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Yours very truly,
Bennett Campbell Ferguson, editor in chief
Sunday, April 10, 2016
WAR IS (DIGITAL) HELL by Bennett Campbell Ferguson
Above: the late Alan Rickman in a scene from Mr. Hood’s new movie. Photo ©Bleecker Street.
“Eye in the Sky,” the latest movie from Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi,” “Ender’s Game”) is a film about drone warfare. In fact, the story is so steeped in the icky intricacies of technologically-enhanced combat that you could be forgiven for mistaking its superb English cast for an army of mechanized creatures with exceptional actorly finesse.
The leader of the charge is Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a terrorist hunter whose single-minded ferocity makes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator look like a Teletubby. Her superior, Frank Benson (Alan Rickman), is equally icy; he seamlessly segues from shopping for a toy baby doll to suavely explaining to a tableful of politicians why they should authorize Powell to fire a missile at a terrorist stronghold in Kenya—even though a young girl is selling loaves of bread just outside the targeted building.
With so many sharp fragments of plot grinding against each other, “Eye in the Sky” could have easily impaled itself upon its vast scope. Yet that doesn’t happen, mainly because the whole operation is masterminded by Mr. Hood. Powered by sleek Hollywood suspense, thorny ethics, and a sorrowful, knowing attitude towards violence, “Eye in the Sky” reflects not only Mr. Hood’s maturation as a filmmaker, but his stint in law school and his time in the South African military. It’s the work of a man who’s seen it all.
What the soldiers of “Eye in the Sky” see, they glimpse only through pixilated surveillance footage; it’s Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), a Vegas drone pilot serving under Colonel Powell, who first spots Alia (Aisha Tokow), the bread seller. Over the phone, Powell insists that Watts take the shot; he doesn’t want to, though neither do Powell’s military and political superiors. Like children playing a murderous round of Duck, Duck, Goose, they keep crying, “Not it!” and begging anyone else to choose between the life of Alia and the lives of the people who may (or may not) be killed in a potentially imminent terrorist attack.
These seething boardroom debates mark a moment of scaling down for Mr. Hood, who spent roughly half a decade milking his operatic science-fiction epics, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Ender’s Game,” for apocalyptic pathos. By comparison, “Eye in the Sky” unfolds on a more diminutive canvas, though it gushes with the qualities that defined Mr. Hood’s tenure as a sci-fi auteur—his vicious contempt for militaristic violence and his nakedly heartfelt passion for honorability, truthfulness, and kindness.
“Eye in the Sky” hurls a wrench into that vibrant dichotomy by insinuating that there’s something inhumane about a soldier unwilling to kill one child to save the lives of countless other children. Still, the film is pure Hood, not least because of its panting eagerness to both terrify and entertain. After all, there’s no denying the shameful thrill of watching Watts wait for the right moment to pull the trigger, as the clock ticks closer and closer to block-wide Armageddon.
Better yet are the scenes on the dusty streets of Kenya, where a tough, wily agent named Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi, as razor-thin as he was in “Captain Phillips”) spies on the terrorists per Powell’s orders. While it’s stirring and chilling to watch Powell and Benson rage about the ethics of preemptive strikes, the sight of Farah flailing over ramshackle fences and racing through cramped alleys is more compelling because he’s not just raging.
He’s fighting for his life.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
A BETTER BATMAN by Mo Shaunette
Above: a scene from “Batman: Bad Blood.” Photo ©Warner Home Video.
It's an unfortunate fact that at some point, every comic book fan faces some moment of disillusionment as they age and grow. For me, one arrived when I realized just how boring Batman actually is.
Don’t get me wrong; there are Batman stories that I love. But those stories are made memorable by situations, strong supporting characters, and iconic villains. Batman himself is so arch and straightforward that he borders on being one-dimensional—a premier “human” character in DC Comics with relatively little humanity.
“Batman: Bad Blood,” the latest of the DC animated features, wisely responds to its hero’s limitations by shifting its focus away from the Caped Crusader and onto various sidekicks and supporting players. That’s part of why the film is one of the stronger outputs from Warner Home Media’s recent uneven streak.
“Bad Blood” begins as a new gang takes hold in Gotham City: a crew of lesser-known villains led by the mysterious Heretic (Travis Willingham). When it appears that the Heretic has succeeded in killing Batman (Jason O’Mara), Dick Grayson, a.k.a. Nightwing (Sean Maher), takes up the Bat-mantle, donning his former mentor’s cape and cowl to fight the Heretic, with Bruce Wayne’s son Damian (Stuart Allen) tagging along to make sure he does it right.
