Tag Archives: Batman

Joker

3 Oct

‘Joker’: Phoenix tries to hold it all together, but eventually film lets loose, breaks down

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Throughout Batman’s long history, the Joker’s been played by some pretty mighty performers. Standouts include Jack Nicholson, who pretty much hijacked Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), and Heath Ledger, who won a bittersweet, posthumous Oscar for his deeply felt portrait of derangement in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008) – and let’s not forget the comic genius of Cesar Romero during the 1960s TV series. Nolan and Burton felt like the right hands to shepherd a dark superhero/villain origins tale, but Todd Phillips, with such swinging steak comedies as “Old School” (2003) and the “Hangover” films to his credit? Odd as it may seem, it’s a somewhat logical evolution from drunken vomit awakenings to blood-splattered foyers with a panicked dwarf who can’t reach a chain bolt to escape.

The real reason Phillips’ “Joker” succeeds is simple: Joaquin Phoenix makes the anti-antihero psycho-saga all his own. There’s also the script by Phillips and Scott Silver that plays with the Batman mythology artfully without getting bogged down in the bigger picture – though we do briefly see Bruce Wayne at a young age, when dad and mom are with us – but without Phoenix, I don’t think “Joker” takes flight. It’s a bravura go, and Phoenix should be right up there at year’s end (like Ledger was) with Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio when Oscar nods are called out. With maybe the exception of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000) it’s hard to find a movie in which Phoenix doesn’t shine with brilliant quirk and dour doses of menace. He delivers all that here and more; it’s a total immersion. For the part of clown turned Gotham icon and sociopathic perp, Phoenix lost a ton of weight, something done with equal austerity by Christian Bale (who took up the bat cowl for Nolan) in Brad Anderson’s “The Machinist” (2004) or, inversely, when Robert De Niro added 50 pounds as Jack LaMotta in “Raging Bull” – and if as on cue (send in the clowns), the Martin Scorsese-forged actor shows up in “Joker” as beloved late night TV show host Murray Franklin, whom Arthur Fleck (the Joker’s birth name) and his not-quite-all-there mother (Frances Conroy, excellent in the small complicated part) watch religiously. Continue reading

Vice

27 Dec

‘Vice’: Bale submerges self into role of Cheney for an overall shallow look into the Bush years

 

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For all the gonzo intelligent narrative devices laid down in “The Big Short” (2015) – a film rightfully regarded for its unconventional tact and devilish skewering of Wall Street greed – “Vice,” the latest from “Short” director Adam McKay, takes a stumble into the pool of smug self-indulgence.

First it must be said that Christian Bale, under tons of makeup and with a harsh, whispery intone – almost like his Batman voice – brings the incarnation of former “Vice” President Dick Cheney to life with astonishing credibility. What doesn’t work in this “W”-esque biopic is the singular throttle of Cheney as the Darth Vader of backroom politics. The film is a series of vignettes: The young Dick, an underachiever working on oil rigs, drunken and failing out of Yale, but then the rise in business, the union with wife Lynne (Amy Adams, underused in the thankless role of garnish) and Halliburton raking it in after Desert Storm. The Cheneys are rich and, at 45 minutes in, the credits roll. That’s one of the many McKay-infused shenanigans (like Margot Robbie in a hot tub with a glass of champagne to explain complex investment vehicles in “Short”) that don’t quite aid the satire, but more stoke the flame as things begin to wane.

After the “fake” credits roll, the call from W comes. During a man-to-man backyard barbecue Cheney casts a dark spell over Bush (Sam Rockwell, restrained and spot-on in the small part) growling about special power if he signs on as VP.  From there it’s a mad shell game, pulling strings from behind the curtain, undermining foes with glee and raking it in. That weapons-of-mass-destruction declaration goes ka-ching to Cheney’s ears.

