A WORD OR TWO ABOUT ‘BATFLECK’

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photo credit: npr.org

By R. David

On August 22, 2013 – a date that will live in internet infamy – Warner Bros. announced that Ben Affleck will be the new Batman in director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” sequel.  And immediately, as is now universal custom whenever a major pop culture casting decision is revealed, the Twitterverse and blogospheres lost their collective shit.

Frankly, no matter who was named the new Batman, things likely would have gone down pretty much the same way.  After all, what else is social media for if not to bitch about pop culture news?  Well, okay; that and shit like Grumpy Cat.

Actually, for once, I’m not sure the Internet had come together in agreement on the perfect choice for the new Dark Knight.  I don’t think there was even a fanboy Top 5 that formed something resembling a general consensus.  I heard Ryan Gosling’s name floated a bit (which would have been a terrible pick) and there was some (apparently premature or flat-out false) indication that Josh Brolin was the front-runner (I can see that).  Beyond that, there was a lot of talk about virtual unknowns and guys that you’d only want to be Batman because you watch “True Blood” getting the part.

Ultimately, Warner Bros. decided to go with a big name star and someone who’s career is on a critical and commercial hot streak at the moment (if you’ve forgotten, the last movie Affleck was in – which he also directed – just won the Best Picture Oscar).  If nothing else, from a business standpoint, I can’t fault their logic.

Oh, but the all-knowing fanboy masses apparently can.

Early internet chatter on the casting news has been overwhelmingly negative; with comic book fans, movie buffs, and even people who clearly don’t really give a shit who plays Batman caught in some weird Twitter competition to determine who can deliver the zaniest pun.  The real crazies went so far as to say things like “I’ll never see another Warner Bros. movie again,” and wishing harm to Affleck so the role would have to be recast.  Hell, within 24 hours there was already a change.org petition protesting Affleck’s casting.  Petitions, fer cryin’ out loud, people!

Most of the outrage comes from people who, ten years later, still feel burned by Affleck’s turn in “Daredevil”.  I’ll grant you guys, he wasn’t exactly an acting powerhouse in that one, but it was a shitty movie all around; a Marvel Comics’ movie before Marvel started making decent movies about their second-tier characters.

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image credit: tasteofcinema.com

Also, Affleck was a much different actor – and all-around person, some would argue – 10 years ago.  So this also goes for the people bringing up “Gigli”, “Reindeer Games”, or “Pearl Harbor”:  Whatever work the guy did at the height of his “Next Big Thing”, paycheck(no pun intended)-cashing, “Beniffer” days is probably not the greatest barometer with which to judge his acting skills – never mind his ability to portray Batman/Bruce Wayne.

I used to be as big an Affleck-hater as the next guy.  He seemed incapable of giving a performance without projecting an irksome air of bland smugness into every role (because, I figured, he probably was an irksome, bland and smug dude and just too shitty an actor to hide it on screen).  And nearly all of his film choices in the first two-thirds of the 2000s were utter crap (except for the time – ironically – when he portrayed “Superman” actor George Reeves in “Hollywoodland“).  But he has made a career turnaround in the last 6 years or so that is right out of a classic Hollywood comeback tale.  “Gone Baby Gone”, “The Town” and “Argo” is as impressive a trilogy as any current director has delivered, never mind as their first three films out of the gate.  Granted, his directorial chops say nothing about his ability to play Batman, but it’s worth noting that he also starred in “The Town” and “Argo” – both brooding character dramas, not unlike Batman thematically– and to great dramatic effect.

image credit: film.com

image credit: film.com

Also, Superhero movies have a way of chewing up and spitting out the guys who seem perfect for the job, while proving those initially thought to be miscast as revelations.  Michael Keaton, generally a comedian and in no way physically imposing, as the first cinematic Batman; Heath Ledger, untested in anything resembling dark, psychological drama, as The Joker in “The Dark Knight”; relative unknown Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; and to one generation Robert Downey Jr. was a Hollywood punch line and to another he was, “who?”, when cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man – all were met with the same sort of venom-spewing indignation from obsessive comic book fans as Affleck is receiving at the moment .

Conversely; George Clooney, an up-and-coming Hollywood A-lister, was seen as the perfect choice to carry on the  Batman torch; Eric Bana was supposed to bring a certain gravitas to the role of the Hulk that often proved unattainable in big, Hollywood blockbusters; Nicolas Cage – still doing better-than-average box office numbers on his name alone at the time – in “Ghost Rider”; and Ray Stevenson (here’s your argument for – or against, depending on how you want to look at it – casting a relatively unknown TV actor as the titular hero in a comic book movie) was supposed to be the guy that saved “The Punisher” movie franchise.

Obviously, how those supposed bone-headed casting decisions worked out VS the supposed sure-things says a mouthful about trying to predict what type of actor will make a great superhero.

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image credit: nerdacy.com

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image credit: www.telegraph.co.uk

But choosing a quality Batman doesn’t simply boil down to bold, eyebrow-raising casting decisions. Michael Keaton and Christian Bale were the only Batmen to make an impression because they shared one simple but generally overlooked trait that Val Kilmer and George Clooney lacked: the ability to give two separate and distinguishable performances – one as Batman, one as Bruce Wayne.  Keaton was (surprisingly) effectively stoic and heroic as The Caped Crusader, but had a completely different attitude and demeanor as Bruce Wayne; convincing as both the shrewd business man and cocky playboy of Wayne’s public persona, but also as the tormented recluse of the character’s true self.  So successfully inhabiting both sides of the Batman/Bruce Wayne character is what made Keaton arguably the best Caped Crusader yet.  It’s a shame Tim Burton’s two Goth-deco epics with Keaton never truly mined the depths of the Wayne psyche the way Christopher Nolan’s films and – to an even greater and darker extent – Frank Miller’s comic adaptions of the character did. I would have loved to see Keaton dig even deeper into the Batman/Bruce-public/private divide.

