Monday, August 29, 2016

Hell or High Water (2016)

You wouldn’t believe what a difficult time I had seeing this movie. Aside from the fact that the limited release didn’t hit my area for a few weeks, my matinee showing had a problem with the audio, leading me to come back later in the evening. But despite the difficulty in actually getting to Hell or High Water, the experience was all worth it; it’s a first-rate flick, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it up for a few golden statues come early 2017.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster play brothers forced onto the wrong side of the law. In order to save their family’s ranch after the death of their mother, the two have resorted to bank robbery, meticulously planned and carefully precise. Their robbery spree attracts the attention of a retiring Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his partner (Gil Birmingham), who aim to stop the robberies – or at least understand why they’re happening.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of westerns, perhaps just because I haven’t seen the right ones, but I’m a big fan of this genre-in-progress, the neo-western, which takes the themes of the western and relocates them into more contemporary trappings in order to continue to ask questions about justice, frontier spaces, and the nation’s long, complicated, and often troubling history. At the same time, it’s also (I think, indirectly) a space where older performers can step back into the genre and reevaluate it and themselves, where audiences can read the frontier’s weariness on the crags of an actor’s face.

You might think that I could very well be describing No Country For Old Men, and you’d be onto something, because Hell or High Water is very much of a piece with No Country. Both neo-westerns take questions of frontier justice into pressing issues of the twenty-first century (there, the loss of the “good old days”; here, the question of economic injustice). Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones are characters who ought to join each other on rocking chairs on the porch of their retirement, wearied as they are by the cases that baffle them. And while there’s no figure of pure evil like Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in Hell or High Water, there is the same lingering attention to the prairie wastelands of Texas, highlighting the bleak despair of the soul and the relentless persistence of our protagonists, who have only their own codes to which they can cling.

It’s truly riveting stuff, a two-hour trip that flies by despite its fairly small scope and tight narrative focus. The key is the well-crafted screenplay, as precise as the bank heists and wisely funny in a way that the trailers didn’t let on. Pine is surprisingly subdued, given his recent turn as the swaggeringly confident Captain Kirk in Star Trek. Of course, a Jeff Bridges performance is always worth the price of admission, with Hell or High Water somewhere between True Grit and Crazy Heart on the Dude-ometer. His turn as the retiring ranger practically prickles, and it’s the knowing gleam in Bridges’s eye that humanizes the character as we and his partner question why he’s pursing the case so doggedly.

Who knew it would take me through hell and high water just to see Hell or High Water? It’s worth the watch if you can find it, and it’s worth a double feature with No Country For Old Men to really think about where the neo-western is going.

Hell or High Water is rated R. Directed by David Mackenzie. Written by Taylor Sheridan. Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Gil Birmingham.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday at the Movies - August 22, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

The Gift (2015) – Hands up if you’ve heard of this film? I suspect not many people are aware of this, Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut in which Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (two favorites around these parts) play Simon & Robyn Callem, a married couple who relocate to California, where they meet Gordon (Edgerton), an old acquaintance of Simon’s. Husband and wife have varying perceptions of Gordon, disagreeing over whether he’s a lonely friend or a creepy stalker, which unearths latent tensions in the Callem household. That’s a pretty guarded plot summary, because one of the great delights of The Gift is its unpredictability. This movie takes so many bizarre turns and veers into more than a few strange directions that it’d really be criminal to divulge too much in advance. Suffice it to say that Edgerton – who pulls triple duty on acting, directing, and writing – has put together something quite compelling and unsettlingly unique. As ever, Bateman brings his expert comedic timing to bear, but he gets to display here more than most places I’ve seen him (excepting, perhaps, This Is Where I Leave You) how deft he can be with more serious acting roles. Hall is sufficiently unsettled as Bateman’s beleaguered spouse, while Edgerton walks the line between genuine and disturbing in a way that recalls classic flicks like Fatal Attraction or more recently Enduring Love. I’m surprised that this flew under the radar, considering its critical reception and its star power and its overall success as a thriller.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Catwoman (2004)

I finally sat down to watch Catwoman because it was by my count the last comic book superhero movie I hadn’t yet seen (I've since been reminded of the existence of Shaquille O'Neal's Steel). And after watching it, I can confirm that Suicide Squad was actually the last comic book superhero movie I’d never seen, because Catwoman has absolutely nothing to do with the characters published by DC Comics beyond the overlapping imagery of leather, whips, and cats. But as much as it has a reputation for being one of the worst films ever made, I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm to tear it apart frame by frame, because the truth is that Catwoman is just appallingly uninspiring on every level.

