Sunday, December 25, 2016

Before I Die #592: An Affair to Remember (1957)

This is the 592nd movie I've seen of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Leo McCarey

One of those late-1950s movies that has some excellent elements to it, but is painfully weakened by certain film tropes of the day which have aged horribly.

The story revolves around Nickie Ferrante, played by classic leading man Cary Grant. Ferrante is a world-renowned playboy with a countless number of wealthy, socialite ladies among his many conquests. However, this tale begins with newspaper announcements that the playboy is finally settling down and is officially engaged to a massively wealthy New York City heiress. A monkey wrench is thrown in the works, though, when Ferrante falls in love with a woman he meets on a cruise back to the U.S. from Europe. The woman, Terry McCay (Deborah Kerr), is also engaged. She also does not fall prey to any of Ferrante's charms. This seems to inflame Ferrante's interest and passion all the more. More than that, it actually blossoms into genuine love for Terry. After a visit with Ferrante's wise and loving grandmother in an Italian port, Terry actually sees Ferrante's genuinely lovable core. She falls for him, but the two do not fully act on their new-found mutual love. Instead, they return to their respective fiances in New York. Soon, though, Ferrante breaks off his engagement and promises to meet Terry in six months at the top of the Empire State building, six months being long enough for them both to end their relationships and for Ferrante to actually work for the first time in his life. Things are going as planned, but when a severe accident occurs, their love is put through a very serious test.

The movie has some dashes of the screwball comedy genre - a type of film from the 1930s and 1940s which I mostly dislike. Ferrante is a playboy who has always been immersed in the high society of the women whom he has been bedding, and this fits right in with the screwball comedy genre's preoccupation with the rich and famous. However, this is offset a good deal by Terry McCay, who is a rather down-to-earth nightclub singer. And while there are moments of the unnaturally sharp, cutting dialogue typical of screwball flicks, the pace is a bit more relaxed. It also helps that the movie avoids the overload of pratfalls and sillier elements of screwball. I can't say that I found the movie nearly as funny as it was meant to be, but I found Deborah Kerr to be a phenomenal counterpart to Cary Grant's self-satisfied Nickie Ferrante. She carries an assured slyness that is more than welcome in such a movie.

Like pretty much any movie starring Cary Grant at the time,
this one features incredibly vibrant sets, costumes, and solid
framing. The movie's greatest asset, though, is probably
Deborah Kerr.
The general story certainly has more than a few sappy romance elements. For me, the most painfully melodramatic is when Terry is paralyzed by an oncoming car, just before she is about to meet Nickie at the top of the Empire State Building and accept his proposal for marriage. This moment alone knocks the movie down a few notches in my book. It doesn't help that we also get to see an incapacitated Terry get serenaded by a group of oh-so-cute grade-schoolers not once but twice. These moments smacked of Hollywood, bottom line interference. "Hey, little kids singing sells tickets. People love that stuff! Put some kids singing in that picture!" Painful hardly describes it for me.

That said, there was a depth and occasional subtlety that I found surprising and enjoyable. While there are certainly questions which are ignored or glossed over, I appreciated how the movie did take on the relatively mature theme of infidelity and adult relationships to an extent. Ferrante's public breaking of his engagement sends the story on an unexpected turn, and there are a few somewhat darker moments periodically. These added just enough bite to prevent the movie from becoming saccharine.

An Affair to Remember was enjoyable enough, though it's probably not one that I feel a need to see again. I suppose it's considered a "great" movie due to some then-novel turns in narrative, coupled with strong performances by Grant and Kerr. Those who love classic Grant from the '40s and '50s are sure to appreciate this one.

That's 592 movies down. Only 595 to go before I can die. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Supernatural, season 11 (2015-2016); Agents of SHIELD, season 4 Winter (2016)

Amara, a.k.a The Darkness, is the primary nemesis in season
11. She is not only an interesting revelation of the show's

mythology, but also as powerful an adversary as we've seen 
since Lucifer way back in the 4th and 5th seasons.
Supernatural, season 11 (2015-2016)

A bit behind on this particular show, but better late than never.

An amazingly satisfying return to form for a show that, for me, had lost some of its appeal in recent years.

Not long ago, I did a rather thorough rundown of the first 10 seasons of Supernatural. My general takeaway has been that the first five seasons of the show were clearly its "Golden Age," with none of the succeeding seasons ever quite approaching the quality of that first run. A few seasons since then have been solid, even good, but never quite putting it all together the way the show did several times between 2005 and 2010. So imagine my surprise when, after five seasons, the show comes back and rediscovers its glory. This is what season 11 did, amazingly.

Season 10 ended with Sam and Dean killing Death, releasing Dean from the mark of Cain, and consequently unleashing "The Darkness," a massively powerful entity so ancient that not even eons-old angels or demons know exactly what it is or wants. Uncovering its nature and motivation is a fairly novel and compelling arc for the season. While a very picky, high-brow viewer is likely to find the answers to these questions a bit underwhelming, I found them adequately satisfying for a TV show predicated a bit more on fun than on pretentious philosophizing or cosmology.

Even more than the overall "Darkness" story line was the strong, consistent return to what made the show great during its best years. Of the 23 episodes, there was not one that I thought was weak; this is something I could not say about most of the seasons after the fifth. Even episodes which weren't advancing the Darkness plot were solid "monster-of-the-week" episodes which are all but necessary for 23-episode network shows like Supernatural. And instead of offering us lame characters who are purely comic relief (i.e. Garth or the early episodes with Charlie in seasons 7 and 8), we get back to reliable, strong supporting characters who have grit. We get Sherriff Jody Mills again, always a solid character, and we even get a great flashback episode featuring Bobby and Rufus. We also see the addition of a few new, diverse, and capable hunters with the deaf Eileen and the gay couple Cesar and Jessy. In two separate but equally strong episodes, Sam and Dean join Eileen to hunt a banshee and Jessy hunt a type of monster we haven't seen before, both on revenge quests. It was nice to get some new hunter blood in the mix, as it put me in mind of the great early episodes with Gordon.