Christian Bale pulled off a similar feat in Nolan’s Batpics, though I was never as convinced of his fun-loving playboy persona, of course that was no doubt an intentional choice on his and Nolan’s part to portray and explore a much darker Bruce Wayne. That makes Bale’s Wayne less removed from his titular alter ego, however he was no less convincing in drawing a line of distinction between the two.

The two Joel Schumacher Batman films of the mid-90s had many problems beyond the choice of actors to play Batman. Perhaps if they had been in films less cartoonish, poorly written and overstuffed with supporting characters; and that were less of a gaudy, fetishistic visual nightmare – maybe in completely different movies – Val Kilmer or George Clooney could have been a quality Batman/Bruce Wayne. As it is, their portrayals offer no distinction between the two personalities and no exploration into the mind and motivations of the two alter egos.  They give the same performance out of the Batsuit as in, and mistake both characters for fun-loving, gadget-obsessed thrill-seekers.  James Bond in a rubber suit (and this time with nipples and a codpiece, everybody!)

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: www.avclub.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

image credit: comicbookresources.com

I have no reason to assume Ben Affleck – or Zack Snyder for that matter; he is the guy giving Affleck his direction after all – understands this distinction and will not make the same mistakes that Schumacher, Kilmer and Clooney did.  However, I have no reason to assume he will make the same mistakes either. Christopher Nolan (you know, the guy who gave the world what is overwhelmingly considered the most complex and narratively ambitious rendering of the Batman universe on screen so far) is producing Affleck’s first stab at the character; Warner Bros. would never allow another debacle the likes of the Schumacher Batflicks; and Affleck has grown by leaps and bounds as not just an actor but as a true filmmaker who, by that very definition, should understand the necessity of character development and giving an in-depth, multilayered performance.

As much as I’ve come around to accepting The New Ben Affleck, I too admittedly have some concerns about him being the right guy for the cowl. Something about his demeanor just doesn’t scream Batman to me. And even though I think he’s been good in several dramas, I have yet to see Affleck go really dark, or tackle any psychologically complex characters. And I fear as Bruce Wayne, he will simply pull out the same smirky, smug, smart-alecky posturing he coasted on for so much of his early career, before donning the Batsuit and then simply grimacing his way through the action sequences.

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But honestly, those are concerns I would have of nearly any actor set to take this role.  But that’s why they call it acting.  Ben Affleck may not have a lot of the necessary cred under his belt to justify him landing this gig; but then again, neither did Michael Keaton or Christian Bale or Heath Ledger. Producers and directors have to be trusted to know which performers embody what they are looking for in their characters and give them the part based on how they fit into that mold – and hopefully how capable they are of breaking it. My hope is that Warner Bros., Snyder and Nolan genuinely see that in Affleck, and not simply a big name to potentially beef-up grosses when a lesser-known actor may have brought a more complex performance to the table.

Only time will tell and I may eat my words (and I will gladly admit fault if that time indeed comes), but I say Ben Affleck will end up surprising us all, and his Batman will be the next step in his impressive career evolution.

Frankly, I’m more concerned that Snyder and Co. botch the whole ‘Superman VS Batman’ concept and set Affleck up to fail by sticking him in movie that treats Batman as an afterthought or stunt-casting coupe simply to get people to pay for another bombastic-yet-empty “Man of Steel” flick.  We’re assuming Snyder’s take on Batman will even want to be as dark and morally complex as Nolan and Burton’s renderings. They could be shooting for a much more family-friendly, Marvel-like take on the character(s) simply to set-up the inevitable “Justice League” behemoth and position it as an “Avengers”-style, easily accessible crowd-pleaser.

Christ, I hope not.

There too, though:  deep breath, remain calm, positive thoughts.

From a Galaxy Very Close By (California): Star Wars Pet Fans Collection

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(Jabba looks a lot like a flattened pot holder.)

Just when you naively thought the universe had dispensed with any and all Star Wars-related merchandising opportunities, Star Wars™ Yoda™ ears are here for your dog or cat!  The ears were given away at Booth 2913 at the San Diego Comic-Con in July and beginning September 1, you can join in the obsessive fun only at your local Petco store (or online) with the Star Wars Pet Fans Collection.  Per a release on StarWars.com, Elisabeth Charles, chief marketing officer from Petco Animal Supplies, notes that in years past, many fans have created their own pet costumes inspired by Star Wars but these new products are “not only creative and fun, but also safe for pets”.  And what a line this proves to be…the Yoda ears are merely an introductory freebie with purchase of one of the many other Star Wars items up for grabs: cat toys, collars, headpieces, pet beds, dog hoodies, dog and cat neckwear, and even a lovely Darth Vader Fair Isle sweater, which is touted as being “vintage style”.

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(Photo: A. S. Gage)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Star Wars fan going back to my childhood, and I have spent money on Star Wars stuff that’s clearly as much of a merchandising cash grab as this offering.  Still, it’s only natural to have a laugh at some of the descriptions that accompany these products.  For example, the dog hoodies are catered to whatever Star Wars character best fits your pet, “whether your dog is more a Chewbacca, Jedi, Sith, or mysterious bounty hunter.”  I’m guessing dogs who truly resemble the Sith would be a little too punishing to fit into these costumes, but that’s just me.  The dog and cat neckwear, which includes neck and bowties oddly enough, gives pets the opportunity to show off “their” Star Wars love, not just yours.  There are also the following choice nuggets:

“Cats can have a good time without a trip to the Mos Eisley cantina.”    

Well, I can only imagine how much trouble my cats would get into in that wretched hive.

“Now your collars and leads can clearly indentify your pet…as a Star Wars fan.”

I think the recognition from strangers would probably be directed more at me personally.   

“You used to play with Star Wars toys – so should your dog.”

By that logic, my dog should also go to university, get a job and pay the bills.

All kidding aside, I do have pets and while I don’t get into dressing them up and such, there are some toys here that might be fun if I really wanted to go all out and express my Star Wars fanboyism in the world of pets.  I think I’m OK on that right now, but I don’t blame Star Wars or Petco for this campaign.  If there’s a market for it, why not?  Some of these pictures are just too precious for words.      

