Film Review: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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Batman v Superman Poster

Spoilers below.

After seeing many voices on the internet reviewing, reacting to, and discussing the highly anticipated Batman v Superman, I thought it was about time to put my thoughts down. Batman v Superman is a highly problematic and flawed film in many ways. It packs about five films into 2 hours and 30 minutes, without any stitching of them together. It also does LOTS of groundwork for the DC Extended Universe to prepare for next year’s Justice League Part One. Out of all the chaos, though, a genuinely entertaining film arises, and for the most part I enjoyed it despite the many flaws. It is a weaker film than Man of Steel, but whereas Man of Steel had a cohesive narrative and essentially misunderstood Superman, Batman v Superman has a tighter – if not entirely accurate – grip on what makes it’s lead characters appealing.

Don’t misunderstand me, Zack Snyder still misunderstands Superman on the most basic human level, but he takes much more of a background role compared to Ben Affleck’s Batman. Without a doubt, Ben Affleck is now the definitive Batman. He strikes the perfect balance between Bruce Wayne and Batman, something few of the previous actors have been able to do. This is a Batman ripped straight from the comic-books, even if Snyder still misses the characterisation slightly (his obsession with superheroes killing their enemies is a genuine detriment to this universe). Batman v Superman is an improvement over Man of Steel in this respect – as Superman isn’t in this film too much, I felt much more comfortable with what was happening and with the flow of narrative.

However, Snyder really hasn’t cracked Superman, and that’s a genuine shame, because their confrontation lacks a dramatic weight as these characters are just too similar. It’s a shame, as Henry Cavill is a great choice to play Superman. He just needs better scripts and better direction, and a writer who understands the essential aspects of Superman. Maybe Max Landis? Snyder seems much more interested in the idea of Superman and the political / sociological implications of such a character, than the actual character of Clark Kent himself. This is dissapointing because Superman is easily one of the best characters in superhero comics when written well. Further complicating Snyder’s portrait of Superman in this film is the fact that, yes, he’s interested in these implications of the character, but he NEVER answers these questions of what a world with Superman would look like. Apparently posing these questions semi-intellectually is enough for him. It gives some thoughts to chew on but the lack of a thematic conclusion to what Superman means politically / sociologically would’ve given a deeper picture to a flawed depiction of Superman. Actually, I guess it does thematically conclude – Superman doesn’t mean anything politically / sociologically in a world where Batman exists, because Batman is better. Or something like that.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, like Ben Affleck’s Batman, looks really good. She’s not in the film too much, and basically serves as a plot device to complicate Batman’s story arc, and turns up at the end for the inevitable final battle in the third act. She is very much shoe-horned into the film and serves no real purpose narratively, but saying that, Gal Gadot imbues so much personality and character into Wonder Woman. It makes me really excited to see the eventual Wonder Woman film.

Unfortunately, whilst the first 2 hours of this film are exciting and mildly thrilling, it kind of falls apart in the third act. Zack Snyder’s need for a city-destroying third act leads him to shoehorn in the worst of all Superman villains, Doomsday, and have a mess of a final battle that I couldn’t really follow. It of course ends with Superman’ death, the most  (only?) heroic thing he has done in the film. What pissed me off about this ending is I don’t think the DC Universe has earned it yet. Two films in, and we already have the major icon of this universe dying before a seeming resurrection at the end? It felt unearned, and maddeningly denied a future filmmaker from doing justice to a sorta-good 90s comic that is popular for reasons I can’t comprehend. Had Snyder instead focused his energy on creating an interesting Luthor maybe this finale wouldn’t have been necessary. I would’ve much rather had Batman and Superman team up at the end to stop a nefarious plan by Luthor to blacken Superman’s name, but I guess that’s maybe a bit too much to ask.

This review has sounded largely negative so far, but I did actually really enjoy this film. I think after Man of Steel I was largely apathetic to any DC Universe film that hit the cinemas, but the pacing and intensity of the filmmaking kept me intrigued at all times, even if the film didn’t pay up on that intrigue at the end. It’s a frustrating film, like Man of Steel, because it does a lot of great stuff but also gets a lot wrong, filmmaking wise. Batman v Superman could have used another few months of screenwriting time. In my opinion, they should have entirely dropped the third act, cut out Wonder Woman, and made this film solely about setting up the relationship between Batman and Superman, with Luthor as the villain. I think it would have strengthened the film and made it the first great film in this new wave of DC pictures. As it is, though, Batman v Superman is worthy popcorn entertainment, as long as you don’t try to think too hard about what it’s failing to say.

