‘Jay and Silent Bob Reboot’ – The Duo is Back for Some High Times

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot poster

2001’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” was supposed to be the last installment of the View Askewniverse, but time has shown you cannot keep two stoners from New Jersey down. The duo would return in “Clerks II,” and now 13 years later following some serious drug problems and a near fatal heart attack, Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith have come back to play their iconic characters in “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot” which has the two up to the same shenanigans while finding new meaning in their lives. Like the average Kevin Smith film, it is imperfect but still a lot of fun. And unlike “Yoga Hosers,” you do not have to be stoned to enjoy it.

When “Reboot” begins, Jay and Silent Bob have been busted by the police for running an illegal marijuana operation in the old RST video store next to the Quick Stop. In court, they are represented by Brandon (Justin Long) who gets them acquitted upon convincing the judge (Craig Robinson) that the duo’s store was a temporary pop-up store designed to promote an upcoming movie. The case against them is dismissed which is a relief for them and me as I was not in the mood to watch a court movie. Things, however, take a sharp left turn when the same lawyer quickly switches sides and defends a representative of Saban Films which has optioned the comic book series “Bluntman and Chronic.” It turns out the two, when they were signing documents the lawyer said were necessary for representation purposes, inadvertently signed away their naming rights to Saban, and now they can no longer self-identify as Jay and Silent Bob ever again.

After meeting with Brodie Bruce (Jason Lee), Jay and Silent Bob discover Saban is planning a big budget reboot entitled “Bluntman v Chronic” which is being directed by… Well, you’ll see. Once again, our intrepid duo heads out to Hollywood in an effort to stop production in this reboot and reclaim their identities in the process.

Yes, the plot of “Reboot” is the same as “Strikes Back,” and even Smith has stated this new movie is “literally the same fucking movie all over again.” However, to dismiss this latest View Askew production as a lazy retread would be to miss the point. Smith is out to make fun of sequels, remakes and reboots, and he is not lost on the irony that “Reboot” is essentially all three of those things. What results is one of the most meta movies I have seen in some time as he threatens to be cleverer than he is, but it also results in a motion picture which kept me guessing as to what would happen next. Not all the jokes hit, but the ones which do had me laughing uncontrollably, and this includes one such moment which made me as light-headed as the “frosted” scene from “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.”

As you can expect, there are a myriad of cameos to be found throughout “Reboot” as well as a ton of easter eggs. One key cameo comes early when Shannon Elizabeth returns as Justice (a.k.a. Boo Boo Kitty Fuck), Jay’s love interest from “Strike Back.” It turns out Jay did get an answer to his question of “will you fuck me when you get out” as Justice introduces him to their love child, Millennium “Milly” Faulken (Harley Quinn Smith). But because Jay and Justice have been estranged for years to where she has lied to Milly about his whereabouts, she encourages Jay not to reveal to Milly he is her father because, well, you know. Still, Milly finds a way to join him and Silent Bob on their journey to Hollywood.

The moment where Jay discovers he is a dad is what makes this particular View Askew movie stand out as he is forced to confront a new responsibility no one is easily prepared for. It also allows for Jason Mewes to show a vulnerability here we have not seen from previously, and this makes for an especially heartfelt story. In real life, Mewes has become a dad himself, and this among other things is what has kept him from an early death. Seriously, there is real emotion to be found here in “Reboot” even for those who are not Kevin Smith fans in the slightest.

As for the other cameos, not all of them have been spoiled by the trailer, so I will go over the ones you already know about. Chris Hemsworth, in a movie filled with priceless “Thor” puns, plays himself and reminds us of his inspired comic performance in the “Ghostbusters” reboot. Ralph Garman of “The Ralph Report” can rest assured that his cameo as Ted Underhill lasts a lot longer than 17 seconds, but it could have lasted even longer so we too could get his character’s credit card number. Matt Damon’s cameo is so infinitely priceless to where I refuse to ruin it for anyone and, unlike Jimmy Kimmel, I am glad Smith made time for him. You also have Fred Armisen, Rosario Dawson and Kevin’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach making small but very memorable appearances, and be sure to take a look at the name of Craig Robinson’s character as it is like something out of a 1970’s exploitation movie.

But the best cameo here comes from Ben Affleck who returns as “Chasing Amy’s” Holden McNeil. Both Affleck and Smith had been estranged for some time, but even Affleck knew he had to be a part of this flick as Smith was responsible for giving him some of his first leading roles in movies. Plus, Affleck helps to give “Reboot” an even bigger heart as he talks about how children are like our own reboots, and this solidifies the evolution Smith had in mind for the various characters he has created over the years. While “Clerks II” dealt with the responsibilities of being an adult, “Reboot” looks at what becoming a parent does to your overall identity to where everything else in your life becomes secondary. Smith covered this before in “Jersey Girl,” a movie which I think is better than people typically give it credit for, but here it takes on a deeper meaning as both he and Mewes have danced with the Grim Reaper and have come out the other side with infinitely changed perspectives.

