the audience sit with Batman in the apex of the deep torment that Affleck had so finely crafted from the very beginning of the film. 

Another problem with the film is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg is a good actor (see his work in The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network ), but he is distractingly bad as Luthor. The performance is shallow and showy, and Eisenberg feels small in the part. I understand what Eisenberg was trying to do, he was playing a wounded child, but he wildly misses the mark with his work. A more grounded and energetically focused performance, as opposed to the energetically frantic one he gave, would have given Lex a menace and power that were lacking and sorely needed. When you are walking among giants like Batman and Superman, you better bring a villain who can hold his own…Eisenberg's Lex Luthor fails to do so.

"MORTALS, BORN OF WOMAN, ARE FEW OF DAYS AND FULL OF TROUBLE." - THE BOOK OF JOB

The myths and archetypes on display in Batman v. Superman speak to all of us on some level. In some ways, at its core, Batman v. Superman is a comic book version of the Book of Job, with Batman taking the role of Satan (God's shadow), and Superman the all-powerful God (God's ego) duped into a battle with his darker self at the expense of mankind. 

From a psychological perspective, Batman, Superman and even Lex Luthor represents the various masculine wounds that men in our time carry with them and often pass down to their sons. Batman is the psychological shadow, a man, whose sense of self and masculinity is deeply wounded by the martyring (and thus absence) of the mother and father archetype in his life. Superman is the ego/messiah with a mother and father wound of his own, having been adopted by earth parents after his Kryptonian birth parents rejected him. Yes, his Kryptonian parents did it for his own good, but that disconnect with his home planet and parents dwells in Superman's psyche. Superman's struggle with the anima, the feminine, is also on display in the form of his relationship with his mother Martha and his girlfriend Lois Lane, as is Batman's in his absence of any genuine connection to a female in his life, including his late mother Martha. Even Lex Luthor, the tormented little boy, struggles with the masculine wound given to him by his own cruel father. These three men represent the different paths that can be taken when a boy is left to make the journey to manhood with the father archetype being absent because of martyrdom, paternal rejection or the father being wounded himself. All three men live in the shadow of their fathers, Batman/Bruce Wayne runs his father's company and tries to avenge his death, Superman wears an "S" on his chest, the symbol of his father's hope, and Lex Luthor tries to live up to the expectations placed upon him by his own wounded father. These men are all sides of the same multi-dimensional masculine wound coin, expressing their pain in different ways.

The myths of Batman and Superman, and the archetypes that they embody, are the reasons why these comic book stories resonate so deeply with wide swaths of the population. Batman v. Superman has gotten pretty poor reviews yet is on the cusp of making a billion dollars. Captain America : Civil War will no doubt do the same. These super hero stories can be fun to watch and entertaining, but they also speak to us on a deeply unconscious level. These stores also speak to us from our collective unconscious, telling us things we know but struggle to articulate.

For instance, is it a coincidence that in an election year we have two superhero movies about internal conflict between superheroes? In Batman v. Superman we have iconic heroes Batman and Superman squaring off, and in Captain America : Civil War we have two groups of "good guy" heroes doing battle. And also notice that these heroes are divided by contrasting color, Batman is blue, Superman red...Captain America blue, Iron Man red. This is not coincidence…for we as a people are at war with ourselves. In the wider world, civilizations are clashing, see the struggle for Islam to come to terms with modernity as an example. And in the west itself, societies are turning on one another…look no further than the rise of nationalist movements and parties of both the right and left in Europe along with the fraying at the seams of the European Union. Here in the U.S. the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. is an example of that same clashing impulse. These civilizational battles are what are unconsciously on display in this years crop of super hero films. These films are an expression of our collective unconscious, which is explored and discovered by artists (writers, filmmakers etc.), who become artists in the first place because they are inclined to spend so much time in and around the unconscious, both collective and personal. (I have much, much more to say on this topic…trust me...but that is a posting for another day). Regardless, as mindless as these super hero movies may appear to be, and some of them are really mindless, they do have deep mythical and psychological meaning to us, which is why I appreciate it so much when these type of films take their super hero subject matter seriously.

"FOR WE WERE BORN ONLY YESTERDAY AND KNOW NOTHING, AND OUR DAYS ON EARTH ARE BUT A SHADOW." - BOOK OF JOB

In conclusion, much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed Batman v. Superman : Dawn of Justice. Call me crazy, but I thought that the film and Ben Affleck's performance were well worth the price of admission. I realize I am in the minority on this one, and as my email inbox constantly reminds me, whether the subject be Chris Kyle, John Oliver or Terence Malick, I am almost always in the minority. It doesn't bother me though, as I myself have unlocked  my own super power, a key to eternal happiness…The Power of Low Expectations! Hey, if The Power of Low Expectations can do the unthinkable and make me really like a Ben Affleck/Zack Snyder film, then it really is a super power to be reckoned with!! With a true magic elixir like The Power of Low Expectations, I could be capable of anything!! Or nothing at all!! Either way I'll be happy…and that's all that matters…right?

