Jurassic World Dominion(6/15/2022)

I wasn’t expecting much from Jurassic World Dominion: I had very little nice to say about the previous Jurassic World movies or for that matter the other two sequels made from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  So why did I go to see it?  I dunno, I guess I’m just obsessed with being on time with the discourse these days.  So my expectations for this were about as low as possible and yet still this somehow managed to be even worse than I expected, easily a series low.  The last film ended with our “heroes” psychotically unleashing these genetically altered prehistoric monsters on the world, making them indirectly responsible for untold numbers of deaths.  Somehow we’re still supposed to like them now because the Chris Pratt character has some deranged bond with a raptor and because the Bryce Dallas Howard character… actually I’m not sure why you’re supposed to care about her.  Anyway there may have been an interesting way to address the new post-Dinosaur status quo of this world, but this film mostly just willfully ignores a lot of the challenges of such a situation and just kind of hopes you don’t question things like how large and presumably cold blooded reptiles are going to survive in cold climates (and no, the films don’t get conveniently pretend these things were actually warm blooded birds the whole time now, they chose to make them reptiles and they have to stick to that).  The world of the film seems oddly disinterested in wiping out this invasive species and instead suggests large portions of the population would view these things through the preservationist eye one would apply to native species… which they aren’t.

Perhaps knowing that no one gives a damn about the Pratt and Dallas Howard characters the film also brings back the cast of the original Jurassic Park, but truth be told those characters were always somewhat thin archetypes and whatever depth they ever had has been stripped from them here.  Ian Malcolm’s pseudo-philosophical points of view have basically gone in whatever direction the series has needed them to go throughout this series and this film doesn’t even try to put smart things in his mouth and just kind of assumes Goldblumian snark will suffice.  As for Alan Grant, the film basically ignores his character arc from the first film (in which he grew to become fond of children and domesticity over the course of his adventure), and is made to be a childless bachelor basically identical to his previous self all these years later.  And Ellie Sattler, while still smart and feisty, still lacks a terribly strong personality beyond that.

Both groups of protagonists in this film, which by the way has a truly unwieldy ensemble, ultimately find themselves in the same place: a “wildlife preserve” run by an evil tech bro who looks like Tim Cook who wants to use these dinosaurs for various evil ends.  One of those ends is the creation of mega locusts who will wipe out all crops not sold by their company… which I can maybe imagine being an interesting idea if given more care and focus, but it seems absolutely ludicrous and out of place here.  I should also mention that, while all the Jurassic Park films are rooted in pseudo-science, this one has two interconnected sub-plots rooted in the absolutely ludicrous notion that a living organism can have its DNA altered through an injection, a notion that defies the basic function of how genetics works and is eerily similar to some particularly unhinged conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine.  I don’t doubt that that particular parallel was unintentional but I think it does speak to how little this movie cares about science far beyond any kind of reasonable artistic license when compared to the legitimate science fiction of the original film.

Anyway, this wildlife preserve concept (which is really closer to just being a villain lair with dinosaurs), is particularly disappointing in that it more or less abandons the “what if dinosaurs were in the real world” concept from the first half in place of the more familiar territory for this series of a dinosaur zoo that breaks down as “life finds a way.”  But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the film would give up the challenge of doing something new like exploring dinosaurs in the real world given that it basically exists to pander to series fans.  This is the same reason Grant, Malcolm, and Sadler haven’t changed a bit in thirty years besides now having greying hair: they’re only here for a nostalgia hit.  The people at Universal clearly saw that bringing back legacy characters for a super team worked for the Fast and the Furious series and decided to do the same thing but without bothering to do it with the same kind of charm.  The film also feels the need to recreate all sorts of other moments from the first film like having Dilophosauruses kill off a villain and having Ian Malcom still focused on using signal flares as an anti-dinosaur tool and women being sent to reboot a facility’s power.  The film also continues the series’ very strange interest in anthropomorphizing the T-rex into some kind of “good guy” dinosaur we’re supposed to root for in fights with other dinosaurs that, despite supposedly being bigger, are never as interesting.

This is truly one of the laziest movies I’ve seen at this budget level.  There are some serviceable action scenes to be found here and there are occasional moments like a mid-film car chase with raptors that suggests a certain gonzo B-movie energy that could have been used here more extensively but they’re undercut by the film’s two and a half hour running time and frequent desire to try to recapture the John Williams scored awe that Spielberg captured with that first film.  You can’t pretend to be in the lineage of something like that when you have a script that’s this willfully stupid.  But on some level it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t seem to think he can be bothered to give us something better.  The other two Jurassic World movies also sucked but still managed to set box office records, so why try?  He knows people aren’t going to mind that he recycles ideas from the previous films, in fact he knows they’ll celebrate that.  He knows he doesn’t need to evolve and age his characters and will actually be rewarded for making them as much like what you’ve seen before.  And he knows that he doesn’t need to put even the slightest bit of effort in making the science sound plausible because he knows everyone who questions it will be treated like a killjoy.  This movie sucks, but it’s probably the movie the cinemagoers of this era deserve.  And I was stupid enough to pay to see it because the hype cycle told me to, so I’m probably part of the problem too.