The Scooter Libby scandal and that infamous shotgun blast all make it in via campy digs that feel more vindictive and skewed than they are of validating some truth. The whole film’s narrated too by some kind of Nick Carraway voice, and when you finally find out who it is, you might have a heart attack over the revelation. Kitsch is where the heart is.

The Cheneys’ biggest humanization comes in the defense of their gay daughter at multiple turns, but even there, McKay paints Cheney as an arduous manipulator worming and working for the win-win – giving the conservatives ins on the gay marriage issue while taking his daughter off the table.

If you’re looking for the real Dick Cheney, there’s probably plenty of nuggets here, but the portrait is so lopsided and skewed you’d almost think it was Michael Moore behind the lens. Bale, while totally convincing and immersed, is afforded only the opportunity to do SNL skit impersonations. Besides the bro barbecue with Bush, Cheney’s not much more than a hiss or a head cock from his Vader throne, using his force to manipulate the universe for evil gains.

Aquaman

21 Dec

‘Aquaman’: Once we’re in the swim of things, there’s too much for newly hip hero to handle

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On film, DC Comics heroes seem to have heavier backstories than those from the Marvel Universe. You know: Most comes from another planet or an isolated island or underworld and could crush a human with a super burst of flatulence, yet somehow they love us, and there’s deep lore and rules we must be spoon-fed for at least 45 minutes before they ingratiate themselves into our society and ultimately take on the noble task of saving us from certain annihilation.

“Aquaman” is no different. Even before the buff surfer dude – Jason Momoa, who looks like The Rock draped in long tresses and with an extra battery of tribal tats – dips his toe in the water, we get a lighthouse caretaker named Tom (Temuera Morrison) toiling away in the chilly northern coast of Maine and one stormy day finding a beauty washed up on the rocks, glistening trident still in her clutch. This fantastic vision, something of a blend of Daryl Hannah in “Splash” and Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman” is, in fact, Nicole Kidman with a touch of CGI to make her look more in her 20s than her current vintage – not that she needs it. Kidman is Atlanna, the escaped sea warrior daughter of one of the kings of Atlantis. After eating much of Tom’s goldfish Daryl Hannah style, the two become lovers and bear a son: Arthur, who on a class trip to the New England Aquarium is able to summon the biggest shark in the tank to scare the bejesus out of the class bullies.

The film, directed by James Wan – who cut his teeth on the “Saw” and “Fast and Furious” franchises – is a busy, busy affair. Think of it as swimming through an endless school of silvery fish. Atlanna is kidnapped from the rocky coast of Maine, a pirate by the name of Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is out to kill the now mature Arthur/Aquaman in a poorly justified blood feud and there’s the seven kingdoms of Atlantis that Arthur’s half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) wants to unite to destroy us land dwellers because of all the plastic and shit we dump in the sea. I can’t say I disagree, and in a neat payback trick he sends wave after wave of plastic bags, bottles and beer rings awash onto our beaches. Willem Dafoe has a role as Aquaman’s avuncular counsel and Amber Heard, toting a shock of Christmas-red hair, gets wedged between the bros as love interest. Dolph Lundgren even lends his square-jawed mug for a few nanoseconds as one of the seven kings.

Since this is an “aqua”-tale, much of it takes place below the ocean’s surface, except those early scenes in Maine and and one later in Sicily where the senseless destruction of ancient relics and structures will make archeologists in the audience reach for a vomit bag. The big undersea finale turns into the kind of wham-bam animated affair we’ve become accustomed to with films such as “Ready Player One” and “Avatar.” The wow factor is gone – it’s a bubbly undersea yawn.

Aquaman traditionalists, yearning for the stiff and square-jawed incarnation from Saturday mornings, are unlikely to be roped in. Momoa, who played the beefy barbarian incarnation Drogo in “Game of Thrones” as well as Conan in an ill-advised “Conan the Barbarian” reboot (2011), plays the part with a hip, feral flair. The character’s never given much of an opportunity to speak before his hands are busied. In shards, we know he has a sense of humor, making a “Fight Club” crack to break the ice with Heard’s undersea princess. The film’s funniest moment comes when our wet superhero walks into a New England biker bar. He can drink like a fish and the scene’s wrap-up is a smart departure, but after that it’s all down the drink.