The main players in season 11. I was pleased with how Castiel
and Crowley were granted some of their old grit and gravity
to go with more carefully portioned humor. Heck, I even found
Rowena far more tolerable this season.
I was also happy to see the character balance take on portions more to my liking. I felt that in recent seasons, Castiel and Crowley were being leaned on too much. I certainly appreciate what they've brought to the show, especially Mark Shepperd's performance as Crowley. But I enjoyed them much more when their appearances were a bit more limited, and when Castiel was more tortured and Crowley more intensely evil. Between seasons 7 and 10, though, they started to get more and more screen time, and they were used more for humor than for the gravity which they could bring to situations. Season 11 still has them in some comical spots, to be sure, but they also see a return to some welcome drama.

I must confess that the show's budget constraints can tend to show through in this season. Certain sets, while effective enough, have started to grow a tad stale. I still love the Men of Letters headquarters. That can stay. But how many more times can we see Crowley or Rowena in a shoddy warehouse converted into a throne room? It was old a few seasons ago, and it's still old. I try to remind myself that this is not Game of Thrones, which has massively deep financial resources to dazzle us with a variety of lush sets and props. Still, I'd like to see if they can show some creativity and change it up a bit in the future. I will also say that there is still the unanswered question of whether Death is, truly, obliterated. I'm surprised that the season ended without at least a slight suggestion as to what has happened to the ultimate reaper. Perhaps I am biased, though, as the show's version of Death is always one which I liked, and the actor who plays him - Julian Richings - has great presence. I do hope he makes some sort of return.

So I'm back on board. For the first time in a few years, I'm actually watching the current season week-by-week, keeping up with the episodes shortly after they air. So far, I like what the current season is doing. The balance of dark terror and fun is still holding nicely. Very nice to see this fun and sometimes creepy show back on track.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4, Winter (2016)

The Winter segment of the season comprises the first 8 episodes which complete a sort of mini-arc before the Winter break.

Not a bad start at all, although I'm beginning to wonder if the scale of the show is outstripping the things that have made it great in the past.

This season opens with Coulson back in the field, working with familiar comrades May, Mack, Simmons, and Fitz. All of them are working for the new director Jeffrey Mace, who is eventually revealed as an inhuman possessed of immense physical strength. He's also a peculiarly positive administrator who does actually seem to have SHIELD's interest at heart. Mace and the familiar field agents have several issues to deal with: Daisy has become a vigilante hunting down Watchdog members, and a mysterious and powerful creature known as "The Ghost Rider" is slaying gang members in the Los Angeles area.

There's a lot to like about the Winter segment. The iconic Ghost Rider character is handled well, combing the innate cool of the character's look with a compelling backstory that ties into not only other supernatural elements (conveniently just after Doctor Strange was released) but also the Dark/Zero Matter that was a key element in Agent Carter's second season. There are a few nice little narrative feints, which lead you to a few false assumptions before certain aspects of the show are revealed. I'm also glad that the Director Mace storyline is taking the show in an interesting direction. My only hope is that he's not revealed as some sort of inhuman saboteur, since we've already seen the "traitor" narrative play out in each of the show's first three seasons. It would nice if we got to see SHIELD deal with a threat that comes completely from outside of themselves for once.

The primary characters of the show are still strong enough. At this point, Simmons and Fitz are the best in terms of character, as they've shown the most evolution through the course of the show. And this evolution has felt quite organic. It helps that Iain DeCaestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge have done marvelous acting jobs. The others are all fine, although I don't see any real chemistry between Mack and Elena. The romantic relationship between the two seems forced, as the show has never really shown much natural magnetism between them. To me, Mack is a character which sometimes feels fragmented, with shifts in attitude that don't always show enough internal logic. He is sometimes written as a tortured soul, at other times as a hard-as-nails badass, and yet others as a bit of a teddy bear. Those don't completely synch to me. Still, he is often given the best lines, like "My ax is plenty sharp. And a shotgun." I'll ignore that his shotgun-ax is a laughably impractical weapon and just enjoy the funny.

The Ghost Rider plot wrapped up in satisfying fashion, and the setup for Aida becoming a new threat is now in place. With the only MCU film releasing during the remainder of season 4 being Guardians of the Galaxy 2 next May, I think we can assume that there will be no obvious tie-in between the show and the movie. So the show is all on its own. Aida seems like a new kind of threat, which is intriguing. As long as it doesn't follow the same lines as Age of Ultron, then I think we may be in for the most unique second half since season 1.

Note: Word is out that Agents of SHIELD is in danger of cancellation, due to gradually decreasing viewership. I hope it's not the case, but if ABC does give it the axe, I hope it lives on through some other network. Though it's not the greatest show, I've always enjoyed its place in the MCU and think that its merits far outweigh its weaknesses.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

DC's Modern Blockbusters

I didn't even bother to see Suicide Squad in the theater, so disappointed have I been with the major DC movie adaptations in the last decade (excepting of course Nolan's excellent Dark Knight trilogy). All the same, with the movie having just come out for rental, I decided to do a little run-through of the most commercially successful films outside of Nolan's Batman movies:

Superman Returns (2006)

Director: Bryan Singer

This movie isn't "bad" per se. It's just a bit dull. It comes off now, ten years later, like a weaker prototype of what J.J. Abrams did in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

I saw this movie upon its release in 2006, and I seem to recall a second viewing at home maybe a year later. I'd never felt the desire to see it again, and this third viewing confirmed why. While it avoids any major pitfalls and does a decent enough job, there is simply nothing which sets it apart as an especially remarkable superhero movie.

