BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
I’ll admit I had a tough time starting to write this one. It wasn’t any type of writer’s block or uncertainty about my option on DC Comics’ first major thrust into the expanded universe dynamic with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s more because I wanted to make it perfectly clear that I am so mixed on this film that I forced myself to write multiple lists about what I loved, liked and disliked about the film, which is so grand in its scope that it’s fairly simple to say “This 20 minutes is spectacular” and “These 15 minutes are excruciating.” In perhaps the strangest twist of all, Batman v Superman feels remarkably like both the vision of singular filmmaker (in this case, director Zack Snyder, who has also tackled the comic book medium in such films as 300 and Watchmen) and a film made by committee to weed out what was perceived as not working and building up the safe-bet material, which is likely why Superman (the returning and more confident Henry Cavill) feels like a supporting player in his own sequel.
Batman v Superman is so committed to being a sequel that it opens with the last 15 minutes or so of the epic “Leveling of Metropolis” sequence from Man of Steel, but seen from the perspective of Wayne Enterprises CEO Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who drives into the fray from the neighboring Gotham City (across the bay, we’re told) only to watch his beloved corporate headquarters come crashing down during the world-altering battle between Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon). And thus begins Wayne’s intense distrust of the alien Superman and his quest to neutralize him as a potential threat.
This is actually a great set-up. Although for someone whose main objective is ridding his streets of crime, Batman assuming the worst about a guy who seems to genuinely want to save every member of the human race seems somewhat unfounded and oversimplified. But Wayne, now older, if not wiser, than we’ve seen him portrayed in films before, has a history of watching those closest to him die, so his perception is perhaps skewed. Yes we get to once again watch Wayne’s parents die in a brief flashback, and it clearly haunts the man in his adult life. There’s also a glimpse in the Batcave of a Robin costume with Joker’s scrawl upon the breastplate indicating that his partner died at the hands of another clown in a costume.
This much darker comic book universe (darker than what Marvel is up to, certainly) doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I like that Batman broods, as much as I love that the filmmakers play up that fact that Wayne is a womanizer and a bit of a dick. While Superman certainly has the sunnier disposition, he’s got issues of his own. He doesn’t embrace the idea that some people view him as god-like, but he doesn’t exactly discourage it either. He seems to find value in being viewed that way, even if it’s as a deterrent for future criminals. Superman is also still feeling guilty about being the last Kryptonian (or is he?) after killing Zod and about the people who sometimes die in the collateral damage of his power-fueled battles. Cavill is certainly capable of handling these new emotional responsibilities, but that doesn’t really matter since screenwriters Chris Terrio (an Oscar winner for Argo) and David S. Goyer (Dark City, Batman Begins, and all the Blade films) can’t seem to find the core of Superman/Clark Kent without putting his mother (Diane Lane) AND his lady friend Lois Lane (Amy Adams) in peril.
The master manipulator of both heroes is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is one of the most interesting characters in the film despite relying a bit too much on Luthor being twitchy, slightly insane, and front loaded with daddy issues. No matter the Superman movie, one thing remains constant—Luthor will be your bad guy, and he’ll attack Superman with a combination of smarts and a handful of kryptonite, and Eisenberg’s incarnation is no different. And through all of his connivances, his only goal seems to be to get Batman and Superman to fight to the death, to what ultimate goal remains mostly unclear. I did like how his initial plan to steal a stash of kryptonite is foiled by Batman, only to have Batman forge weapons out of the substance to accomplish the same goals as Luthor. I guess if your own nefarious plans don’t pan out, you just get your enemy to carry them out for you. That’s kind of ingenious.
Batman v Superman’s biggest issues have to do with attempting to pack so much information and so many characters into one super-sized movie. We glimpse Clark Kent’s work at the Daily Planet, so we are forced to include Lois as well as minor characters from Man of Steel, including Perry White (Laurence Fishburne). Batman brings his own baggage in the form of manservant and techno-ween Alfred (Jeremy Irons). Even Luthor has a posse, including his assistant Mercy (Tao Okamoto), henchman Anatoli (Callan Mulvey), and we should probably throw in Holly Hunter’s anti-alien Senator Finch.
