Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.
Nate’s Grade: C
The story behind the Justice League movie is one of turmoil and turnover. Zack Snyder has been the cinematic voice for the DC film universe (DCU) and, if you listen to enough critics and fans, the weight holding down the franchise. Justice League began filming in the spring of 2016, which means they had a considerable lead time before release. Either they went into production with a script they were unhappy with or they learned it. A year later, in the spring of 2017, Snyder bowed out of his directorial duties to spend more time with his family in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. Enter Joss Whedon, the wunderkind behind Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers. The studio was unhappy with Snyder’s rough-cut, deeming the footage “useable,” and tapped Whedon to make drastic reshoots. He rewrote the film enough to earn a writing credit from the WGA. Complicating the already pricey reshoots was star Henry Cavill’s mustache, a holdover from the filming of Mission: Impossible 6. He wasn’t permitted to shave his ‘stach, and so Warner Bros. was forced to pay likely millions… to digitally erase Cavill’s facial hair (DCU is 0-2 when it comes to mustaches this year). The final product is being met with great fanfare, hope, and curiosity. If anybody could save this project it’s Whedon, right? Well Justice League could have been renamed Super Hero Fatigue: The Movie.
Months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
Aggressively bland, lazy, and unmemorable, I was genuinely left questioning whether Justice League was somehow worse because it wasn’t worse. It’s not the aggravating stew that was Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad, but those weren’t exactly difficult hurdles to clear. To put it in another colorful analogy: while it may not be a flaming dumpster fire, it’s just a dumpster, something you wouldn’t give any mind to because, hey, it’s just a normal dumpster, and why would you even want to spend time looking at that anyway? That’s Justice League for you, a DCU super hero film that’s better by default and still disappointing to the point that you wish it would be mercy killed to spare us a prolonged death rattle. This movie is ground down to the raw pulp of a super hero movie. It lacks personality. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a modern super hero film. An ensemble of poorly developed characters must band together to stop a dumb villain from world annihilation with a giant energy portal in the sky. There have been now five DCU films in this sputtering cinematic universe and three movies fit that formulaic description. Even the 2015 Fantastic Four remake followed this. The draw of this film is its mythical heroes, yet they are so lazily developed that we rarely feel any sense of awe or reverence with them. The cast chemistry is relatively strong and the actors have been well chosen, but let’s go person-by-person in this league to determine just how poorly the story serves them.
Batman has become the Nick Fury of this new post-Superman world, taking charge assembling a team to combat a more dire, powerful alien threat. He’s the least super in many regards and has fleeting moments contemplating his mortality, but just when you think they might give the older Batman some depth, they pull back. His biggest relationship is with Wonder Woman and their central conflict feels contrived. He’s angry at her for not getting more involved (hey, Wonder Woman, you got out there for WWI but sat out the Holocaust?). It feels like a strange managerial tiff. Affleck (Live by Night) seems to have gotten more growly and smug. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) scowls and scoffs. Considering they’ve each lead a DCU movie, we should be more attached to them in this story. He’s not fun to be around and neither is she. The new members have some degree of promise.
Aquaman is a gruff, shaggy, tattooed loner embodied by Jason Momoa, and his performance works better than the character does. Momoa (Game of Thrones) is charismatic as a wild man but he comes across as a fraternity jock. His cocky, carefree persona and aesthetic are trying too hard to re-imagine Aquaman as a sexy superhero for today. The underwater action scene in Atlantis is so cumbersomely filmed and staged that I think I realized, in that moment, how visually dreary underwater fight scenes are. There goes any last shred of interest in the solo Aquaman film coming in 2018. Cyborg is basically a modern Frankenstein story and should have had affecting characterization about the battle over reclaiming his humanity. Instead he becomes the plot equivalent of a Swiss army knife, able to open any locked device or technological obstacle.
The Flash/Barry Allen is the best part of the film by default (a familiar term in this review). Miller’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) extra jubilant performance feels like a course correction from the criticism of how unflinchingly gloomy BvS was. He’s the stars-in-his-eyes rookie who is also a fanboy first, geeking out about getting to work with legends. It’s not just that the fanboy-as-hero angle was already tackled better by Marvel in Tom Holland’s newest edition of Spider-Man, it’s also that the film doesn’t know when to stop. Barry Allen has to quip for every occasion. While some belie his insecurity and nervousness about being promoted to the front lines of hero work, several are forced. The coolest thing he can do is run so fast time slows down, yet we’ve already seen this displayed better and with more witty panache in the recent X-Men films with Quicksilver. Flash is the only character with anything resembling an arc, and this amounts to little more than not being as terrible at fighting and getting a job. He makes his dad proud… by getting a job, and this is sadly the best example of a character arc in Justice League.
Another course correction was ditching overly complicated plotting for simplification, which can be a virtue. With Justice League, simplicity gives way to a dispirited lack of ambition and effort. The plot is thusly: Batman has to recruit a team to stop a Big Bad from getting three boxes buried around the world. Perhaps some will characterize this as a facetious oversimplification, but that’s really all that’s going on for two hours. The only other significant plot turn is the resurrection of Superman. The concluding image of BvS was the dirt hovering over Clark Kent’s casket, heavily implying he was coming back, so this really shouldn’t be a spoiler. The heroes suddenly decide the mother boxes can bring Superman back, and they know how to do it, and then just do it, without any setup. If it had been Cyborg who came up with this plan since he shares the alien technology that could have made some degree of sense. No, it’s Bruce Wayne who comes up with this idea, a man with no experience with alien technology. The heroes use one of the magic mother boxes to bring Superman back from the dead and then, inexplicably, leave it behind for our villain to capture. Literally the characters look over their shoulders and, whoops, a giant energy vortex has sucked up the final item needed to destroy the world. Maybe one of you should have had somebody watching that important thing.
There are other moments that speak to the troubles of simplicity leading to laziness. The opening sequence with Wonder Woman involves a group of criminals taking hostages in a bank. Oh, these are sophisticated bank robbers you might guess. No, these are, in their own outlandish words, “reactionary terrorists,” and they’re here to set off a bomb. Why did you have to enter the bank, let alone take hostages, and call attention to yourselves then? Would a bevy of car bombs not get the job done? These guys are on screen just to be dispatched by Wonder Woman, but at least put some effort into them. Here’s another example of the effects of oversimplification. Steppenwolf’s base of operations is an Eastern European/Russian bloc city in the wake of an abandoned nuclear facility. We see one desperate family fret over the flying Steppenwolf hench-demons and barricade themselves in their home. We then keep cutting back to them again and again. Will they have a greater importance? Is the final mother box to be found underneath their home? No, they are merely an on-the-ground a perspective and offer no insights, complications, or interest. We just keep checking in with them as if they are the most irrelevant war correspondent. When the climactic battle ensues, they’re the sole lives we see in danger from the epic fighting.