©2016

 

Marlon Brando, The Big Bang and the Birth of Modern Acting

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 7 MINUTES

Marlon Brando was born on this day, April 3 in the year 1924. In turn, modern acting was born with Marlon Brando's revolutionary performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. It is not an overstatement to say that every single acting performance we see on stage and screen today is an echo of Brando's Big Bang of modern acting in A Streetcar Named Desire. Some echoes of that performance are more faint than others, but they are echoes nonetheless.

The Big Bang and the birth of modern acting in the form of Brando's Streetcar performance was due to a perfect confluence of events. There were other actors before Brando who had turned away from the constricted theatricality of acting that had been the dominant style of the time and embraced Stanislavski's "Method" and the new realism, but none of those actors had Brando's movie star good looks, his innate talent and charisma, his vividly detailed imagination, his psychological and human instincts, his unrelenting commitment, and his unflinching artistic courage. The key to the perfect storm of Brando and his break out performance was that he had a director, Elia Kazan, who not only allowed him to embrace this new realism and discard the old-school theatricality, he openly encouraged him and collaborated with him. With Kazan, Brando was unchained and allowed to flourish, his talents unleashed upon an unsuspecting audience. The audience, and the acting world, would never be the same again.

Russian Konstantin Stanislavski, who developed "The Method", is the Patriarch of modern acting theory, with his three American prophets being acting teachers Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner. With Stanislavski as the Patriarch of modern acting, Brando, via his work with his teacher Stella Adler, became its realized messiah. 

Brando was volatile, fragile, charming, dynamic, magnetic and always unpredictable. In Streetcar his raw power, vulnerability, sexual dynamism and delicate yet volcanic emotionality gave him a presence no one had seen before on film. Before Brando, acting was more theatrical, mannered and emotionally confined. Brando shattered those stilted conventions by mastering the new way and ignited an acting revolution. He was a raw nerve, an open wound exposed to the world. He could whimper one moment and growl the next. Brando was tactile, visceral and sexual in a way no other actor had ever been. Marlon Brando was a wounded bear riding a bull in the china shop of the acting world. He was simultaneously loved and loathed for it. At the Academy Awards in 1951 the Best Actor Oscar went to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen and not to Marlon Brando for A Streetcar Named Desire. Bogart is as old school Hollywood, classical acting style as it gets, and the old guard in the Academy weren't willing to reward the revolutionary in their midst just yet. The Academy did reward Brando's cast mates, in fact all three of the other acting awards went to his compatriots, Vivien Leigh won Best Actress, Kim Hunter, Best Supporting actress and Karl Malden, Best Supporting Actor, making Brando's snub all the more apparent. 

Three years later in 1954, Brando did get his Best Actor Oscar for playing washed up palooka Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, also directed by Elia Kazan. The acting world and Hollywood were trying to grab a hold of the tail of the artistic tiger that was Marlon Brando. Hollywood though, is interested in money, not art, and for an artist like Brando, that is death. Hollywood believed they needed to tame Brando's voracious artistic spirit in hopes of controlling him and breaking the bank. Brando wanted to experiment, to challenge himself, to investigate and explore, while Hollywood wanted him to go along to get along and not rock the money making boat. Brando didn't play the game and the studios grew tired of his increasingly difficult and costly behavior. He soon found himself on the outside of Hollywood looking in.  "Business before art, profit above all else" is the Hollywood mantra, and Brando was too wild to keep in the palace so they cast him out to wander in the desert.

It wasn't until Francis Ford Coppola cast him as Vito Corleone in The Godfather in 1971, over the objections of the studio, that Brando got back into the game. Brando won his much deserved second Best Actor Oscar for his work in The Godfather. There is a scene in the film which perfectly sums up Brando and his genius. With precious light fading and the clock ticking, Brando asked director Coppola if he could improvise Vito Corleone's death scene. Coppola agreed and rolled the cameras as Brando played a game with a child playing his grandson. Brando puts an orange peel in his mouth and makes a monster face to the little boy, who instantly cries in fear. Brando gently reassures the boy that he is harmless and just playing. The boy calms himself, and then Brando directs him to run through a row of tomato plants, with Brando chasing him like a big monster. The chase goes in and out of the garden rows until Corleone begins to cough and loses his breath and then collapses. This improvisation is so mythologically and psychologically perfect for the character of Vito Corleone that it is sublime brilliance. This is Brando at his finest, playful yet committed and ever the insightful truth teller.

