Swamp Thing (1982)

Swamp Thing (1982) movie poster

director Wes Craven
viewed: 11/05/2017

His ass is grass. Or moss. Or slime. Or something. But he’s pretty cool. He’s the Swamp Thing, straight outta 1982 from horror great Wes Craven, no less.

For 1982, Swamp Thing is solid comic book entertainment. Keep in mind, this is before the modern superhero era, even before Swamp Thing got Alan Moore-ed. He always had some legitimate cool from the pencil and ink of legend Bernie Wrightson (RIP).

But it’s also got its limitations, also very 1982 and budget-related. If they could have afforded Rick Baker, they might have gotten a less rubbery-looking Swamp Thing and with a bit more of a budget maybe a little more interesting action throughout.

But it does have Adrienne Barbeau and that final monster showdown with more practical effects and designs that raise it out of the muck and makes for good times.

Would be a good double feature with 1982’s Creepshow.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman (2017) movie poster

director Patty Jenkins
viewed: 06/03/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I’m sorry to say it, but Wonder Woman sucks. It’s a very bad movie. Especially at the beginning and then again at the end. Somewhere around the middle, in part due to Chris Pine who gets to be a little humorous, and in part to the WWI battlefield sequence, it picks up. But in the end, it’s awful.

I went in wanting to like it. I think it’s great that it’s the first female-directed film to earn such big money at the box office. I’m all for more female directors. But more for our Agnès Varda, Claire Denis, Ana Lily Amarpour, and Julia Ducournau, women who make great films and should absolutely be seen and lead the way for more.

Wonder Woman is not it. The fact that it’s made bank means that Patty Jenkins will get another shot at it and hopefully will open doors for others. For DC, it’s their first big non-Christopher Nolan hit and will no doubt bolster their franchise leading up to next year’s Justice League.

But it makes no advancement for anything else.

Gal Godot is beautiful but she doesn’t have a lot to do when not pausing in slo-mo to hit a style shot. Diana can read every known ancient language but come to the modern world and she’s a gorgeous fish out of water and naive to boot. Pine merely has the better role and lines and gets to be more charming. Quite a shame and ironic.

And the film’s visual style seems like a brightened up Zack Snyder, who was a producer and contributed to the story as well.

Ah well.

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

The Lego Batman Movie (2017) movie poster

director Chris McKay
viewed: 02/11/2017 at CineArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

I really didn’t think I’d find myself watching The Lego Batman Movie. My kids are now 15 and almost 13, and while they still like animated movies, somehow I figured this was not going to be one that they were all that interested in. But as they are getting older and knowing that these times of going to see “kids” movies with them is a thing probably not long for my world, I’m happy to indulge them.

My daughter really enjoyed it, watching throughout with a smile on her face. The comedy is pretty quick and incessant.

I liked it. Not overly though.

Still, it might have been the best DC superhero movie to date.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad (2016) movie poster

director David Ayer
viewed: 11/13/2017

Great idea, great character designs, a wholly rotten mess.

The worst: Jared Leto. Easily.

Perhaps the character that embodies this mess most is Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. A hugely popular character, Robbie is designed well, but every single thing she says is a quip to be cut into a trailer; she is absolute nothingness.

Making the villains into “good guys” seems counter to the concept of why this idea could have been interesting. There’s not psychology here except standard generic screenwriter mentality stuff.

Who knows how much studio meddling brought this down and how much a pile or crap it was anyways. It’s amazing that DC has developed such a definitive record of failure since Christopher Nolan delivered the last of his Batman series. And if anything, this seems to promise only more failure to come.

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.

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 04/03/2015

And thus we complete the Christopher Nolan Batman cycle (the 2nd time through for me).  This was for Felix, who was keen on the series and is keen on Nolan himself.  I actually gave Clara the pass on this nearly three hour long piece of work, which I think she would appreciate.

When I watched Interstellar (2014), I pondered if Nolan had made his first M. Night Shyamalan film, suggesting that it was an ambitious, intentionally head-trippy, convoluted flop of a film.  Initially, I undercut myself on that, but lately I’ve been leaning to believe I might have been onto something.  And oddly enough, re-watching The Dark Knight Rises has only pushed me a little further in wondering if Nolan has jumped his own shark at some point.