The villain is also a severe liability, as Steppenwolf feels plucked from a mid 2000s video game. He feels like a mini-boss from a God of War game. Not a boss battle, a mini-boss. His entire character design is ugly and resembls a goat. He may be twelve feet tall or whatever he is but he is completely unremarkable and nonthreatening. He wants to bring about the end of the world by collecting his three world-destroying MacGuffins and making them cross the streams. His back-story happens midway through the film and is shockingly a rip-off of the Cate Blanchett-narrated prologue from The Lord of the Rings. All the races of the world and beyond teamed up against this dumb dude and then they took possession of his source of power, the three boxes to rule them all, and divided them up among the different races for safety. They’re even dressed like Middle Earth fantasy characters. They foolishly split up the boxes in a way that the bad guy would know exactly where they are if he ever came back. This lame villain is also hampered with a lame back-story. I don’t understand what about this character makes him invincible in the first half and what changes to make him beatable in the second half. His powers and potential weaknesses are ill defined and you too will struggle to work up any interest for what may be one of the most boring and useless villains in super hero film history. According to my pal Ben Bailey, Steppenwolf makes Malakeith (Christopher Eccleston) of Thor 2 look like Loki (Tom Hiddelston) in Thor 2.
Justice League feels like two movies indelicately grafted together, and if you have a trained eye for cinematography you’ll easily be able to spot the difference between the Snyder parts and the Whedon parts (final product looks 70 percent Snyder, 30 percent Whedon). Snyder is much more the visual stylist so his camera arrangements are far more dynamic, and his cinematography also makes more use of space within the frame, especially from the foreground and background. His scenes also have a more crisp, filmic look. By contrast, the Whedon scenes feel overly clumsy and with too much strained humor. The Whedon humor holds on a beat longer, as if it’s waiting for a canned laughter response to clear. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) remarks about how Superman smells, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) drops a malapropism about her son calling Lois the “thirstiest reporter,” Barry Allen’s inability to grasp what is brunch, which is the only thing shoehorned into the middle of Snyder footage. Then the brunch joke is brought up again in the first post-credit scene, which had me convinced that Whedon was going to produce some sort of meta moment with the Justice League final post-credit scene mirroring The Avengers, with the team out enjoying a casual meal together. Not only do I think I enjoyed the Snyder parts better but I think I also enjoyed the humor of the Snyder parts better.
The color correction is also completely different. Check out the Justice League trailers and you’ll see two different climaxes, one before Whedon that takes place in Snyder’s typical landscape of diluted grays and blues, and another after Whedon that looks to be set on Mars. An unintended consequence of altering the color correction so decisively is that the costumes suffer. These outfits were clearly designed for the landscape of colors for Snyder’s darker vision. Whedon’s brightening up makes the costumes look like discount cosplay. It’s not that the Snyder parts are that much better, it’s that the Whedon parts aren’t that great.
The action sequences are just as unmemorable as the rest of the movie. Action sequences need variation, they need mini-goals, and they need multiple points of action. There’s a reason many film climaxes involve different pairs or groups fighting different villains. It keeps the action fresh, involves all of the characters in meaningful ways, and provides more payoffs. The action becomes more dynamic and complex and simply entertaining. The action in Justice League is thoroughly underwhelming. With the exception of Cyborg being a hacker plot device, none of the characters use their powers in integral ways. All they do is punch and jump. When that happens the heroes are too interchangeable. They also don’t seem to do anything different in the third act nor does the climax require them to do anything different, so their victory as a team feels perfunctory and arbitrary. The special effects feel unfinished and unpolished for a $300 million movie. A sequence set on Wonder Woman’s home island looks like it was taken from a cheesy Dynasty Warriors video game. A montage during the conclusion has shockingly bad CGI of the Flash running in a goofy, gangly, leg-failing way that made me doubt Whedon’s eyesight. The most hilarious special effect, possibly of all time, is the fake Superman upper lip. It kept me analyzing every Cavill mouth I saw. His upper lip looked too waxy with shine and indented too widely. We are not there yet my friends for realistic mustache removal technology. We’ll just have to go back to old-fashioned razors and rue this primitive existence of ours.
Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.
Nate’s Grade: C
We’ve seen this story before, the efforts to uncover the Watergate scandal and its sloppy cover-up from the perspective of Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who tirelessly collected clues, followed leads, and investigated the facts. That movie was All The President’s Men and was terrific. This movie is all about Mark Felt, the man who was the “Deep Throat” confidential informant, and it’s a bit less than terrific. It’s hardly even a movie because Felt’s story just isn’t that interesting. The film offers little new insights into Felt as a character or his personal struggles working against his own government. The FBI director is portrayed like a glowering Bond villain. The other characters come in and out, leaving little impact except to remind you that they’re famous. Felt’s personal life is also a bore, including Diane Lane in a thankless role as his alcoholic wife distraught over Felt being passed over as the new FBI director. He also has a missing daughter who ran off to a commune. There’s one moment where Felt feels paranoid and tears apart his office, but then we simply move on. There’s not enough here to justify a full-fledged movie. Whatever writer/director Peter Landesman (Concussion) does it’s not enough to make this story interesting, and that’s because Felt’s involvement in Watergate is minimal at best. All the President’s Men was about journalists uncovering the evidence and putting together the pieces. This movie is just about a guy who knows everything and has to get it out there. It’s inherently less interesting. Even the subtitle of The Man Who Brought Down the White House seems misinformed; I’m fairly certain that was Nixon. The Mark Felt story was told better when he was merely a minimal figure in someone else’s Watergate story. Just watch All the President’s Men instead.
Nate’s Grade: C
Batman and Superman have been a collision course for a while. The two most famous superheroes were once scheduled to combat in 2003. Then the budget got a tad too high for Warner Brothers’ liking and it was scrapped. Flash forward a decade and now it seems that money is no longer a stumbling point, especially as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice cost an estimated $250 million dollars. I wasn’t a fan of director Zack Snyder’s first take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel, so I was tremendously wary when he was already tapped to direct its follow-up, as well as the inevitable follow-up follow-up with 2017’s Justice League. You see DC has epic plans to create its own universe of interlocked comics franchises patterned after Marvel’s runaway success. Instead of building to the super team-up, they’re starting with it and hoping one movie can kick off possibly half a dozen franchises. There’s a lot at stake here for a lot of people. That’s what make the end results all the more truly shocking. Batman vs. Superman isn’t just a bad movie, and I never thought I’d type these words, it’s worse than Batman and Robin.
Eighteen months after the cataclysmic events of Man of Steel, Metropolis is rebuilding and has an uneasy relationship with its alien visitor, Superman (Henry Cavill). Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is convinced that an all-powerful alien is a threat to mankind, especially in the wake of the dead and injured in Metropolis. But how does man kill a god? Enter additional billionaire Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) and his acquisition of a giant hunk of kryptonite. Bruce runs into a mysterious woman (Gail Gadot a.k.a. Wonder Woman) also looking into the secrets held within Luthor’s vaults. Clark Kent is pressing Wayne for comment on this bat vigilante trampling on civil liberties in nearby Gotham City, and Wayne is annoyed at the news media’s fawning treatment over an unchecked all-powerful alien. The U.S. Senate is holding hearings on what responsibilities should be applied to Superman. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is worried that her boyfriend is getting too caught up in the wrong things. Lex Luthor is scheming in the shadows to set up one final confrontation that will eliminate either Batman or Superman, and if that doesn’t work he’s got a backup plan that could spell their doom.
