Friday, July 16, 2021

The Matrix (1999)

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, where I take a closer look at a film that is either beloved in spite of its faults or reviled in spite of its virtues, or that simply has such a mix of those two things it's stuck somewhere in between.



Today's subject is the 1999 cyberpunk action smash-hit, The Matrix!  The brainchild of the Wachowskis, The Matrix was a hip, new take on the humanity vs. machines theme that's been explored extensively in science fiction, driven by a capable cast and revolutionary special effects.  It became a touchstone at the time of its release, having such a profound and immediate influence on the genre that its visual tropes had actually become hackneyed by the time the sequels came out four years later.  In a way it was too big a hit for its own good, and the second and third films were viewed as a pretty massive disappointment.  But however botched the follow-through on this saga, the first film remains a visually engaging, conceptually neat sci-fi/action vehicle that could've been even more had the producers not dumbed it down for us popcorn-gorging slobs.

So let's take a look at what still works, and what still doesn't, about The Matrix!




The Awesome


Concept

The plot of this movie is super cool.  It's a dystopian future and machines have become self-aware and taken over the world, imprisoning the human race as an energy source while plugging them into a virtual reality designed to keep them pacified and complacent.  Nearly every person left after the apocalypse was born into this matrix, occupying a cryo-pod but under the impression they're all living normal human lives in the late 20th century.  A few resistors like Morpheus got wise and dared to pull back the curtain, hoping to free the others and bring down the machines.  Our main protagonist Neo is a highly sought-after computer programmer/hacker, whom Morpheus believes will be "the one" to free humanity.  It's high-concept sci-fi fun, with lofty, existential themes that are eminently relatable; who wouldn't be able to get behind a small band of heroes trying to save the world?  It's the cinematic embodiment of Rage Against the Machine!





Effects

The special effects invented for The Matrix were possibly the most influential of that era.  Nearly every action sequence features "bullet time" effects, where a computer-controlled ring of cameras rapidly spins around a subject, firing off a single frame in quick succession.  When blended with a CG-modeled background, the effect creates the illusion of time stopping as our hero manipulates space-time within the Matrix.  The martial arts scenes made liberal use of this effect and it was unlike anything ever put to film at that time.  It was so successful and popular nearly every action movie for the next few years ripped it off in some form, even when it didn't make sense in context (which was usually the case - see Charlie's Angels or Mission Impossible 2).  The visual effects here were hugely groundbreaking.

This move was so popular WWE wrestler Trish Stratus started using it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Hateful Eight (2015)

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, where I pick apart the pros and cons of a given film.  Sometimes it's a movie I'm quite fond of in spite of its flaws, sometimes it's a movie I wish I could be more fond of in spite of its flaws.  Today's entry falls into the latter category.  It's Quentin Tarantino's 8th opus, The Hateful Eight.



Quentin Tarantino is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.  His uniquely demented filmography includes three Best Picture nominees, literally dozens of classic sequences, and some of the wittiest, most memorable dialogue ever put to film.  Drawing from his video store geek origins in the early 90s, Tarantino has built a body of work full of loving pastiches of gangster films, westerns, war movies, pulp novels, and even horror films, assembled with such enthusiasm and bravado one can't help but be swept up in their frenetic energy.

So what went wrong with H8?  This epic-length western concerns an eclectic group of bad guys and unscrupulous lawmen who get snowbound in a Wyoming lodge, and the film shows us in painstaking detail how this sociopolitical powderkeg might play out.  You've got a bounty hunter, a notorious outlaw, a black Civil War Major, a racist Civil War General, a British hangman, a newly elected Sheriff, a cowboy, and a Mexican dude.  Plus a stagecoach driver and a handful of other characters who make brief appearances.  The film plays out like an ultra-violent parlor drama, almost entirely taking place in one room, as the characters argue, scheme, bargain, and eventually start shooting at each other.  Like his 2007 film Death ProofH8 is little more than an exercise in style, and while Tarantino films always have plenty of that (I found the first half of DP a delightfully entertaining play on cheaply cobbled together 1970s grindhouse fare), it left a lot to be desired in other areas.

So let's take a look at the virtues and drawbacks of The Hateful Eight....



The Awesome


Cast

As always, Tarantino's casting is first-rate; this film is largely populated with sure-footed veteran actors who suit their characters perfectly.  Kurt Russell is the down n' dirty bounty hunter John Ruth, who will stop at nothing to make sure his quarry, the brutal outlaw/killer Daisy Domergue (a gleefully degenerate Jennifer Jason Leigh, who earned an Oscar nod) hangs to death at Red Rock.  Samuel L Jackson is the resourceful former Civil War officer Marquis Warren, whose instincts are always on point and who's the closest the film has to a protagonist.  Walton Goggins is the slack-jawed, slightly dimwitted "good ol' boy" Chris Mannix, who's on his way to Red Rock to begin his term as Sheriff.  Bruce Dern is the bitter, tight-lipped old Confederate General Sanford Smithers.  And Tim Roth is the oddly foppish Red Rock hangman Oswaldo Mobray.  Whether Tarantino mainstays like Jackson and Roth, or newcomers like Leigh, each member of the cast slips comfortably into their "hateful" roles.  No complaints about the performances.

No shortage of onscreen talent here.



Cinematography

Shot in glorious 70mm (an odd choice considering most of the film takes place in the one room), H8 is a beautiful-looking film, peppered with some breathtaking shots of the snow-covered Wyoming landscape (actually shot in Colorado).  Regular Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson gives the film a classic widescreen look, and it's a shame there weren't more locations in the story to take advantage of the medium.

They shoulda filmed the whole movie outside.



Score

A lifelong fan of the Spaghetti Western, Tarantino enlisted legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, returning to the western genre after 34 years, to provide the first-ever original score in a QT film.  Morricone's strains are grim and forbidding, eerily portending the animosity and violence to come.  His scores are always a welcome addition to a film, and this one is no exception.  The score won Morricone his first-ever Oscar.




