Friday, March 25, 2016


Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Zach Snyder, 2016)

DC pitting their two biggest, most iconic superheroes – Batman and Superman - against each other in order to jumpstart their cinematic universe looked like a questionable premise right off the bat – pun intended.

Especially since I, and many others, hated the first installment of the DCEU (DC Extended Universe), Zach Snyder’s SUPERMAN series reboot MAN OF STEEL.

So I went in to Snyder’s follow-up/BATMAN reboot with exceedingly low expectations, but was still majorly disappointed.

For BATMAN V SUPERMAN is another round of boring bombast surrounding a couple of dark dullards without a lick of compelling storytelling to be found. There’s also a severe lack of humor, and anything resembling a fresh style.

Henry Cavill, returning as the red caped crusader as well as giving us our first real taste of his Clark Kent persona (we only got a glimpse of him getting the job at The Daily Planet in MAN OF STEEL at the end), and Ben Affleck, making his debut as the Dark Knight/Bruce Wayne, both brood up a storm but there’s nothing really that intriguing about their characters. They’re just overly self serious, bland dudes is all.

The film tries to simultaneously function as a sequel and a origin story for Affleck’s incarnation of Batman, but it strongly appears that his/Snyder’s version of the character is a continuation of the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale model as there are references to The Joker, an identical bat cave, and restagings of his parents’ murder and his being attacked by bats in a well as a child that attempt but fail to recreate the gravitas of Nolan’s work.

We learn that while Superman was battling General Zod and reaping mass destruction on Metropolis in MAN OF STEEL, Wayne was one of the many folks in the rubble building up a hated for Superman. Just like many in the audience.

Clark Kent, for his part, dislikes Batman, labeling him a “bat vigilante” and “a one man reign of terror” so the stage is set for what Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) bills as “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world.

Eisenberg’s Luther is an unhinged, mad scientist who, of course, wants the two leads to fight and destroy each other so that he can…uh, I forget exactly what his plans were for after that but we’ll just go with world domination. Eisenberg locks in to the villain role with a lot of crazy conviction, but I never bought him as Luther. He reminded me of the Jon Cryer role in SUPERMAN IV – Luther’s (then played by the great Gene Hackman – now, there’s a Lex Luther!) newphew/flunky. He seems like the guy who’d be fetching stuff for Luther, not actually be Luther.

Whatever the case, this movie plays out exactly how you’d expect with no surprises. Batman and Superman fight, then bond together to fight a ginormous, grotesque creature that Luther created from Zod’s DNA, with the help of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose addition here feels like an afterthought.

David S. Goyer (MAN OF STEEL) and Chris Terrio’s (Oscar winner for the screenplay for Affleck’s ARGO) screenplay is full of pretentious dialogue about good, evil, “god versus man,” etc. but none of it comes together to form any meaningful theme. There are also a few incredibly weak plotpoints that would be a Spoiler to complain about, but I'll just say that in the worst one they make a connection between the feuding leads based on a coincidental name in their families. Man, that made me cringe.

So did the dream sequences - one a dream inside a dream deal - which were ultra unnecessary. 
Amy Adams, reprising Lois Lane, puts some genuine passion into her part, and her fellow returning cast members (Lawrence Fishburne as Editor Perry White, and Diane Lane and Kevin Costner (a dream-set cameo) as Superman’s earth parents) are all fine, but in the messy machinery of this movie they are little more than cardboard cogs.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Irons takes over from Michael Caine as Batman’s butler Alfred and has a few of the film’s only mildly amusing lines, and there’s a welcome turn by Holly Hunter as a senator who wants to hold Superman accountable for his actions in the previous film’s climax, but sadly a hearing scene in which Superman stands before congress is cut short before he gets to testify. Silly me for thinking that Superman could offer any plausible justification for the sins of MAN OF STEEL. Also Hunter’s role here may remind some folks that she was in a movie that dealt much better with the accountability of superheroes: THE INCREDIBLES.

Folks complained plenty when Affleck was cast, but he does an admirable job with the underwritten role. He mostly just has to grimace behind a mask while the special effects people rig things to explode around him and he can certainly pull that off. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne persona is basically just a collection of suave poses with flashes of his bedroom eyes and he hits the mark with that too. If only there was something more to flesh out there. I mean, Will Arnett’s Batman in THE LEGO MOVIE was more complex than this guy!

BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (stiff, clunky title) is the first big, bad movie of the year – an awful, mess of a wannabe epic that casts a dark shadow on the future of both superhero franchises as well as the entire DCEU. The two JUSTICE LEAGUE movies that are set for 2017 and 2019, the next we’ll see these characters, really have to be something special to redeem the whole enterprise, but Snyder is set to direct those too so I’m not counting on that to happen.

Oh, and don’t worry about staying to the end of the credits because there is no stinger – that’s something they surprisingly haven’t stolen from Marvel. 

More later...

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Upcoming Superhero Showdown

A few weeks back while attending a movie at a multiplex, I saw posters for the two big superhero movies that are coming soon side by side: Zach Snyder's BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (opening this week), and Anthony Russo and Joe Russo's CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (opening May 6). It was funny how much the posters looked alike: superheros facing off in profile; one masked, one not; similar color scheme with bluish gray sky in the backbround. 

The posters also pit DC against Marvel. DC is in the process of mounting their own Cinematic Universe to rival (and copy) Marvel's extremely successful business model with scores of movies in the pipeline, including two JUSTICE LEAGUE films, their equivalent of Marvel's AVENGERS movies. Between the two comic book companies' plans for world domination, we're not far off from a world in which a new superhero movie is released every weekend. But DC has a lot of catching up to do to get where Marvel is - CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is the beginning of phase 3 of their Cinematic Universe - meaning that it'll be a decade before we get to whatever DC's equivalent of DEADPOOL is.

Now, I've enjoyed quite a few superhero movies. I think Marvel has a good thing going on for the most part and I've given good reviews to two out of the three IRON MAN movies (2 is the weak link), the previous CAPTAIN AMERICA entries, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, ANT-MAN, and the two AVENGERS films. The THOR movies I'm not a fan of, but overall there's a lot of fun to be had within the interlocking continuity of the multiple franchises.

But, yeah, there is a saturation point and according to filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, whose BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) was about a former star of a comic book film series, we've reached it: 

“They (superhero movies) have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.”

The new Dark Knight, Ben Affleck, recently responded to Iñárritu's remarks: 

“Alejandro is also given to over-statement. I wouldn’t call it cultural genocide, but he’s brilliant and his point is taken that you can’t just swallow up cinema with any kind of movie.”

The buzz for BATMAN V. SUPERMAN has been very mixed - the film is currently at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, but it'll no doubt be a huge hit. Both characters have huge fan bases, or fanboy bases, and this weekend there's little in the way of competition - doubt MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2 will steal much or any of its audience.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is going to clean up too as I predict it'll be better received and it has a ginormous cast of superheros with almost every Marvel character making an appearance including the much hyped re-introduction of SPIDER-MAN. 

So it really doesn't matter if we've reached, or gone past, the point of over saturation, because unless there's a series of bigtime flops in the genre, we are most likely going to have superhero movies coming at us for the rest of our lives. That may be depressing news to those who feel the way that Iñárritu does, and Affleck is right - he does have a point - but for those of us who used to be disgusted, but now try to be amused (to steal a line from Elvis Costello) it's just a given that these are incredibly profitable properties that are going to be around for a long time.

The posters above certainly won't be the last time that competing franchises look exactly like each other.

More later...

Thursday, March 17, 2016

ZOOTOPIA: A Delightfully On Point Takedown Of Racial Profiling

ZOOTOPIA (Dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush, 2016)

Earlier this week, I caught up with the #1 movie at the box office right now: ZOOTOPIA, the latest animated family feature from the Walt Disney Corporation. I had been initially dismissive of the film, having skipped an advance screening of it for a weird Neil Young double feature, but I heard that many critics were raving about it being a clever topical takedown of racial profiling so I just had to check it out.

ZOOTOPIA takes place in a world with no humans, only animals, who were once savage but have evolved, and formed a civilization in which they walk upright, wear clothes, and work regular jobs. Ginnifer Goodwin voices our plucky protagonist, a rabbit named Judy Hopps, who dreams of being the first bunny police officer. Thanks to the city of Zootopia’s new Mammal Inclusion Initiative, she gets her chance but is assigned to parking ticket duty by the chief of police, who’s an intimidating buffalo voiced by Idris Elba.

Because of a bias against foxes – we see her being bullied as a child by a fox in the opening sequence, and she carries “fox repellant” given to her by her parents – she follows one that looks suspicious to her into an ice cream store, but finds out it’s just a doting dad, named Nick Wilde (voiced by Jason Bateman) trying to buy a popsicle for his kid.