Let’s start with Batman because quite frankly he’s the character that the American culture prefers (his name even comes first in the title for a Superman sequel). Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was at the bad end of unrelenting Internet fanboy-fueled scorn when the news came out that he was going to play the Caped Crusader, but he’s one of the best parts of this movie, or perhaps the better phrasing would be one of the least bad parts. He’s a much better Bruce Wayne than Batman but we don’t really get much of either in this movie from a character standpoint. There isn’t much room for character development of any sort with a plot as busy and incomprehensible as Batman vs. Superman, and so the movie often just relies upon the outsized symbolism of its mythic characters. We have a Batman who is Tough and Dark and Traumatized and looking for (Vigilante) Justice. We only really get a handful of scenes with Batman in action, and while there’s a certain entertainment factor to watching an older, more brutal Batman who has clearly given up the whole ethical resolve to avoid killing the bad guys, under Snyder’s attention, the character is lost in the action. The opening credits once again explain Batman’s origin story, a tale that should be burned into the consciousness of every consumer. We don’t need it, yet Snyder feels indebted to what he thinks a Batman movie requires. So he’s gruff, and single-minded, and angry, but he’s never complex and often he’s crudely rendered into the Sad Man Lashing Out. He’s coming to the end of his career in tights and he knows it, and he’s thinking about his ultimate legacy. That’s a great starting point that the multitude of live-action Batman cinema has yet to explore, but that vulnerability is replaced with resoluteness. He’s determined to kill Superman because Superman is dangerous, and also I guess because the Metropolis collateral damage crushed a security officer’s legs, a guy he’s never met before. The destructive orgy of Metropolis is an excellent starting point to explain Bruce Wayne’s fear and fury. I don’t know then why the movie treats Wayne as an extremist. I don’t really understand why there’s a memorial for the thousands who lost their lives in the Metropolis brawl that includes a statue of Superman. Isn’t that akin to the Vietnam Wall erecting a giant statue of a Vietcong soldier stabbing an American GI with a bayonet? This may be the most boring Batman has ever been onscreen, and I repeat, Ben Affleck is easily one of the best parts of this woefully begotten mess.
Next let’s look at the other titular superhero of the title, the Boy Scout in blue, Superman. The power of Superman lies with his earnest idealism, a factor that has always made him a tougher sell than the gloomy Batman. With Man of Steel, Warner Brothers tried making Superman more like Batman, which meant he was darker, mopey, theoretically more grounded, and adopted the same spirit of being crushed by the weight of expectations and being unable to meet them. Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) was a Superman who didn’t want to be Superman, where dear old Pa Kent advocated letting children drown rather than revealing his powers (Father’s Day must have been real awkward in the Kent household). It wasn’t a great step and I wrote extensively about it with Man of Steel. The problem is that Superman and Batman are supposed to be contradictory and not complimentary figures. If one is brooding and the other is slightly more brooding, that doesn’t exactly create a lot of personal and philosophical conflicts now does it? It clearly feels that Snyder and everybody really wanted to make a Batman movie and Superman just tagged along. Superman clearly doesn’t even want to be Superman in the Superman sequel, often looking at saving others with a sigh-inducing sense of duty. He’s still working as a journalist and making moral arguments about the role of the media, which seems like a really lost storyline considering the emphasis on blood and destruction. He wants Superman to be seen as a force of good even if others deify him. That’s a powerfully interesting angle that’s merely given lip service, the concept of what Superman’s impact has on theology and mankind’s relationship to the universe and its sense of self. Imagine the tectonic shifts acknowledging not only are we not alone but we are the inferior race. We get a slew of truly surprising cameos for a superhero movie arguing this debate (Andrew Sullivan?) but then like most else it’s dropped. Clark is trying to reconcile his place in the world but he’s really just another plot device, this time a one-man investigation into this bat vigilante guy. The other problem with a Batman v. Superman showdown is that Superman is obviously the superior and would have to hold back to make it thrilling. We already know this Superman isn’t exactly timid about killing. The climax hinges on a Batman/Superman connection that feels so trite as to be comical, and yet Snyder and company don’t trust the audience enough to even piece that together and resort to a reconfirming flashback.
Arguably the most problematic area of a movie overwhelmed with problems and eyesores, Eisenberg’s (Now You See Me) version of Lex Luthor is a complete non-starter. He is essentially playing his Mark Zuckerberg character but with all the social tics cranked higher. His socially awkward mad genius character feels like he’s been patched in from a different movie (Snyder’s Social Network?) and his motivation is kept murky. Why does he want to pit Batman and Superman against each other? It seems he has something of a god complex because of a nasty father. He is just substantially disappointing as a character, and his final scheme, complete with the use of an egg timer for wicked purposes, is so hokey that it made me wince. If you’re going with this approach for Lex then embrace it and make it make sense. Late in the movie, Lex Luthor comes across a treasure-trove of invaluable information, and yet he does nothing substantive with this except create a monster that needs a super team-up to take down (this plot point was already spoiled by the film’s marketing department, so I don’t feel guilty about referring to it). If you’re working with crafty Lex, he doesn’t just gain leverage and instantly attack. This is a guy who should be intricately plotting as if he was the John Doe killer in Seven. This is a guy who uses his intelligence to bend others to his will. This Lex Luthor throws around his ego, nattering social skills, and force-feeds people Jolly Ranchers. This is simply a colossal miscalculation that’s badly executed from the second he steps onscreen. The movie ends up being a 150-minute origin story for how Lex Luthor loses his hair.
The one character that somewhat works is Wonder Woman and this may be entirely due to the fact that her character is in the movie for approximately twenty minutes. Like Lois, she has little bearing on the overall plot, but at least she gets to punch things. I was skeptical of Gadot (Triple 9) when she was hired for the role that should have gone to her Furious 6 co-star, Gina Carano (Deadpool). She didn’t exactly impress me but I’ll admit I dropped much of my skepticism. I’m interested in a Wonder Woman movie, especially if, as reported, the majority is set during World War I. There is a definite thrill of seeing the character in action for the first time, even if she’s bathed in Snyder’s desaturated color-corrected palate of gloom. Realistically, Wonder Woman is here to introduce her franchise, to setup the Justice League movies, and as a tether to the other meta-humans who each have a solo film project on the calendar for the next four years. Wonder Woman gets to play coy and mysterious and then extremely capable and fierce during the finale. One of the movie’s biggest moments of enjoyment for me was when Wonder Woman takes a punch and her response is to smile. I look forward to seeing more of her in action and I hope the good vibes I have with the character, and Gadot, carry onward.
