Friday, May 27, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse



X-Men: Apocalypse's mutant power is an overwhelming sense of deja vu. When En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first, handsomest (until he turns blue), and most powerful mutant known as Apocalypse, awakens from a 3600 year slumber, he plunges the X-Men into an adventure where they end up doing a lot of things they've done in prior X-Men movies. Stop me if you've heard this before: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is kidnapped and held hostage for his mutant psychic abilities. The X-Men are captured and brought to a base in Alkali Lake, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was created. Wolverine goes into a beserker rage, carving up the troops of his arch nemesis William Stryker (Josh Helman) with his adamantium claws. (All greatest hits from X2: X-Men United.) Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) take turns quoting their closing dialogue from the first X-Men movie 16 years ago (which is, confusingly, 17 years in the future from this episode, set in 1983). And there's all the usual stuff to X off the list in an X-Men movie: new students joining Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, visits to Cerebro underneath the X-Mansion, and plenty of callbacks to stuff that happened in X-Men: First Class, which happened 20 years prior to the events in Apocalypse, though nary an X-Man or anyone else in that movie has aged a day. (Xavier makes mention of non-mutant Moira MacTaggert's, played by Rose Byrne, uncanny ability to look exactly as young 20 years later, and the movie moves on.) On the other hand, an X-Men comics tradition finally occurs in a movie when the X-Mansion is destroyed. Luckily, Magneto and young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) have the mutant power to be contractors.

Working from a screenplay from Simon Kinberg that crams a ton of mutants into an under cooked tale, director Bryan Singer busily checks in with the exploits of his ever-growing, under-serviced cast of mutants. X-Men: Apocalypse tells us that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not feeling the blues and spending most of the movie looking like her movie star self) has become a mutant folk hero since the climactic moments of X-Men: Days of Future Past, when she saved President Richard Nixon from Magneto in 1973. Lots of young mutants have her poster on their wall, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who lives as a sneak thief in Cairo, Egypt. Other than recruit a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and bring him to Xavier's School, Mystique has precious little to do in the movie, except fail to sweet talk Magneto from destroying Cairo, get choked by Apocalypse, and then become the X-Men's drill sergeant. Mystique does find time to make jokes to Beast (Nicholas Hoult) about getting a "War Plane," a canny reference to Hoult starring as a War Boy in Mad Max: Fury Road. We meet young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the newest student at the Xavier School, who's just learning to control his mutant optic blasts. Cyclops in turn meets Jean Grey, the future love of his life, and host of the all-powerful Phoenix Force, which Apocalypse shoehorns in as another major plot point, setting up a second swipe at telling the "Dark Phoenix Saga" in a future X-Men movie.

When Apocalypse awakens, like Ivan Ooze did in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, he finds he missed the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Brady Bunch Reunion. Like Ivan Ooze, he finds the modern world wanting, and decides to destroy it, so he can rule it, or something. Apocalypse's logic is hazy and he's not much more than a collection of villainous platitudes. Unlike Ivan Ooze, Apocalypse isn't funny and he isn't much for idle chatter when he recruits his helpers, the Four Horsemen, who are Magneto, Storm, the metal-winged Angel (Ben Hardy), and the ridiculously hot Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who makes purple telekinetic swords and whips. To work for Apocalypse means a lot of standing around and not saying anything, hence the Horsemen turn out to be as dull and uninspiring as their leader. Apocalypse steals the world's nuclear missiles, thousands of them, and strands them all in space; an idea Superman (Christopher Reeve) wouldn't have until 1987 in Superman IV. But mainly, Apocalypse just wants to kill everyone. He's cool with the strongest mutants surviving. If any of this sounds like a good idea or not to Storm, Psylocke, Magneto, or Angel, they don't vocalize it. Turns out Apocalypse, with his ill-defined mutant powers of teleportation and making walls consume people like they're frozen in carbonite, is the shits as a world conqueror. What Apocalypse is great at, however, is designing super villain costumes. He personally gifts his Horsemen with new duds, and they all look smashing (especially Psylocke). Apocalypse could have been the mutant Tom Ford, but alas, he thinks too small.

