Thursday, 31 March 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice



I was an avid comic-book reader when I was young, but I never so much as glanced at the cover of a Marvel comic book. I was a DC-guy through and through. Maybe that’s why The Avengers generally bore me. The only Marvel superhero I enjoy watching on film is Spider-man

Back to DC: My favourite comic book was World’s Finest, which featured both of my favourite superheroes: Superman and Batman. But my favourite superhero, by far, was Batman. So I much appreciated Tim Burton’s Batman films with Michael Keaton as Batman (though I had no use for the sequels), and of course I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (with Christian Bale), though I had some serious problems with the second and third films. 

Now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While it’s breaking box office records, it has received mostly dismal reviews from the critics. Since I didn’t like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (the prequel), and since I’m no fan of Ben Affleck (who plays Batman), I thought this was one superhero film I wouldn’t have to watch. But then I heard people arguing about all the religious talk and religious symbolism in the film and I couldn’t stop myself. 

One of the most obvious features of Batman v Superman, and one of the biggest complaints from critics, is the unremitting and overwhelming darkness. Unlike in the Marvel films, there is no fun to be had here. Not even the eccentric-genius villain (Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg) is having any fun here. Superman (Henry Cavill) is confused and depressed about all the people complaining about his attempts to protect Metropolis (a senator, played by Holly Hunter, asks why Superman should be trusted when he never bothers to consult anyone about what he does) instead of complaining about the much more worrisome vigilante across the river in Gotham, the one branding his victims (baddies though they may be) with the image of a bat. Meanwhile, Batman is angry and depressed because twenty years of crime-fighting in Gotham seem like a waste of time for all the good they’ve done, especially now that this alien Superman fellow is causing so much trouble (Superman’s fight against General Zod in Man of Steel begins this film and results in the destruction of one of Bruce Wayne’s office buildings, and the death of many of his employees, something Batman is still stewing over eighteen months later). Meanwhile, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is tired of putting up with his boss and worried because of Batman’s constant anger and depression, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are worried about Superman’s enemies and his emotional wellbeing, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is worried about Clark Kent’s obsession with Batman, and even the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) just seems to want to get away from all the darkness. 

If the darkness of the characters isn’t enough, the cinematography and atmosphere are as dark and gloomy as they can be, enhanced by the desaturated colours which are no doubt partly the result of making the film for 3D (I watched the 2D version of course). Then there’s Hans Zimmer’s overwhelmingly heavy (dark) score. Even the superhero action (i.e. violence) is dark, with dark thoughts fuelling the fight between the two superheroes and despair fuelling the fight against Luthor’s monster, Doomsday, whose name says it all.

But here’s the thing: All this darkness is what I liked best about Batman v Superman. I’m a Batman fan after all - I like my superheroes dark and I like my superhero films dark. Not sure how that fits into my personality (I’m an optimist at heart), but I’ve always been attracted to dark films (yup, I’m a film noir fan). Sure, I would have enjoyed the darkness of the characters much more if the plot and character-development had been stronger (the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, feeling contrived in a lazy way, unlike Nolan’s brilliantly-contrived plots), but I find it much easier to identify with superheroes who are in a dark space and thus felt much more engaged with this film than with any of the Avengers-related films. I also much prefer to see my superhero redemptive violence take place in a dark environment where it’s more difficult to enjoy the violence (instead of being disturbed by it and wanting it to stop), as opposed to the ‘fun’ environment of The Avengers, where the violence feels like it’s there to entertain. Which is not to say that I in any way condone all the violent action in Batman v Superman. I do not. I found the violence repetitive, boring and largely unnecessary, just as I do in most superhero films (most of which I describe as odes to redemptive violence). 

Another thing I didn’t like about the film was the way it hinted at all the DC films to come, creating a superhero franchise to rival Marvel’s Avengers, though those of us familiar with the comics knew what Dawn of Justice was referring to (i.e. the Justice League). Despite my love of superheroes as a child, my ongoing fascination with Batman, and my deep respect for the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, I grow weary of superhero films and I’m worried about the fact that few people seem to share that view.

One of the future DC-film superheroes already makes an entrance in Batman v Superman, in a scene which felt too much like The Avengers. As for the film’s controversial ending, I will only say that I was not dissatisfied, though it was drawn out too long for me.

While I will admit that Affleck was not the worst choice for Batman, I was not particularly impressed with his acting, or with the acting of anyone else in the film, other than some who appeared all-too-briefly (Hunter, Irons, Fishburne). It was all adequate enough.

But what about the religious symbolism that tempted me to watch Batman v Superman in the first place? I suppose it deserves an essay of its own, but it’s so difficult to understand exactly where the filmmakers are going with it that an essay seems pointless. There is no question that Superman is intentionally portrayed as a Christ-figure (as in Man of Steel), with a number of Biblical allusions and symbols. It’s likely that the Good Friday release was part of that. Exactly where Batman fits in with the religious symbolism is less clear. Bats have an association with hell and there are inferences that the battle between Superman and Batman is a battle not just between God and ‘man’ but between God and the devil. But I may be reading too much into that and it certainly doesn't go anywhere. It seems clearer that Doomsday is a demonic figure, but that isn’t developed either.

The most conspicuous religious content of the film is Lex Luthor’s words to Superman in which he discusses the age-old question of how God can allow so much suffering in the world. Luthor, who thinks Superman represents God (part of the Christ-figure storyline) concludes that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful and tries to prove that Superman is neither. Again, all this religious talk doesn’t seem to go anywhere or say much to viewers (partly because of the overwhelming anti-Christlike presence of redemptive violence rather than Jesus’ emphasis on nonviolence). The Spider-man films were much more thoughtful and profound. 

Nevertheless, going in with the lowest of expectations, I was surprised enough by my engagement with the film to award Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a surprising ***. My mug is up. 

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Experiments



Coincidentally (?), films featuring two of the most famous psychology experiments were released quite close together this past year. Both experiments addressed somewhat similar questions regarding obedience and the social roles that we’re willing to enact. Both are as infamous for the ethical questions they raise about research as they are famous for the insights they reveal about human nature.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is based on the experiment from 1974 by Philip Zimbardo (and praised as accurate, if understated!, by Zimbardo himself). In the basement of an off-term building at Stanford, a simulated prison was created and subjects were recruited to play the guards and the prisoners. Those playing prisoners were “arrested” at their homes and immediately subjected to the humiliations and dehumanizing treatment deemed typical of the prison system. Things go downhill from there and the two weeks the experiment is meant to run was mercifully cut short.

The film does a great job of helping you feel the abusive and evil effects of being placed into such roles, especially when the guards were encouraged to be “tough” and to use methods common in some prisons at the time (such as simple buckets instead of toilets and the use of “the hole” for solitary confinement). They also help you see the way the experimenters were drawn into playing their own abusive roles as overseers to protect the outcome of their project. I’ve taught this experiment (and the Milgram one) for years and was surprised at the emotional impact of seeing the film versus simply “hearing the facts” of what happened.

Experimenter started out, in my opinion, even better as they introduce the experiment which made Stanley Milgram famous. Participants were recruited to play the role of “teachers” who would use electric shocks to punish incorrect answers. Everyone believed that most people would stop at relatively low voltages when the cries of the “learner” (actually an actor playing a part) grew more intense. The results surprised everyone.

The first half of the movie is made beautifully, artfully and effectively but then wanders off into the lacklustre future of Milgram’s life and career after the experiment. Was the point that this somewhat aimless wandering was punishment for his showing us what we did not want to see about human nature? In any case, the second half of the movie is indeed an aimless wandering and quite a disappointment. The filmmaker’s experiments on its viewers, in my opinion, ran out of steam. The only good news is that I’ll only need to show the first half of the film to future students in my Research Methods class. 

Both of these experiments (especially Zimbardo’s) have received much attention in the years since Abu Ghraib, as a culture realised that it had not bothered to learn the crucial lessons that social psychology has tried to teach it about human nature and institutional evil. But these movies both serve as great reminders of those lessons which we are still so reluctant to really attention to. The lessons were gained at a cost. Personally, in the case of the Stanford experiment, I don’t think the emotional abuse of the participants was worth what was learned (and watching the film drove this point home); in Milgram’s case, I do. In any case, this is real human nature revealed, and we need to pay attention! What would you do in their shoes? How badly might you treat people if those in authority told you that you must mistreat people, and all the evidence is that others are expecting you too. If you think too highly of yourself, you’re not really listening. Both films deserve to be seen, especially by those with interests in psychology – the Stanford movie gets ***+ and Experimenter, thanks to a poor second half, only gets ***.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane



Regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of the horror genre and almost never watch horror films on the big screen. So what was I doing going to watch 10 Cloverfield Lane during its opening week, especially since I didn’t like Cloverfield all that much? Well, despite knowing nothing about this so-called horror film other than that it starred John Goodman and had scenes in an underground bunker, my gut somehow convinced me that it wasn’t a real horror film and had no real resemblance to Cloverfield. My gut was correct. By my definition, 10 Cloverfield Lane does not fit into the horror film genre. I can’t tell you into which genre  or genres I would place 10 Cloverfield Lane, because that would qualify as a spoiler. This is one of those films that the less you know about the plot, the better your viewing experience will be.

