Category Archives: In Theaters

Review: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Any remake of Beauty and the Beast is going to be a tough sell for someone like me.  That 1991 classic so touch my heart and so shook my notions of what an animated feature could accomplish that any attempts to recapture its magic could only come off as an imitation.  That, in essence, is what we have here.  The live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is so close to the animated version that you might as well be watching that earlier film; it imitates it beat for beat, but it misses out completely on what made those beats special.  All the songs are here, all the characters are here, but there’s an element of wonder that is missing.  It has moments of inspiration and some hints of magic but, all the while, your mind keeps floating back to the original.  That should not be happening.

Up till now Disney has been very good at turning their classics into live action in a fresh way.  Both The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon redialed the story so that even the short-comings of their original source material were tuned out.  One asset of The Jungle Book was that you felt that the filmmakers were making the jungle into a character.  We were allowed time to soak in the landscapes which were lush with greenery.  Here that’s not the case.  Much of the film is photographed with a palette of darkness that keeps essential elements in shadow.  I understand that this plays to the nature of The Beast’s dilemma but there is low lighting in key scenes that should be sparkling with light and magic and color.  That’s especially true of the film’s key scene, the ballroom dance in which the two lovers finally connect.  I kept waiting for the high notes to accompany the lights coming up, but no, the scene remains in low light.  There are moments when I found certain scenes difficult to see.

For everything that this movie gets right, there’s something that it gets wrong.  Take, for example, that wonderful Menkin/Ashman song “Gaston” in which the film’s egoistical villain gets to extol the virtues of his own wonderfulness.  It’s a great production number and Luke Evans does a wonderful job in the role, but the song leaves out the line that everyone remembers.  Remember the line about his chest hair?  Unless I’m wrong, it’s not here.

Another example is The Beast.  He’s played beautifully here by actor Dan Stevens as a self-loathing mope who is spaced away from the world.  There’s a deep melancholy to his performance and a hint of childishness in his demeanor.  He does a very good job of emoting even while buried under tons of make-up.  The problem is that his leading lady isn’t nearly as interesting.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Emma Watson, but she’s underplaying the role of Belle in such a way that it removes our sympathy.  It could be said that her version of Belle is given far more agency and less Stockholm syndrome than her dilemma allowed in the original, but her character doesn’t come alive with personality.  Watson seems sour and distracted.  She’s an actress who works well at internalizing but she’s place in a role that requires more of an extravert.

My major issue though is one of gravity.  In The Jungle Book it all worked because the characters were grounded in the fact that they were animals who live even without talking.  Here, the task is much more difficult because we’re dealing with inanimate objects that, in live action, are bound to the forces of gravity.  Lumiere and Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts worked beautifully in the animated form, but they look just plain weird when set in the real world.

That’s my basic problem here, a live action version of Disney animated Beauty and the Beast just doesn’t work as a whole.  There are moments when it comes alive but, again, my mind kept drifting back to the original.  Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon had problematic source material to improve upon, but Beauty and the Beast was so perfectly modulated that the remake can only be an imitation.  Maybe it needed something new, something fresh.  Maybe it needed a new twist.  Maybe it simply needed something anything that wasn’t there before.


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Posted by on 04/07/2017 in In Theaters


Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)


Batman: The Killing Joke clears up the most aggravating problem that I have with the latest glut of superhero movies – the producers always seem afraid to let their characters be characters.  As much as I’ve praised the recent spate of Marvel movies, I must admit that underneath my admiration there always rests a tiny volley of unanswered questions: Who are these people?  What makes them tick?  What does fighting megaloggins from outer space do to them psychologically?  Admittedly, the recent Superman movies have attempted to answer these questions but they are so incoherent that you walk away feeling like you just got slapped upside the head with a giant textbook.

Batman: The Killing Joke may be the first feature film to really get close to answering those key questions.  Much like The Dark Knight, it tries dig under this bat person and his cackling nemesis and find out not only what makes them tick, but what keeps them ticking.

Based on a 25 year old graphic novel by Alan Moore, the story has influenced a great deal of how Batman has been portrayed over the past quarter century.  It has been said that when Tim Burton wanted make Batman he told producers that “The Killing Joke” was what he had in mind.  Later, Christopher Nolan had it in mind when he put together The Dark Knight.  Now the story has its own movie and I’m glad it comes in the tapestry of Batman: The Animated Series because I think if the film were live action, there would be too much temptation on Hollywood’s part to give it more muscle and less heart.

The film debuted this year to a packed house (4,000 attendees) at Comic Con and premiered in select cities across the country as a Fathom event this past Monday night before it goes to DVD and Blu Ray on August 2nd.  It is unusual in a lot of ways, not the least of which that this is the first R-rated animated film ever from Warner Bros. (it could easily have been PG-13, but okay).  This is a grim story, full of the darkness that makes the modern Batman stories so palatable.  It’s also the first animated Batman movie to have its wide debut on theater screens since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm back in ’93.  Plus, it also reunites Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the voices of Batman and The Joker respectively.  Hamill’s involvement is special since this is the third time he’s played the character since twice announcing on Twitter that he retiring from the role.

Having read “The Killing Joke” I can say that the movie gets it right.  I have always been impressed by Batman in animated form because he’s always given more room for human dimensions.  If you’ve seen Batman: The Animated Series or the strikingly original Batman: Mask of the Phantasm then you know what I’m talking about.  The story here is very simple but it’s effective because it is based on motivation, not the demand for action beats.

The first half-hour is devoted to a story arch that wasn’t part of Moore’s work.  In fact, in that time we don’t even see the Joker.  Instead, we follow the strained relationship between Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) while working a complicated case.  Bruce wants her to back down because the case is getting too personal but she’s determined to see it through.  On a personal level Bruce admits that he has been to the edge of the abyss and (the movie suggests without words) he’s already lost one beloved sidekick and fears losing another.

This addition clears up the greatest problem with the original material wherein Barbara was more or less placed haphazardly in the story as a victim for the Joker.  Here the extra time gives her greater motivation and when she backs away from the Batgirl role it makes her downfall at the hands of the Joker hit much harder and more personal.  It’s her downfall rather than an exploitation of her tragedy as a prop for the problems of the male characters.

