The Dark Knight Rises

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ever since Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was announced as the next iteration of the Caped Crusader, movie buffs and fan boys alike have been waiting with baited breath to behold this epic clash of titans in Batman v. Superman. Most fans have maligned Affleck’s selection, but I reserved judgment. Affleck’s career experienced a brief downturn during the J-Lo era, but I thought he rebounded nicely as early as 2006 with Hollywoodland. I like Ben Affleck and if anyone tells you he’s what’s wrong with this film – they are mistaken.

I looked forward to this, cautiously optimistic about what director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) would do with the franchise after taking the helm over from Christopher and Jon Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises). Batman v. Superman begins with the familiar exposition of the murder of Bruce’s parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne. We then move forward to the recent past, and the inception of Batman and Superman’s mutual disdain. When one of Superman’s epic battles leaves an avalanche of destruction in its wake, including the decimation of one of Wayne Enterprises’ properties, Bruce is furious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent (Henry Cavill, The Man From UNCLE) is none too fond of Batman, bristling at the cavalier vigilante who has won Gotham’s heart by taking the law into his own hands. To be clear, Batman doesn’t trust an alien with god-like abilities; conversely Superman thinks the billionaire is reckless and should be contained.

The stage is set for battle, after a young Lex Luthor (played by a terribly miscast Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) pits the two against one another. Luthor and LexCorp have weaponized kryptonite, in the event that Superman ever needs to be neutralized. After Congress denies his request for government approval, he moves forward with another plan, hoping that the two heroes will take each other out. The plot was a little thin, and I was never emotionally invested in any outcome for either hero. When Batman and Superman finally square off, it is laughably apparent just how overmatched Batman (a mere mortal) is when facing a real superhero with powers beyond a utility belt. Only with the tried and true trick of kryptonite can he keep pace with Superman. Affleck clearly bulked up for the part, which makes sense – but why was he a slow, lumbering oaf with little agility and quickness? It looked as if even the likes of Daredevil could handily dispatch Batman.

I thought the movie was just ok. It wasn’t as horrible as the blogosphere is making it out to be, but it was rather underwhelming, plagued by poor casting and an underdeveloped, nonsensical plot. Eisenberg was miscast as Luthor. Instead of a criminal mastermind, Lex Luthor seemed like a bratty, petulant teen – hardly a worthy foe to a much more mature Batman or Superman. Batman seemed slow, and the fight sequence wasn’t as jaw dropping as I expected. One scene involves Superman 1) retrieving some kryptonite and 2) using it to kill something; how is this even possible?! There were some cool, entertaining moments, but they were few and far between. Moreover, I don’t really like the way Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Triple 9) was incorporated. The character wasn’t properly integrated in the storyline. Perhaps she was supposed to be mysterious, but I never felt like I understood her motivations or history.

Lastly, I just can’t get the Nolan’s interpretation of Batman out of my head. It was just a superior trilogy, and I don’t particularly care for what Snyder has done thus far. I’m still curious to see what Ben Affleck can do in the role, whenever he gets a solo Batman film. I thought he looked the part, but I would like to see more in the future. Superman is just a boring character to me, and Henry Cavill didn’t do much to change that opinion. Superman has all the power and none of the personality, easily distracted like a simp when Lois Lane (Amy Adams, American Hustle) is in danger. Corny! The cinematic edge still goes to Marvel, and all this movie did was make me anticipate Captain America: Civil War even more. Grade: C


Science Fiction is hit or miss for me. I enjoy the imagery and special effects associated with the genre, but if the plot is mired in the technicalities or minutiae of science, it tends to go over my head. When it came to Interstellar, it was director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) that got my attention. I’m a big fan of his work, so the mere attachment of his name to a project is enough for me to consider checking it out. Moreover, star Matthew McCounaghey (Dallas Buyers Club) made quite the case for the film while making the rounds on its press junket.

The film opens in an unspecified future time, when the world has been ravaged by famine. The entire globe is struggling for resources, and in America corn is the only remaining crop after what appears to be a devastating drought. McCounaghey stars as Cooper, a former pilot and father to a teenaged boy and adolescent daughter. They live in America’s heartland, where an omnipresent layer of thick dust serves as a reminder of lost vegetation. Cooper is a loving, doting father and he staunchly defends his children, particularly his daughter Murphy. “Murph,” as she is affectionately known, has a fiercely independent spirit and idolizes her father. She is curious, and believes their home is being visited by a supernatural force with which she communicates via Morse code. Their future is uncertain, but Cooper has carved out a life for his family, including his late wife’s father Donald (John Lithgow, This Is 40).