When the elephant run establishment refuses service to Nick and his offspring, Officer Judy steps in and calls out the store’s unsanitary conditions, which include an elephant employee scooping ice cream with his bare trunk – heavens! The situation is resolved with Judy buying an elephant-sized popsicle for the thankful father and son.

However, Judy soon finds out that she was hustled by Nick, who takes the huge popsicle and makes it into hundreds of tiny popsicles to sell to business suited rat population. Judy tries to arrest Nick, but finds that she can’t make any of the charges stick.

Defeated yet still trying to prove her worth, Judy gets into a chase after a crook named Duke Weaselton (Alan Tudyk), inside the segmented city within a ciry, Little Rodentia.

This gets Judy in trouble with the chief, but, via the surprise support of the Assistant Mayor Bellwether (Jenny Slate), it leads to the officer bunny getting put on a major case involving a series of missing animals. Turns out that Nick can help with a lead, and the duo hit the trail, which involves a cameo by Tommy Chong as a hippy yax who’s the “emotional life coach” at a naturalist commune, an arctic shrew crime boss named Mr. Big (Maurice Lamarche doing his best Marlon Brando), and, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, the city’s DMV being run by sloths – get it? 

The well cast Bateman, at his cheeky best, and the equally Goodwin, giving it her all, play off each other well and do a lot towards making this the likable, yet appropriately apt, exercise that it is.

ZOOTOPIA may have made by committee – there are three directors and seven “story by” credits, but its sharp screenplay (credited to only two names - Jared Bush and Phil Johnston) that serves up a lot of on point social satire. Just about every joke lands, and there’s genuine feeling behind its message, which is basically ‘let’s recognize and put a stop to negative stereotyping and discrimination.’

It’s voice cast is energetically up to task throughout – though I could’ve done more with J.K. Simmons’ Leodore Lionheart, the lion mayor of Zootopia, and less with Shakira’s pop star gazelle (named Gazalle, of course), but I know they’ve got to work that teenybopper pop angle in order to sell some soundtracks (you just know that this one won’t push anywhere near as many units as FROZEN though).

A delightful family film that actually has as much depth as it does heart, ZOOTOPIA is a really good sign for the future of Disney’s Animated Classics division. With hope, other lesser animation studios will take note and start to tackle real, relatable issues more in their movies. I’m looking at you, Dreamworks!

More later...

Friday, March 11, 2016

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Dan Trachtenberg, 2016)

Warning: This review contains major Spoilers!

Forget about how, or if, this movie is supposed to be connected to the J.J. Abrams-produced 2008 fake found footage alien invasion flick CLOVERFIELD, Dan Trachtenberg’s directorial debut, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (also Abrams-produced), is a damn fine thriller that stands on its own.

It starts with a bang – or a bunch of bangs, really, as we witness a young woman named Michelle, played by N.C. native Mary Elizabeth Winstead, get in a nasty nighttime automobile accident out in the middle of nowhere (actually rural Louisiana) that leaves her car flipped over by the side of the road.

Michelle, who had just left her boyfriend (Bradley Cooper, in cellphone voice only), wakes up later in a windowless, concrete room with her leg handcuffed to a pipe. Her captor, or savior as he would say, is a large, gruff man named Howard (John Goodman), who tells her that there’s been an attack, by either the Russians or Martians, and the outside air is contaminated, but they’re safe in his well-stocked underground bunker, which he built just for such an occasion.

There’s one other person there, Emmett (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher, Jr.), who helped build the bunker and collaborates Howard’s story, saying that he saw the “flash” of light, and headed to Howard’s for shelter. However, Michelle, now unchained and free to move about, remains skeptical especially after she sees Howard’s truck through a window on the ground level and recognizes it as the vehicle that hit her car.

During a tense dinner scene, Michelle is able to steal Howard’s keys and runs to escape. She is halted in the airlock by a scary sickly woman (Suzanne Cryer) pounding on the glass to get in, while Howard screams “Don’t open that door!”

After that incident, things calm down and the three adjust to their life in the bunker via a montage – luckily there’s a jukebox in the recreation area and Tommy James & The Shondells’ “I Think We're Alone Now” gets a nicely used spin as Michelle, Howard, and Emmett watch movies *, read, and work on a jigsaw puzzle.