Halle Berry stars as Patience Phillips, a graphic designer for a cosmetics company run by a couple (Lambert Wilson and Sharon Stone) who are more lazily written than they are evil. Patience discovers the shady truth about the company’s latest skin cream, falls victim to a corporate conspiracy, but is brought back to life by an ancient feline deity, and believe it or not the film continues to fall apart from there.

Let’s not mince words here – Catwoman is a terrible film. It’s almost entirely unwatchable, and it’s insulting how it lures in an audience with the promise of a story that doesn’t even get approximated in the film. But in spite of all the reasons I should be mad at Catwoman, I’m almost more disappointed – in the film, in Halle Berry, and in myself for going out of my way to borrow the movie and watch it. Throughout the film, I kept thinking to myself that I needed to cleanse my palate with either Batman Returns or The Dark Knight Rises, much more accurate representations of what Catwoman is supposed to be. Ultimately, I took a nap – a cat nap, if you will (maybe the only cat-related pun the film doesn’t trot out with all the subtlety of Harpo Marx’s bicycle horn) – largely because I couldn’t find the energy to do anything else.

Catwoman is a thoroughly enervating experience, and in spite of the grotesquely dizzying editing (the kind which would make even Paul Greengrass queasy), it’s incredibly boring to boot. That’s the worst thing a film can be, boring, and even at 104 minutes Catwoman feels agonizingly protracted. The script is predictable and wrought with clichés, the characters are the pinnacle of thinly drawn – so thin that Berry literally walks between prison bars – and the stakes of the film are so disjointed that you’re not sure if this is a romantic comedy between cops and criminals or a superhero film where the fate of the world rests in Catwoman’s claws.

To mirror the disjointed nature of the film, I have a series of disjointed criticisms – why establish that Catwoman stole a one-of-a-kind necklace if her identity is uncovered by a forensic analysis of lipstick? What movie did Alex Borstein’s randy friend character step out of, and can we put her back? How many times does the film need to have a “surprise reveal” that Sharon Stone is actually the villain? (I counted three.) Is this movie supposed to be in canon with Batman Returns, or does it merely plagiarize the “reanimated by cats” origin story? And has director Pitof ever actually seen a basketball game before?

Perhaps most importantly, how did this film cost $100 million to make? (For comparison, Deadpool had a reported budget of $58 million.) I can’t fathom where the money went – the special effects are dodgy, the acting is wooden, and the direction is purposeless. On top of the retrograde sexual politics and leery male gaze, Catwoman’s greatest sin is its intrinsic dullness.

Catwoman is rated PG-13 for “action violence and some sensuality.” Directed by Pitof. Written by Theresa Rebeck, John Brancato, Michael Ferris, and John Rogers. Starring Halle Berry, Sharon Stone, and Benjamin Bratt.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad is a very difficult film for me to review, because I genuinely believe that casual comics fans are going to encounter a somewhat different film than the one I saw this weekend. We hear this description “for the fans” being bandied about, usually when a comic book movie doesn’t perform well critically, but I think Suicide Squad is made more for the fans who are already on board with these characters, and it’s with that base that the film will be more successful.

In the wake of the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that a metahuman war is coming, so she convinces the US Government to create a black ops team of psychopathic criminals to do Waller’s dirty work. Headlined by hitman-for-hire Deadshot (Will Smith) and manic pixie clown girl Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Task Force X – dubbed a “suicide squad” in an on-the-nose moment from Deadshot – is dispatched to Midway City for a rescue mission when a magical threat menaces the entire globe. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is being pursued by her “Mistah J,” the Joker (Jared Leto), who wants his girl back.

I usually pride myself on my ability to look at a thing objectively, to set aside my enthusiasm for the source material and see how a fresh eye would look at things. (I hear some of you scoffing already.) But for a diehard DC Comics devotee, Suicide Squad is a real challenge because it nails some of the comics material from the starting gate, though I’m not sure Johnny Popcorn will have the same enthusiasm for it.

Case in point: Amanda Waller. Viola Davis absolutely nails the role from the comic books. If Amanda Waller could step off the page and onto the screen, we’ve got Davis as living proof. For comics fans, you couldn’t do better. But for the casual film fan, the character is well-developed and compelling, but without the lens of comics accuracy the character is probably somewhat unremarkable (aside from a midcredits scene that intimates a surprise depth to Waller’s influence).