Like the Johnny Appleseed of mutants, Magneto has been spreading his seed around, not just fathering Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who, like in Days of Future Past, steals the show with his speed but in a sequence that is somehow both more elaborate and perfunctory, but also having a new family in Poland, where he works in a steel mill. Having gone completely apeshit in 1963 and 1973, Magneto is right on schedule with his homicidal tantrums when he is discovered by local authorities who murder his family. Once more, an X-Men movie becomes about saving Erik's soul, and saving the world from scary Erik, until Charles is able to remind Erik of their bromance and he finally calms down. So Erik's good for another decade, all pals with Charles and Mystique again at the conclusion of Apocalypse until his next inevitable meltdown in 1993. As for Charles, perhaps the strangest choice in Apocalypse turns out to be the secret origin of how Xavier loses his hair: Apocalypse trying to transfer his consciousness into the world's most powerful psychic somehow snatched Xavier's edges bald. Did Apocalypse realize if he'd succeeded, he'd have been in the body of a paraplegic? No matter, he's probably got a mutant power for that.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Captain America: Civil War



Sokovia. The most important fictional country in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fallout from the devastation of Sokovia in last year's Avengers: Age of Ultron rips the Avengers asunder in the sensational Captain America: Civil War. Ostensibly a third Avengers movie bearing Captain America (Chris Evans)'s name and featuring him as its centerpiece and star-spangled moral compass, directors Joe and Anthony Russo's Civil War is an assured and magnificent escalation of Marvel's superhero movies. It is certainly the best Avengers movie thus far, deepening Marvel's superhero characters by exploring their personal beliefs and testing their loyalties to each other. Deftly juggling over a dozen superheroes - plus introducing two immensely important new additions to Marvel's movie pantheon in the Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) -- in a dense, globetrotting (Lagos, Vienna, London, Berlin, New York, Bucharest, Siberia, Wakanda), action-packed extravaganza laced with clever character beats and endearing humor, Civil War makes us love the Avengers even more than we already did, even as they lay the smack down on each other. 

Accountability is the big issue facing the Avengers. After a mission in Lagos to apprehend the super villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo) goes sideways, resulting in the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)'s attempt to save Captain America's life from a bomb accidentally killing dozens of innocents from the African nation of Wakanda, the Avengers' methodology is called into question by the new Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). "The world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt," admits Ross, before declaring the Avengers, who operate with unlimited power and no government supervision, vigilantes. The United Nations wants the Avengers accountable to them. The UN plans to ratify the Sokovia Accords, international law that places the Avengers under UN jurisdiction, giving the UN the power to tell the Avengers where and when to fight or not fight evil.

The Avengers are required to sign the Accords or quit being superheroes. Captain America, played as stalwart and admirable as ever by Evans, sees this as an affront. He feels with the kind of power the Avengers possess, "The safest hands are our own." Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who essentially kicked off this age of Marvels when he became Iron Man eight years ago, is riddled with guilt over his personal and professional failures. Stark supports signing the Accords. The Avengers debate the issue, intelligently and entertainingly. Most agree to sign, including, surprisingly, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). She and Stark agree: capitulating now staves off something worse down the road. We agree with them; it's the smart, safer move to sign. Captain America cannot yield his beliefs and will not sign. And we agree with Cap, because we trust Cap. Everyone is right. But who's more right? Civil War tests everyone, Avengers and the audience, probing for answers, as we thrill at the conflict that results.

Meanwhile, the Avengers implosion is the endgame of a devious plot by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a Sokovian spy who lost his family in Age of Ultron, and wages a silent war on the Avengers. Zemo bombs the UN signing of the Sokovia Accords in Vienna, murdering King T'Chaka of Wakanda. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is framed for the act of terror. Cap sets off to find Bucky before the Avengers and T'Chaka's son T'Challa, the Black Panther, do, triggering the hostilities of the Civil War as The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), rally to Cap's side. Meanwhile, Stark recruits some hitters to back him up, including a reluctant Black Widow, and his loyalists the Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and best of all, Spider-Man. 

