Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
After a combined total of 13 individual movies between them, it was inevitable that Batman and Superman would eventually share screen time together. And during much of Zack Snyder's "Dawn of Justice," they spend that time together pulverizing one another - that is, when they're not off brooding in their own corners.

Snyder's picture tries to incorporate the dark, thematically rich style of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" movies, two of which are - for my money - among the best comic book movies ever made, while also continuing to depict Clark Kent and Lois Lane's story in as sunny a manner as possible. The combination mostly doesn't work, but it's far from the only thing in this overstuffed movie that fails to hit the target.

Despite what you may have heard, "Batman v Superman" isn't a colossal bust. It has its share of problems, but it's competent enough in various departments to make it more of an expensive misfire with elements of interest than a complete flop. Its greatest surprise is, perhaps, that Ben Affleck makes a pretty decent Batman, while Gal Gadot certainly makes the case for a feature length Wonder Woman story. There's also some decent supporting work here from Laurence Fishburne as Kent's editor at the paper, Holly Hunter as a senator and Jeremy Irons as the new Alfred.

However, not to be outdone by Marvel, DC Comics gets its own share of world building here and, much like its Marvel counterparts, it's never less than awkward. I think you know what I'm talking about here - those scenes when random characters not central to the action of the story pop up for the mere purpose of acting as advertising for future movies (in this case, The Flash, Aquaman and the Justice League). Imagine if you were listening to a new album by a band you liked and, halfway through a song, you get an infomercial on the band's next album. Annoying, right?

But that's far from all that ails "Batman v Superman." It's to be expected in films such as these that some shit's going to get blown up real good but, dear God, the finale in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman battle some sort of intergalactic, electrically fed creature seemingly goes on forever. And the scene in which Batman and Superman - both of whom believe each other to be vigilantes who are endangering the public - fight also goes on interminably. Frankly, I've seen better throw-downs between guys in Spandex in Times Square.

Snyder and company also appear to have difficulty believing that audiences can figure things out for themselves. For example, there's a plot twist, of sorts, involving a woman who may be of importance to both of the lead superheroes. The repetition of her name to drive home the connection becomes so overdone that, by the end, I was convinced it could be used for a good drinking game.

And my last major quibble with the picture is what poor Jesse Eisenberg, a very good actor by the way, is forced to endure in his performance as Lex Luthor, who comes off as that guy hopped up on too much cocaine who corners you at a party and won't shut the hell up. I'd imagine the character was scripted as such, but good heavens.

There are some effective moments to be found in "Dawn of Justice." An early scene in the film depicts that much overused flashback of young Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents getting gunned down, but Snyder gets points for Wayne's stylish fall in a hole filled with bats and the method by which he is lifted out of said hole. A sequence during which Kent hikes a snowy mountain and hallucinates Kevin Costner's character from "Man of Steel" is also pretty effective.

But all in all, "Batman v Superman" has entirely too much going on during its nearly punishing length and a fair amount of it is exposition and filler. It's the type of film that aims to please its built-in audience and not many more beyond that.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Review: My Golden Days

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Some 20 years after his sophomore film, "My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument," French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin has returned to the character of Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric), who is planning to return to his home country for the first time in eight years to take a government job following a stint in Tajikistan.

But he is stopped in the airport and questioned after it is discovered that another man on the other side of the world not only shares his name, but also his exact birth date and other similar details. However, "My Golden Days" is not an espionage thriller or anything of the sort. Rather, it's a series of reminiscences by Dedalus on three specific phases of his life, one of which explains why this other man shares his name and birth details.

The film's first sequence, which focuses on Dedalus' childhood with an insane mother, occasionally physically abusive father and two siblings, is fairly brief and merely sets the stage for the second two phases. The second sequence surrounds the circumstances of his being stopped in the airport. As a teen, Paul and a friend took a trip to Russia, where Paul gave up his passport so that another man could flee that country and live a free life in Tel Aviv.

But the majority of Desplechin's picture surrounds Paul's (Quentin Dolmaire) love affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a heartbreaker whose dalliances with Paul's friends can't even dissuade him from attempting to romance her.

"My Golden Days" works so well because of how true to life it feels. There have been countless films about amour fou and heartbreak, but Desplechin's is so effective due to the fact that not only is Paul such a well-drawn character, but so is Esther. Often, films looking back on a summer of love often relegate the female character to being the - as it's often called - object of the male gaze. But in Desplechin's film, Roy-Lecollinet does just as much - if not more so - of the heavy lifting as Dolmaire.