Nolan and Escher at the MFA

17 May

 

What Artist M.C. Escher And Filmmaker Christopher Nolan Have In Common

To complement the perception-warping lithographs of M.C. Escher currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, curator Carter Long and the smart folks over in the MFA’s film department have put together “Math, Mind and Memory,” a retrospective of Christopher Nolan’s films. The program launches on Wednesday, May 16 with Nolan’s debut, “Following” (1998), and concludes on May 31 with the British auteur’s 2014 planet-hopping odyssey, “Interstellar.”

If the crossover connection between surrealist graphic designer and alternate reality-conjuring filmmaker doesn’t immediately make sense, consider Escher’s continuous stairway to nowhere, “Ascending and Descending.” Its endless bend of perception and geometric form could easily be mistaken for a storyboard cell pulled from Nolan’s dream-thief thriller, “Inception” (2010), in which streetscapes and buildings get folded in on themselves, even inverted, creating an endless maze of concrete and tarmac that beguiles as it overwhelms. (The film plays on May 24 and 25.)

On the left, M.C. Escher's "Ascending and Descending." On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan's "Inception." (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)
On the left, M.C. Escher’s “Ascending and Descending.” On the right, a still from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” (Robin Lubbock/WBUR and MFA)

More thematically, the Dutch artist’s famous “Drawing Hands,” where one hand sketches the next into existence while that hand conversely draws its creator, plays with the sense of time and origin. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum visualized in evocative 2D (though the deeply layered shadowing lends a rich 3D effect). Something similar is explored in Nolan’s “Interstellar.” The humanity-saving space mission sails off into the fourth dimension of time and space density, creating a scenario in which children out age their parents. (“Interstellar” screens May 20 and 31.)

The retrospective, which includes the latter two of Nolan’s popular Batman films, “The Dark Knight” (on May 26) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (also on May 26), rightly recognizes the director’s box-office brilliance. Who else makes thinking-man thrillers that regularly gross more than $500 million? But the MFA series also more aptly shines a light on Nolan’s early efforts and influences.

“Following,” shot in noirish black and white and on 16mm guerrilla style, unravels agendas within agendas as a wannabe writer (Jeremy Theobald), who follows random people for muse material, gets tangled up with a dapper petty criminal (Alex Haw) and an aloof woman with a Marilyn Monroe-perfect coif (Lucy Russell). The ever-twisting plot complicated by love triangle implications cast wafts of Danny Boyle’s gritty early work, “Shallow Grave” (1994), and is a clear blueprint for Nolan’s sophomore effort, “Memento” (2000). Continue reading

Justice League

18 Nov

 

The new super adventure inspirationally labeled “Justice League” is an extremely crowded affair littered with jumps in plot, and things end up exactly as one might expect: in a giant CGI beatdown with an arch-villain. Still, after the turgid “Batman v Superman” it’s good to see Zach Snyder fit a lot into a neat two hours, and finally do justice to the floundering DC Comics franchise. (An encouraging trend, considering the sharp and fun “Wonder Woman” directed by Patty Jenkins.)

Things pick up in the immediate aftermath of “BvS,” with Superman (Henry Cavill) still dead or comatose and his mortal darling Lois Lane (Amy Adams) burdened by grief and suffering reporter’s block. That leaves fellow “Leaguers” Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Batman (Ben Affleck) to fend for the world as alien ghouls with dragonfly wings descend upon the planet in slow strokes, kidnapping folks. Batman (what is it with these movies where Christian Bale and Affleck talk in constipated growls from behind the mask, but are smoothly eloquent in Bruce Wayne mode?) deduces astutely that the nasty bug-beings are part of a bigger plot – to unite the three Mother Boxes (like the Infinity Gems over in the Marvel Universe) and give an entity known as Steppenwolf – not to be confused with the band founded by John Kay (“Born to be Wild”) or the novel by the tortured German novelist, Hermann Hesse – the ultimate power to terraform the earth and wipe out humankind. Continue reading