Along the way, the new Dynamic Duo get help from Kate Kane, a.k.a. Batwoman (Yvonne Strahovski)—a distant cousin of Bruce Wayne—and Luke Fox, a.k.a. Batwing (Gaius Charles), who is the son of Batman’s gadget supplier Lucius Fox (my favorite Ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson). These compelling characters help set “Bad Blood” apart from the DC animation pack.
The film also succeeds because of thematic concentration. As the title implies, the idea of family and familial bonds is central to the story. Dick remarks that it was Bruce’s ability to empathize with him and Damian as sons, not soldiers, that inspired them to a higher calling.
Similarly, both Kate and Luke are kept at a distance by Bruce because they aren’t part of his “family”—but they are welcomed by Dick, who sees them not only as capable fighters, but as kindred spirits, scarred by trauma and spurned forward by duty to make their city a better place.
“Bad Blood” also stands apart because of the fact that Dick Grayson is at the center of the story. His personal arc brings much-needed humanity to the movie (as does his sense of humor) and both Kate and Luke have similarly compelling hero’s journeys, especially since they are former soldiers looking for new purpose (Luke is mentioned as having returned from a tour in Afghanistan; Kate was at West Point Academy before being expelled for violating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell).
If there’s any element of the film that falters, it’s the script, which is clunky and uneven at times. The film’s action scenes and character beats don’t always connect and the climax runs through events in such rapid succession that there’s little time to breathe, especially when the Heretic’s gang members start dropping like flies.
I get that in a story with more characters than normal, you have to budget your screen time strategically, but I still think that DC missed an opportunity to enrich their film by at least making it longer than eighty minutes.
Still, “Bad Blood” ultimately works. The cast brings it (especially Sean Maher, who shines in the lead role, and Travis Willingham, who effectively sells the Heretic’s madness and internal turmoil); many of the action sequences are fluid, well-choreographed, brutal and highlight each character’s particular style; and Phil Bourassa’s character designs still look fantastic, with his villain redesigns being especially distinct (although I can’t decide if the Heretic’s sleeveless trench coat looks cool or just silly).
In the end, it all comes together to make one of the better Batman movies I’ve seen in some time. If you’re interested in exploring the world of the Dark Knight from outside his head, give it a watch.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
CIVIL BORE by Mo Shaunette
Above: Ben Affleck stars in Mr. Snyder’s new movie. Photo ©Warner Bros. Pictures.
Partway through “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” there is a montage where news pundits, experts, and other talking heads debate the merits of the Man of Steel, pondering whether he’s man or god, hero or villain. Into this discussion comes the voice of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose contribution, despite being eloquent and sounding like something he’d actually say, basically just means, “Superman proves that aliens exist. Ain’t that a kick in the pants?”
That shallow insight sits at the base of a mountain of evidence that “B v S” is a movie that broaches philosophical questions about the ethics and implications of superheroes, but cares little for concrete answers or coherent ideological stances. At the end of the day, it’s just a nothing movie and a half-assed tribute to Frank Miller’s Batman graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns” (and also a 150-minute teaser for the upcoming “Justice League” double-feature).
No, “B v S” is not a good film. It may go down in history as the "The Room" of comic book movies: a film committed to bad creative decisions with such intense self-seriousness and pretension that it's gobsmacking, bordering on outright hilarious. If that fact surprises you, than you haven’t been paying attention.
Let’s start the beginning. “B v S” is a sequel to “Man of Steel,” which itself was a miserable movie. Yes, the film showcased some fine elements (a solid cast, cool effects, and decent cinematography). But it was also sabotaged by a needlessly convoluted script and the direction of Zack Snyder (who displayed all the intellectual and emotional nuance of a 13-year-old who had just discovered symbolism). Worse, the film framed Superman not as an icon of American pop culture, but as a problem to be solved through gritty “modernization.”
Attempting to overshadow these creative blunders, Warner Bros. announced a sequel with trumpeting cries of, “Batman’s in the next one! They’re gonna fight!” However, Batman and Superman fighting does not a movie make (in fact, it’s just one scene in the movie). That’s partly why, lo and behold, “B v S” (which Mr. Snyder directed) is just as protracted and dull as you’d expect.