After he confesses that he accidentally crashed into her car, Michelle even begins to trust Howard, but his mentions of his daughter Megan who died mysteriously make her again give pause. So Michelle and Emmett start hatching a plan to escape involving making an airtight suit out of a shower curtain and a gas mask out of 2 liter bottles.

It would spill too much of the contents of what Abrams calls a “mystery box,” to go much further with the plot, but I’ll just say that the last third gets into WAR OF THE WORLDS territory (hey, I warned you about Spoilers!). This reveal will be divisive as some will think that it cheapens the pot boiler set up, but I found it to be an effective, and exciting finale. And I so much more enjoyed Winstead fighting aliens here than in that forgettable THE THING prequel.

Trachtenberg, working from Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle’s clever screenplay, keeps an engaging pace – I can’t recall any part that dragged – and gets solid performances from all three leads. Howard is Goodman’s juiciest, and most layered role in ages, and he plays it to the hilt, convincingly inhabiting the skin of this very scary man, but one who’s not without warmth.

Winstead, who appears to be building quite a resume as a horror scream queen, does a great energetic job with making us feel and think alongside the character of Michelle, in all her desperate stress. Gallagher, Jr.’s Emmett could be seen as the comic relief at times as he gets in a few choice one-liners, but I believe Goodman got the film’s biggest laugh at the screening I saw when he said that he was a “reasonable man.”

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a genuinely scary, and intensely gripping experience that goes to show that franchise films don’t have to be sequels (or prequels); they can effectively be stand alone stories, from completely different corners of conflict, that take place in the same world.

Here’s hoping the same approach works for that ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY deal coming out later this year.

* In one scene, Goodman is watching PRETTY IN PINK, which he says was his daughter's favorite movie. It's a nice shout-out as the beloved '80s teen classic celebrated its 30th birhtday just last week (released: Feb. 28, 1986). Happy belated Birthday PRETTY IN PINK!

More later...

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

A Weird, Wild Neil Young Double Feature: HUMAN HIGHWAY & RUST NEVER SLEEPS

After spending over three hours on Sunday night watching the Oscars on the big screen at the Rialto Theater in Raleigh, I spent the next night watching over three hours of Neil Young at Crossroads 20 in Cary. The program, presented by Fathom Events (and AARP fittingly enough), was dubbed “An Evening With Neil Young” and it was a one-night-only theatrical release of two rare, newly remastered movies by the Canadian rocker, both directed under his pseudonym “Bernard Shakey”: HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982), and RUST NEVER SLEEPS (1978).

I was most anxious to see HUMAN HIGHWAY, having heard a lot about it over the years. It has quite a reputation as being known as that weird movie Young made with Devo, Dean Stockwell, Sally Kirkland, and Dennis Hopper about the end of the world that never got a proper release. It had a release on VHS in the ‘90s, and Young boasts about a laserdisc version coming out in the ‘80s in his book “Waging Heavy Peace,” but it’s been a pretty hard to find curio otherwise. 

Right off the bat, HUMAN HIGHWAY is weirder than I came close to imagining. Young stars as Lionel Switch, a dorky mechanic at a gas station/diner in the fictional Linear Valley, which, with its purposely fake looking scenery, is depicted like a full-size recreation of a model train set. Stockwell, who co-directed and co-wrote with Young, plays Young Otto, the new owner of the crickety, run down establishment, who’s taking over after the death of his father, Old Otto, whose old timey picture on the wall keeps getting creepy close-ups.

A very hammy Russ Tamblyn plays Lionel’s pal, Fred Kelly, who’s vying for a job at the joint, Dennis Hopper is the short order cook, and Kirkland, Charlotte Stewart, and Geraldine Baron play a trio of waitresses also adding to the ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE/COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME, JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN vibe.

With its nuclear glow sight gags, and its spare surreal settings, there's also a REPO MAN meets ONE FROM THE HEART thing going on too.

The seminal Ohio art rock band Devo – Mark Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, Bob Casale, Bob Mothersbaugh, and Alan Myers - appear as nuclear waste disposal workers, who we meet in this scene, which I’ve been long familiar with as it also appears on their video compilation “Devo: The Complete Truth About De-Evolution,” in which they mime to a tongue-in-cheek version of the Kingston Trio's “It Takes a Worried Man”:

Actually, this appears differently in the film, which has Young cutting back every so often to Devo in the truck, who are seemingly driving around the whole day with barrels of nuclear waste. Maybe it wasn’t just a joke one of them made earlier that they need to get to fortifying the water supply.