The story draws from the more successful Superman movies of the past, most specifically the 1978 original directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve. The 2006 movie sets up Lex Luthor as the arch villain again, and his grand scheme involves killing billions of people in order to set himself up as the sole owner of a new, virgin continent of his own creation. While there are a few added elements to Returns, this is basically the same template which the 1978 movie used. One addition is how the fuel for Luthor's mass homicidal scheme are crystals which he finds in Superman's Fortress of Solitude. The problem is that this plot point raises a ton of questions which go unanswered in the movie, along with Luthor's notion that he'll be able to manufacture futuristic weapons using Kryptonian technology learned from the crystals. Yet, once he hatches his plan, he hasn't built a single weapon. How exactly does he plan to defend his newly-growing continent? With his three henchmen and a few machine guns? Pretty shoddy planning for a "criminal genius." There are several plot points such as this, where the basic idea was decent, but the details in the execution were sorely lacking.

A major issue for many Superman movies is the simple fact that the character is simply not terribly interesting outside of his dazzling and immense powers. Superman/Clark Kent is not a tortured soul. He is not a brilliant tactician or a very cerebral character. He has always been a fairly humorless boyscout. This means that his entertainment value typically comes from one of three sources - displays of his powers, intriguing villains, and humor. For the former, Returns actually does a decent enough job. The obligatory montage of Superman saving various people is fun, especially his facing down of a maniac with a hyper-charged Gatling gun. Other sequences with the Man of Steel swooping around and using his heat vision, superbreath, and other abilities are mildly engaging, but nothing stands out as particularly clever. The second source of possible fun, the villains and the havoc they wreak, is lacking in Returns. Yes, Luthor is pure evil. We've always known that, just as we've always known that Superman has as firm a moral compass as they come. The one clever turn is how Luthor embeds Kryptonite into his new continent to out-maneuver his nemesis, but beyond that, there's nothing much. If Marvel's Captain America movies have shown us anything, they've shown us that even a flawlessly righteous character, such as Steve Rogers, can be given moral dilemmas to grapple with. And such characters can be put into situations which require lateral thinking and/or stunning uses of their abilities. Returns never quite gives us enough to top what we'd seen before.

These three thugs constitute the entire defense force of the
newly established continent of Luthor's making. Just how long
did he think he was going to be able to hang onto this fruit
of his intellectual labor? 
If the movie had redirected its effort, it could have added some depth or shown some imagination with its story. Instead, we get what I found to be a boring subplot about how Lois Lane has born Superman's child - an asthmatic five year-old who walks around dazed most of the time. The story wants us to feel some sort of romantic tension between Clark, Lois, and Lois's husband Richard, but it never really materializes. In fact, it leads to a few moments which make Superman look like a creepy stalker, such as when he's hovering outside of Lois's home, using his X-ray vision to spy on her and her family. I'm pretty sure Ma and Pa Kent imparted some sense of courtesy upon their adopted son, but you might not know it from Returns. And this is typical of the movie - none of the characters or situations ever feels genuine or compelling enough to make the film stand out.

The scope is certainly what you want from a Superman movie, with an entire continent forming just off the east coast of the U.S. and causing massive destruction in nearby Metropolis. This gives the Man of Steel plenty to contend with, especially when he's suffering from Kryptonite poisoning. Watching him hoist the entire growing island is fairly awesome, but yet again there is a problem with the details. There is Kryptonite literally growing around him, within a mere few feet of him, and yet he still has his powers. Nonsense, according to the rules laid out long ago in the world of DC, and as is known to virtually any red-blooded American.

And where, exactly, is the fun? To this day, the very best Superman movies - Superman  and Superman II - had great comic moments that still stand up extremely well, to this very day. It's that third source of entertainment that makes an otherwise two-dimensional character fun to watch. Those early Reeve movies had great visual gags and a ton of solid deadpan humor. When you add Gene Hackman and Terence Stamp to the proceedings, you have movie gold. Returns never comes remotely close to being as funny as those early movies. It does try, but the writing just isn't sharp enough, comedically. Kevin Spacey is a fantastic actor, but his Luthor is too joyless and cold to ever be very entertaining.

While I wouldn't have been bothered if Bryan Singer had been given a shot at a sequel, to see if he could improve on some foundations laid in Superman Returns, I'm not surprised that his reboot only lasted the one film. It was ultimately a tepid movie that didn't really inspire much interest in seeing more of those iterations of known characters. And so the Superman movie franchise took a nap for several years. Until...

Man of Steel (2013)

Director: Zack Snyder

I have a hard time deciding if Man of Steel is any better or worse than Superman Returns, since they are such different reboots of the character. I am, however, confident in stating that it's still not on par with the 1978 or 1980 films. And it's not even close.

This was only the second time I've seen Man of Steel, the first being when it was initially released in theaters. I didn't much like it back then, and my impression of it had deteriorated since. Upon this second viewing, though, I can see that I was being a bit overly harsh. I still don't think it's a terribly good movie, but it's not as horrible as the jokes about it suggest. Not as horrible.

