Thursday, July 28, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice [Ultimate Edition] (2016)

Memo to Warner Brothers: when Zack Snyder wants to make a three-hour movie about superheroes, let him. The studio is now oh-for-two in theatrical releases when compared to “ultimate edition” director’s cut. They did it in 2009 with Watchmen, and seven years later Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sees Snyder’s longer vision improve upon the original. This time out, the difference is more negligible – theatrically, I thought BvS was more successful than Watchmen – and while the Ultimate Edition won’t change many opinions on this highly polarizing film, it does deepen the experience and even clarify a few things in such a way that we really don’t need the theatrical cut any more.

It’s impossible to discuss the differences without throwing up a major SPOILER WARNING for anyone who either missed the theatrical cut or would like to go into the Ultimate Edition without knowing the differences. Suffice it to say, though, that the Ultimate Edition is not a substantially different movie, with the added half hour consisting mostly of added beats and deeper plots but no major additions (in the vein, for example, of Hollis Mason’s death in Watchmen).

Perhaps the most significant change is that in the film Lex Luthor becomes a much more prominent character – not because Jesse Eisenberg gets any more screen time than before (he doesn’t) but because the film reveals or clarifies the extent of his scheming. The desert plot against Superman now involves implicating his heat vision by using a flamethrower, the African witness Kahina Ziri is revealed to be a Luthor stooge, and Clark’s reassignment to the charity beat is implied to be at Luthor’s request. By extension, this clarifies Luthor’s plot by revealing that it’s all his plot, an effort to discredit the Man of Steel. And in an extension of the prison cell confrontation with Batman, Lex slyly admits he’s pleading insanity to conceal the extent of his crimes. (Batman’s response is too good to spoil here but perhaps winks toward what Lex Luthor’s future holds.)

Then again, if Lex Luthor becomes a much more visible puppet-master, we also have to acknowledge that Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) has a much more prominent presence in the plot of the Ultimate Edition. The theatrical cut includes a few beats where Clark updates Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) on several journalistic endeavors, but the Ultimate Edition goes more cinematic by showing, not telling, these interviews. We see firsthand the terrified Gothamites interviewed by Clark, see him and Lois (Amy Adams) confront the witnesses and evidence against Superman, and we also learn – I think crucially – that many of Lex’s machinations involve lead-lined bombs and bullets (which, we all know, is a weakness of Superman’s super-vision). Seeing Clark Kent humanizes Superman, so crucial to the last act’s turn in Batman’s character, and we finally feel that this isn’t a Batman movie with Superman in it: it’s the collision promised by the title.

As for what the Ultimate Edition doesn’t do? That’ll probably continue to irk detractors; the much-ado’d “Martha” moment isn’t changed, nor is the frankly jarring moment when the plot stops so Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) can read her email and tease the next decade’s worth of franchises. But similarly, neither is Wonder Woman’s nor Batman’s role much changed; Gadot is still stunningly able as Diana Prince, and Ben Affleck might just be the definitive cinematic Batman (apologies to Christian Bale, on the grounds that Affleck seems to have emerged wholesale from Batman: The Animated Series). The promise that each of these dynamic stars will soon helm their own films – Wonder Woman in 2017, Bat-fleck some time further on – is more than enough to keep fans salivating. These performances are, in the words of the film’s opening narration, “diamond absolutes.”

That peculiar choice of phrase, intoned by Bruce Wayne in the film’s opening moments, brings me back to the thing I still love the most about Batman v Superman – its sweepingly and unapologetically operatic tone. I had said of the film’s self-serious approach to its own epic scale, “Batman v Superman takes the claim that superheroes are modern mythology to its logical extension – this is comics mythology writ large, in which men and women stand shoulder to shoulder with gods, do battle, and discover something about both god and man.” And I stand by those words. If The Avengers proved that superhero movies could be big in terms of quantity, Batman v Superman continues in its Ultimate Edition to demonstrate that comic book films can be big in a different way, in a way that doesn’t just underscore their cultural importance – it foregrounds, reinscribes, and literalizes it.

By and large, the Marvel films have been intellectually uncomplicated – and I don’t mean that as an insult. There have been big ideas in Marvel’s recent output, like Winter Soldier’s concern with oversight or Iron Man’s meditation on intellectual property rights. It’d be hyperbolic, however, to claim that those movies are “idea films”; rather, they’re films with ideas. Batman v Superman, however, is smart, perhaps even overburdened by existential, metaphorical, theological, and political questions. (A surfeit of intellectual discourse is, for my money, never a bad thing.)

To push the comparison once more to Marvel – again, not to diminish the illustrious competition to DC’s cinematic universe, but to illuminate how successfully Batman v Superman moves in the opposite direction – Marvel permits readers to read symbolism beneath and into the surface level. Batman v Superman demands that we instead read the surface as symbol, and it teaches us to do this in the opening shots. We begin with the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, juxtaposed with young Bruce’s fall into a proto-Batcave. We’ve seen this before, we think, recalling the heights of Christopher Nolan’s recent trilogy.

