‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Review

I’ll admit, I’m going to be biased here.

A movie featuring Batman and Superman together, at once, partnering up or squaring off amongst one another is exactly the sort of spectacle piece of cinema I’ve dreamed about for ages. Ever since my playground days, I’ve wondered about the cinematic possibilities of watching two of my favorite superheroes together in the same frame, and pondering over who would win in a fight if forced to throw around some kicks and punches. I certainly wasn’t alone. After all, this kind of thought is the basis for Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Easily among the most recognized and beloved do-gooders of all-time, the caped heroes are celebrated for a reason. In addition to being well-rounded, interesting characters, they each bring inspiration, awe and hope to a world that often doesn’t have that. They’re saviors in more ways than one.

Is that the kind of movie we get from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Well, no and yes. This is undoubtedly a monumental cinematic achievement, having two of the greatest superheroes of all-time face one another in ways they’ve never been given the chance to cinematically. Individually, they bring a great deal of weight with their respected histories and legacies, and under this new blockbuster, they demonstrate their greatest strengths and weaknesses when testing their true worthiness or displaying the full morality of their characters in one another’s company. It’s a movie of epic proportions, and while not a perfect one, it nevertheless lives up to the challenge in many, many other ways. So did I enjoy it? You bet. And does it work altogether? Ultimately, I would say so.

That’s right, if you’re expecting me to give Zack Snyder’s latest film a bashing as long-winded, overstated and hyperbolic as the blockbuster-in-question, look elsewhere. Seriously. You can easily find the malicious, no-holds-barred takedowns from any number of condescending reviewers online. I didn’t come into WB’s franchise universe-builder expecting an absolute travesty like some will, nor did I go in wanting to hate it. Not that everyone who dislikes the film went in with such shallow intents, I know. Even if I don’t agree with their points, I respect those who wanted to like it but didn’t. Hey look, it happens. I’ve been there to; I get it. It sucks. But here’s the thing: I’m not here to make you change your mind.

Your opinion on BvS is basically set from the first reel onward. If you thought Man of Steel was a disaster, you’re going to have a miserable time with this bloated, overlong energy drink of a film. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it because Snyder didn’t make a film that’s simple to define, easy to swallow or one you can enjoy the whole time. This is an oppressive, ruthless, merciless piece of work, and it’s a fairly self-serious one too. That might be too much for some, and I can understand why. It doesn’t help that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is, on the whole, flawed-as-hell. But if you’d let me elaborate for a little bit (okay, a lot a bit), I think Snyder’s latest is an appropriately epic achievement, and one that lives up to a great deal of its anticipation. It’s a potentially game-changing genre picture that cements itself among the most important superhero movies of the past decade or so in my eyes, just like Man of Steel. Yes, I did say “like Man of Steel.” I still think Snyder’s last film is among the most vital superhero movies in years. So take that into consideration, and prepare yourself accordingly.

Both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice want us to examine a world that’s both similar and distant from our own. Immigration scares, theorist threats, malicious warfare and even gun control are very real threats in this interpretation of the DC universe. Only now, there are also aliens from some planet named Krypton threatening human existence. Snyder accomplishes this sense of never-ending danger and uncertainty in a way that’s both very mythical and extremely grounded. The actions of Man of Steel loom heavily over Batman v Superman, and the consequences for said actions affect the greater outcome of everything that happens here. Since Superman (Henry Cavill) directly harmed several people under Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employment and care in the Metropolis battle, he is a vixen and a global threat, a single-alien crisis capable of unstoppable destruction in his wake. That is, unless he’s stopped. And while others reach out to him in the heavens to save them in times of peril, others, like our titular Gotham native, believe they need to take matters into their own hands if they want to make sure there’s not even a one-percent chance he’ll destroy the planet-at-large.

Whether or not the world needs Superman, he is not a hero. He’s no longer a symbol of justice or the foundation of hope. When the city builds a statue in his honor, a man crippled by his attacks (Scoot McNairy) feels compelled to spray “False God” over his medal chest. The Man of Tomorrow is not a man of code; he lives in the moment and has to live with the aftermaths of his actions in every waking second. Absolute power can corrupt absolutely, as we’re told by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter). He is compelled to do right, but doesn’t know how. He might be faster than a speeding bullet, but he can’t fly around the world and save everyone at once? Does this ultimate make up more human, or more alien, as a result?