When it comes to the cinema of Kevin Smith, his movies are either for you or they are not. I have been a big fan of his since “Clerks” which contained one of my most favorite pieces of dialogue ever (“This job would be great if it weren’t for the fucking customers”), and it is a true joy to see him revisit his View Askew Universe. While he may not be as gifted as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, Smith still knows how to give us a fun time, and he does just that with “Jay and Silent Bob Reboot.” Even if you are not supposed to be here today, I would like to think this movie will find a way to cheer you up. And yes, be sure to stay through the end credits.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Olga Kurylenko Talks About Losing Herself in Terrence Malick’s ‘To the Wonder’

 

To The Wonder Olga Kurylenko

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2013.

While former Bond woman Olga Kurylenko gave a compelling performance in “Oblivion,” she gives an even greater one in Terrence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” As Marina, a European woman who moves with her American boyfriend Neil (Ben Affleck) to Oklahoma, she is fascinating to watch as she goes from being deliriously happy in love to becoming emotionally devastated when their relationship turns sour. Seeing her dance her way through a sterile drug store to becoming so upset at how bad things get makes you see what she is capable of as an actress.

Going from a big budget science fiction film like “Oblivion” to a low budget “art film” like “To the Wonder” was clearly a study in contrasts for Kurylenko, and she joked about how she at least had a trailer on the set of “Oblivion.” She went out of her way to discuss the differences between the two films to Sheila Roberts of Collider while at the “Oblivion” press conference, and it’s one of the few instances where we get a good look at how the secretive and elusive Malick works with his actors.

“It was very different. They couldn’t be further apart from each other,” Kurylenko said of “Oblivion” and “To the Wonder.” “In Malick’s film, for example, there was no script and that’s the difference. Here, with ‘Oblivion,’ the script was very detailed and very precise. The way Malick worked with us, he never rehearsed, and he was actually against any rehearsal.”

“Malick just throws actors in, but there is a backstory and again lots of conversations,” Kurylenko continued. “The way I built my character was by talking with Terrence all the time. We just spoke, spoke, spoke. I had a little homework to do before I started the movie. I had to read three Russian novels: ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘The Idiot’ and ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ Those are very tiny little novels (laughs). After that, I didn’t really need to read a screenplay. We just spoke. There were discussions about what I drew from the books, how we can compose the character, what similarities there are between Marina and different female characters in those books, and that’s how the character was born. It was a mixture of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Terrence Malick.”

Kurylenko describes working with Malick on “To the Wonder” in even greater detail in an article she wrote which appears on the Black Book website. In the article, she makes her experience seem incredibly vivid as she describes how free spirited she became while on set. Once she and Malick had their discussions about the character, he let her run wild and encouraged her to find that elusive thing he called “the Wonder.” What is “the Wonder?” Well it sounds like the deep fascination we have with the ways of nature, and we constantly lose our fascination with that in our busy lives and continued dependence on technology. Anyway, from what Kurylenko wrote, it sounds like she was both eager and ever so desperate to find it.

“Terry smiles and I jump, twirl, run, and jump again,” Kurylenko wrote. “He claps, ‘more, more, more, like a rabbit!’ But then the Wonder suddenly goes missing. I scream and run into the house-throwing things, breaking things. It rains pretzels and cereal and there are more screams, but now they’re not mine, they’re Neil’s, and I’m laughing wildly and crying-my Marina is hysterical, unstable. I collapse on the floor and I wipe my tears from his shoes and kiss them. I ask, ‘Why do I do this? I want to be good, so good, but sometimes I suddenly feel possessed.’ And I beg forgiveness.”

“I receive pages every morning, sometimes ten, sometimes more,” Kurylenko continued. “They’re not exactly a script. Whether one exists or not is a complete mystery, but the words are (excuse my poeticism) rather like a breakfast for the soul. And every morning it’s a feast! If I digest the sense of what the pages contain, the nature of Terry’s words will shine through my eyes while we’re filming, and I won’t even need to speak. Every sentence is filled with such deep knowledge of the soul.”

One great thing I learned while looking into the making of “To the Wonder” was how Kurylenko always stayed in character even when the cameras were not rolling. Some actors believe their work stops when they have no lines of dialogue to speak or when the camera isn’t focusing on them, but any great acting teacher will tell you your work never stops even when the day is done. Kurylenko understands this perfectly, and she told Liz Braun of The Toronto Sun how this made “To the Wonder” more physically challenging for her than “Oblivion.”