As a villain, Bruhl underwhelms, but he's really besides the point, just a means to the glorious ends of seeing Marvel's superheroes have at it in an incredibly entertaining superhero spectacle. Some of the best bits are old buddies Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting it out but still asking each other if they're still friends, Black Panther and Winter Soldier hacking away at each other with robot arms and vibranium claws, the Falcon letting loose his terrific drone Redwing, and everything Spider-Man says and does. Civil War finally delivers the young, brash, wise-cracking-in-battle Spidey we've always wanted to see, to the chagrin of pretty much all of the other Avengers. But the show stopper turns out to be Rudd's Ant-Man, so grateful to be included in this melee, and when he suddenly grows into the 60 foot-tall Giant-Man. Stark's stunned reaction -- "Does anyone on OUR side have their own SHOCKING and FANTASTIC ability they want to share now?!" -- is hilarious and pitch perfect.

"He's my friend," Captain America says to Iron Man about Bucky in the most famous exchange in the movie. "So was I," Stark retorts. There's a very pleasing undercurrent of friendship for a movie called and about Civil War. Virtually all of the heroes' actions are because they're trying to do what's best for their friends. Cap tries to save Bucky because they go back nearly a century and no one else believes his innocence. (Bucky also rightly wonders aloud if he's even worth all this trouble.) The Falcon, who is presented to be utterly fantastic, the ultimate wingman (pun intended), sides with Cap out of friendship, and so does former SHIELD agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), though strictly friendship with Cap isn't her primary motivation. (Falcon and Bucky grinning at Cap for kissing Sharon makes us want a Falcon/Winter Soldier buddy movie right now.) Meanwhile, Vision, following Stark's orders, tries to keep Scarlet Witch (a Sokovian ex-pat living in America as an Avenger the media solidly blames for the Lagos tragedy) safe in the Avengers compound until Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the first Avenger who believed in her, comes to bust her out and make her #TeamCap. Poor Natasha Romanoff is the one most caught in the middle of this schism between Stark and Cap: her head sides with Stark, but her heart and loyalties side with Cap. Ever the double agent, Black Widow tries to do right by both sides, and pays the price. Speaking of paying the price for loyalty, no one suffers more than Stark's best friend James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), the main casualty of the Civil War. The amazing feat Civil War accomplishes is keeping all of the Avengers likeable and honorable despite their differences.

Amidst all this chaos, the additions of the Black Panther and Spider-Man to the Avengers universe were seamlessly done. As the Black Panther, Boseman brings the necessary honor and regality to the now-King T'Challa of Wakanda, even when he's consumed with a quest for vengeance through much of the movie. Yet, Civil War still makes room for clever quips, like the Falcon assuming T'Challa must really like cats if he's dressed like a cat. (Falcon also scoffs at his winged gear being classified as a "bird costume.") Meanwhile, Stark pays a visit to a house in Queens, New York and introduces us to young Holland's Spider-Man while also not letting the fact that the new Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is also young and attractive escape his attention. Marvel trumpets the youth of their new Spider-Man by making a point that to him The Empire Strikes Back is "a really old movie." (If Peter Parker is 15 or 16, then he was born right around the time George W. Bush first became President. Now we all feel old.) When Captain America battles Spider-Man, we grin as Cap does when he learns Spider-Man is a kid from Queens and commiserates that he himself is a kid from Brooklyn. If there still isn't enough Spidey in Civil War for you, the final tag at the end credits spotlights the web-slinger and the final words of the credits are the promise that "Spider-Man Will Return."

