There ain’t no Justice: Justice League

jl.jpg2017.60: Justice league (2017)

Oh dear. This was terrible. I came out of the cinema feeling how Charlton Heston looked at the end of Planet of the Apes, on his knees, fists clenched, screaming at the heavens about the damned fools who had finally bloody well done it; “You Maniacs! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”

Yes, they’ve made a superhero film worse than Batman v Superman.

I suppose Justice League never had a chance, doomed at birth by the critical and public response to Batman v Superman, but the terrible waste here is just bewildering. Ben Affleck is possibly the best Batman we’ve ever had, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight brought vividly to life, but he’s now been wasted in three bad films, and Affleck looks as if he’ll kill someone to get out of making a fourth. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is possibly the only DC success story, but even she looks tired here; “I’m working with children,” she muses at one point- damn right girl. As for Henry Cavill, I like the guy, I’ve enjoyed him in earlier stuff like The Tudors etc and his Superman should be a great fit, but at this point everyone has to admit it just doesn’t work. I don’t know if it’s the direction he is being given but his Superman just doesn’t work. His Clark isn’t a bumbling alter-ego, it’s a Superman as topless hunk, the same character completely, utterly missing the entire point of the Clark character.

Anyway, Justice League is only just out so I’ll spare any spoilers. But it is terrible. Horrible. Surely a movie based on a comic deserves/needs a story more sophisticated than a children’s comic? The crass stupidity that, what is it, anything north of $200 million has been spent on is just bewildering.  It’s one thing to bring Superman back and explain that ‘miracle’ off to the public, but how does Clark Kent get away with a return from the dead when he turns up for work on Monday at the Daily Planet? This film is so S-T-U-P-I-D. The awful dialogue, the desperate need to give every character their ten/fifteen minutes to shine, the pithy one-liners, the jokes that fall flat, the villain who may yet rank as the worst villain to ever ‘grace’ a superhero movie, some of the shoddiest effects work I have seen in a tentpole blockbuster…. I could go on.

But dear God the abysmal story.  It’s almost part Lord of the Rings in its cartoony backstory/mythology of ancient wars battling ancient evil. I’m not quite sure that didn’t come from some completely different movie altogether, it was so weird. Three glowing rubik’s cubes spell death for humanity.  How long did they spend dreaming that up? It’s so infantile and crude, so many characters come and go for no reason at all, side stories come to the fore then simply disappear. Maybe there is a three-hour cut that will fix everything, there is simply too much movie here for two hours, but a three-hour Justice League sounds right now like a recipe for torture.

Yet this mess will get more bums on seats than BR2049. There is a lesson there. But the DC extended universe is surely in real trouble now. Such a pity, such a waste. Where can it possibly go from here?

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

 

rise12016.67: 300: Rise of an Empire (Amazon VOD)

There’s no point really going on about the plot, such as it is. Fans of the original 300 will likely lap this up. Its really just 300 all over again, but just more. More gore. More action. And louder. Its everything modern sequels aspire to be. Just a pity it couldn’t have been not just ‘more’ but better (so true of so many sequels).

300 of course was something rather new, a hyper-stylised cinematic version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. The sequel has lost that edge of originality, the sense of wonder at watching something ‘new’ that elevated the original experience. Like Sin City‘s sequel it rather suffers for it, losing itself in the technology, almost becoming a parody of the original. It doesn’t help that the film lacks the original’s charismatic lead (for obvious reasons) and even casting the great Eva Green doesn’t fill that gap. Green makes a great villain with some real presence onscreen, as one would expect, but she’s sorely wasted here with a vacuous, predictable plot and risible dialogue. Basically it’s all an effects reel, the plot moving viewers from one gory set-piece to the next. There isn’t really any character or drama or tension or any of that other boring stuff that so distracts teenage males from the serious stuff- you know, the shouting and fighting and gore and delirious slowmotion reveling in cartoon violence. I’m sure there are young males out there who think this is simply brilliant.

Which is rather scary, frankly. But maybe they will grow up.

Of course, its pretty, in a perverse sense considering how it glorifies explicit gore and violence. There are times when the visuals are quite arresting, but most of the time it has the look of a videogame and quite artificial and almost boring. Why is it that fifty cgi battleships are not enough, that you need a hundred or more, what makes it any more effective rather than boring overkill? What makes anyone think that seeing a cgi character getting a cgi arm chopped off in slow-motion in great gouts of cgi blood is anything exciting after the sixth or seventh time? Without genuine drama, or involving plot, its just random images, pretty as they might be. It doesn’t really make for a movie, not as I understand it.

