Thursday, 24 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice

(M) ★★

Director: Zack Snyder.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot.

"No, my mother is Martha!"
IT’S the year of the superhero showdown.

Magneto and Professor X will be at it again in X-Men: Apocalypse in May, Captain America and Iron Man throw down in Civil War in April, and right now we have the Caped Crusader duking it out with Kal-El of Krypton in Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

The latter is DC Comics’ attempt to build their own universe much like rival superhero stable Marvel has done with great success over the past decade. Following on from Superman reboot Man Of Steel, this is DC’s pre-Justice League warm-up, introducing a new (but old) Batman and giving audiences the about-bloody-time debut of Wonder Woman.

While the sound of a billion dollars flowing into their coffers will ease the pain, this is not the universally acclaimed appetite whetter DC was hoping for. It’s an out-and-out mess for much of its running time and only really hits its stride in the final act when the titular biffo begins.

Up until then, we’re saddled with a confusing and scattershot plot. Batman (Affleck) is on the hunt for a possible terrorist threat, all the while eyeing off Superman (Cavill), who Batman sees as a threat to humanity. The Dark Knight is not alone – Superman is the subject of much debate and political discussion as America tries to figure out if this seemingly omnipotent alien is going to be a happy god or a vengeful god.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) is trying to figure how to make this whole superhero thing work to his advantage, Lois Lane (Adams) is hunting terrorists in Africa, and Wonder Woman (Gadot) is attending functions and being mysterious.

Batman v Superman does a few really good things, the best of which is putting Ben Affleck in the Batsuit. Using an older, more cynical Dark Knight is one of the better ideas in the film, as it sets their Son of Gotham apart from the many that have come before, but it’s Affleck who really makes it work. He has the physicality, the suaveness, and the gravitas needed for the Batman/Bruce Wayne duality, and he absolutely nails it.

Equally good is Irons’ Alfred, who’s just as world-weary as his master and complicit in his vigilantism, despite his own protestations. It’s a relationship that feels lengthy and lived-in from the moment they pop up on screen together.

Cavill is also good – despite Man Of Steel being a disappointment, at least he was an ideal Superman. The same can be said for Adams as Lois Lane. Slightly less convincing is Gadot as Wonder Woman, although she’s given so little to do that’s it’s difficult to tell and probably too early to judge. Her place in this movie feels tacked on – it would be easy to edit her out of this film without losing any important plot details.

The award for biggest piece of miscasting goes to Jesse Eisenberg, whose Lex Luthor misses the mark by a mile. He never comes off as dangerously intelligent or a serious threat – instead he is a mess of tics and nerdiness that’s probably supposed to be a mix of Heath Ledger’s Joker and Eisenberg’s own Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network. Unfortunately his performance is a big ball of crazy, but it’s never scary-crazy or entertaining-crazy or funny-crazy or even interesting-crazy – just bad-crazy. His turn is like watching an actor try to chew the scenery only to have his dentures fall out at the crucial moments, except you don’t laugh – you just feel bad for him.

Eisenberg is not the film’s biggest problem though. That lies in either the script or the edit, or most likely both. The cleverest thing the movie does is take the biggest criticism of Man Of Steel – it’s mindless third-act carnage – and turn it into a jumping-off point for the better plot strands of Batman v Superman. It’s the reason why Batman and parts of American society don’t trust Superman or see him as a potentially apocalyptic liability. But this thread gets lost amid the adventures of Lois Lane, the shoehorning of Wonder Woman, the sprawling and nonsensical machinations of Lex Luthor, and a handful of bizarre dream sequences that add nothing (except for an idiotic and pointless Flash cameo). Two or possibly three movies have been squished into one, and it’s not a comfortable fit.

As is typical of Snyder, the film often goes for “looks awesome” over “makes sense”. Case in point is a dream sequence in which Batman fights a bunch of gunmen in a desert – it features the longest and most elaborate take in the entire movie but contributes nothing to the plot. Ditto for the “Dawn Of Justice” add-on, which consists of a handful of cameos that unnecessarily slow the film down just when it’s getting good.

It’s not a total waste of time. The dark tone sits well and is a nice counterpoint to the jokey reality of the Marvel cinematic universe, the Affleck-Irons double team is great, the ending is bold, and the title fight is pretty good.