*1/2 out of Five


Spiral: From the Book of Saw(5/14/2021)

There’s a much quoted line from the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” where in an argument Ann says to Leslie “you made me watch all eight Harry Potter movies, I don’t even like Harry Potter” to which Leslie responds “that’s insane, you love Harry Potter, you’ve seen all eight movie!”  Well, I’m in a similar position with the Saw movies, I’ve consistently said I hate them… but I’ve also seen all nine of them and I don’t even have someone else I can blame for this, I did it to myself.  So why did I do that?  Well, it’s for much the same reason I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie or every Halloween movie, at a certain point when a franchise can stick around for years and keep making instalment after installment a certain curiosity takes over and once I start watching the movies I start to take a certain interest in seeing how the franchise owners are going to find ways to keep their cash cows alive and evolve their properties over the years and decades even if I’ve never really liked them.  And I’ve never like the Saw movies, not even the first Saw which I always found to be a cheap and silly movie powered by ludicrous plot twists and with some rather irritating music video-like filmmaking driving it.  I’ve never really talked about any of the movies at length, mainly because I’ve generally caught up with them long after the fact rather than in their initial run and under normal circumstances that would have been the case for the latest Saw movie as well, the oddly named Spiral: From the Book of Saw.  But these are not normal circumstances, I’ve just become fully vaccinated and wanted to make my return to movie theaters and this just so happened to be the new release this week and between that and curiosity about Chris Rock’s involvement in this one I found myself seeing one of these in theaters for the first time.

This installment of the franchise is technically another sequel insomuch as it acknowledges that Jigsaw was a serial killer in the world of this film, but it doesn’t really specifically bring up any of the events of the later sequels or the events of the movie Jigsaw, which was the last attempt at rebooting the franchise.  That movie was much more interested in tackling this series’ convoluted timelines, but this one makes more of a clean break and focuses on a homicide detective named Zeke Banks (Chris Rock).  Banks is the son of a former police chief named Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) and has become something of a pariah within his department because he “snitched” on a dirty cop twelve years earlier.  He seems to be at a bit of a low point when he’s assigned as the lead detective on a particularly brutal murder in which someone was hung by his tongue over subway tracks and forced to choose between mutilation and being hit with a train and the guy’s hesitation led to the latter.  The method of murder suggests that this was a copycat murder in the style of the Jigsaw Killer’s old crusade against human self-worth deficiencies.  However, it becomes apparent that this first victim was actually a cop and clues indicate that he was targeted because of this and because he was dirty and that future victims will also be dirty cops and that makes the whole case extra urgent and Zeke’s role as the lead detective rather fraught.

That Chris Rock stars here is a bit of a coup and also a departure from how this series normally operates.  Aside from Danny Glover’s work as a secondary character in the original film and Donnie Wahlberg starring in the second film this series has not bothered to cast anyone even remotely famous in any of the other sequels.  I’m guessing that was mostly a choice driven by budgetary concerns and the fact that they’ve mostly been working with “discount” casts has been one of the franchises more glaring weaknesses.  If studio publicity is to be believed, Rock’s presence here was something he himself lobbied for; the story being that he met the head of Lionsgate at some party or other and made a pitch for a Saw movie that was so compelling that they just had to give him and installment.  Frankly I find that story to be rather suspect, firstly because Rock doesn’t have any kind of “story by” credit and secondly because, well, the elevator pitch for this half-baked movie could not have been half as interesting as that story makes it sound.  The basic premise of “new Jigsaw killer now targets dirty cops” is basically in line with what you’d expect this franchise to do when exploiting current events (not unlike Saw VI, in which Jigsaw decided to start torturing health insurance executives right at the height of the Obamacare debate) and they sure don’t do anything overly pointed or interesting with the idea.

But let’s say Rock did pitch that idea and everyone really was earnestly excited to make a Black Lives Matter Saw movie.  You’d think that the next step would have been to hire some young African American writers and directors to bring that idea to life, but they didn’t.  Instead they just got some series regulars to do it.  It was written by the same white guys who made Jigsaw and it was directed by the white guy who directed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV.  That’s not to say that Caucasians can’t make a movie like this but from a creative standpoint this is neither the radical reboot it sells itself as nor is it an authentic attempt at bringing a black voice.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t something brought to the table here by Rock as its star.  He clearly was given some power over the script or perhaps a lot of leeway to adlib on the set because there are lines here that are clearly consistent with his voice as a comedian which are some of the film’s highlights, but it’s not really a laugh out loud comedy or anything and its moments of effective levity are fleeting and I must say.  What’s more I think the money that went to Rock and Samuel L. Jackson ate into the film’s gory deathtrap money because a lot of what we’re given here in that department feels both less inspired and less elaborately constructed than what we see in other installments of the movie.