And since Snyder is in charge of setting up (and directing) the super-team film Justice League (which I can’t believe is opening next November), we’re forced to watch him crowbar in “appearances” by future members of that team as well (and don’t even get me started on a couple of weird dream sequences/premonitions that Batman has). The exception to these wedged-in introductions is the appearance of Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot of the Fast & Furious films and the recent Triple 9) as a fairly strong character, whose interests in Luthor seem to run parallel to Batman’s. Naturally when Wayne first talks to Prince, he hits on her with the grace of a horny rabbit, but the two do have a banter that passes for chemistry. It certainly feels more like chemistry than Superman and Lois Lane have vet had in these films. A bathtub scene featuring a strategically (not) naked Lane reeks of desperation.
A subplot that is actually a key point of Batman v Superman involves Scoot McNairy’s Wallace Keefe, a Wayne employee paralyzed in the attack on Metropolis, who is maneuvered and influenced by Luthor to do some truly terrible things. More than any other messages about false gods, vigilante justice gone too far, or the dangers of preemptively neutralizing your enemy, there’s a thread here about being so preoccupied with potential dangers “out there” that we fail to notice the very homegrown threat developing from within. It’s a powerful message that is all but lost in Snyder’s super-powered clutter.
The one thing this film does not really care about is answering the question posed in the title: Who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman? Anyone who doesn’t know before you even step inside the theater that cooler heads will prevail and no one gets to win the fight is a dummy of the highest order. As it should be, the point becomes that combining forces (along with Wonder Woman) solves problems that fighting alone or against each other simply doesn’t.
I’ll fully cop to the fact that I love this version of Batman. Gone is Christopher Nolan’s sleek, stealthy Dark Knight. Affleck’s version is looking to be a monster, feared by criminals and good citizens alike. He’s like sending in a tank to break up a schoolyard fight. He’s looking to do damage and send a message (he brands a bat symbol into the skin of those he captures), and he doesn’t care an iota if he’s perceived as a villain or not. He’s cocksure, angry and ruthless. It’s entirely possible that the deep-rooted reason that he distrusts Superman is that he can’t fathom that anyone is that good a person. Affleck leaves nothing to chance—if there’s a weakness in the script, he deals with it in his performance.
There are action set pieces in Batman v Superman that are phenomenal. The punches land so hard, you can hear the internal bleeding. They are messy, gritty and dirty fights that aren’t about posing or looking cool (not that our heroes don’t at times); these players just want to cause damage. It’s what Snyder does best, and most of the time it works. What works less is the director’s attempts to get to the emotional core of his characters. Instead of relying on acting and good writing, Snyder thinks that slow-motion images and sentimental music are going to stir us more than caring about these characters. It’s a genuine missed opportunity, and it hurts the film, keeping it from being great through and through. BvS isn’t the trainwreck you’ve been led to believe, but there are quite a few amateur-hour mistakes scattered among the art direction that combine to make the film a lesser entity and ultimately a disappointment, despite some key victories. And because so much of the film exists at night and/or in the dark, I can’t imagine how terrible it would look in 3-D, so you might want to avoid that.
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2
Fourteen years ago, writer and actor Nia Vardalos came to the startling conclusion that her Greek family shared a great number of traits with Italian families, Jewish families, Irish families, pretty much any nationality that has a penchant for being large, tight-knit, over-sharing, with an emphasis on dating and marrying within your own people (in other words, slightly racist against anyone who isn’t you). She wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding to share this important knowledge with the rest of the world, and it struck a chord with audiences, especially since it was a film you could take your parents and grandparents to for a bit of harmless stereotyping fun.
Perhaps the saddest thing about My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 is that nothing and no one has changed, grown or otherwise adjusted their annoying behavior in the many years since Toula (Vardalos) married non-Greek Ian (John Corbett). They’ve had a daughter named Paris (Elena Kampouris), now a moody 17-year-old, and Toula pesters her about all the things her mother Maria (Lainie Kazan) needled her about growing up. Paris is attempting to figure out what college to go to, and she’s torn between Northwestern (which would keep her near the family’s Chicago home) and NYU, which would free Paris from familial torture.
