Category Archives: Movie Reviews

The Bourne Calamity

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(Please note: This article will have spoilers for all five Bourne movies.)

In 2002 The Bourne Identity was a breath of fresh air in the action movie genre. It started not with some unstoppable superhuman but a guy left for dead in the water with three bullets in his back. When a French fishing boat pulls him out of the water it’s unclear if he’s even alive. When he wakes up he has no idea who he is. He is as clueless as the audience as to why he’s been shot in the back. We learn about Jason Bourne as he learns about himself. And thanks to director Doug Liman’s documentary-style of filmmaking The Bourne Identity felt more realistic and intimate than most action movies.

At the time, it was not clear that Matt Damon could even pull off an action movie. He was as untested as Bourne himself was clueless. In the first real action scene, we see Bourne take down two cops in a park. He seems as surprised as we are at his skills thanks to his amnesia but this worked on another level in that we didn’t know Matt Damon was capable of that sort of action at all.

The moment when the movie really changed things was when Bourne is being hunted in the US Embassy. The building goes into lockdown. Bourne decides to go up rather than down. He escapes the view of the guys with guns. And then rather than just cutting to him being on the ground, they show exactly how he gets down to the ground. Whatever happened in this movie we knew that it was going to be practical and more realistic than what we had seen in the last James Bond movie. (To see the influence of the Bourne franchise, watch Die Another Day, the last James Bond movie to come out before Bourne Identity. Now watch Casino Royale. Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have more in common with Bourne than any of the other Bond movies.)

While it’s easy to give director Doug Liman and star Matt Damon the lion’s share of the credit for the success of The Bourne Identity, I believe that the reason the movie works as well as it does is the script by Tony Gilroy. His loose adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s novel updated it for present day audiences while leaving room for drama without sacrificing pace. Gilroy’s script is what holds the movie together.

Lastly, The Bourne Identity is aided by one of the best casts ever assembled for an action movie. In addition to Matt Damon, you have Fanke Potente, Julia Stiles, Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Clive Owen. Eagle-eyed viewers might even notice Walton Goggins as a CIA analyst. The talent on display in The Bourne Identity is practically an embarrassment of riches. It just works.

The Bourne Identity worked so well that the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy came out only two years later. Supremacy retained the surviving cast of the first movie and Tony Gilroy as screenwriter but lost director Doug Liman. In his place was Paul Greengrass. Greengrass was selected because of his work on the movie Bloody Sunday. He also brought a documentary-style feel to his movies using handheld cameras in almost every shot. It also added Joan Allen as the smart, capable, but moral Pamela Landy.

At the end of Identity, Jason Bourne makes the following promise: “I swear to God, if I even feel somebody behind me, there is no measure to how fast and how hard I will bring this fight to your doorstep. I’m on my own side now.” The Bourne Supremacy is the fulfillment of that promise. In what was a complete surprise to audiences Fanke Potente’s character is killed by an assassin gunning for Bourne in a plot to frame Bourne for a hit in Berlin. His response is swift, methodical, and unrelenting. The Bourne Supremacy continued the trend of having a highly skilled, highly motivated hero we absolutely sympathize with.

If you just watch the first two films, you have a complete story. From a storytelling perspective there is no need for a third movie. Indeed, even the filmmakers themselves at the time thought it was going to be the final movie in the series. But Hollywood loves nothing more than to greenlight a sequel to a successful movie. And so it wasn’t too surprising when in 2007 The Bourne Ultimatum came out. What was surprising was just how good Ultimatum turned out. Everyone from the previous movie returned for this one including director Paul Greengrass. Tony Gilroy was less involved in the script because he was working on his own movie, Michael Clayton but his presence is felt. One of the more innovative things about The Bourne Ultimatum is that the majority of the movie takes place before the end of The Bourne Supremacy. This effectively means that the last time we see Bourne active is actually in 2004. Like the previous sequel, everyone who didn’t die is still in this movie. Also added to the CIA’s roster are David Straithairn and Scott Glenn. This gives the Bourne movies an almost episodic feel. It’s not just Bourne who is the same, but so are the people chasing him. And when new characters pop up they’re working with already established characters. You get a sense of continuity and realism with this approach. The Bourne Ultimatum ends as the first movie began: With Bourne in the water shot in the back. There’s a pleasant symmetry to this. And with Bourne having learned his real name and having his memories fully come back, this really does seem like the perfect end point for an incredibly well done action spy movie franchise.

