Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) movie poster

director Zack Snyder
viewed: 03/26/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It looked bad.  It got lambasted by critics, which in turn made Ben Affleck sad.  So, why go and see it?

My son conscientiously objects to superhero movies these days, but my daughter was keen to see it.  She’s really into superhero movies.  I guess I wanted to see it also though I don’t know entirely why.  To my mind, Zack Snyder’s previous Man of Steel (2013) was highly mediocre.

DC and Warner Brothers use the film as a quick-fix to world-building, or universe-building, short-cutting the work that Marvel constructed over four years and five films before launching their Avengers (2012) franchise.  That Batman v Superman is subtitled Dawn of Justice is an unsubtle step in showing you where this is going: a Justice League movie, a towering superhero-packed counterpart to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That is why, though not in the film’s title, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) appears, and we catch glimpses of Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg.  And we’ve got both Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) and Doomsday (a bunch of pixels), a pretty loaded set of characters by any count.

I’ve held that the best superhero movies typically need a really good villain, and ideally aren’t overloaded with additional characters.  Batman v Superman is constructed in opposition to my observation.

But that’s not why it’s not a good movie.  It’s terribly written.  Some of the dialog is just astoundingly crap.  At 2 1/2 hours, it’s bloated and bombastic, world-building as well as trying to tell a story.  In fact, it’s trying to tell Batman’s (Ben Affleck) story, starting with the origin story and tying it to one of the film’s key moments.  Really?  The origin again?

I don’t mind Henry Cavil as Superman.  He lacks Christopher Reeves’ inherent charm, but he’s affable and good-looking.  Gadot shows promise as Wonder Woman.  If they’d thought this out more in advance, she wouldn’t have been such a bit player.

Affleck seems constipated.  And Eisenberg tries his manic best, but since the dialog is so dull, he doesn’t even once sound like a genius or supergenius, just a spoilt brat.

Still, I’d say it’s not as godawful as a lot of critics have reported.  My daughter and I enjoyed it to an extent.

But I will tell you the most glaring example of the badness of the writing.  When Batman is about to kill Superman (who he seems to loathe for no good reason), he is stopped when he comes to realize that both of their moms shared the same first name.  “What?  Your mom is named Martha?  My mom is named Martha!  We’re alike, not different!”  This inexplicably idiotic moment is the dramatic shift in the storytelling, which has all been junk and horseshit up to that point.

So, there.  Take it for what you will.  It is what it is.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996) movie poster

director Joel Coen
viewed: 03/25/2016

The Coen brothers movie that gave the North Dakotan/Minnesotan patois to popular culture.

As iconic as it has become (the Library of Congress added Fargo to the National Film Registry in 2006, one of six films inducted in the first year of eligibility), I hadn’t seen the film since it was released in the theaters in 1996.  It’s one of those films that you don’t have to have seen it over and over to have its images and lines embedded in your brain.  They get there on the first pass.

Frances McDormand and William H. Macy are perfect.  “Funny-lookin'” Steve Buscemi is tops too.  The comedy and horror of the contrast of the brutality of crime transposed with the implacability and straight-forwardness of the people of the Upper Midwest is poignant.

Possibly the deftest film that the Coens have made.

Dumpster Baby (2000)

Dumpster Baby (2000) video cover

directors James Bickert, Randy Hill
viewed: 03/23/2016

James Bickert and Randy Hill’s Dumpster Baby is an out-and-out oddity.  Shot on video and distributed by Troma, it’s a dark and somewhat uncategorizable picaresque story of an abandoned baby left in a dumpster and then trading off from person to person along the backside of American culture.

It starts at a sleazy enough place, a crack-den, where an overweight woman gives birth to a baby she didn’t know she was carrying.  Her fellow crackhead dumps the baby, who moves from the dumpster to the hands of prostitutes, cheating husbands, an opportunistic young woman, a mentally challenged loner, greedy thugs, child molesters, vigilantes, to a small group of stoners, and eventually to a young girl suffering from depression.

Dark as it is, it’s more a social commentary, the way in which each person or group reacts and what they do when an abandoned baby winds up in their possession, none of whom take it to the police or a hospital and for the most part use or further abandon it on its route through the city’s backside.

Low-budget as hell, the film varies in its technical quality a lot, from decent to terrible.  It’s not just technically-challenged but also fluctuates in its aesthetics and ambitions.  That said, it’s clear that the filmmakers have aspirations beyond the limitations of the production.  And for my money, it is certainly more interesting and effective than I initially assumed it would be.