Ditto for The Joker. And I’ll say this for Suicide Squad – it is pretty bold for the film to include Batman (Ben Affleck) and the Joker in largely supporting roles, the former in what amounts to a cameo performance. I just want to point out that we’re living in a world where Captain Boomerang has more screentime in Suicide Squad than Batman. (And boy, is the film aware of how ludicrous Captain Boomerang is.) But back to the Joker – as with Waller, I’m fully aware that I’m bringing decades of investment in the character into the theater with me, and so I can rationalize this wildly divergent interpretation of the character as emblematic of the Joker’s “super sanity,” in which he constantly reinvents his own personality to cope with the madness of modern life. But even then, and I imagine the effect is compounded for viewers who don’t care about the Joker like I do, there’s something puzzling about why the Joker looks like something out of a gangster rap music video. Is he satirizing the gangs he seeks to replace? Or is this just our post-Ledger edgier Joker (cribbing Ledger’s voice, to boot)? Either way, there’s a “not my Joker” reflex from this fan, and I suspect a sort of bemused perplexity from others.

The good news is that the casting of the leads in the DC Extended Universe continues to be successful. Will Smith, despite my misgivings that he only ever plays Will Smith, does a fine job with Deadshot, giving the character sufficient nuance and a clear psychiatric profile. But far and away, Suicide Squad is Margot Robbie’s movie. For a relatively new character to the Batman mythos, Harley Quinn is one of its most beloved, and Robbie more than does the character justice. Granted, this is still early-days Harley, before she realizes just how abusive her relationship with the Joker really is, and I’m sure that future films will get to that part in due time. For now, though, Robbie revels in the harlequinade of madness, layering the character with shades of performance and insanity, leaving us to wonder just which is which. Above all, it’s clear that Robbie is having a blast with Harley Quinn, and that infectious enthusiasm transfers over to the audience’s side of things.

Suicide Squad is not Guardians of the Galaxy, though it seems to try very hard to be, nor is it quite Deadpool, which its detractors have accused it of aping. Fortunately, it’s also not Fant4stic, the dun standard for comic book movies. But it is, however, more than a little strangely crafted, from its opening montage to its Ghostbusters-esque climax. Almost aware of the fact that the general audience won’t know who Katana, Enchantress, and Killer Croc are, the film delivers this information in the bluntest exposition imaginable, replete with stylized on-screen rap sheet text. It’s aesthetically cringe-worthy and decidedly uncinematic, but in a way it’s understandable. The film’s use of the Suicide Squad against a mystical force who wants to destroy the earth for unknown reasons, using a big shining light in the sky to do it, is less sensible. The Squad is a pretty down-to-earth group with no discernible “super” skills, so they seem grossly outmatched and perhaps even in the wrong movie when juxtaposed with an otherworldly force. Put another way, it’s not the best narrative structure to allow the team to shine. If there’s to be a Suicide Squad 2, which box office receipts seem to indicate in the affirmative, I’d like to see the Squad stay closer to their home turf, against a villain that doesn’t require more expository mumbo-jumbo.

Suicide Squad is not a total disaster, a backhanded Trumpean compliment if ever there were one, but it’s not an unqualified success, either. It’s a strange film, off-putting in some ways but fantastically enjoyable in others, fun enough to get a thumbs-up from this reviewer but not quiet the triumph I wanted.

Suicide Squad is rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language.” Written and directed by David Ayer. Starring Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, and Cara Delavingne.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

It’s safe to say that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turned in a work that is both seminal and controversial when they created The Killing Joke back in 1988. It’s a work that has sparked heated debate about its content, its treatment of Barbara Gordon, and its recently challenged ambiguous ending (which I’ll admit eluded even me at first). And I’m extremely satisfied with the forty-five minute animated adaptation DC Comics released this week, for reasons I’ll enumerate.

But for reasons I cannot begin to understand, the adaptation is preceded by the cartoon equivalent of a steaming dump taken to profane the very concept of the character of Barbara Gordon. Spoilers are going to follow on this one, folks, but the long and short of it is that you can skip the first twenty-eight minutes of the film and regale yourself with everything you wanted from a Killing Joke adaptation, or you can watch the whole thing and sit in a stunned stupor as you wonder how so many people thought this was a good opening act.