The rest of the story is almost beat for beat, word for word from Moore’s graphic novel.  The Joker goes on a mission of madness to prove that he can turn one man – in this case James Gordon – into a tormented pile of screaming neurosis.  His plan is overly complicated but you wouldn’t expect any plan from the Joker to be anything but elaborate.  In a strange twist, Batman wants to get inside his head.  At one point he confesses that he knows that someday one will kill the other and he sees that day in his mind’s eye.  Yet, maybe there’s some consolation between the two that won’t leave that day ending with a lot of question marks.

The question of the need for Batman is laid out here in subtle ways, not with a blunt instrument.  The police and the justice system are there to correct and punish those who choose to defy it.  The Joker goes to extremes to turn the world into chaos and prove that insanity is just a mind-trip away.  Between those extremes, the movie suggests, there is a need for a vigilante in a cape.  It’s a very simple idea that is given weight because we feel it from the characters, not by the manipulations of the plot.

How the story resolves itself is kind of wonderful.  I’ve complained recently that all tentpole movies seem required to have a bang-boom fight-to-the-finish third act that goes on for 45 minutes.  I saw it in Independence Day: Resurgence, Warcraft, Ninja Turtles, Ghostbusters, Star Trek Beyond and at least a dozen others.  I get impatient.  Can’t filmmakers come up with a clever third act that doesn’t rely on crashing and bashing?  Batman: The Killing Joke ends on a note that I like.  I won’t spoil it but I’ll say that it is based on the characters and their psychological links to one another rather than any explosion.  Well, there is a small kind of explosion, but it’s not what you expect.

What I appreciated most about Batman: The Killing Joke is that is allows the characters room to breathe.  There is a moment when Barbara and Bruce are speaking over their communicators; Barbara asks an important question that Bruce doesn’t answer.  Because of the tension between them that silence comes with so much more dramatic weight than any explosion or car crash.  This is a movie about mind over matter and that’s what has kept these characters going and what keeps me coming back.  This is about the psychology of people who must wear masks to correct the insanity happening in the world when justice and common sense just won’t do.

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Posted by on 07/25/2016 in In Theaters, On Demand


In Theaters: The Neon Demon (2016)


“She’s a diamond among a sea of glass,” says a fashion designer of the pretty but not outrageously remarkable ingénue who has just arrived in L.A. to be part of its haughty fashion scene.  Her name is Jesse and she stands out yet it is hard at first to figure out why.  The body isn’t remarkable, the face isn’t remarkable, but in her natural state of being she is something special.  The other models know it and she knows it, and that’s the beginning of her problems.  What happens next is a devolving horror show fit for Stephen King.

The Neon Demon is a neo-nightmare, a strange canvas of imagery that will either entice you or repel you.  Most have chosen to be repelled, but I found something to grab onto.  Maybe I’m just feeling generous.  In the same week that I stand alone in giving positive marks to Independence Day: Resurgence, I now stand virtually alone in my admiration of The Neon Demon.  Critics across the board have vented their spleen about this movie, dismissing it as a hackneyed helping of unappetizing pretentious vapidness served up with heaps of self-indulgence and dipped in arthouse sauce.  Are they right?  Well . . . yeah.  But come on, a little self-indulgence never hurt anybody.

The movie is a bizarre commentary on the world of fashion models told through breath-taking images that are art-directed within an inch of their lives.  How much arthouse imagery you are willing to stomach depends on you.  The superficiality of the fashion world is not exactly surprising, but where the movie is willing to take it is a matter of taste (cannibalism?  necrophilia?  Yeah, they’re both here).  Jesse’s journey is a nightmare scenario that moves back and forth between what is real and what is not.  Where the line is drawn is one of the great challenges presented to us.  This is not a visceral experience.  All of the supporting characters in this movie are out for themselves.  They’re all terrible.  They all live and work in an industry that is, by it’s very nature, cheap and superficial.  But the thrust of their motivation seems to be the law of the jungle.

The central core of the film is Jesse (Elle Fanning) who is pretty without being gorgeous and a country girl without being country fried.  She has something that the industry moguls want to sell and something that the other models want to possess.  The other models are sculpted, chiseled, honed to perfection with the help of their plastic surgeons.  Jesse has a natural quality that isn’t forced, that isn’t bought and paid for.  With that, she finds that she has a target on her head.

What’s tricky is that his film starts out as a portrait of the L.A. fashion scene but quickly turns into a revenge thriller that has the pacing of The Shining and the brutality of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Jesse’s arrives in L.A. with the countenance of a virgin, yet as time goes on she becomes a victim of her own image, and then turns perpetrator.  She knows how other models see her and what they want from her.  Yet, she finds out too late that she is in over her head.  They don’t just envy her, they want their pound of flesh.

That description makes this movie sound a bit more conventional then it is.  This very spare plot spends a great deal of time swimming in neon-colored imagery that is at times shockingly horrifying and at other times shockingly beautiful.  That’s odd for me to say since the movie comes from Nicholas Winding Rfen, a Danish director whose work I’ve not come to like very much in the past.  I absolutely hated his last film Only God Forgives dismissing it as a hapless arthouse mess that, I think, was trying to be a martial arts movie.  It had a lot of interesting imagery wrapped up in a story I couldn’t follow or even care about.  With The Neon Demon I find myself surrendering to Rfen’s imagery.  Every shot, every moment, every movement in this film has been organized and touched up and pieced together with mathematical precision.  He cares about the images he presents here.  They all have a purpose even if you don’t immediately know what they are.  He is obviously influence by Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch with grand bows to Dario Argento.  He’s made a horror movie about a horrible world made up of horrible people who do horrible things, ugly things, inhuman things.

Look, this is not a movie for everyone.  If you read the majority of reviews you’ll think it’s not a movie for anyone.  Where you end up with this movie is a matter of taste.  Again, this is not a visceral experience.  You can’t place yourself in the situation because the movie exists so far out of time that you often feel like your watching something piped in from another planet.  I like that approach.  I sometimes appreciate a director who isn’t reaching out to connect with me.  The Neon Demon is a movie that is impossible to get close to.  When it’s over you walk away shaking your head, but if you’re willing to surrender to it, themes start to emerge, connections start to be made in your mind as you reflect back on it.  This is a movie that redefines the word ‘challenging’.