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)

The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) movie poster

director Nathan H. Juran
viewed: 03/22/2016

Nathan H. Juran might not be a director of note for everyone, but he made quite a few science fiction/horror films, relative classics in their own ways.  Have you seen The Deadly Mantis (1957)? Personal favorite 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)?  Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)? Another Personal favorite The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)? Jack the Giant Killer (1962)? First Men in the Moon (1964) or The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)?

Honestly, I haven’t seen them all.  The Boy Who Cried Werewolf sounds cool.

The Brain from Planet Arous is an enjoyable mixed bag of some hilarious badness and unintentional comedy right along side a pretty cool story trope about not just an evil alien brain from outer space but the good alien brain cops (also from outer space, planet Arous to be exact) that come to Earth to hunt down their escaped criminal.

It stars John Agar, he also of much 1950’s pulp like Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and Invisible Invaders (1959) and lots, lots more.

You can laugh.  You might enjoy it straight-faced too.  Or maybe even both.  I did.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) movie poster

director Dan Trachtenberg
viewed: 03/20/2016 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Probably the best way to watch 10 Cloverfield Lane is the least likely way to watch it: not knowing anything about it.

I won’t spoil it for you, but chances are you know enough about it already that the film to guess what’s around a few of its corners.  Or at least speculate.  But the upshot is that it’s pretty entertaining even with reasonable guesses as to where it’s going and how it’s going to turn out.

John Goodman plays Howard, a man with a bomb shelter, who has Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmett (John Galagher, Jr.) down in the shelter with him.  Michelle finds herself there after a dramatic car accident and is trying to decide if she’s been abducted or saved by the survivalist Howard who claims that the air outside is poisonous and some major attack, human or alien, is underway.  Or is he just totally crazy?

Looming and claustrophobic, it’s a tense thriller of confinement and confined spaces, driven by the characters and their uncertainty about one another, power and control, and existential threats.

I took my kids (ages 12 & 14) to see it and they both liked it too.

Léon: The Professional (1994)

Léon: The Professional (1994) movie poster

director Luc Besson
viewed: 03/19/2016

Ever feel old?  Looking at a 12-year old Natalie Portman in a movie made 22 years ago, can make you feel old.

Luc Besson’s Léon or. The Professional was Portman’s first film and she made an impact as the tween-turned-assassin Mathilda.  When her family is gunned down by Gary Oldman and crew, she runs to the protection of slow and reserved Léon, Jean Reno, an immigrant hitman who works for Danny Aiello, an Italian gangster/restaurateur.

This comes from Besson’s fecund 1990’s era and generally it’s a pretty fun film.  I showed it to my kids, who both enjoyed it.  I hadn’t seen it since the 1990’s but always remember liking it.

There is of course more than a little pervy objectifying of Portman as well as her character’s precociousness.  It’s played for laughs in a somewhat open-minded European way, but nigglingly creepy nonetheless.

And if anything fresh came of this watching was how in Besson’s New York City, guns and explosions won’t even rouse your neighbors much less draw a crowd.  It’s a fantasy that seems more convenient than totally intentional but who knows?

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Zabriskie Point (1970) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 03/18/2016

Michelangelo Antonioni’s only American film, Zabriskie Point, is a portrait of a churning, volatile modern dystopia in contrast with the natural beauty of the Arizona desert.  Themes of industrial spoilage of the natural world are evident in other works of Antonioni, most notably to my mind as in Red Desert (1964), maybe because that was the most recent of his films I’ve seen.

But America is wasteland extraordinaire.  With its ubiquitous billboards and signage, industrial build-up, the overflowing metropolis of Los Angeles.  And the people there are in full foment, radicalized against authority, weaponized but still ineffectual.

When a young radical (Mark Frechette) gets into trouble at a student protest, he escapes by stealing a plane and heading east.  He meets up with the free-wheeling assistant (Daria Halprin) of an industrialist bent on converting open space into suburban tracts.  Her research in the outer reaches of civilization have her also questioning her role in the world.  They connect at Zabriskie Point to the sounds of the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd (among others) in a psychedelic freak out of rebellious surrealism and free love.

The film was criticized upon release for Frechette and Halprin’s amateur skills.  Antonioni is drawing on the counter-culture ideals of the time, tapping into youth culture and attitudes that are in step with his own critiques of America and industrialization.

The film is beautifully shot.  One shot in particular struck me so much.  It’s just a view of an old man sitting at a bar, but the camera comes in through the window in a very unusual way, depicting perhaps another side of America and what America is?  I don’t know.  Zabriskie Point may not be my favorite Antonioni film, but it’s very interesting.