7/10

Film Review: The Hateful Eight (2015)

Film

The Hateful Eight 1

The Hateful Eight (2015), Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipated new film, is a puzzling, disturbing experience. I think it’s safe to say that for most of Tarantino’s filmography, his films often have a focal character which the audience can align themselves with. A character who, if not morally, we can see ourselves agreeing with their decisions and actions. For Kill Bill (2003-2004) we had the Bride. For Inglourious Basterds (2009) we had Lt. Aldo Raine. For Django Unchained (2012) we got the dynamic duo of Django and Dr. King Schultz. And with these characters’ quests for retribution often came extended scenes of dialogue punctuated by brilliantly choreographed action. Tarantino has built himself a reputation as a director who conceives of cinema as a form of visceral experience. With The Hateful Eight, Tarantino abandons this cinematic aesthetic in favour of a more theatre-driven, literary style. The Hateful Eight finds Tarantino at his most thoughtful, political, and meaningful stage of his career. However, the affect this has on the form of cinema is of a somewhat different success.

The Hateful Eight is essentially a three-hour conversation between a myriad of unlikeable, detestable, and violent characters, forced into a dialogue by a blizzard and the prospect of having to stay in each other’s company for three days. There is no moral focal point among this cast; each is as unlikeable as the last, and furthermore, no one is quite what they appear to be. Every character is motivated by survival. For in Tarantino’s film, the United States has been filtered into this one room, and to say or be who you truly are is a deadly act. It is liable to get yourself killed. So as the snow forces these characters to talk about themselves and their struggles, conflict inevitably arises. America is the land of kill or be killed, and these characters know that more than anyone else. The Hateful Eight is Tarantino at his most political. It is a film that undeniably has a lot to say about the current state of race relations in the United States, whether you want to hear it or not.

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Tarantino’s new film is a politically charged, literary experiment in cinematic form.

This profoundly new direction for Tarantino matches a new cinematic aesthetic. Gone is the aesthetic of viceral experience as cinema. Here we find Tarantino at his most literary, carefully constructing his characters and relying for most of the film upon the power of wordplay and conversation to drive the characters and dialogue forward. At times, The Hateful Eight is reminiscent of the novels of Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens. Whilst conflict may still be finished with violence, The Hateful Eight is a marked departure from his previous films with it’s use of violence. Violence won’t end the larger debates presented within the film anymore. Violence won’t end slavery or stop the Nazis. This is because here, for the first time in Tarantino’s career, the debates these characters represent are bigger than the stage or the actors. This in part leads to one of the best monologues Tarantino has written in his career, delivered by Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marcus Warren, a black bounty hunter, who converses with Bruce Dern’s General Sandy Smithers, a Confederate general. It’s a standout sequence that is among Tarantino’s most disturbingly funny and political scenes.

However, whilst all of this is an interesting departure for Tarantino in filmmaking, it can tax the audience. The Hateful Eight, in it’s 70mm cut, is 187 minutes long with an intermission. It is nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes of dialogue, set up, and build up, to the final act in which most of the significant action happens. It’s a film that rests entirely on the shoulders of it’s last 40 minutes, and whilst all of this is very well executed I was left at points thinking, what exactly is the point of what’s happenning on screen? The Hateful Eight is entirely about subtlety and nuance. Subtlety and nuance across 3 hours of dialogue becomes something of an endurance test, if not an enjoyable one.

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Tarantino’s 70mm cinematography creates some of the best landscapes of his career.

Tarantino also makes great use of the 70mm format, with the opening half-hour stagecoach ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery featuring some of the most beautifully photographed landscapes of his film career. And when the film finally transitions to inside of the Haberdashery, there is no shortage for great cinematography. The faces of the cast, careful and beautiful lighting, and the occasional exploding head all are beautifully captured in 70mm. Likewise, this cinematography is accompanied by the hauntingly gothic Ennio Morricone score, his first Western score for 35 years. It’s a standout score among this year’s selection, and has a very good chance at nabbing Ennio Morricone his first competitive Oscar.

All actors are firing on full cylinders, with a career-defining performance from Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix and another jewel in Samuel L. Jackson’s ever-growing crown. Kurt Russell and the rest of the cast are also very good, with a particularly note-worthy, Oscar nominated performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue. She is easily the most savagely brutal character of the whole film. She’s manipulative, violent, and all-around nasty. The violence committed towards her throughout the film never feels exploitative or unjustified. I won’t be forgetting her sneering, blood-soaked face anytime soon.

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Samuel L. Jackson and Walton Goggins are  two standouts of an incredible cast.

Whilst The Hateful Eight may be a taxing experience, and a somewhat weaker film from Quentin Tarantino after his back-to-back successes of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, it still ranks as one of the best films of the year as well as providing a startlingly new direction in Tarantino’s filmmaking. I hope to see more of this literary, theatrical style from Tarantino in his next films. Seeing the film in 70mm is a must if at all possible. An intriguing, enthralling, and stimulating piece of cinema.

9/10

Film Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens (2015) (Spoiler-Free)

Film

The Force Awakens Poster

So here we are. 32 years after the release of The Return of the Jedi (1983), we finally have the next vital chapter in the Star Wars saga, The Force Awakens (2015). How does it measure up to the quality of the original films? Thankfully, both long-time fans and newcomers will find lots to love in this new thrilling episode of the Star Wars franchise.

