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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Review)

Directed by Zack Snyder, US, 2016

Part of me can’t believe I’m writing this, but I didn’t hate this movie.  Given the number of characters introduced, the hot mess that was Man of Steel (2013), and the amount of negative press the film has gotten thus far, I expected it to be horrible.  Legendarily horrible.  Sean Connery in Zardoz (1974) horrible.  Instead it wasn’t awful.

Ben Affleck makes a fine Batman, and Gal Gadot makes a fine Wonder Woman.  Gadot is underused, but she makes the most of her limited screen-time.  Affleck nails the “older Batman” role with a fine balance of weariness and general Batman-ness.  Even the final battle sequence avoids the indulgences of Snyder’s previous action movies.

That being said, it’s not a great movie.  Henry Cavill is still soulless and dull as Superman.  Jesse Eisenberg is a bit off-putting as “all of a sudden Lex Luthor is Marc Zuckerberg.”  I liked the “Lex Luthor is more of a Nelson Rockefeller type” that the comic books had in the 1990’s.

Overall, the Superman characters are fine.  Not perfect but fine.  This is, after all, mostly a Batman movie.  The real issue with the film, why it’s merely okay but not great, is that there are long stretches of boredom.  Case in point, I actually left the theater for about ten minutes during the first act and missed absolutely nothing.  It was almost like Snyder was overcorrecting for the non-stop “boomfest” that was Man of Steel.

Overall, Batman v Superman isn’t a bad comic book movie.  It’s better than probably a third of the comic book movies out there.  If you just need a decent diversion this weekend and an excuse to go to the movies, you can do much worse.

You might like Batman v Superman if: You just feel like seeing a comic book movie and you’re fine if it’s mediocre.

You might not like Batman v Superman if: You are expecting it to be great in any way, shape, or form.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Birdman

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, US, 2014

“What do you mean, Phib?” asked Miss Squeers, looking in her own little glass, where, like most of us, she saw – not herself, but the reflection of some pleasant image in her own brain.”

– Charles Dickens, from “Nicholas Nickleby”

When an actor looks into the mirror, what pleasant image does he see staring back?  Is the image larger than life? Capable of success in all artforms? Or do they not see the pleasant reflection?  What if they only see that which they hate the most?

We spend most of Birdman inside the crowded backstage of a small theater, but we spend the most time inside the mind of Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed up superhero actor.  Keaton is fantastic in the role, and contrary to the most logical hypothesis, this is not because Keaton=Thomson. The only thing he and Thomson have in common is that their best known role is playing an iconic superhero (Thomson played the titular, fictitious Birdman).  Keaton, after all, has a filmography so long that it places him in the top percentile of working actors since Batman Returns (1992) and Thomson has nothing beyond his superhero role.

The film is isolating – mostly shot in small spaces and using a generous helping of tracking shots to limit perspective.  Iñárritu shows us that fame is isolating, but also addictive (a lesser director would merely tell us).  Thomson hates Birdman, but Thomson needs Birdman too.

When the film leaves Thomson’s perspective, it casts an examining eye on theater and its dysfunctional relationship with film.  Theater people hate movie people, but then they become movie people.  Then they try to become theater people again.  Then the theater people hate them even more, until they don’t.

Neither artform comes off well in Birdman.  Theater is shown as pompous and arrogant, film is shown as obsessed with violence and mayhem.  Yet somehow by criticizing the art, we reach an understanding of the people who make the art.

You might like Birdman if: You want to explore the mind of the artist and the conflict between “art” and “popular culture.”

You might not like Birdman if: Trippy movies disagree with you.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

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Movies

Classic Film – Batman (1989)

Batman

Directed by Tim Burton, U.S., 1989

I recently revisited 1989’s “Batman,” the film that arguably changed how Hollywood makes movies.  Sure the Spielberg and Lucas films earlier in the decade and in the late 1970’s started the idea of the summer blockbuster, and there had already been several Christopher Reeve Superman films, but Batman seemed to make Hollywood understand that summer + taking an established property seriously = $$$$$$$.

Tim Burton’s Batman films are often placed behind Christopher Nolan’s in quality, and with good reason.  The Dark Knight (2008) is not only the best Batman film, it may be the finest super hero film period.  Still, I’m not so hasty to rank Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ahead of Tim Burton’s efforts.

All four movies have problems when compared to The Dark Knight (let’s not even get into the other two Batman “movies”).  Batman Returns (1992) has too many characters crammed into too short a run-time.  The Dark Knight Rises has the opposite problem in that it feels about an hour too long.  Batman Begins suffers from Christopher Nolan’s weakness for repetitive dialogue (we get it – he needs to be more than just a man).

Batman compares more favorably to The Dark Knight.  It is certainly a Tim Burton movie in that it joyfully indulges in the Gothic and grotesque, and Burton was clearly more interested in the early Batman comics than the more recent adaptation of the story.  The modern Batman of the Dark Knight Detective comic book era pretends to be a ridiculous playboy during the day, will not kill his enemies no matter how heinous they are, and at least has some logical basis for owning his collection of bat-toys.  The original Batman from the 1939 comic book was an aloof, mysterious millionaire, who had no problem dispensing fatal vigilante justice and seemed to pull expensive vehicles and gadgets out of the ether.  Burton’s Batman is far less logical and, to the extent that Batman can be realistic, less plausible.

Another key difference is that the first Batman movie could just as easily been entitled “Joker.”  Jack Nicholson’s Joker gets more screentime than Batman, better lines than Batman, and a more extensive backstory than Batman.  It is also the only Batman film where Batman faces only one adversary.

I remember when Heath Ledger was first cast as the Joker there was an uproar.  People wanted Nolan to cast Nicholson again, or at least his modern equivalent.  Interestingly enough, when the character is inevitably played again, that actor will immediately be unfavorably compared to Ledger.

Nicholson and Ledger give different interpretations of the same character, and it is up to the audience to decide which one they prefer.  Ledger’s Joker is more outwardly psychotic and has no backstory, making him a gleeful agent of chaos.  He’s dangerous because he’s unpredictable and he lacks any motive beyond the creation of mayhem.

Nicholson’s Joker is more calculating and has clearer motivations.  He’s no less dangerous, and just as much in love with destruction.  But his goal behind the destruction is to instill fear and gain recognition, whereas Ledger’s Joker is only interested in laughing while he watches the world burn to the ground.

Finally, Batman is a lot shorter than today’s superhero blockbusters.  Coming in at a little under two hours, it’s 40 minutes shorter than Nolan’s bloated “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Longer doesn’t always mean better or more entertaining.

As the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, there will be more Batman on film.  In two years we’ll get “Batman v. Superman: the Dawn of Justice.”  After that the inevitable stand-alone Batman movie.  It will be interesting to see where the adaptations are going next, and how they differ from the Burton and Nolan versions of the story.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe