Tag Archives: Amy Adams

London Film Festival 2016: Day 10

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

Since last Sunday, I’ve taken to wearing my press badge whenever I’m out of the house I’m staying in in London.  Before I even step out of the door first thing in a morning, I throw the pass on around my neck and it stays there for the entire remainder of the day, until I get back to the house and start writing.  Even when I don’t need it on, if I’m just wandering around London killing time or attending screenings that I’ve paid money for, I still keep it hanging.  It brings me a kind of comfort, that I am making the absolute most of this experience whilst I have the chance to do so.  This fortnight has been the greatest – it really, really has – and I haven’t felt anything less than happy the entire time I’ve been here, on this trip.  And as I sat down in the Picturehouse Central café after definitely not watching a film that I am absolutely not under embargo for and so can’t talk about for the time being, that was the only thought that ran through my head: this has just been the greatest.

I can tell you that I definitely won’t miss the ridiculous sleep schedules, though.  Ploughing through a massive 18 hour day on less than 6 hours sleep is kind of a pain, I won’t lie, but at least that kind of schedule allowed me to be disappointed by Nocturnal Animals (Grade: C+) a good month before I would have been in general cinemas.  The long-awaited film follow-up to A Single Man by fashion designer Tom Ford, and an adaptation of the novel Tony And Susan, the film supposedly follows highly-disillusioned art gallery designer Susan (Amy Adams) who is in a loveless relationship with her second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), is slowly going broke, has grown to despise her artistry, and is also currently suffering from severe insomnia.  One night, she receives a package from her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she has not spoken to in the nearly 2 decades following their divorce.  Edward has finally finished the novel he always wanted to write and has sent Susan the first manuscript.  He’s also named it after an in-joke between the pair, dedicated it to her, and the characters in the story are heavily reminiscent of Edward (named Tony in the manuscript), herself (represented by Isla Fisher), and her daughter, and very nasty things happen to the lot of them.

Nocturnal Animals, basically, is an endless drumroll for a crescendo that never fully arrives.  In theory, the movie is two separate stories that are meant to keep converging and intersecting in ways that tell us more about the two characters, but the overlap turns out to be relatively minimal.  In reality, the movie is two films taking turns to play out across 2 hours, and the supposed subtext and character study elements in the second story don’t manifest themselves enough.  What instead happens is that you’re watching this B-grade gritty thriller that is clearly meant to be an examination of regretful male impotence, and then every 15 minutes the film will cut to a shot of an absolutely wasted Amy Adams staring pensively into the middle distance.  If you’re lucky, the film might even throw in a flashback to Susan and Edward’s relationship to add some kind of actual context to proceedings.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS

There’s just no real indicator of what Ford (who also wrote the script) is trying to say with these sequences, outside of the immediately obvious theme of how creative types throw themselves into their work and that those who know the author and what to look for can become understandably troubled by what they experience as a result.  Otherwise, the film is so deliberately opaque and meticulously designed that any deeper meaning or reason for being or message that Ford is trying to convey was utterly lost on me.  Kind of like most fashion for me, come to think of it.  He clearly thinks he’s saying something profound or meaningful given the way he directs these sequences, but I’ll be buggered if I can tell you what those are.

That said, Nocturnal Animals isn’t a waste.  The manuscript sequences are quite entertaining, and its inciting incident is genuinely gripping in a way that kind of makes me wish that Tom Ford had just made a straightforward thriller, or actually delivered the psychological thriller he initially promises, rather than the unwieldy hodgepodge he’s crafted.  The film looks absolutely stunning, of course; cinematographer Seamus McGarvey having clearly pored over every single image in a concerted effort to ensure that each and every single shot could be slid into a fashion catalogue and fit right in.  There are also a great pair of performances from Michael Shannon, as a rule-adjacent West Texas Detective that is exactly as perfect a fit for him as you would expect, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as a slimy redneck psychopath – and from whom another good performance has been LONG overdue.  Mostly, though, I’m just disappointed by how empty I found the film to be.  There may be substance here, but it’s all been scrubbed away by the relentless need for style, and I’m left wondering if there was actually any substance in the first place.  If you want to make a nasty, gritty thriller, just make a nasty, gritty thriller.  Own that; don’t detract from it by trying to be something you’re clearly not.