And while both characters are flawed - although Esther clearly loves Paul, she's far from being true to him and Paul can occasionally be a cad, both to his paramour and his pals - there's an obvious amount of sympathy and love for them from the filmmaker on display.

One of France's most highly lauded filmmakers, Desplechin came along during the same era as Olivier Assayas and, similar to that great director, his work is varied in terms of content and he frequently tells stories that don't go from point A to point B narratively. Although often fragmented, his films never feel as if they've left anything vital out. We know enough about his characters to fill in the holes.

My personal favorite of his films is 2005's wild "Kings and Queen," although the puzzling and creepy "La Sentinelle" is also strongly recommended by me. "My Golden Days," also among his better films, is a clear eyed look at youth and faded romance that never feels overly sentimental or viewed through rose-colored lenses. And it features a powerful coda, of sorts, that shows how we never quite let go of the past.

"My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument" is not the easiest movie to track down. The good news is that "My Golden Days" works as a stand-alone feature and you don't need to have seen the original picture to appreciate this one - which, if you give it a chance, I think you just might.

Review: Krisha

Image courtesy of A24.
I'll say this for Trey Edward Shults' debut feature: there's never been any other film quite like "Krisha," a dysfunctional family drama that is part Cassavetes, part Altman, part horror movie and a 90-minute character meltdown featuring a bold lead performance.

That being said, while I admired the picture, it's far from perfect. Borrowing some stylistic traits from Terrence Malick - Shults apparently worked on a few Malick and Jeff Nichols films - but not utilizing them as well as those seasoned filmmakers, the style occasionally engulfs the story to an almost distracting extent.

For example, there's a scene in which the nervous lead character (played by Krisha Fairchild, Shults' aunt) prepares a Thanksgiving turkey for her estranged family, who have welcomed her back into the fold after some years of separation, all the while peering over at her relatives, who are parked in front of a TV set watching a football game. The camera lurches back and forth, back and forth and back and forth as the sound of percussion begins to ring louder and louder in the background. The scene is obviously aimed to created a sense of Krisha's increasingly troubled mental state, but the effect is grating.

Shults has said that while the picture is primarily a scripted one, there are scenes of improvisation and these are easy to spot. One such sequence falls shortly after Krisha has arrived and is talking to her loudmouthed sister's husband (Bill Wise). At first, the two have a bit of playful banter that quickly turns a little ugly, but seemingly only due to the fact that the whole scene is improvised. In other words, the flow from one type of conversation to another doesn't feel natural.

Some quibbles aside, "Krisha" is a unique experiment, to say the least. The film was shot for approximately $30,00 in Shults' family home in Texas, with a majority of the cast members being his relatives. Shults has said that the picture came about due to a tragedy involving addiction in his own family and so it should come as no surprise at how intimate and horrifying the film often feels. In fact, the only alleviating moments in this relatively short film involved a pair of dopey young male members of the family whose extracurriculars involve wrestling and watching porn - but believe me, those humorous moments came as a relief.

Although much is left to the imagination, Krisha appears to have long been an addict of some sort and previously abandoned her son, Trey (played by the filmmaker himself). She has come to make amends at Thanksgiving, but quickly loses her balance after a not-so-encouraging conversation early on with her son.

As the evening wears on, Krisha gives into a temptation that causes everything to come spiraling down. In one particularly striking scene, Krisha almost floats around the home as Nina Simone croons and everything moves in slow motion. It's a moment of bliss before the fall, after which the film takes on the feeling of a horror movie, complete with claustrophobic tight angles and camera work that can best be described as intoxicated.

The scenes of dialogue give off the vibe of a mid-1970s Cassavetes movie, while Shults also obviously admires Altman's work from that same decade, utilizing that director's famous zoom-out technique, leaving his lead character appearing isolated from the chattering crowds.

There's a fair amount to admire in Shults' debut, although its overdose of visual style occasionally overpowers all else that is going on in his film. It's the sort of debut that gives promise of good things to come and I'd certainly recommend that, if she's available, Shults invites his aunt back as a cast member. She's a force of nature.