Mood

H8 shares the desolate, shut-in feel of The Thing (also starring Kurt Russell in a story where no one's sure who's friend or foe - hmmmm) or The Shining, where the characters are trapped in a hellish blizzard setting and it's clear the pleasantries of the first act won't last.  This is the kind of film you'll want to watch during the winter, with a lovely fire crackling nearby.  Incidentally I've always been fascinated with Tarantino's uncanny gift for filming people eating and drinking; Mia's burger in Pulp Fiction, Shoshanna's strudel in Inglourious Basterds, Django and Schultz's beers in Django Unchained, and Minnie's beef stew in H8 all look goddamn delicious and I want 'em all right now.  Anyway, Tarantino sets up a wonderfully authentic mood in this film.  The brutally cold weather, accentuated by the constant wind sound effects, chills us to the bone while the coffee, stew and roaring fireplace are oddly comforting (till the coffee gets poisoned anyway).

I'd totally hang out here.



Like a Play

Much like his debut feature Reservoir DogsHateful Eight could very easily be adapted into a stage production, as nearly the entire film takes place in one location and involves characters plotting against each other and eventually revealing their true intentions.  It takes its cues from Agatha Christie and Edward Albee, moving the story forward mostly through dialogue.  This is an interesting change of pace from QT's recent epics and there's a nice atmosphere of ratcheting tension as these ne'er-do-wells congregate in close quarters.




Tarantino Hallmarks

If you're a fan of Quentin Tarantino you'll find at least something to like, even in his lesser works.  The dialogue is stylized and vulgar, the violence is grotesque and sloppy, the film plays a bit with the timeline to reveal things about certain characters, and the performances are operatic.  Regardless of its flaws, Hateful Eight most certainly bears the hallmarks of a Tarantino film.



As you can see, everything seemed in place for The Hateful Eight to be yet another Tarantino triumph.  So why then did the film leave me somewhat unsatisfied?  Read on....




The Shitty


Length

Aside from the two-part Kill BillHateful Eight is QT's longest movie, and at 168 minutes (if you saw it without the intermission), it feels pretty goddamn long.  The earliest scenes and the final scenes both feel unnecessarily drawn out, as though Tarantino was so in love with the meandering dialogue he forgot to move the story along.  There's simply not enough happening in this movie to justify its near-three-hour running time; 20 minutes' worth of trims would've improved it immensely.




First Act

Much of my issue with the film's length derives from the first act.  We spend a good half hour in John Ruth's hired stagecoach as first Major Warren, and then Sheriff Mannix, each have to coax the paranoid bounty hunter to let them jump aboard and tag along to Red Rock.  There's a whole lot of dialogue in this act that frankly doesn't reveal all that much about these characters beyond their respective occupations, and it's all just a way to get the five of them into the cabin with the other four.  So why does it take so damn long?

Come on in, the ride's only 18 days......



Underdeveloped Characters

As I said, the characters aren't really given much depth aside from their professions.  John Ruth is tenacious and distrustful, convinced that everyone's after the bounty he intends to collect for turning in Daisy.  Warren is clever and resourceful but not entirely truthful.  Mannix is slightly naive, Smithers is jaded and bigoted.  Notwithstanding that there's almost zero to these characters.  Tim Roth and Michael Madsen both give able performances but they're essentially just playing one-dimensional archetypes.  Ditto for James Parks and Demian Bichir as O.B. and Bob.  In fact I'm not even sure why Madsen's character is in the movie, except as a way to bump the number of hateful pricks up to eight.  He does nothing in the story.  He lays around, poisons the coffee, and later he gets shot.  We really don't get a sense of who these people are and thus there's precious little drama to be conjured.  And the most glaringly underdeveloped character of all is....




Daisy

We're introduced to Daisy Domergue from the outset, as a ruthless miscreant killer who's so appallingly evil she's worth $10,000 alive.  John Ruth is so determined to bring her properly to justice he's willing to do anything, and she's such a depraved reprobate that he punches her in the face whenever she opens her mouth.  This is designed to be darkly comic, but there's just one problem.  We're never shown why she's considered such a dangerous, vile criminal.  We just have to accept what we're told.  There's literally nothing the film shows us to illustrate why Daisy is so much worse than the nest of vipers she's snowed in with.  When it's revealed she's a gang member, it turns out she isn't even the leader.  So when Warren and Mannix hang her at the end, there's no sense of righteousness or satisfaction at seeing a merciless killer get her comeuppance.  Tarantino's never shied away from showing flashbacks, so why not sprinkle in a few of those to show us why exactly we should hate this character any more than anyone else.  Christ, Major Warren supposedly forced the General's son to fellate him before murdering him, and he's the de facto protagonist.  Daisy needed an actual backstory of some sort to set her apart from the others.

A potentially great character with nothing to do....



Dialogue Missing Something

One of Tarantino's greatest strengths as a filmmaker is his ear for the music of dialogue, to the point that it's always been what drives his films.  His characters talk like real people having believable conversations, unlike most film characters who only speak as much as the plot requires them to.  Listening to these characters wax poetic about mundane topics like fast food, the hiding instincts of rats, the tropes of Superman, etc. is one of the joys of Tarantino's work.  But sadly the dialogue in this film is missing something.  Where the opening sequence in Inglourious Basterds for example was a masterstroke in building up tension through seemingly innocuous dialogue, the characters in this movie just seem to blather on incessantly without much purpose about very little of interest.  Samuel L Jackson gets a couple memorable monologues that build to major plot developments, but other than that these characters seem overly in love with their own voices and all the talking becomes pretty joyless.  "You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang."  Ummm, okay.  Was that supposed to be clever?