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Having most definitely not spent the 3 hours between Nocturnal Animals and our next film watching a totally different film that I can’t talk about yet, my day eventually led me back into the realm of public screenings, which I’m now relying on for the rest of the festival.  The Last Laugh (Grade: C+) was the first of 3 for the day and attempts to tackle the burning question that surrounds Comedy ever more nowadays: should comedians make fun of tragic events?  Specifically, The Last Laugh attempts to discuss that question in relation to The Holocaust, one of human history’s greatest atrocities and still a taboo subject to this day, for the most part, when it comes to humour and jokes.  Is it OK to make light of The Holocaust?  The Last Laugh comes at this from a variety of angles, particularly through questioning whether Comedy can help people work through trauma and eventually heal thanks to it, as depicted through a Holocaust survivor who likes cracking really dark jokes about her experience.

All of the usual arguments in this debate are brought up and examined – whether jokes about taboo subjects re-enforce negative stereotypes even if they’re being done with kind intentions (as illustrated by Jack Benny’s “your money or your life” skit re-enforcing the stereotype of the cheap Jew), how much time needs to pass before such material becomes acceptable fodder, whether only certain groups of people are allowed to make certain jokes, how different people can find certain jokes and portrayals to be wildly different in terms of respectfulness or offensiveness based on their subjective beliefs, everybody’s personal “line” and whether they’re capable of finding comedy in situations that other comedians can, and of course the old standby of “if you’re gonna go there, the joke had better be a riot.”  Each is backed up by relevant clips and analysis, and the result is a very comprehensive look at this more-relevant-than-ever issue.

Where it all falls down is in two key areas, the first being the film’s half-assed attempt at trying to remain objective and not pick a side.  Despite attempting to remain neutral, by sheer force of number on the part of the comedians and the way the footage is edited and ordered, the film can’t help but come down on the side of those wanting to preserve their rights to make taboo gags.  I’m not knocking the film for coming down on their side, hell I mostly agree, but I am knocking it for clearly wanting to remain objective but doing such a terrible job at trying to be so.  For two: in a documentary about offensive comedy, 90% of the contributors to the talking-heads are Men, and all of them are White, so unchallenged issues of privilege come into play as a result.  To be fair, the film is explicitly primarily in relation to The Holocaust rather than offensive comedy at large, but given the social and cultural landscape that The Last Laugh has been released in, for it to be about taboo comedy and not feature a single person of colour and maybe just 4 women in your interview list feels incredibly out-of-step with the current world and recklessly irresponsible as a result.

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The evening brought about the second of the films I had bought a ticket for prior to the festival, in the shape of Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice (Grade: B), which I guess you could say was one of my absolute most anticipated films of the festival.  Set in New York, as many indie dramedies usually are, the film follows The Commune, a highly respected but struggling improv comedy troupe founded by the 37 year-old Miles (Birbiglia).  Its current incarnation includes the slowly-embittering Miles, obvious breakout talent Jack (Keegan Michael-Key) and his girlfriend Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the aging Bill (Chris Gethard), aspiring graphic novelist Allison (Kate Micucci), and the parent-reliant Lindsay (Tami Sagher).  About twice a week, they perform a super-cheap sold-out improv show at Improv America, and the rest of the time they live together, work menial low-paying jobs to get by, and gather around every weekend to watch Weekend Live, an American comedy institution that likes to poach talent from The Commune at every opportunity.

The group begins to fracture once Weekend Live comes a-knocking once more, offering Jack and Sam audition spots, at the same time as their beloved Improv America is being shut down, Bill’s dad gets into a serious accident, and Miles becomes more and more bitter for being passed up by Weekend Live.  After all, “why wouldn’t the show want to hire the guy who taught most of their recent hires everything they know?” he reasons.  Don’t Think Twice pivots on this, on that heartbreaking moment where you realise that the artistic or creative lifestyle you desperately want may not be achievable after all.  Do you try and keep up that optimism, putting forward strong writing packets and hoping that your big break is still just around the corner?  Do you turn incredibly bitter towards your friends as they achieve the success that eludes you, especially if you think they don’t deserve it?  Or do you deliberately screw up your opportunity out of that anxiety of change, of wanting to try and preserve your life as it is now despite all the tides fighting back and winning against you?

It’s a very bittersweet film, funny due to our cast of characters being semi-professional funny people, but mostly dramatic as the group very slowly and very painfully splinters apart.  As a result, I honestly feel like this film was done a disservice by watching it with a sold-out crowd, who all seemed to think they were watching a straightforward comedy and laughed uproariously at any cutting remark regardless of how hurtful it was and loudly winced every time the drama got too heavy.  I feel that my viewing experience didn’t allow me to fully appreciate the film, snobbish as that is to say, and drew more attention that I maybe otherwise wouldn’t have paid to the film’s minor flaws – the ensemble is all well-performed and lived-in but certain characters get noticeably underserved by the script, and the blatant Saturday Night Live swipes are too self-conscious and loudly inside-baseball, seemingly born out of genuine sourness on the part of Birbiglia.

