Posts Tagged ‘Batman’

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After the aggressively awful Batman v Superman and the frustratingly mediocre Man of Steel, it is no exaggeration to say that the DC cinematic universe is in *desperate* need of a hit.

The traditional marque superheroes have failed, and so the executives at Warner Brothers, like the D.C. bureaucrats in Suicide Squad, have placed their remaining hope for salvation in a ragtag group of quirky villains.

It’s a novel plan, full of cinematic possibilities. But while Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and their criminal pals are able to save the day in fiction, in real life their efforts fall with a resounding thud.

Suicide Squad starts with a pseudo spoiler for those of you who didn’t see but still might care about the plot of BvS. Superman is Dead (don’t worry, he won’t be for long), but the potential threat of otherworldly and/or superhuman threats against mankind remains. So the U.S. Government, at the behest of Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, greenlights a project called Task Force X, a team of beyond-maximum-security convicted criminals compelled to fight for good in exchange for 1) having time cut from their sentences and 2) not having their heads blown off by small explosives injected into their spine.

That team is introduced in a clunky and overly-long sequence of flashbacks that comprises Squad’s first act. We see the capture of sniper-for-hire Deadshot and psychiatrist-turned-cuckoo-bird Harley Quinn by Batman, the creation of The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) courtesy of a spelunking trip gone awry and a cameo Flash (Ezra Miller, borrowed from the upcoming Justice League film) who zips in to apprehend Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) a baddie who likes boomerangs.

Oh and there’s a crocodile man, an unrecognizable Jay Hernandez shooting fire from his hands and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is the lone “good” guy on the team and mostly gives googly eyes at Delevingne between scowling sessions.

If you’ve seen the trailers, which are far better than the full film, then you know and have seen all this. But once those machinations are out of the way, Suicide Squad finds itself all dressed up with nowhere to go. Luckily writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) isn’t beyond dumping a metric ton of plot contrivances to move things along. No sooner has the squad been formed before the Enchantress goes rogue, resurrecting her discount-Sauron brother, launching some sort of doomsday machine and creating an army of generic, blob-soldiers to provide bloodless, PG-13 approved fodder for Deadshot’s bullets, Quinn’s baseball bat and Boomerang’s boomerangs.

Many superhero films struggle in the villain department — think Malekith from Thor 2 or Doomsday from the aforementioned garbage pit that was BvS — but the Enchantress is given particularly little to work with. Beyond the blob army, which have all the menace of a walking pile of mud, her villainy is largely confined to waving her arms in front of a wall of green screen phantasmagoria that is wreaking havoc around the world, largely offscreen.

But this movie is still 2+ hours long, which means that once assembled, our plucky antiheroes have a good 90 minutes to wander around a decimated city, occasionally punching things and making futile attempts at edgy humor while the incoherent plot barrels through superfluous beats and a veritable slew of flashbacks that do little more than set the stage for movies still to come. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, Suicide Squad is more occupied with the ghosts of other stories than the immediate tasks at hand.

But isn’t the Joker in this? Not really. Jared Leto, as promised, delivers an original take on the clown prince of Gotham but his sub-plot is entirely peripheral. The clown has, maybe, 30 seconds of screen time not shown in the promotional materials, which is spent trying to reconnect with his lady-love Quinn.

For her part, Robbie is the only main character who got the memo to have a little fun. She’s a rare spot of energy in the dour proceedings, but is still cobbled by wooden dialogue and an absence of anything resembling character development.

In each minute, you can feel Ayer straining to break free and lean into the madness of Suicide Squad, only to be crushed by the market demands for a “safe” superhero film. Give the movie a better villain, 30 fewer minutes of screen time and a the go-ahead for R Rated content that would actually jive with how wicked these characters are supposed to be and you might have something worth seeing.

Instead, we have yet another DC hodgepodge of competing interests, and a director tasked with handling too many irons in a fire. It entertains in a shallow, innocuous way that avoids the discomfort of the Zach Snyder flagship films, but the worst offense is who completely it squanders what could have been, and was promised to be, something fresh and original.