The problem is the film struggles to find its focus for close to two hours. It’s only when its heroes begin punching each other in the face that it figures out what it’s supposed to be doing, and starts doing it well, which will be too little, too late for some.

Thursday, 17 March 2016


(PG) ★★★★½

Director: Byron Howard & Rich Moore.

Cast: (voices of) Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Nate Torrence, Octavia Spencer, Jenny Slate, Shakira.

"He's behind me, isn't he?"
THERE are moments in Disney’s latest animated classic-in-waiting where you have to remind yourself you’re watching a kids movie.

It’s as if the directors and the seven people credited with the story decided to see how many “grown-up” ideas they could throw at the script before people would notice.

That seems the most reasonable explanation for this wonderfully smart piece of computer animation, which is basically a police procedural about racism and prejudice peppered with references to The Godfather and Breaking Bad.

To put it in a more child-friendly way, it’s also the tale of a rabbit and a fox who team up to find some missing animals while learning lessons about being true to yourself and good to others, filtered through a Looney Tunes lens and references to Frozen (and there’s a decent Let It Go-style uplifting number called Try Everything to boot).

This multi-layered delivery makes it excellent entertainment for all ages – in fact, the only criticism is the film seems to pander more to the adults than the young’uns at times.

Goodwin voices Judy Hopps, a country-born rabbit following her dream of being the first of her species to become a police officer in the big city of Zootopia – an animal-built city where predator and prey live together in something close to harmony.

Hopps crosses paths with con-fox Nick Wilde (a perfectly cast Bateman), who may be the key to finding a missing otter and helping Hopps keep her badge.

The Disney team has created a compelling world that begs for sequels – the credits roll leaving you wanting to spend more time in Zootopia and its rural surrounds because it feels like a functioning place and not just an excuse for a barrage of animal gags (although I can’t help but wonder what the carnivores eat if it’s not their herbivorous neighbours).

Within this world, Judy and Nick are fascinating guides – the courageous yet naive rabbit and the cunning but cynical fox make for a great odd couple pairing that deserve more than one movie, mostly because they are well-rounded and nicely developed characters.

But will the kids like it? There are long stretches that feel better suited to the older audience, not because of “adult themes” but because how many kids watch detective dramas? You could hear the younger children squirming in the audience, waiting for the next big action scene or joke involving a sloth.

There are a couple of good scares in here too, and coupled with the sleuthy plot and its anti-prejudice undertones, it’s enough to keep the very young ones away. But the reality is this is a kids movie that will grow with the kids – they will find more to appreciate and understand with every viewing, which is the sign of a truly great family film.

Zootopia is a surprisingly sharp examination of racial profiling, prejudice, equality and stereotyping, and how often can you say that about a kids movie? It’s also the latest in a strong run of animated movies from Disney, who churned out a lot of average fare in the ‘00s but have delivered a quality streak (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and now this) since the turn of the decade.

Adults and children alike should walk away impressed by this fun yet thoughtful adventure.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

(M) ★★★½

Director: Dan Trachtenberg.

Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

"What do you mean 'tabletop gaming'? It's a goddamn boardgame!"
WHAT is this film?

Is it a sequel to the awesome 2008 found footage monster movie Cloverfield or not?

The answer is definitely maybe. Cloverfield’s writer Drew Goddard, director Matt Reeves, and producer JJ Abrams all serve as either producers or executive producers, and the film theoretically could be taking place in the same filmic universe. Abrams has also called 10 Cloverfield Lane a “blood relative” of Cloverfield.

However he has also described the new movie as merely a “spiritual successor”, while some of the makers have said there are connections to Cloverfield, but that the movie exists in a different filmic universe.

So, as previously stated, it’s definitely maybe a sequel. Or not.

But what is this film?

The trailers gave away little so we’ll keep this as spoiler-free as possible. The basic premise is that three people (played by Winstead, Goodman, and Gallagher Jr) are living in a well fitted-out bomb shelter. The hows and whys of them being there are the film’s raison d'ĂȘtre, as are the many further questions that come from the answers to those hows and whys.

Winstead is in every scene and does a great job. She’s our audience surrogate, but so much more – her character is plucky, brave and resourceful in between bouts of terror and the weird calms that come before the movie’s dramatic storms. Winstead handles all those highs and lows with aplomb.