In Theaters: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Independence Day Resurgence

As a critic, this is where I am suppose to tell you that Independence Day: Resurgence is just another needless sequel propped up for the summer box office.  Most critics have already jumped on that overcrowded train, but I’ll just stay here at the station and report that it would be impossible for this to be a needless sequel since we knew this was in the pipeline even before the original debuted back in the summer of ’96.  In this regard I wish my fellow critics well but grant them no points for originality.

Whatever you think of the original Independence Day it is hard, 20 years later, not to marvel at its initial impact.  It was a curious concept gone mad: What would happen if you took a cheap 1950s-style alien-invasion plot and gave it $75,000,000 budget and an all-star cast?  Add to that a breathtakingly ambitious ad campaign that still hasn’t been surpassed and you have a gorgeously junky $800,000,000 worldwide hit that has the good fortune to catch a multi-talented former TV star on his rise to the top.  Was I on board?  Sort of.  While I didn’t fall in love with it, I spent a great deal of time trying to divert my fellow moviegoers to the much better Charlie Sheen sci-fi sleeper The Arrival which dropped three months earlier.  I still think that’s a better film.

I wasn’t necessarily dismissive of Independence Day back in ’96 nor was I permissive of its faults.  It has a brilliantly threatening tone in the first half building up to the alien invasion, but then after the initial assault, the movie kind of deflates and the second half felt a little flat.  With a much less potent ad campaign, Independence Day: Resurgence didn’t quite get my hopes up.  I went in knowing what I was in for, and not surprisingly that’s what I got.

The relief with Independence Day: Resurgence is that it is a true sequel.  It isn’t trying to recreate the first film but to build up where the original left off.  A generation after space aliens whomped the tar out of the human race, and subsequently got whomped back, the human race has built on what it has learned.  The planet has become a global community that has utilized the alien technology to better itself.  There are flying cars (FINALLY!!) and we humans have been smart enough to establish a self-defense plan just in case the Octopus Empire strikes back.  The problem is that when they strike back, our defense system turns out to be woefully unsuited for what the aliens have brought with them.

I’ll remain mum on the spoilers but let us just say that on the return trip, the grudge-bearing aliens this time have a reason for declaring war on our planet that is slightly better laid out than in the first movie.  The first time around, their purpose was for us to “Die!”  Here the plan is a little more complicated, and involves issues that are not-so-subtly being held over for the third movie (oh BOY does this one leave an open door).  Their attack on Earth has been supersized.  What they wrought in the first movie has been ballooned up so much that their technology is threatening to break this planet in half.  That means we get a lot of montobulous special effects sequences with giant things crashing into smaller things like cities and stuff.

Running from those special effects is a cast of at least two dozen characters, some of which are returning and some of which are new.  The first hour of the movie is a long, and exhausting game of catch-up in which we are brought up to speed on the fate of the world, everyone’s individual problems, and the question of where the heck is Will Smith.

We meet new characters and catch up with old ones.  The surprise is that the new characters are mostly boring and forgettable.  They are played by young actors that I haven’t seen before and generally forgot about when they weren’t on screen.  The only saving grace is Liam Hemsworth as a hotshot pilot whose job is to throw out all the one-liners in a role that is obviously meant to fill the absence of Will Smith.  His absence is explained away in a disposable subplot that I don’t think is going to make anyone very happy.

The best roles are occupied by Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsh and Brent Spiner whose role as Dr. Okun has been vastly expanded and so has his crazy-man schtick.  Goldblum knows the ropes here and gives us exactly what we expect – doing that thing where he stares into the middle distance while uttering technological portents of doom.

Doom is everywhere in this movie and the job of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin is to take everything about the first movie and make it bigger, louder and more spectacular.  In that spirit they succeed, at least in terms of chaos, but the original had a sense of cold doom that this movie is missing.  I give it points for plot (in that it actually has one) but I felt let down that the movie was missing those great moments that made the original memorable.  There are cities destroyed here but nothing can match the tickling joy of the White House going up in flames in the original.

The special effects are the highlights in a movie that tries to be all highlights.  While reviews and general consensus are determined to sink the movie like a stone, I have to say that I enjoyed the fact that I felt I was watching the same world as the first movie without feeling like I was watching a remake.  It had surprises, especially in what the aliens are trying to do.  I liked that about it.  I liked that there was some thought put into this movie and that it doesn’t feel like an empty cash-grab.  It hovers, it rattles, it shakes, it thunders and it booms.  It does what I expected it to do and much to my surprise, I liked it even though I still think you should check out The Arrival instead.  I’m still on that bandwagon.

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Posted by on 06/25/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Finding Dory (2016)


I swear I mean this as a compliment; Finding Dory is the most entertaining needless sequel that you’ll see this summer.  It’s true, this sequel wasn’t entirely necessary but if anyone could do it and still make an unnecessary movie that was still entertaining and fun, it had to be Pixar.  For me, that has to do with the effect that this studio has on my expectations.  They’ve been so good for so long that I’ve returned to their creative pallet again and again for 21 years with nothing but great expectations.  Often I’ve been very forgiving, as with Cars 2 and Brave but it’s only because I know that in the animation game, Pixar is the top of the line.  Where others are satisfied to make of-the-moment hyperactive farting toy commercials, Pixar excels in making movies that will last forever.

Will Finding Dory last forever?  Not on its own.  Future generations will seek it only because its wagon is hitched to one of the most original and engaging movies that Pixar ever created.  They’ll see it out of curiosity after the wonderment of Finding Nemo, but I think maybe they will have the same mediocre response that I did.  They’ll be entertained but it won’t change their world.

If I sound a little dismissive while still calling the movie entertaining, that’s only because my brain is still in the glow of another Pixar movie that came along 12 months ago.  That movie I declared the best film of the year, and it has since become my favorite film of Pixar’s entire body of work.  Inside Out was a glorious explosion of creative instincts, a fresh idea that lifted the animated form and really swung for the fences.  With that, you could understand how Finding Dory might seem like a step backward.