“It was exhausting, because I was the character even when the camera didn’t film me — you have to be with Terrence because you never know when he’s filming you, and he doesn’t like rehearsals,” Kurylenko told Braun. “Terrence is someone I utterly admire and love. I trusted him completely, because he made me do somewhat ridiculous stuff. I never said no. I did everything, and I was dancing, moving through nature, walking constantly.”

While it may seem inconvenient for Olga Kurylenko to have two movies out at the same time as one might bury the other at the box office, the upside is both of them show the range she has as an actress. We cannot deny Kurylenko is a very talented actress, and it will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. Her role in “To the Wonder” might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, but hopefully more of those opportunities will come her way very soon.

SOURCES:

Sheila Roberts, “Olga Kurylenko Talks OBLIVION, Flying the Bubbleship, How Her Bond Experience Helped Her with Action, and More,” Collider, April 13, 2013.

Olga Kurylenko, “Olga Kurylenko on Terrence Malick and Filming ‘To the Wonder’-In Her Own Words,” Black Book, April 11, 2013.

Liz Braun, “Olga Kurylenko compares ‘Oblivion’ and ‘To the Wonder,'” The Toronto Sun, April 17, 2013.

 

 

‘Justice League’ Doesn’t Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound

Justice League movie poster

You know how the Daytona 500 is the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing, but it’s also the first big race of the season instead of the last? That’s what “Justice League” is. It’s the penultimate motion picture of the DC Extended Universe, and yet it’s coming to us before Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg get their own solo films. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every character was in their own movie before “The Avengers” finally arrived on the silver screen. Granted, Hawkeye and Black Widow have yet to get their own movies, but enough groundwork was laid to where the time had come for “The Avengers” to become a reality. With “Justice League,” its long-awaited appearance feels a little premature.

Following the events of “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), and all the other superheroes are trying to move on despite the large void the Man of Steel has left in his passing. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) remains as dour as ever, but his faithful butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) threatens to be even more dour to where they seem to be having a contest in that department. Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) leads a quiet life working in a museum, Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) spends the days hiding in his apartment because everyone thinks he is dead and he hates his father for saving him through the use of cybernetics, Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is busy drinking his life away when he’s not swimming in the ocean, and Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) spends his days trying to fit in with kids his age while moving at supersonic speed. These superheroes couldn’t be more mismatched, but they of course find themselves working together to stop a fearsome enemy bent on world domination.

This enemy is Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), a supervillain determined to find three boxes of power known as the Mother Boxes and, in the process, escape the role of servitude he has been consigned to for far too long. Steppenwolf is, you know, the kind of villain bent on gaining the most power of anyone in the world, and we all know what happens to people like them; they are either defeated as we expect them to be, or they become President of the United States.

The movie gets off to a terrific start with Batman battling a common criminal on the streets of Gotham, but it turns out to be a ploy for the Caped Crusader to discover the identity of another evil foe who thrives on the fear of humans. Following this, “Justice League” becomes a labored adventure as Batman and Wonder Woman take their precious time finding all the other superheroes, some of which are hesitant to join the party even though they realize their planet is at great risk of being annihilated. Knowing those holdouts will eventually become a part of the league, this proves to be the film’s most agonizing point as too much time is spent gathering everyone together.

Ben Affleck still makes for a good Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I sense he is already tiring of the role. Gal Gadot left a powerful mark on movies this year as Wonder Woman, and she is every bit as thrilling a presence here. Of the new additions, Jason Momoa proves to be a solid choice as Aquaman, and watching him here makes me look forward to the character’s solo movie coming out next year. Ezra Miller steals every scene he is in as the Flash, and he brings a wonderful edginess to the role while also bringing the character down to earth in an especially unique way. While Miller’s character is thrilled to have these superpowers, he still yearns to fit in with everybody else, and he portrays this inner conflict very effectively.

The same can’t be said, however, for Ray Stone/Cyborg as the character has little more to do in “Justice League” other than brood, argue with his father, and try to tell everyone in hearing range of how his powers can in no way be mistaken as a gift. This is with all due respect to Ray Fisher who does what he can with an underwritten role, but I grew tiresome of his complaining, especially when we all know he’s going to be in this league eventually.

But honestly, the real heart and soul of “Justice League” belongs to Henry Cavill who returns as Clark Kent/Superman. Even I refused to believe the Man of Steel was all but finished off for good at the end of “Batman v Superman” as you can’t keep a good superhero down, and Superman remains one of the very best. Even better is the realization of how Cavill no longer has the shadow of Christopher Reeve hanging over him as he manages to bring the same dedication to this iconic character Reeve did years before, and seeing Superman fight for justice this time around brought a big smile to my face.