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YOU’RE NEXT

Youre-Next

By R. David

“You’re Next” is receiving uncommonly strong reviews for a horror film, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good horror movie.  I even love a good throwback to old-school 70s and 80s slasher/home invasion flicks.   But it typically takes more than a by-the-numbers homage to get 80% of the nation’s critics (according to rottentomatoes.com) on board.  But “You’re Next” is all homage and all by-the-numbers.  So what exactly does the critical community see in this thing that I’m missing?  (And the ironic thing is, if “You’re Next” had come out in the 1980s, it would have been either completely torn apart by critics or simply ignored altogether – what a difference 2 or 3 decades can make, eh?)

The home invasion motif can often yield some visceral impact simply by its very design, regardless of the overall quality of the film.  Big, scary, secluded house; spooky-masked attackers; potential danger around every corner:  there’s a reason this is one of the more durable tropes with which to frame a fright flick.  What sets the quality attempts apart from the rest is how they try to break the mold, color in the margins, or transcend the predictability and limitations of the genre.

“You’re Next”does none of these things.  It offers horror fans nothing they haven’t seen a hundred times before and makes no attempt to frame the usual violent shenanigans of the genre in a new or interesting way.  The result is a forgettable, typically bloody (though not exactly memorably so – sorry, gore-hounds) slice of low-budget banality.

The plot, or what there is of one, involves a bickering family holed-up their posh country home where – wait for it – there is only one neighbor for miles, floors and doors creek and moan, and cell phone reception is nil.  To the film’s credit, it explains that last trope beyond it simply being a matter of their remote location, but it’s still merely a way to take the phones out of the equation, otherwise a simple call would negate the film entirely.  The family is the usual horror flick stable of caricatures that don’t get much of an introduction beyond the personality type they are required to represent.  In the mix is Crispian (A.J. Bowen), a struggling writer who arrives with student-turned-girlfriend, Erin (Sharni Vinson).  At dinner, Crispian ends up in a shouting match with his judgmental Dad (Rob Moran) and two brothers (Joe Swanberg and Nicholas Tucci – it’s amazing how unalike all of these supposed brothers look), but their issues quickly take a backseat to the fact that an arrow just flew into his sister’s boyfriend’s head.  Naturally, much screaming and panicking ensues as the family quickly realizes they are the targets of three animal-masked assailants who – for some unknown reason – simply want to stalk and kill their prey, as it were.

Cue the slow and steady guessing game of who’s gonna die next.

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For a movie that is garnering a rap for being smarter than the average no-brainer slasher flick, “You’re Next” sure plays out like business as usual.  (And it’s hardly smart – once the killers’ motive is explained, it negates the film’s entire opening sequence.)  Horror buffs might take some pleasure in the durable premise and a couple of the kills (though I can’t think of any that were original or particularly exciting).  There’s also a few directorial flourishes in the camera work and editing that lend a scene or two some punch; but again, nothing to write home about (some 80s-inpired synth music on the soundtrack is about as kitschy as the film gets in nodding to its inspirations).  Other than those minor pluses, the best thing “You’re Next” has going for it is Sharni Vinson.  The Australian actress cuts a convincing and exciting action heroine.  The movie actually picks up a bit when better than half the cast is eliminated and she gets more room to shine.  And while it’s hardly a novel idea at this point, making a woman the strongest member of the cast is the film’s most distinguishable trait.

“You’re Next” is directed by Adam Wingard, who also gave us “V/H/S”, another horror throwback that seemed frustratingly unable to live up to its potential.  These types of horror homages should not be all that hard to get right: Take the basic framework that fans of the genre know and love, but avoid all the trappings that make so many of them so unmemorable.  And hopefully you have some original ideas to put in their place, otherwise what’s the point?  “You’re Next” might as well be a strict remake of any indistinguishable horror flick.  It gets the look and tone right but forgets – or doesn’t bother – to avoid the typical genre pitfalls.

“You’re Next” arrives (after sitting on the shelf for a couple years) in theaters mere months after another home invasion-themed thriller, “The Purge”.  That film had its problems too, but at least it had a genuinely original and intriguing (if completely implausible) concept to justify its existence.  From a narrative standpoint, it didn’t quite come together, but it tried to put a new spin on an old standard and did so in a most entertaining fashion.  “You’re Next” isn’t worse because it is a more simple, streamlined thriller; but rather because it lacks an ounce of “The Purge’s” ambition.

The guy who gets shot in the head with the arrow at the dinner party is played by indie-horror director Ti West.  He made a mean, creepy little slice of 80s horror exploitation a few years ago called “House of the Devil”.  Ironic he pops up in “You’re Next”; a film that tries but fails to capture that same spirit.

2 stars out of 4

KICK-ASS 2

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By R. David

2010’s “Kick-Ass” was a breath of fresh air.  If you’ll pardon the pun, it was the kick in the ass the superhero genre needed at the time.  Despite the gritty nihilism of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, the comic book flicks of the last decade or so have become increasingly candy-colored and family-friendly.  Not a bad thing necessarily – after all, who if not youngsters should be able to enjoy movies about superheroes – but the fact that most of these films increasingly look and feel so similar smacks more of studios making a calculated decision to feed a cashcow rather than showing concern for pesky little things like artistic expression and originality.  Decidedly not for kids – and based on some truly unsavory source material – “Kick-Ass” seemed determined to be the anti-comic book movie.

The main hook that sets “Kick-Ass” apart from the average superhero comic is that it supposedly asks the question, “What would happen if real people dressed up as superheroes and fought crime, despite lacking any actual superpowers?”  The truth is, however, in the comics and both films, there isn’t much that takes place in anything resembling the real world.  The violence is more extreme and consequential that what you find in the typical superhero flick, and the action is far more low-tech (nobody shoots lightning bolts out of their eyes or has million-dollar gadgets), but otherwise the stunts, outlandish action scenarios and outcomes of the characters’ actions have little in common with real life.

