Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—The title sounds like a
Supreme Court Case, but it just refers to a spat between the two biggest names
in the DC superhero stable. The Man of Steel thinks Gotham’s Dark Knight is a
creepy vigilante, while the Caped Crusader thinks that the near-omnipotence of
Krypton’s Favorite Son represents an existential threat to all humankind. Can
either be called wrong with perfect confidence?
This had possibilities, certainly, and a deft director in
Zack Snyder. And the film has its moments. The acting is quite strong—Ben
Affleck makes a brooding, intriguing, suavely attractive Bruce Wayne, and his
costume gives a perfectly competent performance as Batman. He’s far more
credible as a superhero here than he was as Daredevil back in 2003.
Henry Cavill makes a serviceable Superman—like most actors
who have played this role, his charm doubles whenever he’s in Clark Kent
drag—and Jesse Eisenberg darkens his persona as a manic, nattering Lex Luthor.
A young Israeli actress named Gal Gadot is introduced as Wonder Woman; she
doesn’t get much to do, but she is unquestionably a wonder.
Parts of the clash between the title icons are amusing, but
mostly Batman v Superman is an
overwrought, laborious, punishingly heavy slog. The conflict is muddled and
lacking in urgency, there isn’t nearly enough humor, and, above all, the movie
is too freakin’ long. It’s TOO. FREAKIN’. LONG. By at least twenty minutes,
Various theories can be advanced as to why so many blockbuster
action movies insist on being so outrageously overlong. But I would rather this
review, unlike Batman v Superman
itself, remain brief.
City of Gold—This documentary challenges the commonplace that
good stories require conflict. It’s a portrait of Pulitzer-Prize-winning L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan
Gold, and it has almost none.
For an hour and a half, we watch the pleasant fellow galumph
around the Greater L.A. area, going to Mom and Pop ethnic restaurants where
adoring owners serve him plates of delicious-looking food. He takes a brief
side trip to New York to dine with his idol Calvin Trillin, but otherwise
that’s pretty much the whole movie, in terms of content. None of the talking
heads have an unkind word to say about him, no appalling personal tragedies are
Of course, we do learn that Gold is a chronic
procrastinator. A newspaper columnist who procrastinates? What a shocker! And
his environmentalist brother gently reproves him for his fondness for
overfished varieties of sushi. That’s about as much Shakespearean drama as we
But director Laura Gabbert, abetted by Bobby Johnston’s fine
score, keeps City of Gold gliding
along enjoyably. Gabbert’s bird’s-eye dissection of L.A.’s neighborhoods is
fascinating and undeniably glamorous, and the movie works as genteel food porn
as well. Mere humans may feel a pang of envy at seeing someone so seemingly
contented with and well-rewarded by his talents, but Gold comes across so
unassumingly that it doesn’t deepen into resentment.
With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opening this
weekend, Your Humble Narrator is reminded of the Fleischer Superman cartoons of
the ‘40s, which constitute some of the most visually beautiful superhero art ever.
Monster-of-the-Week: …this week our honoree is the King or
Duke or Grand Poobah of the underground race of hawk-men…
The Bronze—Along with Race
and Eddie the Eagle, this is the
third movie in the last month or so about the Olympic Games, and all three are
very different from each other indeed. Diminutive Melissa Rauch, who plays the
squeaky-voiced Bernadette on The Big Bang
Theory, stars in this comedy, which she co-wrote with her husband Winston
Rauch. She plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, who finished her routine in Women’s
Gymnastics at the Olympics in heroic, soul-stirring fashion, fighting through
an ankle injury a la Kerri Strug.
Unlike Strug, however, Hope took the Bronze rather than the
Gold, and the injury effectively ended her career. She returned to Amherst, Ohio (“Sandstone Center of the World”), where more than
ten years later she’s still treated like a privileged celebrity—her own parking
space, free stuff at the mall and the diner, her name on the sign coming into
town. Unemployed, she still lives with, sponges off of, and verbally abuses her
long-suffering widowed postman Dad (Gary Cole). She’s bitter, selfish,
defensive, deceitful and extremely foul-mouthed.
Despite the raunchy, raucous tone, this very plausible story
has a poignant edge, and for a while I thought it was going to sink the movie.
An ongoing shtick on The Big Bang Theory
is the steeliness and bullying threat that regularly burst out of Rauch’s
Bernadette, in contrast to her superficial cuddly sweetness. The Bronze starts out as, more or less,
a whole movie hinged on this gag, and while it’s funny for a while, Hope seems
too mean and unpleasant to hold our interest at feature length.