No Narrative Thrust

Hateful Eight plays out less like a cohesive narrative and more like a series of gory set pieces that don't quite fit together.  The story's momentum never really takes hold and it often feels like we're just filling time waiting for the next set of chips to fall.  There's a scene where Warren and the racist Smithers butt heads over the issue of black soldiers and Warren goes to reach for his gun, only to be reminded that he'd almost certainly be charged with murder and hanged if he shoots a General without provocation.  The moment passes and cooler heads prevail.  Then later Sheriff Mannix accuses Warren of lying about a letter he carries that was supposedly written to him by Abraham Lincoln.  After much prodding, Warren begrudgingly admits he lied about its authenticity, explaining that he uses it to appeal to white people so they won't cause him any trouble.  Only then does he go talk with Smithers again, this time launching into the story about how he killed Smithers' son after sexually assaulting him.  An enraged Smithers goes for a gun and Warren shoots him dead.  These scenes all feel disjointed from each other, like there's no narrative force taking us from one moment to the next.  Sequences like this and the one later where the coffee gets poisoned feel less like a natural dramatic progression and more like Tarantino said to himself, "Okay we need something to happen here...."  Good storytelling should be more a case of "This happens and then because of that, this happens...."




How Far Can We Go?

Tarantino's films have always contained lots of graphic, stylized violence.  His earlier work left much of it to the imagination, but there was plenty of blood and graphic gunplay.  Then with Kill Bill he swung for the fences, taking cues from ultra-violent samurai pictures like Lady Snowblood and Shogun Assassin.  It fit the style of the film, as did the brutal depiction of Aldo Raine's men machine-gunning Nazis' into pudding in Basterds.  By Django Unchained the hyper-violence started to feel a little gratuitous, and here it seems almost wantonly fetishist, with exploding heads, broken teeth, splattering brains, etc.  It's like Tarantino thinks we've all become so desensitized he has to venture into George Romero territory for us to care.  At a certain point the extreme carnage seems out of place in a western.

Jeezus dude.....



No One to Root For

Yes, I understand the film is called The Hateful Eight.  And I know Tarantino films rarely have any truly "good" characters.  They're peopled almost exclusively with seedy, immoral, violent figures.  But his other films still had characters we liked and could identify with.  Jules the hitman had an epiphany and decided to quit the mob life.  Mr. Orange was an undercover cop we hoped would make it out alive.  Jackie Brown was an underpaid airline attendant just trying to start over.  Beatrix Kiddo was a reformed assassin who got screwed over by her former boss/lover.  Aldo's Basterds were Jewish soldiers waging their own personal war against the Nazis.  Django was a freed slave on a quest to rescue his wife.  Hateful Eight has nary a character we really feel compelled to root for or even relate to.  Major Warren is the closest thing to a protagonist, but even he is dishonest, vengeful and sadistic.  If we don't care that much what happens to the characters there isn't much point in telling the story.




Resolution

There was little suspense over whether or not these eight (or nine, or ten) characters of ill-repute would end up in some sort of bloody shootout by the end of the film.  It's a Tarantino movie and these people are all violent assholes.  But given how long the scenario took to set up, it just seemed like the fates of all the characters were arrived at rather unimaginatively.  They talk for a while and someone gets shot.  They talk some more and two guys get poisoned.  They talk some more and a buncha other guys get shot.  Beyond the mystery of what happened to Minnie and Sweet Dave there wasn't much of an engaging story at all.  Tarantino's whole inspiration for the film was the various TV westerns he grew up watching, but he wondered what would happen if he just put all the villains in a room with no protagonist.  Unfortunately the answer to that question it seems is, "Not a whole lot."





Nitpicks

-Near the end of the film after everyone else is dead, Warren attempts to shoot Daisy but is out of bullets, but ten minutes later when Mannix is about to shoot her, Warren stops him and insists she needs to hang.  What changed your mind, Major?  Since when are you all about honoring John Ruth's wishes?  One more bullet in the chamber and she would've been dead ten minutes ago.

-Why does Channing Tatum spend the whole movie hiding in the cellar?  Is it me or did that seem like a huge plot contrivance just so we could have a shocking third-act reveal?

-Tarantino's voiceover narration feels totally out of place.  The stuff with the coffee being poisoned and the later scene showing us how the bandits took over Minnie's could've been depicted without the voiceover.  What is this, the theatrical version of Blade Runner?

-So Daisy's last name is Domergue, correct?  How come she refers to her brother as Jody Domin-GRAY?  Is that his professional name, Indiana?




Conclusion

Look, I'm a huge Tarantino fan.  When he's on his game his films are transcendent.  When he's off it, his films are still pretty fascinating in some way.  The Hateful Eight is a technically proficient, well-acted piece of exploitation.  But it could've been so much more had the characters been given more to do, had we been given anyone to care about, and had the script not been so in love with itself.  Wordy dialogue for the sake of wordy dialogue gets old real fast, as does splatter violence with no purpose behind it.  I found myself spending the first half waiting for something to happen, and the second half feeling kinda disappointed when it did. 


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Monday, July 12, 2021

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Welcome to another Awesomely Shitty Movie!  Some of you know the drill, but for those who don't, ASM is where I examine the good and bad elements of some piece of cinematic tripe.  

And today's entry certainly falls into that category.  That's right, it's Zack Snyder's divisive creation, the long-awaited Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice!


This 151-minute superhero mashup marks the first time in history that Metropolis's messiah and Gotham's masked vigilante share the big screen, and I can assure you it ain't to swap gazpacho recipes.  Nope, it's to pummel the ever-lovin' shit out of each other (and also to set up the Avengers-esque Justice League movie in 2017....mostly it's for that reason actually).