But Don’t Think Twice is worth watching purely on the back of an absolutely sensational Gillian Jacobs.  Jacobs is a brilliant comic talent, as anybody who watched Community will be able to tell you, but she’s asked to carry the bulk of the film’s drama and pulls off that task masterfully.  Sam began as a super-fan of The Commune before being asked to join, and their slow disintegration causes her to start self-destructing out of a desire to try and preserve this perfect little status-quo she currently has.  To Sam, improv is not a stepping stone to Weekend Live or some alleged higher-form of comedy, improv is the best that things can get and that desire to remain locked in her comfort zone is quietly devastating to watch.  Jacobs absolutely nails her work here, especially during a heartbreaking final improv scene, and her performance will touch the hearts of anybody who has tried in vain to keep their group of friends together or has committed intentional or unintentional self-sabotage in their creative careers for whatever reason.

man_from_mowax_the_01

Since press screenings wrapped up for good today, leading to there being no reason to get up super early the next morning, I chose to stay out on this Friday evening and catch a second evening movie for once, with my press-ticket-approved screening of The Man From Mo’Wax (Grade: B+).  A warts-and-all documentary about James Lavelle, the founder of the highly-influential Mo’Wax Records label and co-head of the group UNKLE.  And when I say “warts-and-all,” for once, I do mean warts-and-all.  This is the kind of rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-redemption documentary that really does properly lay into its subject during its middle-stretch.  I’m not talking about a documentary that goes “yeah, he could be an asshole during this period, but the man was a genius so it was all good,” I mean this is a film that unrepentantly looks at the man that James Lavelle was after Psyence Fiction dropped and goes, “No, this guy was an A-grade ASSHOLE and there was no excusing it.”

That’s actually really exhilarating to watch, and the film going so all-in on this period makes the two sections either side of it much stronger as a result.  Lavelle starts off as a youthful visionary, a misfit drawn to Hip-Hop thanks to it sounding “otherworldy,” with the drive, ambition, and raw unvarnished skill that led to him dropping out of college and founding Mo’Wax at just 18 years of age.  But that youthful nature quickly ends up enabling all of his worst impulses once he and the label become famous, leading to him burning professional and personal bridges through rampant assholery, letting his attention drift away from being a label boss, and trying misguidedly to become a musician and songwriter in his own right as the primary creative force of UNKLE, epitomised by the film’s reveal of just when exactly the vast majority of these “present day” interviews are taking place – a quietly brilliant reveal so masterfully done I was on the verge of standing up and applauding at the sleight-of-hand being pulled off.

Spending so much time on James driving himself further into a hole is what makes the epiphany of his behaviour and his eventual curation of 2014’s Meltdown Festival act as a genuine act of personal redemption.  The film doesn’t pretend that it’s some kind of massive world-beating success that shows everyone just how wrong they were to write James Lavelle off, and it doesn’t pretend that this lets him off for how much of a massive dick he could be throughout the 2000s, and that’s what makes James’ minor redemption work gangbusters.  It would have been so easy for director Matthew Jones and editor Alec Rossiter to betray all of the hard work of their film’s previous hour to give James an unambiguous happy ending, and their refusal to do so is what makes The Man From Mo’Wax a real find.  Even viewers with no interest or prior knowledge of Mo’Wax, UNKLE, or even Trip-Hop can find something in this focussed and super entertaining documentary about a youthful visionary being undone by success and eventually beginning to turn themselves back around again.

Day 11: Things become far less set in stone as I start braving the Rush Queues in order to make up my schedule on the fly.

Callum Petch got this sinking feeling he sank with the tulip.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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London Film Festival 2016: Day 6

ARRIVAL

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

You may recall from yesterday’s article when I mentioned that I skipped out on attending the press screening for Trolls based on the fact that the film is due out in cinemas at month’s end and will definitely make it to Hull.  I’ve tried to take into consideration in my film choices those two factors when setting out my schedule – as well as what the film is, who it’s by, if it stars anyone I like, and if it’s a name-film that may drag eyes towards these articles, natch – but I have to cop to some exceptions.  I didn’t know that A Quiet Passion was due out next month before I saw it, and I watched A United Kingdom because it was the Opening Night film and what else was I going to do on that Wednesday?  Bum around Camden Market wasting even more money on vinyl than I already did that day?