Much like how the folks at the CIA could not leave Jason Bourne alone, Hollywood similarly felt that the Bourne movie franchise needed to continue. Unfortunately for them Matt Damon wasn’t interested if Paul Greengrass wasn’t interested and they could not find a script that they agreed on. So screenwriter Tony Gilroy wrote a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne in it. He also directed this one. Most critics and fans alike see The Bourne Legacy as a misstep in an otherwise unblemished franchise. I disagree.

The Bourne Identity was about a government assassin gone rogue. The Bourne Supremacy was about covering up a conspiracy and using Bourne as the scapegoat. The Bourne Ultimatum was about blowing the lid off of the clandestine operations that resulted in Bourne. The Bourne Legacy was about the people in charge of those clandestine operations doing damage control and covering their asses. Each of these plot turns was informed by the previous one.

It’s less obvious than Ultimatum, but Legacy is also a nested sequel. Much of what happens in the movie is happening during the events of Bourne Supremacy and Bourne Ultimatum. Instead of Matt Damon as Jason Bourne we have Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross. He doesn’t have amnesia. He isn’t an everyman. And he isn’t all that likable. He’s more like the operatives who are sent after Bourne than like Bourne himself. Though most of the cast of the movie is new (including Edward Norton as a dogged CIA guy), we still see glimpses of the characters we have gotten used to from the CIA. The Bourne Legacy is easily the weakest of the first four Bourne movies. It definitely has its flaws. But it still feels like a movie that takes place in the Jason Bourne world. This is especially true if you watch it directly after watching the first three movies.

And now we come to Jason Bourne, the fifth movie in this franchise. The good news is that Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon are back. So is Julia Stiles who was notably absent in Bourne Legacy. But those three people are the only ones left. Edward Norton, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, and David Straithairn though all established CIA people who did not die in the previous movies are nowhere to be found. They are not even mentioned. Also for the first time in the franchise, Tony Gilroy has no involvement in the script and it shows.

The movie starts with the one punch fight scene most of us saw in the Super Bowl ad earlier this year. Jason Bourne has apparently decided to spend his time in bareknuckle fighting in Greece for some reason. Meanwhile former CIA handler Nicky Parsons has hooked up with some German hacker. She’s in Iceland hacking her old employer in an effort to expose all of their clandestine programs. This leads the CIA to start tracking her down.

Nicky then goes to Greece where she meets up with Bourne. How she knew where he was is unclear, but it turns out she has information about Bourne’s father, a guy who has never been mentioned before. (Somehow the characters played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, and Albert Finney never thought that telling Bourne his Dad started the program he’s in was a good idea for some reason.) But the CIA is on their tail now and so they’ve got to run before much of anything can be explained. During the chase Nicky gets killed by an operative gunning for Bourne in what is an echo from Bourne Supremacy. Except this is not just any operative. This is a guy whose cover was blown thanks to Bourne’s antic years ago and as a result he was tortured for two years. It also turns out that this guy killed Bourne’s father. If these sound like weak motivations we’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred other movies and TV shows, they are.

Over the course of the movie we learn that Jason Bourne’s father initiated the Treadstone Program and that he was killed by The Asset (they never give the guy a name) when he wanted to expose it to stop his son from being a part of the program. Can you find the logic problem in this? If the first program was Treadstone (and they say that it is), where exactly did The Asset come from? Sure, the CIA had assassins before Treadstone, but they make it clear that The Asset is part of Blackbriar, a program that took place after Treadstone. And I suppose one could argue that this guy was recruited from whatever program he was in at the CIA into Blackbriar except that’s never mentioned and that does not seem to be how those programs have ever worked.

Tommy Lee Jones heads up the CIA folks after Bourne this time around. He plays the director of the CIA and we’re told he’s been in it since the beginning despite the fact that his character has never been mentioned. His protégé is a young woman played by Alicia Vikander, an excellent actress who did amazing work in last years Ex Machina. She’s the head of cyber security and inexplicably someone in her 20s with the credentials of someone twice her age. Like Julia Stiles and Joan Allen before her she does not want to kill Bourne. She wants to save him.

It’s worth noting here that Julia Stiles has been in three Bourne movies and in each of them her character’s connection to Bourne has grown. In fact in The Bourne Ultimatum there is a line where it sounds as though their relationship may have at one point been more than just professional. Nicky and Bourne have a connection and a past. She’s also someone who may have helped Bourne but could easily be seen as retaining loyalty to the CIA. In other words, Nicky Parsons as the protoge of Tommy Lee Jones’s character makes a lot more sense. There is something more than a little disturbing about a franchise killing off one female hacker character and then introducing another female hacker who happens to be seven years younger. Apparently Universal is under the impression that 35-year-old Julia Stiles has reached her last fuckable day while 46-year-old Matt Damon continues on. (Fun With Math: Matt Damon was 18 years old and had been in his first movie when Alicia Vikander was born.)