The story is, more or less, the same.  Wherein Marlin the clownfish had to find his son in the vast environs of the ocean in the previous film, here Dory sets off on a quest to find her parents.  In moving the supporting player of Nemo to the central role in Dory, the focus has shifted.  Dory’s major character trait is that she suffers from short-term memory loss heaped on top of a massive dose of ADD.  In Finding Nemo this was played mostly for laughs, but in Finding Dory it becomes a source for drama, and offers up the film’s narrative drive.  Surprisingly, it works.

The first 20 minutes of the film are a bit awkward, feeling less like a story progression than like outtakes from Finding Nemo.  We meet baby Dory, a tiny adorable Pacific Regal Blue Tang whose parents Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton) struggle to teach their little guppy how to survive in the big bad world.  Their plight will be felt by any parent who has to deal with a child with a disability.  Naturally, Dory gets lost in the cavernous environs of the ocean armed with a Swiss-cheese memory that leaves her wondering if her parent’s fate was her fault.  As she grows up, she wanders from place to place and, years later, runs head-long into Marlin the clownfish.

Cut to a year after Marlin (Albert Brooks) was reunited with Nemo (Hayden Roylence) and Dory’s brain begins to suggest a possible location where her parents may have ended up.  That leads to a great big adventure wherein Dory and Marlin and Nemo get lost in The Morro Bay Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium lorded over by the omniscient voice of Sigourney Weaver.  The adventures at the aquarium are where the movie really takes off.  The design of the films is incredible not just in the water but on land.  As with the Ocean in the first film, this one visualizes the world of the aquarium as both enormous and oppressive.  It’s barricades are the template for a  lot of great action.  If the Pixar animators have one specialty, it is how to pace an action scene.  I was surprised at how many creative ways they found the keep Dory and Marlin and Nemo hopping from one body of water to another while inside the hallways of the facility.  Many times they land in bodies of water that, I’m positive, were not sea water but we don’t go to this movie for accuracy.  Much of the film is action and it’s always engaging, especially the third act.  Let’s put it his way, the last thing I expected in Finding Dory was a car chase.

At the aquarium, Dory befriends Hank (Ed O’Neill) a cranky old octopus whose only desire in life is to be shipped to a facility in Cleveland.  Hank is actually the most fun character in the movie; he’s animated beautifully especially when he moves from place to place using his chameleon ability to hide in plain sight.  He’s part of a very large cast of creative supporting players.  Aside from the fish, we also get a near-sided whale shark named Destiny (Kaitlin Olson); a scatter-brained beluga whale named Bailey (Ty Burrell) who thinks he has head trauma; and two lazy sea lions who lord over their place in the sun; and assorted sting rays, birds, otters and other sea life.  The specialty of the film is that the characters are drawn specifically.  They all have a story to tell and each is interesting its own way.  What I appreciated was that none of these characters seems to have been created to sell toys at McDonald’s, none are spewing catchphrases and none have a focal point on their bodily functions.  I know that sounds like an odd compliment but if you see the other animated features that have come out this year like Norm of the North, Angry Birds or Ratchet and Clank you’d be surprised how normal those things have become.

Even with all the great character designs, the key here is Dory.  The filmmakers do a good job of giving her something interesting to do.  She’s funny and she’s touching even if her story isn’t essential.  Much of her appeal, of course, is in the performance of Ellen Degeneres, whose comic chops convince me that stand-up comedians are the best at doing voice work.  Like Robin Williams and Tim Allen and Patton Oswalt, Degeneres knows that the essential key to comedy is to keep the energy level always in motion.  There’s something in her delivery that feels like a character, not a celebrity doing a kids movie.  We believe her in this role because even when the story gets soggy because she believes the emotions she’s playing.  That, in many ways gave me a new respect for this character.  In the previous film she was just the comedy relief, but here her story is given some weight.

The emotions drive home the movie’s theme, which is the struggle of someone with a disability.  As someone who has struggled with reading comprehension, I felt some of Dory’s problems.  She can’t remember things.  Often her brain plays tricks on her, other times it seems selective but she struggles to get a handle on it.  The movie feels the isolation and frustration of someone pulled down by these issues even when the world seems to have given up on her.  I started this review by saying that the movie is not essential.  I still believe that, but I think it will speak to a kid who has to work a little bit harder to overcome adversity.  This movie is for them.  In its own strange way, it is encouraging.  It says that you’re not alone, that having a disability doesn’t mean that you’re broken.  You just have to find a way around the problem, keep on working, keep on trying and keep on swimming.




The annual Pixar short film was something special.  Told simply, the film is called Piper, the story of a hungry newborn sandpiper whose mother tries to help it overcome hydrophobia brought on by some crashing waves so that it can grab something to eat.  The message ties in beautifully with Finding Dory as it becomes another story of a parent trying to teach its child to overcome its fears.  The animation here is beautiful, making the characters seem less anthropomorphic and more like something out of a nature documentary.  I expect to hear about this one again at the Oscars next spring.

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Posted by on 06/17/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Warcraft (2016)


Some years ago, maybe around 2010, I recall standing in my den looking over my wife’s shoulder while she was playing a game on the computer.  I asked what she was playing; “World of Warcraft,” she said. On the screen was a character dressed in white seated on the back of an ostrich with a metal tailpipe sticking out of its hind-quarters, riding furiously (or as furiously as an ostrich with a tailpipe can ride) to somewhere, obviously to do something.  Whatever it was, there seemed to be some urgency to get there though I’m not 100% sure that my wife knew where she was going since she kept repeatedly referring to an onscreen map that looked, to me, as confusing as the schematic for the average household dishwasher.  I nodded politely and just said “Cool.  What do you want for dinner?”

I bring this up only to illustrate that this is the beginning, middle and end of my experience with “World of Warcraft.”  I am not an online gamer though I’m not unfamiliar with the process.  I’ve been through at least two incarnations of Star Wars (of which the most memorable moment occurred when my character got stuck in the bushes during a firefight) and I learned enough to know that it required far more patience and time then I have to devote.  I’m not damning the process, but I have other things to do.