Review: Midnight Special

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Jeff Nichols' films often flirt with genre but are - at heart - tales of people from Middle America who are living on the fringe of society. His brilliant "Take Shelter" was an unsettling story about a man living in an Ohio community suffering amid the economic downturn who receives eerie portents that something awful is coming and that he must build a shelter.

His previous feature, "Mud," was both a crime drama and a coming of age tale set in the South. And his latest, "Midnight Special," is undoubtedly a science fiction thriller, but also a story about criminals on the lam as well as a family drama. While it borrows elements from Steven Spielberg (most notably, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and John Carpenter ("Starman," but also the film's electronic score and certain shots that might have felt at home in the cult director's early 1980s output), "Midnight" is also very much Nichols' own, both in terms of story and style.

As the film opens, two men - Roy (Michael Shannon, looking haunted as ever) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a state trooper - have nabbed a young boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher in a great child performance) who appears to have some sort of special powers. His eyes emit intense rays of light that can stop satellites in the sky and his sense of hearing is highly evolved - during one scene, he speaks aloud words being said on a radio station that Roy and Lucas haven't even yet tuned into.

Alton had been staying with a man Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard), a creepy cult-like leader whose followers live on a property known as The Ranch, where the young boy had been treated as some type of savior. Although the film only slowly divulges information, we learn that Roy and Lucas intend to reunite Alton with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), and then take him to a specific spot in the United States on a particular date where - well, something - is set to happen. Could it be the end of days as Meyer and his followers believe?

Meanwhile, a sympathetic NSA agent named Sevier (Adam Driver) is among the many officials seeking the boy and his father, whose faces are plastered all over the news. And Meyer has sent two of his own men - both of whom are ruthless in their pursuit of Alton - to reclaim the child for the cult.

Although the film deals with close encounters that are indeed of the third kind, "Midnight Special" is a modestly scaled, intimate and moody low budget thriller. A majority of the picture takes place at night, which not only allows Roy, Lucas and Alton to stealthily drive with their lights off on highway roads, but is also required due to the boy's condition. In other words, he can't face direct sunlight.

When the special effects finally arrive during two scenes - one particularly intense one at a gas station and another at the film's climax - they are impressive, but without overshadowing the story and offsetting its melancholy mood.

Nichols is among the most exciting filmmakers to have emerged during the past few years. Although "Take Shelter" was only his second feature, it was directed with the hand of a master and with "Mud" and "Midnight Special," he has carved out his niche as a filmmaker, both in terms of content (Southern and Midwestern dramas that blend genres) and tone (subtle and moody).

For a genre film, especially a sci-fi movie, "Midnight Special" is a pleasant surprise. Its story is a familiar one, but its strong filmmaking, great cast and soulful tone make it stand out among your average example of its genre. The summer blockbuster onslaught begins in a little over a month, but I doubt any of this summer's big tent-pole genre movies will display the filmmaking chops that are so obvious in a film such as this one.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Review: The Brothers Grimsby

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Not particularly funny and featuring gags so gross they'd make John Waters blush, "The Brothers Grimsby" is further proof that the very talented Sacha Baron Cohen is much better when unscripted and given free reign to improvise, rather than stick to a script. And, in this case, it's a script that's not very good.

In the picture, Cohen is Nobby, a rowdy but affable British soccer hooligan who has never gotten over losing touch with his brother after they were separated during childhood. And there's a reason for that: Sebastian (Mark Strong) is a James Bond-type super spy who can take out an entire group of men without breaking much of a sweat.

As the film opens, Sebastian is attempting to track down a super villain who has plans to spread a deadly disease around the world. Through circumstances extremely difficult to believe, Nobby - who has nine kids and is married to the randy Rebel Wilson - gets word that his brother will be attending a ceremony involving world health organizations and accidentally prevents Sebastian from stopping an assassination attempt. Naturally, Sebastian is blamed for the incident and the two brothers go on the lam, all the while concocting plans to halt the villains responsible for the mess they're in.

As I've said, a few mild chuckles aside, "The Brothers Grimsby" is not particularly funny, but there's no depth to which it won't sink in its attempts to provoke gasps. There's more than one joke involving a child with AIDS who, at one point, gets shot and later is dropped from a height in his wheelchair.
More than one woman gets physically assaulted and there's at least one gag I recall involving pedophilia. A joke involving Bill Cosby falls flat, while a later one that takes aim at Donald Trump gets, well, a mild smile.

