Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

Zap! Crash! Whack! That’s how the old Batman TV show went. And, in 2016, you could say nothing much has changed. At least near the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not in the know, this film is a continuation of DC Comics’ universe – in terms of picking up the story following events in Man of Steel in 2013 – where Superman (Henry Cavill) tore Metropolis to pieces fighting General Zod (Michael Shannon). Buildings collapsed and people died, including many of Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) employees; giving him as good a reason as any to hate Superman, seeing him as an alien who operates without limits or accountability and is capable of wiping out the human race.

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On the flipside, Superman/Clark Kent sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante, as bad and morally corruptible as the criminals he puts away. Add to this a young Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) stirring up trouble, giving us as many twitches and mad tics as he can muster, and you’ve got an interesting recipe for a compelling plot.

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And plot, in a way, is a daunting place to start, because writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio are essentially attempting to tell two and a half, or perhaps three and a half stories in one go. We have: Batman, Superman, Lex Luthor, and Wonderwoman (Gal Gadot), the latter who pops up briefly here and there pursuing her own mysterious motives.

They do, however, do a reasonable job of weaving it all together, but it’s a lot of jumping around and I bet the filmmakers were ruthless in the edit room.

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But that’s all I’ll say plot wise, as it’s best you go see it and see what you think. For me, a slightly simpler story would have nice. That said, if you’ve seen any of the trailers there won’t be too many surprises as most of Wonderwoman’s best bits are there, as are Lex Luthor’s – and you can pretty easily work out where the whole thing will end up.

Complicated plot but simple story. (Not sure I’m making sense but I’m sticking with it. Bit like the film, wahey!)

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What I will say is that the first two thirds are the most interesting. There’s a lot of stuff about whether Superman is a false God or not, and about Batman wanting him to face the consequences of his actions. And with montages of TV talk shows discussing Superman’s place in the world weaved throughout early on, it feels like sections have been lifted straight from Alan Moore’s Watchmen a la Dr Manhattan. Which is no bad thing, if done in a fresh way.

Director Zack Synder also manages to nail the tone fairly well. Gritty and dark, but not completely Christopher Nolan. And some of his stylised shots of Superman hovering over buildings or being touched by many hands in a crowd are really quite sublime. As is his (and Affleck’s) take on Batman. Affleck keeps him stoic and resolute for the most part but conflicted (as all good antiheroes should be), which balances nicely with a quirky, technology-savvy Alfred (something we’ve not seen), played superbly by Jeremy Irons (who knew he had such a touch for comedy).

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The bits where I feel this film falters is more to do with DC’s attempt to follow the Marvel blueprint, particularly with a smashy smashy bad guy final third. I felt it was all going quite well up to that point, but it’s then as if the filmmakers couldn’t resist splurging their budget on some fancy effects to please 14-year old boys. But then, some would argue that director Zack Synder is a bit of a teenage boy at heart anyway, so no big surprise.

Similarly, whilst Synder got the tone more or less right, I think Hans Zimmer let him down a bit on the score, which just felt too overblown and portentous. It all got a bit too much as it went on, droning and banging away with lashings of doom and gloom. But we’ve all seen 300, so what did I expect? Perhaps I just prefer the light-hearted Marvel banter. (Now there’s a thing.)

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And another point upon which to focus on the Marvel versus DC front… it’s quite amusing to watch the way they set up their forthcoming Justice League movie, leaving subtlety very much on the cutting room floor. We get a small shot of Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman and a brief scene between Bruce Wayne and Wonderwoman (despite the fact we don’t even learn her name during the film) and it all feels a little bit tacked-on-at-the-end-before-we-forget. I’d have liked to see a lot more delicate threads and strands of a larger world weaved throughout – unless it was there and so subtle I missed it?

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So whilst this may sound like a big rant, it’s really not at all. It’s quite a good film for the most part and there’s a lot to like. But – here’s the rub – there are still many things that happen which we’ve seen time and again in the last decade of superhero flicks. C’mon DC, be bold, be brave. Change up the format, don’t just copy Marvel.