Finn, a Stormtrooper, decides to flee the First Order and goes to the planet Jakku. There he meets Rey, and together they traverse the galaxy, meeting old heroes such as Han Solo, Chewbacca, and General Leia, and new ones such as ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. They will also have to face Kylo Ren, a villain who is powerful with the dark side and as mysterious as he is deadly.

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Finn, Rey, Poe, and the droid BB-8, the new heroes of the Star Wars franchise.

I can’t really give a specific review without going into spoiler zone so I’ll keep this as simple as possible. Rey and Finn are a great pair of lead heroes. Daisy Ridley’s Rey in particular proves to be versatile and more than capable of taking care of herself. Having such a great female character become the new face of the franchise is particularly compelling. Likewise, John Boyega’s Finn is a humorous and charismatic action hero. My particular favourite was Poe Dameron, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, who was everything I wanted him to be.

Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is perhaps the great discovery of this film. Gone are the two-dimensional villains of the prequel trilogy; we finally have a villain in Kylo Ren who can live up to the shadow that Darth Vader has cast across the series. He is so much more than a villain wearing a black mask and holding a lightsaber. He has genuine complexities and remains perhaps the film’s most interesting character.

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Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is the greatest of the new additions to the Star Wars mythos.

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Mayhew and Mark Hamill all return in their signature roles. Ford picks up Han Solo’s character effortlessly. This isn’t Ford doing Ford on screen for two hours – this is legitimately Han Solo, with a complex history behind him that may have changed some aspects of his character but still leaves him as the rugged space-pirate come Rebellion general that we all know him for. Carrie Fisher’s General Leia commands the room whenever she is on screen. I genuinely choked up at her appearance. Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca gets his best scenes yet, as Chewbacca emerges from simply being Han Solo’s buddy to being his own character. And Mark Hamill… I wont say anything, but I’ll let you know that his first appearance is easily one of the best moments of the film. He has all the gravitas that you would expect the legendary Jedi to have.

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Peter Mayhew and Harrison Ford return to the franchise that launched them to superstardom as Chewbacca and Han Solo.

The greatest virtue of The Force Awakens is that it is a single story- unlike the prequel trilogy, this film stands well as it’s own adventure whilst having the connective tissue that will allow the story to bridge into the upcoming sequels. Many questions are answered about what has happened between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, but there are so many more questions that will provide for lots of debate among fans until the debut of the next episode. The Force Awakens left me even more excited for what is to come next.

9/10

Film Review: Chef (2014)

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Chef poster

Chef (2014) had two main draws for me: the stellar star-studded cast, and the fact that Chef was the brainchild of Jon Favreau, who wrote, directed, and starred in the film.

Jon Favreau’s much earlier film, Swingers (1996) is a personal favourite of mine; it starts out quite shallow but as the film goes on the characters are revealed to be much more complex and perhaps sadder than previously thought. By the end of the film, Swingers had captured my heart in a way few romantic comedies had. So the prospect of another indie film from Favreau with his complete creative control had me very excited. His Iron Man films are great, but somehow lacked the identity displayed so fervently in his indie films.

Jon Favreau

Jon Favreau, the writer, director, and main star of Chef.

Whilst Chef isn’t quite as great nor as compelling as Swingers, it has the emotional core that spoke to me, and a cast of great nuanced characters. Favvreau plays Carl Casper, a celebrity chef of a Californian restaurant. When his boss (Dustin Hoffman) constricts his creative freedom and tells him to cook the normal menu for important food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) and Casper gets one of the worst reviews of his career, Casper explodes at Michel on Twitter and in person. The feud becomes viral. Casper quits his job… and it all sets off from there.

I couldn’t help but feel that the scene in which Casper rants psychotically at critic Michel was a running commentary on film criticism. Casper is saying what I think Favreau probably felt after directing the not-so-well received Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011). It’s a disturbing, hilarious, and affecting scene, and one of the films highlights.

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However, the film really finds its feet when Casper gets his food truck with friend Martin (John Leguizamo) and the help of ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara of Modern Family fame). It helps him rediscover his love for cooking simple, brilliant food and to reconnect with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). His relationship with Percy is easily the most emotionally compelling facet of the film and helps it reach its true potential.

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The film’s use of social media, as Percy begins to tweet and facebook the locations of the food truck and create another viral sensation, is another interesting element of the film. Casper is portrayed as out of touch with the internet and the new age of doing things – it helps cement his relationship with his son whilst also showing the value of social media in the modern age for small independent restaurants and businesses (and perhaps films) to gain a following and the success intended. Whether Favreau is saying something about the state of promoting the independent film versus the studio film is unclear, but it is an enjoyable and intriguing element of the film.

Chef isn’t necessarily a deep or important film; but it will have you hoping the characters succeed at what they want, and it will leave you very hungry. Add in lots of big names into the cast, such as Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, a bucketful of hilarity, and a huge emotional core, it becomes one of those films that is a genuine gleeful pleasure to watch. Recommended.

7/10