I will say that a significant portion of the film does indeed take place in an underground bunker and features three characters: Howard (played by Goodman), the older farmer who built the bunker; Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who wakes up in the bunker after a car accident, and Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), the young man who helped Howard build the bunker. I can’t tell you anything else about the plot. 

What I can tell you is that the only way 10 Cloverfield Lane has a chance of being a good film is if the performance of the actor playing the protagonist (that would be Michelle; oops, I did reveal more about the plot) is spot-on. Fortunately, Winstead’s performance was exactly that and the result is that Michelle had my full sympathy for every moment she was in the film (though I did not by any means support all of her actions, some of which seemed quite ill-advised). 

Goodman is always a joy to watch and he is likewise perfect in his role as Howard. Gallagher Jr. was nothing special, but he didn’t need to be. 10 Cloverfield Lane has a number of original concepts but some scenes looked all-too familiar (and some scenes were less than exciting). I kept wishing the dialogue was more intelligent, though it had its moments. And the story definitely keeps you guessing and on the edge of your seat. In the end, however, it is Winstead and Goodman who make the film work as well as it does.

I watched 10 Cloverfield Lane in a packed theatre. During one twenty-minute stretch the intensity was so high that it literally felt as if everyone in the theatre was holding their breath. I realized only afterwards how tensed-up I had been during that time, not even thinking of moving a muscle. Such a thing would never happen to me in most action films (not that I’m saying 10 Cloverfield Lane is or isn’t an action film). 

So while 10 Cloverfield Lane, which is directed by Dan Trachtenberg, is not, in my opinion, a masterpiece, I enjoyed it much more than Cloverfield and am tempted to give it ***+. Part of me thinks that’s too generous. In any event, my mug is up. 

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Zootopia



It’s hard to know what to make of this new Disney animated film. There are some great messages in Zootopia and one can view the film as a brilliant political commentary (U.S. politics) and as a positive commentary on various injustices and problems in our present world. But there are also a number of huge counterproductive oversights which suggest the writers didn’t think things through very well. I would say it’s worth watching regardless (which it is) just to see the sloths, but the brilliantly-conceived trailer has already provided that opportunity.

Zootopia begins with an introduction to how mammals have evolved to the point where predators and prey live and work together in peace and harmony, especially in the glorious metropolis of Zootopia, which contains different environments for the different species (and which isn’t quite as perfect as it seems). 

Judy Hopps  (voice by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a rural bunny whose dream is to make the world a better place by becoming the first rabbit to be a police officer in Zootopia. Everyone scoffs at the idea (and her poor dad is mortified at the thought), but she pulls it off, only to find herself given the task of ‘Meter Maid’. But when she meets a suspicious fox named Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), everything changes and soon Judy has made the world a much worse place, proving that her father was right in saying that chasing your dreams can only lead to unhappiness. The end.

No, no. Of course there’s no way a Disney animated film ends like that, but I won’t say anything more about the plight of specific characters in the film. Instead, I will focus on the themes and larger plot elements, beginning with the reason Judy made the world a worse place. This has to do with a few predators suddenly going ‘savage’. Thanks in part to Judy’s detective work and subsequent speech, all predators are now seen as potential savages who are capable of murder. 

I immediately saw this as a possible allusion to the way ISIS represents a small percentage of Muslims who have gone ‘savage’, causing many people to see all Muslims as potential savages. So for me this was a challenge to prejudice, to stereotyping and to how easily we are persuaded to treat the ‘other’ with suspicion. And Zootopia satirizes stereotyping in other ways as well, but at the same time it is full of its own stereotypes, undermining this message. 

The film also contains commentary on the plight of female mammals in a male-dominated society, showing how two key characters try to challenge the injustices  they experience. However, while one of those characters is treated sympathetically because she chooses to work within the system, the other is soundly condemned (and punished) for taking a more revolutionary (and violent) approach. There’s nothing wrong with condemning violence as a solution, but the lack of compassion for this character’s plight is worrisome, especially in light of the fact that Zootopia’s equivalent of a mob boss, who has the powers-that-be in his pockets, is treated with great sympathy and receives no punishment for his crimes.