But the biggest exception, with it dropping into cinemas a month to the day of this writing, was that of Denis Villenueve’s Arrival (Grade: A).  Arrival will be everywhere in a month’s time, representing as it does Villenueve’s big crossover moment before he risks everything on that Blade Runner sequel, but I could not resist the urge to catch this one early.  You see, Villeneuve is the director of 3 stone-cold instant classics over the last 3 years – 2013’s unsettling drama Prisoners, 2014’s unnerving psychological thriller Enemy, and 2015’s absolutely sensational and vice-like Sicario – as well as a bunch of French-Canadian films I have yet to see, and, with Prisoners and Sicario especially, he has very quickly turned into one of my favourite working directors.  So when the festival line-up shows that his latest feature is on the bill, you’d better believe that I am there all the way for that!  I even bought a ticket to the matinee screening tomorrow until I realised that there was a press screening on and that I had effectively wasted my money, that’s how much I wanted Arrival in my eyeballs!

And you know what?  Even with those lofty expectations, massive hype levels, and my being completely exhausted from having to run at 8:45am on a Monday morning to make sure I made it to the screening on time…  Arrival still left me speechless, which is fitting, really.  Based on Ted Chiang’s acclaimed short story Story of Your Life, the film follows linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who is recruited by the US Army to help decipher the language of a highly-advanced race of aliens who are hovering slightly above the Earth in their spaceships.  There are 12 in all, distributed seemingly at random in each of the world’s strongest powers, and the various militaries are terrified of the fact that they have no idea how to communicate with these beings and, worse, no clue as to why they are here.  The military’s getting antsy, the public are terrified, and the veneer of international co-operation is wearing thin fast, so Banks is brought in, along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), to break that language barrier and establish a dialogue before everything goes to hell.

ARRIVAL

On paper, that sounds like a thrill-a-minute blockbuster ride, or maybe even one of those tightly-wound slow-burning thrillers that Villenueve has made his English-language name with, but that’s actually far from the case.  Instead, screenwriter Eric Heisserer and Villenueve have put together a highly-emotional piece of hard sci-fi, where the pacing is measured and the heart is on its sleeve, exploring big themes in heartfelt ways.  In a way, particularly with where the film eventually ends up, Arrival is the film that Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar should have been.  It’s a film that questions whether humanity would be able to get its collective sh*t together if we were ever to make contact with interstellar life-forms, or whether we would succumb to the same fear and paranoia that has driven our way of life for centuries.  It demonstrates the worst in humanity along with the best in it, and ultimately comes down hard on the optimistic side of the equation, much like The Martian did last year.

There are brilliant parallels to how we handle people on the other side of the language barrier, how our instincts, codified by years of exposure to our quietly hateful society, can lead us to automatically fear the worst as a result.  How we Other outsiders, distrust them out of hand despite them doing nothing to deserve such treatment.  Then, as the film progresses, we start exploring themes of fate, our relationship to our past and our future, and whether we can accept all of those things despite that fear of a lack of real control.  It’s a story with a lot of different emotions and themes, and Villenueve, along with Heisserer’s excellent script, handles them with aplomb.  This is a film that is constantly capable of providing moments of genuine awe that can inspire tears based on their beauty – Banks and Donnelly’s first contact is an absolute masterclass in filmmaking, in particular, and each breakthrough in the sessions between them and the aliens, whom Donnelly names Abbot & Costello, brings the same feeling of satisfactory relief that one can get from learning a language themselves.

ARRIVAL

Amy Adams is on absolute fire, here.  Much of her best work puts her in the role of an ordinary woman dropped into extraordinary circumstances and utilising that empathetic initial-fish-out-of-water status to draw the viewer in and guide them through the new world before eventually rising to the challenge, and Arrival plays to those strengths with aplomb.  Louise is frequently haunted by memories of a daughter she lost to an illness, and that kind of specific maternal instinct ends up manifesting itself as a key way of helping foster progress in her relationship with the aliens.  Far preferable to the Chinese’s method of communicating via Chess, that turns the art of communication into a game of conflict, where the only states are binary forms of competitive winning or losing.  All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s impeccable score juggles each of the different moods superbly – ominous wailing violins during the imposing first contact eventually evolving into wide-screen emotional symphonies as progress is made and the film shifts into a final third that will make or break everything that came beforehand depending on your tolerance for a little sentimentality to go along with your “smart people being damn good at what they do” sci-fi.