Equally impressive is Goodman as Howard, the glue that holds the sheltered trio together. His turn is central to the film’s quirks and intricacies, and it’s one of his best performances outside a Coen Brothers movie.

It’s difficult to describe this film without giving anything away, but it runs the gamut of styles. It opens like an indie romance, swerves into Saw territory, settles into light comedy, adds large helpings of horror and sci-fi, and wraps the entire thing up in mystery. For the most part, this mixture works.

Its confined setting and story ramps up the claustrophobia and makes for an intriguing take on its subject matter that somehow suits this mish-mash of vibes. It unfolds in a solid way, letting the pacing ebb and flow, although it does leave many of its questions unanswered, which is largely a positive.

Unfortunately some twists feel like a stretch, keeping the film from being great instead of just good. However the biggest let-down is the whole Cloverfield connection. It’s unnecessary and potentially deliberately misleading – the fact the film started life as an unrelated script called The Cellar makes the whole Cloverfield thing a touch disingenuous.

But this compact little shocker is certainly fascinating and worth checking out, monster movie connections or no.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Big Short

(M) ★★★★

Director: Adam McKay.

Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Brad Pitt.

"Why is your hair so weird?"
"Why is your hair so weird?"
THE Global Financial Crisis was a mess – a catastrophic economic meltdown that left millions homeless and jobless across the US and rippled across the world sending entire nations to the wall.

Fittingly, the movie about how that all came to pass is also a mess, albeit a vivid, fast-paced and enjoyable one.

The Big Short is based on Michael Lewis’ novel detailing some of the people who profited from the US housing market bubble bursting (and triggering the GFC) by basically betting that such a thing would happen.

These were the clever cookies who could see the market was built on bad mortgages and fraudulent foundations and destined to collapse, despite everyone in Wall Street working on the assumption the market was too big to fail.

On paper, the story has limited appeal, as most people’s eyes tend to glaze over when they hear terms such as “subprime loans”, “credit default swaps”, and “collateralised debt obligations” – terms The Big Short is teeming with.

But director/co-writer McKay is all too aware of this and makes every effort to jazz up the subject matter wherever possible. Hence we have Margot Robbie in a bathtub drinking champagne as she explains subprime loans to camera, or Selena Gomez at a blackjack table demonstrating how synthetic CDOs work.

McKay throws everything at the screen – hence the mess analogy. The fourth wall is broken repeatedly, while stock footage-style montages pop-up in between quotes from Mark Twain and Haruki Murakami, onscreen diagrams, abrupt edits and a blend of documentary and filmic shooting techniques.

It could come off as desperation or style over substance, but Gosling’s narrator willingly tells us early on that this is boring subject matter that needs to be dressed up. The film runs with the gag, lightening the tone and making its dry topic palatable, no doubt leading to its Oscar win for best adapted screenplay. In some ways, The Big Short is like a flashier version of another Lewis adaptation Moneyball, which made another dull matter – baseball statistics – surprisingly interesting.

The script is accentuated by a couple of key players. Bale is great as real-life neurologist-turned-hedge fund manager Michael Burry, making the character’s eccentricities seem normal and resisting the urge to go full Rain Man.

But even better is Carell, who manages to make the unlikeable Mark Baum (based on real life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman) something close to likeable. It’s another well-rounded dramatic turn from Carell to go with his roles in Foxcatcher and Little Miss Sunshine.

There are good laughs to be had, mostly coming from Baum and his team of financial pessimists, and an oddly emotional moment that stands out because it’s the only one of its kind in the film.

This is the part of The Big Short that is somewhat lacking. While Carell’s Baum gives the film a surprising heart towards the end, it’s a bit “too little, too late”. It’s narrow focus also misses the wider ramifications of the GFC, although there is a nice moment when Brad Pitt’s character points out what has to happen to millions of lives for the main players to make their billions of dollars betting against the banks. A bit more heart might have gone a long way in this very cynical tale.

And, as mentioned, the film is a stylistic mess. As such, sometimes it goes too far, other times it doesn’t go far enough. Thankfully, for the most part it works, but it rides a tightrope a lot of the time.

If nothing else, this film now means McKay AKA the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers has an Oscar to his name. No one saw that coming.