The plot is complex enough to make a simple summary tough, but I'll take a shot. We see the days or weeks before Krypton explodes, when Kal-El's father, Jor-El, places him into a space pod to send him away from their dying planet. The scientist Jor-El must fend off an oncoming coup staged by the fanatical General Zod. Kal-El is sent off in time to escape the dying Krypton, not long before Zod is foiled and sent to an interstellar prison, shortly before Krypton explodes. Years later on Earth, Kal-El's pod crashes in Kansas, where he is found and raised by the Kents, a pair of loving farmers who name their newfound son Clark. Clark's father, upon learning of his son's incredible abilities, tries to impart upon him that he must keep his abilities hidden from others for a while, even if this means allowing people at risk to be harmed or even die. When Clark becomes an adult, he seeks out and finds a Kryptonian scout ship buried in the Arctic, where he begins to learn about his true origins. Unfortunately, he also accidentally sends out a beacon which is picked up galaxies away by an escaped General Zod. Zod and his few surviving followers race towards Earth, which they hope to terraform and mold into a new Krypton. This plan would completely wipe out the human population, something which doesn't sit well with its adopted son, Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman.

The actual foundation of the plot isn't bad. While writer David S. Goyer (with co-story credit going to Christopher Nolan) does dip into the familiar well of the character of General Zod, he doesn't just retell the story of Superman II. And the added detail of having the entire genetic codes of all Kryptonians embedded in Kal-El's cells is fairly imaginative. They even put together a plausible reason for Zod to show up just as Kal-El embraces his identity as a hero for Earth. Even the notion of the massive "World Engine" and Superman's struggle to take it down is on a scale appropriate for a Superman story.

But yet again, the problems arise in many of the details. Even early on, when Jor-El is desperately trying to convince Krypton's leaders to send out to other planets in order to save some part of their race, it's not at all clear why and how they would be so idiotic as to ignore him. And when his wife, Lara, asks why they can't accompany their son on his life-saving trip to Earth, the response is a baffling, "It's too late for us." It is? Why the hell is that, Mister Brilliant Scientist??!! If you can send one body to another planet, why not one or two more? Such oversights make up several cracks in what otherwise purports to be a very smart plot.

Superman snapping Zod's neck is the ash icing on the grim
cake that is 
Man of Steel. Couldn't we have gotten
just a little bit of fun from this movie?
A major issue I have is one I know is shared by others critical of the movie, and this is the utter lack of humor. Trying for the grimmer tone which Nolan successfully tapped in his Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel takes itself deadly seriously. The Nolan Batman movies did work in some decent levity, but Man of Steel's Clark Kent is a tortured soul who cracks nary a smile throughout the entire movie. This is thanks to a slightly reworked backstory and a plot that allows for no humor whatsoever. I've generally felt that the best Superman tales and movies have a more upbeat tone and some great comedy, two things which the 1978 and 1980 movies accomplished brilliantly. Thanks to solid scripts and excellent deadpan acting by the likes of Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder, Gene Hackman, and Terence Stamp, those early movies feature comedy that holds up right to this very day. Man of Steel takes a scant few stabs at humor, but they lack any memorable punch. The film just feels like it's taking itself far too seriously nearly the entire time. This isn't helped by a third act which sees thousands upon thousands of people die, and then Superman kill General Zod by breaking his neck. I'm of the opinion that such dark themes and actions should be left to other superheroes. Let Superman be that one good guy who can still get the job done without him committing homicide or having to watch masses of people annihilated. If I want that, I'll go back and read my collection of Alan Moore's Miracleman comics.

In that vein is what I consider the movie's greatest offense - Clark's dad telling him to let other people die. It's an absolutely horrible and contrived plot point. I assume that the writers didn't want us viewers to see Jonathan Kent as a delusional or simply dense fool, but that's how he comes off. A young Clark saves a bus load of schoolmates who are about to drown, and his father basically scolds him for it? And then tells him that he maybe should have let them die because he "thinks" Clark has some higher purpose? Are you kidding me? And never mind the ridiculous death scene, where Jonathan waves off Clark as he is about to save him from an oncoming tornado. What, did you forget that your son can move so quickly that he could save you and everyone else so fast that no one would even see him? The second of the two whammies with this ridiculous plot element is that it makes Clark a miserable figure. And I don't need my Superman moping around trying to figure out whether he should be helping people or not. I need him helping people without question, and then getting pressed by major threats like evil geniuses or megalomaniacs from space. Not daddy issues.

This is about as light-hearted as things get. Henry Cavill's
impossibly handsome face spends way too much time in this
troubled glare.
The story and characters are the sources of the movie's major issues, to be sure. The other film elements are actually decent, and sometimes even quite good. As with all Snyder movies, everything looks super slick. I do feel that CGI was overused, mostly during the opening scenes on Krypton, but otherwise it was blended exceptionally well with the live action. There are also several solid fight sequences between Superman, Zod and his acolytes, though it sometimes moves too quickly to have as much impact as it might otherwise have.

This does, however, bring up another issue with Zack Snyder, which is his clear emphasis on style and aesthetic over a tight story and genuine characters. All of his films feature scenes, costumes, and actors that really catch the eye. And sometimes they even hold your attention for a while. But once you get past the glamorous veneer, there is far too often not enough substance beneath it. Snyder is obviously a major fan of comic books, especially classic DC stories, and his movies attempt to be very faithful to the comic book tradition of memorable splash pages and iconic but static poses. These are things that make for great comics. The problem is that film is a different medium - one which can and should tell stories that are visually dynamic in ways that comic cannot be. Snyder seems to have some sense of this at times, but it is not consistent.

I'll give Man of Steel some credit for trying to do something a bit different with such an old and classic character. Some aspects of it show some decent creativity, but ultimately the weaknesses are too much to make it a good movie in my eyes. While it may be different and more daring than Superman Returns, I can't say that it's a better overall movie. All the same, the folks at DC and Warner Brothers decided that they were tired of watching Marvel raking in billions of dollars, so they whipped up their own comic book movie world, leading to...