Future-Kill (1985)

Future-Kill (1985) movie poster

director Ronald W. Moore
viewed: 03/16/2016

Whether Future-Kill‘s poster ever teased anyone into seeing it in the theater or not, its image on a video box sure lured a rental or hundreds over the years.  That’s not a knock-off H.R. Giger image but the real deal, dressing up an image from the film in far cooler raiment than truly earned.  Giger did the poster as a favor when asked and did so purely on the fact that Future-Kill featured some of the actors and production staff that had worked on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Future-Kill‘s one other selling point.  Giger apparently turned down many a film for such a treatment, so Future-Kill‘s poster coup was coup indeed.

Whatever it looks like from the outside, the film is a hard curve ball on expectations.

The heroes/protagonists of Future-Kill are frat boys.  In fact, the film’s whole perspective (and probable production) is a fantasy of frat boys who cross over into the seedy side of town (that town being Austin, TX) and cross some “freaks” (read: punks).  And why do they cross over to the seedy side of town?  To kidnap a freak and him back to the frat house for a laugh.  Little do they know but the freaks (who protest against nuclear energy) have a rogue among them who was personally exposed to radiation and is now a killing machine.  This would be “Splatter” (played by Edwin Neal of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre who also co-wrote this film.)

To blend in with the freaks, the frat guys (or ‘Zods as the punks call them) tease their hair, put on make-up, and torn clothes.  The punks aren’t really any different that the ‘Zods, seemingly played by other preppies dressed as frat guys of the time no doubt thought “looked punk”.  A lot of fighting ensues.  The ‘Zods are pretty adept at fighting, it turns out.

The opening sequence of the film, which takes place at a frat party, situates the perspective that these comical douchebags are the heroes and the center of this story.  They play all kinds of antics, filled with misogyny, homophobia, and other wonderful things, and the film seems to think that these happy-go-lucky guys are exactly who the audience would side with.

Back in the 80’s in my hometown of Gainesville, FL, one of the fraternities had a “punk night” where they dressed up like Halloween and listened to alternative music and played mockery mixed with love and yearning much like here for the “freaks”.  So, for me, there is an air of flashback here, which comes with an unpleasant flavor in the back of my throat.

The film does feature some pretty nice analog FX at times and is indeed an independent horror film reeking of its time and place.  Merits and demerits abound and for me the film on the whole is a weak mixed bag of stuff.  I can’t help but find it interesting (and occasionally charming) if at the same time mildly or even strongly repugnant.

What a weird, weird little film.

Foxy Brown (1974)

Foxy Brown (1974) movie poster

director Jack Hill
viewed: 03/15/2016

Two words: Pam Grier.

Two more: Jack Hill.

A few more: Originally a planned sequel to the 1973 hit Coffy, Foxy Brown is an attempt to up the ante on the blaxploitation action revenge film.  Only, in adding more far-out elements and a somewhat bigger scope, it’s pretty hard to improve on the magic of the first film, especially when you have to modify the flick into its own thing, no longer a sequel.

Still, it’s a lot of fun.  No  Coffy but a lot of fun.

Coffy (1973)

Coffy (1973) movie poster

director Jack Hill
viewed: 03/15/2016

Pam Grier is an undeniable movie goddess.  Maybe not of the classic Hollywood soft-focus glamorous starlets and icons, but goddess all as much in her own elements.  And it’s pretty doubtless that her fans love her all the more as a goddess from the other side of the cinematic tracks, whether you call it grindhouse, drive-in, exploitation, what-have-you.  She is as beautiful as any movie star, but tough and cool, righteous, fun and sexy.

For the night, I put together a mini double feature of Coffy and its follow-up 1974’s Foxy Brown, both starring films for Grier and written and directed by Jack Hill, who Quentin Tarantino aptly called “the Howard Hawks of exploitation filmmaking”.   Just as Hill’s prior films The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) (both also starring Grier in smaller roles) would make a good double feature, Coffy and Foxy Brown do as well.

Coffy is a nurse set on revenge for the drug dealers that stocked the market which led to her sister’s addiction and ravaging by drugs.  She starts the film off seducing one dealer and blowing his brains out and then OD’ing his henchman, and from there she works her way up the chain of command.

It’s a glee fest of entertainments, with razor blades hidden in afros for cat fights, blouses ripping off at the slightest hint of tussle, and tons of charm and humor amid the action.  Hill’s cast might not be as name-recognizable outside of Grier and long-time collaborator Sid Haig, but they are all recognizable and able character actors in deftly-drawn roles, ensuring that every scene stands out for its own reason.

But it’s Pam Grier at her youthful perfection and sheer stardom that makes this so good.  I do have to say I prefer it to Foxy Brown by a smidgen or so.  Great stuff.