Frankly, I felt sorry for the actors. What a soulless experience it must have been in-front of all that green screen voicing that awful dialogue. I can only imagine how horrible it must have seemed, particularly for the likes of Green and Lena Headey, who are frankly above all this. It says everything about where cinema and television are these days when you compare stuff like the 300 films to Game of Thrones.

 

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvs1.jpg2016. 27: Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (Cinema)

I have to keep reminding myself; its ‘just’ a superhero movie. The whole genre is daft, isn’t it? You get grown guys dressed up in silly costumes and a genre increasingly taking itself far too seriously and you wind up with films like Man of Steel and BvS. Talented guys like Zack Snyder give too much credit to the passions of geeks and nerds and teenage comics readers and we get misguided films like this that believe that comicstrips can be like Shakespeare or something. Weighed down by self-importance and juvenile politicising and scripts that cover up massive plot-holes with CGI bombast until that very CGI bombast becomes the be-all and end-all of everything.

Sod it. Let’s start again. My favourite superhero film is Superman: The Movie. It’s a classic lesson in how to treat a comicbook with respect without taking itself too seriously. Its a fine line, I admit, but there is a limit to how seriously this stuff should be taken. Guys in tights, you know?

Another thing about Superman: The Movie. It’s kind of aged, because, well, it has– it was made in the ‘seventies. It dates back to photochemical effects and miniatures and is pre-CGI. But it still shines today because Christopher Reeve was genius casting and it’s him who makes you believe a man can fly. You love his Clark Kent, admire his Superman. You don’t have to lay waste to Metropolis and slaughter thousands of innocents to make the film exciting. Superman cares about burglaries and cats in trees and planes falling out of the sky. He’s a good guy. That’s all we need to know.

You see, Superman: The Movie wasn’t made by geeks for geeks. It was made by ordinary grown-ups for family audiences. There was a grounding of reality about everything. My question is, are the geeks ruining films? Have they inherited Hollywood and usurped the old storytellers?

bvs4Because here we have BvS. It says everything about where the genre has gone over the decades. We first had Superman: The Movie, we later had Batman. Now we have Batman vs Superman and its about as intellectually stimulating as the title suggests. I mean, that whole ‘Martha’ thing. How stupid do these film-makers think we are? And the first time Supes meets Batman, Batman is clearly chasing bazooka-wielding bad guys, but Supes gives them a pass in order to bust open the Batmobile and tell Bats off. And what exactly was Lex’s superplan to rule the world with Doomsday? How the hell was he expecting to control Doomsday once it had killed Bats and Supes? And Supes can hear/see Lois in trouble wherever she is, but can’t hear/see a bomb hidden in a wheelchair right in front of him. He can travel faster than a bullet but can’t get that bomb out of the building just as it detonates. Did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

It’s a big mess of a film. It doesn’t have one protagonist, it has two. Or three. Or four, depending on who we count. It doesn’t have one plot. It has two or three spread across separate timelines, some of which may be dreams or visions or mis-remembered memories or clips from future films. Again, did Snyder learn nothing from reading/making Watchmen?

My first thoughts walking out of BvS? That it wasn’t as bad as the reviews made out. That I sort-of quite enjoyed it (whilst knowing that I really shouldn’t have though).

There doesn’t seem much point reviewing this film. Its already become an ‘event’, perhaps even more so than Disney’s relaunch of Star Wars. Suffering a delayed release and endless marketing and leaks (the trailers simply revealing – and promising- far too much) it seems evident that even during production the film was being retconned into less just a single film but more a launchpad for a whole series of other films, subjecting it to a tension that clearly always threatens to rip it apart and undermine the whole enterprise.

The Corporate stakes are huge: Warners and DC need the film to launch a film franchise to counter Marvel’s huge series of films after the faltering Superman Returns and Man Of Steel reboots and they also need it to work on its own and recoup its huge (anything from $250 to $400 million) production costs. Maybe even impress both the critics and the fanboys while it’s at it too. Well, good luck with that.

A better film had the line, the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long and it’s never truer than regards BvS. It burned so very, very brightly – subjected to largely vicious reviews from the press, fanboys themselves were largely split on the films merits with huge emotional debates becoming angry and personal online (fueled by some predictable Marvel vs DC nonsense too). The box-office has been initially amazing; contrary to those reviews, the film managed a huge opening weekend but was subjected to a corresponding massive drop-off by the second week (some outlets already quoting an 80% drop-off, even the most conservative estimating a fairly damning 70% drop). The film was scarcely in cinemas when release dates for an extended cut were being mentioned for as early as July and attention turning towards that as if the cinema release was already done and over.