But then the film shows the impossible – we see Bruce Wayne fly, ascending on the wings of bats. Immediately, Batman v Superman instructs us that the surface is densely symbolic, representational in a way our eyes initially reject. The rest of the movie proceeds in this vein; as our protagonists uncover the layers plotting against them, we viewers uncover the cerebral depths of the film’s contemplation. Where Nolan included young Bruce’s fall as a way to demonstrate how humanity picks itself back up, Batman v Superman veers religious, rendering instead a world in which humanity must permit itself to be lifted by a higher power. Consider, then, the Lex Luthor monologue delivered, atop a skyscraper of his own construction, about the problems of evil in the world and his own belief that devils come not from hell but from the sky. 

The end result, I believe, points to Lex’s greatest sin – his blindness to his own hypocrisy. What makes Batman heroic, by comparison, is his willingness to have his eyes opened, to realize how much he has become the thing he hated. What makes Superman godly, then, are his struggles with the great burden of power and responsibility he bears, his Christ-like moment of temptation coming in the Ultimate Edition when he wanders to a mountain, presumably to die. There, he speaks with his father, who reassures him that human life is worth saving, that each of us can save the other, if we only had eyes to see our own abilities and theirs.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a stronger film in its Ultimate Edition, albeit one that won’t win over entrenched disparagers or hardline cynics. It is, however, evidence that when it comes to comic book movies Zack Snyder is better than his theatrical editions give him credit. (Sucker Punch, though, remains exploitatively creepy and more than a little bit lame.) I just hope that we won’t need an “Ultimate Edition” of Justice League to see it, that Warner Brothers wises up and lets Snyder run wild.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition is rated R for “sequences of violence.” To my eyes, there’s no discernible difference in the quantity of violence, but it did appear that a few moments were bloodier in this newer cut. There are added shots of people being shot and their bodies burned, and there is an added F-bomb and a shot from behind of a nude Bruce Wayne.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

I’ll admit to being something of a Star Trek novice, having only seen the most recent JJ Abrams reboots and one or two of the Picard-era films (the latter, when I was too young to comprehend fully that they weren’t Star Wars). It’s a glaring absence on my nerd-bingo card, one I’ll get around to rectifying one of these days. But for now I’m content with the sporadic relationship I have with Star Trek, mostly because the new franchise hasn’t disappointed yet: Star Trek Beyond is the hat trick for the series, an engaging and exciting romp.

Several years into their “five-year mission,” the crew of the Enterprise are feeling directionless. Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is looking for a way out of his purposeless command, while Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are having a bit of a tiff over the former’s anxiety about mortality. An opportunity to mount a rescue mission into deep space rallies the Enterprise together, only to find them falling into the hands of the murderous and mysterious Krall (Idris Elba).

Despite my misgivings about the final act of Star Trek Into Darkness, I predicted that the next film would be “a real hoot,” and I’m glad to report that I was right. Even without JJ Abrams at the directorial helm this time (you may recall he was off directing a little film about forces awakening), Justin Lin proves adept at science fiction and keeping the momentum of the film going between action sequences and conversation pieces.

Indeed, the real success of the film is the chemistry between the cast. Of course, it’s been seven years in our world, and the cast really seem to have bonded in that time, approximating the tensions and dynamics of a deep-space voyage. Everyone continues the caliber of work they’ve done previously (save Simon Pegg, who pulls double-duty on screenplay but seems more isolated from the rest of the cast), but it’s Quinto’s interactions with Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy that steal the film wholesale. The juxtaposition of sassy physician with cold logic is something I don’t recall dominating the other two to this extent (Bones was memorably paired with Kirk as POV characters for Star Trek in 2009), but I’d watch a whole movie about these two.

I would have liked to see more of Idris Elba as the antagonist, and while that’s a sentence I usually say about most movies it’s especially apt in Star Trek Beyond because I remember having a distinct feeling near the beginning of the third act that I had no clue what his motivations were. It’s a step in the opposite direction from Into Darkness, where Kirk knew that John Harrison was evil because Old Spock told him so, and Krall’s motivations are abundantly clear by the end of the film in a way that ties together a number of disparate plot threads with surprising aplomb. I don’t quite know how I might have addressed this element without giving away the twist, other than to say Elba deserves more screen time, but it strikes me as a slight tension in the film.

All told, though, the greatest compliment I can pay Star Trek Beyond is to say that it isn’t a poor impression of Guardians of the Galaxy, much as the early trailers attempted to convince us. It is purely its own thing, the first wholly original plotline that doesn’t derive its narrative momentum from the concept of an alternate timeline. In this sense, Star Trek Beyond boldly goes where no Star Trek reboot has gone before, into fresh and original storytelling that is no longer beholden to what came before.