When her old coach dies, however, Hope receives notice of a
sizable inheritance, if she takes over the training of the promising young
gymnast Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson), who idolizes her. At first, fearful that
her pupil will outdo her and usurp her place in town, Hope blatantly sabotages
her, but eventually…
Well, you see where it’s heading. There’s even a love
interest, in the form of the talented young comic Thomas Middleditch. The good
news is that Rauch shades her characterization from despicable to
sort-of-likable gradually and incrementally, and director Bryan Buckley keeps
the proceedings lewd and crude throughout. As a result, the story’s potential
sentimentality is held at bay, and sure enough, we start to care about, and
develop some hope, for Hope.
Allegiant—As with the high school romantic comedies of a decade
or so ago, the futuristic teen dystopias are starting to run together in my
head. It takes me a minute to be sure that I’m not mixing Divergents with Maze
Runners and Hunger Gamers and Surfers of the 5th Wave.
Assuming I’m not, then this third entry in the series based
on Veronica Roth’s Divergent books—it’s
called The Divergent Series: Allegiant
on the posters—has heroine Tris (big-eyed Shailene Woodley) and her pals
fleeing Chicago, now in a turmoil of summary trials and executions. Beyond the city’s
walls they find a toxic wasteland, beyond which they find a force field, beyond
which they find a futuristic complex in what used to be O’Hare Airport.
Presiding over this is Jeff Daniels as a scientist who’s
been studying Chicago’s
various factions, trying to produce a person who is “genetically pure” instead
of “damaged.” Talk like this tends to make people uneasy, but the guileless
Tris thinks Daniels is a good egg. The hunky Four (Theo James), quickly
pronounced “damaged,” isn’t buying it, however.
That’s just the gist of the plot of Allegiant, which is a good deal more twisted, with schemes and
betrayals and redemptions spilling out everywhere. The dialogue is quite poor,
but luckily it occurs mostly in little pockets, linking together director
Robert Schwentke’s big, lavish action scenes. These are reasonably exciting, in
their mindless way.
Alongside the pretty youth are some vets, like Naomi Watts,
Octavia Spencer and Ray Stevenson. The unctuous Daniels makes a capable if less
elegant replacement for Kate Winslet, whose honking American villainy was the
best aspect of the previous flicks. Or at least the sexiest.
Lane—After a car crash on a rural Louisiana road, a young
woman named Michelle wakes up imprisoned in an underground bunker equipped for
doomsday. Her survivalist host/captor Howard tells her that there’s been an
attack—maybe nuclear, maybe chemical, maybe alien, he’s not sure—that the air
outside is toxic, and that they’re stuck underground for at least a year or
At first Michelle thinks Howard’s crazy, and tries several times
to escape, but indications start to accumulate that maybe something apocalyptic
really did happen outside. Corroborating Howard’s story, for instance, is the
bunker’s uninvited third resident, Emmet, a young local guy who helped Howard build
the shelter, and forced his way in, to Howard’s dismay, when he saw disaster
starting to strike. All the same, over time Michelle also sees signs that
Howard may not be entirely trustworthy.
This chamber-piece thriller, directed by Dan Trachtenberg
from a script by John Campbell, Matthew Stuecken and Damien Chazelle, is being
marketed as somehow very vaguely a companion piece to the 2008 found-footage
monster picture Cloverfield. Any such connection seemed tenuous at best to me,
but this isn’t a complaint, as 10
Cloverfield Lane is, on the whole, a stronger,
more memorable movie than Cloverfield. The new film, for one very welcome
difference, unfolds in conventional narrative rather than through the overused
device of found footage.
Better still, this set-bound movie is of necessity driven by
dialogue and acting—and, to some extent, by an old-school, high-tension score
by Bear McCreary—and it’s anchored on the masterly turn of John Goodman as
Howard. Aside from an occasional angry outburst, Howard is soft-spoken,
patient, even kindly in a brusque sort of way, and he has moments, like his
purse-lipped little smile when he and his guests sit down to dinner, that even
suggest ironic humor. Yet a terrible, longing mania keeps seeping out of his
eyes and from the corners of his mouth, signaling his scary potential to turn
monstrous. Goodman doesn’t hit a false note, and his riveting performance gives
the impression of effortlessness, of not breaking a sweat.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from the third version of The Thing
and Tarantino’s Death Proof, among others, makes Michelle a courageous and
resourceful heroine—her frightened but never paralyzed reactions win the
audience’s admiration. And John Gallagher, Jr. is touching as the dim but
decent Emmet; the bond he forms with Michelle is nicely underplayed and
Near the end, 10
Cloverfield Lane finally gives us a look outside.
Without going into details, suffice to say that, for ten minutes or so, it
turns into a different sort of movie, and, though entertaining, a lesser one,
I’d say. It’s a testament to the claustrophobic force of 10 Cloverfield Lane that it still feels
liberating, almost joyous, just to get out of that hole in the ground.