If the gigantic plot holes and obvious sexism is not enough to cement this movie as the worst of the franchise, the action sequences in Jason Bourne solidify it. Whether it’s ultra-shaky-cam or the most ridiculous car chase since A Good Day To Die Hard, whatever lessons had been learned in the previous movies are completely forgotten in this one. At the end of the climactic car chase in which 170 cars are destroyed, the final crash is so absurd that my girlfriend and I both laughed out loud in the theater.

I almost forgot to mention a subplot regarding some sort of social media app that is actually a CIA program to ‘spy on everyone’. (It’s almost like they’re unaware that the NSA already does this.) There’s a scene in this movie in which the head of a social media giant tells an audience how internet privacy is vitally important and no one will be spying on you using his system. This is followed by this very same character having lunch in public at a restaurant with the director of the CIA. If there were one photo of the CIA director talking with Mark Zuckerberg how fast do you think Facebook shares would tank? If you can figure this out, why can’t anyone who worked on this movie figure it out?

The more I think about Jason Bourne the more I want to pretend that it never happened. I mentioned A Good Day To Die Hard before and it’s appropriate. Both movies are the fifth entry into a franchise that should have ended years ago. Both are easily the worst of the bunch. Both seem to have forgotten what made the franchise good in the first place. And both are movies you would have to pay me to watch again.

– Jack Cameron

X-Men: Apocalypse review

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I watched X-Men: Apocalypse last night. My first reaction was, “Well, that was a solid addition to the absolute mess that is the X-Men movie franchise.” Now before we get too far, let me say that I have been reading X-Men comics since I was twelve years old and have read literally every issue with ‘X-Men’ in the title that has come out since 1962. When it comes to the X-Men, I know what I am talking about. Also, from here on out, spoiler alert.

Of course the movies deviate substantially from the source material and I am not going to fault them for that too much. What I want to talk about here involves time travel and timelines and what appears to be a complete lack of understanding of these things on the part of the creators of the X-Men movies. In order to get into this properly I need to talk about all of the other X-Men movies before I start talking about X-Men: Apocalypse.

The first X-Men movie came out in the year 2000. The fact that it existed at all was impressive at the time. Growing up in the 1990s, an actual live action X-Men movie seemed impossible. X-Men began the franchise and while it had its faults, I liked it. X2 was even more to my liking. Wolverine finally got to cut loose and we learn about his time at Alkali Lake as a government experiment on the part of William Stryker.

Then came the disaster that was X-Men 3. Up until X-Men 3, Bryan Singer was the director. But Singer decided to go do Superman Returns and out of what appears to be sheer spite, the studio got Brett Ratner to replace him. Brett’s X-Men 3 was terrible. They killed a bunch of characters. They botched the introduction of new characters. They essentially ignored the idea of anyone being able to do a competent sequel by giving later creators nothing to work with.

It was no surprise that the next X-Men movie wasn’t even an X-Men movie. It was Wolverine: Origins which smartly decided to be a prequel to avoid the mess that was X-Men 3. Unfortunately this was the only thing they did that was smart. Wolverine: Origins was so bad it almost makes X-Men 3 look good. It also introduced all sorts of screwy continuity that has for the most part been entirely ignored by every X-Men movie before or since. They treat it like it doesn’t exist and really, you should too.

At this point it seemed that the X-Men movie series had gone the way of the Batman series after Batman & Robin. A once promising franchise that crashed and burned after a couple of terrible movies. This is why X-Men: First Class was such a breath of fresh air. Young Xavier and Magneto is incredibly compelling. It’s kind of weird that Marvel has never had a whole series about these two in their younger days. X-Men First Class shows us how the X-Men first formed and integrates their world into ours including a starring role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. We also get the briefest of cameos of Wolverine. By the end of the movie Xavier is in a wheelchair, Magneto is known as a bad guy, and the X-Men have been formed. As far as continuity is concerned, there were a few hiccups including the part where Xavier and Mystique had never previously behaved like lifelong friends in any of the other movies, but for the most part it worked.

There was another Wolverine movie called The Wolverine that took place after X-Men 3 and included flashbacks to WWII but for the most part didn’t really add anything except some more Wolverine stuff unless you count the post-credit scene where Magneto and Xavier show up asking for help.