Seriously, I have written all of these words and I still don’t think I have managed to do even a smidgeon of justice to what Villenueve, Heisserer, and everybody involved with Arrival have created here.  During the 45 minutes of downtime between this and the next movie, I had to compose myself multiple times because I was constantly on the verge of bursting into tears yet again at the astounding beauty that I had witnessed.  Arrival is both clinical and emotional, nitty-gritty realist about the methods of its premise and swings-for-the-fences when it comes to themes of loss and fate, and it is always absolutely riveting viewing.  My eyes did not leave the screen once during all of its two hours, and once the credits rolled I knew that I had seen an absolute masterpiece.  Arrival is not just the best film I have seen so far at this festival, and may see all festival; it is one of the absolute best films of the entire year.

layla_m_mirror

Unfortunately, not only are there more films to come this year, there were more films to come this day, which just felt wrong and not to mention unfair to those poor films.  After all, how on earth are you supposed to follow the showstopper?  Try as I might, I couldn’t stop myself from being somewhat down on Layla M. (Grade: B-) purely because it deigned to follow Arrival, I put my hands up in admission to that.  But even with that margin of leeway, I just never became fully engaged with Layla M. despite it not having anything particularly wrong with it.  The deliberately provocative premise follows the titular Layla (Nora el Koussour), a Dutch teenager who is a straight A student, politically and socially active, and also a fundamentalist Muslim.  She’s in a secret relationship with radicalised Islamist propaganda filmmaker Abdul (Illias Addab), her father heavily disapproves of her hardline fundamentalism and threatens to ship her and her easily-led brother back to Morocco, and she’s at the end of her tether with Netherlands’ Islamophobic policies and much of her family’s lapse in their Islamic faith.

The film, essentially, follows her slow radicalisation, deliberately resisting blaming any one thing for her turn towards radicalism and instead showing it to be the result of many things.  Her absolute faith in the fundamentalist tenants of Islam, the crushing patriarchal control of her home life, the daily discrimination she and other Dutch Muslim women receive for choosing to wear a hijab, a desire to be seen as equal in the eyes of the men in her life, and, yes, her being in love with an older man and being a rebellious teenager.  It shows her throwing her life away in her disillusioned desire to escape her patriarchal prison, only for it to turn out that she’s switched one patriarchal prison for another once the film reaches the Middle East and she struggles to find a purpose in her new life.  Layla M. is interesting, but I still never really connected with it.  Partially, yes, due to Arrival, but I mostly think the film’s just a bit too realist and low-key for my liking.  It also starts to carry a small air of shaming its protagonist as it gets closer to its ending that I found a bit off-putting.  Again, though, it’s not bad, and I feel like I may be kinder towards it if I were to see it again outside of the festival rigmarole.

MASCOTS

Another film that slipped through the “no watching films that are out soon” cracks – both because I like watching comedies on the big screen with a good crowd, and because I wanted to be in the same room as Christopher Guest – was my third and final film for the day, Mascots (Grade: C), which sees Guest returning to the mockumentary format the made famous to tell the story of a group of misfits competing in The 8th Annual World Mascot Championships.  As you can probably already tell, that’s the most outwardly wacky premise that Guest has utilised yet for one of his mockumentaries and, as you can probably already deduce, it’s also his flimsiest and least-inspired mockumentary yet, a rare swing-and-a-miss.  The best Guest mockumentaries are filled with quirky characters, but they also don’t overdo the quirk.  The characters feel like fully-sketched human beings rather than a collection of random traits for the performers to blurt out to score strained laughter, and that way the sentimentality that powers his films rings true.

Mascots overdoses on the quirk, often in the most generic of ways that ends up making the characters feel fake and the sentimentality hokey.  It’s not enough for Owen (Tom Bennett) to be a third generation mascot, he also has to have only one testicle.  It’s not enough for The Fist (Chris O’Dowd) to be a self-styled “bad boy” of the mascot world, he also has to have a father who is the founder of a religious cult based on a 70s television show.  It’s not enough for the mere idea of there being a yearly worldwide mascot competition, there also has to be a swiftly-dropped drug scandal and a loose Furry on the sexual prowl running about the place.  Just so many rehashed ideas from prior, better Christopher Guest films, many disappointingly free of the skewed invention that he normally brings to the table.

The film’s at its funniest in the little specific quirks that don’t strain so hard for laughs – like The Fist’s overly-Irish brogue calling the mascot profession “mascotery,” or hardcore mascot believer Phil Mayhew getting the chance to lend his mascot skills to cheering up a disabled school for blind children, or Owen’s “police Tourette’s” and total inability to move his eyes without turning his whole head.  The final third, when the competition itself gets underway, also delivers some fun visual gags and routines, with one avant-garde dance number bucking the usual trend of jokes in this film getting less funny the longer they run on for by becoming funnier and funnier the longer it drags on.  Plus, it’s honestly a blast to get to see Guest’s usual stable of actors – including Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Parker Posey, Chris O’Dowd, and John Michael Higgins – get to do their thing in a Christopher Guest movie again.  But there’s sadly no getting past the fact that I just didn’t laugh very much watching Mascots, and that’s disappointing given the quality of Guest’s usual output and the decade’s gap between films.  I guess that’s why it’s gone to Netflix, the home of comedies with only occasional funny sequences that you forget as soon as the credits start rolling.