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Perhaps the main reason why I admire Snyder’s two Superman movies so much is because he’s willing to challenge his audience in ways most studio filmmakers are often afraid to. Though he’s far from being subtle, he’s not a mindless director. In fact, I think he’s a deeply contemplative man, one who likes to think big ideas and make people challenge their understanding of superheroes. This is something he’s tried to accomplish since 2009’s Watchmen, but I think he’s truly coming into his own. While Batman v Superman can end up a bit of a slog at times — particularly towards the middle, which can feel a little aimless— there’s always a theological reverence to these larger-than-life figures, one that admires what they stand for and who they often strive to be but constantly has us question who, exactly, is a hero in a post-9/11 world. In Snyder’s vision, there are no clean-cut heroes, and sometimes there’s no real justice.

These are broken, often morally-plagued individuals, and Snyder and co-writer Chris Terrio (Argo) do not want us to sit idly and imagine a world where everything ends with natural conclusions and fair outcomes. You truly get an idea where these two idols — one mortal, one “god”— are coming from before they decide to throw fisticuffs. We feel this world, and thanks to Larry Fong’s awe-inspiring cinematography, we get a sense of its scope at multiple angles. This somber, often aggressively bleak look into the DC universe always carries a grave amount of stakes. Even if you save hundreds, you’ve lead thousands more to their deaths. Even if you’re a hero in one man’s eyes, you’re nothing but a traitor in another’s. There are no clear good guys.

As someone who loves to think about the greater picture during my “mindless” entertainment, these are thought-provoking discussions I think most superhero movies SHOULD have. To see the greater ramifications of one’s actions, mortal or otherwise, it gives a depth and a sense of honesty (almost) that leaves a lot to chew on and discuss, even when it doesn’t always work much like the aforementioned Man of Steel. But does it kill the entertainment value? At times, yes. Will it limit the audience? I guess so. Does this make for a fun night out for the whole family? I wouldn’t really say so.

Throughout the screening, I couldn’t help but watch the parents of two children in front of me, trying desperately to get their children’s attention as all this mayhem happened on the enlarged screen in front of them. Admit all the political talk with Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Nancy Grace, to name a few, smashing-and-crashing between our titular leads, fire storms, buildings collapsing, heavy moral discussions about a savior’s purpose in a morose world, and countless deaths, they would spring up to point enthusiastically at the first sights of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and a couple other DC characters that get a quick introduction before the end credits (side note: no end credits scene, so you can go home if you want). It ultimately seemed like a futile effort, for their children would likely never grasp the full intellectual layers of these conversations and find the action on screen a little, well, nullifying.

This is not a movie for everyone to enjoy, and I see why that might bother some people. Snyder doesn’t make easy films, as I’ll continue to stress. His bombastic tendencies are aggravating to a lot of people, and it’s easy to see why some might find this film, among other things, “too dark.” Though this might be based on comic book characters, much like Christopher Nolan’s own Dark Knight trilogy, this might not be a grand night out for all parties, most especially children with sensitive hearing and an aversion to violence.

Yes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a loud, dark, brooding, hyper-violent and sometimes ugly film. But to dismiss it entirely would be, well, missing the point. At least, I think. Snyder presents a world where you not going get all the punches, slams, kicks and pummels you’ve envisioned in your head for years, but also question what comes behind every single blow. It’s a tricky balancing act that’s not accomplished with complete success, but one he captures as he retains an epic feel, and a gigantic sense of scope, without making anything feel marginalized when the movie jumps into smaller, more intimate moments in-between the chaos. That is a true feat. While that’s what some people see as its greatest weakness, I see as its absolute triumph. This is a contemplative, vigorous, bold and downright ballsy film, the likes of which we don’t often see from conventional studio films. And that needs to be celebrated. Whether or not you like it, it needs to be respected. And personally, I liked it all the same.

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There are many things I left undiscussed. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Joker-reminiscent Lex Luther, for instance, I found to be a massive amount of fun, and brought some much needed levity to the proceedings. I wish his motivations were made a little clearer and not simply spouted upon over and over again, but that’s how it goes. Amy Adams and Diane Keaton, as Lois Lane and Mama Kent, respectively, both give good performances as always, but feel largely short-sighted. Jeremy Irons Alfred is magnificent, bouncing off Affleck’s Wayne well while giving him some humility in the process. And speaking of Affleck, while he’s fine enough as Wayne, he’s absolutely aces as Batman. He rocks the suit like it’s nobody business, takes down foes like he’s chowing down lunch and engages in a single-shot, super-well choreographed single-man fight sequence in the desert that’s among the best I’ve seen in ages. And his Batmobile comes in a long line of epic rides under the billionaire’s name.

Let’s see, what else? Laurence Fishburne is also massively entertaining, if also underutilized, as Barry White, the editor-in-chief of The Daily Planet. Gadot looks amazing in the Wonder Woman suit, but merely does okay outside of it. She’s not bad, mind you, but you never forget that someone better could be in the part. In the midst of heavy contemplation and the large-scale action, it’s very easy to see where Terrio’s script ends and David S. Goyer’s hack writing begins. Long, beautifully-written monologues will constantly be interrupted by blunt lines that feel ripped from the 1960s serial. It’s never less than jarring. But that score, man. Man oh man, that score! Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL (Mad Max: Fury Road) produce something that’s never short of breathtaking. They build on the masterful accompaniments of the original film while complementing it with chilling arrangements that always remind you how much danger is presented on screen. It demands you pay attention for each-and-every-second; it’s truly genius work.

For all its faults —and there are many, as I’ve pointed out myself — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a celebration in creating a distinct, uncompromising vision of a world similar, and not, to our own. It’s a towering, monumentally-wide look at topics we’re prone to look away from in our superhero movies, and discussions we don’t often have after seeing a movie with men punching each other in capes. But to write it off as little more than noise and confusion is a fool’s errand. It offers a lot to think about, and once you start picking apart the message, it does start to fall apart, much like Zootopia. But that it lets us have these discussions, as opposed to giving us run-of-the-mill productions like most films under Marvel’s banner, it’s a soaring relief on its own.

Snyder, once again, has realized a polished, highly-stylish and unflinching vision that feels appropriately cinematic in every single moment. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s definitely one worth watching. Even if it doesn’t always fly, it floats on the goodwill it preserves. Because it gives fans what they have wanted to see their entire lives, while also letting them wonder why they praised these loons in the first place. And that’s something super special. Hopefully, it’s also the dawn of a new age of thoughtful, intellectually-stimulating cinema. If one with some extra punches and explosions to boot.

Rating: B/B-

 

 

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‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ (2014) Review

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By Will Ashton
Even at a young age, I never understood the appeal of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series. Adapted from a dark, brooding comic book series into a bubbly, lighthearted TV cartoon-then-film series, the franchise always seemed just too silly and indigestible for my taste, much like the Transformers series. Keep in mind that this is the same kid who loved Pokémon.

Needless to say, when it was announced that the series would be getting a big-screen update for the new generation, I didn’t quite care one way or the other. That is, until I started to see the promotional material. Then I became interested. But not because I thought it looked good, but rather because it looked like a glorious misfire of outrageous proportions. Everything—and I mean everything—about it seemed wrongheaded, and reading the frustration and confusion from its fans filled me with a weird sense of devilish glee.

Well, after months and months of trash talking this new Michael Bay-produced reboot, I felt that I needed to see the movie for myself (if it was free, which it was for me) just to see if it really, truly was as bad as the promotional materials made it seem. Having seen the movie, I can retort that my bottom-of-the-barrel expectations were not quite met. It wasn’t Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  That said, however, this slick but lifeless adaptation is not so much a expensive train wreck as it is simply a brooding bore.

Following into the generic early steps of the series, this new TMNT movie follows struggling journalist April O’Neil (Megan Fox) as she discovers a mutated group of anamorphic turtles, whom fight as a group of vigilantes in the wake of a city-wide destruction of the foot clan, lead by Shredder (Tohoru Masamune). From there, it’s loud noises, explosions, CG-drained action scenes and bad humor galore.

Despite Bay not being in the director’s chair, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) sure looks and feels like one—playing a lot to his signature visual style and storytelling aesthetics, if with more restraint and a shorter running time. That’s because real director Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans, Battle: Los Angeles) continues his trajectory as being a director-for-hire. He rarely executes any of his own sensibilities (if he has any) in favor of making his film a carbon copy of his peer’s work. This movie mimics Bay’s films, yet still cannot capture whatever appeals to people about his movies.

That said, though, there’s no faulting this movie for looking nice, as cinematographer Lula Carvalho gives the movie a nice sheen, without sacrificing the movie’s blockbuster-style grandiose. It’s just a shame, however, that the director and producers don’t know what kind of blockbuster they are trying to make. Liebesman seems constantly at odds with giving the movie the same carefree spirit of the original cartoon and ‘90s movies, while also giving it the sullen edginess most often associated with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies.