The last act of this movie is Snyder pummeling the audience into submission, and it’s here where I just gave up and waited for the cinematic torment to cease. The action up to this point had been rather mediocre, save for that one Batman fight, and I think with each additional movie I’m coming to the conclusion that Snyder is a first-class visual stylist but a terrible action director. The story has lacked greater psychological insights or well-rounded characters, so it’s no surprise that the final act is meant to be the gladiatorial combat Lex has hyped, the epic showdown between gods. In essence, superheroes have taken a mythic property in our pop-culture, and Batman and Superman are our modern Mt. Olympus stalwarts. This showdown should be everything. The operatic heaviness of the battle at least matches with the overwrought tone of the entire movie. It’s too bad then that the titular bout between Batman and Superman lasts a whole ten minutes long. That’s it, folks, because then they have to forget their differences to tackle a larger enemy, the exact outcome that every single human being on the planet anticipated. I’m not even upset that the film ends in this direction, as it was fated. What I am upset about is a climax that feels less than satisfyingly climactic and more like punishment, as well as a conclusion that no single human being on the planet will believe. Snyder’s visual style can be an assault on the senses but what it really does is break you down. The end fight is an incoherent visual mess with the screen often a Where’s Waldo? pastiche of electricity, debris, smoke, fire, explosions, and an assortment of other elements. It’s a thick soup of CGI muck that pays no mind to geography or pacing. It’s like Michael Bay got drunk on Michael Bay-filmmaking. What the hell is the point of filming this movie in IMAX when the visual sequences are either too hard to decipher or something unworthy of the IMAX treatment? Do we need an entire close-up of a shell hitting the ground in glorious IMAX? The Doomsday character looks like a big grey baby before he grows his spikes. I was shocked at how bad the special effects looked for a movie that cost this much money, as if ILM or WETA said, “Good enough.” Once it was all over, I sat and reflected and I think even Snyder’s Sucker Punch had better action.
Another problem is that there are just way too many moments that don’t belong in a 150-minute movie. There’s an entire contrivance of Lois disposing of a valuable tool and then having to go back and retrieve it that made me roll my eyes furiously. It’s an inept way of keeping Lois involved in the action. How does Lois even know the relevancy of this weapon against its new enemy? Then there’s her rescue, which means that even when the movie shoehorns Lois into the action to make her relevant, she still manages to become a damsel in needing of saving. She feels shoehorned in general with the screenplay, zipping from location to location really as a means of uncovering exposition. Then there’s the fact that there is a staggering THREE superfluous dream sequences, and we actually get a flashback to one of those dumb dream sequences. The most extended dream sequence is a nightmarish apocalyptic world where Batman rebels against a world overrun by Superman and his thugs. There’s a strange warning that comes with this extended sequence of future action but it doesn’t involve this movie. Batman vs. Superman suffers from the same sense of over-extension that plagued Age of Ultron. It’s trying to set up so many more movies and potential franchises that it gets lost trying to simply make a good movie rather than Step One in a ten-step film release. In the age of super franchises that are intertwined with super monetary investments, these pilot movies feel more like delivery systems than rewarding storytelling. Payoffs are sacrificed for the promise of future payoffs, and frankly DC hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt here.
I must return to my central, headline-grabbing statement and explain how Batman vs. Superman is a worse movie than the infamous Batman and Robin. I understand how loaded that declaration is so allow me to unpack it. This is a bad movie, and with that I have no doubt. It’s plodding, incoherent, tiresome, dreary, poorly developed, and so self-serious and overwrought to the point that every ounce of fun is relinquished. It feels more like punishment than entertainment, a joyless 150-minute exercise in product launching. By the end of the movie I sat in my chair, defeated and weary. Here is the most insidious part. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice obliterates any hope I had for the larger DC universe, let alone building anything on par with what Marvel has put together. If this is the direction they’re going, the style, the tone, then I don’t see how any of these will work. What’s to like here? “Fun” is not a dirty word. Fun does not mean insubstantial nor does it mean that larger pathos is mitigated. If you’re going to have a movie about Batman and Superman duking it out, it better damn well be entertaining, and yes fun. It’s not a Lars von Trier movie. The Marvel movies are knocked for not being serious, but they take their worlds and characters seriously enough. They don’t need to treat everything like a funeral dirge, which is what Batman vs. Superman feels like (it even opens and closes on funerals). This movie confirms all the worst impulses that Man of Steel began, and because it gutted all hope I have for the future of these oncoming superhero flicks, I can’t help but lower its final grade. Batman and Robin almost killed its franchise but it was in decline at the time. As campy and innocuous as it was, Batman vs. Superman goes all the way in the other direction to the extreme, leaving a lumbering movie that consumes your hopes. The novelty of the premise and seeing its famous characters standing side-by-side will be enough for some audience members. For everyone else, commence mourning.
Nate’s Grade: D
I think I began my review for 2006’s Superman Returns the same way but I don’t care. Does Superman have any relevant appeal in today’s society? I understand being a moral pinnacle has been his MO from the start, and I understand that today’s generation likes its heroes dark and broody and tortured. I know you can make Superman into an interesting figure (the man just celebrated his 75th anniversary, so there have to be some people who identify), though it is a bigger challenge, surely. I think taking a darker tack can be achievable but needs finesse. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, having fashioned the highly successful Dark Knight trilogy, seem like a formidable pair to shepherd a darker Superman into the twenty-first century. Combine that with director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), and you’re guaranteed a pretty movie. Where does Man of Steel go wrong?
You know the drill at this point: Superman a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) was originally born on the doomed alien planet Krypton. His biological father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), sent his son to Earth with the hope that he could survive and achieve great things. Raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), he then accepts his destiny to be mankind’s protector, butting heads and flirting with dogged reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Except now Superman has the entire genetic code of Krypton’s history (?) transported into him via a “codex” (whish resembles a charred baby skull). General Zod (Michael Shannon), imprisoned off planet when Krypton was destroyed, is determined to retrieve that code and start his race anew. He and his crew travel to Earth and demand superman turn himself in, or else Earth will suffer.
Where this movie gets into deep trouble is that it fashions Superman into an inactive loner, turning him into a super bore. He has such superhuman strength at his command but his doubtful dad has taught him that humanity would lose its mind if he revealed himself. And so Superman goes through half this movie hiding his super ability. He actively avoids conflict and confrontation. It’s basically the same formula as the Incredible Hulk TV show, where Bruce Banner would drift from town to town, warning others not to make him angry, then mournfully have to leave yet again. He can’t help himself save lives but, in flashback, dearly departed dad admonishes him for it (Clark: “Should I just have let them die?” Pa Kent: “Maybe.”). I think the isolation the character endures is essential to understanding his heavy burden, but at the same time this was compensated by Clark Kent, Superman’s opportunity to blend in with the natives, assume a frail phony identity, and to flash some much needed personality. In Man of Steel, he doesn’t become Clark Kent, news reporter, until the very last scene. It’s not a movie about a man becoming Superman but Clark Kent, experience-free reporter.