No matter though.  Fresh, peculiar, and entertaining as hell, “Kick-Ass” delivered on its promise to be a provocative deconstruction of genre conventions.  The most interesting, if also the most questionable, aspect of the original comic and the film was making its protagonists teenagers – particularly 11 year-old Hit Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz, in a star-making performance).  Perhaps verging on irresponsible, “Kick-Ass” runs these kids through the ringer of life-threatening violence.  As if to counter such claims though, the kids are plenty tough and, at times, reprehensible themselves; often acting nearly as psycho or sociopathic as some of the villains (although, I’m not sure that distinction helps the comics or films feel any less lurid).  After all, what are we to make of Hit Girl’s situation:  A child who swears like a sailor and has grown up being trained by her grieving, widower father, Big Daddy(Nicolas Cage), to kill with extreme prejudice?

Such plot devices might leave a bad taste were it not for how effective Cage and Moretz interacted, both as crime fighters, as well as father and daughter.  They made an extremely entertaining pair, but also displayed a convincing, loving bond.  There was an underlying sadness to their motivations and the film was smart enough to acknowledge the questionable morality of Big Daddy putting his own daughter in harm’s way; using her and the guise that he is protecting the innocent, to alleviate his own pain and guilt over the loss of his wife.  That’s heavy stuff for any film to tackle, nevermind one that is ostensibly a subversive action-comedy.

Fast-forward now nearly 4 years, and Hit Girl – really name Mindy Macready – is a high school sophomore trying to navigate the common struggles and pitfalls of adolescence, while also determined to keep her promise to her father to always protect the innocent, but realizing she can’t do both.  Meanwhile, Dave (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the titular hero, is looking to form a superhero alliance, so he takes up with a motley crew of like-minded do-gooders led by Colonel Stars & Stripes (Jim Carry, doing some nice work), a born-again Vet who, like Big Daddy in the first film and so many of the “heroes” here, is a damaged soul who has taken up crime fighting as means to temper his own sadness and desperation.

At the other end of the superhero spectrum, Chris D’Amico, Kick-Ass’ former partner Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), is determined to reinvent himself as the world’s first real-life supervillain (“The Motherfucker”) and avenge the death of his father by killing Kick-Ass.  Of the many implausibilities of this film and the general “Kick-Ass” universe is the idea that Kick-Ass and Red Mist never had any idea who each other really were.  I guess that’s no more far-fetched than no one realizing that, say, Clark Kent is Superman, but I thought this film was supposed to be turning these sort of genre conventions on their ear.

There’s a lot of tossed-off exposition in “Kick-Ass 2” that amounts to simple laziness on the screen-writers’ parts this time around.  Dave, Chris and Clark (Clark Duke) were formerly all best friends.  When Dave tells Clark that Chris may be resurfacing and poses a threat, Clark says, “Oh, yeah.  Whatever happened to that guy;” as if Chris just disappeared and Clark and Dave are just now realizing it.  Similarly, a lot of character motivations and plot thread outcomes are determined by coincidence or are outright nonsensical this time around, even for a movie that is as intentionally outlandish as this one.

That said, there isn’t too much to truly dislike about “Kick-Ass 2”, if you enjoyed the first one that is.  If you were never on board with this concept, “Kick-Ass 2” won’t win you over.  And like most sequels, it doesn’t feel as energized or inspired as its predecessor.  There are no action sequences on par with the batshit insanity of Hit Girl’s Tarantinoesque bad-guy massacre that was the centerpiece of the original “Kick-Ass”; or that film’s blood-orgy ballet finale (though one sequence involving a lawnmower comes close).  But even though the novelty of the concept has greatly worn off this time around, there are still considerable pleasures to be had in the performances; particularly by Moretz, once again the showstopper in every scene she’s in.  Her attempt to fit in with a “Mean Girls”-like clique is a comedic highlight (“Maybe I’ll jam my foot up your snatch!”).  In fact, the frank, over-the-top comedic dialog is strong once again across the board (Kick-Ass:  “What’s the matter, Chris? Shit hit your shorts?”  Motherfucker:  “Yeah and I’m gonna wipe my ass with your face.”), and on the opposite side of the emotional divide, there is still a palpable sadness to the underlying traumas that dictate many of these characters’ actions.

“Kick-Ass 2” may lack the freshness of its predecessor, but as ribald, action-packed entertainment, it gets the job done.

2 ½ stars out of 4

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

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By R. David

Netflix has been doing all it can to announce itself as a major player in the TV landscape.  And why not?  After all, the general consensus lately seems to be that TV – not movies – is where you go to find really great drama and original ideas.  Granted, revamping a British show for American audiences (“House of Cards”) and giving one of TVs most-loved-if-least-watched comedies a new home (“Arrested Development”) doesn’t quite smack of uber-originality; but the quality is in the execution and, minus a relative stumble with the misguided horror-soap “Hemlock Grove”, Netflix has been doing a bang-up job in the quality department.  Their latest series offering, “Orange Is the New Black”, is no exception.

Created by “Weeds’” Jenji Kohan, “Orange” is the tale of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a recently engaged, upper-middle-class small business owner who is sent to prison for her role in a drug trafficking ring a decade ago.  The show almost immediately puts to rest fears that this will be some sort of over-heated women-in-prison soft-core drama.  As if to get it out of the way as quickly as possible, 90% of the nudity that occurs across the show’s 13 episodes happens in the pilot.  “Orange’s” aim is clearly to be a more realistic and frank depiction of what life and relationships must look like in the average women’s prison, not some sensationalized, navel-gazing piece of pulp exploitation.  There are no half-baked attempts at “Oz”-like violent scenarios thrown in simply to ramp up the drama.  And while conflict, intimidation and danger abound, none of it is played for cheap thrills.  Like any confined institution, the prison population is a community – its own society within society.  Piper being thrust into this sort of structured, fragmented environment – especially when her previous life couldn’t have been further removed from the personalities and attitudes that are proudly displayed by the more confident and assimilated inmates – makes for a fascinating character study.