Grade: C

*Suicide Squad opens nationwide on Friday, August 5.

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It’s no secret that mainstream Hollywood is in a creative rut. The major studios are in a decades-long arms race to put as many (young, white, male) actors into a cape and tights as possible and the idea of something original making a reasonable splash grow smaller every year.

And against that backdrop we have Birdman, a surrealist meta-drama about fame and art that winkingly places a former Batman into the role of an aged former superhero movie star and also happens to be one of the most original, indescribable creations to hit cinemas screens in recent memory.

It’s a five-tool player, a union of impeccable acting, writing, direction and editing built from a bold concept that dares you to put it in a cage.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a film actor who 20 years ago walked away from the wildly successful Birdman franchise only to watch his star steadily fade. In a last ditch effort to relaunch his career as a “serious” actor, he invests the remains of his fortune into a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in which the elder thespian is writer, director and star.

Thomson is a ball of nerves, lashing out at his friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), his assistant and daughter Sam (Emma Stone), his girlfriend and co-star Laura (Oblivion’s Andrea Riseborough), his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and himself via the taunting voice of his former persona, which mocks his professional decay. As opening night approaches and the pressure mounts, Thomson begins to lose his grasp on reality, seeing himself as a literal superhuman capable of feats that are impossible … or are they?

The entire cast is phenomenal, truly, yet it is Edward Norton who walks away with the show. His Mike, a veteran stage actor brought in at the 11th hour, is a manic, egotistical time bomb, effortlessly cool and dangerously unhinged. His interplay with Michael Keaton makes for the films best moments, which I mean as high praise considering that Birdman’s entire running time is a seemingly endless stream of unforgettable imagery.

But the real rabbit in director Alejandro Inarritu’s magic hat is the camerawork, stitched together to form what appears to be a single running take. The trick has evolved since Alfred Hitchcock deployed the same device in Rope but the same seams show if you’re looking close enough. Except you won’t be, because after a few minutes into Birdman you stop looking through the smoke and mirrors and simply let yourself get swept away in the illusion.

Grade: A

*Birdman opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, October 31.

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Gotham (Fox)

For the second year in a row, the most anticipated release of the Fall is an ambitious comic-book based serial. Except where ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of Shield landed with a somewhat muted thud and took months to become interesting, Gotham arrives with what appears to be a fully-realized aesthetic and a world populated with an expansive cast of interesting characters just begging to be explored further.

The Batman show without Batman centers on Ben McKenzie’s Det. Jim Gordon and it’s great to see McKenzie back on a mainstream series after a critically lauded but largely unseen stint on Southland. He’s an optimistic boy scout hoping to remain a decent man in an indecent time, aided/hindered by his morally ambiguous partner Harvey Bulloch (Donal Logue). Logue does a little scenery chewing in the pilot but in the pseudo-noir Gotham it fits, rather than distracts, from the subtly stylized vibe of the show.

Cracks begin to show in the form of Gordon’s seemingly plastic fiance, who looks like she stepped step off the set of Michael Bay’s latest Carl’s Jr. Commercial, and the casting of both a young bruce wayne and his surrogate father Alfred Pennyworth have me thinking that the less time spent at Wayne Manor the better.

No worry though, with Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman and even Poison Ivy waiting in the wings, the show shouldn’t get bored anytime soon.

Grade: A-

Class: Subscribe

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Madam Secretary (CBS)

Madam Secretary, which finds Tea Leoni as an overtly Clintonian Secretary of State is the perfect Exhibit A in a discussion about the failures of broadcast television. You can practically see the money that CBS dumped into this show, from the enormous cast peppered with veteran screen actors to the setting of governmental Washington, D.C.