Star Trek Beyond is rated PG-13 for “sequences of sci-fi action and violence,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

Set the “controversy” aside, and take the movie on its own terms. Ghostbusters is plenty of fun and a pretty strong example of how to remake a movie with sufficient reverence balanced by satisfactory innovation.

Years ago, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) and Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) coauthored a book on the paranormal, but Erin has tried to distance herself with a legitimate career in academia. A haunted house in New York, however, brings the two back together, with Abby’s new partner Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and streetwise MTA employee Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) rounding out the pack of paranormal investigators dubbed “Ghostbusters,” who become the last line of defense when New York is riddled with ghosts.

I was among the skeptics when a Ghostbusters remake was announced – having nothing to do with the gender switch, but based entirely on the fact that the original Ghostbusters movie is alchemically good, difficult to duplicate like lightning in a bottle. And remakes almost never live up to the original, let alone surpass it (aside from The Maltese Falcon and The Departed, that is). So I was a little trepidatious while in line for my ticket, but the trailers had looked funny enough, and I hadn’t been to the movie theater in nearly two months.

I’ll say that I went into this film expecting it to be something less than Personal Canon material, and I’ve found that the lower I temper my expectations the more I tend to enjoy a film. But I think Ghostbusters is genuinely entertaining even without the expectation threshold. It’s not, however, a classic like the first Ghostbusters – at least, not yet, perhaps – but it’s quite far from disgracing the legacy of the original. No, it’s a case study in how to do a remake right; it nods toward the original (including fun cameos from nearly all of the original cast, save Rick Moranis), moves in its own direction, and doesn’t forget to have fun along the way. What it’s not, and I think some of us were expecting it, is a legacy film, in which the ladies accept the mantle from the original team. As great as it would have been to see Dr. Venkman back on screen, it’s a smarter play to let the film run in its own direction.

Melissa McCarthy continues to be the queen of physical comedy, bounding about the screen while attached to a misfiring Ghostbusters backpack; she’s equally at home with quick delivery, like the moment she realizes that her proposed slogan for the Ghostbusters already belongs to another group. Kristen Wiig is perfect at playing it straight, hamming it up in overdrawn romantic gestures toward her new secretary (Chris Hemsworth, in a fun comedic turn), but it’s Kate McKinnon who steals the show as ostensibly this film’s Egon Spengler, the socially awkward genius. It’s the only role loosely borrowed from the original, but McKinnon does crazy eyes and lingering silences better than anyone. For Jones, the film never quite develops her “New York expert” character trait, but she gets to have just as much fun as the others and even ties in with one of the most fun cameos of the film.

Your childhood is safe. It’s only a movie. (It’s only a movie, the horror trailers would have us repeat.) It’s a very fun movie, the second coming of Slimer but far from the greatest film of the summer. It’s diverting and entertaining – and good heavens, is it loud! – but for an afternoon off, it’s good spectacle and hopefully the start of a new franchise where the fun keeps rolling even beyond the credits (after which, you’ve got to stay).

Ghostbusters is rated PG-13 for “supernatural action and some crude humor.” There are ghosts in here, and some of them barf green slime.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

On the occasion of thirty years (and nine days) after its theatrical debut, Big Trouble in Little China marks the first installment in The Cinema King’s “How’d He Miss That?!” series. By virtue of this series existing from a position of “catching up,” it’s assumed that the critical consensus is already pretty positive on these flicks. (Here’s hoping I’ll still have interesting things to say.) And in the case of Big Trouble, I don’t have a surprise for you – I really enjoyed this one.

Kurt Russell stars as Jack Burton, ostensibly the hero of a battle between ancient factions of Chinatown, roped into action by his gambling buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dunn) to save Wang’s fiancée from the primeval villain David Lo Pan (James Hong). With the help of lawyer Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and sorcerer cum bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong), Jack Burton bumbles his way through adventure, but don’t worry, baby – it’s all in the reflexes.

First of all, I have so many thoughts about Jack Burton, who had the effect on me of presenting himself as the surprise father of about five of my best friends and brother or cousin to at least a dozen more. Before this past weekend, Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise was my go-to reference when it comes to blundering action comedy, but Jack Burton is truly God’s perfect idiot (Ryan Reynolds, eat your heart out), the first name in action buffoonery. The script does a very clever thing at the beginning when it tells us that Jack Burton is a hero, only for the film proper to reveal that he’s a self-confident figure of swagger and bluster with an empty head and more expository questions than Ellen Page in Inception. It’s inspired casting, then, that Kurt Russell is next to appear as Star-Lord’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, as one could draw a straight line through Jack Burton to Peter Quill.