Knowing virtually nothing about “World of Warcraft” save for the presence of Ostriches who require tailpipes, I believed myself to be a test case for the big screen incarnation.  Can the lore of this enterprise be translated to the uninitiated?  Does it tell a functional story that doesn’t require hours of prep-work?  Let’s put it this way, there is no way on Earth that the video game could possibly be as listless and dull as this movie.  If it is, I pity those who have spent hours and hours in its company.

Warcraft is a pretty sour experience, made worse by the fact that I’m not 100% sure that the movie is actually finished.  No kidding, there are scenes in this movie where the computer effects look like a test run.  Some characters are fully human while others are CG with flesh and skin.  There are some that seem like a badly rendered early draft.  Example, there’s a baby Orc which is seen cradled in its father’s hands.  The baby moves and squirms like a cartoon, but the father looks better rendered.  Then he meets human beings who look like you and me.  The effect is distracting.

What really disappoints me is that the movie is in the hands of Duncan Jones, a director whose work I have come to admire.  He made the terrific 2009 adventure Moon, the movie in which Sam Rockwell is trapped millions of miles from Earth with a clone of himself and with a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey.  And he made Source Code with Jake Gyllenhaal is stuck in a time-loop in which he must figure out how to stop an explosion on a train over and over and over.  Both of these films were creative, challenging and fun, but what happened with Warcraft?  Jones seems buried alive by this material as if the brand was too precious to give any creative juice.

The movie thumps and grumbles along with enormous battle scenes that are so badly mismanaged that it is difficult to tell what is actually happening.  There is a lot of noise, there is clanging and banging and yelling but there’s never a sense of orientation.  There’s never a moment when you get the sense of battle strategy as you would need in a video game.  If you’ve engaged in the game then you know that it is designed to give you the experience of control, of understanding movement and elements of power.  Why is that absent from the movie?  Apparently since you’ve paid to see a movie with a brand-name, you will settle for something that is less engaging mentally and more on par with someone jingling keys in your face.  You deserve better.

When the movie isn’t romping and stomping on the battlefield we get a yawn-inducing half-told story that I was only half-interested in.  It begins with an Orc warrior (is there any other kind?) named Durotan (Toby Kebbell) who has a pregnant wife named Draka (Anna Galvin) who are forced to leave their world through a portal that so resembles the Stargate that I think somebody may in for a tremendous lawsuit.  Spat out the other side, they find themselves in Azeroth, a place so green and hill-infested that it might as well be crawling with Hobbitses.   Azeroth is, of course, controlled by humans who don’t cotton to these outsiders . . . or othersiders in their neck of the woods.

With motivations that I’m not really sure I completely understood, the Orcs attack the humans over control of this land.  The human clan is led by Lothar (Travis Fimmel) a knight who is as much fun as hand sanitizer.  He’s dedicated to his king and queen, but Durotan’s questions the motivations of the warlock Gul’dan (Danial Wu) who wants ultimate power and has a nasty habit of killing people with magic by draining their lifeforce.

Gul’dan’s counterpart on the human side is Medivah, a wizard played in a bit of bizarre casting by Ben Foster.  If you know Foster from 3:10 to Yuma or any of his other villain roles, then you know he’s the master of the evil burn.  He tries and tries to bring some of that sizzle to this role, but his intentions are buried amid all the noise.  His role is diminished down to essentially driving the getaway car, meaning that his function is to transport the characters from place to place with chants and blue glowies.

Since the Orcs provide the muscle and Foster provides the magic, we must also have a bit of sexploitation and that comes from a demeaning role for Paula Patton as Garona, a half-human, half-orc who is being held prisoner, apparently by the guys who run Maxim magazine.  Her entire role is to look sexy and pouty while bound in chains and tattered clothing.  With this, and her role in Adam Sandler’s The Do-Over I might not be out of line in suggesting to Ms. Patton that she seek new representation.

Added to that there’s a subplot involving a human mage named Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) and some business involving a purple room.  Plus, there’s an appearance by a silly-looking clay statue that comes to life, and there’s at least a hour of human and Orc beating the snot out of each other on the battlefield, all the while the movie borrows and steals from Lord of the Rings in ways that, again, I think are ripe for a lawsuit.

The spectacle of Peter Jackson’s great epics ring in the ears of anyone who chooses to sit through Warcraft.  If that series felt robust and full of magic and life and energy, this movie feels like warm tap water.  It seems to have been made by people too busy trying to sell a brand than make an engaging movie.  If you’ve been to your local retailer recently and attend this movie, then you can tell that the intent here had little to do with making movies so much as begin another brand like LOTR or “Game of Thrones.”  But no one here seems willing to do the actual work.  What’s on the screen is the bare minimum.  Actually, it’s less than the bare minimum.  The story, the characters, the action, the special effects, they all seem undone here.  They’re half-realized in a movie that gives you far less then you are probably willing to give it.  Maybe the movie should have started with Tailpipe Ostrich.  That, at least, I can say I haven’t seen before.

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Posted by on 06/10/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016)


Do you remember that scene in Crocodile Dundee where Mick sees a TV in his hotel room and tells his companion that he’s only seen television once?  He then turns on the set and sees “I Love Lucy” and says “Yup, that’s what I saw.”  That’s how I feel about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.  I only saw the cartoon show a few times but what I see in the movie is exactly what I saw on television, no more, no less.

What I saw here, I saw on TV: There are four mutated turtles – Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo.  There’s an Asian killer named Shredder.  There are two irritating over-caffeinated morons, Bebop and Rocksteady.  There’s a street vigilante who models his shtick on a hockey fetish.  There’s a babalious reporter that the boys use to get information.  There is a five-foot rat that gives the turtles sage advice.  There’s an alien brain hooked to a mechanical body.  And there’s a plot by the brain to rule the world via a sky fortress called The Technodrome.  It’s all here, the toy box is open and all the toys are on display.  If you recognize the pieces, you’ll probably get more from this movie then I did.  Then again, I recognize all the pieces and I couldn’t care less.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows is the fourth comic book adaptation that I’ve seen in the past three months.  At best, I can say that it’s probably the least sour of these four films, but in terms of its story, it’s the least substantial.  It’s more of an exercise in fan gratification then a narrative.  Actually, it’s less an adaptation of the Eastman and Laird underground comic book then on the early-90s TV show that followed.  That show, restructured for the kid market, threw out the comic’s dark tone in favor of something more colorful.  Actually it worked.  The show had a cheeky charm and a sense of humor that was refreshing in an age when most animated action shows were as dull as a doorknob.