Indeed, “Justice League” gets better and better as it enters the third act in which our superheroes band together to defeat Steppenwolf. While I found myself not caring enough about these characters in the first half, I really rooted for their success as the movie went on because the actors looked excited to inhabit these unforgettable characters. There are times when the filmmakers succeed in arousing our childhood love for these superheroes, and this is when the movie works at its best.

Of course, I have to wonder which filmmaker deserves the most credit for “Justice League.” Zack Snyder is credited as director, but Joss Whedon came in during post-production, and it is tempting to believe Whedon, who struck gold with cinematic comic book gold with “The Avengers,” managed to tap into our childhood innocence in a way Snyder could not. With “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman,” Snyder focused more on the characters’ darkness which has enveloped their lives, and you can’t blame him for going in this direction as DC Comics tended to veer into darker territory. But they got so dark to where there wasn’t much in the way to be found, and it was said Snyder was going to go in a slighter lighter direction with “Justice League,” but we probably won’t know how much lighter he made it until we get his director’s cut, and the fans are already clamoring for one like crazy.

I also have to give credit to Danny Elfman for composing an excellent score here. Even he is eager to spark our childhood innocence as his score contains themes he created for Tim Burton’s “Batman” as well as John Williams’ theme for “Superman” which remains one of the best superhero movie scores ever composed. Those subtle little touches make a huge difference as they help to reawaken the past in a most welcome way.

Looking back, “Justice League” is enjoyable for the most part as it builds to a strong climax, but it still feels like this all-star superhero movie was brought to us earlier than it should have. The parts which were lacking keep me from giving this movie a solid recommendation. I still look forward to the solo movies like “Aquaman,” but in the end the filmmakers crammed too many characters into a story already overwhelmed by them, and what results is not completely satisfying in a way a film like this should be.

What I am left with is the wonderment over how the visual effects team managed to remove Cavill’s mustache digitally. Because of his commitment to starring in “Mission Impossible 6,” he couldn’t shave it off when “Justice League” went into reshoots. Then again, it would have been interesting to see this Superman with a mustache as it would have allowed Cavill to do something a little bit different with this iconic character. Of course, he would have to explain the unexpected presence of facial hair. How would he go about doing so?

“Well, something happened on the way to heaven…”

* * ½ out of * * * *

‘Gone Girl’ is a Deliciously Twisted Masterpiece

Gone Girl movie poster

David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is a deliciously twisted masterpiece, a shocking and at times darkly comic look at marriage. I had an insanely good time watching it and I can’t wait to see it again, and that’s even if it’s just to watch the audience react so strongly to it. There’s no way you can come out of this movie and say you weren’t the least bit enthralled by the nasty journey Fincher takes us on. Just when you think “Gone Girl” couldn’t get any more twisted, it does. Based on Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel (she also wrote the screenplay), he succeeds in getting away with a number of things in this movie just as he has with his past work.

“Gone Girl” opens on Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a frustrated writer who drops in one morning at the bar he owns (which is literally called “The Bar”) where he talks with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) about the state of his marriage to Amy (Rosamund Pike). It happens to be their fifth wedding anniversary, and Nick celebrates it with a couple of glasses of bourbon which should give you an idea of how messed up things are between them. But then Nick comes home to find Amy gone and smashed furniture and glass scattered all over the floor, a sure sign something bad happened while he was gone. Suspecting Amy has been kidnapped, Nick calls the police and from there the search is on to find her before she disappears forever.

Now “Gone Girl” is a movie with an insane number of twists which makes it hard to talk about because it’s not worth spoiling any of them. But what I really loved is how it works on a number of different levels. Many movies can be boiled down to one sentence, but not this one. “Gone Girl” is a critique of a marriage that started off passionately but which has since been devoured by bitterness and resentment, and it makes you wonder why we tend to hurt the ones we love most. It takes a number of jabs at social media and people consumed with exploiting the trials and tribulations of others for the sake of ratings while the truth threatens to get lost in all the hoopla. It also serves as an indictment of a society quick to believe what they are told instead of recognizing a person is innocent until proven guilty. But at the heart of the movie is this question; how well do we know the person we choose to spend the rest of our lives with?

We see people reaching out to Nick Dunne in sympathy, but they just as quickly turn on him when evidence suggests he may have murdered his wife. From there, it becomes a constant game of media manipulation as the characters work furiously to get the upper hand on those who have deceived them and to sway public opinion in their favor. We live in a world of sound bites where information comes to us quickly and not always in an accurate manner. By the time we get to the truth, it may already be too late to view it objectively.