The Killing Joke is the quintessential Batman v. Joker tale, in which the Clown Prince of Crime (Mark Hamill) attempts to prove a point to his Dark Knight foe (Kevin Conroy) that madness is the only sane reaction to the tyranny of the world’s “random uncontrollability.” This existential dilemma plays out on the bodies of retired Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Tara Strong) and her father Commissioner Gordon (Ray Wise), victims of Joker’s obsession with the Batman.

It’s the ultimate Joker story, proving just how terrifying the grinning jester can be by exposing us to the very blackness at the core of his soul. It features some of the darkest humor ever uttered from those crimson lips, brutally uncomfortable in a way that is precisely the point. It’s a story about how deep the Joker’s obsession with Batman runs, even as the reader begins to see just how close these two diverging paths really are. Is Batman, too, mad? Is this a path that necessarily ends in death? Though Alan Moore has largely dismissed Killing Joke, there are some really good ideas in there.

There are also some really abhorrent things in there, some things with which every comics fan must wrestle, particularly the text’s treatment of Barbara Gordon. And I’m honestly not sure where I end up on this debate – is the text simply presenting the Joker’s horrors in all their appalling brutality, or is there something approaching at best ignorant representation and at worst virulent misogyny in the book’s violence? The book undeniably deprives Barbara of much of her agency and even some of her humanity in reducing her to a pawn in the conflict between Batman and Joker, but fortunately so much good work was done in the comics about how Barbara healed and became something even greater in the form of Oracle, the information broker of the DC Universe and arguably one of its smartest tech-savvy heroes. This, I contend, is the crux of the superhero genre – it’s a core narrative about how we make ourselves into our greatest ideals, how we build ourselves into the best possible versions of ourselves. That’s why Batman is the greatest superhero: he’s us, as we wish to be, at the cost we fear paying. He’s not superhuman, but he is a super human.

When producer Bruce Timm and writer/adapter Brian Azzarello announced some time back that they were adding a Batgirl-centric prologue to the film, in part to pad out the runtime and in part to give Barbara a more leading role, I was intrigued. I’ve always regretted that Barbara is merely a victim in The Killing Joke, so it was good to hear that the film’s creators were attuned to that sensitive element of the book. Now for a little thought experiment: in one sentence, give me a reason to care about Batgirl. If you don’t know much about Batgirl, you can try it with any character you admire – just one reason to care about them. Write it down.

Did you write down, “She’s able to have sex with Batman”? No? Oh, well, that’s the best thing Azzarello came up with. Look, I admire the man’s work tremendously, and I’ve met him in person and found him to be wise and affable. But how in the world did the man who gave us Doctor 13: Architecture and Morality decide that the best way to get audiences invested in Batgirl was to hook her up with Batman in a creepy, sleazy rooftop one-night-stand that reduces both of them to petulant children the morning after? In what alternate universe is that either palatable or acceptable? It’s leery and exploitive in a way that participates in, not decries, the Joker’s violence of the same kind. And I wish to heavens I were exaggerating when I say that the prologue is capped off by a scene of Barbara jogging as – and I swear on all that’s holy, I’m not stretching the truth – the camera lingers over her jiggling behind and chest, never ascending past her shoulders. I try to keep the language PG on this blog, but I have all manner of vituperative commentary just under my bitten tongue.

After that, about which I could decry so, so much more (like the fact that the prologue is ultimately, from a cinematic point of view, entirely unnecessary, as it’s never so much as acknowledged again), the film takes a complete 180-turn into a rendition of the graphic novella that leans hard into accuracy, embellishing just a little bit in ways that are really quite engaging. This Killing Joke does more with the carnival freaks, an intriguing visual here made into a coterie of Joker’s maddest henchmen, and it sets one of Joker’s monologues in a room that’s quite literally topsy-turvy, amping up the madness in a way that the comic only used words to accomplish.

In a very real sense, this is the Killing Joke for which we waited. The animation is a compelling if visibly low-budget approximation of Brian Bolland’s highly precise penciling, and the voice cast is Conroy and Hamill at their level best. The first time we hear Joker’s laugh, I burst into an irresistible smile and snicker. “That’s my Joker,” I thought, “and here’s my Killing Joke.” But that first half-hour I can guarantee I will never watch again. It angers me just to think about it. A friend of mine once said, “I know Batman better than I know most real people I know,” and I feel that way about Batgirl too. I care about this character in a way that I think no one watching only this film possibly could. She’s plucky, brave, and brainy as all get-out, and she deserves so much better. The original Killing Joke comic did violence to her, and it’s abhorrent to see that the violence continues. In the comics, Barbara healed and became Oracle, but here the credits roll and nobody seems terribly bothered by any of it. (Do stay through the credits, though.)

