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

 

 

 

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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

Ex Machina Movie Review

ex-machina

Artificial intelligence is a genuinely fascinating topic. If we were able to create a true AI, would this make us less special? Would they, and more importantly should they be considered every bit as human as you and me? Being self-aware and knowing how we tend to treat machines, would they kill us all? If we create true AI, what responsibilities do we have towards those creations? These are questions that are asked and answered to some degree in every AI movie, where it’s Blade Runner, Terminator, Short Circuit, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Chappie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina or any dozen other movies. How these movies go about tackling these questions is what determines the quality of the movie.

In Ex Machina, we have a deranged billionaire genius named Nathan played with clear delight by Oscar Isaac who has invited a hapless employee named Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) to see his newest creation, an artificial intelligence that has the basic appearance of a human (Alicia Vikander). Caleb’s job is to determine if the AI called Ava is truly self-aware or simply pantomiming awareness.

What follows is a series of conversations and scenarios in which we learn significantly more about each of the characters. If you’re looking for a big blockbuster action movie, Ex Machina isn’t it. This movie is more philosophical than anything else.

Initially I thought it was a very well put together movie with some good acting that essentially said nothing about artificial intelligence that I didn’t already get from Blade Runner. As my girlfriend and I talked about the movie she pointed out that there was an entirely different aspect of the movie that I was missing.

As a movie about artificial intelligence very little original or new happens in Ex Machina. But by making the robot female and her inquisitors/captors male, Ex Machina becomes an interesting study on the objectification of women. In Ex Machina the female lead is literally an object. Her value as an individual is being judged by two men. If she fails, she’s likely to be destroyed and recycled like a broken computer. What must Ava say or do to continue to survive? What is she willing to do?

The fourth character in Ex Machina is Kyoko played by Sonoya Mizuno. She plays Nathan’s silent servant, again reinforcing a subservient female role. The two females in Ex Machina are introduced to us as servant and object. Nathan effectively owns them both. If Caleb or anyone else were to run away with Ava, would that be kidnapping or stealing? The best sci-fi makes us ask profound and uncomfortable questions. From that perspective, Ex Machina is an incredible success.

Ava is a machine that behaves like a female human. The disturbing thing is how difficult it is to figure out if Caleb and Nathan are treating her like a machine or like a woman because what the movie makes clear is that regardless of the answer, she is treated as less than a man.

This isn’t the first time that writer Alex Garland got me thinking about things. His screenplay for Never Let Me Go was phenomenal. Ex Machina marks the first time Garland has directed. Given the performances, the script, and the flawless special effects, I’m definitely interested in what he does next.

Ex Machina is a quiet masterpiece. It’s simultaneously seductive and challenging. It’s a movie that stays with you long after you’re done watching it.

Jack Cameron