After all, taking a risk and a leap of faith is what superheroes do.

(Ps I’m still very keen to see Suicide Squad as it may bring something fresh. At the very least an unhinged Margot Robbie should be worth the price of admission alone.)

Gone Girl: A love letter to marriage

Phase 2 of Ben Affleck’s career just keeps impressing. It probably started with Gone Baby Gone in 2006, which he wrote and directed. Then The Town in 2010, in which he starred and directed. He followed this with Argo in 2012, again, he starred and directed. In the same year he managed to fit in critically acclaimed film, Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder.

He’s been cast as the new Batman (so we’ll be seeing him again in 2016), but before that he’s added another thoughtful, measured and mature performance (and film) to his filmography with Gone Girl, directed by one of modern cinema’s bad boy geniuses David Fincher.

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

Gone Girl the novel – by Gillian Flynn – came out in 2012. By the end of its first year it had sold over two million copies. Flynn also wrote the screenplay for this film and her themes (and characters) are tremendously relatable to anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship that’s gone somewhat awry.

The film tells the story of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) who, upon returning home one day, finds his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) has vanished in suspicious circumstances. What ensues is a police investigation and media frenzy where everyone – in the absence of Amy’s body – accuses Nick of being a sociopath and condemns him for her murder. Their initial evidence? His awkward behaviour when dealing with the media and various failings that come to light concerning his marriage vows.

As probably one of the most famous guys named Ben in modern times, Affleck is no stranger to being put under the beady eye of media scrutiny. Here he treads a masterful line, giving Nick just enough of our sympathies to believe he didn’t commit murder, but with enough occasional flashes to keep us guessing.

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Credit should also go to Fincher, who jumps between Nick’s present day predicament and flashbacks of Nick and Amy’s past; from happier times when they first met to progressively tougher times as they both lose their jobs and begin to hate each other.

Without giving too much away (but let’s say spoiler alert anyway) the film changes tack about halfway through to tell Amy’s side of the story. Now Rosamund Pike has been around for a few years, putting in good performances here and there for the most part, but never really cracked the major A-list. That should now change pretty sharply.

Her performance here is captivating – all fire and ice as she shows first one side of Amy, then the other. Without giving too much away Nick has the lion’s share of the story, yet Amy’s scenes are pivotal and are the ones that jolt you out of any comfortable place you may have felt the story was taking you as a viewer.

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You’d expect nothing less from Fincher right? He gave us the ‘head in a box’ scene in Seven years ago, and it’s fair to say it looked like he felt right at home with the script’s dark themes.

Referring to the film as a love letter to marriage is really more of a question. The writer (of the book and screenplay) said she based the story on some of her own experiences. Much has been written about these characters putting you off marriage and relationships, but I’d say it’s blackly humorous, cynical perhaps, but also remarkably well observed in some ways.

There’s quite a few comic moments, which to me suggest you shouldn’t get too hung up on the darker elements, but perhaps take it with a pinch of salt as a cautionary tale. Or the opposite, as some sort of cynical love letter.

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Ultimately, the story and characters are highly engaging (in an unsettling way) throughout. Pike and Affleck’s performances are first class and Fincher shows no signs of giving up his dark cinematic throne any time soon.

Here’s to Amazing Fucking Amy. I’d marry her in a second.

I’d probably regret it… but it’d be a thrilling ride.

Best twenty films of 2012

It’s been an epic year for films across a variety of genres. This list reflects my taste in films so I hope you enjoy. Sorry Twilight, you didn’t make the cut!