There really isn’t much of a plot, just a string of scenes centering around a talent show coming up that Stewart, as the waitresses that Lionel has a crush on, is performing in, and the arrival in a limo of Frankie Fontaine, a rock star that Lionel worships...maybe because he’s also played by Young.

Young’s Lionel, who exhibits every goofy facial expression that the actor/director can muster, gets hit on the head and has a crazy dream about being a big rock star himself.

This crazy, hazy sequence, which includes a bonfire of cigar store Indians, features Young’s “Goin’ Back” from his 1978 album Comes a Time, and the film’s centerpiece: a jam with Devo on “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” sung by the band’s mascot character Booji Boy (playing a MOOG synthesizer in a baby crib, mind you), portrayed in a creepy mask by Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh. It must be seen to be believed:

One Youtube commenter said that this clip is “like sticking your head in a blender from another dimension.”

The largely improvised HUMAN HIGHWAY is a wonderfully strange experience that made me laugh with giddiness a lot throughout. It’s a gloriously campy ride that reminded me of that last wacko episode of the ‘60s show The Prisoner in the “what the f*** am I watching?” department, especially in a concluding zany dance number that has the whole cast dancing with with helmets and radioactive-waste shovels preparing to ascend a staircase to heaven (that's right).

The highlight is absolutely the “Hey Hey, My My” jam with Devo, and it’s a moment that foreshadows Young’s later being dubbed the Godfather of Grunge for his tours with Sonic Youth and Social Distortion; his collaboration with Pearl Jam, and his forays into feedbacky distortion like his seriously odd early '90s live album Arc, which was made up of a collage of noisy song fragments *.

In the performance with Devo in HH, Booji Boy changes one of Young’s lyrics from “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” to “it’s better to burn out than to rust” (he also changes Johnny Rotten to Johnny Spud). This hugely influenced Young as he explained in bio: “One of the Devo members later told me that there was a sign on a shop in Akron, Ohio, where Devo originated, that read RUST NEVER SLEEPS. It was a maintenance and rust prevention service.”

Young kept the rust change in the song, and named his next album and the resulting concert film of the tour supporting the record, RUST NEVER SLEEPS. The concert movie made up the second half of the double feature but between the films was a Q & A broadcast live from the Regal movie theater in Los Angeles featuring Young, Tamblyn, Stewart, and Devo’s Gerald Casale moderated by Cameron Crowe. 

Crowe revealed that he visited the set of HUMAN HIGHWAY back in his teenage reporter heyday that was celebrated in his autobiographical 2000 film ALMOST FAMOUS. It was a brief, but lively conversation about the making of the film with Young appearing very amused that it was getting this attention. It was funny to hear Casale recall that he and the others in Devo expected Young to be the grandfather of granola, but when they met him they realized how wrong their preconceptions were.

Following that was RUST NEVER SLEEPS, which I’d seen before (even own the out-of-print DVD), but had never seen on the big screen. It’s a great concert film that captures Young at one of his many peaks, but sadly this particular digital presentation of it looked horrible. Originally shot in 16mm , the film’s image is washed out, and overly grainy and extremely blurry in patches. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable watch of Young and his band Crazy Horse’s October 22, 1978 performance at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. 

The stage consisted of gigantic amps and microphones, and the roadies on the tour were dressed like the Jawas from STAR WARS (the huge sci-fi hit had been released the previous year). It’s fun to watch the roadies with their cloaks and lights for eyes scurrying around throughout - a roadie wearing a yellow Devo radiation suit can also be seen - but the real attraction is Young’s often definitive renditions of some of his best songs including “Thrasher,” “After the God Rush,” “Powderfinger,” and “Cinnamon Girl.” 

I was highly reminded of the first time I saw Young live, on the Ragged Glory tour in '91 at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C., as he reused the oversized amps and mikes, and a lot of the same setlist (I saw him only one other time, at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh in 2000). 

Both HUMAN HIGHWAY and RUST NEVER SLEEPS are both due to be re-released on DVD on April 22nd via Reprise, Young’s long-time label. I'm not sure if I'll actually purchase HUMAN HIGHWAY for my collection (I'm a NY fan, but not hardcore), but I am happy after all these years to finally see it. 

* While writing this piece I found a clip on Youtube of somebody putting a CD of the album Arc into the microwave. Now, that's an incredibly odd, yet perhaps apt, reaction to an incredibly odd album.

More later…