The film suffers from its massive length but also its amazing weight of pomposity and self-importance.  But more than anything, I was struck by the film’s lack of variety in its pacing and rhythms.  Set to the score by Hans Zimmer, the film is a constant boom of import and boding.  And while the cinematography is slick and pretty, the sensation I developed was one of incessant building and looming impact, while no one sequence seemed to deliver on the release or climax.  It struck me as the tone of a three minute trailer, booming the drum of drama and promise of important stuff, just extended to three hours.

Really, what is Nolan saying?  The villains beat the drum of social change, while the hero is the rich philanthropist, who stems the tide of change by restoring the social order.  There are a variety or readings from multiple sides claiming the film as representative of their ideologies, while Nolan has taken a non-committal approach in claiming his work as representing an ideology, all while stoking the flames of the catch-phrases and flashpoints of ideas.  So what is it ultimately about?  Doesn’t that matter?

In the end, I don’t know.  And I don’t know that I feel the urge to delve into an analysis of the material.  It’s really long.  The whole Nolan Batman trilogy is really, really long.  And while I’m glad Felix liked it — and I liked aspects of it — I’m kind of glad to put it to rest and move on from it.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 01/24/2015

So, the kids and I are working our way through the Christopher Nolan Batman films, largely at Felix’s behest.  I hadn’t personally revisited any of them since first seeing them in the theater in their day, in the case of The Dark Knight, a day in 2008.

This is the best of Nolan’s trilogy, which I would credit to what I still think is true of a good superhero movie, which is simply having a good villain.  The better the villain, typically, the better the movie.  And to be a good villain, you need some relationship with the hero.

Heath Ledger’s Joker (which won a posthumous Oscar for the actor) still stands tall.  Seven years out, it’s a striking creation, visually and in character.  The kids liked him, too.

I still think this is the best of the three films, but it’s long and it’s convoluted and packed with tons of plot.  The kids kept getting a bit lost and I had to stop the film to explain stuff to them throughout.  And then the ending, in which Harvey Dent’s Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart)’s crimes are blamed on Batman to keep the tarnish off of Dent and his legacy — the kids totally didn’t get that.  “Why blame it on Batman?  Why not blame it on The Joker?”  And while this might seem a trivial point to bring up, I think it’s testament to the fact that this massive enterprise has such grandiose import and complexity that it nearly stumbles on itself.

Nolan, his brother Jonathan Nolan, and story writer David S. Goyer packed in the social commentary.  From surveillance to terrorism to human rights, there is a lot going on in the film and interestingly themes that permeate all three films.  The villains all seek chaos as change to the social order.  It almost makes you wonder if there is a part of Nolan that shares this perspective as he imbues his criminal geniuses with anarchy, chaos, and a just anger at the status quo.

Felix really liked it.  He said it was “the best superhero movie” he’d seen.

It’s interesting, as I noted before in writing about Batman Begins (2005) how Nolan’s commitment to practical effects and a realistic or “real world” action film for his superhero Batman is in such stark contrast to the CGi-heavy Marvel Universe which is presently dominating the Hollywood pipeline.  I have to say that I think Nolan’s films will hold up in contrast, perhaps in part to his commitment to this vision, this naturalism, but I also think that it will be all the more anomalous as more and more movies come pumping out of Hollywood featuring superheroes.  I don’t think anyone else is adhering to that sensibility – at least not at present.  It will make Nolan’s films that more unusual in the landscape of the genre.

Batman Begins (2005)

Batman Begins (2005) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 01/11/2014

Having recently worked our way through the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman cycle, my 13 year old son was now hankering for the Christopher Nolan films.  And fair enough, they are probably superior and more relevant in many ways to a child of his day.  For me, though, I hadn’t really felt like revisiting them as yet, maybe with the one exception being The Dark Knight (2008), which I had considered the best of the trilogy.

I’ve sensed, rightly or wrongly, that Christopher Nolan is the filmmaker that most young filmmakers want to be right now and his Batman films are likely their gateways to his oeuvre.  So, I would expect that a lot of people have watched and re-watched these movies over and again many times, while this is actually the first revisit that I’ve paid any of them.