Jack Burton is a delightful inversion of the “white savior” narrative into which Big Trouble could have easily tripped and fallen, but it’s Jack Burton who does the stumbling, to the delight of this viewer. It reminds me a little of a self-aware Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, turning its gaze inward rather than toward genre films of old. Indy is very much of its time (that is to say, a time gone by), unapologetically throwing back, but Big Trouble is re-visionist in a different way, imagining what Temple of Doom would be like if Indy were wholly out of his element, with neither his whip nor his wits about him – just a plucky can-do attitude and a belief in a cause, even if it’s a world he doesn’t fully understand.

I’m not a big kung-fu/karate movie aficionado – Kill Bill is about the closest I get – but kudos to Big Trouble for tricking me into watching a martial arts movie and then enjoying it. Of director John Carpenter’s work, I’d really only seen Halloween before, but Big Trouble demonstrates he’s as deft with action and comedy as he was with suspense and horror. (I still remember fondly the moment Halloween unironically elicited the cliché, “Oh, no, he’s right behind you!” from me.) After seeing firsthand how versatile Carpenter is, you’ll be seeing more of him around these “How’d He Miss That?!” parts.

At a smidgen more than 90 minutes, Big Trouble is brisk and breezy, with levity that never forgets to let the audience in on the joke. It’s a film that steadfastly refuses to take itself too seriously, and it left me wanting so much more even though the script smartly admits that there’s really nothing more for Jack Burton to do here. I’m exceedingly curious about the recent comic book sequel, to which Carpenter has been contributing, because Big Trouble is the kind of film that introduces you to a bunch of fascinating people you’d like to continue seeing. For one, what’s ahead for Jack Burton and Gracie Law, a Howard Hawks couple by way of the Coen Brothers? And is the kind of movie magic that, like lightning, never strikes the same place twice?

Big Trouble in Little China is big fun, smartly directed and cleverly scripted. I can’t quite say how I missed it, but I’m glad to have caught up with it when I was ready for it.

Big Trouble in Little China is rated PG-13. It’s pretty tame by modern standards, mostly kung-fu action with comedic effluvia, punctuated by a few moments of women wearing wet, semi-translucent clothing.

Monday, July 4, 2016

4th of July Roundup

Happy Fourth of July, all, to readers foreign and domestic. Our special treat today is a curated collection of past posts to get you in that Independence Day spirit. (We could have just reviewed Independence Day or The Patriot, but that'd be too predictable.)

Obviously, we begin with a tribute to our founding first Avenger, Steve Rogers, alias Captain America. Steve embodies all that America strives to be, its greatest ideals and its toughest challenges.  In a first-rate trilogy, Marvel Studios has given us "Marvel's most improved" (in the sense that The Winter Soldier is leaps and bounds better than its still-quite-good predecessor). You might not do better today than watch the adventures of a man clothed in the flag. Be sure also to check out Cap's first and second appearances in this year's hit Cinema King-exclusive series, "The Grand Marvel Rewatch."

While we're on the subject of fighting Nazis, nobody does it better than Indiana Jones. On the eve of an impending remake/reboot/sequel from Disney, the one-two punch of Indy's finest hours sees him rescuing major artifacts from Nazi forces who would use them to bend the world to Hitler's will. Armed with only a whip, a hat, his wits, and the occasional firearm, Indiana Jones is a rousing companion for your Fourth of July celebration.

Maybe a movie in which Christian Bale murders a whole lot of folks isn't your idea of Fourth-of-July appropriate. But it'll beat the socks off of any fireworks show you might be planning to see. Bale is deliciously mad in this evergreen film that isn't scary so much as it is a grimly hilarious satire of 80s narcissism and consumerism. Captain America might be our best ideal, but Patrick Bateman is our worst national nightmare.

I will recommend this movie under any circumstance until the day I die. Right at home with Captain America (in fact, both Rocketeer and First Avenger were directed by Joe Johnston), The Rocketeer is the story of an aw-shucks pilot who finds a rocket pack that allows him to stave off gangsters and Nazis run amuck, all while wooing the love of his life. These were the days when good guys were unflappable, lawmen were "g-men," and movie stars might be Nazi sympathizers. It's a fine celebration of America, and a finer anticipation of most of the superhero genre today. It's 25 years old this year - if you haven't yet,  give it a look.

Stalag 17 (1953)

Finally,  while we're in the terrain of World War II,  there's no finer flick than Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, in which American POWs in a Nazi prison camp discover one of their own is a traitor. William Holden leads the investigation once he's falsely accused, and it's as near to a perfect movie as most of us will ever get, even if it's a very sanitized version of the war (Hogan's Heroes "borrowed" more than a few pages from Wilder's playbook). You'll laugh, you'll gasp, you'll cheer. What more could you want on the Fourth?

What are your favorite patriotic films? What's your Fourth of July tradition, cinematically speaking? Are movies really better than fireworks? Take to the Comments to sound off!