movie reviews March 2016

london has fallenwhiskey tango foxtrot10 cloverfield lanebatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is what happens when a film's creators lose sight of their purpose. Or, more cynically, it's what happens when a film has no purpose beyond its function as an elaborate marketing vehicle.

In an attempt to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe — which has raked in serious cash with the interrelated Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Avengers franchises — DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. have chosen Batman v Superman to introduce their own cinematic pantheon. However, what Marvel slowly unfolded over six releases and five years, DC attempts to barrel through in one patience-testing sitting.

While director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen)cannot bear all the blame for this bloated mega-budget bore, it surely bears the marks of his previous directorial efforts, reflecting his penchant for epic scope, image over plot, bombastic soundtrack, gut-crunching violence, and utter lack of wit or depth.

To lay the groundwork for the forthcoming DC Extended Universe, Snyder throws into the meat grinder every trend, theme, and technique of superhero comics — on page and screen — from the last 30 years and comes up with what amounts to a 2 1/2 hour preview reel, an exhausting yet unengaging series of excerpts, introductions, and fanboy teases that makes little if any narrative sense.

The first order of business being to reclaim Batman from his most recent and highly regarded Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale incarnation, the film relates, yet again, the childhood trauma that set Bruce Wayne on his crime-fighting path in a gripping montage largely lifted from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. The adult Batman/Bruce Wayne we get on screen is far less compelling. Ben Affleck provides the now-aging millionaire-vigilante with sufficient gravitas, but screenwriters Chris Terrio (Argo) and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) give him little to do but play angry and embittered.

Considering it's essentially a sequel to Snyder's 2013 Man of Steel, Batman v Superman also gives Superman rather short shrift. Having been elevated to God-like status — in images suffused with the glow of Alex Ross' Marvels illustrations — after saving Metropolis from alien invasion in the previous film, Superman (Henry Cavill) now finds himself feared and resented by the mere mortals he has embraced (shades of X-Men), including cranky old Bruce Wayne, who inexplicably holds the Man of Steel responsible for all Metropolis-based Wayne employees injured in the battle. As a result, Cavill is largely left to mope for two hours, hardly the stuff of legend.

Stirring the pot and propelling the two super-dupes toward their inevitable battle is iconic baddie Lex Luthor, so overplayed by Jesse Eisenberg as a wacky, motor-mouthed, on-the-spectrum tech company genius that he distracts from every scene and is so obviously transparent in his manipulations that the bat-detective and man with x-ray vision would never fall for his whisper campaign.

But the super-plot doesn't stop there. Snyder and Co. throw in reporter and Superman-squeeze Lois Lane (Amy Adams) on assignment in Africa, a southern senator (Holly Hunter) calling for an investigation into Superman's activities, and a big blob of a computer-generated monster called Doomsday.

Along the way, we get glimpses of Wonder Woman (over-hyped Israeli actress/model Gal Gadot), Aquaman, and the Flash, Diane Lane as Martha Kent and Kevin Costner as (the ghost of) Jonathan Kent, as well as a parade of real-life talking-head cameos by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Andrew Sullivan, Nancy Grace, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper, Soledad O'Briem, and Senator Patrick Leahy.

Oh, and Batman fights Superman. PG-13 Rating: 1 (Posted 3/31/2016

10 Cloverfield Lane
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

When screenwriters John Campbell and Matt Stuecken had their 2012 spec script "The Cellar" picked up by TV and film producer/director J. J. Abrams and Bad Robot Productions, it must have seemed like a dream come true. Four years, 15 million dollars, and a rewrite (by Whiplash's Damien Chazelle) later, the film hits screens with a new title, tying it to the 2008 Abrams-produced giant-monster movie Cloverfield, as well as the typical Abrams abrupt drop/limited detail release.

The resulting film, equal parts Hitchcock and Twilight Zone, feels like a bit like a classic car being outfitted with exhaust tips and rims. The fancy, new parts don't ruin it, but they sure as hell are a distraction.

The film's opening is controlled and riveting, nothing like the shaky-cam found-footage style of its nominal predecessor. Sans dialogue, the camera follows Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as she packs a suitcase (clothes and Scotch), endures an uncomfortable phone conversation, then walks out the door, the camera lingering on the set of keys and engagement ring she's left behind.

As Michelle takes to the road, the churning strings of Bear McCreary's score evoke Hitchcock's Psycho while the steadicam shot of the car winding through the wilderness feels like the opening credits of Kubrick's The Shining. A radio newscast reports local electrical surges and Michelle wrestles with taking her fiancé’s desperate call when her vehicle is struck. Frames of the accident are interrupted by abrupt cuts to silence and darkness against which the credits appear.

She comes to with an injured leg, chained to a pipe in a cinder-block room behind a locked steel door. Her benefactor (or is it captor?) is Doomsday-prepper Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that he has saved her life. From what, he's not exactly sure. Maybe nukes; maybe chemical warfare. Maybe Russians; maybe Martians. Suffice to say, everyone outside is gone, and the hatch on the bunker is going to stay padlocked. Luckily, the place is stocked with enough food and supplies (including board games DVDs, and a nifty jukebox) to last the year or two it’ll take before it’s safe to go up top again. They also have another guest, dim-witted handyman Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who may not be a true believer, but helped Howard build this temperature-controlled, air-filtered underground ark.

To give away much more would ruin the fun. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg makes the most of the claustrophobic setting, following characters to establish the bunker's layout and allowing close-ups to deliver as much information and tension as the dialogue. Silently, Winstead lets us see the wheels turning as she begins to stumble across contradictions in the stories Howard and Emmett are offering.