Also, the film can’t seem to decide if it’s going to adhere to its mockumentary conceit or not, and that kind of thing bugs the crap out of me.

Day 7: Two female French soldiers experience the full force of military misogyny in Stopover, and The Dardenne Brothers return to the festival with The Unknown Girl.

Callum Petch can move along here and now.  You can usually find him at callumpetch.com!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice

This isn’t the film you wanted, but it’s the film you deserve.

I’ve seen that line totted out recently in relation to Zack Snyder’s latest offering in the newly established DC cinematic universe. Often by folks that I’m dubious as to their claims of having actually seen the movie yet.

Nevertheless, to quote Steve Coogan’s fantastic fictionalised autobiography I, Partridge, as an adolescent Alan is called ‘Smelly Alan Fartridge’ by his school tormenters, it’s a line that is “about 3% as clever as it thinks it is”. Or I guess maybe it’s 1%. But if there’s a 1% chance, then it should be taken as an absolute certainty, right?

It’s mainly a statement repeated in relation to the bleak, cold, depressing realisation of the world that Superman – and now also apparently his nemesis Batman – inhabits, where humour, warmth and vibrant colour are secondary to moody, dreary greys, suspicion, paranoia and snarling teeth.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t an AC/DC soundtracked flash of electric-blue, pyjama-clad heroes, comic-book niceness. Nor does it ever try to be anything but what it is. Nor should it even try to be anything else.

This is a place, as established in 2013’s divisive blockbuster Man of Steel, where an alien descended from a dying world to be raised amongst us, as one of us, to love us and protect us until he was old enough to decide whether to make the ultimate sacrifice to save us from ourselves/angry aliens. By, er, destroying half of the largest city in the US during a fist fight with said angry alien that resulted in thousands of collateral deaths. Deaths that an angry billionaire human dressed in a bat costume now wants to avenge. As does another psychotic billionaire by the name of Lex Luthor, with slightly more suspect motivations.

If the unremittingly desperate and sullen tone for this first live-action, big screen clash between DC’s iconic superheroes is what we deserve, then I’m OK with that. It sure as Hell is exactly how I wanted it to be in a number of different ways.

That isn’t to say the whole movie is exactly what I wanted from Snyder’s second foray into the often unforgiving spectrum of comicbook fanboy elitism. Just as Man of Steel left millions of steaming big blue boy scout fans loudly exclaiming “that’s not my Superman”, as if that was at all relevant, then just wait until the masses get ahold of the virtually unrecognisable character traits of their beloved caped crusader. If the internet could be fitted with a blast screen, now would be the time to assemble it.

The Dark Knight has always been, well, dark. Cracking bones, smashing skulls, practically crippling criminals for the rest of their life, all in the name of justice as he carefully tiptoes along the delicate line of his moral conscience, never straying into the territory that there’s no coming back from. But here, there are some rather extreme and remorseless attacks by the Bat that will please fans wanting a more grown up comic book film, as well as pop a few pulsating veins on the temples of outraged viewers.

Personally, I think it’s precious to perceive only one possible interpretation of a character that has seen hundreds of writers and dozens of actors portray him. Who’s to say that the kooky Adam West version is not the definitive creation? Or what about Tim Burton’s criminal-burning take in Batman Returns? Why not use Frank Miller’s portrayal of a grizzled old Bruce as the only measure?

The best versions of Batman in the comics in recent years have been, to my mind, when he went insane during Grant Morrison’s series that began a decade ago this year, and in writer Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics run – when it wasn’t even Bruce Wayne who was Batman, it was Dick Grayson. So really, it just doesn’t matter which you prefer, or what you think makes Batman the character he is; there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of representations of the character that are as valid as each other. This movie is no exception to that rule.

However, I feel like I’m explaining myself around the issues with this movie, of which there are plenty. Much like when George Clooney put on the cape and cowl (and nipple-plate), it’s hard to separate Ben Affleck from Bruce Wayne. Maybe that’s an unfair criticism as it’s a fine performance, but whenever he’s out of the mask, it’s hard to see past Ben Affleck. He also acts the chops off of his opposite number, with Henry Cavill caught in the headlights of a crash-bang-wallop barnstorming Batman movie where he is playing second fiddle in what should be his sequel. His story. His character’s atonement.