This becomes apparent during the seemingly endless first and second acts of the film, which are devoted to the escalating tensions between Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill, lifeless and stone-faced) and Bruce Wayne/Batman (an equally sedate Ben Affleck). These men clash over their differing attitudes toward crime fighting (Superman condemns the Dark Knight's practice of branding criminals; Batman blames the destruction of Metropolis in the last movie on the Man of Steel's carelessness) and are prodded forward into conflict by the sinister machinations of tech mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
There’s also a subplot involving Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who shows up during the climax of the movie and is easily the best part of “B v S”—chiefly because she has little connection to the film’s rather pathetic plot.
And it is pathetic. To solve the dilemma of how to pit two heroes against each other, “B v S” saps away the heroism of both Batman and Superman. Here, Superman bashes a terrorist through a wall to save Lois Lane (Amy Adams), bullies Batman into quitting vigilantism, and shuffles off his own cape when the going gets too tough. Batman, meanwhile, is painted as a gun-wielding, paranoid alcoholic who believes Superman is destined to become a fascist dictator—yet the Caped Crusader has just as little regard for human life (and human property) as the Last Son of Krypton.
Surprisingly, the highlight of this mess is Lex Luthor. Yes, Mr. Eisenberg’s shtick might rub some people the wrong way (he acts like he’s at an improv show, blabbering nonsense in his quest for laughs) and his motivations seem to change from scene to scene, but he’s got more life and personality than either of the title characters. Beneath the mumbles and jokes and philosophical nothings about God and angels and his abusive daddy, there's a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown—Lex can’t accept that Superman’s mere existence as a godlike being makes his intelligence and hard work futile and obsolete.
In a better movie, Lex might have stood out as a failure of a character, but in “B v S,” where the heroes are hypocritical, violent dullards, I found myself invested in the one person who seemed happy to be there.
Like Mr. Eisenberg’s jittery performance, the film’s final fight has some verve. While the climax of “Man of Steel” leaned heavy on 9/11-echoing images of falling skyscrapers and urban destruction, “B v S” features its heroes taking on a towering, bony troll monster (on a battleground that the movie carefully specifies is unpopulated). I appreciated Mr. Snyder’s entertaining, high-fantasy approach to this showdown; it’s the one scene where “B v S” actually feels like a superhero movie.
In the end, of course, there is little else in the film that earns anything better than a bitter complaint. “B v S,” after all, is a movie where female characters only exist to die, get captured, be rescued, or make stupid mistakes (Wonder Woman notwithstanding); a movie whose editing and pacing are noticeably bad (there’s barely a hint of drama, suspense, or narrative momentum); and a movie whose creators don’t even seem to enjoy superheroes.
There are so many more absurdities I could go into—Bruce Wayne's psychic dream sequences; Lex Luthor sending a threat via a jar of piss; the fact that a major character evolution occurs because someone finds out that Bruce Wayne's and Clark Kent's mothers share the same first name.
But at the end of the day, one criticism stands above all else: Zack Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer just don’t understand (or care to understand) the humanity, complexity, and wit that made the heroes of this film compelling on their comic book turf. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman deserve better a movie. And while most audiences probably won’t skip “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” they absolutely should.
Monday, March 21, 2016
SALVATION by Bennett Campbell Ferguson
Above: Christian Bale stars in Mr. Malick’s new movie. Photo ©Broad Green Pictures.
At the start of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups,” a man stands on a beach. It’s a crusty, rocky shoreline, and for a long moment, the man simply stares at it. Yet his gaze is anything but vacant. His searching eyes seem to probe everything he stares at, as if he’s hoping to find some greater truth in hidden in a craggy cliff face, or a speck of sand.
The man’s name is Rick and he’s played to a stoic hilt by a bearded, shaggy-haired Christian Bale. Rick works in Hollywood, though it’s not clear what his job entails (he might be a screenwriter). Mainly, he just lumbers glumly through lavish parties and strolls along graying streets, drifting aimlessly in the fashion of prior Malick heroes.
Mr. Malick’s movies are very much about men—their vanity, their fickleness, their outsized passion. Yet he’s more entranced by women. In “Knight of Cups,” the camera rarely lingers on Mr. Bale’s gently troubled face; like a heat-seeking missile, it’s drawn to Rick’s many lovers, who angelically twist, twirl, and dance their way through the movie.