The script here by Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec – who both cut their teeth writing for television – tries to match the tone of the old cartoon show, but there’s something unsettling in their approach.  They are trying to make a live-action cartoon but in translating animation to the gravity and weight of live-action, the material comes off as overbearing.  The world in which the turtles live is the real world.  We see the real New York, with real people and real cars and the contrast between the two feels all wrong.  With the turtles and their mutated enemies, the movie should have a palette that allows the textures to be more than just dingy brick and concrete?  For a world that contains teenage mutant ninja turtles, couldn’t you imagine a world that looks colorful and more artificial?

You’ll notice I’ve avoided discussing the plot.  That’s because there isn’t much to talk about.  The movie has two thread-bare plots running concurrently and neither have much to do with each other.  The turtles, just like the other recent comic book characters, are experiencing an inner-conflict.  After saving New York two years ago, the boys are frustrated at having to remain in the shadows.  The group leader Leonardo reminds the boys that they have to move like the night, like ninjas.  YET, this doesn’t keep the the turtles from driving around in a giant green flame-throwing van that shoots manhole covers!!  No points for subtlety.

The other plot is more or less superfluous.  It’s a half-written conflict involving a giant alien brain named Krang (voiced by Brad Garrett) who wants to open a portal to his dimension through which he will bring his flying fortress.  His ally is Shredder (Brian Tee), a boring, humorless Asian assassin that breaks out of prison to find the lost pieces of Krang’s teleportation device.  And for whatever reason, he employs a pair of escaped convicts to help in his mission, and for whatever reason turns them into a warthog and a rhinoceros.

And . . . pause!

Let’s talk about this for a second.  Shredder’s underlings are named Bebop and Rocksteady.  Shredder turns one into a rhino and the other into a pig, to which the movie explains that the reason they turn into these two animals is because each human being has the genes of a certain animal inside of them.  When harnessed, an individual can be transformed into that animal.  I’m not a geneticist but I’M PRETTY SURE THAT’S NOT HOW EVOLUTION WORKS!!

It doesn’t really matter anyway, the point of the movie is to employ an inventory of Ninja Turtles supporting players for the gratification of the fans.  Along with Shredder, Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady, there’s also April O’Neil, played for all the sexual posing by Megan Fox; and Casey Jones, a dishonored former cop played by a woefully miscast Stephen Amell.  In truth, this character that could have been excised from this movie without altering a thing.

I was fairly bored during this movie, then again I’m not a superfan, and I’m not a 12 year-old.  Will your kids enjoy it?  Well, it depends on your kids.  It depends on how willing they are to sit through a lot of hyper action and noise.  It’s probably harmless, but I will say please, oh, please, oh, please take them to see The Jungle Book first.  That movie is one of the nicest surprises of 2016, a lively and highly entertaining fairy tale, and one that has been crafted with loving care by filmmakers who wanted to make something special. With Ninja Turtles they’ll likely remember what they’ve seen on TV and walk away from this movie saying to themselves, “Yup . . . that’s what I saw.”

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Posted by on 06/04/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)



10 Cloverfield Lane is alternately fascinating and frustrating at the same time.  It is fascinating in the moment but frustrating in that it takes so long to get where it’s going that it arrives at an ending that should have been the beginning of the second act.  That’s doesn’t make the movie bad exactly, it just leaves you wishing someone had switched things around so that we could get to the big picture a little sooner.  Ultimately, the biggest frustration is that when you get to the end, you realize that you’re going to have to wait for a sequel to get to the things that this movie promises for two hours.

The movie is a sort-of side-sequel to 2008’s Cloverfield, not directly related but existing in the same universe, or as producer J.J. Abrams calls it “a blood relative.”  Unlike the earlier film, this is not a found footage movie (which is good) this is a Bottle Movie, a story that confines its characters to the same location for much of the running time while the events outside remain a mystery to us and to them.

But let’s stop for a second for just a word of friendly warning . . .

I must address an important issue.  As every critic in the country has already done, I’m going to be as tactful and respectful as I can.  As is the nature of my craft, I must discuss the story without giving away specific plot points.  This is a movie that requires you to know as little as possible going in and, if you’re like me, you like to know almost nothing about the movie you’re about to watch.  Before continuing I’ll say this – it’s a good movie and worth seeing but it’s probably best if you go in cold.  Go see it then come back and read my review.

I realize that what I’ve just said is ridiculous.  I’m supposed to praise the film and make you want to see it, but the nature of this film is making my job a bit more difficult.  J.J. Abrams has become the reigning king of spoiler country.  His films demand that you keep your lip buttoned; a tactic that has been attached to “Lost”, Star Trek Into Darkness, and most recently The Force Awakens.  He’s a master of marketing – often his trailers are more impressive than his movies.

Such is the case here.  It takes talent to pull the wool over the eyes of the average 21st century moviegoer, which is probably why 10 Cloverfield Lane feels like such an enigma.  Through a brilliant and stealthy production, here is a movie that managed to get made without anyone really knowing it was coming – seriously, nobody knew this was a thing was coming until the trailer dropped in January causing millions to lean over in the darkened theater and ask their significant other, “Is this a sequel?”

As I said before, it takes place in the same universe.  It begins benign enough, with a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) waking up, getting dressed and then driving somewhere.  Where she’s going we’re not sure but in a series of shots reminiscent of the opening of The Shining she drives all day and into the night.  Then something happens.  She has a serious accident and wakes up in a bare room hooked to an I.V.  Plus, as if the terror of this situation wasn’t bad enough, she’s also chained to the wall.

Seriously, if you have any intention of seeing this movie stop here.

Through the door comes the imposing figure of Howard Stambler (John Goodman), who has the look and manner of a lumber yard foreman with daddy issues.  Based on her circumstances she reasonably thinks he’s there to do her harm until she realizes that he’s brought her food.  Michelle has no earthly reason to trust the unsmiling Howard who explains that she’s been brought to his underground bunker because the rest of the world has been wiped out by a chemical attack (I’m giving nothing way – this was in the trailer).  With an even voice he announces that neither of them can leave for at least another year.  His unsmiling countenance does not give her confidence, neither does the gun strapped to his hip.