One day after communicating with the apparition, Murphy reveals a “message” from the otherworldly visitor. The message leads them to a hidden NASA location, where they are made privy to a master plan for the population’s survival. A scientist named Brand (Michael Caine, Now You See Me) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables) explain the options to Cooper, whose expertise as a former pilot proves valuable to the scientists and astronauts. Cooper determines that he will execute their mission, traveling to the outer reaches of space in hopes of finding a planet that can sustain human life after Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Well folks, we’ve just about reached the limits of my comprehension, because I couldn’t recount the finer points of the plot if you paid me. I had a very basic understanding, but for me the film’s strength lay in its emotional portrayal of a father who is faced with an unbelievable moral dilemma. Cooper’s decision to travel in space has mammoth repercussions, not the least of which is the temporary abandonment of his family for the greater good of humanity. He has every intention of returning, but the mission is risky and time elapses quite differently in space than it does on Earth.

McCounaghey proves once again that he has the emotional depth to convey the most vulnerable aspects of the human condition. Cooper was courageous, yet frightened, self-interested, but capable of immense sacrifice. My only negative observation of his body of work is that he has yet to ditch his omnipresent Southern twang, though it was not out of place here. He has turned his career around, and there are no discernible signs of regression. Although this was ostensibly a big budget movie, he still chose a vehicle that allowed him to sink his teeth into the emotional elements of his character. Hathaway was also effective, and she too was successful at evoking empathy in the viewer. Finally, Jessica Chastain’s (Mama) performance was worth mentioning. She portrayed Murphy as an adult, and the casting was superb. Although it wavered momentarily, the bond that she shared with her father held the film together, especially when I felt bogged down by the science.

This is another movie that may not be for everyone. The film’s first act focuses on Cooper’s family, and the middle act markedly shifts to another realm. At just under three hours, I had to make an effort to focus on what was happening, particularly when the more nebulous aspects of the storyline emerged. Fortunately, the movie’s emotionality and the talented cast kept me invested. Grade: B+

Dawn of The Planet of the Apes

By the time we arrive at the third installment of a trilogy, I usually think the whole concept has “jumped the shark.” I found 2001’s reboot of Planet of the Apes supremely underwhelming, failing to live up to the intriguing, subtle social commentary of the Charlton Heston (The Order) original. I don’t think it was a hit with audiences either, and maybe that’s why it was ten years before someone thought to make a sequel, giving us 2011’s effective installment featuring James Franco (This Is the End). The trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes promised a shift in storytelling, and since the second edition was entertaining, I was fairly optimistic.

Dawn opens in a post apocalyptic future, where a simian flu has ravaged the planet. Juxtaposed with this doomsday scenario is a bleak forecast whereby apes have evolved higher than what could’ve been imagined – thanks to man’s insatiable need to take technology past its moral end. Years of primate experiments have created a highly intelligent species of ape. The dwindling human population coupled with the rise of the apes has shifted the balance of power between species, with humans trying to restore the power grid after most of the world has been wiped out. A sizable community of apes have established themselves in the outskirts of San Francisco, living perhaps as early humans once did.

Their establishment of a moral code evinces their keen intelligence, serving as a fascinating sociological exercise in evolution and development. We met Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) in the last Apes movie, and he is featured again in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as the unquestionable leader of his tribe. He is everything one would desire in a leader, human or otherwise. He is patient, slow to anger, and governed by a sense of right and wrong. When a small band of human survivors surprisingly confronts the apes, Caesar reacts with prudence rather than fear. This puts him at odds with the other apes, namely best friend and secret nemesis Koba (Tony Kebbell, The Counselor), an ape that lacks Caesar’s favorable impression of mankind.