Henry Cavill is back as Kal-El, the brooding, reluctant alien hero from Man of Steel who sorta looks like Superman but doesn't share any of his character traits.  In Batman's cape and cowl this time is Ben Affleck, who might just have the greatest superhero jaw in the history of the world, and who is also ENORMOUS in this film.  Huge.  Like, did anyone check who's supplying his "vitamins?"  Plus we have Israeli model Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor(??).  So let's get to it - what worked and what didn't?



The Awesome (For the purposes of this column I use that term loosely)


Visuals

As with most of Zack Snyder's work, the visuals here are super slick, very stylized, and moody.  Just like Man of Steel, the color palette in BvS is very muted and there are a lot of CG enhancements, but the costumes look badass and there's plenty of eye-candy.

Lotta cool-looking stuff in this movie


Batfleck

For all the complaining when he was cast, Ben Affleck makes a pretty good Batman.  It helps that his costume is based on Frank Miller's wonderful version of the suit, giving Affleck a fearsome, bulky appearance.  His Bruce Wayne is older, more grizzled, more cynical, and more ruthless.  Affleck plays possibly the most tortured screen version of the character to date, who's given up trying to be a normal dude, even letting Wayne Manor fall into decay and settling for the modernized guest house nearby (This was a nice touch I thought, and served as interesting symbolism for the character).  Also his electronically-enhanced "Bat-voice" is way cool-sounding and I think they've finally found the right way to execute that.  All that said though, I still never fully felt I was watching Batman.  I was always at least slightly aware it was Ben Affleck in a Batsuit.  But overall no real complaints about Batfleck.

Possibly the best-looking cinematic Bat-suit



Some Superman Scenes

Cavill as Superman is still monosyllabic and therefore almost impossible to identify with.  Aside from his look (which is perfect), Cavill has still not proved to me that he's the correct choice for Kal-El, nor does he even bother playing Clark Kent as a different character.  To all those people who say Lois should know Clark and Supes are the same person because it's unrealistic for her not to figure it out, I say this: If Superman doesn't act any differently as Clark Kent, isn't it more unrealistic for everyone else (including the World's Greatest Detective Batman) not to put it together?

However unlike Man of SteelBvS at least provides Clark a few scenes where we feel a little something for him, such as the one after he fails to stop a bombing and expresses to Lois that maybe he wasn't meant to be a hero.  This idea doesn't really get explored further, but the scene itself was well done.



Frank Miller Influence

This movie is FULL of visual references to Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.  I already mentioned the Batsuit lifted right out of Miller's artwork, plus the armored Batsuit (which looks INCREDIBLE in movie form), much of the Bats vs. Supes fight itself, and some unrelated moments I'll get to in a bit.  It was cool to see Miller's iconic version of Batman brought to life.

I knew this looked familiar....

Because of this



Some Lex Scenes

There's no question about it, Jesse Eisenberg was completely and totally wrong to play Lex Luthor.  But as we learn early in the film, this character is actually Lex Luthor Jr., son of the character we all know from the comics and earlier Superman films.  So while it makes no sense that Snyder has eschewed completely the fabled Luthor vs. Superman relationship as we know it, at least it explains why this Lex is a petulant, mousy little waif.  And despite far too often evoking memories of Heath Ledger's Joker and Jim Carrey's Edward Nygma (including the ridiculous mop of hair he sports the whole movie), Eisenberg does ok with some of what he's given.  There are a few scenes where he expresses resentment and apprehension at the existence of a Big Blue God who's allowed to roam free wielding unchecked power.  This serves as a thin but understandable motivation, which is then thrown out the window later in the film.  More on that in a bit as well.

Lex has "Too many questions.....too many questions...."



Alfred's Too Old for This Shit

Jeremy Irons plays Bruce's reliable butler Alfred, who in BvS is more or less fed up with Bruce's Bat-guano, but continues to help him anyway.  I liked this take on the Alfred character just because it was a little different, but by the same token I never felt like I was watching Alfred.  He was more like "some helper guy."



Batman vs. Superman

While Snyder and the screenwriters lacked the discipline to build this fight up in the proper manner, a la The Dark Knight Returns (Where they've known and worked with each other for years and their fundamental philosophical differences place them on different sides of the law, as opposed to just "I don't like the way you do things"), seeing these two characters come to blows was still kinda neat from the standpoint of pure spectacle.  It didn't deliver anywhere close to the exhilaration that was promised, and it lasted about 1% of the film's bloated running time, but it had the old-timey schlock value of King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Oh, shit's on....

So that's what worked for me.  Here's a much longer list of what didn't.



The Shitty


Dialogue

There's some really bad dialogue in this movie.  Some bad because it's so cringe-worthy, some because it totally betrays the spirit of the character saying it.  But here's a few examples...

  • Wonder Woman (about Doomsday): That thing seems to get its power by absorbing energy.
  • Superman: That thing is from another world.  My world.
This exchange is right out of a B-movie and I was embarrassed to have even heard it.

  • Martha Kent (to Superman): You don't owe this world anything.  You never did.  
Jeezus, now I know why he's such a selfish prick.  Between Jonathan telling him to let a bus full of kids die and Martha saying he doesn't owe anything to the planet he's been squatting on for 30 years it's a wonder Supes didn't grow up to become a serial killer.  Or Donald Trump.


How 'bout Bruce's lofty-sounding voiceover at the beginning?
  • Bruce Wayne:  There was a time above....a time before.....there were perfect things.....diamond absolutes......But things fall.....things on Earth.  And what falls.....is fallen.  In the dream they took me to the light.......a beautiful lie.
Umm, what the actual fuck is all that supposed to mean?  Bruce literally says nothing in that speech.  Was he supposed to be drunk?  Absolute fuckin' nonsense.


Finally there's a moment when Supes tells Lois he might have to go kill Batman, and she gasps incredulously.  His response before flying off is, "No one stays good."  SUPERMAN, ladies and gentlemen....