The reason for the repeat title is that it turns out that Toula’s parents, Maria and her father Gus (Michael Constantine), aren’t legally married from the old country since the priest never signed the marriage certificate. Maria decides she wants a real wedding this time, including a genuine, romantic proposal from Gus, which he thinks is silly, so she treats things as if they aren’t married, which makes complete and total sense after 50 years of being together. No family comedy cliché is left unturned, so we get the bickering older couple, a montage of wedding planning, and the various family members scurrying to prepare this wedding that may or may not happen. The best I can say about director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) is that he’s good at juggling large casts and giving everybody something to do, most of which involves publicly humiliating Toula, Paris or themselves.
The film attempts to deal with some slightly more serious issues when it appears that Toula and Ian are having problems in their marriage. Toula is the family fixer, and considering her entire clan lives on the same street, she’s racing around from house to house doing her best to keep everybody out of trouble while her own marriage goes neglected. At one point, Toula gets a call to go deal with something. She leaps to her feet and says “I need to go fix this,” and out of nowhere, Ian asks “When are you going to fix us?” as if he hasn’t been married to her for nearly 20 years and this is the first he’s learning that her family can be demanding. It’s a lazy contrivance that doesn’t belong in a movie that thrives on being as uncomplicated as possible as far as emotions go.
Only slightly more successful is the story of Paris’s school decision, made all the more difficult for her when she asks a guy she has a crush on (Alex Wolff) to the prom. If you still feel like something’s missing, feel free to enjoy the cameos by John Stamos and Rita Wilson as the handsome Greek couple the family meets in church and takes a liking to (mostly because they have a son that might be a good match for Paris). Or how about the barely acknowledged revelation that one of the family members is gay. Maybe the only character who didn’t make me want to rip my skin off was Andrea Martin’s Aunt Voula, who is so together and organized that she’s clearly Toula’s role model.
I know it’s easy to mock and put down a film like My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, but the sad truth is that my writing this review probably took more thought, time, or consideration than Vardalos spent repurposing her first film for even older audiences. Fully loaded with limp jokes, tired stereotypes, a mixed bag of accents, and a brutally predictable script, this movie feels like the desperate attempt by Vardalos to recapture a bit of the heat that was on her after the first film. Compared to this heap, the original Greek Wedding feels like a masterpiece in observational comedy and universal truths. Enter this time capsule at your own risk.
MY GOLDEN DAYS
There’s a rich tradition in French cinema in which an adult character reflects upon on his formative teen years and early 20s with a clarity that he almost certainly didn’t have at that age, but that doesn’t stop him from injecting his younger selves with a wisdom and passion well beyond their years. In reality, the character was likely a hormonal jumble—fickle with his love, quick to get jealous, and angry at the world because it’s the age at which one does such things.
In the latest from director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote with Julie Peyr), My Golden Days, Paul Dedalus (played in his 40s by the great Mathieu Amalric, who also played this character in the filmmaker’s 1996 My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument) is telling stories of his youth with a customs agent when he is detained for a passport issue upon his return to France from Tajikistan. Paul is an anthropologist who has traveled to some of the most remote locations on the map, beginning with a field trip to Minsk in high school, during which he helped out some locals by delivering books and cash, as well as leaving his passport behind for one young man who bears some resemblance to him. Paul is more than willing to share the story with the man interviewing him, but it quickly turns into a story of his first love and a series of youthful indiscretions and broken hearts.
Quentin Domaire plays Paul as a young man, whose mother terrorized him as a child and committed suicide when he was only 11, after he had already run away from home to live with a nearby aunt. Paul’s younger brother and sister were left behind, and as a result the three were all close but with long-festering barriers between them. During the early portions of the film, the story cuts back and forth between older and younger Paul, but slowly older Paul all but vanishes as the emotional reality of his younger life peaks with his introduction to Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who embodies sweet and thoughtful, with a touch of the oblivious).