  • Skyfall
    skyfall-craigStrangely there are people who don’t like this film and say it’s not classic Bond. I think it’s the closest to Fleming’s Bond since Connery. To celebrate 50 years of Bond, the dream team of Mendes, Craig, Bardem and Dench pulled out the stops to make this film truly special.
  • Argo
    Can’t believe people still give Affleck a hard time for his early career. How many decent films does he need to direct before people will admit he’s a real talent? First Gone Baby Gone and The Town and now this. A proper, intelligent thriller.
  • Moonrise Kingdom
    This film is a great companion piece for The Life Aquatic, my favourite from Wes Anderson. As always, a great cast: Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton. Although focus is on the two, young actors who confidently carry the story. A sweet and quirky tale.
  • Looper
    Rian Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are fast becoming a match made in heaven. First Brick and now this time-travelling sci-fi tale of assassins. This film had an interesting mix of futuristic and retro, plus it marked Gordon-Levitt out as a leading man in the making.
  • Silver Linings Playbook
    SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOKForget Hunger Games, this ranks as my favourite Jennifer Lawrence film, just edging Winter’s Bone. She has great chemistry with Bradley Cooper, both of them playing flawed characters in this acerbic, edgy and alternative type of rom-com. Highly recommended.
  • Chronicle
    Earlier this year this film was released and flew somewhat under the radar. Shown in found footage style, the best way to describe the first half is Jackass with telekinetic powers. It then goes darker as it builds to an epic finale. Thoroughly deserving of a place on this list.
  • Dark Knight Rises
    The final instalment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing bat franchise. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Gordon-Levitt as Boy Wonder in the making. This was an emotional, visceral ending to the best set of Batman films of all time.
  • Avengers Assemble
    Despite my last comment regarding Batman, Marvel Studios has firmly staked its claim as the lighter, more upbeat side of the superhero world. Joss Whedon pulling off an incredible trick to balance a film with a host of big characters, letting them all shine equally.
  • Ted
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    Macfarlane knows his comedy. This film was his vision and really paid off. From script and direction through to mo-cap acting, he was the driving force. Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg added their dramatic and comedy talent to make this one of the funniest films of the year.
  • Life of Pi  
    Ang Lee’s tale of a young boy shipwrecked at sea with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker is a visual masterpiece. Taken from a Booker prize-winner novel, it makes you question the nature of belief and how you perceive the world. An uplifting and life-affirming tale.
  • The Raid: Redemption
    Combine the talents of a Welsh Director and up-and-coming action star in Iko Uwais and you get an unexpected, kick-ass treat. Introducing us to pencak silat, an Indonesian form of dance and self defence, it’s breathtaking to watch when used to beat up bad guys.
  • The Hobbit
    Peter Jackson has worked wonders yet again. The dwarves are great and Martin Freeman is the perfect Bilbo. His ‘riddles in the dark’ scene with Gollum is brilliantly scripted. If you’re even a fleeting fantasy fan you won’t want to miss this exhilarating tale.
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
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    Critically well received, this fantasy film has drawn comparisons with Pan’s Labyrinth and is well worth seeing. It tells the tale of six-year-old girl Hushpuppy who, when looking after her ill and hot-tempered father, must learn the ways of courage and love.
  • Rust and Bone
    It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Marion Cotillard – there’s a permanent picture of her on my blog. Here she beautifully plays a killer whale trainer who forms an unlikely romance with a bouncer. Jacques Audiard directs this passionate and moving love story.
  • The Master
    Possibly a career-best film from Paul Thomas Anderson and performance from Joaquin Phoenix? Ultimately, this film is about the fascinating interplay between war veteran Freddie (Phoenix) and movement leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
  • Seven Psychopaths
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    From the Director of darkly comic film In Bruges, this tale of kidnapped dogs and gangsters is hilariously scripted and brilliantly acted. With a cast including Christopher Walken, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell and Woody Harrelson.
  • End of Watch
    Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena put in the hours with cops on the beat in South Central LA to form a real bond prior to filming. The results paid off, as this thriller cop movie has real believability and chemistry between the two leads.
  • Magic Mike
    Ladies of Tampa‘, croons Matthew McConaughey, before he smashes his guitar and strips in front of a horde of screaming ladies. This film, though, belongs to Channing Tatum. Before acting he was a stripper – this film gives an intriguing glimpse of life back stage in that world.
  • The Grey
    It’s Liam Neeson, he’s cold, he’s angry, wolves are trying to kill him. In a minute he’s going to get really mad – what’s not to like? This bleak adventure sees a bunch of oil workers stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash – in the middle of a wolf kill zone.
  • 21 Jump Street
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    Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill team up in this cop buddy comedy remake. Tatum is – surprisingly – very funny, with great comic timing. Jokes are often set up and don’t pan out how you might expect, which is a good thing. Also, Johnny Depp has an outstanding cameo.