And then we get to X-Men: Days of Future Past. This movie tries to take everything that has come before it and have it all make sense. Unfortunately it fails spectacularly and has created what I consider a fatal problem for the franchise. For starters, the part at the end of The Wolverine does not take place in the distant future but that’s where they need his help. But let’s just skip right by there. In Days of Future Past the X-Men from the distant future are being hunted to extinction by giant robots called Sentinels. So Kitty Pryde uses a power they never explain and she’s never had before to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to 1973 to stop an assassination that will lead to their terrible future. They succeed and Wolverine wakes up in the future and everything is fine and everyone is alive again and they aren’t being hunted. That is where X-Men: Days of Future Past leaves things with the exception of a post-credit sequence involving Apocalypse messing with pyramids.

However, there is a larger problem in Days of Future Past that is not immediately apparent. When Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time into his younger body he has to search out Xavier who it turns out is taking medication that allows him to walk but kills his mental powers. He’s also a drunk who is uninterested in saving himself let alone the world. The time traveling Wolverine literally shows up at his doorstep and changes all that. This is important. It is what allows Charles Xavier to become Professor X. The problem is that if Wolverine did this while time traveling, then how did Xavier ever get out of this funk in the original timeline? How did the X-Men form when Wolverine had not traveled back in time? How did Magneto escape his cell in the original since Quicksilver was only recruited after the time traveling Wolverine suggested it?

At the end of Days of the Future Past, Wolverine is badly injured and found by Mystique pretending to be William Stryker. The next time we see Wolverine he is at Alkali Lake under the supervision of the real William Stryker with no explanation at all as to how that happened. That’s all well and good except for the part where Days of Future Past changed the timeline. In the original timeline, Magneto didn’t put a stadium around the White House and fill Wolverine full of rebar before tossing him into the water and so Stryker/Mystique would not have found him there.

This brings us to X-Men: Apocalypse*. There is a lot to like this in this movie. Magneto’s story of trying to live a normal life and not being allowed to, finally watching Xavier fight a battle in his mind, and a near-perfect Wolverine cameo appearance immediately come to mind. But the problem that started in Days of Future Past and gets worse in Apocalypse. Since Magneto never did what he did in Days of Future Past in the original timeline, we do not know if Magneto ever tried to settle down before or if this is new. We also do not know if the X-Men fought Apocalypse in the 1980s in the original timeline. If they did, it could not have possibly happened the way it does in Apocalypse because both Magneto and Mystique are in very different places then they seem to be in 2000’s X-Men. Mystique was not known to the world in the original. Nightcrawler had never been to the X-Mansion in the original timeline. There are dozens of these kinds of problems that all make it very difficult to pay attention to the rest of the movie for me because the creators never bothered to make sure their continuity was solid. Instead the creators want to have their cake and eat it too, essentially allowing the new timeline to lead up to 2000’s X-Men with no explanation as to why or how that makes any sense.

One could argue that this timeline and the original timeline are one and the same and that Wolverine always traveled back in time, but the problem with this is the scene where Wolverine wakes up and everything is okay. If that’s what they’re leading up to, they’ve failed to do the groundwork.

I realize that for many, none of this matters. For many all they want is some reasonable special effects, a bunch of fighting, and a loose plot to hang that on. As a life-long fan of the X-Men and someone sees bad continuity as bad storytelling, it bugs the hell out of me.

That said, X-Men: Apocalypse is on par with the rest of the X-Men movies. Good characters. Decent acting. Some great sequences. But a fundamental flaw in their continuity and plotting.

– Jack Cameron

 

*Yes, I know that Deadpool is technically an X-Men movie and it’s a great movie but it does very little when it comes to overall X-Men continuity and so isn’t relevant for this article.

Captain America: Civil War Movie Review

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I have been an avid reader of Marvel Comics since 1988. In the twelve weeks leading up to Captain America: Civil War I watched the twelve Marvel movies that came before. I walked into Captain America: Civil War with about as much of a pre-established bias as one can. I am not surprised that I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War. I am surprised that it may very well be my all-time favorite superhero movie.

Civil War had a lot to do in its two-hour and twenty-six minute run time. It had to continue the ongoing story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I had to give us a believable reason that half of the Avengers would be willing to fight the other half. It had to introduce a totally new Spider-Man that was different from any live action Spider-Man before him. It had to introduce Black Panther for the first time in a live action movie and establish who he is and what his motivations are. And lastly it had to give character moments throughout the movie for Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, War Machine, Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Spider-Man, General Ross, Aunt May, Sharon Carter, Crossbones and Baron Zemo. Oh, and it has to have a compelling story with lots of good action and mind-blowing special effects while simultaneously remaining true to the original comics and putting their own spin on it. Somehow, the Russo Brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Steve McFeely manage to do all of this and make one of the best movies I have seen in years.