She’s aware that boys adore her, but she doesn’t feel she’s worthy until Paul convinces her she is. Anyone who can only gain confidence through the eyes of another is probably not the most stable in a relationship, but by no means is Paul a pillar of strength either. He’s well-read and can take care of himself without help from others, but the issues with his abusive mother and getting no support from his depressive father leave Paul cold and full of fiery emotions that he’s never quite sure how to deal with. While Esther stays in the provincial town where they met, Paul leaves for long stretches to study in Paris. Their correspondence forms the backbone of the narrative, filled with confessions of love but also of sleeping with others, which is paradoxically embraced and rejected by both parties.
The film is divided into three parts: the brief “Childhood,” the longer “Russia,” with the bulk of the film devoted to “Esther.” Most of the film is set in the 1980s, corresponding to the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism, which Paul looks upon as a young adult with some pride, feeling he contributed some small amount to that with his sole secret mission. As an adult, Paul still clings to the things that were important to him when he was studying. When an old friend reaches out to him in the present for Esther’s phone number, he doesn’t respond. When he runs into this same person months later, Paul lashes out at him for seducing his old girlfriend when she was vulnerable with him being gone for so long.
My Golden Days is an experience built upon uncut, youthful emotions, expressed perfectly by the young cast. The intensity of Paul’s feelings for Esther seem to ebb and flow with each new sunrise, and it’s frustrating for everyone involved, including the audience, but in a gripping and authentic way. Director Desplechin doesn’t shoot his film through a nostalgic lens; he wants the past (presumably his past to some degree) to feel of the now. It’s a hypnotic and lovely work that alternates from explosive to tender and sweet. It’s a work of real vision, with a clear if slightly polished memory about the passion and foolishness of youth. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Later this year, you’ll get a chance to see the Stephen Frears-directed biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, the story of the New York heiress/socialite (played by Meryl Streep) whose dreams of becoming an operatic soprano were only denied her because she had a horrific singing voice. In the meantime, French writer-director Xavier Giannoli (The Singer, Superstar, In the Beginning) has brought us something quite exquisite—a fictionalized and decidedly French version of the Jenkins story, entitled Marguerite and starring one of the great living French actresses, Catherine Frot (Haute Cuisine), as Marguerite Dumont, a woman so rich and so sweet, no one has the gall to tell her that her singing skills are appalling for fear of breaking her heart and spirit irreparably.
Marguerite knows more about music than anyone she knows. She’s a collector of rare sheet music, sometimes annotated by the original composer or a famous conductor. She has more money than she’ll ever be able to spend, so of course people surround her to take advantage of her good nature, giving spirit, and tendency to spontaneously purchase expensive items. Her passion for singing has so far been limited to small, private charity concerts in her home for a music club she belongs to and sponsors. The film opens in 1921, during one of these all-day events, which feature actual, talented singers, including pretty young music student Hazel (Christa Theret), whose singing is unrefined but still breathtakingly beautiful. The day’s events culminate in Marguerite performing, leaving the audience speechless (a select brave few do go scurrying into other rooms to protect their ears), but because they’ve been eating and drinking on her time, they clap appreciatively when she’s finished.
Among those in attendance are two young party crashers who work for a local paper—writer Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) and artist/amateur anarchist Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy), who both adore Marguerite but believe she is exactly what French upper-class twits deserve. Lucien writes an eloquent, positive review of the concert, and before long he and Marguerite become close friends, while Kyrill giggles behind their backs. Marguerite’s small troop of enablers includes a loyal butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), and a not-so-loyal husband Georges (André Marcon), whose frustrations with his wife’s confidence in herself as a singer are reaching a breaking point.