Also in the bunker is Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a kindly home handyman who is one of Howard’s neighbors but confesses that he doesn’t know Howard all that well.  He’s at least a sane figure to communicate with.  The bunker is well furnished and comfortable – it’s clear that Howard (who is ex-Navy) has spent years putting it together.  There’s TV, a jukebox, board games, puzzles and all the amenities to stay comfortable for quite a while.  The situation might be okay were it not for Howard who is twitchy, nervous and – Michelle discovers very quickly – prone to extreme paranoia and fits of domestic violence.

What follows is a cat-and-mouse scenario as Michelle and Emmett begin to find holes in Howard’s story.  Slinking around behind his back, she begins doing an investigation to find out if the world is really depopulated or if Howard is just keeping her captive because, well, he’s nuts.  More I cannot say, nearly the entire movie has the trio trapped in that bunker which is a great movie set, we really feel as if we’re in a man-made bunker.  Just as The Shining gave us the confusion of claustrophobia of that hotel, this movie gives us the feeling of the tight spaces and tiny corners – we’re in that bunker with the characters, especially when Michelle begins to uncover clues about Howard.

The trouble is that the movie spends a lot of time getting where it’s going.  What is actually happening will surprise no one who understands that this takes place in the same world as Cloverfield.  Knowing that, you kind of sit there waiting for the movie get on with it.  Yes, the cat-and-mouse game is intriguing, but when it gets to its reveal, the movie is just about over.  If you don’t know much about Cloverfield then this movie will come off as a frustrating question mark.  This is a movie, ultimately, that you just have to enjoy in the moment.  You can’t lean on expectation or you come up feeling a little gypped.

So, where do I stand?  I enjoyed what I was watching but I was frustrated by the result.  I recommend that you see it, but with the warning that you will walk out scratching your head.  Is that recommendation?  I’m not sure.

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Posted by on 04/08/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Zootopia (2016)



The greatest joy of going to the movies, for me, is the joy of discovering something that the filmmakers have worked to turn into something special.  Week after week, I attend the Hollywood product that regurgitates shopworn plots and tired characters that aren’t much deeper than your average rain puddle.   Yet, every once in a while I come across something that breaks the mold, swings for the fences and tries to be better than average.

It gives me great joy to bestow this praise on Disney’s Zootopia, a movie that by all accounts should be just a forgettable piece of animated weekend movie fodder, but instead is creative, colorful, funny, touching and tells a story that is actually kind of compelling.  It also creates a wonderful world, one in which animals are the dominants, human beings apparently don’t exist and every species is sectioned off into their own little part of town.  Elephants live in the larger part of the city; mice live in a tiny part of the city, etc.  Everyone has their place and most have apparently made an agreement not to cross the boundaries.  The inhabitants are divided up between predators and prey.

I love this environment.  It reminds me of the town in Pinocchio, the sea in Finding Nemo or the inner-cranium of Inside Out.  It’s always a good sign when you look at a heavily detail and populated world on screen and secretly imagine all the nooks and crannies that you’re going to explore in slo-mo on the DVD.

Of course, inside that world is a story, and it is a good one.  Zootopia focuses on a spirited bunny named Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin from “Once Upon a Time”), a rabbit from down on the farm who is aiming for the impossible dream of becoming a big city cop.  The impossible part comes from the fact that in Zootopia rabbits don’t become police officers, they stick to carrot farming.  That job prospect is left to far more efficient (not to mention more menacing) predators like rhinos, yaks and lions.  Judy’s well-meaning parents are concerned about her dream and remind her that “It’s good to have dreams as long as you . . . you know . . . don’t act on them.”

Well, she does act on them and becomes part of Zootopia’s brutal police force, led by the humorless Chief Bogo (voiced by Idris Elba), a yak who has no real need for a rabbit on the force and assigns her the job of meter maid.  Judy, of course, excels at this.  From here, I’m going to be careful because the plot that develops from there is a doozy.  She unwittingly gets herself mixed up with a sly hustler fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) who is scamming the elephant community and gets information that an Otter has gone missing.

What comes of this is a really great and kind of compelling mystery.  The writers Jared Bush and Phil Johnson have really worked to create something that has our attention, and something that builds piece by piece.  I’ll be honest, I had no idea what lay at the end of the trail of clues.  This is extremely rare for animated movie.  In most cases you can see the end of the mystery before it even gets started, but here they respect our intelligence by letting us figure out what is happening.  I realize that I’m being vague but I’m trying to keep the details light.

The beauty of Zootopia is in the designs and the color.  The filmmakers here are so generous with their artistic freedom that we feel that we have entered a new kind of world.  Every kind of animal is represented and every kind of animal seems to have been given its own kind of space, unlike other movies in which the animals all seem to be relatively the same size.  Elephants and rabbits, and mice and foxes and weasels and yaks exist in the same space but their proportions are exactly right.

I was also excited about Judy Hopps.  This is a fun character, not a token hero, but a gal who wants to realize her dream and has stars in her eyes.  She fun to listen to, but she’s also fun to watch.  She has a spirit and a personality that seem original and not something that feels like it comes off the assembly line.  The details of her body language are something special here.  Animation is getting better and far more intricate and it is a delight to watch.  I also liked the idea that she is attempting the break the mold and get into a profession that all others are telling her that she has not business pursuing, not even her parents.  She wants this, and she won’t let anything stand in her way.  But it isn’t the case of a character trying to succeed at something that she’s not good at.  She just has to overcome the cynicism of those who doubt her.

If there is a drawback to Zootopia, it’s something that crops up in the second act.  This movie has an overwhelming amount of political correctness that seemed to wash into the plot from out of nowhere.  Judy makes a negative public statement about predators that makes her pariah of the community and, for me, it was a development that arrived with a clang.  This was a movie on the fast track of energy and originality and this was an element that I feel that the movie didn’t really need.  In a movie that creates an entirely new world, why add elements of our own?