"Congratulations, Cap. You're a criminal," frowns Rhodey midway through Civil War. Indeed. Yet, while Captain America defies international law to lead his Avengers gone rogue and keep Bucky out of Stark's hands, he somehow remains in the right. One can forgive Tony Stark for his bitterness. Six years ago, Stark stood in front of Congress and grandstanded about keeping the Iron Man tech out of government hands, but that hard-partying, irreverent Stark disappeared when he flew a nuclear missile through the wormhole over New York City and saw the Chitauri fleet in the first Avengers movie. Stark is a changed man, and not for the better. He's now the guy he never wanted to be, the one who bears the burden of answering to bureaucracy, responsible for the Avengers and their failings to people who can never understand what it costs to do what they do. The secret of how and why Tony's parents Howard and Maria Stark were murdered becomes a pivotal plot point in Civil War as well, fueling the division between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. It becomes a sad state of affairs that when we finally see The Raft, Marvel's maximum security super prison, its only prisoners are the former Avengers who sided with Captain America. "The Avengers are yours now," Cap writes to Stark at the conclusion of Civil War, but a head count makes one ask "What Avengers are left?" In the end, I remain #TeamIronMan. I think Tony Stark was right. But Captain America was also right. The beauty of Civil War is the audience can be left debating whose side they are on until the glorious day the Avengers finally assemble once again. That day can't come soon enough.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Green Room



Traveling around the country cramped in a crappy Scooby Doo van, siphoning off gas from other cars because you have no money, putting on gigs in an empty pizza parlor for six bucks a head... being part of an unsigned punk rock band kinda sucks enough -- details Green Room captures persuasively -- and that's before they unwittingly witness a gruesome murder in a dingy Pacific Northwest club owned by neo-Nazi white supremacists. This is what happens to the members of the band The Ain't Rights (billed incorrectly as The Aren't Rights), played by Anton Yelchin (Like Crazy), Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Joe Cole, and Callum Turner. They just showed up to play a gig for $350 (delightfully opening with "a cover song" aimed right at pissing off the neo-Nazis in the audience), but when Yelchin returns to the green room to retrieve Shawkat's iPhone, he finds a fresh corpse of a girl with a knife in her head The Walking Dead-style, her friend Imogen Poots in hysterics, and a bunch of huge neo-Nazis standing around looking guilty. Because they did it. Next thing you know, Yelchin and his band mates are trapped in the green room, barricading themselves in, as things get much, much worse for them and everyone involved.

The arrival of the police is quickly neutralized by the arrival of the club's owner and the leader of this neo-Nazi cadre, Sir Patrick Stewart, playing against his beloved type as a menacing schemer more than willing to let young bodies be hacked by machetes and mauled by dogs to address the growing problem in his club's green room. Most of Green Room takes place within the green room, as the band and Poots attempt to weigh their shrinking options and rally some form of escape. Yelchin's left arm is an early casualty, gruesomely hacked up by Stewarts' men so that his hand is nearly severed from his wrist. Thank God for duct tape (a sentiment Matt Damon echoes in The Martian). Green Room relentlessly ratchets up the brutality as the band and Poots make repeated attempts to escape the club, only to find rabid dogs and shotguns and more machetes waiting for them, so that fewer and fewer of them are able to return to the relative safety of the green room to lick their wounds. 

Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier maintains a harrowing and merciless edge to the proceedings, with the question of which band would be each character's "desert island band" as the lone source of welcome comedy occasionally diffusing the tension. (The shout out to Prince could not have been more timely or welcome.) Yelchin, who plays Mr. Chekov in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek movies, confronting Stewart, whom everyone in the Alpha Quadrant reveres as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, late in Green Room plays like some kind of bizarre but thrilling Star Trek mirror universe episode or fan fiction. In the end, the bloody and remorseless Green Room leaves us with one less punk rock band in the world, but also a lot fewer evil skinhead a-holes in the world, and ultimately, it seems a fair trade.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Jungle Book