Over the years, many have described Ben Affleck as being this horrible actor who never had any business working in movies, but I’ve never agreed with this assessment. Yes, he has given some bad performances in “Pearl Harbor” and “Gigli,” but then again “Gigli” didn’t do anyone any favors. In “Gone Girl,” Affleck succeeds in giving one of his best and most naturalistic performances to date as he gives us a character who is not altogether likable, but who is still a complex individual caught up in a situation beyond his control. Nick is a complicated character who we are quick to make assumptions about, but what we think of him ends up saying more about us. I love how Affleck makes Nick a deeply mercurial character whose motives you can’t help but be suspicious of, and a scene where he sways the public back to his side during an on-camera interview with shows him at his conniving best.

I remember Pike from her early appearance as a Bond woman in “Die Another Day,” and she has gone on to give unforgettable performances in “An Education,” “Barney’s Version” and “The World’s End.” But when it comes to describing her work in “Gone Girl,” a flurry of adjectives cross my mind to where I have to be careful of what I say. What I can say is she is endlessly mesmerizing in a role which has her exploring every single facet of her character to where she surprises us in such an unnerving fashion. It’s a truly fearless performance you won’t soon forget after you leave the theater, and Pike doesn’t hold anything back.

“Gone Girl” also has a great supporting cast, and each actor sinks their teeth into their roles with relish. Kim Dickens is a delight as the cynical and yet slightly mischievous Detective Rhonda Boney, and she is blessed with a lot of great dialogue throughout. Patrick Fugit, almost completely unrecognizable from his “Almost Famous” days, is a snarky delight as Rhonda’s partner Detective Jim Gilpin. Neil Patrick Harris gives a charming and yet enigmatic performance as Desi Collings, Amy’s ex-boyfriend who looks like he can be trusted, but there’s a certain creepiness about him to where you wonder what’s really going on in his head.

Even Tyler Perry shows up in a very non-Medea-like role as Tanner Bolt, a somewhat devious attorney far more interested in winning the most impossible to win cases in court and playing the media like a piano to his clients’ benefit. Knowing how Perry caters mostly to the church going audience, I’ll be interested to see what they make of his time in Fincher’s dark world. I got a kick out of watching Perry here as he keeps his cool even as Nick’s case spins out of control.

You also have Missi Pyle on board as Ellen Abbott, a character clearly designed to remind you of Nancy Grace and of how annoyingly abrasive television hosts like her can be. Acting so entitled to her point of view even if the truth is not in her favor, Pyle makes her into a shameless individual who doesn’t apologize for anything even when she’s proved wrong.

But one supporting performance I really got a huge kick out of in “Gone Girl” was Carrie Coon’s as Margo. Coon is sarcasm incarnate right from the first moment she appears onscreen, and her scenes with Affleck are filled with love and devotion as well as a lot of anger at his foolish mistakes. I’m not too familiar with Coon’s work as she has appeared mostly in television and made a name for herself in various productions of the famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, but I hope to see more of her in the future. She makes Margo a strong and fiercely independent character in a movie filled with so many morally clueless ones who get away with far too much.

The movie also marks Fincher’s third collaboration with composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the two succeed in putting together another unforgettably creepy film score. What’s fascinating about their music here is it starts off sounding nice and inviting, but soon it becomes overcome by discordant sounds which imply there is something seriously disturbing going on in this quiet suburban neighborhood. Just when you think you can pull yourself away from the nasty voyage Fincher is taking you on, Reznor and Ross’ atmospheric score sucks you right back in and refuses to let you go.

Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is definitely a movie for these crazy times we live in now, and it is likely to make many out there think twice about getting married. Heck, even eloping sounds like a bad idea after watching this. But amid this tale of deeply flawed individuals and industry types more interested in their own celebrity than anything else, it makes one wonder whether we can ever really know someone completely. We’d like to think we know everything about our significant other, but can we really? This movie seems to imply we can’t, and Fincher makes you see this is one of the most frightening truths of all.

Fincher is a guy who never plays it safe, and “Gone Girl” is the latest example of that fact. Seriously, this is the most subversive and darkly funny take on marriage since Danny DeVito’s “War of the Roses.” I have not yet read Gillian Flynn’s book, but I really want to now. A woman sitting next to me at the screening confirmed the book is a great read and that she was very satisfied with Fincher’s adaptation of it. I’m fairly certain she is not the only one who feels this way.

* * * * out of * * * *

Argo

Argo movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town,” Ben Affleck should not have to prove what a great movie director he is. But for those who, for some utterly bizarre reason, still believe they need further evidence to support this conclusion, I give you “Argo.” His third movie as a director tells the story of how CIA specialist Tony Mendez went about trying to extract six U.S. diplomats out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. It proves to be a very intense experience watching this movie, and I also got a huge kick over how it skewers Hollywood and the business of making movies as well.