Circumstances dictate that humans and apes collide when it becomes clear that man needs the resources of Caesar’s territory to ensure its survival. Thus the stage is set for a standoff of Darwinian proportions. Malcolm (Jason Clarke, White House Down) compassionately leads the human explorers, but he answers to Dreyfus (Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight Rises) who is much more skeptical about the possibility of striking a peaceful understanding with the apes. With a nod to the jingoism and xenophobia of the current climate, the film depicts the fear we as humans (read: Americans) harbor toward those that are different from us.

While the movie was somewhat predictable in its story arc, I appreciated the parallel between Caesar and Shakespeare’s Caesar, as well as the humanization of these computer-generated characters. There was obviously a conscious shift in storytelling to feature the perspective of the apes more centrally, foregoing the human outlook and aligning the viewer with Caesar from the outset. Who can deny man’s incessant need to assert his dominance over others? History alone has taught us this. I found Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be vastly entertaining, and in a sea of heretofore summer mediocrity, it stands out as worthwhile summertime fare – at least for now. Grade: B+

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.


American Hustle

For me there’s nothing like that familiar buzz of excitement I feel when I’m anticipating a new movie.  I eagerly awaited American Hustle because crime dramas are among my favorites, and I looked forward to the reunion of Oscar nominee David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) and charismatic lead actors Bradley Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).  Amy Adams (Man of Steel), Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), and Jeremy Renner (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) rounded out the talented cast, making for a promising lineup.  Awards season is upon us, and you’ll hear lofty praise for American Hustle in the coming weeks and months.  While it’s not the instant classic I thought it might be, I found its performances to be nearly flawless – and it’s one of the better movies I’ve seen this year.

The film takes place in 1978, and much like my fascination with Argo I have a personal interest in a depiction of the time period around which I was born.  The film centers on the relationship between three people: a con-artist couple and the federal agent with whom they cut a deal to avoid jail time.  Irving and Sydney (Bale and Adams) have a passionate, tumultuous relationship based on a shared, volatile chemistry essential to their grifter lifestyle.  There is genuine affection between the two, but the dynamic of their relationship is inherently complicated.  Irving is mired in a loveless marriage to Rosalyn (Lawrence), an immature, impetuous woman from whom he cannot extricate himself.  Despite their apparent unhappiness, they have a lasting connection that isn’t easily broken.

Irving’s loyalty to Rosalyn and her young son preclude him from making a clean break in favor of Sydney, and this drives a wedge between the pair despite their uncanny success at separating fools from their money.  After being caught mid-hustle by FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), Sydney and Irving are given little choice other than to cooperate with authorities by bringing in some proverbial bigger fish.  Richie is ambitious and wants to make a big splash with a significant bust; he’ll do anything to break up a major criminal enterprise.   His “cowboy” attitude jeopardizes Irving and Sydney, as they’re the ones who must do the double-crossing of any prospective mark.  As their relationship woes increase, Sydney grows less enamored with Irving and more willing to exact a measure of revenge with Richie, who is all-too compliant.  Whose side is she on, and are two well-oiled hustlers really ready to drop a dime?

David O. Russell delivers once again, always able to elicit the best performances from Cooper and Lawrence.  Cooper is starting to bring a characteristic realism to his roles, and there was a manic, visceral quality about his performance.  Bale turned in another transformative performance as the well-intentioned Irving.  His character could have easily been a sleazebag, but Bale made him a sympathetic figure for which viewers could feel compassion.  Lawrence made her supporting role a layered and textured one, conveying subtle depth beyond first blush.  Russell’s storytelling was superb, and I appreciated the briefly non-linear way he began the film.  The performances were buttressed by authentic cinematography and costuming, which masterfully captured the era.  The movie seemed to get a little stodgy about halfway through, but I thought it rebounded well in its final act.  Definitely worth checking out.  Grade: B+

Don Jon

Sex comedy.  Like, is that a real thing, a legit genre?  If not, I just made it up – because that’s the best way to describe Don Jon, an entertaining movie that was all at once a farce, satire, romantic comedy, and character study.

I recently found myself zealously defending J. Gordon Levitt (Looper) on Twitter to someone who saw him presenting an award at the MTV VMAs and quipped, isn’t that the guy from Third Rock From the Sun, has he done anything since then?  I replied with Inception, The Dark Knight Rises? Hello?  Levitt is quite the gifted, young actor in my estimation.  He brings a quiet, emotive sensitivity to his roles, and that vulnerability makes his characters more human and relatable.  That sensitivity resonated in movies like 50/50 and 500 Days of Summer, which featured emotionally compelling lead characters.  Well, Don Jon is a departure from those emo, heartwarming flicks for sure – though the ending may surprise you.