Jon Favreau's delightful live action The Jungle Book, adapted from the beloved Disney cartoon which was adapted from the beloved (?) tale by Rudyard Kipling, is like a really weird episode of Naked and Afraid with a bunch of talking CGI animals. To be fair, Mowgli (a charming Neel Sethi), the young "man cub" found by a talking panther named Bagheera (voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley) and raised by wolves (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o and Giancarlo Esposito), is rarely afraid. Mowgli is a bright, cheerful boy, growing up in the jungle and doing the best he can to be a good wolf to his pack, while at best tolerated by all the other beasts. Except for one beast who finds him simply intolerable, the savage tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba, from, appropriately, Beasts of No Nation). Shere Khan killed Mowgli's father years ago for the crime of intruding upon the jungle, but was scarred by the "red flower," the one weapon Man possesses that all in the jungle most fear -- fire. As such, Shere Khan wants Mowgli dead, and, being a tiger, he doesn't really have much else to occupy his time besides hunt the man cub and give him a good mauling.

Mowgli is forced to abandon the wolf pack and make a run for it. (Which really doesn't say much about the wolves -- a whole pack of them can't take down one tiger? No, we find out in the climactic battle, turns out they can't. Those are some wussy wolves.) Bagheera attempts to return Mowgli to his own people, but Shere Khan hunting them makes that impossible. They are separated, and Mowgli has the misfortune to be robbed of his scavenged fruit by a pack of wild monkeys, hypnotized and nearly eaten by a giant snake (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who somehow knew Mowgli's entire origin story, but Mowgli also has the good fortune to meet his new bestest bear buddy Baloo (voiced by Bill Murray). After what happened to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, Leo must have been pissed seeing The Jungle Book's bear being so nice to that friggin' kid. The Revenant's bear never let Leo float on his stomach down a river while singing "Bear Necessities" to him. Then again, Leo was never tricked by his bear to climb up a cliff and risk getting stung by bees to bring down honeycombs. Still, Mowgli had it way better than Leo.

Mowgli can't help but be a do-gooder, though. Like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, young Mowgli possesses inherent skills in building and using human tools, and he has a profound understanding of pulleys and winches most civilized adults don't even have. Mowgli does a bunch of elephants a solid when he uses his skills to rescue one of their cubs from a pit, and it turns out no good deed by Mowgli goes unrewarded when the elephants later use their abilities at jungle terraforming to save the jungle from being burned down by the fire Mowgli accidentally started (oops). Besides the evil tiger who wants him dead, monkeys are the bane of Mowgli's jungle life, as he is soon kidnapped by monkeys and brought before a giant ape named King Louie who lives in "a giant monkey temple" and wants that red flower (voiced by a distracting Christopher Walken, to be honest, who also sings). One waits for Walken to tell Mowgli a story about his father and a gold watch, to no avail. Also, considering how far Mowgli traveled, apparently, one night of running through the jungle can bring him right back to where he started from for his fateful final battle with Shere Khan. In the end, The Jungle Book is a winning and enjoyable tale of a man cub becoming one with nature, after killing the things in nature that want to kill him, and nearly burning down that nature by being careless. But hey, man cubs will be man cubs.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Midnight Special



Midnight Special is writer-director Jeff Nichols' compelling and sober science fiction tome about a very special, super powered young boy, played by Jaeden Lieberher, and the lengths his parents, played by Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst, will go to keep him safe until he unlocks the secret to his very existence. Shannon and Dunst, with the aid of former state trooper and Shannon's loyal childhood friend Joel Edgerton, abscond with their son from the Texas cult they belonged to, the kind of cult like we've seen in HBO's Big Love. The cult sends mercenaries to get Lieberher back. The federal government, having raided the cult, also wants control of the boy. Adam Driver plays an NSA analyst recruited to suss out what the boy can do and why. All these forces converge upon the missing family, trying to find an escape through night time blacktop highways of the Southern United States, staying in seedy motel rooms with the windows blacked out with cardboard, hoping to find an answer to who and what their son is.