Two of the chief complaints about Bryan Singer’s 2006 Superman movie were that it was too reverent to its source material, namely the Richard Donner films, and it lacked sufficient action. Well, both of those issues are tackled in the very opening of Man of Steel. Goyer reworks plenty of Superman mythology from a science fiction angle, and so we get stuff about alien invaders, genetic bloodlines, clone baby labs, teraforming, and all sorts of spaceships. The characters keep referring to Superman as “the alien,” and dad worries that the knowledge of his super son will upset people’s worldviews about humanity and God (have no fear, there’s still messianic imagery to sledgehammer you with). I’m fine with Goyer playing fast and loose with Superman’s history but his alterations need to have solid reasoning. Nolan played around with Batman’s history and it worked because, in the context of the world and characters he developed, it fit. Does Jor-El riding a dragon like a live-action Heavy Metal fit? Does a billion people’s DNA transposed into Superman’s cells fit? Do Superman’s actions during the quite controversial ending fit? Does Clark’s stepdad, Jonathan Kent, willingly dying in a tornado fit? Does Lois Lane immediately knowing who Superman is, before he even adopts the Clark Kent disguise, fit? I doubt it, though it still could have worked. However, Goyer’s script is a mess structurally, preventing the story from gaining serious traction. First, we start with twenty-something minutes on Krypton, which could be condensed in half, then we slam into the present and this new formula appears: present, flashback, present, flashback, present. That happens for another twenty minutes. Then there’s 40 minutes of Superman dithering as the reluctant hero. Then the last hour plus is a nonstop barrage of meaningless action that squeezes out room for character growth.
I’ll credit Snyder and company for likely tripling the action quotient of any previous Superman movie (maybe even all of them combined), but I never thought such action would be so boring. Oh sure, it delights for a while with advanced special effects and Snyder’s eye for visuals, but the action sequences drag out far too long. A long action sequence? Isn’t that what you’re always demanding, critic Nate? Well anonymous and theoretical detractor, yes, I enjoy a well-developed and sustained action sequence. The problem with action sequences is that they have to matter. They have to accomplish something even if it’s just there are less enemies or the hero got from point A to point B. There has to be, at bare minimum, something that is accomplished. Sadly, this is not the case with the action in Man of Steel, which is why the sequences drag and feel like they are twice as long as their already bloated length. There’s a brawl between two evil Kryptonians and Superman and after a whole 10-15 minutes of sparring, the bad guys get on a ship and leave. Come on, Zod has like a crew of twelve henchmen. Can’t one of them at least die in a preliminary battle? Worse, the final confrontation between Zod and Superman could just as easily been eliminated. They punch and yell and punch and yell and stuff gets all smashy, but by the end of the fight, nothing has substantially changed, except the foundational surroundings (more on that below). Having two invincible beings punch each other for a half hour is not engrossing. For a lengthy action sequence to work there need to be complications, organic to the situation, and the stakes should escalate. James Cameron and Steven Spielberg are masters at crafting escalating action. J.J. Abrams is pretty good himself. Even Michael Bay has his merits. I don’t know whether to lay the crux of the blame on Snyder or the screenplay he had to give life.
As the plodding action continued to pound me senseless, I was left to seriously ponder just how epic the scale of Superman’s collateral damage truly is. At one point, when Supes is fighting in the small-town center of Smallville, he tells the residents to, “Stay inside. It’s not safe.” What then proceeds to happen is a fight that rips up almost all the pavement in town, takes down a helicopter, a few fighter jets that crash in town, exploding, as well as a train car, plenty of ricocheting gunfire, and debris everywhere. But have no fear because those citizens stayed away from the windows and locked their doors! More than likely they are dead. The concluding clash in Metropolis is like 9/11 times eight. I counted three different skyscrapers that came tumbling down, and this is after the Krypton gravity field has ripped up the city and smashed it to dust, as well as missiles exploding around the city and Zod’s various spaceships. Then there’s the fight where Zod and Superman are blasting through just about every high-rise office building, and even when they collide outside it creates such force that buildings crater. They even fly into space, destroy a satellite, which then comes down as fiery debris that rains down on poor Metropolis. The final plan to foil the bad guys involves, get this, opening a black hole above a major city. It’s not like that sounds as if it will have catastrophic blowback.
The 9/11 imagery is unmistakable and I don’t care if it has been 12 years now. Couldn’t Superman at least react to the desolation he was causing? I really hope some enterprising soul via the Internet tallies the number of estimated deaths because I sincerely believe it would reach into the millions (Update: Ask and ye shall receive). Superman decimates the city and I thought less about the gee-whiz factor of the special effects and more about the innocent lives being lost amidst the CGI devastation. It looks like an atomic bomb went off. Perhaps a sequel will start with Lex Luthor rebuilding Metropolis.
And that’s the problem when you try and make sense of Man of Steel’s more realistic, grounded approach. This is a Superman that came of age in the 80/90s. While touches like young Clark experiencing sensory overload with his powers, like a scared autistic child, are clever and nice avenues toward relatability, you still have to square the more bombastic, over-the-top, and downright stupid moments that clash with that refined tone of greater realism. Nolan wanted Batman to exist in a recognizable world, so it makes sense that he and Goyer would attempt to do likewise with DC’s other champion. The prospect of an invincible alien among us is a potent source for some thoughtful and topical drama. It’s just not going to happen when Superman can demolish cities without blinking an eye or when anyone else fails to register the scale of this tremendous trauma. We don’t even have outside reactions or opinions to the earth-shattering revelation that we are not alone in the universe.
Then there are just the little things that annoyed me. Jonathan Kent dies in an effort to save the family dog. This comes off as lame, especially when Superman could save dad but has to hold back, per pa’s wishes, so as not to expose himself. Except, by the end, when the United States accepts Superman, doesn’t this invalidate all of Pa Kent’s worldview? If so, then the man died for nothing. Also, General Zod wants to transform Earth into Krypton. Except… on Earth all Kryptonians have godlike powers. Wouldn’t the man just want to keep that? Also, why does Zod never dispatch more than two Krypton lackeys to fight Superman? He has all these godlike warriors and decides to just keep them locked away in his spaceship. That just doesn’t make sense from a tactical standpoint. Also, Pa Kent tells his son to do his best to blend in, but in one scene bullies harass Clark as he’s reading from Plato. Yes, because your typical teenager can’t rip himself or herself away from the likes of Plato. Careful: Plato is a gateway read to Epicurus. Then there’s the overbearing product placement. Usually I give movies a pass if they’re not obnoxious with product placement; however, Man of Steel stages entire action sequences so we can get long-lasting looks at the logos for Sears, 7-11, and IHOP: “This callous destruction brought to you by the good (surviving) people at Sears.”