And yet all you get is a poor-poor man’s House Of Cards, a glaring truth underscored by the presence of several HOC veterans. But where Frank Underwood is a dramatically fascinating character who solves his problems by throwing women in front of train, Leoni’s Secretary McCord is a bureaucrat who saves the day by making phone calls to men who do the dirty work off screen and then gets a makeover. Seriously that’s her Ace in the whole, a new dress and highlights. Compelling stuff. 

With neither the wisdom of West Wing, the comedy of Veep or the intrigue of Cards, Madam Secretary is the political drama with seemingly nothing to say.

Grade: C

Class: Kill and Bury

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Marvel’s Agents of Shield (ABC)

Interesting how now that are heroes are on the run and their organization in crumbles, this show seem to have more room to breathe than ever. No longer confined to their fancy airplane, the team has a secret base, a seemingly endless supply of Patton Oswalt clones (thank you very much) and a slew of new faces.

The show picks up after a brief time jump since the finale, when the Clairvoyant was defeated and the seedy Agent Ward was taken into custody. Skye is now in full-Jedi mode thanks to the training of Agent May and Fitz is back to work, albeit with a few lingering side effects from his near drowning.

Best of all, this season waists no time getting to its new big bad via flashback to the Captain America 1 days with Agent Carter and the Howling Comandoes storming a Hydra operation and taking possession of a deadly obelisk, the original 084. It makes a reappearance, as does our villain, and in the interim the team is tasked with a mission that reintroduces Adrian Pasdar’s Col. Talbot, who will hopefully be a more regular presence on the show and who will hopefully shave that awful mustache.

All in all, the show seems to still be capitalizing on its creative resurgence in the back half of season 1. Hopefully the writers keep the cylinders sliding but there’s always the possibility that longevity will slide the show back into bad habits.

Grade: B

Class: Subscribe (cautiously)

PILOTScorpion (CBS)

I was prepared to absolutely despite Scorpion, which perhaps explains why I was pleasantly surprised. Centered on Elyes Gabel’s Walter O’Brien (how this character has an Irish surname is beyond me), Scorpion is about a rag-tag group of misfit geniuses who are called up by Uncle Sam to help solve crises of national security (watch for the laughably bad “young version” of Robert Patrick’s Cabe Gallo in the opening minutes).

Walter has a complicated history with the U.S. Government, which we learn piecemeal throughout the pilot, but he is compelled to put that aside when the air traffic control software at LAX go haywire threatning  thousands of airplane passengers with a grisly and fiery death. Luckily his team happens to have the necessary expertise — computer programming, statistical calculations, psychoanalysis and mechanical engineering — to save the day, oh and they rope in Katherine McPhee, whose ability is that she’s pretty and has a smart kid or something.

The pilot reaches levels of laughable implausibility, particularly in the climax which sees our heroes driving on a runway beneath an airliner, and the just-in-the-nick-of-time shenanigans are going to get old quick. But the show also has a certain charm that I imagine pairs well with the soft sell thrills of CBS’ NCIS-loving audience. It’s a very adequate show, which sadly puts it ahead of much of the fold on today’s networks.

Grade: B-

Class: Keep an Eye On

800x533Modern Family (ABC)

At this point what can really be said about Modern Family. In its 6th season, the powerhouse sitcom is so firmly comfortable in its ways of expertly polished 22-minute comedy that the viewer can arrive, confident of experiencing a few genuine belly laughs with little surprise, before turning in for the night.

The premiere is a strong episode for the series, particularly the Dunphy storyline which sees Phil, Claire, Luke and Haley enjoying an ebullient summer while the more pessimistic Alex is away on some humanitarian endeavor. Elsewhere, Gloria and Jay play a game of sartorial chicken and Mitch and Cameron spat (once again) over their differing levels of romantic energy.

Nothing particularly daring, but still a great way to spend half and hour.

Grade: B+

Class: Whatever you do with Modern Family, keep doing it.