As for the film’s actual Black Lives Matter subtext: it’s half-assed.  That’s in large part because the movie’s entire conception of “the police” seems to come less from reality and more from bad buddy cop movies from the 80s that it shamelessly recycles right down to the last cliché.  This is literally a movie that opens with the “detective who plays by his own rules” who wants to work alone being forced by his long suffering chief to partner up with a naïve rookie detective and it doesn’t get less shamelessly derivative from there and most of the police corruption that gets punished is more of the overt Serpico variety rather than the systemic unconscious bias variety aside from a few moments that are very clumsily “ripped from the headlines.”  What’s more a lot about this new copycat killer’s plan does not really make a lot of sense.  Why, for example, does he follow Jigsaw’s lead in allowing each of his victims a fleeting chance at escaping their torturous deaths through self-mutilation?   He plainly doesn’t care about making these people “appreciate their lives” like Jigsaw did and is more interested in “sending a message” so that really doesn’t fit.  What’s more if “sending a message” is the idea, why does he do it by playing mind-games with Zeke, who would seem to be the last person on the force that needs to have a “message” sent to when it would be significantly more interesting for him to have sent his messages directly to the media and think about how the public would react to his sanguine shenanigans.  There could have been an interesting exploration here of the efficacy of using violence to make political statements, but this script is far too stupid for that.

So, not exactly the return to theaters I was hoping for.  Truth be told I probably should have seen this coming what with my history of distaste for the series.  I mean, I’ve given negative reviews to almost every installment of the franchise but something about them kind of makes me look back at them and remember the more interesting parts of each movie while forgetting how shoddy a lot of them are when I actually watch them.  What’s more, I somehow let myself be punk’d into thinking they’re going to do new and interesting things to come back over and over when they generally don’t.  In fact I’d say this was a much less successful attempt at reviving the series than the 2017 film Jigsaw, which didn’t have many new ideas to work with either but it at least looked better than most of the other movies whereas I’d say this one is actively a step backwards.  I’m not sure the Saw series is ever going to be effectively rebooted until it’s out of the hands of the people at Twisted Pictures who clearly can’t let go of the old assembly line that used to make them so much money.  On the other hand, maybe there’s not much room for this to comeback at all, it’s very much a relic of the early 2000s torture porn trend; it didn’t fit in well to the 2010s haunted house trend, and if this movie is any indication it sure as hell doesn’t fit in with the recent trend of post-Get Out overtly political horror movies either and that it should probably take a long break before they try again.

*1/2 out of Five

The Lodge(2/20/2020)/The Invisible Man(2/27/2020)

Horror has almost always run in trends whether it’s the slasher movies of the 80s, the post-modern slashers of the 90s, or the torture porn of the 2000s.  Mini-trends would exist alongside these larger macro-trends and there would of course always be one-offs that exist outside the bigger waves, but generally speaking it wasn’t too hard to spot what’s been in vogue with the genre.  For much of the time I’ve been reviewing films the most dominant trend was haunted house movies with lots of jump scares, not a trend I welcomed, and while I’m sure some of those movies are still being made things do seem to finally be moving on but what are they moving on to?  Well there seem to be two tends that may be contenders for the title of “next big thing.”  Within my personal viewing patterns the most noteworthy trend is almost certainly the emergence of indie horror films like The Witch and Midsommar from studios like A24, which perhaps represent a sensibility more than a specific sub-genre of film.  None of these have been bona fide blockbusters but amongst those who know they loom large and I can only assume that they continue to penetrate the culture after release and that they may well become bigger with time.  The next trend, the one that is likely in the lead if we’re going to view this as a race, is to make horror movies in the mold of Get Out that tackle social issues in a very direct way that more or less make subtext text.  So if these two trends are going to the shape of horror to come it makes sense to take a look at the first two movies of the  year that are seeking to represent each trend: the indie horror film The Lodge and the social issue tackling The Invisible Man.

Like a lot of elevated horror movies, The Lodge opens with a major moment of trauma as a woman leaves her kids with their father, who tells her the time has come to formalize her divorce.  She then goes home and shoots herself.  We pick up shortly thereafter as the father (Richard Armitage) is trying to blend his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) in with his teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and tween daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and decides that the best way to do this is to have the whole blended family go to a lodge for Christmas, which Aiden and Mia are strongly resistant to partly because they blame Grace for the death of their mother and partly because they know that when she was a child the lone survivor of a fundamentalist cult that went Jonestown.  His ultimate plan is to leave her alone at the lodge with the two children for a couple of days while he takes care of some business, but this proves to be a very bad idea.  Meanwhile The Invisible Man deals with a very different kind of trauma from its onset, namely the extensive trauma that its main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) experienced prior to the film’s beginning when she was apparently the victim of extensive domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  Griffin is someone who has earned millions in the “optics” business, but is by all accounts a controlling sociopath and Cecilia needs to literally break out of his home at night in the first scene.  Two weeks later she’s in hiding and receives news that Griffin has killed himself, but she starts to wonder about this when strange things start to happen around her.