Cavill (Immortals, TV’s The Tudors) sure has the look for the part. He’s appropriately bulky but because the role is too often inactive loner, always holding back, that makes his performance somewhat bland and more reticent than necessary. Part of this is also that Snyder has historically been a poor actor’s director. You can tell throughout the film as talented, Oscar-nominated and winning thespians like Crowe and Shannon will just give off deliveries, little tinny trills that clunk, moments that a director should have stepped in for. Shannon (Take Shelter, Premium Rush) is one of our best working wacko actors, but even he comes across as a bit too unrestrained and stiff, especially when he has to scream “I will find HIM” half a dozen times in a row. I thought Zod’s second-in-command played by German actress Antje Traue (Pandorum) had more personality and better moments. Adams (The Master, Trouble with the Curve) is a good choice for a plucky Lois Lane, especially one sharp enough to see through Clark’s disguise. The movie is packed with good character actors like Laurence Fishburne, Harry Lennix, Christopher Meloni, Michael Kelly, Richard Schiff, Mackenzie Gray, and two actors from Battlestar Galactica. That’s nice. The best actor in the movie is Dylan Sprayberry as teen Clark.
Snyder’s reworked Superman for our modern age just doesn’t cut it as popular entertainment. Its misshapen structure, heavy with exposition, doesn’t provide enough space for the characters to develop, and the general edict to make Superman an inactive loner on the fringes of society is a surefire way to keep an audience at bay. The CGI-heavy action sequences feel like they go on for an eternity, straining and struggling to keep your attention because the stakes fail to escalate or have consequences outside ridiculous amounts of collateral damage to rival the worst of Mother Nature. The over-amped sci-fi reworking tries to make a clean break from the demands of Superman’s mythology, and while some revamps work, most feel needless and ham-fisted, like Pa Kent’s somewhat pointless death. But the worst charge is that the movie is just too boring. I know people have levied this charge against Superman movies in the past, particularly the 2006 Singer film that I will still stand by my positive review for. Man of Steel is a good looking movie for certain, often a great looking movie, but all those pretty pictures are for naught because of a flawed approach and overindulgence with tedious action sequences. Given its box-office riches, I expect this Superman retread will garner the sequel that Singer’s film did not. I just hope the next chapter in the new adventures of Superman experiences a Dark Knight-level rise in quality.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The premise for Jumper seems like adolescent wish fulfillment. Who wouldn’t want the ability to instantly get away? Plus, being able to instantly vanish would unleash an inner Lothario in some men, causing them to love the ladies one night and leave them high and dry the next morning. Having the ability to be anywhere at a moment’s notice is quite a powerful gift but could it lead to tremendous vanity? Director Doug Liman doesn’t seem too interested in all the interesting possibilities afford by teleporting teenagers and instead unleashes what feels like an empty prequel to a hopeful sci-fi franchise.
David (Hayden Christensen) is a shy kid at school when he discovers one day that he has the ability to instantly transport himself to another location simply through the power of his mind. David uses this teleporting ability to, naturally, rob banks and build a cushy lifestyle for himself. He can snack on top of the Sphinx’s head, surf along Australian waves, hang off the clock face of Big Ben, and best of all, he never needs to reach for the TV remote again (seriously, David teleports from one couch cushion to another just to snag the not-too-distant remote). David is a jumper and he discovers he is not alone. Griffin (Jamie Bell, the true star of the movie) has the ability as well and enlightens David on the perils of the jumper lifestyle. Paladins have been hunting and killing jumpers for hundreds of years. The Paladins carry staffs that shoot electrified tethers out, hoping to wrap up the jumpers. The electric bolts stop the jumper from being able to concentrate and escape. Roland (Samuel L. Jackson), a head Paladin, explains that “only God should be able to be all places at all times.”
Complicating matters is that David has reconnected with his high school crush Millie (Rachel Bilson). He whisks her off to Rome and they break into the Coliseum together like crazy kids do. He’s vague about where he’s been for 8 years and says he can afford such expensive getaways thanks to his “banking” job. But Roland is circling and plans on getting to him by any means, even if poor Millie gets gutted in the process.
Jumper has some flashes of excitement and a halfway decent premise, but this film is completely hollow on the inside. Liman must have been too entranced with his premise to ask for anything substantive from his slew of screenwriters. The movie has a handful of great images and moments that surely make for a crackerjack trailer, however, there is hardly any attention paid to plot or character or even enticing action. There is one good chase scene between two jumpers going through many stops around the globe; one second they’re running on a beach, the next through downtown Tokyo, and another falling off the Empire State building to landing safely inside a community swimming pool. The pace is a little too break-neck for my taste but the sequence is high on imagination and finally plays with the fun possibilities of teleporters otherwise ignored by the film. That’s the highlight of the movie, right there, and yet even it feels mildly derivative of the sequence in Being John Malkovich where Cameron Diaz chases Catherine Keener through the subconscious bowels of John Malkovich’s memory. This is a movie that asks little of its audience because the filmmakers barely scratched the surface with their material. The execution is a wash and the movie feels like a scattered sightseeing tour told by someone high on crystal meth.
The characters are pretty shallow and powerfully bland, and the romance between David and Millie is entirely contrived and unbelievable. In fact, Millie isn’t a character but a plot contrivance. In the beginning she’s established as the caring girl next door for adoration, then flash ahead years later and upon her first reunion with David she has sex with him because, well, I don’t know, because the plot demands some impromptu sex. Then her purpose is to serve as a broken record of morality; a good hour of Millie’s dialogue is reiterations of the lines “What’s wrong?” “Are you okay?” and “What aren’t you telling me?” It gets really annoying and all she does is keep repeating these queries while David drags her by the hand through Rome. It also hurts that Christensen and Bilson have zero chemistry together. But expectantly, Millie’s final purpose is to be the damsel in distress that requires rescuing. Millie’s lax characterization is emblematic of the film as whole. She and the other characters serve a strict, utilitarian purpose to move the plot forward when it’s called for, but the plot isn’t even that good!
The audience is willing to accept the unbelievable as long as it makes some for of logic on its own terms. People have the ability to teleport, got it. But then the movie throws in the Paladins and gives us little explanation. These grey-coated hunters are some religious order or something and have hunted jumpers since the Middle Ages, though their grasp of technology must have improved. I wanted to know more about these hunters, and “religious fundamentalism” seems like a lazy excuse for motivation. Why do these people go to such great ends to kill jumpers? What is their history? Why do they use tazers instead of guns? If a jumper can’t dodge an electric cord then surely they wouldn’t be able to dodge a bullet. How come the jumpers don’t use guns to easily knock off the Paladins? If this is an ongoing war then how come no one else has caught on to the massive collateral damage of the battles? The jumpers leave trace damage to wherever they appear, so how come no one else seems to have caught on? Just like all the other plot elements, the Paladins are established and then ignored by the filmmakers. I kept finding my mind wandering and I created my own intriguing back-story for the Paladins, one where the insurance companies of the world are sick of losing money to the self-serving jumpers, so they subcontract the Paladins to kill these financial fiends. Right there I just spent more time thinking about how to make this movie interesting than the people responsible for making this movie interesting. The corporate avenging angle is more fun than simply making the villains an age-old religious sect like they were plot leftovers from The Da Vinci Code. This movie needed a whole heaping helping of exposition to provide some minute level of clarity to all the flash and noise.