But “Orange Is the New Black” isn’t just about the struggles of a privileged white girl dumped into a scary cultural melting pot.  The show could have simply churned out stereotype after stereotype, either played for mocking laughter as Piper butts heads with a bunch of obnoxious, uneducated people she – and the show- clearly feels are beneath her, or simplistic drama as all the dangerous gang member, drug dealer and corrupt guard types threaten and abuse her.  To be sure, “Orange” does have its share of these characters, but they are all fully fleshed-out and explored; given backstories and motivations that humanize them and their actions.  The same can be said of Piper.  She is not simply some spoiled, lilywhite cliché.  The writers largely resist the urge to have her say silly and inappropriate things for the sake of easy laughs or to spark unearned conflict.  Too often movies and TV shows will have their characters say the stupidest things at the most inopportune moments while the audience thinks, “Who would do/say something so stupid?”  Nobody.  It’s simply a lazy writing tactic to move the story and character relationships from beat A to C without having to come up with a sensible B.  Piper doesn’t always think before she speaks or take the time to consider all the possible ramifications of her actions, but her blunders are mostly plausible and authentic; indicative of someone who is perhaps privileged and sheltered, but she doesn’t interact with people who aren’t exactly like her as if she just landed on another planet and has no concept of what might be a stupid thing to say or do.

“Orange Is the New Black” gives its supporting cast the same credit.  The show fills in the other inmates’ backstories via flashback creating a sense of intrigue that, as much as any of the writing or performances, encourages viewers to stay tuned.  It helps of course that these characters have stories worth telling.  Rather than simply presenting “Gang Member No. 1” and “Drug Dealer No. 2”, “Orange” gives us a full array of complex lost souls – women who were destined to be chewed up by society and fall through the cracks of the judicial system.  There’s the former firefighter (Laverne Cox) who ended up in prison because he was stealing to pay for his sex-change operation; the Russian immigrant cook (Kate Mulgrew) who’s husband’s shady business associates and their catty wives led her down a desperate path; the meth-head religious fundamentalist (Taryn Manning); the sniping mother and daughter drug dealers (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dasha Polanco) both in prison thanks to the same guy; and the rebellious, rich-kid addict (Natasha Lyonne); among many others.  The show doesn’t make any excuses for why these women have landed in prison, but it reveals them to be so much more than just the sum of the crimes.  Even when “Orange” presents one of the women as a villain, it is sympathetic to their madness and attempts to explore their behavior.  It’s the sort of show where adversaries can become friends and people do indeed grow and change, which is a refreshing change of pace from the typical black and white/good and bad archetypes TV generally trades in.  Sure most shows typically explore a complex, conflicted central character or two; but “Orange” gives all of its characters a rich portrayal, which is no easy feat given its large and varied cast.

“Orange Is the New Black” doesn’t skimp on complex characters who are not inmates either.  Michael Harney (also late of “Weeds”) gives a terrific performance as the sympathetic-on-the-outside warden who seems to be harboring a lot of resentment towards anyone he suspects might be a lesbian.  Pablo Schreiber (“The Wire”) slowly crafts one of TVs best and funniest villains as George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez, a guard who might have been one big abusive jailhouse cliché, but is so smartly written and pitch-perfectly performed by Schreiber that he transcends the trope he is saddled with on paper.  Jason Biggs (“American Pie”) plays Piper’s fiancé, Larry.  Initially he seems to possess “Orange’s” weakest, most obvious material; but the writers nurture and grow his character throughout the season until he becomes something more than simply the waiting/supportive/conflicted boyfriend.

One development that ups the ante for Biggs’ character (and Piper’s as well) is the reveal that Alex (Laura Prepon), the woman who may have landed Piper in jail – and is her former lover, has just been sentenced to the same prison.  Biggs is aware of what Piper calls her lesbian fling (which she swears she has gotten out of her system), but it’s clear her relationship with Alex was no fling.  They were very much in love.  “Orange Is the New Black” is smart and brave in the way that it treats Piper’s sexual confusion and its exploration of the conflicted mechanics of what it means to be bisexual.  The show doesn’t portray Piper’s sexual plight – or homosexuality and bisexuality at large – as something in need of fixing; or that could be fixed by either the right guy or right gal coming along.  Where most shows would simply have Piper tally up the pros and cons of each option – as if sexuality is dictated by whichever sex presents the better companion or the happier ending for the audience – “Orange” takes sexuality largely out of the equation and instead shows Piper trapped in a double-blind:  Who Piper loves, who she is attracted to, who is good for her, and who she wants to be with are often at odds; and just as often overlap.

Piper’s storyline alone would have provided plenty of material for “Orange Is the New Black” to explore over an entire season.  That the show so deftly handles her material, as well as that of a dozen other cast members is a testament to Kohan’s sure hand.  I was a big fan of “Weeds” in its first few seasons, before it collapsed into stagnation and self-parody.  “Orange Is the New Black” lacks the snarky bite and wild concept that made “Weeds” feel like such a breath of fresh air initially, but it’s a much more astute, structured and deep dramady.  In “Weeds’” defense, by its very nature, it was never meant to be taken completely seriously.  It was a potboiler (no pun intended) – a generally entertaining, well-written and performed one – but by design it had to keep pushing its protagonists from one outlandish scrape to the next.  “Orange Is the New Black”, while no less entertaining, is a far more relaxed and realistic effort.  It mostly takes place in one enclosed location and makes great use of the claustrophobia prison forces upon its inmates.  The prison itself is just as vividly realized as much of a character as the inmates. These women can do little but live, relate and interact.  The isolation and banal daily rituals of prison also force Kohan to turn her focus and writing talents toward exploring real human drama, not the fabricated interactions that inevitably come from writing high-concept satire.  The season ends with cliffhangers and several characters left to explore.  I can’t wait to see where “Orange Is the New Black” goes from here.

“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”: A Fascinating, Horrifying Trip

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(Photo: NPR.org; Jim Jones once sold monkeys door to door for extra income.)