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2015)

Director: Zack Snyder

Note: on this second viewing, I watch the "Ultimate Edition" blu ray, which adds about 20 minutes of footage not included in the theatrical release. That's nearly three hours, folks. 

I originally reviewed this movie upon its theatrical release in this post.

I've never gotten political on this blog, ever. But upon my re-watch of this movie, considering just how much money it made, I can't help but see a parallel with our recent presidential election. There are so many ways that I see the frequent and inescapable problems with Batman v Superman that I was clueless enough to think it would bomb. But it didn't. It became one of the top 50 highest grossing films of all time. Just like I was stunned at the election outcome. There's clearly something that many other people are seeing and enjoying in this movie that allows them to overlook glaring flaws that many others and I can't help but notice.

I won't rehash the plot or most of my original issues with the movie. I will state that the Ultimate Edition does add a few worthy sequences which smooth out a few of the plot points, mostly in relation to the manufactured animosity between Superman and Batman. This is really the only aspect of the plot which is helped by the extra footage. None of the many other shallow, weak, tangential, or illogical plot points are improved or mended in this "definitive" version of the film.

During this second viewing, I almost started taking notes in order to keep up with the plot problems and general issues with the film. They come that frequently. If a viewer looks just the slightest bit past the surface of the movie's plot, they will find questions that are at best mild oversights or unimaginative scripting, and at worst extremely sloppy storytelling. One could probably write a breakdown of the issues that would amount to a comprehensive manual on how not to write a tight, well-crafted story. I'll keep it short by picking out a couple of examples, while resisting the obvious "Martha" moment. One is towards the beginning of the movie, when Lois Lane is in the middle of the African desert, interviewing a murderous rebel leader. Things go horribly wrong rather quickly, with Lane's photographer getting executed and half of the people in the camp getting murdered. When Lois Lane is eventually threatened directly, down swoops Superman to save her in dramatic fashion. And just where the hell was he when other people were getting slaughtered here, especially Jimmy Olsen? The only way that Superman could have saved Lois at just that moment is if he's keeping a nearly round-the-clock eye on her; if that's the case, then why didn't he save some of the other people in the camp? And how creepy is it that he's always watching her in the first place? But wait, how can he be constantly watching her and saving other people and living his "Clark Kent" life at the same time? And these very same questions come up much later in the movie as well.

Clark's obsessive devotion to Lois Lane becomes a serious
problem for the entire plot, if one looks  just a little beyond
the surface of the patchwork storyline.
One more of the many examples is towards the end of the movie, when Luthor kidnaps Clark's mother and holds her hostage in order to force Clark to kill Batman. Up to this point, Luthor has worked for nearly two years to forge a false image of Batman as a psychotic and virtually murderous menace - an image which he wants Clark to see and believe will justify his killing Batman. However, when the moment is nigh, Luthor just uses Clark's mother as leverage to force him to hunt down Batman anyway. Well why the hell didn't Luthor just do that in the first place? That final move negated everything else he had been carefully constructing up to that point. These are just two examples of problems that pop up all throughout this movie. It smacks of a script in which the writers first came up with the images, dramatic moments, or just rough concepts they wanted first, and then built a plot around those individual images and moments, no matter if the connections are tenuous much of the time.

The other standout issue for me is the dialogue itself. In short, it's pretty bad. Many of the issues arise from writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer's attempts to tap into the tone of Christopher Nolan's epigram- and adage-laden Dark Knight movies. In Batman v Superman, the characters are often spouting off seemingly-profound observations about men, gods, monsters, parents, and society. But like Man of Steel, many of the sentiments ring shallow or simply suck any semblance of joy out of many of the scenes. Other moments of potential humor or wit are simply lame. When Bruce Wayne is discovered skulking into a room full of Lex Luthor's computer mainframes (oddly stationed out in the open, right next to the kitchen), his response is "I thought the bathroom was down here." This is the "World's Greatest Detective"? A man who is supposedly known for his unparalleled cunning, and the best excuse he can come up with is something you might hear from a 12-year-old boy who burst into the bedroom of his friend's older sister, hoping to catch a glimpse of some skin? Hardly the stuff of great writing.

One of the many iconic poses in the movie. As he did in Man
of Steel director Zack Snyder put more emphasis on stylish
images as he does on telling a creative and coherent tale.
And on and on it goes. It really is a shame, since the movie had a tremendous budget and a few half-decent ideas to work with. But while the visuals are fairly stunning, making the movie enjoyable to look at, any discriminating viewer is likely to have issues with the real meat of the tale, such as it is. I really have little hope that this will change with any of the future DCEU films which Snyder will be directing in the next few years. The massive amounts of cash that the movie raked in are mandate enough for him to keep doing what he's doing, so I expect the Justice League movies to be more of the same.

Still, I keep going back. Enough of a comic book fan am I that I will be taking a look at Suicide Squad very soon. I couldn't get past the mediocre reviews enough to bother seeing it in the theater, but I'll see if director/writer David Ayer offered any remedy to the stale offerings that Snyder has thus far provided. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Before I Die #591: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This is the 591st movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Directors: Rupert Julian and Lon Chaney, Sr.

One of the better silent movies I've seen, with a few elements that still hold up fairly well.