And then there’s Zootopia’s emphasis on fear as a way to control the population (relating again to Muslims and terrorists). Condemning such attitudes, which are prevalent in much of the world we live in, is a very good thing. But the film no sooner satirizes the evil of using fear in this way when the film’s heroes collude in using fear (and torture) to gain the knowledge they need to solve the crime. That is inexcusably bad writing and the film’s worst example of not thinking things through. 

Zootopia could have been a classic. And I thoroughly enjoyed most of it, especially the clever funny dialogue that is aimed at adults as much as children, the great voice work, the gorgeous animation (which being made-for-3D somehow didn’t impact in a negative way), the pleas for inclusivity and for trying to make a difference in the world and the concluding statement that change begins with each of us. Some excellent stuff there. But the inconsistencies described above make me feel generous in giving Zootopia ***+ (but I will do so anyway). My mug is up, but the flavours inside are somewhat incompatible.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

TV43: House of Cards Update



I have now watched four seasons of House of Cards and it’s time for an update (I have only reviewed the first season so far). Unfortunately, there is so much intentionally wrong with the characters and plot of House of Cards that it’s very difficult to evaluate whether it is effective in communicating anything good. Every time president Frank Underwood opens his mouth, you know that only ‘wrong’ can come out of it, because he is one of the most ruthless and cold-hearted characters in TV history. And yet we are clearly meant to sympathize with him at times. I am all for humanizing the baddies, but what has bothered me most about House of Cards from the beginning is my inability to sympathize with any of the main characters.

In the fourth season, we are given the sympathetic character of Tom Hammerschmidt (Boris McGiver), but he has a minor role, just like the rest of those who have known the truth about Underwood over the years. The entire four-year investigation into Underwood’s countless misdeeds has gotten so little airtime, it feels like one of those episodic TV shows which tack on five minutes of the ‘big-picture’ storyline at the end of every episode. It doesn’t work for me. It might work if there was enough meat in the rest of each episode to chew on, but for me that has not been the case. Oh, there’s good acting, good writing and great production values here, but it’s not good enough to satisfy me, not for a ‘cable’ show with such possibilities. Network shows like The West Wing and Denmark’s Borgen are far more profound in their political commentary than House of Cards.

I assume that House of Cards wants to say something good. And there have been some excellent scenes and marvellous individual episodes over the years which clearly make positive contributions. For example, in the second-last episode of season four, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright in an excellent role for her) is talking to Hannah Conway (Dominique McElligott), wife of Will Conway (Joel Kinnaman), the republican candidate for president. When Hannah surprises Claire by saying something in support of gun legislation, Claire is surprised. Hannah replies: “I’m from England. We think your gun obsession is madness. Will does too, but he can’t admit it.”  “Mustn’t upset the base,” says Claire sympathetically. “Yes, mustn’t upset the base,” replies Hannah. Good stuff, with lots of implications for politics, for the church, for business. But not enough. 

After the first season of House of Cards, I wrote: “The show’s biggest flaw for me is the sense that I am watching something hollow, something so superficial and cynical that any opportunity to say something meaningful is wasted.” Sadly, that hasn’t changed. The average episode has left me unsatisfied and wondering why House of Cards doesn’t take more risks or tell more compelling stories (the whole ICO [ISIS] storyline in season four could have been handled so much better). So I will continue giving House of Cards ***+ and I will continue watching it, but I think it could be a much better show. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

Risen



I’ve noted before that I like to watch Jesus films during Lent. Two years ago, I watched Son of God in the theatre during Lent and was very disappointed, as I have been disappointed in virtually every religious film I have watched in the past two years (and I have watched far too many). Indeed, these religious films are among the worst films I have watched this century. And, based on the trailer, you can be sure that if I watched God’s Not Dead 2 (I have no intention of doing so, after making the mistake of watching the original), it would be right down there with the worst of them.

But the Jesus film I watched at the theatre this year was actually quite refreshing. It’s called Risen, which will give you a fair idea of what it’s about, and in some countries (i.e. the U.S.), it is doing incredibly well at the box office. But the reviews have been mediocre at best, so I went in with appropriately low expectations.