As I’m writing this, the film was released little over a week ago, and already it almost feels all over. Everything has been said. Its almost scary. How much has been discussed and dissected on forums and on Youtube and media outlets? Its almost boring already, and the film has only been out just over a week. What on Earth is the Cultural half-life of a Hollywood blockbuster now? Or the timeline of its box-office: days? Weeks? A month? How much money has been spent on making and publicising this film, how much spent on distribution and marketing, how much spent by filmgoers, casual and otherwise (I know of one guy at work who has seen the film three times already), how much has been spent on merchandising and how much spent preparing for its home video release?

I have the feeling that we need a year or two to go by before we can really judge this film and even then we have to have some frame of reference to go by. By which criteria does someone judge it anyway? Do we judge it on its own artistic merits, or on how well it ultimately performs at the box office and more importantly how that impacts the succeeding DC movies? We have Suicide Squad this summer and the Wonder Woman film being shot right now. There are already rumours of reshoots for Suicide Squad, how long before reactions to BvS affect the making of Wonder Woman? Its like BvS isn’t just a film anymore- maybe it was never ‘just’ a film, and thats the root of all its issues.

So anyway, here’s my take, for what it’s worth.

bvs21) Ben Affleck. The best Batman ever? I really think he might be. His haunted Bruce Wayne is borderline psychotic and he absolutely nails the Batman. He looks pretty definitive in my book with a huge physical presence. He just deserved a better film. No, he deserved his own movie.  Which leads me to-

2) There’s much more Dark Knight Returns in BvS than I had expected. I have two differing thoughts on this. On the one hand, had Synder really wanted to just make Dark Knight Returns then maybe he just should have, and dropped all the Man of Steel tie-in stuff altogether (and certainly all that Justice League worldbuilding too). On the other hand, there’s more to the Batman than Frank bloody Miller, and it’s past time film-makers managed to shake the curse/weight/inspiration/shadow of DKR from the character. It shaped/handicapped the Chris Nolan trilogy and clearly inspired so much of BvS but surely its done now. Besides, DKR isn’t even canon. DC has always said it exists in some alternate universe away from the ‘proper’ character.

(There’s even a very fine animated movie of DKR that does the story well so a live-action version is surely already redundant but… I have the horrible feeling that, even with so much of it featuring in BvS, we will one day see a ‘proper’ live-action complete film version of DKR someday in the future. Maybe it’ll be ten, twenty, even thirty years from now, whenever it happens, it’ll happen. They just can’t leave the bloody thing alone).

3) Henry Cavill is awfully bland. I don’t blame Cavill for this, I’ve seen him much better in other stuff- in his defense, its the depiction of Superman in these films that is still pretty bland and boring. He was ill-served by Man of Steel and is just as ill-served here, maybe more so. Zack Snyder seems to have confused Superman with his Watchmen film’s Dr Manhattan. Superman is not Dr Manhattan- someone should tell Snyder that. But BvS continues to ask the same questions as MoS and it’s getting just as mired in them; we don’t trust our leaders, as they evidently prove corruptible and weak, so if there was a Superman, how could we trust him?  It’s pointless really because after two films it still doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. One thing I was curious of- there is plenty of questions in BvS about Superman, but all the public/police/politicians etc seem okay with that Batdude terrorising Gotham. What gives?

3). BvS is a much better film than Man of Steel, and yet Snyder still makes some of the same mistakes. Snyder seems to confuse drama with noise, visual as well as aural. Man of Steel did not need to blight MOS’ Kryptonian prologue with a huge sky battle/CGI shitfest. It did not add any gravitas or drama to it. Neither did it need the Planet-killer sequence or Metropolis laid waste. Battering audiences over the head with cartoon CGI theatrics does not add dramatic involvement or excitement. MoS would have been more interesting had it just comprised of Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent  wandering the planet trying to find his place in the world and hiding his powers while helping save people. It could have left donning the Superman suit until the end, made it the film’s climax. BvS addresses some of the fundamental excess of MOS’ ill-thought Metropolis battle in a novel way by forming its plot around its aftermath and justification, and yet forgets its own lessons by falling back into another CGI shitfest in the battle with Doomsday. Its almost boring. No, it is boring. Context is thrown out of the window with CGI characters and CGI explosions and… yawn.

bvs3 4) About boring- too many heroes equals too much CGI nonsense and it’s just too bloody boring for words. The most dramatic moments in the entire series of Star Wars films are those between Luke and Vader in TESB. Two combatants in a fight that is dramatic and involving and personal and weighted by a sense of reality. You don’t have Luke jumping across huge chasms or Vader firing lightning from his fingers. Just two dudes sword fighting with laser swords (the laser swords is conceit enough, the drama is in the conflict, the opposing characters and their ideologies).