Lieberher, who cannot be exposed to daylight and wears swimming goggles over his eyes, seems to have supernatural abilities like other worldly senses and the ability to control electricity and machinery. In a harrowing spectacle, he brings down a satellite spying on him, demolishing a gas station in a rain of fireballs. Pushing the comic book-like aspects of the story, he also reads Superman comics while sitting in the back seat of their getaway cars, an amusing nod to Michael Shannon, who played General Zod in Man of Steel. (As is Edgerton explaining how Kryptonite works. Shannon is not amused.) Things get worse for the family as the cult attacks them in a motel at gunpoint, which leads to the government capturing Lieberher. His interview scene in a white room with Driver is one of the most thrilling scenes in the movie, as Driver gets closer than anyone to understanding what Lieberher is, and agrees to help him get where he's going.

Oddly, where Lieberher is going turns out to be Tomorrowland. As he comes full bloom into his powers, Lieberher enables the "world on top of the world" inhabited by otherworldly beings of light to be exposed to almost everyone in the Southeastern United States. An enormous future city that is the spitting image of the gleaming and spire-laden megalopolis in Brad Bird's Tomorrowland is the final destination for Lieberer, and while it's cool to see, it's also so jarring and weird, George Clooney and Britt Robertson might as well have appeared to welcome the boy into his new space age home. To Midnight Special's credit, it does go out with a final face to face meeting with Driver and Edgerton, and the delight of Uncle Owen Lars sharing the screen with Kylo Ren isn't lost on the Star Wars fans in the audience. One imagines they argued long into the night about how no good/awesome Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were. To be a fly on that wall...

Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice



"Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent! I love bringing people together!"

"Must there be a Superman?" asks Jim Lehrer, one of the many real life talking heads debating what's to be done about the presence of the Man of Steel on Earth. "Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world is a figure of controversy?" Controversy about Superman, his intentions, his actions, and how to stop him if he ever decides to "burn the whole place down" forms the crux of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, director Zack Snyder's grand operatic follow up to his controversial re-introduction of Superman, Man of Steel. Working from a robust, sly, bursting at the seams screenplay by Oscar winner Chris Terrio and David Goyer that ponders the history, fear and worship of gods and pulls key moments from Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Dan Jurgens' "The Death of Superman," Batman v Superman works overtime to fulfill its aggressive agenda: establishing the greater DC Comics cinematic universe as a muscular powder keg of hard choices, numerous threats at home and from worlds beyond, and burgeoning hope -- but only after our heroes get slugging each other out of their systems. We find the Batman v Superman universe is one simply unprepared and at heart terrified of the aliens, gods and monsters suddenly thrust upon them, but really, no more than we would be in real life. Just like the Batman, if something like Superman came to our real world, rather than embrace him as a savior, we'd probably also be looking for a fight.

Two years have passed since the destruction of Metropolis at the conclusion of Man of Steel. The city has been rebuilt and has publicly embraced Superman as a hero, a sentiment spearheaded by the Daily Planet, which just happens to have Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman himself, in his daily guise as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), writing "puff pieces" about Superman. However, numerous people in Metropolis and around the world don't feel quite so cuddly about the Man of Steel. The primary voice of dissent is Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), a junior senator from Kentucky hell-bent on holding hearings on Superman and bringing him in front of their committee to account for his actions. Though Superman continues to perform heroic feats and rescues around the world, all of his acts come under fire, and then literally when Superman finally relents to appear at the Capitol in Washington, DC, only to be framed in a terrorist bombing that kills Finch and hundreds of innocents. Poor Superman. Not only is his reputation repeatedly called into question, but Terrio and Goyer's screenplay gives him no opportunity to publicly defend himself. This Superman isn't like Christopher Reeve's smiling, media friendly Man of Steel who gave a revealing interview to Lois that would bring the public onto his side. "Superman was never real. He's just a dream of a farmer from Kansas," Clark confides to Lois at his lowest point of self-pity. Trying to be an old fashioned do-gooder in a world that suspects his every action ("It's not 1938 anymore!"), Cavill's beleaguered Superman must resort to having to contort his handsome face into every frown and scowl he can muster.