There are so many plot holes and loose storylines that it seems like the filmmakers had the delusional thought that this movie was the first step in a franchise. Because of this belief, we are treated to every single character being left hanging and there is no resolution or sense of finality. The subplot with David’s mother (Diane Lane) is tacked on with promise of addressing it in the future. Jumper doesn’t so much end as put everyone on hold, including the audience.
Liman delivered on his Hollywood potential with 2002’s Bourne Identity and 2005’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, so Jumper is a pretty crushing letdown for a man with such a great mind for inventive action sequences. Liman is sunk by such a terrible script, but it almost seems like the plot was dictated by Liman’s handful of visual cues he had in his brain. There are some nifty images and a couple of cool moments, but cool moments do not make a 90-minute movie, and Jumper lurches from plot point to plot point with depressing routine. There’s so little imagination with the brief, lackluster action sequences given the sheer possibilities with teleporting.
The acting seems on autopilot. Christensen is too bland for words. I repeat my earlier prediction that Christensen will likely be nothing more than the human equivalent of a vacant, pretty mannequin for his acting career; though I must suggest that everyone see his one piece of acting greatness in 2003’s Shattered Glass. His character in Jumper is pretty much a cipher for the audience to have some vicarious, globe-trotting fun, but David is pretty hard to like and doesn’t give an audience much insight into his character. His monotone delivery buries the cheesy dialogue. And, as a die-hard Ohio State fan, it made it even harder for me to root for an Ann Arbor kid. Bilson is pretty but relies on looks of anxiety and sensuous lip biting to display the depths of her one-note character. Jackson delivers a performance suitably in the Samuel L. Jackson canon of screaming and scowling, this time with a white buzz cut hairdo.
If I were being charitable, I’d say that the absence of a succinct story and sufficient characters is because Jumper feels like the pilot to a franchise. But I’m not being charitable. I expected much better from Doug Liman than 20 minutes of setup and another hour of shiny, flashy diversions with little context. The premise isn’t capitalized at all and for a film about the thrilling possibilities of having the world at your fingertips, this movie sure lacks any sense of whimsy and fun. Jumper tells the audience that it has the power to go anywhere, but all I wanted to do was transport myself into a different theater.
Nate’s Grade: C
The Internet can be a scary place, no question. There’s plenty of weird crap in wide-open world of the World Wide Web. There are sites devoted to teaching people how to make bombs in the privacy of their own kitchen. If you can name a fetish, chances are there’s a pay sex site already built for it (I tried “clown porn” and was not disappointed, and by that I mean that I found a site for it and WAS deeply creeped out). According to the ongoing Dateline specials, everyone wants to “talk” to adolescent girls while they’re home alone. In short, the Internet can be a scary place. Untraceable, a barrel-scrapping genre movie, taps into our fears of the unknown in cyber space.
Agent Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane) is a member of the Portland, Oregon office of the FBI. She specializes in tracking down cyber criminals and bringing them to real-world justice. There’s a new Web site called “Kill With Me.com” that invites anonymous users to serve as executioners. The site creator creates death traps that increase in deadliness the more users click onto the site; so a man bleeds out faster the more people that want to catch a glimpse of it. Lucky for the FBI, the cyber killer is doing all this nasty business in Portland. Marsh and her cyber assistant (Colin Hanks) try finding the location of the IP site but, somehow, it skips around the world and cannot be pinpointed. The victims of the site are specifically chosen, and Marsh is struggling to put it all together. Then the cyber killer begins stalking her and lets others join in on the fun.
Untraceable is rather hypocritical in nature. It wants to titillate an audience but then shame them for embracing the titillation; the movie is purveying the same crap that it derides. The premise of a digital age serial killer that transforms murder into an online democratic act sounds nifty. Plenty of insightful questions generated by this premise like the nature of exploitation, media, and the culpability on the account of the insatiable viewing public. It’s too bad, then that Untraceable just uses the premise as a jumping off point to create a half-assed Saw. The movie is mostly concerned with reworking the familiar tropes of the serial killer genre, this time with some extra dashes of torture and Saw-style death traps. But the movie doesn’t fully commit to horror so much of the gore is implied. The extra attention to torture seems timidly tacked on to the framework of a thriller, likely grossing out the older folk that came to the movies thinking they were going to watch Diane Lane assert justice on this new fangled Internets thing. The movie has a vague fear of technology and computers and seems programmed to scare people that don’t know any better, namely the people who think computers are bigger toasters.
The script by relative neophytes is where the movie treads water. The villain is revealed fairly early, like a half hour in, and this revelation does nothing to help build tension. The culprit responsible for the laughably implausible death traps is a gangly eighteen-year-old twerp (Running with Scissors‘ Joseph Cross; yes that kid). I understand that in serial killer movies the villain usually takes on some form of supernatural abilities, like the ability to be everywhere and never be seen, or the ability to draw super strength at opportune times. When Untraceable apathetically reveals its villain the movie seems like it’s already giving up and conceding, “Okay, this is the big bad dude and he weighs about 110 pounds soaking wet. We know he could never outmatch anyone that is over five feet tall.” Marsh’s home life is also given obligatory screen time, including Marsh’s mother keeping watch of the home, but it never matters. In this world, birthday parties just get in the way of FBI manhunts.
The film also requires character to act inexplicably stupid at a moment’s notice in order for the plot to hum along. Marsh is such an expert on cyber crime, and yet she doesn’t bat an eyelash when her young daughter downloads a mysterious computer program sent to her by a “friend”? Never mind that this FBI expert logs onto the “Kill With Me” site on her home computer, allowing the killer to hack into her computer and look through all her personal information and cyber dirty laundry. The worst lapse occurs after our tech-savvy killer has effectively hacked into Marsh’s OnStar computer system in her car. The engine shits down and the car slows to a halt. Marsh leaves her car to use a roadside telephone to tell another cop that the killer has hijacked her car. The cop on the phone advises her to be on alert. Right after she hangs up, the car’s engine and lights become operational once again. Marsh trots over to her car, whose door had been open since she left, and simply hops back inside without checking the vehicle at all. She is swiftly tazed and kidnapped by the killer who was routinely hiding in the back seat. It’s not like a trained FBI agent would be able to miss the inescapable sight of somebody hiding in a tiny backseat with little room to crouch. I can excuse smart people making stupid decisions, but when a movie like Untraceable has experts not following through on situations that require their expertise, then it comes across as contrived. Really, a cop wouldn’t even peek in the backseat?
Lane holds her own, and even that is an accomplishment for something so rote. She’s an actress easing into her forties and finding a new tap of talent. Frankly, she should have won the Best Actress Oscar for 2002 with her fabulous work in Unfaithful. That movie came out five years ago, and yet the Diane Lane in Untraceable looks so much older. I think the filmmakers were trying to make her look more harried by not applying makeup or utilizing soft focus. You can see her wrinkles and her age, and these are all well earned for a great actress, and Untraceable wants to maker her look her age in a time where Hollywood seems to dump out an actress’ business card once she hits 40. I just thought that was interesting, but the most interesting facet of this entire movie is that the actor who plays the head of the FBI team (Peter Lewis) looks remarkably close to 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. It’s uncanny. If Huckabee ever plans on contributing to a filmed biopic of his life, then Peter Lewis should be on his shortlist.