Considering the lengths to which Snyder went in Man of Steel making him a Christ figure, Superman's about the least Christ-like character in these movies.



Storytelling

The narrative of this film is unbelievably sloppy and disjointed.  It's literally a series of mostly interchangeable scenes without a logical flow to them.  A bunch of stuff happens, then another bunch of stuff happens, there's almost no arc to any of the characters, and when a character does make a change it's completely out of the blue (see the Nitpicks for examples).  I get the feeling Snyder doesn't understand basic storytelling.  I felt zero emotional attachment to any of the characters, nor was any of them really likable or worth rooting for.  Everyone in the movie is a dark shade of gray like in a David Lynch movie, so for me the experience simply involved letting things unfold rather than actively becoming wrapped up in the story.



Editing

Tying into the poor storytelling was the frantic editing.  Snyder jumps from scene to scene without using establishing shots, introduces random dream sequences without making their purpose clear, and at one point even halts the story's momentum to a dead stop (just as the big Superman-Batman showdown is about to happen), to show us Wonder Woman watching videos of The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.  There's another example at the end, where Bruce and Wonder Woman are talking at a funeral, they cut to Batman interrogating Lex in prison, and then cut back to Bruce leaving the funeral.  Wait, did he leave, talk to Lex and come back or was that interrogation bit supposed to be a flashback?  It's like the editors weren't sure in what order everything was meant to go, and they just threw stuff in random sequence.



Tone

As with Man of Steel the tone of this film is so dour and gloomy it makes one wonder who the target audience is.  Presumably most people see superhero films as a form of escapism, yet there's all sorts of 9/11 imagery, terrorist groups, bombings, violent beatings, destruction on a massive scale, etc.  And spare me Snyder's line about this being a "realistic take" on Superman (an invincible alien god who flies around and shoots lasers from his eyeballs).  That flim-flam goes out the window once Lex creates a 20-foot ogre who emits lightning balloons.  But worse than that, there's nothing and no one to root for.  None of these superhero characters is very heroic at all.  What the hell kind of an upbringing did Snyder have?  Jeezus man, lighten the fuck up a little.  Even Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight movies had moments of levity.



Touch of a Brick

To put it mildly, subtlety is not Zack Snyder's forte.  He hammers every point home like a maniac beating someone to death with....well, a hammer.  From repeatedly having characters point out that the climactic fight is happening in an unpopulated area (just in case we all get our panties in a bind about collateral damage like last time), to foreshadowing the significance of the name Martha in a way that even non-comic book fans could see it coming for miles, to the obtuse staging and direction of the film's climax, to the excessive reliance on Frank Miller imagery, Snyder is a man truly devoid of nuance.  Either he thinks his audience is too stupid to pick up on points made at a normal speaking volume, or he just wants to beat us into submission until we love his movie.



Setup of JL

Batman v Superman is at its core really just a setup for the two-part Justice League film being released over the next three years.  Let's cut right to it: DC and Warner Brothers didn't have the patience or the discipline to lay out their multi-film universe like Marvel did, by introducing each character one at a time in separate films (thus making us care about them before they team up), so they tried to cram the A-list heroes into one film and also introduce each of the B-players so we can get to the BIG EPIC TEAM-UP as quickly as possible.  But what they fail to realize is The Avengers worked so well because we'd already gotten their origin stories out of the way over a period of four years, so by the time they teamed up we knew and understood their motivations and their conflicts with each other.  With BvS the producers and Snyder haven't earned the big payoff of a Justice League movie because aside from Superman none of the new incarnations of these characters has been established yet.  And we now have a brooding 35-year-old Superman teaming with an even more brooding 45-year-old Batman to take on the son of Superman's nemesis (whom Superman never met in this version).  The title should've been Batman v Superman: A DC Elseworlds Tale.

The real reason for this movie


Doomsday

The final battle with Doomsday is a pile of hot garbage.  First, an important character like Doomsday deserves more than a brief third-act appearance as a mindless giant cave troll out of a 50s monster movie (or Lord of the Rings).  It's laughable how generic this villain is, and his superpower involving massive shrouds of lightning or energy or whatever the fuck he's supposed to be generating, makes for some of the noisiest, most confusing action scenes this side of Revenge of the Fallen.  It also didn't help that WB gave away this scene in the trailer (along with every other piece of the story except one, which comic book fans saw coming anyway), so there's no shock value when he shows up.  I somehow found this climax less offensive than the one in Man of Steel though, just because of how brazenly schlocky it was.  But Snyder has zero clue how to block a grand finale action sequence and I couldn't tell you what actually happened in this scene except punch, smash, shoot lightning, loads of damage, repeat.

DOOMSDAY SMASH!!!!


Frank Miller Influence

Yeah I know this was in the Awesome section too, but after being bashed in the face with this imagery for two hours it started to get tiresome.  By the end not only was Batman's entire appearance modeled after TDKR, but he found himself in jumping and running poses lifted directly from Miller's panels, broke through a wall to get at a bad guy with a machine gun, and later Superman gets hit with a missile, shrivels up like a zombie, and grows back to normal size after being exposed to the sun.  These moments stray dangerously out of homage and into shameless ripoff territory, especially since they're utilized in service of a story that has nothing to do with Frank Miller's.  I'm curious what Mr. Miller thinks of this film.

Alright we get it Zack.  You love TDKR.  Take it down a notch.



Score

As a huge Hans Zimmer fan I was horribly disappointed by the score in this film.  Zimmer's work on Christopher Nolan's movies has been incredibly groundbreaking, and with The Dark Knight trilogy he managed to create a now-illustrious Batman score that was completely different from Danny Elfman's work in 1989.  But the music here is generic dark popcorn movie fluff, as though a hack composer were trying to emulate Zimmer's style.  Even the music in Man of Steel was stronger than this.