As I wrap up this review, I’ve got a stack of new comic books waiting for my eyes, but I’m so eager to go back and enjoy the forty-five minutes of Killing Joke proper once more. It’s on those grounds, then, that I can recommend The Killing Joke: it’s a gourmet steak dinner preceded by the crudest crudité imaginable. If I were a principled man, I’d boycott DC Animated Films from here on out. But next up, it’s Justice League Dark. And I can’t say no to an animated Swamp Thing. I just can’t. And that’s no joke.

Batman: The Killing Joke is rated R for “some bloody images and disturbing content.” This isn’t one for the kiddies; Barbara’s injuries are pretty graphic, and the shots of her pained body are framed in a way that obscures the most explicit details but leaves the imagination to run rampant. Then there’s the offensive hypersexualization of the character, the aforementioned jogging shot and a beat in which Barbara removes her mask and costume, wearing a bra, before the Hitchcockian pan away. The film is relentlessly dreary, bleak in the way it needed to be to do the book justice, and it spares no blood. Weirdly, though, the language is self-censored, as when a mobster says “What the eff?” If you’re going to go for the R rating, why stop short on that point?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Jason Bourne (2016)

Over the course of the past fourteen years, we’re five movies deep into the Bourne franchise, four of which have starred Matt Damon, with three of those directed by Paul Greengrass. I give you the numbers because Jason Bourne paints very close to them, tampering very little with what has worked in the past. Ultimately it’s a very enjoyable fifth outing, but at the same time it is the fifth time we’ve been down this road.

Once more a hidden secret emerges about the mysterious past of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), sending him on a quest for answers. Placed in the crosshairs of the CIA director (Tommy Lee Jones) and his ambitious assistant (Alicia Vikander), Bourne crosses continents in order to uncover the truth about one last mystery surrounding the shadowy Treadstone project that gave birth to Bourne.

Both Damon and Greengrass took a film off, allowing Jeremy Renner to fill in for The Bourne Legacy, and so there’s an atmosphere of “back to your regularly scheduled programming” at play in Jason Bourne, right down to the back-to-basics title. I had said that the fourth one “may be my favorite of the Bourne films,” but to be perfectly honest I’m not certain I can distinguish among them in the mind palace of my memory. To be fair, I’ve seen a lot of movies in my day, but the Bourne movies have a way of running together for me.

They all seem to rely on a pretty transparent formula – Jason Bourne comes out of the cold, discovers a secret from his past, jet-sets across continents following leads gleaned from snippets of classified documents (one of which always takes him into a dense crowd where he has to duck surveillance), and confronts the gatekeeper of secrets at gunpoint, only to demonstrate he’s still not at peace, slinking off into the sunset. It’s theme and variation at its most reliable; I can’t say that I’ve been disappointed in the execution of a Bourne movie yet, this one included, but there’s also something to be said for the fact that it’s exactly the film promised by the trailers.

The action sequences are precisely as compelling as before, more so the further we get into the film. It gets better once the audience has a better handle on the mysteries of the film and as the direction of the plot becomes clearer. That is, once we know the stakes, Jason Bourne is about as good as a Bourne movie’s ever been. Damon is credible as ever in the role, a welcome return in spite of the ever-reliable Renner filling in last time around. Tommy Lee Jones is inspired as the craggy-faced CIA director; no one does dialogue about morality and greater-goods than Jones. And Vikander, in a role that’s probably built to extend into sequels (about which, more in a bit), is a credit, just suspicious enough for us to wish for a bigger role for her.

For two more hours of exciting action and espionage, Jason Bourne is about as good as it gets, competently presented but never too taxing. Throughout the film, though, nearly everyone tells Jason Bourne some version of, “You can’t keep doing this forever. You’ve got to do something else with your life,” and to that I’d have to say I agree wholeheartedly. If there’s going to be a sixth Bourne film, it’s got to move forward (perhaps bringing in Renner as Aaron Cross?) and show us something we haven’t seen from Bourne. It’s a bit like hearing Paul McCartney play “Hey Jude” for the fifth time in a row – we know it’s a great song and we know he plays the heck out of it, but what about “Get Back”?

Jason Bourne is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, and brief strong language.” Car chases, explosions, gunfire, and stabbings comprise the violence, with some degree of blood.