Don Jon marks Levitt’s debut as a writer/director, and I think viewers will find his style humorously authentic.  Levitt stars as Jon, a young man who looks like he could’ve been on Jersey Shore.  To my point, the movie is set in New Jersey and Jon is young, Italian, obsessed with his physique and always DTF (down to uh…let’s just say ‘fornicate’).  At first blush Jon is a walking cliché: a young man obsessed with his sexual conquests and women in general.  He and his friends go out prowling, and more often than not Jon is successful, at least in terms of “scoring.”  By any other metric, Jon is lacking, though he is oblivious to his emotional ineptitude.

You see, Jon’s sexual identity and habits are largely shaped by the world of digital porn.  His affinity for porn borders on compulsion.  He’s like a walking boner –  finding visual stimulation in the most innocuous of places, including the check out aisle of the grocery store.  However, lest you think Jon lacks even a modicum of substance – his lifestyle departs from vapidity when we glimpse his love of church and family, which is hilariously juxtaposed with his sexual exploits.

Sometimes it takes a particular experience or person to help us achieve self-actualization in certain aspects of our lives.  For Jon, meeting Barbara (Scarlett Johansson, Hitchcock) inadvertently changes his world.  To say that Barbara is alluring would be an understatement, and her physical appearance draws him in immediately.  Johansson and Levitt had magnetic chemistry, more than any pair I’ve witnessed recently.  Initially Jon is content to bask in Barbara’s sheer hotness, but most relationships that begin with such aesthetic adulation end in disappointment, and Jon begins to question his perceptions about dating and intimacy.  I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, but Julianne Moore (Crazy, Stupid, Love) is featured in a supporting role and perfectly adds to Jon’s character development, contrasting completely with Johansson’s more overt appeal.

I enjoyed Don Jon, because I thought it had a little more substance than people may give it credit for.  Sure, it’s funny and a little raunchy.  But it was also thoughtful, reflecting a depth of character that wasn’t readily apparent.  J. Gordon Levitt has given us a peek at his wheelhouse, and I want to see more.  This movie would make for a great date night, and unlike the typical rom-com: you won’t have to drag your man kicking and screaming.  Grade: B+

Man of Steel

As other superhero franchises have recently established themselves as powerhouses (Batman, Iron Man), the venerable Superman franchise seemed like an afterthought.  Brandon Routh is somewhere salty as hell.  You’re probably like, who the hell is that?  Exactly.  Routh wore those famous blue tights only once in 2006’s Superman Returns, and now he’s a distant memory.  It seemed like Superman was lost in the iconic days of Christopher Reeve…until now.

Once Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises) was attached to the project, I think people were amenable to giving it a chance.  Just conjuring images of The Dark Knight franchise gets me excited, and Nolan brought instant credibility to the film.  The addition of director Zac Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) also ensured a fresh departure from the last Superman attempt.  The movie begins on Krypton, with a frantic Lara and Jor-El (Russell Crowe, Broken City) facing the destruction of their planet.  General Zod (Michael Shannon, Mud) has attempted an unsuccessful coup and been subsequently banished to an intergalactic prison.  Krypton and its inhabitants will become extinct as the planet comes to a tumultuous, destructive end.  Anticipating such an apocalypse, Jor-El and Lara planned to send their newborn Kal-El to another planet where he will thrive and ensure the survival of his race.

As the familiar story goes, Kal is given the name Clark and raised by the Kents – the couple who discovered him (and the vessel that brought him) on their farm.  However, after leaving Krypton the movie shifts to Clark’s adult life, as he grapples with finding his place on Earth, given his otherworldly abilities.  Nolan’s influence was apparent, as he offered a non-linear approach to Clark’s story.  Instead of following his upbringing chronologically, the movie flashes back to key events in Clark’s childhood that shaped his current existence.  We’re introduced to him as an adult, a nomadic laborer of sorts who lives in relative obscurity.  Clark consistently struggled with the two distinct messages given to him by both fathers.  Jor-El believed that he was special and could be a symbol of hope to many people.  Conversely Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner, The Company Men) cautioned his son that people will fear what they don’t understand, and that mankind would reject him.