Super-jerks

It all comes down to this: Batman v Superman is a superhero movie without any superheroes.  Neither Supes nor Bats is very likable, nor are they fighting against a villain for 85% of the film's running time.  So I ask again, who are we meant to be rooting for?  Batman hates Superman because of all the damage he helped cause in Man of Steel, I get that.  I don't like this version of Supes either for that reason.  And also Batman doesn't trust an all-powerful being to always be on the side of good.  Also a valid concern.  Superman apparently hates Batman because he beats up criminals without due process?  But....so what?  It's never established in this universe that Superman is a by-the-book kinda guy who reads criminals their Miranda rights before safely depositing them in prison.  He's shown saving people from accidents (in the most joyless fashion imaginable, mind you), and engaging in city-leveling fistfights with other superhumans.  But at no time do we ever see Superman bringing common criminals to justice.  So the idea that there's a conflict in the crime-fighting strategies of these two characters simply has to be accepted at face value.  Thus we don't care at all about Superman's beef with Batman.  So I guess the fascist Batman is the good guy here?  Except he's shown hacking into computer systems, stealing information, beating the shit out of people, and exerting all this energy to potentially murder the "savior of humanity."  So he's not really a hero either.  This idea of a hero-less universe works fine in a film like Watchmen, which is designed specifically to deconstruct the idea of vigilantes as heroic volunteers fighting for the common good.  But it doesn't work when you're depicting two of the most beloved superheroes of all time.  I enjoyed spending a couple hours with Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and Thor.  These two self-important pricks are a major drag and I don't wanna know 'em.



Nitpicks

-At the beginning of the film we flash back to the end of Man of Steel, when Supes and Zod are wrecking the place.  But it's from Bruce Wayne's POV, as he's just arriving in Metropolis.  He calls up the manager of the Metropolis branch of Wayne Industries and tells him to evacuate the building.  Wait, what?  Wayne's Metropolis Director of Ops or whatever had to wait for Bruce's go-ahead to get everyone out of the building during a major citywide emergency?  Bruce is a real hard-ass jerk, huh?

-Early in the film we're told Batman has taken to branding criminals with a Bat-symbol, and once said lowlife goes to prison the brand amounts to a "death sentence."  Umm, why?  Why would the other inmates kill a newbie just because he happens to have a Bat-symbol on his skin?  This is never explained.

-I touched on this earlier, but the few examples Snyder shows of Superman rescuing people are tonally all wrong.  Rather than depicting his heroism in an exhilarating fashion so we actually like Superman, it's all done in super slo-mo with languid music over it, like Clark's unselfish acts are such a fucking chore.  Jeezus, if you're gonna be all mopey about it, don't do us any favors then, huh Blue Boy?

"I hope you're happy, people.  I missed pilates class for this."

-To convey Superman's budding hatred for Batman, Snyder shows us Clark Kent pursuing a story about Batty's antics in Gotham - the aforementioned gestapo-esque treatment of criminals - and Clark's boss Perry White (another thankless turn for Laurence Fishburne) orders him to drop the Bat story and instead write about last night's football game.  His reasoning?  The Batman story won't sell papers.  In what the fuck universe would a football score outsell the story of a man dressing as a bat and beating the crap out of scumbags?  I know which story I'd be more interested in reading.

-There's a scene early on where Lois is in Africa talking to a local terrorist, and she gets captured before being rescued by Superman.  But as this is happening half the terrorists (later revealed to be working for Luthor) turn on the other half and shoot them dead, along with several civilians.  We learn this was a setup by Lex to frame Superman for the killings.  So the American public actually believed this godlike being, capable of frying people to cinders with his eye lasers, resorted to gunning them down?

-"Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent!"  I mentioned this a while back, but this moment is such an obvious bit of fan service.  I know Lex knows who both guys are (We aren't told how, but he just knows), but Clark evidently hasn't heard of the billionaire Bruce Wayne, and Bruce most certainly hasn't heard of a low-level reporter by the name of Clark Kent.  So was this line just written for the trailers?

HEY EVERYONE, LOOK!  BRUCE AND CLARK TOGETHER!  LOOK!

-Lex also sets up the bombing of the US Capitol building (I guess to try and frame Supes for that too) while his assistant Mercy Graves is inside.  What'd he kill off his own assistant for?  What, she wasn't givin' him any action on the side?

-In preparation for his epic duel with Superman, Bruce Wayne gets his hands on some Kryptonite and fashions a spear with which to stab Kal to death.  He makes it pretty clear that's his intention.  Yet when the fight finally arrives he leaves the spear in a different room as though saving it for the end of the fight.  His first line of defense instead is canisters of Kryptonite dust which temporarily weaken Supes, but only for a minute or so.  Why exactly did he save his most effective weapon against Supes for last instead of LEADING OFF WITH IT?  That'd be like Leatherface chasing people with a butter knife, hoping to herd them into the parlor where his trusty chainsaw awaits.  I guess if the fight went the logical route, Snyder wouldn't have been able to so thoroughly recreate the climax of The Dark Knight Returns.

-Another point about the stupid spear, after Lois stops the fight she takes the spear and throws it into the water below the abandoned building they're fighting in.  Then later when Batman says he needs it to kill Doomsday, Lois (who isn't with Batman at the time and isn't privy to his new plan) inexplicably dives into the water to fetch the spear.  How'd she know Bats needed it?  She's some reporter.