At the heart of Marguerite is a nuanced and radiant performance by Frot, who plays the singer as a combination of shy, humble, powerful, unaware and possibly full-on delusional. Since she’s never actually heard herself sing and singers sometimes hear their own voice very differently than their audiences, it’s entirely possibly that Marguerite truly has no idea how bad she is. Frot’s work here makes you fully understand why people would want to protect this sweet but clueless older woman, whose primary occupation during the day is to pose for photos in costumes from famous operas and then place said images around her house, as if she’s actually been in the productions. When she gains enough bravery to book a very public concert in her largest venue to date in front of mostly strangers, the protective veil that her supporters have placed around her won’t be enough to keep out the critics’ voices. Leading up to the concert, she’s also struggling with health and vocal chord issues, so the entire event seems ill advised from top to bottom. With her marriage shaky, a small army of sycophants around her at all times, and a foppish voice and performance coach milking every dime out of her he can, Marguerite is headed for some sort of mammoth awakening one way or another, and it’s a great moment in the film.
Marguerite certainly makes us feel for this poor woman who just wants to be a part of the music she loves so deeply. On some level, I’m sure we’ve all had passions we wanted to take part in but weren’t gifted enough to do so. The spirit is identifiable to us even if the funds aren’t. While it’s nearly impossible not to laugh at times during the film, my inclination more often than not was to hope Marguerite would make it through each performance without having her heart trampled on by cruel people. It’s a fascinating story told quite lovingly by the director (who co-write with Marcia Romano), with an absolutely perfect blend of empathy and gentle mocking. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
RIVER OF GRASS
For more than 20 years, indie writer-director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, and the upcoming Certain Women) has been clearing a path toward holding a key position as a small-scale filmmaker whose works are eagerly anticipated and always worth seeing. She began her run in 1994 with the little seen but highly watchable River of Grass, which was preserved and digitally restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive, in conjunction with Oscilloscope Laboratories and the Sundance Institute.
Set in the dregs of southern Florida, in the seeming no-man’s-land that exists between the Everglades and Miami, River of Grass concerns Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a bored mother of two who abandons her two children and family to run off with Lee Ray (the indie guru Larry Fessenden, who also acts as the film’s editor and sound designer), a stranger she meets in a bar. The two go on a mild streak through town that culminates with them shooting at a man with a gun that just happens to be Cozy’s cop father’s missing piece. It turns out they didn’t even hit the man they shot at, but they don’t know that and proceed to act like fugitives who somehow don’t even make it out of the county where the crime was committed. Keep in mind that at no time during the film does anyone accuse this pair of being smart or motivated.
Their lack of crime doesn’t stop Cozy and Lee Ray from hiding out in a seedy motel, steeling whatever they can to pawn things for money, and in between talking about the dreams they have that will go unfulfilled now that they are lawbreakers (sort of). If the film sounds a bit ridiculous, that’s because it is, in the best kind of darkly humorous way possible. Fessenden’s lanky, lumbering appearance makes for some amusing visual laughs, and Cozy’s repeating the very mistakes her own mother made in leaving her family when she was young doesn’t even seem to phase her. Their life of crime might be the funniest thing in the movie, ranging from shooting an oversized bug in their motel bathroom to stealing his mom’s vintage jazz records.
The acting in River of Grass was never going to win any awards, but that isn’t really the point. For Reichardt, it’s about time and place, and she captures her locations so perfectly that you can feel the sweat under your shirt and running down your forehead. Which is not to say that the filmmaker doesn’t care about character details; she absolutely does. I was especially fond of Cozy’s sourpuss drunken cop father Jimmy (Dick Russell, in his only film role), who is the living embodiment of a man who has given up giving a shit about his job, his health or his existence. He’s a barrel of laughs.
Perhaps the oddest element to the film is that Cozy and Lee Ray aren’t lovers in the traditional sense. As Reichardt has pointed out in interviews about the film, River of Grass is a love story where there’s no real love, which might explain the rather abrupt, utterly harsh ending of the film. Still, I can’t think of a better way to tie this story up, so no complaints here. Considering the films that were out at the time, it’s not hard to imagine the filmmaker making this movie as a response to some of the modern-day Bonnie and Clyde-style films of the time, such as True Romance, Kalifornia, and Natural Born Killers. Reichardt’s outlaws are probably more true to life and a whole lot more clueless. If you’ve never had a chance to go this far back in the director’s filmography, this is way to witness the birth of a great, detail-oriented artist. The film opens today for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.