This hodgepodge of tones never truly mixes, creating emotional tugs that never connect and humor beats that often feel either forced or awkward, or both. As far as the movie’s action goes, it’s not awful, but it often feels so sterile and fake that it quickly grows more and more tiresome. While the effects themselves are not bad, they never feel like they are apart of their environment—like they did in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes earlier this summer. This is especially the case during the movie’s action scenes, which never capture their punchiness they want because they always looks like cartoons fighting cartoons or people fighting cartoons.

The moments where the movie is at its best, and most inspired, however, are when its focuses on the growth and rise of these titular characters. In particular, a comic book-esque introduction to these characters before the title card even appears is among the movie’s most well produced moments, fitted with beautiful animation and a pulpiness that would become missing as the movie progressed.

Later on, in a montage showing the turtles’ uprising and understanding of the ninja ways, there is one particularly beautiful passing-of-time shot that is not only richly realized, but creative in a movie that never feels so. Additionally, the scene showcasing these child turtles grow up is the one time where the humor of the movie feels any sense of spark or humanity. Even if, yes, it is focused on mutant turtles whom here, for once, don’t look like grotesque freaks of nature.

One of the biggest problems here is that, quite frankly, the producers don’t know what to do with these turtles. They try to give them personalities—even trying to make Donatello (Jeremy Howard) more than just the one with the purple bandana—but these efforts either feel too half-assed or confused. The best example of this comes from the filmmakers don’t knowing who should be turtles’ leader, Leonardo (voiced by Johnny Knoxville) or Raphael (Alan Ritchson). Instead of creating an interesting subtext on how one or the other has authority issues, they simply just try to make them both the head of the group, to clumsily footed results.

As far as the performances go, the only ones that stand out are the ones motion-captured for these turtles and William Fichtner as Eric Sacks. Masamune is fine, but is rarely on screen and, when he is, he is barely given anything to do. Then again, Shredder rarely does anything in these movies anyway. Fox gives a little more effort here than usual, but can’t sell a reaction shot for her life. Will Arnett, as the non-turtle comic relief, often looks just tried and unsure of what exactly he should do. It seems like he wants to give it his all, but is constantly weighted down by his limited screen time and his inability to connect to his CG surroundings and characters.

Having watched the original movies for the first time leading up this, it is easy to see that, while the writing is equally as awful, the effects were as cheesy as their pizzas and the jokes often fall flat, at least they were consistent and tried to be charming. They felt like movies still made by people, even if some of them were board executives.

This new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie feels like a movie made by computer, one trying to translate human humor and activity, but never feeling anything but hollow and soulless. Everything feels too calculated and overdone, especially when its obnoxious product placement is on screen (and people thought it was bad in Man of Steel). The best thing to say about this movie is that it is just a shell of its former self.

Rating: C-

The Best and Worst Movies of 2013, So Far

By Will Ashton

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This has been a pretty up-and-down year at the movies so far. There have been some truly wonderful movies that have come out (in my opinion, of course), but there have also been some truly terrible ones as well. Although we are only half way, there’s already been enough in each field to look back and start preparing for the end of the year. I can’t be certain, but I have a feeling that some of these are not going to fall far from their list, for better or for worse.

Based on the 47 movies that I have seen from 2013 so far.

The Best (So Far)

Honorable mentions: Star Trek Into Darkness, Side Effects, Night Across the Street

10. This is the End

9. Evil Dead

8. The Croods

7. The Exquisite Corpse Project

6. Upstream Color

5. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty

4. Mud

3. The Place Beyond the Pines

2. Man of Steel

1. Before Midnight

The Worst (So Far)

Honorable mentions: The Internship

10. The Hangover Part III

9. A Haunted House

8. The Heat

7. Parker

6. Movie 43

5. Texas Chainsaw

4. Escape From Planet Earth

3. Safe Haven

2. A Good Day to Die Hard

1. Foodfight!

‘Man of Steel’ Review

By Will Ashton

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The question of ‘Who is Superman?’ was one that I expected to be answered during Man of Steel. Beyond the fact that the question was blatantly placed on my Man of Steel Diet Coke cup in the theater, it has been at the center of all the advertisements for the film thus far.

But the question that I wasn’t expecting to be answered during the film was ‘What is Superman?’ Now, obviously, we all know that he is a Krypton sent to Earth—that’s easy enough. But, throughout the course of the film, it becomes evident that this movie is more than simply a summer escape at the movies. It is, rather, a statement on the ideology of Superman in a post-9/11 world. In a time where it is said that we are our own true heroes, what does it mean to have a person be more than just a man?