This is a movie where everyone is going to have their favorite moment. Many say it’s Ant-Man’s big scene. Some like the final fight. Others like the opening sequence with Crossbones. For me, it was a scene in which we see Tony Stark in 1991. I spent most of the scene wondering how the hell they filmed this scene twenty-five years before the first Iron Man because it was clearly Robert Downey Jr. in 1991. I’ve seen incredible de-aging effects before (most recently in Ant-Man with Michael Douglas), but this was some next level stuff. I am no longer concerned about actors being too old for a part. They could make Indiana Jones 5 right now and set it five years after The Last Crusade with Harrison Ford and we would think they found it on a shelf somewhere. And on top of that, the scene in question is a vital piece of what makes Tony Stark tick as a person.

Civil War has a ton of action, but that action is entirely character driven. Over and over again things happen not just to further the plot but because that is who the character is and if anyone else did it then it would not make sense. We know this because most of these characters have been around for at least two or three movies. This is one of the advantages of franchise filmmaking. And yet with Spider-Man they had the exact opposite problem. How do you re-introduce a character we’ve seen played by two different people in five movies over the last sixteen years and make it better than anything we’ve seen in any of those movies and yet fit into this ensemble cast? They manage to do that and more even though Spidey probably isn’t in the movie more than fifteen minutes.

I’m doing my best to keep this review mostly spoiler-free, but there is one thing I really want to talk about and it requires spoilers. So skip the next paragraph if you have not seen Civil War and want to remain unspoiled.

 

Okay. So the trope of hero vs. hero is about as old a comic book cliché as there is. Invariably it revolves around a fundamental misunderstanding that results in the two fighting until they realize they are really both on the same side and then they go after the real bad guy. We saw this done in the most clumsily possible fashion a few weeks ago in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. They do it in Civil War too. Iron Man and his crew are certain the Winter Soldier is responsible for the attack. Then Stark realizes that he wasn’t and heads to Moscow to help. What happens next is that after the fake reason to hate Winter Soldier has been exposed Zemo reveals to Tony Stark a much more personal reason for hating both Bucky and Captain America. Revealing that a brainwashed Bucky was responsible for the death of Stark’s parents took some serious inspirational brilliance. And the fact that Cap never told Tony that his parents were killed by Hydra makes it all the more painful for him. This is after everything else that has happened. After Ultron. After Pepper left him. After he failed to keep the Avengers together. After Rhodey was severely injured. After Black Widow stopped supporting his cause. After all of this he finds that Captain America, the guy his father revered, lied about the death of Tony’s parents. The resulting fight is exactly the opposite of what nearly every other superhero movie of the last twenty years has been. Instead of saving the world, these people are trying to save a friendship. Hell, they’re just trying to save themselves.

 

I have mentioned the directors and writers and special effects teams, but really none of this would have worked if they didn’t have what appears to be the world’s best casting directors. This cast is amazing. Each embodies their character on a level that makes it difficult not to think of them when I read the comic book. Veterans like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans continue to do great work, but newcomers like Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther absolutely nailed their roles too. The camerawork and stunt work is still being done by the same people who did Captain America: Winter Soldier and it shows.

I give Captain America: Civil War my highest recommendation. Everyone brought their A-Game to this movie. Go see it. Stay for both after credit sequences. They’re worth it.

– Jack Cameron

Eye In The Sky Movie Review

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A suicide bombing is going to happen. It will kill at least eighty people and seriously injure dozens more. You know who is going to do the attack. You know where they are right now. And you have the opportunity to destroy the house they are residing in. You can stop the next headline before it happens. The only catch is that you can only do it using a missile and that missile will kill not only everyone in the building. It will kill an innocent child. What do you do?

This is the situation depicted in Eye In The Sky, a movie starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, and Aaron Paul. Eye In The Sky is a fascinating movie in that it’s basically one long scene happening all over the planet at the same time. British intelligence have a plan to capture some terrorists using surveillance provided by a local spy on the ground in Kenya, a drone operated by the Americans from Nevada, and facial recognition provided by a base in Hawaii. As we bounce between these places we watch as various parties determine the best course of action.

I imagine that they chose British intelligence for the driving force behind this because anyone who knows anything about drone warfare done entirely by Americans would know that there would be no debate about what should be done. We would simply kill the bad guys and to hell with the collateral damage. (Anyone who thinks I’m mistaken about this should check out what we did in 2009 in al Majalah.)