-Speaking of Lois stopping the fight, here's how it goes down.  Batman is about to stab Supes to death with the Kryptonite spear when Supes yells "Save Martha!"  Martha is of course Ma Kent, who's being held hostage by Luthor.  So first, Supes calls his mom by her first name, which I found odd, and then Bats hesitates because that's also HIS mom's first name.  So now they're besties because their moms have the same first name.  Isn't that sweet.  By the way, anyone who didn't see this moment coming after the blatant, shovel-to-the-face references to the name Martha all through the film is a straight-up doofus.  Christ, Gerard Butler may as well have shown up and shouted:



-Lex Luthor's motivation is so utterly confusing.  For most of the movie it seems like he hates Superman because Supes is an all-powerful superbeing, and like Batman he doesn't trust that Supes won't just destroy us all if he gets the chance.  "Anyone all-powerful can't be all good."  Like that's clearly his reason for wanting to kill Superman.  So for two years he's been anonymously sending Bruce Wayne mail as though trying to provoke Batman to rid the world of this Kryptonian god.  But then he kidnaps Kal's mom and tells Kal he in fact must kill Batman or Ma Kent is gonna die.  So wait, does Lex want Bats to kill Superman or the other way around?

-Also, if Lex's entire motivation is fear and distrust of an all-powerful Kryptonian being, WHY THE FUCK DOES HE CREATE ANOTHER ALL-POWERFUL KRYPTONIAN BEING??  That's right, Lex is so afraid of Superman's power he genetically engineers Doomsday, a mindless killing machine with even greater power than Superman.  So after Doomsday gets rid of Supes, what's his big idea to get rid of Doomsday now?  If they at least wrote it so Lex created him by accident and then regretted it there'd be some kinda sense to all this.

-And while we're on that subject, can someone with knowledge of genetics explain how General Zod's DNA mixed with human DNA (Lex's) would result in this:

Humanoid alien + human = giant space monster

-When Wonder Woman finally shows up in costume to help our "heroes" dispatch Doomsday, Bats and Supes have the now-familiar exchange "Is she with you?"  "I thought she was with you."  Except Batman's been talking to her on and off through the whole movie.  Why would he suddenly think Superman summoned her?  Oh right, that exchange was only written down so it could be a soundbite for the trailer.  Much like every other bit of dialogue apparently.

They couldn't even give her costume any colors?


Conclusion

I'll say this for Batman v Superman - I didn't hate it.  After the unpleasant bleakness of Man of Steel I expected to absolutely despise this film.  But I didn't.  There was enough to keep me interested if not engaged.  The visuals were cool-looking, the stuff with Batman was at least partly compelling, Superman had a few moments of vague sympathy.  And on some level I could appreciate the unabashedly over-the-top histrionics of it all.  The filmmakers went for broke at every turn and it was almost funny in a way.  But the narrative was so cluttered and ineptly presented I wasn't at all invested in the story.  It comes off as a film made by and for angry 15-year-old boys.  "BIGGER! LOUDER! MORE SMASHING!"  It was simply a spectacle to get Batman and Superman trading blows for a few minutes and more importantly set the stage for the Justice League movie in 2017.

You'll notice I didn't mention Wonder Woman much, and that's because I basically had no opinion of her at all.  She was just there.  Gal Gadot's acting was competent when in civilian clothes, and pretty terrible when dressed as the Amazonian goddess.  Had the trailers not shown her debut maybe her big entrance would've felt like an important moment.  But it didn't.  Nothing in this movie did really.  It's essentially a commercial for the next film.  Zack Snyder and WB were so concerned about setting up the forthcoming team-up story they forgot to create a compelling one here.


ASM Rating: 45/100 - While there are some neat visuals and nods to beloved DC Comics lore, overall this movie is joyless and unpleasant.  Not enough fun to make it rewatchable and not enough substance to be considered a quality film. 


That's it for this installment of ASM - Join us on Facebook, Twitter, MeWe, Mix and YouTube!





Face/Off (1997)

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, where I'll examine a movie that is horribly entertaining but also entertainingly horrible.

Today's entry in the series is John Woo's 1997 action thriller, Face/Off



Face/Off stars John Travolta as FBI agent Sean Archer, whose son was killed by his arch-nemesis Castor Troy, a manic, sadistic terrorist played by Nicolas Cage.  Six years later Troy announces to the FBI that there's a bomb hidden somewhere in Los Angeles which could potentially kill millions of people.  The FBI attempts to capture Troy in an ambush but Troy ends up in a coma before they can learn the location of the bomb.  After unsuccessfully interrogating every member of Troy's gang, Archer reluctantly submits to a radical new procedure wherein his face will be removed and replaced with Castor's, allowing him to impersonate his enemy and infiltrate the maximum security prison where Castor's brother/accomplice Pollux is being held.  Archer's subterfuge fools Pollux, who reveals the bomb's location, but before Archer can arrange his release from prison, the real Castor Troy emerges from his coma, forces the surgeon to apply Archer's face to his, and then kills everyone who knew about the procedure.  The real Sean Archer is now trapped in prison as Castor Troy, while the real Castor Troy takes over Archer's life.

This is one of the most convoluted premises of any action movie I've ever seen, but somehow the filmmakers managed to pull a pretty entertaining piece of crap out of what probably should've been a disastrous effort.  So let's take a look at what worked and what didn't.



The Awesome

John Travolta & Nic Cage

First and foremost, the two leads do an excellent job in this film of convincing the audience that a) this scenario is at all believable and b) that for most of the film's running time they are each playing the opposite character.  Travolta plays Archer as a spiritually broken man, haunted by the death of his son and consumed with catching the bastard who killed him.  His relationships with his wife and daughter are in shambles and the only thing that will bring him peace is taking Troy down.  Cage plays Troy as a high-wire act - oozing evil charisma and relishing his own depravity. 


When the ol' switcheroo occurs, each actor gets to explore the other character.  Cage as Archer brings an even greater sense of melancholy and develops a rather tender relationship with Troy's girlfriend Sasha (Gina Gershon), while Travolta's Troy rekindles the romance with Archer's wife (Joan Allen), and is actually able to identify with Archer's troubled teenage daughter (Dominique Swain).  He also becomes an FBI hero when he locates and diffuses his own bomb and uses all the Bureau's resources to chase down "Castor Troy."  Both actors are fantastic in both roles and have a lot of fun imitating each other.