MARSAI MARTIN, MARCUS SCRIBNER, YARA SHAHIDI, ANTHONY ANDERSON, MILES BROWN, TRACEE ELLIS ROSSBlack-ish (ABC)

Black-ish has been marketed and scheduled as a companion to Modern Family but the show, in tone and subject matter, is truly a modern update on The Cosby Show. Centered by Anthony Anderson, the series revolves around a black family in white suburbia and particularly Anderson’s challenge as patriarch to “Keep It Real.”

It’s a good-looking show, shot in cinematic single-camera with no laugh track and popping with bright colors. But the dialogue is a little stilted and tries to hard to make a point about race in 21st century middle class America.

I think the show would benefit by dialing down the politics and focusing on its characters, but either way its a pleasant addition to the sit-com lineup (albeit one that makes me worried about Lawrence Fishbourne’s continued involvement in the best-show-you’re-not-watching Hannibal).

Grade: B

Class: Keep an Eye On

how_to_get_away_with_murderHow To Get Away With Murder (ABC)

Confession: I’ve never watched a single episode of Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal. My awareness of Shonda Rhimes is limited only to what I hear of her work and the reasonable understanding that I am not part of her target audience.

So my viewing of HTGAWM was my first visit to Shondaland and it was not unpleasant. Viola Davis plays a law professor/defense attorney who runs her classroom like a tournament of champions and who keeps a few skeletons in her closet.

Her students, including Harry Potter’s Alfred Enoch and OITNB’s Matt McGory, are willing to cut throats to succeed, perhaps literally, as the opening scene finds them plotting to bury a dead body? Whose, you ask? Well you’ll find out by the end of the episode but it will only the answer to one of several questions teased out by the pilot.

Grade: B+

Class: Keep an Eye On

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Forever (ABC)

ABC Executive no. 1: “Man, Sherlock Holmes is sure having a good year right now. Too bad we missed the boat on that won.”

Executive no. 2: “Yeah, CBS bagged Elementary. We can’t do another modern New York City-based Holmes story.”

Executive no. 1: “Well what if we named him something else, and had him be a medical examiner in stead of a detective?”

No. 2: “Would he still use deductive reasoning and notice minute details about people?”

No. 1: “Of course.”

No. 2: “Still seems too close.”

ABC Executive no. 3, listening but so far offering nothing: “What if he was immortal?”

No. 1: “Sorry?”

No. 3: “He’s immortal. He’s lived for centuries. Every time he dies he washes up naked in the East River.”

No. 2: “Brilliant. We get a hot actor and it sells itself.”

No. 1: “A hot British actor, way hotter than that Cumberbatch guy. What happened to the stretchy dude from those Fantastic Four movies?”

No. 2: “Ioan Gruffudd? He’s been dark for years. Book it. This is it boys, we’re going to print money.”

Nope

Grade: C+

Class: Who cares

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Christopher Nolan’s third and final installment in his Batman franchise arrived Friday, marred by tragedy and bogged down by seemingly insurmountable expectations. How do you follow the greatest superhero film ever made, one of the best action films ever made, and end one of the greatest trilogies ever made? How, in essence, do you deliver perfection when only perfection will be accepted?

The task is daunting and as the millions of you who, like myself, set aside time opening weekend to see the film already know, Nolan has, for the most part, succeeded.

That’s not to say that TDKR is a better film than TDK, or that it even should be. Empire is greater than Jedi. X2 is greater than X3. Two Towers is greater than ROTK (yes it is). Second films are, typically, the strongest of a trilogy in that they raise the stakes and set the stage for the finale. The challenge, then, with a third film is to provide a satisfying conclusion to the story and also stand alone as an exceptional film. The only comparison that need be made is between the film itself and the entire library of American cinema.

Or, in other words, TDKR is not as good as TDK, but it doesn’t have to be and is still miles and miles ahead of everything else at the cinema.