Argo, Affleck and a hard-hitting Hollywood tale

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I saw Argo the other night and thought it was great. Really tense throughout, with a few lighter moments to keep from getting too heavy. I said as much to friends and got told rather firmly that the film was historically inaccurate and missed the point.

When I queried this I was told it didn’t fully explore the political situation behind the stand-off between Iran and the US. Whilst this may be true, I’m not sure that matters too much. I’ll explain why. But first, the plot.

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Set in revolutionary Iran in 1979, the story focuses on six American diplomats forced to flee their embassy and take refuge in the Canadian Ambassador’s house. CIA ex-filtration expert Tony Mendez (Affleck) is brought in to orchestrate their escape, by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie called Argo.

If this were just a film, most people would probably avoid it with a story this ludicrous, but it’s true. This was a proper CIA-sanctioned mission – that’s what makes it so compelling. To return to the comments my friends made about the film’s inaccuracies, Hollywood is known for butchering history – often in a spectacular way. Or twisting it to suit its own means.

Let’s face it, films based on true stories are often going to upset somebody. Maybe they’re inaccurate, maybe they’ve left out key facts. Sometimes the facts don’t make a great film or there are too many characters for the story to be focused enough.

First and foremost, film-makers are trying to make something that’s going to appeal to as many people as possible. The more controversial the material, the more it’s going to be a challenge. Anyway, lesson over, let’s look at the film.

Affleck the A-list….Director
Never thought you’d hear that one right? This is his third film as Director, following the critically-acclaimed Gone Baby Gone and The Town. Both tense, dramatic and well-told stories in a realistic setting.

Also both were set in Boston. So many – including myself – were interested to see if he could deliver the same type of suspenseful film not just in another location, but way outside the US. In a way, the stabilisers are off and he’s wobbling down the street on his own. With a good measure of success.

As well as displaying a deft touch as Director – balancing drama with comedy moments – his acting is also solid and unfussy. Casting himself as lead character Tony Mendez, he comes across as a relatively inscrutable, stoic protagonist – yet has the self-awareness to be the calm centre of the storm, allowing other characters to spin around him.

A cosmic conflagration
He also gets some great performances out of the supporting cast which included: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Scoot McNairy and Bryan Cranston. argo poster - by conception studiosArkin and Goodman were on top form, poking fun at the inner workings of the Hollywood machine with some great lines. Goodman to Affleck, ‘You want to come to Hollywood and act all fake like a big shot? You’ll fit right in.’

It’s never going to be an easy task to tell a tale this complex, however I think Affleck pulls it off. This is a tense, concise, well-told story, cleverly cut with a satirical nod towards Hollywood, but kept grounded by a level-headed Director who’s going from strength to strength. It may not please everyone from a historical point of view, but it’s a darn good film nonetheless.

Ben Affleck: a directorial phoenix emerges!

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I’ve had a disastrous morning. Not the most upbeat way to start a post, but hang in there. I dropped a full jar of honey on the floor which shattered. Honey and glass is impossible to clean up. Then banged my heel in the shower, spilt hot tea on my leg, lost half my breakfast in the toaster – the part I salvaged I managed to push off my plate onto the table with aggressive cutting!

And so, on to this post. As you might guess it’s about Affleck’s rise from the ashes of an acting career to become a directorial force to be reckoned with – much to the surprise of many. The reason for mentioning my morning mishaps is I hope this piece becomes my salvation – that I rise from the flames resplendent, with no more disasters for the rest of the day. I want to become the phoenix! Ahem, let’s move on.