Played by Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Natalie Portman, these women come and go—Rick is not visibly cruel, but he loses interest quickly, often allowing romances to fade as he tumbles deeper into depression. He certainly gives Johnny Martin (the movie star protagonist of Sofia Coppola’s “Somwhere”) a run for his money in the dreary ennui department. Does this guy, you wonder, have nothing better to do than wander in the shadows of Los Angeles’ monstrous skyscrapers, moping about the meaninglessness of his life? Apparently not.
You can practically feel Mr. Malick seething at Rick’s surroundings—the garish billboards, the fashion models demeaned via vulgar catchphrases, the strip club drenched in icy blue lighting. This stuff is like poison to Mr. Malick, a man whose movies often deify the beauty of rural landscapes and insist that salvation is found not in glassy urban towers, but beneath arching cathedral roofs and outstretched tree branches.
Maybe Mr. Malick’s contempt for the modern and the urban (and the risqué) explains why “Knight of Cups” feels less emotionally transcendent than his last film, 2013’s “To the Wonder” (which unfurled on the outskirts of a sun-kissed Midwestern suburb). But that doesn’t diminish the fact that, like everything Mr. Malick lays his gentle touch upon, “Knight of Cups” hypnotizes you with its visual grace.
Joyous frolics on cloudy beaches. A leap into deep ocean waters. Long stares at cliffs, open skies. All of those ordinary things catch Mr. Malick’s eye in “Knight of Cups,” and he makes sure that you too feel their sweet, simple allure. “How do I begin?” Rick wonders. By doing what Mr. Malick does, the film says: seeing the beauty of everything around us.
Or, to quote a character in Mr. Malick’s groundbreaking 2011 cosmic opus “The Tree of Life”: “Love…every leaf, every ray of light.”
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
A RABBIT, A FOX, AND A CITY by Mo Shaunette
Above: a scene from “Zootopia.” Photo ©Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.
In 1988, the Walt Disney Company released “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” a decidedly off-beat kids feature that cast the Disney brand in an unusual light. It was hit with audiences and critics and helped kick start what is today known as the Disney Renaissance: a period lasting through the 1900s, during which the House of Mouse turned their animated film production into a finely-tuned machine, cranking out blockbusters annually and pulling from unusual sources like Arabic folktales, Chinese history, and Greek mythology.
Today, audiences find themselves in a resurgence of the Disney Renaissance. Not only does Disney now own two of the biggest movie franchises of our time (“Star Wars” and the ongoing Marvel superhero saga), but it is also creating strong animated features again—award-winning hits like “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Frozen,” and “Big Hero 6.” Their latest, “Zootopia,” continues the trend with a funny, poignant, and decidedly modern take on anthropomorphic animals.
The world of “Zootopia” is less an animal kingdom than an animal democracy, where mammals of all shapes and sizes have evolved to match modern humans in intelligence. Their crowning achievement is the titular city: a teaming, technologically-advanced metropolis that’s equal parts New York, Los Angeles, Dubai, and Disneyland. There, eager young bunny Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) becomes the first rabbit to join Zootopia’s Police Department, but soon finds that she’s underestimated by her more physically powerful colleagues, who don’t think a bunny can make it as a cop.
Through sheer determination (and belligerency), Judy thrusts herself into investigating the latest in a string of missing animal cases, and conscripts con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to help her. Together, the unlikely predator/prey duo uncovers a vast conspiracy that threatens the stability of Zootopia.
Their adventure molds “Zootopia” into a mishmash of several different film styles. The film certainly has roots in earlier Disney hits (it’s inspired by talking animal features like 1973’s “Robin Hood”). Yet it also features “Shrek”-style pop culture shout outs and clever moral lessons that echo the films of Laika (“Coraline,” ParaNorman,” etc.).
Still, “Zootopia” has a conceptual audacity all its own. Halfway through the movie, the film’s extended tour of the city ends and the plot shifts to the missing animals mystery. It’s here that “Zootopia” truly defines itself. The film’s theme of characters overcoming prejudice and stereotypes takes center stage here, as the distrust between animals who were historically predators and their former prey takes center stage.
While Judy herself fights against the expectations of her peers, Nick also reveals that he took up the life of a shyster because that’s what everyone expected of him. It’s a surprisingly poignant revelation because it forces the characters not only to overcome others' prejudices against them, but to acknowledge and own up to their own flawed beliefs (e.g. despite Judy's progressive idealism, upon meeting Nick she compliments him by calling him “articulate”).