November 18, 1978: Over 900 Peoples Temple members, including hundreds of children, die in what Jim Jones termed a “revolutionary suicide” event in and around Jonestown, Guyana.  The tragedy of that day lives in infamy, especially for those who remember its occurrence, and of course, it is a date marking enormous and lasting suffering for survivors and family members of those who perished.  The story of Jones and the Peoples Temple leading up to that fateful November day is well chronicled in a 2006 documentary: “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple”, directed by Stanley Nelson.  Jim Jones, the founder of the Peoples Temple and its charismatic leader, also died that day (by gunshot to the head) after instructing Temple members to kill their children and themselves.

Peoples Temple was founded in Indianapolis in 1955 by Jim Jones as a conduit through which to espouse his social and ideological views and a place to create the kind of community he envisioned: altruistic, racially integrated, spiritual though not necessarily traditionally religious, and devoted (though not publicly) to the ideals of communism.  People were drawn to his powerful speeches and the energetic ideas he brought forth.  In the early 1960s, Jones worked admirably for racial integration in Indiana even though it made him many enemies.  The film traces Peoples Temple’s evolution from the early days with amazing film footage, including some never before seen.  Commentary is provided by former Temple members, people who knew Jones or had dealings with the Temple, and survivors of Jonestown.  For viewers who have some familiarity with the story of Jonestown, the documentary will likely illuminate areas a little better.  For those who have only a cursory understanding or no knowledge of the Peoples Temple or the events at Jonestown, it will likely be a shocking but intriguing tale of an appealing, bewitching man who had a profound and deadly impact on many lives.  It’s one thing to read about Jones; to see the images that accompany the story and the accounts in this film really bring it to life.    

Peoples Temple moved its headquarters to California in the late 60s, and became less like a church and more like a radical social organization (or possibly a ‘new religious movement’) that viewed the United States and its political and social structure as unfit and tainted.  The Temple became increasingly hostile to members who wished to escape its grasp.  Nevertheless, the Temple expanded exponentially while in California and even toured the United States by bus convoy, raising funds for its various locations and operations. 

By the late 70s, though, media scrutiny of Jones and the Temple was becoming heavier.  Even though Peoples Temple had some serious political support on its side in California and elsewhere in the country, Jones eventually decided that the Temple needed to be free of the restraints placed on it in the United States, and moved the Temple headquarters to what was called the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project” in Guyana, in an isolated settlement that became commonly known as Jonestown.  At Jonestown, the viewer is treated to ramshackle images at first but eventually it’s clear that a lot of work was put in to create a home for the group in Guyana.  The communal music performances and laughter of happy people ring in a contentment and joy that is rarely associated with Jonestown at a glance.             

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However, Jones ran Jonestown like a communist state, paranoid, with Jones-controlled media and information channels, forbidding members to leave.  When ‘Concerned Relatives’ groups were organized in the U.S. by family members concerned about their loved ones in Guyana, the result was the eventual visit to Jonestown in November 1978 by Congressman Leo Ryan of California and others, including reporters.  The film relays important scenes of Ryan speaking in Jonestown to Temple members.  He visited Jonestown on a fact-finding and observational mission, to be sure, and to investigate allegations of abuses.  But what we see is that Ryan also praised the community at Jonestown for the bliss via sacrifice they all seemed to enjoy there, growing their own food, running their own schools and relying on each other for basic necessities. 

Only days later, Ryan was reportedly attacked by a Temple member.  His crew abruptly left Jonestown for the airfield at Port Kaituma.  As they were boarding their small plane, a group of Jonestown guards opened fire on them, killing Congressman Ryan and four others.  “The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” shows this horror vividly, including the brief footage of the actual shooting.  Striking accounts are provided by people who were there, frantically trying to avoid being shot. 

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(Photo: channel.nationalgeographic.com)

After the shooting at the airfield, Jones began advising Temple members that same day to participate in an act of “revolutionary suicide”, a concept he had been thinking about for some time, and drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid.  Jones’ voice can be heard over a speaker system saying: “We didn’t commit suicide.  We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world”.  Temple members were told to give the “potion” drink to their children first and then die together.  Some of the most heart-breaking moments in the film occur here as former members recount the dismay and jarring trauma they experienced as they realized what those around them were doing or had already done before they could even react: drinking poison and dying at a word’s notice.  Before they could process what was going on, their families lay dead on the ground.   

Jones was found dead, and the autopsy on his body revealed levels of barbiturates.  He apparently used other drugs as well.  Jones’ wife and several of his children died at Jonestown, along with many of his children’s children.  “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” exhibits a terrifying tale of the entrapment of ego, the seduction of ideas and the corruption of power.  Of course, this story also deals in wrenching human loss and suffering.  The Jonestown massacre is something people should know about.  Its place in history is unique, thankfully, but within this complex and sprawling story are some amazing events.  The story, in the end, however, is about incredible human beings, only a tiny fraction of whom survived their failed quest to change the world for the better.

THE PURGE

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By R. David

Let’s say there was a simple way to wipe-out virtually all violent crime and unemployment in America.  Sign me up, right?  But what if in the bargain we had to live in a semi-totalitarian state, led by a new governing body called New Founding Fathers?  Okay, maybe it’d still be worth it.  After all, we apparently already have our government reading our e-mails, text messages, and listening in on our phone calls; at least we’d have some substantial change for the better to show for it, right?  But what about those angry, violent or psychotic types who just can’t help themselves?  What if to make this new utopia work, the NFF realized they had to allow those people at least one night each year where they can release all the hate and rage that builds up inside them, thus – apparently – keeping them perfectly sane the other 364½ days a year?  One night where robbery, rape, murder – you name it – is perfectly legal?  Where the police, paramedics, and all other emergency services will not help you from 7P.M. until 7A.M.?  A night of consequence-free violence known as “The Purge”.

Still worth it?