Ignorance is not the same as innocence, or so we’re told, which leaves the film to question how the red-caped Übermensch can continue to separate his private life from that of his heroic exploits. A hole was ripped through the centre of the planet not 18 months ago thanks in no small part to his own quest for knowledge, yet here he his saving children from burning buildings and being heralded as a messiah. I would not be the first person to scratch my head at the hypocrisies of the DC universe, but it at least tries to answer some of the questions it poses. Admittedly, Democracy v Superman would probably not have been a snappy title for the film.

And therein lies its biggest issue. I do like Man of Steel. Very much. In fact, Thursday evening, I saw a double-bill of it followed by a Batman v Superman midnight screening, and quite happily endured it. The dialogue is blunt, to the point and often without ambiguity, but the narrative structure combined with the character development of the wandering drifter Clark Kent, discovering his true identity as Kal-El, and subsequent trial by fire at the hands of Michael Shannon’s exceptional performance as General Zod; the more I see it, the more I like it. The religious symbolism is perhaps heavy handed as he floats off into space in his Jesus Christ pose to save the Earth, but there’s depth beyond merely a superhero smashing a villain’s face in. Zod’s pitiful plea and loss of identity, or his “soul” as he claims, at a time where a triumphant Clark struts across a city blown to smithereens to victory-snog his girlfriend; its complexities are frequently lost in a tide of criticism because it just happens to take place during a mass of CGI destruction. I hesitate to make further comparisons between the two, but compared to some of Marvel’s third-act fight sequences (The Incredible Hulk, Age of Ultron and Thor: The Dark World to name but a few) which serve absolutely no narrative purpose other than “beat-the-baddie”, it just further increases my opinion that it is a vastly underrated movie.

Now, Batman v Superman, as you might expect, spends forever building towards a climactic fight sequence between (you guessed it) Batman and Superman. By contrast, yes it looks cool and yes Snyder’s fingerprints are all over it, but it is as shallow as a paddling pool during a hose-pipe ban. It merely gives the fans what they think they want and not what they deserve.

I’m not going to spoil who wins the fight for you! Needless to say, the victor was inevitable. And yes, the allegories to religion, domestic and international terrorism threats, and playing God, are all there. But they are in much broader strokes than seen previously.

As for the rest of the 2.5 hour run time, a huge proportion of it is a confusing, sprawling mess that I kept trying to pretend was still good, like a buttered piece of toast that had fallen on the kitchen floor. Alas, you could probably scrape it off and it’d still be edible, but why would you? There’s bound to still be a mystery hair or unrecognisable piece of grit to crunch sickeningly between your teeth. What I’m getting at with this confused, sprawling metaphor, is that you can dust off all the crap from Batman v Superman and see just the delicious slice of warm toast underneath, but as you chew, you will secretly feel a little ashamed and embarrassed.

There’s just one dream within a dream sequence too many for my tastes. There’re more Easter eggs littering this film, distracting from what should be an interesting concept of man vs God, than you will find in the Sainsbury’s Petrol Station reduced isle next week. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is a passenger whose presence merely exists to pay fan-service for the Trinity and set up future Justice League movies so the other two can get on with battering each other.

I’m not going to sit here and say that the fault with Batman v Superman is that they didn’t follow the blueprint so successfully laid out by Marvel. I do not subscribe to that theory at all. The Marvel blueprint was laid out to make the audience more susceptible to expanded movie universes, that doesn’t mean DC, by not copying the exact format of individual introduction movies building to a crossover event, have failed. What will make Batman v Superman a relative failure is the cramming of about seven different story strands (that I counted) into one single film. It’s convoluted and each one (or maybe two or three together) would have been better served if held back for individual movies.

That, plus Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor was either incredibly poor casting, or the right casting for the wrong film. His twitching peculiarities and eccentric ranting about his father only weaken what should make a menacing focal point for the story. He’s a raving lunatic with an unoriginal fiendish plot to, I don’t know, get in the way, or something. He shouldn’t have been in this film. Or, rather, it should have been Batman or Lex Luthor.

The rest of the supporting cast are as expected. Laurence Fishburne returns as Daily Planet head-honcho Perry White to probably the highest degree of competence out of the lot. Folks worried about Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s casting as Thomas Wayne, concerned it might mean yet another origin story, need not panic as his role is squished into a Watchmen-esque opening segment. Amy Adams as Lois Lane is not as integral to the plot as she should be, although her performance is slightly more assured this time around. Jeremy Irons as Alfred is just Jeremy Irons. No more, no less.

Batman v Superman is bloated, convoluted, full of inconsistencies and lacking in focus. As many suspected might be the case, Superman is reduced to merely a concept rather than a character as Batman takes centre stage.

