(Video on Demand, October 2016) Hmm. As much as I’d like to be the well-meaning optimist who thinks that there shouldn’t be a Marvel-vs-DC movie rivalry and that great movies are good for everyone, I must confess that lately, DC’s artistic choices (i.e.; handing over the series to Zack Snyder, going for angst-and-gloom, kick-starting a shared universe without building the groundwork) have led me to see them as the incompetent villains to Marvel’s generally competent spectacle factory. As much as I would have liked Batman v Superman to prove me wrong, it ends up confirming what a lot of reviewers are saying to DC: “Gaaah, what are you thinking?” The thing is, I like some of what they’re doing. The idea of building upon Man of Steel’s ruins (literally) and presenting a glum vision of how Superman would be received in a more realistic context is not bad. Snyder is often a gifted visual stylist with an eye for arresting images. Introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character before her big film is pretty good. Ben Affleck is great as a grizzled Batman, Jesse Eisenberg has a promising take on Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot makes us look forward to Wonder-Woman, while Henry Cavill is picture-perfect as Superman. But the blend of those elements together proves to be weaker than expected, harmed by bad editing, a lack of flow and ponderous pacing. By the time in the opening credits it takes five (or ten?) seconds for the slow-motion gun to tear through Martha Wayne’s pearls, it’s obvious that Batman v. Superman is going to have severe pacing issues, spending forever on trivial details, while fast-forwarding through the plot. The grimness of the tone is unrelenting, and the confusion between subplots makes the extended dream/prophecy/time-travel sequence looks far weaker than expected. It all amounts to an operatic carnival of sound a fury, signifying not much besides setting up another instalment in the series: By now, we’ve come so accustomed to those calculations that the death of a major character seems more like perfunctory fake drama than anything worth taking seriously. So it goes in the DC superhero movie mould: “Just wait for the next movies (or the director’s cut)! We’ll swear it’ll be better!” Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll see it anyway when it hits cable TV. I just won’t look forward to it.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) I probably asked too much from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or wanted something different from what director Guy Richie had in mind. High expectations weren’t unreasonable, though, considering the good memories that I have of Richie’s oeuvre so far, from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the way to Sherlock Holmes 2. But I wasn’t quite convinced by Richie’s intentions in designing this homage to sixties spy comedies. The directing seems inspired by period style, to say nothing of the visual atmosphere of the film or its plot. Those expecting a modern take may be surprised by a slow pacing, off-kilter humour, strange action sequences choices and relatively small stakes. Oh, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does have its share of pleasures: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Viklander are all very photogenic and capable (for Hammer and Cavill, their performances are confirmation that they can do more than their best-known roles), Hugh Grant is unexpectedly fun as a minor character and there are a few very good moments. While the charm of the film may be overstated, it’s nonetheless present. Still, it feels overly restrained, a bit dull on the side and not as triumphant as it ought to have been. It’s meant to set up a series, but even a sequel looks doubtful at this point, given the film’s understandably tepid reception.