So last night I watched Gone Baby Gone – another ‘been on my list for a while’ film. As expected, it’s really good. I’ve ended up watching the films Affleck has directed in reverse order, having seen The Town a while ago. Both are set in Boston and deal with crime and family. Both are brilliant – suspenseful, thrilling and wholly engrossing throughout.

gone baby goneGone Baby Gone (2007)
If you’ve not seen this, it’s a crime mystery drama based on a book by Dennis Lehane – author of two other titles that have been turned into impressive films, Mystic River and Shutter Island. The latter superbly directed by Scorsese and features a career-high performance by DiCaprio.

In terms of plot, it features Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) as a private investigator hired to find a missing girl. Faced with the challenges of working with distrustful cops (Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman), drug dealers and other lowlifes – his relationship with his co-worker and partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan) becomes strained as the investigation progresses. There are twists, turns and revelations and, whilst the plot is complex, it’s worth paying attention to the end.

Affleck (senior) gives the Boston setting a grittiness and believability and gets a great performance out his younger brother. Who said siblings can’t work together? I’ve had my doubts about Casey Affleck, he’s always seemed quite a closed book in terms of being an expressive actor. Now I understand his appeal. He gives a truly impressive performance, particularly showing suppressed emotion – one of the hardest things to convincingly portray for an actor. He’s also highly believable as a normal Boston guy in a tense, dangerous situation. The action never feels fake or Hollywood, a lot of this is down to Casey’s talent as much as older brother Ben’s direction.

This film suffered a little on release due to the subject matter and art imitating life, particularly in the UK where the disappearance of a girl that looked almost identical to the one in the film meant release was pushed back. This should take nothing away from it, this is a well told, well acted, well directed film – particularly from a debut Director.

Incidentally, if we’re talking Lehane adaptations, it’s worth noting that it’s less depressing than Mystic River and not as thrilling or scary as Shutter Island – sitting perhaps inbetween the two as a good, solid crime mystery. Worth your time.

The Town (2010)
Is this a companion piece to Gone Baby Gone? Maybe it should be packaged up as a Boston crime trilogy boxset with The Departed? Anyway, Affleck’s directorial debut set him up nicely to direct this tale of bank-robbing in the heart of Boston’s Charlestown – a place that accounts for over 300 robberies a year.

As well as directing, Affleck starred as the leader of the gang who decides to keep watch on bank manager (Rebecca Hall), as she could potentially identify him following his gang’s last job. As he begins to fall for her romantically he has to deal with volatile partner (the excellent Jeremy Renner) and evade capture from FBI detective (John Hamm).

the townFor me, this film had a lot of similarities with Michael Mann’s Heat, or the opening robbery sequence in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. At least in terms of epic, realistic gun battles in broad daylight and the cat-and-mouse game between cop (Hamm) and robber (Affleck). High praise you might say, but justified.

How Affleck found the time to act in this as well as get great performances out of a cast including Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, John Hamm and Jeremy Renner I’ll never know. Renner was astonishing – all coiled up, explosive rage and intensity.

If you compare Affleck’s two directorial outings so far, I prefer The Town. It’s a simpler story than Gone Baby Gone, but more exciting and thrilling. Both are very good films though. Which leads us on to Affleck’s latest…

Argo (2012)
Hard for me to say too much about this as it’s only just come out at the cinema. The plot tells the story of a real life CIA mission in 1980 to rescue six American diplomats from revolutionary Iran, by posing as a Canadian film crew and staging a fake film in the country.

It’s got an interesting cast. As well as Affleck, it includes Bryan Cranston (from TV show Breaking Bad), John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Quite a departure from Affleck’s first two films, so it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

I’ll finish with the trailer below so you can judge for yourself. First impressions suggest it’s positioning itself as a serious thriller with comic elements. Almost like a grown-up version of Ocean’s Eleven. What do you think?