But Affleck does do a great job carrying the burden of this movie. On more than one occasion, his skulking in the shadows alluded me for a few moments, which gave me a giddy thrill when I spotted him (mind you, it was nearly 2am by this point). Make no mistake, when you read articles online about the actors and creative people behind this movie claiming that it is not designed to win over critics, they’re not lying. This is a Superman movie designed for Batman fans.

Arguably self-sabotaging in typical DC fashion by trying to introduce Batman to what is perceived as a flagging franchise or series, it might simply be too much, too soon. Yet, I still kind of got a kick out of it on some base-levels and I’m sure plenty of others will see through its many foibles too.

Failed Critics Podcast: American Hustle…David O. Russell. You gotta have a system.

American Hustle: Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper walking in streetHappy New Year to you all, and in an effort to stick to some hastily made resolutions about getting rid of the fat, the first Failed Critics podcast of the year is lean, mean, and looking forward to McQueen (next week’s big review is 12 Years a Slave).

This week’s chat sees the gents discuss the finer elements of the Oscar Foreign Language shortlist, as well as review new releases American Hustle and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. James also gets around to reviewing Anchorman 2, Owen takes us on a journey through South Korean cinema, and Steve is aiming to beat the bookies with his Oscar race tips/blind guesses (delete as appropriate).

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Failed Critics Podcast: Superman/Man of Steel Special

christopher-reeve-supermanIs it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s three nitwits holding court on all things Superman! In this week’s extra-special bumper podcast (weighing in at over two hours) we celebrate the release of Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman series, Man of Steel. Prepare for it to kick off as two of the team nearly come to blows over their experience and expectations of the movie.

As well as a review of the film, we look under the bonnet and get our hands dirty in an extended Spoiler Alert look at Man of Steel. Not only that, but we discuss every Superman film ever made in What We’ve Been Watching, and choose our favourite performances by the Man of Steel main cast in Triple Bill.

Join us next week as we review new releases World War Z, Now You See Me, and This is the End.

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The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film that definitely isn’t about Scientology looks incredible and has two great (and at times, astonishing) central performances at its heart. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell – an able seaman recently discharged from the navy at the end of the war and struggling to hold down a civilian job due to his alcohol dependency. We’re not just talking too many beers and whiskys though – Quell is some kind of booze alchemist, creating potions and poisons from any drink and household chemicals he finds lying around. We’ve all known someone like Freddie Quell, and chances are we haven’t heard from them in the last ten years or so. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Lancaster Dodds, the ‘Master’ of The Cause, who takes Freddie under his wing and struggles to ‘cure’ and control him.

Anderson creates a hugely believable world, with an interesting premise. Amy Adams puts in a lovely performance as Dodd’s wife, while the audience is also treated to a wonderful soundtrack from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood.

Yet, The Master bored me immensely. In fact, I haven’t seen a film become less than the sum of its parts in such a drastic way in a very long time.

We’re presented with two fascinating characters, who when they’re talking to each other (and to the people around them) hold my interest and draw me in much like the cult they represent. The problem is neither character really goes on a personal or external journey of any real consequence. I could forgive the lack of a journey if I had some sense of the history of the characters, or some deeper insight into their motivations. Indeed, Quell’s lack of a personal journey is symptomatic of the failure of The Cause’s methods. But what makes Quell so different from all the other demobbed servicemen of the time? Does Dodds believe what he is teaching, and if not, what is leading him to deceive all these people? Over the course of the film’s 140-minute running time we see no great urge for money or power from Dodds.

The Cause is all about discovering past lives, and righting wrongs that may have happened billions of years ago. Perhaps it was Anderson’s intention to make the ‘current’ lives the viewer sees onscreen superficial and lacking in depth or context as a counterpoint to the teachings of The Cause. However frustrated me and felt like when I see singers get the crowd to bellow the lines of their biggest hit, seemingly unaware that the audience have paid to see them perform. Ambiguity has its place, but I demand my storytellers to actually tell me a story, and not rely on me to fill in the vast majority of the blanks.

There also appeared to be a TWENTY MINUTE training montage in the middle of the film. If you’re going to have a training montage, the least you can do is soundtrack it with something like “You’re the Best Around” from The Karate Kid.

Watching The Master felt like I was watching a film that I ‘should’ like. It did everything a great film should, and Anderson is clearly an incredibly talented director. I just couldn’t connect with this film at all.

It didn’t grab me here *points to heart*

Or engage me here *points to head*

Overall, there is plenty to admire about this film, but very little to love. Feels like a wasted opportunity.