At 2 1/2 hours, it’s a long haul, but Nolan was going for epic here and what with his two sequels, I hope that he feels that he got it.  Nolan returns to an origin story for Batman, here played by the amazingly fit Christian Bale.  Not only the death of his parents, his discovery of the bat cave under his stately home, but also his trip to the Himalayas where he trains in fighting, discipline and ideology under the tutelage of the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson).  We’ve also got the up and coming detective Gordon (played by Gary Oldman), an origin story of his own.

It’s a dark world (literally and figuratively), Nolan’s Gotham.  And the villains, which also include the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) are ideological in their bents, seeking to purge the ills of society through mass chaos and death.  For Nolan’s interest in realism and humanism, the film finds grounding (especially when contrasted to Schumacher’s two Batman movies.  And once it gets going, it’s a pretty good ride.

Both Felix and Clara enjoyed it.  Felix was asking why he didn’t see it when it first came out and I had to remind him that he was only four.  This film is 10 years old now.  That’s freaky in itself, isn’t it?

With the new Fox TV show, Gotham, we’re entering an era of further evolution in which even the Nolan Batman films will be old reference points.  Gotham is interesting as it goes back to the origins of the characters of Batman to the days right after the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and focuses on a young James Gordon and a kid Bruce Wayne with his young Alfred Pennyworth.  Felix was wondering about the next Batman movie, the first that he might see in the theater and I mention, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as it is currently known, sequel to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) and I don’t think that Felix has yet developed the inner groan that those of us have about this being a Ben Affleck Batman.

Nolan’s Batman films were game-resetters, if not game-changers, when they came out.  But given where we are in superhero moviedom, I reckon that Marvel is currently ruling the roost in current styles and expectations, either based on the coming Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) or even last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  It’s a constantly changing game at this point.

But we will doubtlessly be revisiting the other Nolan films.  So, more to come.

Batman & Robin (1997)

Batman & Robin (1997) movie poster

director Joel Schumacher
viewed: 01/02/2015

There was some inevitability I suppose in our need to watch Batman & Robin.  I’d started Felix down two paths that eventually converged here, the 1980’s/1990’s “original” Batman films (Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995)) but also an appreciation for the worst movies ever made.  So, yes, the convergence occurs here at Joel Schumacher’s atrocious Batman & Robin.

Whether it really is one of the worst movies or not, it is tremendously annoying.  And it is impressive to have made a movie that basically crashed and burned a pretty red hot film franchise in one gloriously abysmal cinematic cataclysm.  I mean, coming off of the (I think) very awful but commercially successful Batman Forever, to steer this series into disaster and set back the superhero film by several years, is a work of unique character.

The thing about Batman & Robin is that it’s not really bad in the way a lot of bad movies are bad.  It’s not a thing of amateur mistakes but rather of vastly terrible conception.  Because you have to realize that this is the film that Schumacher was trying to make.  In some ways, it’s a success of vision.  Only it’s a vision no one else wanted to see and quickly wanted to erase from their minds.

It does start with the nipples on the batsuit.  The fetishization of the costumes.  I mean, the film virtually opens with that (though this was started in the prior film, so it’s not really new here).  It extends considerably with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, but in large part to conception of his character, a bad pun quip-tossing cartoon figure with no hint of real menace in his being.  Adding Alicia Silverstone to the mix (as if Chris O’Donnell wasn’t punishment enough).  And Bane.  The bane of Bane.

I’ll be honest.  In 1997, I didn’t know who Bane was.  I never really read DC Comics so I didn’t realize that this stooge assistant to Uma Thurman’s (one of the only decent things about the film) Poison Ivy was one of the more notable villains available to Batman.  It’s only been in the post-Christopher Nolan The Dark Knight Rises (2012) that I’ve come to learn what was both squandered and reduced to here in the extremely cartoon conception of this character of Bane.  Actually, it’s almost if not entirely funny.

And George Clooney.  His glib cheeriness is apropos for this Batman.  He is the Batman that Schumacher was seeking out.  His performance is just what Schumacher and the studio ordered.  In fact, the studio was so happy with the whole thing, they had streamlined a sequel with Schumacher at the helm and Clooney, O’Donnell, and Silverstone all lined up to go again.