Risen, which is directed (and co-written) by Kevin Reynolds, starts where most Jesus films end: at the crucifixion. Pilate (played very nicely by Peter Firth) assigns his closest aide, a tribune by the name of Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), to make sure that order is maintained after Jesus’ crucifixion and the body appropriately buried (with guards to prevent an inconvenient theft of the body by the madman’s followers). Lucius (Tom Felton), a young centurion, is assigned to assist Clavius. 

Clavius arrives at the site of the crucifixion just after Jesus dies. He is moved by the women in the crowd and allows Joseph of Arimathea to look after Jesus’ burial (with guards). Horror of horrors, Jesus’ body disappears anyway, sending Clavius and Lucius on a unique kind of manhunt which will take about half of the film. I trust I am not giving you any real spoilers when I say that Clavius does eventually find Jesus and, wonder of wonders, he seems very much alive (before suddenly disappearing again). Not knowing what to make of this, Clavius decides to follow the eleven apostles as they go to look for Jesus in Galilee. Lucius is not impressed and squeals to Pilate, who is even less impressed. Another manhunt ensues. The ending of Risen will surprise no one who is familiar with the gospel stories (which film critics apparently are not, because many of them say the story just follows the end of the Gospel of Matthew; not true - it is a mix that features as much of John as Matthew). 

Perhaps because I know the story so well, I certainly did not find Risen’s plot riveting. The best I can say about it is that I was mildly entertained throughout, that some scenes were inspiring and that there’s something to be said for understatement when you’re making a film about Jesus. The refreshing elements I referred to earlier had less to do with the story than with the way the film was made. Here are the highlights: 1) Cliff Curtis (of Maori descent) is the most realistic Jesus (called Yeshua in Risen) I have ever seen; 2) Fiennes delivers a very sympathetic and nuanced performance as the protagonist; 3) despite what critics say, the resurrection of Jesus is handled not only with sensitivity but without sensationalism (critics say it’s just preaching to the choir and won’t convert anyone, but I didn’t think that preaching was really its goal at all, which is a very good thing). 

So I walked out of the theatre pleasantly surprised by how little I disliked Risen. This is no great Jesus film, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either. A solid ***. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Anomalisa



Wow!

I just watched my third film in Toronto since February, 2015, and I have given each of those films four stars. I guess I’ll have to start flying to Toronto every week to watch films (as soon as I buy my private solar-powered jet). This time, I watched the film with Peter and Ken, which was important because I needed Ken to provide the psychological interpretation of Anomalisa. Anomalisa is an animated film made by Charlie Kaufman, whose films (all of which I love) are notoriously unique and ‘thought-provoking’ (i.e. mind-numbing).

Anomalisa actually felt to me like an adult (and I do mean ‘adult’ - it’s rated 18A) version of Inside Out. This time we’re in the head of a middle-aged man by the name of Michael Stone, a personal-communication (i.e. customer service) expert having a midlife crisis. Stone has just flown from L.A. to Cincinnati to be the keynote speaker at a conference. After settling into yet another typical hotel room (although the Fregoli is a very high-end hotel), Stone, who has been married for ten years (and has a young son) but feels very lonely, remembers that his ex-girlfriend lives in Cincinnati. He looks her up in the phonebook, calls her and arranges to meet. When that goes badly, Stone fends off his despair by hanging out with a couple of women who are in town just to hear him speak.

Things get a little whacky along the way, as we try to figure out why almost everyone Stone talks with has the same voice and the same face. Despite being a communication expert who talks about the importance of recognizing individuality, Stone has great difficulty with both. 

There are only three voices in Anomalisa. David Thewlis (who has a very distinctive voice) plays Stone, which was a constant distraction for me because Stone bears no resemblance to Thewlis. Nevertheless, Thewlis does very well with the voice, as does Jennifer Jason Leigh with the only female voice (Lisa) and Tom Noonan with everyone else. 

The stop-motion animation is quite extraordinary (and quite gorgeous) and reminds me of nothing else I have ever watched before (the entire film felt like nothing I have ever watched before, which is high praise indeed). The score by Carter Burwell is perfect. 

Anomalisa is a very funny and very sad existential film, with many layers of meaning and lots to think about. I was initially put off by a couple of the scenes, and struggled with my sympathy for the protagonist, but the more I though about (and talked about) the film, the more I appreciated it, to the point where I realized that I was using the word ‘brilliant’ to describe Anomalisa and that I would need to give it ****. Since it wasn’t released in Canada (or anywhere else, really) until well into 2016, watch for it in my top ten list of 2016. My mug is up.