Batman v Superman: the Dawn of Justice

25 Mar

Who knew Gotham and Metropolis were right across the bay from each other? Sort of like St. Louis and Kansas City, but each with their own superhero in the middle of a massive PR crisis. Over in Gotham, Batman’s been tagged as an unchecked vigilante; Superman has his own Senate committee to review his activities, newly minted as a reckless god because of the hundreds of innocents crushed in the streets as collateral damage from taking out General Zod as the two Kryptonians blasted each other through one skyscraping façade after the next in 2013’s “Man of Steel.” The scene evokes uncomfortably eerie images of 9/11. One such building laid to waste happens to be the Wayne Tower, workplace of many close associates of Batman alter ego Bruce Wayne – a catalyst for the titular grudge match of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

032416i Batman v Superman- Dawn of JusticeZack Snyder, the hyperkinetic visual stylist who’s crafted such over-the-top spectacles as “300” and “Sucker Punch” but also demonstrated nuanced restraint with the highly underappreciated “Watchmen,” winds up in no man’s land with epic aspirations as he grandiloquently pits the two classic comic book giants against each other.

When it comes to screen time, or quality of screen time, Batman wins the battle hands down. Early on we flash back to a young Bruce Wayne losing his parents in an alleyway just after seeing a showing of “Excalibur.” The scene’s been done several times over (by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, recently) besides the choice of movie, and if Snyder’s going to go that far he should have taken a cue from that film and its masterful director, John Boorman, that movies, even those fueled by fantasy and beings beyond man, are driven by character development and plot integrity. Cool stunts and grandiose FX surely wow and awe, but they’re like a giant bag of M&Ms: Eventually it all just becomes mush.

Cambridge’s own Ben Affleck, an inherently stiff performer, slips into Bruce Wayne’s tux and Batman’s cowl with convincing ease. Henry Cavill, on the other hand, a perfect human specimen in his own right, is grounded by tedious perfection. Sure he gets to zip around and level malevolents as Superman, but there’s no edge to it, and when in civilian duds as Clark Kent, he spends most of his time cuddling up to Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a woman of intrepid integrity and carnal knowledge. There’s not much fire there either, but occasionally, when challenged on topics by his editor at the Daily Planet (his boss wants more on the last football game between Metropolis and Gotham than the recent crime wave Clark’s interested in) he stands up for journalistic integrity. Perhaps this Clark should have been in “Spotlight” – it’s the most alive the ubermensch hiding inside a nerd’s skin becomes. The tortured soul whose bitterness endears belongs to The Bat and his alter-ego, further blessed with a snarky but sincere rendition of Alfred the butler by Jeremy Irons, surely far more fun at a party than Ms. Lane.  Continue reading

The Lego Movie

5 Feb

The Lego Movie connects family-friendly fun with adult humor

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Only a blockhead wouldn't find a lego-fied Batman dreamyThe Lego Movie, is sharp, smart, and clicks along snappily — at least for the first 80 minutes of the 100-minute running time. It’s also packed with a Lego case full of gags that cut many a wicked laugh. It’s so barbed and adult-oriented in texture and content, the film flirts with the likes of Team America: World Police and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, yet it holds the family friendly line — a pretty impressive feat, no doubt.

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative team who helm the film and had a hand in the script, feed off each other with boon yielding results. Their previous collaborations on Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the live action comedy 21 Jump Street proved their skilled hand in animation and deft comedic pacing. Here they get to fuse those divergent talents. And not only is the comedy on point, but so is the animation, mastering the block-like Lego texture and having it permeate throughout the film with pops of 3D that raise the art of computer animated to a new, sensory titillating level.  Continue reading