My other problem was in the character of Chief Bogo, Judy’s superior officer.  He’s a dead serious character whose function is to always be putting Judy in her place.  That’s fine, except that the character has no humor; he turns up to spoil her progress and it felt more like an irritation.  I thought it would have been more fun if he was molded more as a funny parody of all those wrong-headed police chiefs from the Dirty Harry movies who were always chewing Harry out even while the evidence was staring them in the face.  This character seemed, I don’t know, unpleasant.

Those objections aside, I found Zootopia to be far better than I might have expected.  It creates a bright, fun, and intricate world that didn’t always feel like the filmmakers were motivated by marketing.  Somebody cared about this story, they cared about this production and they seemed to have had as much fun putting it together as I did watching it.

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Posted by on 04/02/2016 in In Theaters


In Theaters: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)


BY JERRY DEAN ROBERTS | March 24, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is 500 pounds of movie heaped on a 10 pound story.  This is a clunky, misguided, unhappy and ultimately exhausting experience that runs on for 2 hours and 33 minutes wherein it repeats it’s themes over and over and over with overcooked imagery that must have cost a million dollars a minute.  When it’s all over you aren’t surprised by the absence of a credit cookie because by that point there’s nothing left to say.  Even its title is too bulky – for my purposes, I’ll just call it BS.

What can be reported is that while it’s a narrative mess, it is certainly more coherent than Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (of which this is a sequel) which was edited so clumsily that you didn’t know from one minute to the next which part of the story was being told.  There is a lot of that here but it’s not quite as jarring.  Maybe I’ve just gotten use to it.

The story opens with the gazillionth retelling of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne by a mugger as witnessed by 10 year-old Bruce, followed by the trauma of falling down a hole and encountering a massive flock of bats.  Then we cut to the end of Man of Steel in which Bruce (Ben Affleck) arrives in Metropolis just as his Wayne Tower is destroyed in the fight between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon).  In the destruction hundreds of Bruce’s employees and friends are killed.  This scene actually gives weight to the persistent complaint that the third act of Man of Steel was a senseless morass of thoughtless carnage.

Bound up in rage and hungry for vengeance, Bruce decides that he must do away with this alien element lest he either bring more dangerous entities to Earth or decides to destroy it himself.  His rage is fueled by the notion of Superman as a thoughtless false god who takes careless joy in letting human beings die.  So he spends a great amount of his time attaining the kryptonite necessary to do away with him.  What is interesting is that Bruce is the focal point here.  The title suggests that both will get equal time but the movie really belongs to Bruce and his pointy-eared counterpart.  As played by Ben Affleck, Batman here is a rough, uncompromising man who goes to great lengths to make his war with Superman happen.  I was never among those who joined the howling last year when Affleck was announced for the role.  He’s a very good actor and here he affects a presence in Bruce and in Batman that makes you feel for him.  Yes, he’s wreckless, but there’s a method to his literal madness.  When he scowers the earth looking for kryptonite we understand the weight of his anger even though we are always aware that he  would do well to do some research on The Big Blue Boy Scout first.

This, I should tell you, is the best thing about the movie.  The rest of BS is about 19 different subplots and about 26 different characters rolled into a movie that can’t settle down long enough to focus on any of them.  Every single scene, every single fight, every single conversation is ramped up to feel like an epic unto itself.  Scenes that are suppose to be meaningful go one waaay too long until, after a while, it gets exhausting.  So too is Zack Snyder’s misguided direction.  He has so many balls on the field at once that he often doesn’t know where to go next, and often cuts to a scene that makes no narrative sense.  Seriously, there’s a moment here when Batman goes to the desert to find a chunk of kryptonite and is confronted by the Man of Steel himself.  I don’t know how he got there or even where this desert is located.  I’m not even sure if it’s a dream sequence or ESP.  The scene is so arbitrary that it feels like someone tacked on a deleted scene and forgot to take it out.

I’m realizing now that Snyder is not a good storyteller – of course I should have guessed that three movies ago – but his misdirection is becoming a style.  While he makes his film look good, he stages emotional scenes as if we’ve missed something and organizes dialogue between characters as if we’ve come into the middle of a conversation that hasn’t even started yet.  There is a scene early in the film in which Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Clark Kent talk about their relationship as if they’ve been talking about it before the scene started.  If this were a television show you’d swear you’d missed an episode.  Their relationship is more or less pointless.  We care about them but the movie doesn’t give us an investment in their personal problems.

I was also perplexed by the presence of Wonder Woman, played Gucci perfume model Gal Gadot, who appears in the movie for reasons I cannot figure out.  Her purpose in the movie is never really explained and feels like a holdover for an upcoming Justice League movie.  Gadot does a fine job, I guess, with what she has to work with but she’s sort of shoehorned in without purpose.  Oh! And you are aware that Aquaman and The Flash and Cyborg are part of this movie?  Yeah, their individual screentime is about as long as it takes you to read this sentence.

If their sideplots in the movie seemed useless so too does the presence of Lex Luthor, played here by Jesse Eisenberg as if he really wanted to play The Joker.  Luthor wants to build the ultimate weapon that will kill Superman.  That might have been enough but the movie spends way too much time dealing with Luthor’s attempts to get around congressional block that would keep him from bringing the kryptonite into the country.  It’s a subplot that doesn’t matter and takes up at least 20 minutes of screentime in which he has a war of words with a steadfast Senator (Holly Hunter) who doesn’t like Luthor or his methods.

The basic problem here is that this is a movie too big for the story its trying to tell.  There is so much going on and so many characters to keep up with that you can’t get your head around it.  It might be fair to say that this could have been cut up into two or even three movies.  There is no need for this simplistic story to take this long to tell.  If you want a great confrontation between Batman and Superman seek out an animated film from 1997 called “World’s Finest” that wrapped up this same scenario in about 90 minutes and told it with clarity and humor.

The basic problem here is that the movie is joyless and sour.  Compare that with the Marvel movies which are bright and colorful and even their dark moments have a sense of joy.  This movie is no fun.  BS is the first of two movies that will be released in the next six weeks that feature superheroes whomping the snot out of each other.  I look forward to Civil War because I know it will be far more coherent.  It would almost have to be.

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Posted by on 03/24/2016 in In Theaters