The thing about the “elevated horror” movement is that it’s definitionally an alternative movement, which is a dynamic we’re perhaps more used to seeing in music than in movies, and when alternative things become popular there’s always the looming threat that they’ll be coopted by the mainstream.  That’s something I worried about when I saw the advertisements for that Gretel & Hansel movie, which kind of looked like the Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana.  Granted I didn’t end up seeing it and that impression could be wrong, but it’s a distinct vibe I got from it.  I had a little more hope for The Lodge but that was misplaced as it is very much the Bush to Hereditary’s Pearl Jam.  In fact it’s kind of remarkable just how specifically the film is trying to be Hereditary what with its focus on a grieving family and its tendency to cut to a symbolic model house.  That said it’s not trying to be a satanic cult thing and instead focuses on the tension of whether this woman is crazy and will go after the kids or whether the kids are the crazy ones who are going to go after her.  There’s some interest to be found in that dynamic but it’s kind of lessoned by the fact that this whole setup is patently ridiculous.  Blending families is never easy but trying to go about it through the trial by fire of leaving traumatized and clearly resentful children alone in an isolated building with an also traumatized woman is about the stupidest and most contrived thing imaginable.

The Invisible Man was released by Universal Pictures and is ostensibly meant to be the remake of the 1933 James Whale movie which was in turn based on the H.G. Welles novel of the same name, but the more telling logo in front of it is the Blumhouse Productions logo.  Blumhouse does a lot of things and I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a house style, but one of the things he tends to do is give his horror films a certain social edge that goes beyond the more subtle allegories that have existed in the genre in the past.  Sometimes that comes in the form of silliness like their The Purge series, sometimes it just kind of feels like desperate pandering like their recent take on Black Christmas, but in general they’re really interested in getting the people who fight about stuff on Twitter into watching their scary movies and when they strike a chord like they did with Get Out there are high rewards.  The Invisible Man’s strategy to do this is to make no bones about the fact that its protagonist is a victim of an abusive relationship and to make her plight through the movie to be an extreme manifestation of the kind of controlling behavior that exist in these relationships and also to show the bad guy’s scheme as essentially a form of gas lighting where he’s trying to make her look and feel crazy when he is in fact being supernaturally awful.

It’s still a little staggering that they were able to make the invisibility effects work as well as they did for the 1933 film using a variety of camera tricks.  I’ve come to understand how they did them through a photochemical tick where things are shot in front of black screens but their challenge is still palpable.  Even when Paul Verhoeven was making Hollow Man in the year 2000 and had a variety of CGI effects it still felt like a showcase of cutting edge ideas.  The effects in this new invisible man movie are probably going to be less mind-blowing to anyone who knows anything about visual effects (I’m pretty sure it was a dude in green spandex on set who was digitally removed) but the scenes are shot with conviction just the same and director Leigh Whannell does seem to understand that he isn’t going to get away with just stringing together a bunch of invisibility gags.  Where the production falters a bit more is in the acting, specifically the supporting performances.  Elizabeth Moss is obviously great in the film and is well cast in her role, but a lot of the other actors here kind of seem like they got their job because the filmmakers were trying to keep their budget under control.  None of the performances are terrible necessarily but a lot of them felt a bit “syndacated television” to me.  I got the same feeling from Whannell’s last movie Upgrade, which didn’t even have a great lead performance at its center, so maybe something in his direction is to blame for that.

The acting is actually one of the stronger aspects of The Lodge.  There isn’t anything in it as noteworthy as Elizabeth Moss’ performance but the cast in it is able to make the material work better than it might have otherwise.  Riley Keough does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience in suspense about whether or not her character is the crazy one and the kids aren’t bad either.  However a lot of the psychology the script gives them really does not pan out.  The movie is trying to create a mix of trauma, mental illness, religion, and isolation to turn the titular lodge into a sort of pressure cooker for its characters but a lot of it just kind of feels like bullshit.  Granted, a lot of “psychological thrillers” probably don’t hold up perfectly but those movies are entertaining and this one is not, in fact it’s quite boring at times.  The movie is trying to do a sort of slow burn sort of thing, which can be thrilling when done right but I don’t think it’s done particularly well here and it’s all leading up to a twist that’s kind of predictable and also completely preposterous in the number of things that would have had to go exactly right and the logistics don’t go together at all.

The Invisible Man is less pretentious but I do think it has some ending problems as well.  The movie is a little too quick to confirm that Cecilia’s suspicions rather than playing out that ambiguity and is far too quick to explain Griffin’s means of becoming invisible and they look kind of silly.  The movie also takes a bit of a turn towards being more of an action piece in the vein of Upgrade, which is kind of fun in its own way but it lacks some of the primal terror that the first half was gesturing toward and I found the film’s final climax to be rather oddly staged and anti-climactic.  None of this is a deal breaker, but it does hold the movie back a bit and keeps it more in the realm of the elevated B-movie rather than any sort of true horror classic.  The Lodge by contrast is a movie that’s trying to be a serious horror classic but is just a complete non-starter for a variety of reasons.  If these movies represent the shape of horror to come I’m not sure either makes a perfect case for their respective approaches.  The Lodge shows that good ideas are not above being misused by wannabes and The Invisible Man kind of shows the limitations of what Blumhouse is going to be able to do at times, but as a movie unto itself The Invisible Man is plainly the stronger of the two and the one I’d much more quickly recommend.