Each successive superhero film seems to be throwing ever-bigger odds against an increasing roster of protagonists and, well, Age of Ultron was boring as shit. That whole finale with hundreds of little Ultrons attacking our band of merry superhumans in slo-mo was utterly boring.  Its the big danger facing superhero films today- they are getting too big, becoming too much like video-games. Future Justice League films seem hellbent on continuing this trend. Each of these films seem to think bigger is better and the idea of Snyder having a roster of several heroes battling some bad guy even bigger than Doomsday fills me with dread, frankly. But I do worry how far this genre can go before making things utterly abstract and the stakes utterly redundant.

5) Oh thats quite a bloody ’nuff about BvS. Two thousand words and I haven’t mentioned Supes meeting the ghost of his dad on a mountain for a chat about causality. Here’s hoping that the Ultimate Cut fixes everything. And maybe that somebody somewhere in Hollywood starts to exercise some kind of restraint with these superhero movies eventually.

 

 

Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For (2014)

sin1After languishing on the shelf since last Christmas when I received it as a prezzy, I’ve finally gotten around to watching Sin City 2. Why exactly it remained unwatched for so long I’m not sure- I was a huge fan of the original film and have all the Frank Miller Sin City graphic novels (indeed, I bought the massive hardback omnibus volume several months ago to replace my paperback copies). Probably it was the negative word of mouth that had kept me away from the theatrical release of the film too. Like many fans, I’d waited several more years than expected to get a second Sin City flick- a delay that raised expectations in fans and fostered disinterest in others and likely cost the studio a mint as it turned out- and it was clear from reviews that the final film was a major disappointment.

To be fair, being a fan of the books, it was clear already that A Dame To Kill For aside, the best stories were featured in the original film. It also cannot be denied that Frank Millers artwork and plotting all suffered increasingly as the series of books wore on, almost becoming a parody of itself towards the end. I don’t know if it was boredom or laziness on Miller’s part but the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head over his Sin City. Which was such a shame, as the first volume was wonderful. So anyway, I rather expected the second film to suffer the same fate of the books- after all, the films are so slavishly faithful to the graphic stories, if the stories were slipping in quality as they went on, that would inevitably translate to the film versions, too. And it does.

sin2SIn City 2 opens with a short tale Just Another Saturday Night, and instantly sets the alarm bells ringing. There’s not really any story here to tell of, just a perfunctory plot to set the violence off. Sin City‘s violence is hyper-stylised stuff, all graphic slo-mo sequences with bright gushes of white splatter and severed limbs. It works great in the comic and was a novel (at times shocking) approach in the first movie, but it was always in the context of the bigger story, the drama and the characters, such as they were in its pupish noir universe. Its as if the film makers thought that it was the crazy graphic violence that made the first film so popular, when, in my opinion at least, it was the web of intrigue and fatal characters that was the real success of the film.  In this opener it just seems cartoon violence for its own sake and actually seems boring rather than exciting. It feels too forced and an ill-judged opener to the film (the first film opened with a lovely moody sequence much more restrained and was all the better for it). Most frustrating of all, Marv, one of the most interesting and enjoyable characters before, comes across here as just a dumb tank, lacking the pathos and doom-laden end that he had in the first film. This continues later on when he appears in the later chapters of SIn City 2, utterly diminishing his character.

The most successful chapter of the film, as might have been expected, is A Dame To Kill For. Its the closest it gets to the ‘feel’ and intensity of the first film. Yes its violent, yes its decadent and sexy, but its got a great noir story and great characters played by a marvelous cast. Eva Green is, as ever, simply magnificent, chewing up the black and white cgi scenery as well as the men her character traps in her poisonous web.Josh Brolin is very good as her ex-lover Dwight, doomed to fall back into her clutches before battling his way out. It has the tone of a genuine pulp novel and is the highlight of the whole film. I almost wish that the story had been expanded somehow rather than have been so faithfully reproduced from the original graphic series, as it feels just frustratingly short and diminished by the stories that surround it.

sin3On the whole though I did enjoy the film- certainly more than I had expected too. Its hardly the disaster that the reviews I read intimated it to be, and considering how the graphic series turned out its hardly surprising that it suffers in comparison to the original. Maybe just too many years had passed and the creators misjudged what had made the first film such a success. In anycase, I’ll forgive the film its digressions just for the fine A Dame To Kill For segment, glad to finally at least have that after having waited so many years for it.