Zootopia—The title refers to a city that looks like a theme
park, with frozen tundra, desert, rainforest and other ecosystems all
conveniently connected by highway exits. The inhabitants, you see, are
animals—anthropomorphic, bipedal, civilized mammals of every sort, from
pachyderms to rodents, living side by side.
It’s not Utopia,
however. Inter-species tensions continue, especially between predator and prey
species, and there are glass ceilings in certain professions. Our heroine Judy
Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), for instance, is a bunny who has
internalized the high-minded idea that “Anyone can be anything,” and she wants
to grow up to be a police officer, normally a job for the likes of tigers and
rhinos and cape buffalo.
Through determination and resourcefulness, Judy realizes her
dream, but as with many pioneers, she gets stuck with traffic duty. Before
long, however, she’s caught up in a mystery involving missing predators, and
develops a tense alliance with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily vulpine con
The buddy-picture plot that ensues is surprisingly dark and
noir-ish at times, and in some ways Zootopia
is one of the least sentimental Disney movies I can remember. It’s fraught with
unmistakable racial and class subtext, and although it has the struggling
underdog protagonist standard to animated features, it honestly grapples with
the complex and painful realities behind the believe-in-yourself platitudes of
the genre. Thus, the movie’s ultimately positive conclusions feel hard-won, and
all the more uplifting.
delightful, but I did have a complaint: the freakin’ 3-D. At least at the
screening I saw, it dimmed and washed out the images, and added not one effect
that I thought was worth the eyestrain. See it in old-fashioned 2-D.
In case anybody still cares, a few notes on the Oscars:
It was gratifying for me to see the number one movie on my
Top Ten list, Tom McCarthy’s low-key powerhouse Spotlight, win Best Picture at the Oscars this year. It was even
more gratifying to see the great, 87-year-old Ennio Morricone, who had
never won an Oscar for Best Original Score (he won an honorary Oscar in 2007),
take the statue for his superb music for The
Hateful Eight. It makes up, sort of, for Morricone not even being nominated
for his greatest score, for 1970’s Two
Mules for Sister Sara.
But most of the satisfactions of this year’s surprisingly
enjoyable Oscar show had little to do with the nominees, and more to do with
the host. Interest in the Oscars was high this year, less because of any
particular suspense as to who would win, and more because of what the great Chris
Rock would say and do. While the telecast was glacially paced and overlong as
usual, Rock, who had not too memorably hosted the show in 2005, brilliantly
managed his tricky duties this year.
What made it a tricky gig was, of course, the controversy
over the lack of racial diversity among this year’s nominees. Some
African-American industry notables had boycotted the show, and Rock himself had
been urged to decline the job.
His approach was marvelously disarming. From the very first
line of his monologue, he attacked the subject straightforwardly,
good-naturedly and in all directions—his jokes were at the expense of the
Academy, the boycotters, and himself, and they ranged from daringly tasteless
to thoughtful. A high percentage of them were genuinely funny, and all of them
put the controversy into perspective, without disrespect to the validity of the
Perhaps most amusingly, however, was that Rock wouldn’t let
it go. I expected he’d try to dispense with the subject with a few jokes at the
beginning of his monologue and then move on to a business-as-usual Oscars, but
bit after bit kept coming back to it. The show was so single-mindedly devoted
to the controversy that, ironically, it probably brought attention to racial
inequities in Hollywood
in a way that no number of minority nominations could have, deserved though
they might be. And it seems pretty unlikely that this would have been the case
if Rock hadn’t hosted.
A couple of disappointments: Names eyebrow-raising-ly
omitted from the “In Memoriam” segment included Abe Vigoda, Geoffrey Lewis,
George Gaynes, Tony Burton and Pat Harrington, Jr. Also, while the brilliant
Mark Rylance entirely deserved to win Best Supporting Actor for Bridge of Spies,
I still found it slightly disappointing—I wanted to see Stallone win for Creed. But I suppose it’s in the spirit
of the original Rocky, where even
though he didn’t win, Rocky triumphed just because he got to the Main Event.
I'm an award-winning movie critic, playwright, actor and director.
My work has appeared in publications ranging from the New Times weeklies (where I was a staff writer for several years) to USA Today, from Phoenix Magazine and Wrangler News and the East Valley Tribune to the Erie Times-News, Seattle Times and Detroit Metro Times to Rewind Magazine.
I'm that rare example of a living poet who has had a sonnet published in Weird Tales, and my poems have also appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly.
I've acted in theatre productions in six states and the District of Columbia, and appear for about six seconds as an extra (a prison guard) in the John Waters film Cry-Baby.
I directed Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Southwest Shakespeare Festival, and a short film called Holding Back the Dawn, based on a short story by my friend Barry Graham.
I was host of Another Saturday Night, a pop culture and film review show on KTAR radio.
I have produced, directed and acted in radio plays for NPR, KTAR and the Sun Sounds Radio service.