When the picture is not trying - and failing - to find humor in tragedy, it indulges in long, drawn-out gags involving bodily humor. Some films - such as "There's Something About Mary" - have struck comic gold with such material but, alas, this one does not. If you're not put off by the punishingly long and fairly graphic scene in which Cohen must suck venom from Strong's scrotum, then you'll likely have had enough by the time the two of them hide out in an elephant's womb, which is shortly thereafter penetrated by a male of the species.

Cohen is a very funny guy, which is evidenced in his extensive work on British television and the hilarious and culturally astute "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan." But when saddled with scripts that don't allow him to improvise and run wild with unsuspecting victims - such as this film and "The Dictator," another misfire - it doesn't work as well.

The film has a who's who of great talent - aside from Cohen and Strong, there's also Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Isla Fischer, Gabourey Sibide and the great Ian McShane - so the entire enterprise wreaks of being a missed opportunity. And it's also one you'll most likely want to miss.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Review: 10 Cloverfield Lane

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Dan Trachtenberg's "10 Cloverfield Lane," a kind-of but not exactly sequel or spinoff to 2008's J.J. Abrams-produced "Cloverfield," is basically two movies in one, the first of which lasts approximately an hour and 20 minutes, while the second one only kicks in during the film's last 20 minutes.

I'm not going to give away what transpires in the last 20 minutes of the film - although you've likely already guessed when glancing upon the picture's title - nor am I going to be coy and evade the fact that this film, as Abrams himself puts it, "exists in the same universe" as the 2008 found footage thriller.

The picture's opening is reminiscent of Hitchcock's "Psycho" as a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) packs up her belongings and flees what we later are given to believe is an abusive relationship. The opening sequence is tense, despite there being little in the way of story at this point, due to its combination of an eerie score and virtually dialogue-free scenes.

Michelle's car crashes and she wakes up to find herself with an IV in her arm and handcuffed to a bed in the bunker of a man named Howard (John Goodman), who may or may not be telling the truth about the apocalyptic event that took place outside the bunker during the time when she was unconscious, but who is obviously a tad disturbed.

The third person in the bunker is a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), a neighbor of Howard who lends some credence to his story, but not quite enough to be reassuring. Two-thirds of "10 Cloverfield Lane" involves the three characters attempting to learn to trust each other and becoming accustomed to life underground. Due to Goodman's committed and creepy performance and Winstead's solid leading work, most of the film is a taut and suspenseful viewing experience.

Inevitably, the action will eventually make its way outside the bunker and while there are some exciting and creepy moments to be found there, the picture gets a bit too literal in its final moments. Trachtenberg's film is much more effective when dealing with monsters of a more human nature than those of an otherworldly type.

That being said, "10 Cloverfield Lane" is a clever, fun and tightly contained thriller. Those expecting some sort of direct sequel or spinoff to "Cloverfield" may instead find something a little more low key and relying more on character than visual wizardry.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Cemetery of Splendor

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing. 
The films of Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul are difficult to define or categorize - and in a good way. The director, who goes by "Joe" considering the length of his name, makes pictures that often deal in dream logic and combine stories that feature elements from the past and present, fantasy and reality, human and otherwise.

His latest, "Cemetery of Splendor," is a little more restrained than usual and, as a result, not among his best films. It's a picture to admire for its often lovely cinematography and, especially, use of color, even as its story never quite gels.

Set in a remote hospital somewhere in Thailand, the film's narrative revolves around soldiers who lie on cots, asleep all day for reasons unexplained. At one point in the picture, one of the film's leads is told that the location of the hospital is on a former cemetery of kings and that the soldiers' energy is being zapped by the dead kings who continue to wage war on one another underneath the ground. Nobody exactly refutes this explanation.

Jenjira (Jenjira Pongpas, a Weerasethakul regular) is an older woman with one leg longer than the other, requiring her to walk around on crutches. At the hospital, she befriends two people - a young psychic who is rumored to have been recruited by the FBI and is at the hospital in an attempt to contact the sleeping soldiers and one of the soldiers - a man named Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who occasionally awakens to have conversations with Jenjira before drifting back to sleep.

In terms of story, that's pretty much it, although Weerasethakul's films often focus more on tone and dreamy visuals than narrative. And there are some great ones in "Cemetery," especially a sequence during which a variety of places are lit by tones across the color spectrum that recede and are replaced by others. The shots include an escalator full of people, a building front and the room housing the soldiers.