A religious overtone of one of our greatest superheroes was not what I was expecting when I entered the theater last night. Yet, looking back, it should have been obvious that that would be the place to go. And this, I feel, is what separates Man of Steel from being simply a good superhero origin story into becoming, I believe, one of the best superhero movies I have seen in the past couple years. Yes, even better than The Avengers and maybe even The Dark Knight Rises. For not only is the film able to go this extra mile, but it does it in strides. It becomes not just one of the most entertaining films that I have seen at the theater this year, but also one of the most important.

By now, you should all know the story of Superman. Born on the planet Krypton, as a infant child, Kal-El is sent away from his family and everyone on this home planet to the planet Earth. Raised as Clark Kent in Smallville by Jonathan and Martha, he grows up uncertain of his capabilities and how they should and shouldn’t be used. But, over time, he learns how to use his powers for the good of mankind and raises himself up to be the superhero for our people. By now, this is almost common knowledge. Even your average Joe knows about the basics of Superman’s mythology.

For Superman is about as American as you can get, like apple pie and baseball. He embodies everything that America both wishes it could be and strives to be. So, for this, Man of Steel wisely chooses not to completely re-do the whole origin story of Superman over again—unlike some superhero movies these days—but rather chooses to focus on what needs to be told for the sake of Superman’s arc.

As a result, we are given the more grounded and (mildly) realistic take of the superhero that we have been expecting since Christopher Nolan attached his name to the film. But instead of focusing on the story elements important to Superman’s growth this time, director Zack Synder, of all people, focuses on the emotions of the scene, and it works beautifully. Mixed in with Hans Zimmer’s incredible score, Snyder is able to give to Superman a sense of depth that has practically been unseen in the films thus far. Not to criticize some of the others before this, as I have always been a fan of Superman I and II and will defend Superman Returns until the day that I die, but none have truly captured the humanity in Superman until now. II and Returns have gotten close at times, but this is the one that truly does it.

Man of Steel is perhaps the only superhero movie to ever get truly good once the film goes to Earth. By exploring Superman as a Jesus-like symbol, something that is far less pretentious than it sounds here, we are able to explore Kal-El as both a man and a God. Snyder’s film is able to ask questions that many blockbusters would be terrified to even mention in their films, and, because of this, the film is able to solidify itself as more than just popcorn entertainment.  Considering that this is the guy who also has Sucker Punch on his resume, that’s quite an accomplishment.

I will always have a special place in my heart for Christopher Reeve’s, and even Brandon Routh’s, personifications of the superhero. Henry Cavill, however, also hits it out of the park here. He gives the character the weight needed emotionally, while also hit all the notes the character needs to hit physically. But the runaway performances of this film, in my opinion, are from Michael Shannon as Zod and even Kevin Costner as Clark Kent’s human father. Just when Zod appears to become too cartoonishy villainous, Shannon is always able to bring a level of intensity to the role that provides the weight that the character needs to provide to stand up against Superman. But as the center of Kal-El’s humanity, Costner’s performance is perhaps the heart of this film.

Snyder has always been known for his visuals, and here he continues to bring his signature talents to the screen. He even does it without his slow-mo shots. But now that he has the power of a strong story on his side, he is also able to provide a one-two punch to his audience that his previous films lacked, even Watchmen. The visual effects here are easily among the best that I have seen, and will see, this year. What truly makes them spectacular, however, is that they don’t  look cartoony, something that was a major fear for me, and continue to provide the grounded feel of the film. As a result, they produce some of the best action that I have seen at the theater in year. The climax of this film even tops The Avengers signature showdown.

The film is not flawless, of course. Screenwriter David S. Goyer’s screenplay is chock-full of cheesy and clunky dialogue, primarily from the villains. The fact that this is often mixed with some beautifully written scenes of dialogue makes me believe that the rumors about a third-party, uncredited re-write from Jonathan Nolan may be true. Or perhaps from Christopher Nolan himself, who wrote the story for the film.  The film also follows the traditional superhero origin stories that we have, by know, all seen before. But, because the movie packs such an emotionally-driven punch throughout, it earns its merits.

Those worried about my comments on the religious subtexts, or I should say potential religious subtexts, of the film shouldn’t worry about feeling alienated by the movie. No pun intended. Much like The Dark Knight, part of the beauty of this film is that it works as both an engaging piece of entertainment, as well as an interesting psychological study of a superhero’s role in society. Beautiful, both visually and thematically, and bold, I doubt I will see a better blockbuster this summer. For not only is it the most entertaining film I have seen so far this year, it is also my favorite.

Rating: A-