The movie is, of course, based on the Gaston Laroux novel of the same name, published in 1910. It follows the same basic plot: at the Paris Opera House exist strange rumors of a "phantom" that lurks about the shadows of the venue. One night, the Phantom makes himself known by threatening the current prima donna Carlotta to step down and allow the younger, talented understudy Christine Daae take the lead role. While Carlotta does this initially, for fear of her life, she refuses the second time that the mysterious Phantom makes the same demand. This refusal sends the Phantom into a frenzy, whereupon he crashes the massive chandelier into the audience during a performance. He follows this by kidnapping Christine and secreting her away to his lair - a massive, trap-laden, labyrinthine system of catacombs beneath the Opera House and other parts of Paris. The Phantom explains only to Christine that his name is Erik and that he is madly in love with her. He also shows himself to be a brilliant organist, although he is clearly unhinged. Erik does allow Christine to go free, upon the promise that she will abandon any romantic relationships and become his sole pupil. When Christine eventually tries to escape from this maniacal bond, the Phantom kidnaps her again. Her would-be suitor Raoul and Ledoux, a member of the Paris secret police, pursue the two into the catacombs, where they find themselves trying to evade the Phantom's many lethal traps. Hot on their heels is a mob of Parisians who have discovered Erik's existence and are storming the catacombs for him, as well. Raoul and Ledoux do manage to escape with their lives and Christine, barely. Erik flees his lair, only to be caught by the mob, pummelled to death, and thrown into the river.

It's a wild tale that covers a lot of ground in the film's brisk 91 minutes, and it was one of the very first horror/adventure movies. Seeing it today, in 2016, it's easy to see why it is considered to have kicked off the entire genre - a genre which gave birth to the later hit monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and so many others. Phantom of the Opera creates a wonderful and frightening fantasy world for viewers to get completely lost in. While the first scenes in the Paris Opera House are nothing special, they do build the mystery around the Phantom well enough. But once Christine is first abducted and we get into Erik's underground lair, we are drawn into a world that has its own spooky allure. It is a combination of mazes, canals, and lavish rooms and decorations which has an effect similar to some of the more adventurous sets and moments in later movies like those mentioned above.

The reveal of the face underneath the Phantom's mask. This
still may look a bit comical, but the scene itself has a
surprisingly powerful effect. Modern films could probably
learn something from this about how horror does not require
hyper-complex special effects. 
Is the movie still scary in any way? For the most part, no. However, the scene during which Erik's mask is pulled off and reveals his horrid face is still incredibly unnerving. The makeup work done to transform Cheney's face into such a hideous visage, paired with the framing and shooting of that scene are still incredibly affecting. I'll also say that the movie wasn't afriad to portray Erik as a completely homicidal maniac, with him outright murdering various people in rather brutal ways. It keeps the stakes high enough, even if the characters are nearly all one-dimensional. This is probably one of several steps that led to the enacting of the Hayes code several years later, but it's still fun to see the filmmakers go for it, even so long ago.

As for the characters, there's not much there. The shame of it is that the title character was ripe for some true depth and analysis, being a psychotic who clearly had a passion for and ability with music. The movie touches on Erik's background briefly, but they never get into what could have been a more interesting study of the sharp dichotomy of his character. This is probably far too much to ask from a movie made in 1925, but I can't help it as a modern viewer who's been treated to plenty of great horror movies that delve into the psyches of rich, if terrifying, characters.

Of the 40-odd silent movies I've now seen from the "Before You Die" lists, this is actually one of the few that I would consider watching again. Thanks to its fantasy and horror elements, transporting affect, and overall narrative leanness, it could be fun to see it again.

That's 591 movies down. Only 596 to go before I can die.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Retro Trio: High Heels (1991); Starred Up (2013); The Painted Veil (2006)

High Heels (1991)

Original Spanish Title: Tacones Lejanos

Director: Pedro Almodovar

This was the latest in my little trip through the films of renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. I found High Heels yet another early example of his unique voice and masterful skill as a film-maker.

The story focuses on Rebeca Giner (Victoria Abril), a young Spanish TV news anchor with some very complex, and occasionally lethal, ideas and relationships with men in her life. As a very young girl, Rebeca knowingly drugged her boorish step-father so that he would fall asleep at the wheel and die in an accident. Rather than being out of some mere urge to kill, her purpose was to free up her mother, Becky (Marisa Paredes), to take an acting job which her husband was preventing her from accepting. Oblivious to her daughter's hand in the death, Becky leaves her daughter behind and goes to Argentina to begin the acting career which is her dream.

A strange but amusing dance number thrown into the
proceedings ensures that we never take things too seriously,
even when things take a few rather dark turns.
Flash forward twenty years. Rebeca is a TV news anchor, and her mother has long since become a world-famous actress. Rebeca's mother returns to Madrid upon hearing that her daughter has married a former lover of hers, another rather loutish older man not unlike the father-in-law whom Rebeca drugged two decades earlier. When he is found dead several weeks after Becky's return, the mother and daughter become the prime suspects in an investigation headed by bloodhound judge Juez Dominguez (Miguel Bose). The associates of the two women include a colorful bunch, including several transvestites.

While the murder-mystery elements may, on the surface, make this seem like a fairly typical whodunit, this is an Almodovar movie. And being one of his earlier films, there is a range of humor, from virtual slapstick right through to the most pitch black, running through the proceedings. As with the other four films that I've seen of his, this one deals heavily with themes of personal identity and the feeling of loss and absence. Much of the movie can be very amusing, as there are more than a few absurd situations and interactions. But at the heart of it are universal emotions revolving around relationships between parents and children, spouses, and lovers. The movie bears many of the familiar hallmarks of the other Almodovar films I've seen, but once again is completely its own story.

Now having seen five of his movies, it seems to go without saying that the movie looks incredible. I've already described my impressions of the visuals in Almodovar's movies, so suffice it to write that High Heels is no different. This, in conjunction with all of the other merits of the film, simply solidify my admiration for the man as a film-maker. It's truly amazing stuff.

Starred Up (2013)

Director: David Mackenzie

I am now officially a fan of David Mackenzie. I watched Starred Up after seeing and loving Mackenzie's neo-Western film Hell or High Water. Based on that movie and this 2013 offering, I am willing to go see whatever his next few projects are, out of hand.