Speaking of frowns and scowls, we learn that billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who secretly spends his dark nights terrorizing Gotham City's criminals as the Batman, was in Metropolis on "The Day The World Met The Superman." Wayne had a ground's eye view of Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) wrecking Metropolis in their epic encounter, feeling an unfamiliar and disquieting utter helplessness as two alien gods demolished Wayne Tower and left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Meanwhile, the DC Universe's other most famous billionaire, Lex Luthor (a malevolently unhinged Jesse Eisenberg), has his own machinations, involving an elaborate, unwieldy scheme to frame Superman for an international incident, a mysterious green meteorite, Kryptonite, that can kill Kryptonians, and files in his hard drive that both Bruce Wayne and the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), the Amazon princess the world will soon come to know as Wonder Woman, want to abscond with. But first and foremost, the Batman, depicted in this latest cinematic incarnation as older, more world-wearily cynical, and more brutally violent than ever ("Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?"), wants to pick a fight with Superman.

"That's how it starts. The fever. The rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel," warns Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Wayne's acid-tongued faithful butler. But Wayne, driven by mysterious dreams of a dark future where Superman rules the world and brings winged alien demon armies from the skies, is set upon his course to take down the Kryptonian, training like Rocky Balboa for a big fight he desperately wants to win. Clark Kent himself is just as interested in the Batman, the fearsome vigilante across the bay in Gotham City who now brands criminals with the mark of the bat. Their super fight, manipulated by Luthor, who kidnapped Superman's adoptive human mother Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and threatens to have her killed if Superman doesn't sanction the Batman, is indeed epic and entertaining. The fight precisely follows the comic book tropes that the Batman, clad in his bulky battle armor, would set numerous traps and use Superman's overconfidence in his powers against him, including doses of Kryptonite gas to weaken Superman so that Batman, the superior fighter, can deliver the smackdown. #WhoWillWin? asked the social media marketing for weeks. Well, this fight is purely for the comic book fans and not the layman who would naturally assume Superman would wipe the floor with Batman. One of the most clever bits of Terrio and Goyer's screenplay is what ends the fight, the name "Martha," acknowledging and playing into one of the weird coincidences that Superman and Batman share -- both their mothers are named Martha.

Once Superman and Batman have made their peace, Batman v Superman goes for broke, turning giddily, unapologetically comic book and never looking back. Luthor unleashes his worst creation, the "Kryptonian deformity" called Doomsday, a giant, unstoppable monster genetically engineered from General Zod's corpse and Luthor's own DNA. In the same way the presence of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises signaled to comic book fans in the know that Batman's back would be broken, Doomsday means only one, inevitable thing to Superman fans. But first, Superman and a rather outmatched Batman must team up to fight Doomsday, and they're joined by Wonder Woman, who utterly steals the show in a long awaited, sensational cinematic debut for the most famous female superhero in the world. The few moments of Wonder Woman thrusting herself into battle against Doomday, blocking his heat vision with her bracelets, hacking his limbs off with her sword, and unleashing her magic lasso are worth the price of admission and ensured an eager opening weekend audience for her upcoming solo feature film in 2017. The battle sees Superman rocket Doomsday into outer space, only to be nuked by the US Military (a moment also borrowed from "The Dark Knight Returns"), while Batman and Lois Lane scramble to recover a Kryptonite spear, Batman's coup de grace weapon intended for Superman before cooler heads prevailed. By the time Superman makes the ultimate sacrifice to stop Doomsday, we're spent, the dreams of millions of comic book fans fulfilled.