Unfortunately, not all of the movie’s elements mesh well—viewers may find themselves getting whiplash as the film goes from playful animal jokes to “kid’s first noir” and lessons about racism. This may be evidence of changes to plot and story that occurred partway through production (early press releases and trailers highlighted Nick as our main character, while the finished product has Judy front and center).
Yet “Zootopia” is still a triumph: fast-paced, energetic, glorious to look at, funny, sharp, and timely. Its message of setting asides prejudices to create a better world may seem obvious or schmaltzy to some. But since certain presidential candidates I could name haven’t internalized that message, it’s vital that we remind ourselves that at the end of the day, we’re all animals who have to share this world with each other.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
X-MEN GON’ GIVE IT TO YA by Mo Shaunette
Above: Ryan Reynolds stars in Mr. Miller’s film. Photo ©20TH Century Fox.
Unlike many of my fellow comic book nerds, I initially had reservations about the idea of a “Deadpool” movie. Why? Partially because the character is a piece of ‘90’s trash that became a cult favorite only when written by someone other than his creators; partially because the “X-Men” movies are an uneven bunch with a few too many misses (including the “Origins: Wolverine” movie where Deadpool made his big screen debut).
However, the biggest thing hampering my excitement for “Deadpool” was a simple question: could a superhero movie sustain itself for 100 minutes on dick and fart jokes and pop-culture shout-outs? And would the film’s R-rating be just an excuse to pander to older comic fans? Could a “Deadpool” movie actually work?
To my surprise, yes, it could. “Deadpool” isn’t the game-changing smack down against more conventional superhero flicks that fans may have hoped for, but it’s a fun diversion and a decidedly different entry in the superhero genre.
Ryan Reynolds stars in the film as Wade Wilson, a former Special Forces soldier turned mercenary who, after proposing to his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Desperate not to abandon his fiancée, Wade agrees to undergo an experimental treatment that will not only rid him of his cancer, but make him a superhero.
This, of course, is too good to be true, as it turns out that evil scientists Ajax (Ed Skrein) and Angel Dust (Gina Carano) are attempting to transform Wade into a mind-controlled super soldier to be sold to the highest bidder. Their experiment grants Wade healing powers, mutilates his body, and drives him partially insane. Yet Wade escapes to seek vengeance, donning a crimson spandex bodysuit and taking up the moniker “Deadpool.”
It’s a shame that this saga is beset with such an uneven script. A little bit of Deadpool goes a long way, a fact that screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”) attempt to compensate for by giving us surprisingly little Deadpool. After kicking off the film with an admittedly well-choreographed extended fight scene, they wallow in awkward flashbacks to Wade’s pre-Deadpool life.
The result? A film whose first act swallows half the movie and whose second act blows by almost imperceptibly. This flaw could be a clever gambit; if “Deadpool” is meant to be a takedown of the juggernaut that is Marvel Studios, then it only stands to reason that the middle of the movie would be a dead zone.
But that theory gives “Deadpool” filmmaker Tim Miller (a special effects artist making his directing debut) too much credit. Mr. Miller doesn’t raise a middle finger to superhero movies (despite the title character literally doing just that at one point); his film is simply designed as a vehicle for entertainment and a showcase for a beloved character. By that count at least, it mostly succeeds.
Mr. Reynolds certainly has a ball. He has a gift for comedy that most movies don’t tap into. Yet in “Deadpool,” he shines, infusing the jokes with genuine emotion and sadness. He also capably shares the screen with actual X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). The three characters plays off each other well, with Colossus acting as an idealistic papa bear hoping to bring Deadpool onto the side of the angels and Negasonic—a jaded millennial—dismissing Deadpool’s antics and calling him out on his B.S. I'd love to see more of these characters in future "X-Men" movies.
It’s worth noting that “Deadpool” is not an incisive satire, but a broad parody full of hit-or-miss jokes; the film’s quips (including an out-of-place joke about the “Taken” movies) can sometimes be pointless, and all too eager to pander with cheaply entertaining gags about Mr. Reynolds’ rocky acting career (seriously, the rest of the world is willing to forget “Green Lantern” happened; why can’t Mr. Miller?).
That said, “Deadpool” has enough laughs, action beats, strong performances, and—shockingly—genuine heart unmarred by snark to make it worth your time. If you’re in the market for a silly, adult-oriented alternative to another “Wolverine” or “Iron Man” feature, check it out.