Starred Up is a prison drama focused on Eric Love, an extremely violent 19-year old convict who has aged out of the juvenile system and has been moved into an adult maximum security penitentiary. It also happens to be the very same prison which houses his convict father, Neville, who has been serving a life sentence since Eric was a small child. In less than a few hours after processing, Eric gets into a brutal fight with another inmate and in placed in solitary. Soon after release, he has another serious scrap with the guards. Just as the guards are ready to pummel him, though, a prison counselor sees all that is going on and taps Eric to take part in a discussion/therapy group which he runs. The guards reluctantly agree, and Eric is all but forced to attend the group.

The movie is an astounding, if highly disturbing, look at violence, masculinity, and how a young man grapples with trying to harness them to not just survive but also grow as a human. There are many extremely intense scenes, of both a physical and psychological nature. The young and hyper-pugnacious Eric is our fractured looking glass into the strict hierarchy of the lethally stratified federal prison system (the movie takes place in England, but it is easy to apply the environment to nearly any maximum security prison in the world). Watching Eric rein in his fury at his father and nearly everyone else around him in order to first survive and then to find some modicum of growth is as fascinating as it is disturbing. The setting and themes are not for the faint of heart, grim as they are, but there is real humanity sitting just beneath the surface of the entire movie.

The group therapy sessions are arguably the best scenes in
this great movie. You can almost see the waves of violent
aggression emanating from these guys, as well as their
immense struggle to deal with it all.
The acting is outstanding. The only actor whom I recognized was the incredible Sam Mendelson, who does a brilliant job as Eric's hard-as-nails father, Neville. All of the others, although not familiar to me, were amazing. Jack O'Connell is ferocious as Eric, and Rupert Friend is equally brilliant as the counselor Oliver Baumer. Not to be outdone are all of the men who are part of the therapy group. It is during these group meetings that we get some of the most powerful scenes. Some of these do not even involve words, but rather a palpable tension arising from extremely violent men wrestling with themselves and each other on a level that goes far beyond physical struggles.

Being a movie that was clearly going for an authenticity which few prison movies approach, Starred Up does not offer a rosy conclusion. It does, however, offer the satisfaction of having seen something that reveals some profound aspects of human nature, and it offers us all a hard look at what incarceration means. It is the type of movie that, even if I don't feel the need to see it again, I would recommend nearly everyone watch at least once.

The Painted Veil (2006)

Director: John Curran

The wife and I decided to go "full nerd" recently and read the same classic English novel before watching the film adaptation of it. The novel was The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham, an author whose other novels I've loved. My wife had seen the movie already, but I was coming at it from the novel first.

The movie stays true to most of the spirit of the novel, set in the 1920s, in which Kitty (Naomi Watts), a young socialite Englishwoman, marries Walter Fane (Ed Norton). Walter is a rather dry but civil bacteriologist who takes her to Hong Kong where he does research. Soon after their arrival, Kitty grows bored with her new husband and begins an affair with an attractive up-and-comer in the British colonial government. Walter discovers the affair just as he accepts an assignment to go to a cholera-ravaged area deeper into the Chinese countryside. Under threat of a messy and public divorce, Walter forces Kitty to accompany him. While terrified that her husband wishes her death from the cholera epidemic, Kitty sees no other option but to accept and go with him. Amid the cholera-infected area, Walter and Kitty find themselves among great suffering of the native population, and they meet several other Westerners who are there for their own reasons.

Kitty and Walter - two people who probably weren't right for
each other from the start, but whose shared struggles among
the cholera epidemic lead them to grow themselves and their
respect for each other.
This film adaptation hits nearly all of the strongest, most poignant notes of Maugham's brilliant novel. The relationship between Walter and Kitty grows increasingly deeper and more complex once they are among the cholera epidemic. And while lesser writers would have milked this situation for no end of sentimentality and trite reconciliations, Maugham was far too experienced and skilled an author to travel such beaten paths. When reading the novel, I was constantly surprised at how the story unfolded and how the characters developed. And the unexpected turns are not merely inserted for the sake of surprise. They feel quite organic, and they touch upon the messy nature of human desires and our ability to alter and expand our perspectives. The movie retains many of the novel's subtler turns of character, which only increases its value. To be sure, a few things are simplified and given slightly tidier resolutions, but this is to be expected from most commercially-minded films. In the case of this movie, they don't greatly diminish the overall tale.

Beyond the clear strengths of story and character, the movie is visually stunning. The cinematography captures the beauty of the Chinese countryside, as well as the exquisite beauty of the period's buildings and clothing. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has plenty of dazzling movies and TV shows to his credit, and this one may be his crown jewel. An added technical merit is, unsurprisingly, that the acting is excellent. Naomi Watts and Ed Norton are typically great, as are all of the supporting cast.

I'd recommend this movie to nearly anyone, just as I'd recommend that anyone read the novel first. While readers who deeply love the novel may be a bit disappointed in what the film changes or omits, I don't feel that there are any crippling alterations or omissions. Both are first-rate pieces of art, and they make for great comparisons to each other. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Before I Die #590: Seven Chances (1925)

This is the 590th movie I've seen of the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Buster Keaton

Decent Buster Keaton flick, with some of his great visual gags, but it doesn't top one or two others I've seen.