So it’s extremely unlikely we’ll ever get a Sin City 3, which does seem a shame. It might have been an entertaining trilogy of films. Indeed I get the feeling of ‘what might have been’ about Sin City 2, and that’s a frustrating thing to say when you consider it wasn’t a quick cash-in after the first film but rather a film that came out several years later and, ironically perhaps because of this failed to recreate that original spark. But it’s not a bad film at all, just…. yeah, just not what it might have been.

 

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Deluxe Edition (2012)

tdkrFrank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, alongside Alan Moore’s/Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, revolutionised American comicbooks in the mid-eighties. Bold, graphic and harrowing, and reflecting the real-life politics of the time, both works ripped apart the conventions that had held back the medium for years and their huge success revitalised the industry.

Curiously, they were both inherently filmic, almost like storyboards for a film.  Both used monologues/voiceovers and other movie techniques to tell their tale, the artwork using many cinematic tools such as consecutive frames ‘pulling-back’ into wide shots/reveals, dialogue sequences cutting to and fro with close-ups and over-the-shoulder views. Its curious though that now, decades later, with the superhero genre in such an ascendency at the cinema, that only one of those two seminal works –Watchmen– has ever been brought to life on the silver-screen, and even then with limited impact and success (though for the record, I loved it, particularly the directors cut- that the same Zack Snyder later wreaked Man of Steel upon us frankly astonishes me, appreciating Watchmen all the more) .

tdkr2But no The Dark Knight Returns. Until now, that is. Well sort of. TDKR here is not a live-action movie but a straight-to-video animated movie version of the graphic novel.

Of course, its easy to say that much of TDKR has been seen onscreen, as much of it was widely pillaged by Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, albeit within the constraints of a more realworld scenario. Indeed, whilst watching TDKR it struck me a number of times just how much Nolan’s films really owe to TDKR, to such an extent that uninitiated viewers familiar with that trilogy may wonder what all the fuss was about when watching this. With the next Superman film bearing the title Superman vs Batman, I have to suspect this mining of the original material in the graphic novel is simply set to continue. Which raises the inevitable question, if film-makers insist on returning to Frank Miller’s work and taking this and that, why not just be open about it and adapt the whole thing as it is?

dark_knight_returns1A ‘proper’ live-action TDKR remains a great unrealised dream of a movie. This animated version, hamstrung by both  a necessitated PG-13 rating and a limited budget, is a frustrating experience. On the one hand, so much of it feels authentic, recalling the freshness of the work back when it first came out. It still impresses even in the hindsight of so many years, how bold and revetting the piece is, how it turns upside down so many of the Batman’s conceits that had been parodied over the years.

On the other hand, the limited animation does it few favours and the story still feels truncated even at (in this deluxe version) something like two and a half hours. The whole thing is too complicated, too intense, too multifaceted.  A cinematic treatment should be expanding it, not condensing it, using the graphic novel as a launchpad, investigating its themes and issues  further. A live-action HBO miniseries remains the ideal home for something like this, in just the same way Watchmen really needed similar treatment.

It makes a few mistakes. Most heinous is the decision to drop the first-person narration that runs through the work, putting us into Batman’s ‘head’ for the first time and learning why he does what he does. Having to ‘show’ us the content of these monologues either in action or spoken dialogue rather handicaps the whole thing.

Likewise the PG-13 rating dilutes the impact;  it makes something that should have the cold brutality of a Taxi Driver more akin to what the animation looks like, a kid’s comic. Which, yes, brings me to the animation. Perfectly servicable and at times even quite impressive, I would have preferred something more akin to the edgy, brevity-of-line of the original work in rich computer-graphics than the rather less-inspiring Saturday-morning tv look that this most often approximates (cgi animation doesn’t have to look 3D at all, but even then a look approximating that of Lucasfilm Animation’s Clone Wars series might have been preferable). I don’t care for any of the DC Animation films that have been done, to be honest, and this film betrays its origins (why the small head/huge shoulders ‘look’ that runs through al the character designs?) . Of course, all these creative decisions are all dictated by the budget so obviously inevitable. Within its limitations its not a bad job at all.

tdkr3But if TDKR succeeds at anything, it is simply that it demonstrates, post-Christopher Nolan,  there is still a need for a ‘proper’ TDKR someday in the future, when all the current/recent Batman cinematic treatments eventually wind down. Likely we’ll never get it, and this animated version will be the nearest thing we see. Sadly however, I have to say that when I need to get my Dark Knight Returns ‘fix’ again one day (I re-read the graphic novel every year or so) I’ll most likely return to the book rather than this movie.