Untraceable scrapes the serial killer genre for some form of life. The novel premise gives way to predictably lackluster thrills and gaping plot holes. Lane saunters around with a gun for two hours, mixed in with some extended sequences of torture, including one that involves hundreds of heat lamps. Look, I know I’m no cop, but couldn’t someone simply trace the massive electric bill this guy is generating? It’s just sloppy police work all around. Why? Because the movie requires giant lapses in judgment so that it can continue. The world can be a sick place, but has it always been this way? A better movie would dig deeper; this movie just wants to fry a cat and call it a day.
Nate’s Grade: C
Seriously, is there anything more that can be written about modern romantic comedies? If ever there was a genre comparable to horror, it’s these easily digestible, 90-minute love fests. I feel like I’m becoming a romantic comedy connoisseur. And it’s all because of my girlfriend. You see, without her I never would have seen Miss Congeniality 2, let alone in a first-run theater. I wouldn’t have seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and that was a very pleasant film. Added to the list is Must Love Dogs, a romantic comedy released right before the dog days of summer.
Sarah (Diane Lane) is a newly divorced 40-something preschool teacher (who looks freaking adorable dressed as a cat). Her very tight-knit family consoles her but also can?t stop from putting all their efforts toward helping Sarah get back on her feet. Sarah’s younger sister scours through her wardrobe and asks, “Where are all your boob shirts?” Carol (Elizabeth Perkins) creates an online profile for Sarah without her knowledge and submits it to an Internet dating website. She ends the profile by saying, “Must love dogs.” This allows for many disastrous dates, including one awkward date with her father (Christopher Plummer), himself on the dating scene. Jack (John Cusack) has just gotten out of a long-term relationship and his heart is fragile. He carves old fashioned wooden boats but struggles to make any sales. His buddy sets up a date with Sarah at a dog park. Jack borrows a dog and things don’t go so smoothly, but he sees something there. They go on additional dates and really feel a connection, even if the dates don’t go according to plan. But Sarah also has Bob (Dermot Mulroney), a hunky single dad to one of her preschool tykes, to choose from. What’s a hot single woman to do?
Must Love Dogs is a grab bag of romantic comedy clichés. You’ll find most everything here, from the sassy sister, the gay best friend (for 21st century advancements, the movie presents a gay couple), people trying to learn to love again after having their hearts broken, precocious children that say unusually adult things, a sing-along to a classic song, and the inevitable moment where one person finally has a late revelation and runs to catch their soon-to-be leaving love.
What hurts Must Love Dogs from its other cookie cutter ilk is how contrived so much of it feels. For the longest time the movie presents both of Sarah’s male options in a positive light, but because we see Cusack’s name above the credits and his face on the poster we know he’s destined to win out. Despite this, the film manufactures an entirely contrived scenario to put a wedge between Sarah and Jack. Bob walks in and, in an attempt to convince Sarah he didn’t bang her younger co-worker, kisses her on the spot. Then they pull apart and we see Jack standing there with Sarah’s drunken brother over his shoulder (how did he get back in the house anyway?). Must Love Dogs is another romantic comedy where the conflicts would be resolved with one levelheaded conversation between all parties.
What does keep Must Love Dogs afloat is how enormously likable and appealing Lane and Cusack are as actors. They’ve both been acting since they were teens (Lane was even on the cover of TIME magazine before she had a training bra), so it’s pleasant to see them mature gracefully but still remain vibrant, charismatic, and very good looking. After her blistering turn as the errant wife in 2002’s Unfaithful (which she should have won the Best actress Oscar for), Lane has found stable footing in romantic comedies dealing with the overlooked stories of a 40-something woman in love. In Must Love Dogs she’s generally strong despite the weak material. She has her funnier moments dealing with reaction. Cusack’s character is like Lloyd Dobbler (from the masterpiece Say Anything) in 15 years, and he manages to put his offbeat/sexy Cusack magic all over the film. With different actors as the leads, Must Love Dogs would be mostly forgettable.
Must Love Dogs also gives ample material to Sarah’s father and his pursuit of a mate of his own. Plummer is excellent as the wry old codger and has some very tender moments with Lane. It’s rare for a mainstream movie, let alone a romantic comedy, to sensibly deal with an elderly man’s own search for love, after losing the love of his life. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals realistically with a 40-something woman and a 60-something man in the dating world, well as realistic as romantic comedies can get (cue the spontaneous sing-along).
In the formulaic world of romantic comedies, Must Love Dogs lands right smack in the middle, feeling equal parts contrived and enlightened. Lane and Cusack still shine as wonderfully charming leads and elevate this standard cookie cutter material. Plummer adds a nice addition in a smart, tender storyline of an old man looking for Mrs. Right. Fans of the romantic comedy genre will have their every expectation granted and feel the standard warm and fuzzies leaving the theater. Must Love Dogs is a typical romantic comedy that?s slightly funny, slightly charming, and slightly frustrating. And maybe that?s the film’s biggest flaw: it’s slight.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Come sail away kiddies on a three hour tour into the belly of two hurricanes colliding with ladies man George Clooney as yer skipper. Mark Wahlberg plays a… well I don’t know, but I know he has Diane Lane waiting for him at home and I do know she needs to be in more movies. Plus an assorted group of people all needing money and risking their lives for the catch of their lives in director Wolfgang Petterson’s newest saga. But basically, and I’ll keep the water puns to a minimum, the film is all wet.
The Perfect Storm manages to soak you with waves of cliches. It wants you to care for these characters, hell it spends half the movie setting up their lives, but never cements them as people but only selfish caricatures. The exposition of the fishing community is a tiresome run of every small town cliche where everybody knows everybody, to the larger woman everyone associates as “mom,” to the old grizzled sea dog permanently fixed to his bar stool. Basically, be glad when the boys go off to sea and leave this place.
How come everyone in the film has a New Englanda’ accent except for Clooney? It’s that type of movie. The acting can’t save this picture especially when the only performance of notice is the reliable John C. Reilly. His is the only character who doesn’t come off as a selfish braggart or just an idiot.
What should be the film’s high-point with the mono-a-mono wrestle with Mother Nature eventually collapses on itself. How many times can you see Clooney get splashed in the face before familiarity and boredom set in? Trust me, it’s not many. The Perfect Storm‘s effects are dutifully impressive as water is a very tricky mistress, but couldn’t there have been a story behind it?
Just when you’re not trying to tune out the guitar jackhammer score or not to dwell on Clooney’s cringe-worthy “swordfish captain” speech you see flashes of what The Perfect Storm had going but never surfaced. Instead we get water-logged plots, water-logged stars, and plenty of syrupy sentiment. It’ll be this year’s Armageddon for the under 16 girls.
Nate’s Grade: C