"I failed him in life. I won't fail him in death," mourns Wayne, who finally comes to see he was wrong about the alien he's hated for the last couple of years. Both Wayne and Diana Prince attend Superman's funeral in Smallville, Kansas (actually Clark Kent's funeral, who was mysteriously killed during the super fight with Doomsday in what no one sees as a hilarious coincidence -- Superman's official funeral is a public military burial in Washington, DC.)  Setting up next year's superhero team up, Justice League, Batman v Superman literally stops the show by unleashing the files Batman stole from Luthor, giving the audience glimpses of Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Ray Fisher as Cyborg (his father, the scientist Silas Stone is played by a cleverly cast Joe Morton), and Ezra Miller as The Flash. As Batman, Affleck creates an ideal, grim, weary Dark Knight, arguably even the best cinematic Batman ever, silencing the millions who took umbrage over his casting on social media. (Incidentally, Batman reassuring Martha Kent "I'm a friend of your son's" is the best line in the whole movie. "I figured," she retorts. "The cape.") Gadot is a stunning revelation as Wonder Woman, regal, beautiful, and ferocious in battle. Both now own their superhero roles. Even without Cavill's Superman, the upcoming Justice League movie is in good hands with Affleck and Gadot leading the charge. But who are we kidding? Superman will return, of course, as subtly teased in the final shot of Batman v Superman. There is and will be no world without a Superman. Maybe when the Man of Steel does return, the world will be a lot nicer to him. But for now, let Superman rest in peace. He's earned it. After all, as quoted in Man of Steel, a good death is its own reward.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hail Caesar!



"Hooray for Old Hollywood!" trumpets Hail Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen's prodigious tribute to the golden age of Tinseltown circa the 1950s. Josh Brolin headlines a massive cast of some of today's biggest Hollywood names. As the head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Pictures, Brolin's all-consuming and thankless task is to oversee his studio's motley assemblage of eccentrics as they mount a prestige picture called "Hail Caesar!" involving the fall of Rome and the rise of Jesus Christ and Christianity. An early scene where Brolin holds court with a rabbi, a Catholic priest, a reverend, and an imam, is a high point, as they hilariously debate whether Jesus was God, the son of God, or none of the above. ("God is a bachelor," the rabbi argues, "And he's always angry.") Brolin himself is a deeply penitent man, making daily confessions to the chagrin of his patient priest. Brolin must have the patience of Job to deal with the wackos he deals with every day, as a recruiter for Lockheed Martin surmises when he offers Brolin a cushier, more lucrative position to run security for Lockheed and quit showbiz. But letting go of showbiz is easier said than done.

During production of "Hail Caesar!" its star, played by George Clooney, is mysteriously kidnapped and held for ransom. Clooney, largely oblivious and of the highly suggestible type, becomes a "guest" - a rather surprisingly willing one - of a cadre of screenwriters who turn out to be communists looking to blackmail the studio. Meanwhile, podunk horse opera matinee idol Alden Ehrenreich receives an offer to star in a prestige drama directed by effete auteur Ralph Fiennes and learns actually having to act in a "serious" picture is tougher than it looks. While all that is going on, Scarlett Johansson has a swim on as a starlet whom the studio needs to find a new husband for, to maintain her image. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum stars in his own musical as a sailor who laments going out to sea means seeing no dames for a long, long time -- because women and seamen don't mix, as we all know. Tons of other famous faces, like Jonah Hill, Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip hounds), Frances McDormand (of course), Alison Pill, Clancy Brown, and even a very aged Christopher Lambert show up in minor roles, some just for a scene, as it seems the Coens speed dialed every contact on their iPhones and got them all day rates.

With a plot barely strung together like a slacking laundry clothesline, Hail Caesar! at times feels more like an elaborate movie star talent showcase: See how long Scarlett Johansson can hold her breath underwater as the Coens mount an underwater musical number that hasn't been done in a Hollywood movie in 50 years! Watch Ehrenreich perform clever trickery with his trusty lasso! Tatum steals the show with an acrobatic soft shoe tap dance routine that shows off just how talented Magic Mike really is. Through it all, Brolin bounces around from crisis to crisis, putting out fires with his hard-talking, square-jawed, tough guy routine, willing his studio back into some kind of normalcy. Hail Caesar! persuasively and enjoyably recreates Hollywood's golden age in all its starry hues. But what does it all mean? What's the point of Hail Caesar!? That there's no business like show business? Yes, guys, we know.