The Lodge: *1/2 out of Five

The Invisible Man: *** out of Five

Hacksaw Ridge(12/19/2016)


It must take a special kind of insanity to willingly go to a theater to see a movie you’re 90% sure you won’t like out of some strange belief that you need to be involved in “the conversation.”  That’s especially true when you’re under no professional obligation to see anything and the range of people who care about your opinions is… limited.  Still, for whatever reason I do feel a certain pressure to go see certain movies that have a degree of relevance critically or commercially or in awards season.  In the case of Mel Gibson’s new movie Hacksaw Ridge I was desperately afraid that would end up happening.  The film’s trailer makes it look awful; like the worst kind of pandering mess made to appeal to the lowest common denominator and I was desperately afraid that it would become a big red state hit along the lines of an American Sniper or Gibson’s own The Passion of the Christ, but that never really ended up happening.  The movie actually did end up earning a good sixty million dollars at the box office, but it certainly wasn’t an unavoidable sensation.  Oddly enough, the critics were actually more enthusiastic or at least they were a lot less harsh on it than I expected, but they weren’t swaying me either.  What did finally force me to break down and see the damn thing were the award bodies.  Somehow the movie managed to make it to the National Board of Review’s top ten, and then it was nominated for a BFCA award, and then it somehow even managed to get a best picture nomination from the Golden Globes.  What the hell?  I’m now pretty worried the thing could somehow get an Oscar nomination (if The Blind Side could do it…), and given that I felt I had to see the movie so that I could complain about its success with credibility.

The film tells the true story of Desmond T. Doss (Andrew Garfield), a man who grew up in rural Virginia in the Seventh Day Adventist church and believed in a strict form of pacifism because of this and because his father Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving) had awful experiences during the First World War.  However, once World War II began, Doss felt much the same obligation to fight as his peers did and as such he enlisted but only under the provision that he be trained to be a medic and not be forced to personally fight or even carry a weapon into battle.  This is met with skepticism by his fellow cadets as well as his drill instructor Sargent Howell (Vince Vaughn), and he’s even sent to face a court martial for his unorthodox demands, but eventually he gets his way and he’s deployed with the rest of his unit to Okinawa where they’re all asked to take over a heavily fortified position at the top of a steep ridge… the Hacksaw Ridge.

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan has to have been one of the most influential movies released in my lifetime.  Before that movie there really weren’t that many World War II combat movies being made at all and the ones that were getting made didn’t look anything like the ones that have been made since.  Today it’s pretty much impossible to depict that war without muted colors, graphic violence, and soldiers who don’t look like action heroes.  However, time has dulled the effect of this style and what was once exhilaratingly original is now kind of a cliché.  Between Flags For Our Fathers, Fury, Pearl Harbor, Enemy at the Gates, Defiance, Windtalkers, Miracle at Saint Anna, two separate “Band of Brothers” series, and various video games I kind of feel like this style has been run into the ground.  That’s not to say that filmmakers absolutely need to stop making their World War II battles like this, just that this kind of spectacle alone does not really impress me anymore and I need the film itself to be doing more.  That is a problem for Hacksaw Ridge given that it’s one and only really redeeming feature is that much of its second half consists of an elaborate re-enactment of the battle atop Hacksaw Ridge, which is admittedly pretty well staged but adds almost nothing to the usual WW2 battle formula outside of its general size and the amount of screen time it takes up.  This sequence is notably gory even by modern war film standards, which isn’t an inherently incorrect decision given that the film wants to juxtapose the main character’s pacifism with the horrors of war, but Mel Gibson has long had something of a sadistic streak in his directorial efforts and it’s not hard to question his motives here.

It’s a good thing that the film eventually does at least become a serviceable battle movie because pretty much everything else about the movie absolutely sucks.  Andrew Garfield, an actor whose talents are increasingly appearing to be rather suspect plays Desmond T. Doss as the most punchably earnest sap that you could ever imagine.  His accent seems notably phony (a problem the movie has in general given that almost all the actors except Garfield and Vince Vaughn are from Australia) and Garfield never really makes this character seem believable or grounded.  Granted this is partly the fault of the material he has to work with, which can charitably be described as hagiographic.  If there’s any moral gray area in Doss’ decision to conduct himself in the way he did, the movie completely dismisses it in its pursuit of canonizing this guy.  Also, make no mistake, the fact that this guy was a pacifist is not really what the movie finds so admirable about him.  The movie does not give a damn about universally ending warfare and is very much of the belief that Japanese violence needed to be met with violence.  What the movie really likes about Doss is that he was unapologetically religious and that he “stuck to his guns” on the topic.  The film was clearly designed to do well with the “faith-based” audience and I’m thinking that the goal was for evangelical audiences to view the film as a sort of allegory for their own struggles in the face of public ridicule as they protest the teaching of evolution or picket abortion clinics or whatever the fuck those people are doing now.

Really there’s no limit to how corny this movie’s first half is with its goofy flashbacks, half-assed romance sub-plot, and silly court room theatrics.  It’s perhaps a testament to Gibson’s skills as a filmmaker that the movie ends up feeling bad rather than howlingly terrible by the time it ends, which is the result of a combination of that battle scene being pretty decent and just a sort of Stockholm syndrome that makes you inured to some of its dumber elements by the time you get to that second half, but make no mistake this is not a good movie.  It’s easily Mel Gibson’s worst directorial effort and I’m genuinely baffled that so many critics have completely given this thing a pass and that these awards bodies are giving it the time of day at all.  I for one would genuinely rather re-watch Pearl Harbor than sit through this thing again.


Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice(3/26/2016)


I liked Man of Steel.  A lot.  To the point where it was in my top ten that year.  This was not a popular opinion.  I spent the better part of 2013 getting into fights with people who absolutely hated that movie and it was kind of draining to defend the movie as much as I did because I didn’t really have an intellectual silver bullet to prove the movie’s worth.  At the end of the day it was all a matter of taste, I thought it was a very well made superhero movie with a certain grandeur to it and I didn’t come into it demanding that it reflect whatever it was Superman was supposed to represent in the past.  Other people disagreed and were turned off both by the fact that it avoided the candy-colored lightness of the Marvel movies and also by the fact that Superman was depicted in a more human and fallible way and by the fact that it ended in a big destructive fight sequence that didn’t strike them as heroic.  I kept trying to explain that the collateral damage in the finale was mostly caused by the villains rather than the hero and that it wasn’t reasonable to expect Superman to stop and save random individuals on the street when there’s a bigger battle to be fought against a rampaging villain, but most people just don’t want to listen after they’ve found a high horse to get up on.  Anyway, given my appreciation for that movie you’d thing I’d be excited for director Zack Snyder’s follow-up, but that hasn’t really been the case, in part because it sounded like DC was cravenly trying to ripoff Marvel’s already tenuous “make superheroes team up” formula and was taking too many other dumb suggestions from the peanut gallery.  I’d like to say I was wrong to doubt Snyder and that I’d once again have a movie worth defending but alas, the critics are going to be right about this one.

The film picks up a little over a year after the events of Man of Steel and introduces audiences to our new Batman (Ben Affleck).  This batman has much the same origin story as the character we’re used to but has been engaging in his war on crime for quite a while by the time we enter into his story.  Bruce Wayne has been suspicious of Superman (Henry Cavil) since his introduction, in part because he lost friends during the disaster in Metropolis.  The public at large is also uneasy about this new entity in the world, especially after he’s blamed for a number of deaths in a rescue mission gone wrong in Africa.  There are congressional hearings into that incident and the high profile Metropolis billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) begins searching for a substance called Kryptonite that could be sold to the government in order to bring down this superhuman one and for all.  As tensions rise between all involved parties, it becomes clear that all these forces could come crashing into one another in an epic battle royale.

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has a whole lot of things it has to do: it needs to be a sequel to Man of Steel, it needs to introduce a new Batman, it needs to set up the formation of a Justice League down the line, and it needs to make good on its title and show Batman and Superman get into a great big fight.  Doing any one of those things would be a tall order and doing all four is s nigh impossible task and one also has to question if some of these things was a good idea to begin with.  The decision to create a DC Cinematic Universe where a bunch of separate heroes join up reeks of a company aping off of a competitor’s success and I don’t think that the Superman created in Man of Steel was ever meant to be part of a larger universe of superheroes, at least not this quickly.  Ultimately though I don’t think that part of the challenge is really the problem here, although it does lead to one embarrassingly clunky scene where three new heroes are introduced to audiences via CCTV footage.  Instead I think the biggest problem is the pressure of finding a good reason to actually have Batman and Superman fight.

The film’s opening scene depicts the finale of Man of Steel, but from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, who was apparently on the ground that day trying to reach his corporate headquarters.  It’s an interesting scene in that it shows Bruce Wayne doing exactly what everyone apparently thought Superman should have been doing in that scene: saving people.  He manages to help life debris off of one guy and manages to save one girl from a falling object all while doing fuck-all to actually stop General Zod or end the crisis at hand.  That’s the thing about the ending of that movie, people claim that Superman’s actions were needlessly destructive but he did kind of save the whole world in the process and I personally think he has nothing to apologize for.  But fine, whatever, assuming that his actions were indeed controversial with the public why don’t they just run with that?  Why is there also this incident in Africa in which Superman is blamed for the deaths of a bunch of people who were clearly shot rather that punched or vaporized by heat vision or any number of other telltale signs of Superman related slaughter?  That’s a waste and it’s frankly never exactly clear how the public at large feels about Superman, but it’s clear that Batman doesn’t like him at all.  You’d think that since Batman is himself a misunderstood vigilante (one who uses particularly questionable methods in this one) he wouldn’t be quick to judge Superman, but view him as a threat he does and the movie even goes so far as to stop everything and display an interesting looking but completely out of place dream sequence to underscore this.  It makes even less sense that Superman thinks ill of or particularly cares about Batman, but there is an underdeveloped sub-plot where Clark Kent wants to do a series of stories about Batman even though this shouldn’t really be news at this point in Batman’s career.