I loved how Affleck really went out of his way to make “Argo” look like a 70’s movie. He even included the old Warner Brothers logo (referred to as the “Big W” logo) which preceded the studio’s movies from 1972 to 1984. I’ve really missed this logo for the longest time.

Anyway, when Iranian revolutionaries ended up storming the U.S. embassy in Tehran, six diplomats manage to evade capture and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, back in the United States, the State Department has learned of the escapees and their predicament, and they start looking for ways to get them out of Iran. It is Mendez who comes up with the idea, after watching “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” on television, to create a cover story of how the six are actually filmmakers from Canada who are scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo. This looks to be one of those “so bad it’s good” kind of movies, and it would have been fun to watch for all the wrong reasons had it ever been made.

The scenes where Mendez goes to Hollywood are among my favorites in “Argo” as he works with movie business veterans who are keenly aware that lying to others is part of their job description. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are priceless as make-up artist John Chambers and film producer Lester Siegel, and they are given great pieces of dialogue to speak throughout. The lines Arkin is given are especially biting:

“You’re worried about the Ayatollah? Try the WGA!”

The tension is then ratcheted up tremendously when Mendez heads over to Iran to prep those six diplomats on how to get out of the country alive. You feel their collective anxiety as they become fully aware of how one little slip up will get them quickly executed in public view, and you are with them every step of the way as the walls continue to close in on them. Emotionally speaking, “Argo” is the first movie I have found myself crying after in a long time, and the tears I cried were from sheer relief.

“Argo” is based on a true story and, while this remains a serious pet peeve of mine, this is one which needed to be told. It wasn’t until 1997 that this rescue operation was declassified for all the world to know about, and it speaks a lot about how two countries can come together in a tough situation (in this case, the U.S. and Canada). Yes, portions of the story were fictionalized for dramatic purposes, but that’s always the case so just get over it.

Affleck casts a lot of great acting veterans in “Argo,” and kudos to him for doing so. I’ve already mentioned Goodman and Arkin, but you will also find Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and Philip Baker Hall doing terrific work here as well. As for the diplomats, they are played by such actors as Clea DuVall and Tate Donovan among others, and they all are uniformly excellent.

In addition to directing this movie, Affleck also stars as Mendez and gives a particularly understated performance. I know we all love to pick on him as an actor, but he’s a better one than we give him credit for. Not once does Affleck try to steal the show from the actors around him, and his work is commendable as acting and directing a movie at the same time can be a real pain in the ass.

“Argo” has more than earned its place among the best movies of 2012, and it makes clear that Affleck’s success as a director is no fluke. This is a guy who has seen the heights of success and the utter embarrassment of failure, and he has come out the other side of it all proving he is a great talent whether he’s in front of or behind the camera.

Be sure to stay through the end credits as well as there is information you will need to hear about this true story.

* * * * out of * * * *

Suicide Squad

Suicide Squad poster

Oh lord, what happened here? This was supposed to be the movie of the summer where, for a change, we got to root for the bad guys. “Suicide Squad” was a movie I couldn’t help but have high expectations for as I was expecting something along the lines of John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York” which had us rooting for a sociopath more interested in his own survival than saving the world. Instead, we got a mess of a motion picture which is not the least bit exciting. While the previous DC comic book movie, “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” proved to be a dour experience, “Suicide Squad” is just flat out boring.

I’m not going to bother going over the plot of “Suicide Squad” as there wasn’t much about it worth remembering. All you need to know is the worst of the worst have been recruited against their will to fight an antagonist bent on (what else?) world domination. We do, however, get a laborious introduction to the squad of the movie’s title which includes characters who are so seductively evil. There’s Floyd Walton/Deadshot (Will Smith) who never misses a target, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) who has gone from being a psychiatrist to an insane supervillain thanks to the Joker (Jared Leto), the assassin Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), former Los Angeles gang member Chato Santana/ El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) who puts all pyromaniacs to shame, Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who looks more like a reptile than a human being, and Dr. June Moone/Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who is an archaeologist possessed by an evil spirit (is there any other kind?).

These characters represent a path to the dark side which moviegoers like ourselves are eager to eat up onscreen. It’s no secret we revel in their exploits which go against all the laws we grew up believing in as the movies are a great way to explore humanity’s dark side. Instead, their adventures are unforgivably watered down to where we wonder what he was thinking or if Warner Brothers meddled with his vision too much. The PG-13 rating should have been a warning as this kind of material demands an R like “Deadpool” did.