It's Goodman's Howard, however, that brings this pressure cooker to a boil. Even in his kindest moments, there is something that never smiles in his eyes, making even a polite request to use a coaster feel like a threat.

This well-crafted chamber piece, unfortunately, keeps bumping into the Cloverfield universe to which it’s been grafted. As a result, information that could have been introduced straightforwardly (such as what Howard believes has happened) comes in aggravating dribs and drabs. And like most Abrams projects, the makers become so obsessed with thwarting audience expectations that they are willing to sacrifice the project just to keep something up their sleeves.

Ironically, despite the talent and attention that Abrams’s presence has brought the film, its biggest disappointment arrives when the connection to Cloverfield is finally revealed in a climax that gleefully betrays the tone and restraint of the 75 minutes that have preceded it.

SPOILER ALERT: the film has Cloverfield in the title. PG-13 Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/18/16)

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Like most of the women writer/actress Tina Fey portrays, the latest is smart, funny and almost completely lacking in self-confidence. Kim Baker has made a life out of settling, writing news stories for better-looking people to read on air and unenthusiastically dating her “mildly-depressive boyfriend” (Josh Charles). Her trajectory, which falls somewhere between Broadcast News and Eat, Pray, Love, earning the non-ironic title, though delivered ironically in the movie, of “the most American white lady story," leads her to a new location; if not a new outlook.

Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris, Crazy, Stupid, Love, Focus), with the help of editor Jan Kovac (Focus), employ the usual tricks of comedic timing to bring the script, written by Robert Carlock (“The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “30 Rock”), a frequent collaborator with Fey, to the screen. The biggest jump, which leads to one of the most egregious of the movie’s many tone-deaf moments — a bloody attack filmed in slow-motion and set to Harry Nilsson’s ballad “Without You” — puts Baker’s supposed transformation in focus.

But what starts as a fish-out-water comedy that, catalyzed by an extreme environment, should evolve into an existential exploration and finally the epiphany that Baker is usually the smartest person in the room, turns into a silly romantic comedy, albeit one that reverses stereotypical gender roles after Baker calls in her favors to rescue her new boyfriend (Martin Freeman).

Carlock’s screenplay is based on real-life print journalist Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barker, who now writes for The New York Times, was one of the region’s longest-serving correspondents, arriving as a newbie in Afghanistan at the time when most military resources were being diverted to Iraq. It’s described as an insider’s account of the “forgotten war.”

Fey’s Baker, by contrast, simply uses the armed conflict: first to escape her life, and then to coerce a better on-screen job. There’s a slight side story in which she visits a soldier she interviewed early on, and for whom she feels responsible for a transfer and subsequent injury. But this is a flimsy attempt on behalf of the filmmakers to create a connection where there is none, and even the former soldier seems suspicious of her dubious motives. Not to mention the throwaway roles, punctuated by dismal casting, that Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott are shoehorned into.

There is some pleasure to be had from watching Baker, full of adrenaline for the first time, take charge of the camera while under enemy fire. Fey, the perfect foil for Billy Bob Thornton’s scene-stealing general, embeds with the troops brilliantly. She alone notices village dynamics and finds clever ways around cultural constraints. But somehow the filmmakers leave her untouched by all this, still lacking confidence. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 03/19/16)

London Has Fallen
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

A retread of the 2013 sort-of hit Olympus Has Fallen (one of two White House-under-siege pictures that year), London Has Fallen raises the stakes this time around while doubling-down on violence, profanity and xenophobic paranoia.

Having survived the White House assault, US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) is back in action, this time flying off to London to attend the funeral of England's prime minister. At his side once more is one-man-army secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler).

Despite unprecedented measures, every level of security in London — from Scotland Yard to the city ambulance service to the bearskin-hatted Royal Guard at Buckingham Palace — has been infiltrated by Pakistani terrorists. Bombs and gunfire erupt citywide, entire buildings crumble in poorly rendered CGI animation, and within minutes, they've taken out most of the European heads of State and, as one poorly scripted news anchor reports, "decimated most of London’s known landmarks.” Leaving intact, one can only assume, the unknown landmarks.

The attack's mastermind, arms dealer Aamir Barkawi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), however, wants Asher alive, intending a live broadcast of his assassination, payback for family members' deaths in a US-ordered drone strike.

Apparently unaware of the foiled White House attack, these terrorists fail to take into consideration killing machine Banning. In a tedious series of violent vignettes, Banning shoots and stabs a never-ending flow of baddies — all of whom are easily identifiable by their brown skin and implied Middle Eastern descent — as he and the president weave their way through the empty streets and Underground stations of a suddenly deserted London.

Meanwhile, a cadre of overqualified actors who should know better, including Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, and Morgan Freeman, reprise their roles from Olympus, which consists mostly of standing around staring in horror at a monitor in the White House Situation Room. Angela Bassett returns, too, as Secret Service Director Lynne Jacobs, who takes to the field with Asher and Banning and is reduced to the deathbed utterance, "Make these fuckers pay."

Scripted by original Olympus writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt with assistance from newcomers Chad St. John and Christian Gudegast, and directed by Iranian-born Swedish director Babak Najafi, this wanna-be Die Hard in London is heavy on explosions, exposition and expletives, but light on logic and characterization.

That Banning and the prez will survive is never in question. The film instead seems to exist simply to provide jingoistic wish fulfillment for Americans who enjoy seeing Trump-style diplomacy in action as a machine-gun toting president and his knife-wielding henchman dish out long overdue vengeance and schoolyard taunts ("Go back to Fuckheadistan!") to the world of terrorists they believe is out to get us. (R) Rating: .5 (Posted on 03/08/16)


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