He followed his Oscar win in The Godfather with his seventh Best Actor nomination for Last Tango in Paris in 1972, one of his best and most personal performances. Last Tango in Paris is one of his most brilliant performances because it is so brazenly honest in its display of dishonesty. Brando bares not only his wounded soul, but his broken spirit, his self-loathing appetites, his vicious weakness, his barbaric ugliness and his smirking shadow. It is a mesmerizing performance that reveals more about the actual man and artist than any other of his great works.

 

With his career re-born in middle age with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, Brando changed his approach to the studios. If they wanted to make it about money, he would make it about money. He used his newfound leverage to demand exorbitant pay for minimal work. While bringing his formidable gravitas and unforgiving intensity to Apocalypse Now (1979), he also brought his expanding girth and a time limit, he would only work for three weeks and with a price tag of $1 million. He did the same with Superman (1978), demanding and getting $3.7 million for two weeks work.

Shortly after he retired from acting, only to return a decade later with an intricately detailed and subtly charismatic performance in the 1989 apartheid film A Dry White Season for which he was nominated for yet another Best Supporting Actor Oscar. His career staggered along after that with a series of rather forgettable films and one personal family tragedy after another. Losing his son to prison for manslaughter and his daughter to suicide. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy", and so it was with the Godfather and hero of modern acting. 

 

In 1996 I had a conversation with a friend of mine (who happens to be a movie star and great actor) who had just worked with Brando on The Island of Dr. Moreau. The film was unrelentingly abysmal, and this star readily acknowledged that fact. The quality of the movie didn't matter though as the only thing the two of us really wanted to talk about was Brando. After a few minutes of us doing 'dueling Brandos', a natural occurrence whenever the topic of Marlon Brando comes up, I asked my friend, "what was Marlon Brando really like?" My friend said Brando was a good guy and a pleasure to be around for other actors, even if he was some sort of mad genius and drove the producers and director insane. I then asked my friend about an odd thing that happens in the film and is never addressed, namely, at one point, Brando's character, Dr. Moreau, shows up and is wearing white pancake makeup all over and a white wedding dress type of muumuu for no apparent reason at all, accompanied by a mini-me version of himself wearing the same get up. Nothing else about the character was different, he acted the same, he spoke the same, he was the same guy…except he was entirely covered in white makeup and a wedding dress (veil included). To add to the oddity, none of the other characters mention the get up or comment on it. My friend explained to me that Brando just showed up in that outfit one day, and walked on set and no one said anything to him about it. The director didn't know what to do and knew he couldn't dare question Brando about it. None of the other actors even cared at this point of the cursed production, so they just went with it, figuring, 'Hey, its Marlon Brando!' My friend explained that he knew it was a very strange thing to do, but that he understood what Brando was up to only after the filming was completed. Brando didn't care about what was expected of him or of what anyone thought, or about conventions, he just did what he felt like and no one was going to stop him or even say anything to him about it….just like the power-mad Dr. Moreau. Brando's ego, madness and irrationality matched Moreau's, and in hindsight it proved that Brando was not afraid to look the fool in order to prove a deeper, more human and artistic point. When, like Brando, you become a sort of living artist god, you must go to deeper and stranger lengths to prove to people that you are still human. Brando embraced the fool in order to try and elicit some sort of response from people, even if it was negative one, as long as it was honest. No one responded to the madness of Brando and Dr. Moreau, and the film is an indictment of the fear and lifelessness of those surrounding him, not to the mad-genius at the center of it.

The Island of Dr. Moreau is a long way from A Streetcar Named Desire, but that doesn't diminish the colossal impact of Brando's universe changing performance back in 1951. The Big Bang of his Streetcar performance unleashed a chain reaction in the acting world that reverberates to this day. Marlon Brando was quickly followed by James Dean, a younger, more feminine version of Brando, in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden (directed by Elia Kazan). James Dean was followed by Paul Newman and the lineage goes from there up to Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in the 70's and 80's, and onto Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cate Blanchett and Julianne Moore of today.

There were fine actors before Marlon Brando, there have been fine actors after him, and there will be more fine actors in the years to come, but there will never be another actor who will radically change the art and craft of acting like Marlon Brando did. As Babe Ruth is to baseball, as Sir Isaac Newton is to science, and as Shakespeare is to playwriting, so Marlon Brando is to the art and craft of acting.  As director Martin Scorsese said, "He is the marker. There is 'before Brando' and 'after Brando'." Sadly, we are in the 'After Brando' period, and all of us, actors and audience alike, owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the man who showed us the way. A toast to a revolutionary genius...Happy Birthday to Marlon Brando, the greatest actor to have ever walked the earth. Slàinte.

© 2015