“Suicide Squad” was written and directed by David Ayer who has given us some strong motion pictures like “End of Watch,” “Harsh Times,” “Street Kings” and “Sabotage.” His movies never sugarcoat reality which makes them all the more viscerally entertaining, but here exits his comfort zone and has made a movie which is not the least bit visceral. It would have been cool to see Ayer combine his real world aesthetic with the DC comic book universe, but what we get instead is something which is astonishingly banal. Not even the appearance of Batman (Ben Affleck, once again proving he was a terrific choice to play the Caped Crusader) does much to make the proceedings the least bit interesting.

Furthermore, the movie is poorly photographed to where everything feels so drab and lifeless. From the posters it looked like this would be an infinitely colorful motion picture as the villains leave their mark on a society which has long since abandoned them. Instead, every scene looks like it was illustrated from the same pastiche which makes it all the more depressing to sit through.

This is also not to mention the choppy editing which robs the action scenes of any excitement they hoped to have. Not even the clever music selections of songs by Eminem, Kanye West or Queen does much to raise our adrenaline levels as the characters show off their devilish talents. Ayer also introduces certain character driven scenes at the most inopportune moments in “Suicide Squad.” While they are meant to give more depth to the characters, they instead slow down an already tedious movie that pretty much lost me from the start.

In terms of the acting, some performances here are better than others. Will Smith and Margot Robbie pull off strong turns as Deadshot and fan-favorite Harley Quinn, but they are saddled with an endless stream of pathetic one-liners which fail to amuse in the slightest. Other are not as lucky such as Jai Courtney who looks more like Tom Hardy to where I thought Hardy was cast as Captain Boomerang. As for Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, he suffers the same indignity Oscar Isaac and Idris Elba endured in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Trek Beyond;” getting covered up with way too much makeup which robs him of his natural charisma.

One of the best performances in “Suicide Squad” comes from Jay Hernandez who makes El Diablo into much more than just a one-dimensional schmuck. While the other actors have little room to move around, he manages to humanize his character to where we see much beyond the various tattoos covering his body to where his plight is ultimately heartbreaking. Hernandez manages to generate some genuine emotion here, and it’s in a movie which could have used more of it.

But the big surprise is Jared Leto’s turn as Joker in that Cesar Romero’s was far more threatening and memorable on the campy “Batman” television show. Leto does make the role uniquely his own and has a chilling laugh, but there’s nothing particularly special or invigorating about his portrayal. He doesn’t have the ghost of Heath Ledger haunting his every move, but he never comes across as much of a villain. Instead, Leto’s portrayal is nothing more than a cartoon, and his performance here is more of a cameo than a starring role.

Looking back, the most threatening character to come out of “Suicide Squad” is not a superhero or a supervillain, but instead a government official named Amanda Waller. From start to finish she is ruthless and single-minded in her approach to forming this squad and infinitely devious in keeping the team of supervillains under her complete control. It also helps that Amanda is played by the always fantastic Viola Davis who makes this character into a fascinating psychological case study as she proves to be an even bigger sociopath than those she has employed to save the world.

I came out of “Suicide Squad” depressed and wondered how so many talented people came together to make a comic book movie so lifeless and boring. Even if you come into it with low expectations as many are doing now, there’s not much of anything to like here. I was hoping to see an exhilarating motion picture with a devilish sense of humor, but instead we got what is so far the most disappointing movie of 2016. Warner Brothers may have started their own cinematic universe with some success, but now they need to start making better movies because they are way behind Marvel Studios.

To all the DC Comics fans out there who enjoyed “Suicide Squad,” please believe me when I say I’m happy for you. It’s good to know somebody got something out of this movie because I sure as hell didn’t. Here’s hoping and praying that “Wonder Woman” and “Justice League” are infinitely better.

* out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman vs Superman poster

What a relief it is that “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” has finally opened in theaters everywhere. Few movies have been dissected and criticized as deeply as this one even before its release, and it got to where it felt like decade had passed since Warner Brothers announced it as happening. After a while we all wanted to yell out, “Just release the damn movie already!” Clearly, Warner Brothers has A LOT riding on this particular superhero movie, and it is aiming to create its own comic book cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s.

Well, the best way to describe “Batman v Superman” is that it is, in a word, dour. Director Zack Snyder certainly gives us some spectacular action set pieces, but the whole movie is undone by a sense of joylessness. In keeping with Christopher Nolan’s superhero aesthetic of grounding these characters in reality, a lot of the fun and joy we have had in watching them do battle with the forces of evil feels absent this time around.