I didn’t go into this movie expecting much. It’s directed by Gavin Hood who did Wolverine: Origins. Though he also did Rendition. Eye In The Sky is much like Rendition in that it takes a page out of our questionable foreign policy actions and explores it a bit. Unfortunately, much like Rendition, it’s fairly forgettable. Part of this is because it never bothers to humanize the terrorists. We barely hear a word out of their mouths. They are just bad guys putting together suicide vests. It never gets into who they are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Eye In The Sky asks the important question, ‘Should we be willing to kill innocents in order to save more innocents?’, but it doesn’t ask or answer, ‘Who are these people who are so willing to kill themselves in the name of radical Islam?’

It may be that I’m asking too much of a mainstream Hollywood film. But if you’re going to get into the morality of the war on terror, I think it’s worthwhile to look at how our actions often help create the very things we’re supposedly trying to stop. It’s fairly simple to say that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and so we should just accept that innocent children are sometimes killed in order to stop worse things from happening, but such a viewpoint ignores the consequences of those actions. It ignores the part where killing a child leaves a father and a mother who will not blame radical Islam for the death of their child. They will blame the West. Imagine some attack from a foreign government killed your government and then you meet a group that wants to conduct terrorist attacks on that same government. How easy is it for you to agree to help? This movie asks important questions but it ignores questions that are just as important.

Eye In The Sky is a worthwhile movie and I was glad to see it if only to watch Alan Rickman on the big screen one last time. It was also nice to see Aaron Paul in a non-Breaking Bad role. And Helen Mirren is always a joy to watch. I just wish they would have done more with the subject matter.

– Jack Cameron

Superman (1978) Movie Review

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Last night I decided to watch the 1978 Superman movie. This could arguably be considered the first serious superhero movie. At the time it was the most expensive movie that studio had ever made. They filled the movie with some of the biggest stars of Hollywood. They had Marlon Brando playing Jor-El. They had Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor. They had Jackie Cooper as Perry White. The special effects were state of the art at the time. They had Mario Puzo, the writer of The Godfather writing the screenplay. And lastly they had Richard Donner directing. He had just done The Omen and would later go on to do Lethal Weapon and Goonies among others.  Superman went on to be the 6th top grossing movie of all time in 1978. It was a gigantic hit that spawned three sequels. (Four if you count Superman Returns.) But was it a good movie?

Superman takes a very linear approach to telling the story. It starts on Krypton with the sentencing of Zod and his two compatriots to the Phantom Zone followed by the Jor-El sending his infant son to Earth just before Krypton is destroyed. Ma and Pa Kent find the crashed ship and rescue the child who instantly shows that he’s not normal by lifting their truck. We then quickly move on to Clark Kent’s teenage years where we see that he keeps his abilities mostly to himself. Shortly after Pa Kent dies, Clark goes into the frozen wasteland with a mysterious crystal that builds his Fortress of Solitude. He stays here for at least twelve years and then emerges in Metropolis as reporter Clark Kent.

And this is when we first really see Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman. The first thing I noticed is how well Reeve embodied the Clark Kent character. He’s bumbling but friendly. He clearly wants to help wherever he can. When he meets Lois Lane and she doesn’t like him, he’s completely confused because the idea of being competitive just isn’t in him. We know all of these things because they were so clearly established earlier in his not playing sports though he knows he can win.

We get our first real look at Superman when he saves Lois from a helicopter crash on the roof of the Daily Planet. She falls. He catches her. And then he catches the helicopter when it falls. This particular sequence still looks great almost 40 years later. In fact it looked better than most films these days look because none of it is computer generated. The helicopter clearly has substance and weight. It’s just a weight Superman can handle. Here again the acting ability of Reeve helped sell this as he just does these things with the confidence of someone who is aware of his abilities. He’s specifically not showing off as that’s something Pa Kent would have never approved of.

There are problems with this movie. There’s a terrible song/poem recited by Lois Lane (played by Margot Kidder) while she’s being flown around by Superman. There’s also the absolutely ridiculous bit where Superman makes the world spin the opposite direction to turn back time. It’s so absurd that it totally takes me out of the movie. But while those issues are significant, the rest of the movie works wonderfully.

One of the things I couldn’t help but notice after watching both Superman movies from Zack Snyder is that not only is Richard Donner’s Superman in this first movie not lethal, he’s practically non-violent. He restrains himself over and over again throughout the movie. Even with dealing with Lex Luthor himself, Superman drops him off in the prison yard with hardly one mark on him. This Superman is about helping and protecting, not beating people to death. He’s….what’s the word I’m looking for? A hero.