Inexplicable situations abound. A group of people watching the trailer for a silly martial arts horror movie randomly stand up and stare as the screen goes blank. Jenjira sits watching with widened eyes as a group of young boys play soccer on an excavation site. At one point in the film, Jenjira visits a shrine, where she pays homage to the statues of two female goddesses. A few scenes later, two young women approach her and tell her that they are the goddesses and this does not give off the impression of being out of the ordinary, especially for a Weerasethakul film.

But I wouldn't advise viewers unfamiliar with the director's oeuvre to start with "Cemetery," which is a decent film, but far from his best work. I'd highly recommend "Tropical Malady," in which a young man is obsessed with another boy who, during the film's second half, is transformed into a tiger, or the Palm d'Or winning "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," during which a man's dead son is reincarnated as some sort of wooly forest creature with glowing red eyes. Moviegoers with patience and a taste for the peculiar will likely be entranced by the work of this singular artist.

But while "Cemetery of Splendor" is a pretty good movie, it's a far cry from Weerasethakul's finest work and certainly not the starting point for the uninitiated.

Review: Knight of Cups

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Terrence Malick is one of the cinema's most unique and original voices and some of his films - most notably, 2011's miraculous "The Tree of Life" - offer visions so ambitious and entrancing that the term "Malickian" has come to describe works that are ethereal, ponderous and visually dazzling.

His latest picture, "Knight of Cups," certainly meets at least one of those requirements - it looks amazing. But similar to his previous venture, "To the Wonder," Malick's newest feature feels as if it is missing something. While "Wonder" was a solid film that was a little lighter on content than previous Malick films, "Knight" is merely a decent enough picture, but mostly only due to its spectacular cinematography.

If Malick has begun to veer away from straightforward storytelling in recent years ("Tree" was often fragmented, but there was never any question as to what was taking place or what it was about, so to speak), the director started to lean toward the experimental with "Wonder" and, with "Cups," he's gone full blown in that direction.

What appears to take place in "Knight" is that a Hollywood hedonist - and apparent screenwriter, although there's little evidence to support that claim - known as Rick (Christian Bale) has decided to look inward after living a mostly empty and debauched life and make some necessary changes.

The picture opens with a quote from "Pilgrim's Progress" and a story about a king whose son was sent on a quest to find a rare pearl, but became entranced by pleasures of the flesh and soon forgot not only his mission, but also that he was the king's son.

This, of course, describes the story of "Knight of Cups" fairly accurately and Malick does a good job of setting up Rick's alienation and loneliness through a random assortment of images - impersonal highways with speeding cars, a studio lot door closing and blocking out the sun and, my personal favorite, a party in a glass-windowed apartment viewed by an obviously lonely eye from across the street.

If Bale is the son in question, then Brian Dennehy is the king and Wes Bentley is the troubled brother. I've read in various places that Malick himself had a younger brother who died young, so it makes sense that the clash between fathers and sons as well as brothers is a recurring theme in his work. It was utilized to its maximum effect in "The Tree of Life" and provides for some of the strongest scenes in "Knight." In fact, the relationship between Bale and Bentley, who have good familial screen chemistry, could have likely made for a good feature in itself.

The film, which has a title referring to a Tarot card, is broken up into various sections and a majority of the picture involves flashbacks to various love affairs between Rick and a menagerie of Hollywood's most beautiful and talented women - including Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto and Teresa Palmer.

So, it's unfortunate that Rick's scenes with these women make for the movie's weakest sections as most of them appear to serve only as window dressing. While Rick gets to wander around pondering his existence and trying to shake himself out of his malaise, the women merely serve as his objects and rather than giving any of them much of a personality, they merely frolic in the way Malick's waifs tend to do, spinning around on beaches and in rooms with billowy curtains.

There are numerous passages in "Knight" that captivate due to the combination of the film's gorgeous photography and Malick's dreamy tone and there are even a few that are funnier than what you'd typically expect from the reclusive auteur. I especially liked one involving a flamenco dancing Antonio Banderas as a party's host.

But while "Knight of Cups" is just good enough to recommend to filmgoers with adventurous tastes, it doesn't stack up to the great films for which he is responsible: "The Tree of Life," "The Thin Red Line," "Badlands" and the stunning "Days of Heaven." The picture is a perfect example of a minor film from a major director.