So why does Batman/Bruce Wayne have a such a bone to pick with Superman/Clark Kent anyway? Well it all goes back to the climax of “Man of Steel” where Superman did battle with General Zod over the skies of Metropolis to where a record number of buildings were reduced to rubble. One of them was the Wayne Enterprises building, and despite Bruce’s best efforts, he is unable to rescue all his employees from certain death and blames Superman that. As for Superman, he thinks Batman is too dangerous and seeks to expose Gotham’s vigilante and put an end to his reign.

Meanwhile, LexCorp mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is ever so eager to get his hands on the kryptonite from Zod’s failed terraforming experiment in the Indian Ocean as well as his body. While we all know Luthor gets super excited about real estate, those interests are shoved to the side as he is intent to reveal the duality of god and man. This all leads to an epic conclusion in which Lex unveils a monster which could very well destroy Batman and Superman in a way nothing else can.

One of the big problems with “Batman v Superman” is it tries to accomplish too much in its bloated running time of 151 minutes. This was the same problem with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” which also sought to create its own cinematic universe to where it became an unforgivable mess. “Batman v Superman” is a better movie as Snyder is able to keep a lot of the thematic elements in balance, but there’s still too many subplots and characters to deal with and not enough time to become fully engaged on an emotional level with everything going on.

When Marvel created their own cinematic universe, they took their sweet time and were never in a rush to bombard us with too much right away. They started out with “Iron Man” and then brought other iconic superheroes to the screen that we quickly came to root for. When the first “Avengers” movie finally came out, we were ready to see our favorite Marvel characters join forces to battle an alien threat because the groundwork had been laid slowly and carefully.

On the other hand, Sony and Warner Brothers could barely wait to start their own cinematic universes, and as a result we have gotten overstuffed movies which feel more like overlong commercials for others that have yet to be made.

Snyder is not a bad director he has given us some terrific movies like “Dawn of the Dead” (one of the few horror remakes worth watching), the visual epic “300” and “Watchmen.” Clearly he had a lot on his plate with this movie’s sprawling subplots he could only be so successful with. His starting out with young Bruce Wayne watching his parents get murdered is unnecessary as we have seen this traumatic event played out many times before. We all know about Bruce’s dark past and how he became Batman, so this could have easily been skipped over.

Perhaps Snyder’s biggest setback with “Batman v Superman” is his overuse of special effects. There’s never a shortage of explosions, and he does pull off some impressive scenes like when Batman does battle with a dozen terrorists. But after a while the whole endeavor feels like one long video game with moments which brazenly defy logic. You come out of this movie wishing he had worked harder on the story’s emotional component, but when you have a ridiculously large budget of over $200 million, you are obligated to make sure the money’s up there on the screen.

For what it’s worth, the casting is spot on. Many balked at Ben Affleck being cast as the Caped Crusader, but he does solid work as Batman and Bruce Wayne, a CEO who actually looks after his workers’ needs and safety. While he can’t quite hold a candle to the best cinematic Batman of them all, Michael Keaton (Christian Bale is a very close second), he makes Bruce and his alter ego appropriately brooding and damaged. Affleck also has the requisite shirtless scene which shows how much time he has spent at the gym (his biceps are massive).

Cavill continues to do very good, if not overly impressive, work as Superman/Clark Kent as he makes the Man of Steel a noble and conflicted person on a planet whose inhabitants are not sure what to make of him. Amy Adams remains a wonderful choice to portray Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne plays things a little broadly as Daily Planet editor Perry White, Holly Hunter is terrific as a US Senator hell bent on stopping Lex Luthor’s evil plans, and Jeremy Irons proves to be an inspired choice to play Alfred.

Then there’s Jesse Eisenberg who portrays Lex Luthor as if he were an infinitely psychotic Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg is never boring, but he never comes across as truly menacing. He does, however, share some strong moments with Hunter as they verbally spar with one another. The screenplay by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer gives them some sharp dialogue which really stings, and it would have been great if there was more of it to go around.

But the one who steals the show here is Gal Gadot who plays Diana Prince and her alter ego Wonder Woman. Every time she appears onscreen, the movie comes to life as she battles her foes without an ounce of fear on her beautiful face. Like Affleck, many voiced their opposition to her being cast, and it’s nice to see her get the last laugh on those who doubted her.

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is by no means a terrible movie, and many DC Comic fans will likely get a kick out of it. It also benefits from a conclusion which is far more emotional than we could have expected. However, there never seems to be any joy or exhilaration to be found here, and it makes this motion picture feel like an exercise in tedium. Plus, we only get one big fight between Batman and Superman which proves to be anti-climactic as the trailers have long since revealed that these two end up joining forces to battle an ever bigger threat. What looked like the comic book movie to end all comic book movies instead proves to be a big disappointment. Still, we do have “Suicide Squad” to look forward to.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016