Synder could also learn a thing or two about franchising from Donner’s 1978 Superman. This was a movie made at the same time as Superman II. We meet Zod and his companions in the opening scene. We see them flying through space in the Phantom Zone as infant Kal-El heads to Earth. And that’s it. There’s no 15 minute scene in the middle of the movie that makes no sense. There’s no one looking at pertinent files in the middle of the action to give upcoming clues to something. It’s just two very small scenes that establish who the baddies are for the next movie without obstructing this movie even a little bit.

This Superman movie had its faults, but it managed to feel like Superman throughout the entire movie and most of the movie still holds up today almost four decades later.

– Jack Cameron

Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

It’s really nice to see a live action version of the conflict between two classic and iconic superheroes. One dresses in red and is known for truth and justice. The other dresses in black and is a vigilante who takes down street level criminals. One has powers. The other relies on his own particular set of skills and weapons. Each has a very clear code they live by. Each is a fully developed three dimensional character both in the comics and on screen. Their conflict is obvious, inevitable, and amazing to watch. I am of course talking about Season 2 of Daredevil and Daredevil’s battle with the Punisher.

In Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice almost none of that is true. Superman played by Henry Cavill stands around posing and acting as if he gets paid less every time he says a word. Batman played by Ben Affleck is clearly doing his absolute best with what little he has to work with. Both characters look as amazing as their characters are hollow. BvS is a very beautiful movie. Many shots look like they should be posters. Zack Snyder clearly has an eye for iconic imagery. He simply fails to understand what icons are or what they represent.

BvS begins the way Man of Steel ended. It revisits the final fight between Superman and Zod in which thousands of people are killed. It turns out that one of the dozens of destroyed buildings in Metropolis belongs to Bruce Wayne and that someone named Jack was in the building when it was destroyed. Jack clearly means something to Bruce, but it’s hard to say who he was to Bruce or what he means because Zack Snyder never gives us any context to know that.

We also get to see a flashback to Bruce Wayne’s parents being murdered. Again. This is a scene I have personally seen on the big screen three times now in three different movies. This was the least dynamic and least interesting version of it. Not only because it added nothing that wasn’t scene in 1989 in Batman or 2005 in Batman Begins, but because it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the Batman in this movie. Ben Affleck’s Batman seemingly has no problem with killing or with guns. Whatever problems he may have had with these things in the past he is clearly over them.

There is also an extended dream-within-a-dream sequence that has nothing to do with anything that happens in the rest of the entire movie. It’s clearly there as a ham-fisted building block for the DC Cinematic Universe. It has a bunch of stuff that looks really cool but makes no sense. And I get that this is supposed to be intriguing and make us ask questions, but the first question I thought to ask was, “Is the digital file they’re using corrupt or something because this scene seems like it’s come out of nowhere?”

Batman wants to take down Superman because he’s an alien who helped destroy most of a city. Superman wants to take down Batman because he’s a vigilante who brands people or something. Later on it seems the screenwriters realized this was a weak reason and decided to have Lex Luthor blackmail Superman into fighting Batman. Lex happens to do this on the same night that Batman chooses to openly challenge Superman to a fight though Lex and Batman aren’t working together it’s just a fantastic coincidence.

Lex, by the way is played by Jesse Eisenberg who seems to be playing Lex like a cross between his Mark Zuckerberg character from The Social Network and Tweek from South Park. He apparently has some sort of beef with God, but since he can’t kill God, he’s going out of his way to find a way to kill Superman.

Have you noticed how each paragraph of this review makes sense on its own and fits with a movie review of Batman Vs. Superman but none of it seems to flow together very well? That’s pretty much how Batman Vs. Superman is constructed. It’s a series of scenes that try to tell a story but doesn’t do it very well and at times it’s jarring. I think there is a very simple reason for this: Zack Snyder doesn’t know how to tell a story well.

In a well written story the characters have clear motivations, clear goals, and clear obstacles to those goals. Through the process of overcoming these obstacles and trying to attain these goals the characters change and we learn who they are. To explain this further I will use the example of the movie Lethal Weapon.

In Lethal Weapon, Martin Riggs is a suicidal cop who misses his wife who was recently killed. Murtaugh is a 50-year-old cop who feels he’s getting too old for the street. In the course of the movie Riggs learns to connect with someone by becoming friends and partners with Murtaugh. And Murtaugh learns that he’s still got what it takes to work the street. Through that first movie we get a clear idea of who each of our main characters are and though they start out with a lot of animosity towards one another, the story propels them through changes that make them friends for life.