Like the other handful of Keaton movies I've seen, this one uses a simple premise to set off all sorts of pratfalls, culminating in a sequence that goes on far to long for my modern sensibilities. Keaton plays James Shannon, a young lawyer who is part of a law firm that is near financial and professional ruin, thanks to the missteps and malfeasance of his shady partner. A ray of hope emerges, though, when Shannon receives a telegram that a wealthy uncle has died and left him an inheritance of seven million dollars. However, to receive the money, Shannon must be married by a pre-determined date - a date which happens to be the very same day that Shannon receives the message. This sends Shannon and his partner scrambling to find a bride for the potentially-new millionaire, with only a few hours to do it. Shannon first goes to his lady love to propose, but a series of misunderstandings leads her to shun him. He then grows more and more desperate with every passing hour, trying everything he can think of to convince some young woman to marry him that day.

As with the other Keaton movies I've seen, the story is hardly the point. It merely exists to set up humorous sequences and exchanges, and Keaton certainly delivers much of the time. I've always liked Keaton more than Chaplin, as I've found his deadpan look and amazing physical abilities more entertaining than the Little Tramp. Seven Chances features some great visual gags, to be sure. But I found that it was almost always the smaller, subtler ones that were the best. Shannon and his partner departing from an unnoticed second office door just after a messenger has determined to watch the primary door like a hawk. Keaton's amazingly agile about-faces when he confronts someone or something he hopes to evade. My appreciation of Keaton has always been just how watchable he is even when seemingly minor things are happening on screen.

One of the best-known images of the legendary chase scene.
This whole thing goes on for far too long, in my opinion. Then
again, I've never found chases very funny.
But the problem is that the movie features too many "big" gags, which I found overly long and not terribly interesting. The most obvious is also the one for which the film is most famous - the grand chase finale. The way the story shakes out, Shannon's business partner puts out an ad in the daily newspaper telling everyone about the inheritance and inviting any willing woman to show up at the church later that day. Of course, thousands of women show, sending Shannon on the run from hordes of cash-hungry single ladies (your Beyonce joke here). This grows into a 15-minute long chase throughout the entire town. While there are one or two funny sight gags mixed in, I found the extended chase more and more boring with every passing minute. Keaton does his best to utilize his considerable acrobatic and gymnatic skills, but the chase was more about the set pieces, props, and the hordes of women chasing after him. I simply didn't find these things as funny.

Of the handful of Keaton movies I've seen, this one falls behind Our Hospitality or even Sherlock Jr. It's definitely worth seeing for fans of Keaton or old-school silent film comedies, but don't be surprised if you zone out a bit during some of the the more prolonged sequences.

That's 590 movies down. Only 597 films to watch before I can die.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Before I Die #589: The Great White Silence (1924)

This was the 589th movie I've seen from the 1,187 films on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working through.

Director: Herbert G. Ponting

Full disclosure right off the bat - technically, I didn't exactly watch the original 1924 version of this film, since I really couldn't track down a copy of it. The explanation is folded into the basic summary:

Way back in 1910 and 1911, famed English explorer Sir Walter Scott set out to lead the first team of humans to reach the South Pole. To document it, he hired film director Herbert G. Ponting to join the arduous journey, filming as much as he could for posterity. He tagged along with the team right from their departure from the shores of England, right on down to Antarctica and even a fair way into the mainland. During the final days, though, it was only six of the most seasoned explorers who would travel to the actual pole. Ponting and the rest of the support team saw them off and then returned to their headquarters on the Antarctic coast. They would later find out just how doomed Scott and his team were. While they did reach the pole, they discovered that they had been beaten by a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen. Adding the ultimate injury to this insult, Scott's entire team was overtaken by the elements and all died on their return trip to their base camp.

When Ponting and the remainder of the failed expedition team returned to England, Ponting spent a few years editing all of the footage he had shot during the long and arduous journey. He first released his edits as short films to the British public. Then, in 1924, he released a 112-minute single silent film. After the advent of sound came around several years later, Ponting returned to the movie and added his voice-over narration. It is this latter version which I saw.

While the documentary can be a tad dry from time to time, it is fascinating as extant proof of one of the most daring and tragic attempts in human exploration history. Being able to see the men who tried, failed, and some of whom even died, has a power that no book or article can provide. For that alone, the film still has and will likely always have an irrevocable strength. And when the narration turns to reading Scott's final words, written in the journal he was keeping right up until his death, it has an effect which no dramatization could match.

That said, the dry or dull portions can tax one's patience. Having been released in a time when moving pictures still were relatively fresh, many scenes are merely of the crew doing mundane chores. I imagine that in the 1920s and '30s, the viewing public was still gripped by these, as they had never been seen before. For those of us in the 21st century now, in the wake of the amazing advances in nature and exploration cinematography, the images and scenes in The Great White Silence are unlikely to excite. As an example, there's a good five minutes spent just on showing penguins waddling around, with the narration adding very little to spice things up.

Hardly the most comfortable of conditions, to be sure. Such a
trek would be arduous with even 21st century equipment. I can
only imagine how tough and driven these guys were to try it
with the rudimentary tools they had.
I can't write about this film without bringing up a major point of discomfort of the type which is often a possibility with older films. During one scene, showing a few of the crewmen playing with their "mascot" black cat, Ponting's narration tells us the cat's name: Nigger, which Ponting himself cheerfully announces a couple of times. Ouch. It's never fun to get a full-on racist punch to the gut like that. Reminding yourself that "those were different times" really does nothing to take the sting out of hearing such backwards thinking about race. Blessedly, this is really the only instance of this in the film, and it is over very quickly.

This film was obviously a great step forward from films like Nanook of the North, which would later be discredited for manipulating the actions in ways that disqualify it from being considered a truthful "documentary." Ponting's film seemed to stay truer to a historian's goal of capturing rather than creating significant events. It's a worthwhile watch for anyone with a bit of interest in the history of documentaries or the history of exploration.

That's 589 movies down. Only 598 to go before I can die.