(Video on Demand, November 2013) There’s something both annoying and admirable about the entertainment industry’s insistence at rebooting and shoving down superhero movies down our throats. DC’s maniacal insistence at reviving Superman after the 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns is understandable: Superman is iconic, the superhero film genre is still going strong, and there’s still some goodwill among genre fans for a good Superman film. Man of Steel, fortunately enough, is pretty much as good as it gets from a narrative perspective: Screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some assistance from Christopher Nolan) has managed to find a compelling story to tell about a fairly dull character, and it’s more thematically rich than we could have expected. Man of Steel, in the tradition of Nolan’s Batman films, voluntarily goes gritty: Zack Snyder’s direction favour pseudo-documentary aesthetics, the cinematography is more realistic than glossy, and the final act’s destruction feel more traumatic than purely entertaining. Much of this grittiness feels wrong for those raised on the squeaky-clean Superman character, causing more discomfort than necessary. On the other hand, the result is a film that’s reasonably captivating to watch: Superman has an inner conflict to solve, the action sequences aren’t generic and there’s a real effort to ground Superman to an identifiable reality. Henry Cavill is pretty good in the lead role, while Amy Adams does the most with a somewhat generic character. Michael Shannon brings some unexpected complexity to the antagonist, while both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get small but plum roles as the protagonist’s two fathers. While Man of Steel is (ironically) a bit too down-to-earth to feel like a blockbuster epic made to be re-watched over and over again, it’s a cut above the usual superhero fare: There’s some real pathos here, an origin story built on well-used flashbacks, sense of personal growth for Superman (something rarely seen) and the solid foundation for further entries. Recent superhero movie history has shown that it could have been much worse, and if I’ll happily take a glossy Superman movie over an unpleasantly gritty one, it would be churlish to deny the successes of this version of the character.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) The risk in relying on familiar thriller tropes is that while they can provide structure, they can’t, in themselves, substitute for wit and originality. It’s not a bad idea to propose as a premise an American tourist in Spain getting caught in a complex web of espionage thrills and double-crosses, but it has to be handled with some competence. Alas, The Cold Light of Day is a purely generic product down to its meaningless title, and a roster of familiar actors can’t save the film from by-the-number plotting, familiar plot points, murky motivations and tedious pacing. Henry Cavill gets (and fumbles) a chance to prove himself a contemporary action hero as he finds himself alone and running in Madrid, but he’s easy to forget when sharing scenes with Bruce Willis (as a father with a hidden second and third life) and Sigourney Weaver (as an immediately-suspicious high-level intelligence officer). Much of the film is straight out of the “man running for his life” thriller sub-genre, and while director Mabrouk El Mechri has the occasional good eye for filming action scenes, they feel overlong and perfunctory in the middle of such a familiar framework. (The final car chase definitely has its moments, but it’s too long by at least half its duration) While The Cold Light of Day will act as a pretty good showcase for Madrid’s tourist attractions, it’s not much of a calling card for anyone else involved: the characters are uninvolving, the narrative excitement is flat and nearly everything about the film seems wasted. For a film produced with decent means and known actors, there isn’t much here to distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill TV movie.
(Cable TV, September 2012) The most dependable thing about director Tarsem Singh’s work is the astonishing visual polish of his work: From The Cell to The Fall to Immortals to Mirror, Mirror, the least one can say about his work is that it’s pretty to look at. In terms of story, though, he doesn’t always pick the best scripts: His own writing on The Fall was intriguing, but his other films are disappointing to some degree. Immortals is no exception to the rule: While it features a number of sequences that are pretty enough to work as classical paintings, its story veers between confusion, dullness and trite clichés. Based on Greek mythology, Immortals is partly an excuse to produce a turbo-charged fantasy action film using top-notch special effects, and partly an excuse to play in the rarefied sphere of intensely operatic sword-and-sandal drama. It works, but not completely: While the visuals are one-wow-a-minute, the story takes a long time to get going, and even then merely works in fragments. Henry Cavill doesn’t have anything to regret in his performance as Theseus, while Freida Pinto perfectly plays the part of a reluctant oracle and Mickey Rourke brings some energy in the picture as the villainous King Hyperion. Still, this isn’t an actor’s film: it’s really a directorial showpiece, and Immortals has a lot of visually memorable set-pieces. The atmosphere may feel a bit claustrophobic (at time, it seems as if half the outdoors scenes are set on a cliff overlooking the sea), but the sequences are polished to such a degree that the entire film feels photo-shopped. (Immortals may feature some of the goriest slow-motion deaths in recent fantasy, but it’s so pretty that the only response is an astonished “oooh”.) Too bad the script hasn’t been re-worked to such degree: we’re left with a dull beginning, a muddled middle and a straightforward ending. A blend of 300 aesthetics with Clash of the Titans mythology, Immortals works best as a plot-less eye candy. Maybe, some day, Tarsem will manage to combine his superlative visuals with a good script.