The Running Man (1987)

 Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at Enuffa.com!


Today we'll dissect and discuss what is possibly The Mother of Awesomely Shitty Movies (or at least a well-respected Aunt), The Running Man!  Based to the loosest possible degree on the novel by Richard Bachman (or Stephen King as he's known to everyone), The Running Man tells the story of a dystopian future where the global economy has collapsed and the country is a police-state.  The masses are controlled by a military-industrial complex that keeps them placated with violent television and a steady stream of disinformation.  The most popular TV show is called The Running Man, where convicted felons are hunted down by cartoonish gladiator-types called Stalkers.  The host/creator of the show is the slimy but immensely charismatic Damon Killian, who has become a beloved cultural icon.


The protagonist of the film, Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is a former SWAT cop who after refusing to kill dozens of food rioters, is framed for their deaths and wrongfully imprisoned.  He and two fellow prisoners (members of an underground resistance whose mission is to expose the corrupt establishment and restore democracy) escape, only to end up as Running Man contestants.

What ensues is a fantastically awful amalgam of pro wrestling and numerous side-scrolling video games, as the Runners have to evade a series of Stalkers in order to get to the next stage.

This film is absolute tripe, but holy lord it's entertaining.  And here's why....



The Awesome

The Backdrop

This movie creates a richly detailed little universe for our characters to inhabit.  From the fake TV shows and commercials, to the neat technological advances, to the bit characters, the filmmakers have done a fine job of establishing the environment and making this seem like a real world that could actually exist.  To a certain extent it reminds me of the dystopia of Robocop.  There are some tangible aspects of this universe that make the story somewhat believable.

Reminds me a little of Blade Runner.  Just a little.


The Lost Boys (1987)

 Welcome back to Enuffa.com for another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies!  


Today we'll be examining the brazenly tawdry late-80s time capsule known as The Lost Boys.  Before the Twilight movies forever ruined the vampire genre Joel Schumacher gave us teenage vampire garbage we could really sink our teeth into.  Teeth, get it??  Cuz vampires like to bite people?  With their teeth? 

Buckle up and set the DeLorean for 1987, the heyday of such screen legends as Corey Haim, Corey Feldman (what's with all the Coreys??), Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, and the one teen heartthrob from this era whose career escaped more or less unscathed, Kiefer Sutherland.




Originally The Lost Boys was to be a Peter Pan-inspired film about pre-adolescent vampires, stemming from the idea that Peter could fly and never grew old (Kiefer's character was originally called Peter, while the protagonist brothers were Michael and John, later to be Michael and Sam).  However when Schumacher came on board he decided teenage characters would be much more marketable/sexier.

The resulting film is delightfully "late-80s," from the costumes, to the heavy metal-influenced fashion sense of the teenage characters, to the awesomely dated soundtrack, to the southern California setting.  It's a quintessential 80s summer movie.  And it's fantastically dumb.



The Awesome

The Cast

This movie's got a pretty great cast, all perfectly suited to their roles.  Corey Haim, while never ascending to the heights of great acting, was exactly right for the main character of Sam.  Sam is the audience's guide through the story, usually in way over his head and scared shitless the whole time.  Jason Patric as his older brother Michael is the character with the real arc (he goes from brooding, sullen prettyboy to brooding, sullen vampire), and he's the one whose relationship with the villains sets things in motion.  Dianne Wiest is excellent as always, as their mother Lucy.  Corey Feldman, whose childhood work was actually pretty underrated, is hilarious as the aspiring vampire killer Edgar Frog. 

Corey, Corey, and that other guy.

And of course the showstopper is Kiefer Sutherland as David, the leader of the vampire gang.  Sutherland was fresh off his breakout performance as teenage deliquent Ace Merrill in Stand By Me, and his performance here is similar, but with the volume turned way up.  In The Lost Boys he's a total badass motherfucker who repeatedly toys with the protagonists and kills rival gang members without remorse.  Great villain.

Dune (1984)

Good day and welcome to Awesomely Shitty Movies!  Each installment will focus on a film that, despite considerable and crippling flaws, I can't help but like or even love.  These flaws could be with the script, the acting, the special effects, the cinematography, or all of the above, but in each case the movie has something going for it and I'm inexplicably fascinated by it, despite its ineptitude.


The first movie I'll be tackling is David Lynch's commercially and critically reviled adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune.

I was nine years old when this movie was released, and being a huge fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, I was immediately drawn in by the promise of sci-fi adventure.  In some ways the story of Dune resembled Star Wars (or really the reverse is true since the book was published 12 years before Star Wars was released) - a young hero with budding supernatural powers, a desert planet, laser guns, weird creatures, etc.  What I got though was a horribly confusing mish-mash of geo-political, religious and sci-fi themes overrun with baffling inner monologue narration and overly bizarre and gross-looking characters.

To be fair to Mr. Lynch, the studio interfered greatly during post-production and the theatrical cut was very different from what he intended.  Unfortunately he has all but disowned this film and has no interest in releasing a Director's Cut, which might actually make the story easier to follow.  There is a 3-hour version of the film available but Lynch had no hand in it, and from what I understand it actually confuses things even more.

Dune was originally supposed to be adapted into a film in the mid 70s, with famed Alien artist H.R. Giger attached as a production designer.  That incarnation went over-budget and never saw the light of day, and eventually in the 80s producer Dino DiLaurentiis acquired the project and David Lynch ended up in the Director's chair.

Anyway let's examine what's awesome about this movie, and then we'll talk about what's shitty.

The Matrix (1999)

Welcome to another edition of  Awesomely Shitty Movies , where I take a closer look at a film that is either beloved in spite of its faults ...