Rises’ curtain opens on a peaceful, safe Gotham. Eight years have passed since the Joker’s reign of terror and the end of organized crime, thanks to a lie engineered by the caped crusader and Gotham’s police commissioner Jim Gordan. Batman is little more than a memory and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, nursing wounds both physical and emotional in the east wing of his now-completed Wayne Manor.

But trouble is brewing. A mercenary named Bane arrives (in spectacular fashion) in Gotham with a terrorist cell-esque entourage  of religiously devoted henchman and the financial security of Wayne Enterprises is threatened after a shuttered sustainable energy project and the devious meddling of a cat burgler.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that, in part to avoid spoilers and also because you’ve all likely seen it already. Now for the analysis.

As a stand-alone film, Nolan has delivered yet another complex genre-bending film that combines originality, spectacle and emotional depth. Especially rewarding is how Nolan, while making Batman his own, still stays true to the inspiration of the source material. While the word “Catwoman” is never uttered, Selina Kyle nonetheless fulfills the role of the DC-universe frenemy, bouncing her loyalty back and forth and sparring both physically and flirtatiously with our hero.

As Bane, Tom Hardy is terrifying and (thankfully) easier to understand than the original footage made us believe. After seeing the 8-minute prologue before MI:GP last fall, it is obvious that Nolan went back in to clear up some of the dialogue from the mussled beast. Bane is an unstoppable physical force, a calculating mastermind and a ruthless killer, BUT without saying to much, his weaknesses and ultimately the motives behind his crusade hearken back to the original comics in a way that was both surprising and completely rewarding.

The action is superb, the ethos is fascinating and the sheer scope of what Nolan presents is something out of a dream (within a dream).

But it is as a finale to a larger story that Rises truly excels. Seven years after Bruce Wayne mastered his fears in Batman Begins, the theme resurfaces with an entirely new perspective on what motivates us and what role “fear” plays in our survival. A series of flashbacks both remind and inform that narrative of a man motivated first by revenge and then by the desire to become more than just a man. We are treated to old characters and old scenes that prompt both nostalgia and a sense of “oh, I didn’t realize that would be so important later.” (sidenote, keep your eyes peeled for a very small detail. When the camera shows a wide shot of the entire city, you can see where Nolan has digitally inserted the multiple-level elevated train from Batman Begins in Downtown. God is in the details and Nolan is the god of movies.)

And then it ends, in a way that is natural and predictable and yet unexpected, with Nolan hanging up his cape and walking away from the franchise he brought back from the dead.

Rises is not without its faults. The citywide battle that makes up the film’s climax does not fully deliver on the buildup and anticipation. And Bane and Batman’s final joust pales in comparison to the underground scuffle in Act II.

I preferred Gotham when it wasn’t so obviously Manhattan, as Nolan makes no attempt whatsoever at hiding the very real location where this fantasy is occurring. You would also think that a movie that is nearly 3 hours long wouldn’t leave loose ends, but I can think of a handful of questions left unanswered (One for those of you who have seen it. How exactly does a certain someone get back into a certain someplace when no one can get in or out?) and with so many new characters, I can’t help but feel that two old favorites in particular were mostly left out of the fun. Most notably, for a franchise that prides itself in the (relative) realism of its plot, I can’t help but question the city-under-siege scenario that plays out, but since the plot depends on it I’m mostly willing to let it go.

Ultimately, Rises was what I wanted it to be. Yes, I felt the absence of Heath Ledger’s joker and Bane may have been missing a certain je ne sais quoi. But I also felt myself sitting at the edge of my seat, mouth gaping open and eyes wide like a kid in a candy store. I left the theater more than 24 hours ago and I’ve had little luck since then thinking of anything else.

As a lifelong Bat-fan, I felt that my expectations were met and my passion rewarded. As a cinephile, I marveled at Nolan’s mastery. As a writer, I thought the emotional-arcs were genuine and true to the characters. As a guy that likes to watch stuff explode, Rise blew. my. freaking. mind.

Thank you Mr. Nolan. It was magical, as always. B+

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