When you have a story with three dimensional characters the plot is dictated by who they are. What happens between the characters is inevitable given the circumstances that they are in. Riggs puts himself in harm’s way over and over again in the beginning of the movie because he does not care if he lives or dies. It’s not until the end of the movie that he realizes that someone cares for him. He gives his partner the bullet he was going to use to kill himself to symbolize this change in him and it tells us everything we need to know about his character.

In Batman Vs. Superman I couldn’t tell you much about any of the characters. Both Batman and Superman kill people in this movie, but neither of them kill Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor seems to want Superman dead but is only keeping tabs on people like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aqua Man. Zod is reanimated by Lex as Doomsday but is basically a less articulate version of the Hulk with no motivation beyond being a monster. Lois Lane spends most of the movie being a damsel in distress though at one point she takes a Kryptonite spear and throws it into a pool of water for no apparently reason other than it needs to be there later for another scene. Superman will always save Lois Lane and it’s clear that they have a relationship but the lack of chemistry between the two actors along with a screenplay that barely touches on what their relationship is makes things less clear. Batman has endured more loss than any on screen Batman before him, but whether that loss changed him or not is anyone’s guess since we never see him before those tragedies.

In a couple of months Captain America: Civil War is coming out. The trailers show that this movie will pit Captain America against Iron Man. What’s the difference between this and Batman Vs. Superman? Marvel has spent seven movies with Iron Man and Captain America. We know these characters because we’ve spent time with them working together and separately. We know what each of these characters stand for and what they’re willing to do for what they feel is right. We’ve seen the escalating tension since their very first meeting in Avengers. They have built this conflict in an organic and character-driven way that is completely missing from the DC Cinematic Universe. Zack Snyder is essentially asking us to care about characters because they are named after iconic characters but he never lets us get to know them and so it’s impossible to care unless you imbue them with thoughts and feelings you already have for them. If the only way I can care about your characters is to relate them to characters they are supposedly based on from another medium, you have failed as a filmmaker.

You can call Batman Vs. Superman a lot of things, but you cannot in any real way call it a well told story and without a good story, you cannot have a good movie.

– Jack Cameron

 

 

 

The Rock 20 Years Later

therockAs anyone who knows me will attest I am a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. I own most of his movies and television shows. This includes movies where he just did some script-doctoring and is not listed as a writer. One of those movies is The Rock. I had not watched this movie in a few years and it was interesting to see what stuck out at me this time around.

For those who haven’t seen it The Rock is a 1996 movie in which Ed Harris and a bunch of rogue Marines steal a bunch of missiles with poison gas, take over Alcatraz Island and threaten to kill everyone in San Francisco if their demands for one hundred million dollars aren’t met. The good guys send in a SEAL Team and Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery to save the day.

Watching this as an Aaron Sorkin movie is a bit of a stretch but there are familiar bits. West Wing fans will notice that John Spencer is in this one. The scenes involving White House staff sound very West Wing-like. But since he only did the polish on it, it’s hard to accurately say that all the best lines in the movie are his fault. Still, sometimes it’s clearer than others.

The Rock is directed by Michael Bay. He is not one of my favorites. He likes explosions way too much. (On the commentary for Armageddon he mentions how BMW gave them money to use their car which allowed for more explosions.) However, I feel this movie is his best one.

The main reason for this is that it’s not just an action movie. The main characters grow and change. (To avoid spoilers, skip this paragraph.) Ed Harris’s General Hummel realizes he doesn’t want to kill innocent people. Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed realizes he has what it takes to work in the field. Sean Connery’s John Mason learns to trust someone again.

Twenty years after I first saw this movie in theaters it’s still highly enjoyable. That said, in 2016 I see some significant flaws as well. There are effectively no women in this movie. Stanley has a girlfriend who we see basically complain in every single scene she is in. Mason has a daughter who is in exactly one scene and she effectively does nothing (which is too bad given that she’s played by Claire Forlani who is awesome). There’s also the problem that anyone who isn’t white is either playing a stereotype, a bad guy, or essentially an extra. None of this was strange twenty years ago, but these days it sort of sticks out as a severe diversity problem.

On the flip side, there are things in this 1996 movie that surprised me such as the President saying that we are ‘at war with terror’ and one of the terrorists having a man bun.

All in all, it was an enjoyable movie watching experience and The Rock remains a solid action movie with good three dimensional characters.

– Jack Cameron