Ultimately the thing that brings these two to blows is an incredibly elaborate scheme by Lex Luthor and one that really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it plays out.  For starters, the direction they decided to go with Lex Luthor was completely wrong from the start.  The idea was to turn the character into a young Mark Zuckerberg style billionaire, but didn’t make him a self-made innovator so much as an heir, and then lazily cast the guy who straight-up played Zuckerberg in a different movie.  What’s more Luthor is depicted less as a ruthless, power-hungry, and brilliant criminal and more as a raving maniac who just wants to instigate mass destruction.  There is very little real motive for Luthor’s actions in the movie, Superman doesn’t seem to be on his case at all and as far as he knows neither is Batman so it’s quite unclear why the guy is so obsessed with killing either of them and especially not to the point where he’s going to go to such wildly extreme measures.  The whole movie would actually make a lot more sense if they’d just ditched Luthor and replaced him with The Joker, a character who would actually have a vendetta against superheroes and would have a lot less to lose by going to such extreme measures.

Zack Snyder is going to catch most of the blame for the movie even though his direction is almost certainly the best thing about it.  The film certainly looks good and there are some action scenes here that are really well done.  There’s a fight towards the end where Batman takes out a room of armed thugs which is basically the action scene we’ve long waited for from the character, the promised fight between the two characters isn’t bad once it gets started even if it ends in the stupidest way imaginable, and the chaotic final action scene is… well, it has problems but it certainly works better than it might in other hands.  In fact I think the most does sort of find its footing in its last half hour or so and becomes fairly effective as superhero action film but the damage is already done at that point.  I certainly don’t think that Snyder is blameless for this thing and there are some scenes like a poorly rendered car chase that he should have handled better, and people who were displeased by the collateral damage in Man of Steel will be just as mad at this movie.  In fact, I’m a lot less willing to forgive this one myself in that regard because Batman is a character that generally seem more rigid in that regard and some of the deaths here generally seemed more avoidable.

Really, the guy who needs to be fired for this thing is David S. Goyer… actually I’m not sure I want to pin this on him either because he was frankly given a rather thankless task.  The people truly responsible are the Warner Brothers marketing people who gave them an impossible number of things to do with one movie.  The decision to make this thing without first introducing Batman in a solo outing made sense given that no one really wanted a Batman reboot this early after the Nolan trilogy, but they probably should have just done that because trying to introduce a character in a massive crossover project like this proved to be too much.  What’s more, they should have never gotten it into their heads that this needed to literally be Batman versus Superman because the extent to which they had to contrive in order to bring these guys into opposition was a waste.  A simple team-up would have been sufficient.  Finally they shouldn’t have used this as an opportunity to cravenly introduce a larger universe of heroes because it really comes off desperate.  The Wonder Woman introduced here is decently rendered but the movie is too overstuffed as it is and the other cameos are just shameless. If they had discarded some of the excess baggage this thing might have had a chance but as it is the damn thing is an unsalvageable mess.  DC flew way too close to the sun with this one, they saw that Avengers money and decided to just dive in head first before they learned to swim.  It’s a shame because I do think that the grandiose and sincere style that Snyder was developing was sound and that they were right to try to do things differently from Marvel but they completely botched the execution along the way.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire(12/22/2013)


Warning: the following review contains plot spoilers

Regular readers will know that I’m not a reader of YA literature and I’m also not overly interested in the film adaptations of YA novels.  Hell, it took me over twelve years to even see a Harry Potter movie.  Still, when the film version of The Hunger Games came out last year I did kind of get caught up in the hype and went ahead and saw the film simply to better understand what the buzz was all about.  I didn’t end up loving the film, but it was better than I thought it would be.  It had a couple elements I really liked (namely Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, some of the political allegories, the dystopic world it was set in), and a couple elements I didn’t care for at all (namely the action, the pacing, and some of its questionable production values).  Most of the things I disliked were things that could easily be smoothed over in future sequels, so I was pretty hopeful that what I’d seen could serve as the foundation for a franchise that would be better than its first installment.  The decision to replace the first film’s director with Francis Lawrence, a man who is pretty good at building worlds and helming action scenes, made me all the more excited to see where the series would go.

And yet, once the film was finally released I actually wan’t all that excited to go.  The first film had come out in early March, a week that is generally devoid of competition, and that played a big role in my decision to begrudgingly give the film a shot a couple weeks after it had opened.  This time around, Lionsgate opted to open the film in the middle of November, a time when there are probably a million other things I could be seeing.  As such I decided that I’d have to skip it.  I even stuck to that decision for five weeks, but then almost on a whim I decided that this was a little too big of a film to ignore, especially when everything I’d heard suggested that it was indeed an improvement over the original.  Besides, I needed a blockbuster to cleanse the palate in-between prestige films, so I took the plunge.  And after having seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire I’ve got to say, I kind of wish I’d stuck with my guns and skipped it because it is not only not an improvement over its predecessor but it’s a substantial step backwards.

Set one year after the events of the last film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in her home district and having made a new enemy in the form of President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), who is angry that her conduct in the games last year seems to have fanned the flames of rebellion within the districts.  His hands are tied though because the people of the capital did not recognize the rebellion in her behavior and have become obsessed with the supposed romance between her and her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  To deal with this, Snow and the new gamekeeper (Phillip Seymore Hoffman) devise a plan to turn the next year’s Hunger Games into a sort of tournament of champions as a means of forcing Katniss back into the arena, where she’ll presumably be forced to do some less than popular things and then be killed in the process.