In many ways, the film is an emblem of Hollywood action film-making circa the 1990’s with its franchise-planning and toy empire mentality, but also its cultural naiveté.  Two things that stand out in contrast in present day movie franchise-making is a post-9/11 darkness in tone and conception and a much more sophisticated corporate approach.  The studios and empires should have learned one thing more, something I’m not entirely sure that they have, which is it’s also important to find the right director/author/auteur for a franchise.  Christopher Nolan has pretty much set the standard image of what this should probably look like.

I say all this because we are on the precipice of a whole new era of superhero films and we are between Batman franchises, too.  Frankly, the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice circa-2016 could prove to be the next iteration of cosmic fail for studios.

And finally, I can say of watching Schumacher’s decadent “Gotham City on ecstasy” Batman & Robin, I really, really hope I never have to watch this film again.

Batman Forever (1995)

Batman Forever (1995) movie poster

director Joel Schumacher
viewed: 12/06/2014

Joel Schumacher’s 1997 film Batman & Robin is considered one of the worst movies of the last 20 years, and it certainly was a franchise slayer, the final nail in the coffin of the original Batman film series.  But you know, it’s predecessor, Schumacher’s 1995 movie Batman Forever with Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris O’Donnell…it’s pretty freaking bad on its own.

Now Joel Schumacher has made a lot of movies, D.C. Cab (1983), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), The Lost Boys (1987), Flatliners (1990), Falling Down (1993), 8mm (1999), Phone Booth (2003) and Trespass (2011) to cherry pick a few.  So whether he is remembered for those or other films or largely for his two completely awful Batman movies, history will have its say.

Apparently Warner Brothers wasn’t satisfied with the commercial performance of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and had Burton merely produce the third installment.  Michael Keaton, without Burton at the helm, decided to hand over the cowl and mantle of Batman to Val Kilmer, who stepped into the batsuit for this one film.  And Warner Brothers had what the wanted, a more commercially successful film.  But also a braying and annoying camp confection.

Schumacher dispatched the darkness of the first two Batman movies, focusing on the comic book colors and the Batman television show of the 1960’s for a colorful, theoretically more kid-oriented adventure film.  Also a more fetishized Batman with shots of batsuit nipples, Kilmer’s rubberized butt, and codpieces.  Apparently no one seemed to get along on the movie set either.  Kilmer always has had a notoriety of being “difficult” but Jones was also apparently not the most magnanimous of personas either.

Largely it suffers from Schumacher’s camp approach and the resultant performances that he eked out of Carrey and Jones.  Carrey in 1995 was just cresting in his career and this film did him no damage, only good.  But he’s Jim Carrey circa 1995, whose overt and showy comic sensibilities made him a sort of Jerry Lewis of his day, loved by the masses, hated by any with taste (I personally was conflicted about him around the time.  I’d discovered him early in the 1980’s and thought he was very funny, but by the 1990’s when he was finally getting his recognition, I could hardly stand him.  I’m not sure where I sit with this anymore).

While Carrey’s performance as Edward Nigma/The Riddler was typical Carrey.  Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face is totally God-Awful.  Jones plays against type and the result is strained over-the-top screaming and (again) camp that is almost painful to watch.  Especially in the scenes he shares with Carrey, it’s almost like you can see that Jones realizes that he’s not good at this super-villain stuff and Carrey is much more natural.

Actually between the two of them it’s amazing that there is anything left onscreen because they chew scenery like no one has chewed scenery before.

As for Kilmer, it seems like he hoped to be in a Tim Burton movie, not a Schumacher one.  Schumacher made numerous snide comments about Kilmer, mostly based on personal dislike.  While a lot of the actors here were at the tops of their games in 1995 and went on to more and more commercial and critical success, this was around Kilmer’s turning point toward career crash.  He’s not bad in the movie, though.

Chris O’Donnell.  Jeez.  Maybe I’ll save criticism of him when we watch Batman & Robin.  I, like a lot of people, just never liked the guy.  Not necessarily for any good reason.

The whole film is a horror.  The writing is trite and embarrassing.  The performances over the top and blaring like a fire alarm.  And the outright commercialism, adding characters (action figures) to an over-ripe stew of “too much is never enough” filmmaking…man.  It’s terrible.  Worse than I remember, honestly.  In some ways it’s amazing that this film didn’t kill the franchise.  My guess is that Carrey’s heyday popularity helped make this the financial windfall it was an set the stage for the final act.

Man oh man oh man.