When General Zod is released from his interstellar prison, he locates Kal on Earth and pursues him there, spelling dire consequences for humanity.  This new development is what forces Clark into action, causing him to confront his obligation, if he even has one.  I’ve purposefully omitted a lot of plot details, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, plus I think they are inconsequential to my discussion of the film.  There was an earnest quality to the film, though not quite as dark as the Batman movies for which Nolan is known.  This subtle restraint in storytelling made the interpretation unique, and I can say that Man of Steel was not like The Dark Knight or any of the Iron Man movies.  Whereas Batman seems affected by external forces, Superman’s struggle is largely an internal one – at least in this first edition of the reboot.  The structure of the movie was flawless, and the viewer feels as if he or she really understands Clark’s conflicting duality – revelation vs. obscurity.  Couple that with a lifelong feeling of being the only one of your kind, and it’s easy to see why Clark felt confused and alone.

In addition to the storyline and character development, I thought the casting was also effective.  Henry Cavill (Immortals) is perfect as the new Superman.  He looks the part and he is believable.  Those are big tights to fill, and I’m sure the role is his for a while to come, especially since Man of Steel 2 has already been announced.  The casting of Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve) as a more intrepid Lois Lane was also successful.  Russell Crowe is incomparable; you already know this.  What more can I say?  The movie was nearly flawless.  In fact, the only criticism I have is minor and probably misplaced.  I’m no expert, but I had a small quibble with the editing.  I thought a few scene transitions were not seamless – but again, what do I know?  The special effects were incredible, and no self-respecting movie buff would go more than a week or two without seeing this movie.  What are you waiting for? Grade: A


Olympus Has Fallen

It’s been a while since we’ve had a “straight up” action movie.  I don’t mean a superhero joint with good special effects.  I’m talking about a movie where a disastrous situation occurs and there’s only “one man for the job.”  In his latest effort, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest) harkens back to the 80s, a decade proliferated with Schwarzenegger/Stallone/Willis movies featuring a one man wrecking crew.

Fuqua pulls together several notable names in Olympus Has Fallen, an action-packed movie about a secret service agent who tries to save the White House (code name Olympus) after it is besieged by North Korean terrorists.  Gerard Butler (Playing For Keeps) stars as Mike Banning, an accomplished Secret Service agent who was recently reassigned from a prestigious position on the President’s detail to a much less exciting position at the Treasury Department.  The President is ably portrayed by Aaron Eckhart (The Rum Diary), even though there is no way he looks like a president.  In real life, a President has never appeared so young, fit, and handsome – no offense to JFK or President Obama.  Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight Rises) and Angela Bassett (This Means War) round out the cast as the Speaker of the House and Secret Service Director, respectively.

The movie begins with a flashback to the incident that led to Banning’s reassignment.  I’ve always thought it was extremely important to begin and finish a movie on a strong note.  I think audiences are more tolerant of a lull in the middle of a movie if they feel invested up to that point.  Don’t let Butler’s recent romantic comedy leanings fool you.  Remember that he was King Leonidas in 300, and playing the tough guy hero is totally in his wheelhouse.  The actual White House takeover scene was breathtaking to watch, for a number of reasons.  Even if you’re not the patriotic type, there is something unnerving about seeing the White House obliterated.  I’m not xenophobic, but when I saw those North Koreans make Swiss cheese out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, my blood began to boil.  Go America!

The concept of the White House being taken over is a little far-fetched, but if it could ever conceivably happen I think Fuqua did a good job of showing us how it would transpire.  That being said, I don’t think the CIA is too concerned with anyone getting ideas after seeing this movie.  I’m not sure if the weapons technology depicted really exits, but the special effects were amazing.  Excessive killing in movies can be gratuitous, but here it was essential to the plot.  Freeman and Bassett didn’t break any new ground with their roles, but they served their purpose. As long as Butler was convincing as Banning, the movie worked.  Just as John McLane’s sole objective was to reclaim the Nakatomi Building, Mike Banning will stop at nothing to reclaim The White House.  If you like action, this throwback movie won’t disappoint.  Grade: B+