In many ways The Hunger Games: Catching Fire feels less like the second part of a larger story and more like a simple sequel.  As in, the kind of sequels that used to get hastily thrown together to cash in on a film’s success back in the day when film franchises weren’t carefully planned out from the start.  Like those old-school sequels the idea seems to be less “lets further explore this world” and more “let’s take the formula from the old film and make it bigger.”  That’s going to be the backbone of my case against this film: it feels like a complete rehash.  Like the first film, it starts with Katniss in her district, then moves on to the capital where she needs to train and also solicit sponsors, and finally its second half is a fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena.  As such it retains a lot of the same flaws that hurt the original film like the fact that it wastes way too much time in the capital before getting to the arena or the fact that it’s populated with garish costumes that have entire scenes dedicated to showcasing.

Whenever the film does deviate from the formula though, it’s almost always for the worse.  For instance, the decision to have the games be populated by former players (many of whom are adults) pretty thoroughly robs the high concept of a lot of its disturbing power.  These “tributes” seem less like scared masses being forced into a bad situation and more like the freakish “stalkers” who hunted down Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man.  When these guys get killed in the game it feels less like the result of a brutal society and more like a bunch of bad guys simply getting killed off.  In fact, for the most part, the environment seems to be a much bigger threat to Katniss and her allies in this Hunger Games than any of her actual opponents.

I also thought that the character motivations in this installment were all over the place.  For example, early in the film the Peeta character is given an opportunity to not participate in the games, but chooses to anyway in order to spare the Haymitch Abernathy from having to compete.  Why?  Haymitch is an old drunk, what in the world would make Peeta want to sacrifice his own safety in order to save him?  I suppose it could have been that Peeta was part of the conspiracy that is revealed in the film’s final moments (more on that later), even then he should have had some kind of explanation for this sudden nobility because it sure doesn’t fit with the narrative that he and Katniss are trying to sell to the wider population of this world.  And speaking of people who are inexplicably trying to save other people who they seemed to previously express no affection for, why is Katniss so hell bent on saving Peeta?  She spends most of the movie’s first third expressing that she’s just not that into him and that their supposed romance is just an act, but then at about the halfway point she starts to seem downright devoted to him and starts insisting over and over again that he “needs” to survive the games.  This is odd firstly because, well, it kind of makes him look like a punk bitch, and secondly because she’s the one who is a symbol of resistance in this world and is clearly more important to the world than he is.

As for that twist ending… I fucking hate it.  Firstly I think it’s illogical.  That the conspirators keep the whole thing a secret from Katniss is itself ridiculous and kind of diminishes Katniss as this resourceful hero.  Also, their whole plan seems to be entirely predicated on Katniss making a spur of the moment decision without any kind of prodding.  I have no idea how they knew that that was going to happen, especially when one considers that that thing that she does which makes the big escape is kind of ridiculous.  Arrows can’t generally be shot that high, and if that dome is going to completely shatter over that… it’s just silly.  It’s also abrupt.  It felt like the games were only barely afoot when I looked at my watch and saw that the movie was almost over.  I thought to myself “how are they going to wrap all this up in so short a time.”  Needless to say, I was not impressed when the answer was more or less “they aren’t.”  Instead they do this convoluted and rushed plot twist that is conveyed largely through this brief dialogue scene at the end which feels more like a complete cliffhanger than like a portent for what’s to come.  At least end on some kind of shot of the people marching in the street or something, don’t just cut from Katniss crying like a baby over her non-boyfriend to some cheesy looking logo.

I will give new director Francis Lawrence credit for one thing: he does seem to have a slightly better grasp on how to film an action scene than Gary Ross did.  He also seems to have been given a slightly higher budget to work with, so the film generally does look a little better than the last one, but the improvement isn’t necessarily by leaps and bounds by any means.  If anything it kind of makes me think I was too hard on Ross, at least he seemed to have a better grasp of how to pace his time in the Hunger Games arena.  In fact, I’d say that this movie generally gave me a better appreciation of that first film insomuch as it showed how everything about that movie could have potentially been done worse.  Even Jennifer Lawrence seems to be phoning it in here so that she can focus her energies on her David O. Russell projects.  I remember liking her a lot in the last film, but her performance here seems to be off, there are definitely some rather brutal line readings here that she seems to botch.

More than anything, this movie’s biggest sin is that it just never seems to justify its own existence.  Most of the pleasure I derived from the first film came from being introduced to this crazy fantasy world.  Here we learn very little new about that world and instead just see all the stuff we saw in the first film all over again.  What’s more, the story itself just seems to be treading water and setting things up for the third film, which is presumably where all the real action is going to be.  Hell, pretty much everything that’s really interesting about this installment seems to be happening off screen.  I would have much rather seen the rebellion being built out in the districts or seen the conspirators come up with their elaborate plan to help said rebellion than spend the whole installment watching Katniss lackadaisically replay her last adventure while being stuck in the dark about all the good stuff.  All in all, I think this movie is kind of a disaster.  I was about as let down by it as one could possibly be by a film that one waited five weeks to bother going to.

*1/2 out of Four