That is the central question posed by “The Purge”, a rather conventionally constructed, but energetic home invasion thriller that would like us to think it is actually some sort of deep political allegory simply because of its admittedly intriguing hook.  Luckily, where “The Purge” feels in over its head and half-baked as social/political commentary, it largely succeeds as a lean, mean, kick-ass, revenge thriller.

The film stars a typically intense Ethan Hawke as James Sandin, a home security system peddler who has become insanely wealthy thanks to the annual Purge.  He has sold security systems to all of his neighbors inside their posh gated community and has a home (and bank account) that is the envy of the neighborhood.  He and his family hunker down in their McMansion fortress to ride out the night as they do every year, confident in their upscale surroundings and their state-of-the-art security system to keep them safe. But Sandin’s young son Charlie (“Parenthood’s” Max Burkholder), who questions the humanity of The Purge, rescues a hurt homeless man, allowing him refuge inside their barricaded home.  Soon a gang of masked, prep school-attired psychos – led by the loathsomely smarmy Rhys Wakefield – shows up at the Sandin’s door looking for the man and offer an ultimatum:  Return their trophy as is their right (“We’re entitled to Purge!” he yells repeatedly) and they’ll leave the family alone; if not, they’re coming in and killing everybody.

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Though “The Purge” feels slight in its satire and more concerned with achieving the mechanics of a conventional thriller, it never completely abandons its mission to say something more.   Nearly each new beat of the story presents some sort of moral challenge to the Sandins, and how they react will determine just how far removed they really are from the people they fancy themselves as better than.  Is murder justifiable simply because the law says it’s OK?  Do you turn over an innocent person to be murdered to protect your family?  The movie even takes a stab at racial and class commentary with the Sandins and their antagonists being wealthy and white and the Purgers’ target being homeless and black (“You’re one of us, Mr. Sandin,” Wakefield repeatedly reminds Hawke).  But like a lot of other ideas here, “The Purge” hints at all this, without actually tackling it head-on. It has all the potential to be a truly thought-provoking film, but that doesn’t seem to the sort of film it wants to be at heart.  This may be for the best though considering the movie is at its strongest when sticking to the inherent suspense of the scenario it has laid out.  Whenever it pulls back to remind us of its loftier intentions, the film places itself in a bind; wanting to be something more than a conventional action-horror flick, but unwilling to take the necessary time and energy to fully explore its ideas for fear of sacrificing that action-horror element.

There are also plenty of glaring holes in this concept’s logic.  The idea that the vast majority of people who simply have to murder other people will be satisfied with one 12 hour window per year in which to do so is laughable.  And the fact that an alarm sounds at 7 A.M. and everyone who has just spent the whole night raping and murdering – or trying to avoid being raped and murdered – just goes back to normal life is insultingly simplistic, especially where relationships are concerned.  Similarly, no other rules of the NFF government are mentioned or explained.  What other changes have occurred in society as a result of their rule, and what kind of impact have they had on America and its people?  Is the concept of The Purge the only thing that separates this new society and ruling class and our own?

Illogical as much of it is though, “The Purge” is still consistently entertaining.  It moves at a brisk 85 minutes and the action sequences are tight and effective.  Writer/director James DeMonaco knows a thing or two about claustrophobic action films, having written “The Negotiator” and the 2005 “Assault on Precinct 13” remake (also staring Hawke).  This is his first gig behind the camera and he equates himself nicely, minus a few sequences that are poorly lit or cut too quickly.  He is clearly tipping his cap to several decades’ worth of movie inspirations here; from Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” to John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” (again) to more recent streamlined, masked home-invader thrillers like “The Strangers”; and he does so as well as fans of this genre could reasonably hope for.  He has a keen sense of how to play the audience and give them what they want.  For instance, the bad guys here are deliciously evil.  It’s obvious DeMonaco wants us to truly despise them (credit must largely go to Wakefield’s petulantly deranged performance as well), because when they finally get their comeuppance, it makes for one of the bloodiest, yet most exciting and satisfying moments of the film.

Unfortunately though, that great sequence ends with a jarring surprise which moves the film into a conclusion that does it no favors.  Just as it seemed “The Purge” was putting down its half-hearted earnestness and embracing the grindhouse roots of its concept, the film reveals its end-game to simply be more awkward commentary that doesn’t wash.  I’m never in favor of a conventional or predictable ending, but simply being ambitious doesn’t cut it.  Pesky things like making sense and being satisfying still need to enter in to the equation.

So “The Purge” doesn’t quite stick the landing and has some noticeable narrative flaws.  Frankly, though, I’m cool with DeMonaco simply tossing out ideas and allowing the audience to make of it what they will without a lot in the way of psychoanalysis.  At least this approach prevents the more questionable elements of his script from getting in the way of the action, momentum and entertainment value of the grungy little thriller his movie is obviously so much more interested in being.  Fort the most part, he is successful in staying out of his own way.  Despite a few instances where audiences may find themselves rolling their eyes or scratching their heads, they will still find themselves fully engaged in the nightmarish drama while they’re along for the ride.  How they feel once they start thinking about and discussing the plausibility and ramifications of all this afterwards might be another story.

But “The Purge” will have people talking and thinking, and that alone is more than we get from most of today’s run of the mill horror flicks.  And if nothing else, you will be entertained.

3 stars out of 4.

IRON MAN 3 / MAN OF STEEL

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By R. David

The ever-crowded field of superheroes wreaking havoc on our movie theaters is once again at fever pitch this summer.  Like last summer’s “Avengers” VS “The Dark Knight Rises” battle for box office and fanboy supremacy, this year “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel” both arrive within mere weeks of each other, and each riding a wave of lofty buzz and expectations – both from comic book-film fans and their respective studios.

Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel” is undoubtedly the riskier and more interesting of the two competitors.  The studio has had tremendous success throughout the past decade with Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman franchise, but they haven’t found a way to produce a Superman film that has resonated with audiences in over 30 years.  Despite the superhero-friendly climate of the mid-aughts, 2006’s Bryan Singer-directed “Superman Returns” was a solid box office performer, but it failed to “break out” the way Nolan’s Dark Knight films did – never inciting a similar level of intense fanboy love (and this was before the game-changing juggernaut that was “The Dark Knight”) – and fell about $100 million short of the kind of box office receipts the Marvel Comics-based films were raking in at the time.  The general consensus – especially amongst the all-important fanboy community – was audiences were underwhelmed by Singer’s sincere take on the hero.  He tried (admirably, some would argue) to capture and continue the light, family-friendly tone of Richard Donner’s iconic 1978 theatrical take on the Man of Steel in a climate where dark, angsty superheroes were all the rage.

Now, six years later, Warner Bros. is wiping the slate clean and attempting to make a place for Superman in this ever-expanding universe of comic book movie competitors.  This time, they have made an obviously calculated decision to drag Superman – kicking and screaming if need be – into the darker, hyper-realized superhero-chic aesthetic of today’s comic book film adaptations with “Man of Steel”.  Director Zack Snyder (“300”, “Watchmen”) has never been one for subtlety, but has long been championed for his visual flair.  He gives “Man of Steel” a visceral punch lacking in any of the previous Superman film attempts.  But it’s the inclusion of Christopher Nolan as the film’s producer and obvious guiding light – and long-time Nolan collaborator, writer David S. Goyer – Warner Bros. is no doubt putting most of its faith in to (finally) jumpstart a new Superman franchise, just as they did with Batman for the studio nearly a decade ago.

Unfortunately for Warner Bros. – and for audiences – Nolan and Goyer don’t seem inspired to bring the same sort of complex narrative structure and gravitas to their Superman reboot as they did to their methodically intricate Dark Knight trilogy.  Perhaps this is because Nolan is simply producing, rather than directing “Man of Steel”, or perhaps Superman’s backstory and the ultimate, inescapable nature of the character simply does not lend itself to the same weighty real-world parallels as those of The Caped Crusader.  Goyer has deservedly received much praise for his Dark Knight scripts, but it’s important to remember that he has also written (“Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”), produced (“Blade: Trinity”) and directed (“The Unborn”) his share of forgettable genre exercises.  When not collaborating on a story with Nolan, he seems content to simply go through the motions.  “Man of Steel” is no exception.  Despite being a reboot, there is very little in the way of storytelling here that feels fresh or new – either in terms of crafting a character origin story or as an attempt to explore or add to the Superman mythos.

“Man of Steel” begins on Krypton (a world that looks like the inside of a volcano, as opposed to the ice crystals of previous films), introducing us to Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and his pregnant wife Faora-Ul (Ayelet Zurer).  Krypton is in the midst of literal self-destruction.  As the planet is engulfed in rolling flames and spontaneous explosions, General Zod (Michael Shannon) attempts a coup d’etat to save Krypton by overthrowing the council of elders and taking command of the Codex, which will apparently prevent the impending apocalypse because, well, the film says so.  Neither why the planet is so briskly decaying (it is mentioned that this has all been trigged by environmental factors – because Important Political Commentary!) or how exactly Zod plans to reverse this is ever made very clear beyond the usual convoluted comic-booky reasoning involving all-powerful objects and sins-of-the-powerful-type speak.

Jor-El swipes the Codex and returns home where his wife gives birth to a son they name Kal-El.  Zod shows up to reclaim the Codex, leaving Jor-El no choice but to launch it – and his newborn son – into space, headed for an unknown planet.  (Spoiler:  That planet is Earth.)  Zod murders Jor-El, then is captured and tried for his crimes.  He and his henchmen are sentenced to some sort of outer space, cryogenic banishment, just as Krypton devours itself.  This all appears to take place over the course of a single afternoon (that’s one hell of an efficient justice system those Kryptonians have).

The movie then skips ahead 30-some years to a grown Kal-El, now played by Henry Cavill, working on an oil rig off the coast of Nova Scotia; going by the name Clark Kent and already fully aware of his Superman powers.  The movie fills in the blanks with flashbacks, showing us that Kal-El’s ship landed in the cornfields of Kansas, where he was taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane – both well-cast here) and raised to carefully hide his otherworldly powers so he wouldn’t be ostracized by the masses, or worse yet, targeted by the military.  Throughout his life, Clark has found himself in situations that threatened to expose his true abilities, and carrying the weight of that burden has led him to a nomadic existence.  That is, until Zod tracks him down, exposes his true identity and makes it his mission to rebuild Krypton – on Earth.

“Man of Steel” is at its best in those flashback moments.  Not only is seeing Clark discover and learn to live with his alien powers a lot more interesting than any of the intergalactic conspiracy nonsense Goyer cooks up, but it is a far more effective film in these quieter moments than when Snyder cranks up all of the genre-standard bombast. The quitter moments between Clark and his adoptive father are among the film’s most memorable, giving it (and the characters) a humanity that is absent from the movie’s second half, despite the fact that Snyder keeps beating the save-the-human-race drum even after the film has long since collapsed into cartoony sci-fi (so much so that he overtly and awkwardly positions Superman as a Christ-like figure in several shots).

For his part, Cavill is something of an enigma; though that may be more the script’s doing than his own.  He certainly looks the part and seems capable of giving an effective performance, but he is saddled with a script that gives him hardly any dialog early on and then nothing but do-gooder, superhero clichés to spout when he is finally set loose.  Mostly his performance boils down stoic brooding, indifferent gazes and puppy-dog-eyed sentimentality.  He also strangely never seems to be very amazed or excited by his powers.  I get that he discovered most of them as a child, but the film shows him discover he can fly for the very first time.  He seems happy enough about it, but there is none of the, “Holy-effing-shit, I CAN FLY!” excitement you’d expect to see at a moment like this.  The whole movie lacks a certain sense of wonder and amazement.  Maybe it’s because Snyder and Goyer figure we’ve seen so much of this before in five previous Superman movies, and dozens of other superhero films.  Or maybe it’s simply because we indeed have seen these things in all of these other films.  Either way; that they couldn’t seem to find a way to up the ante here robs the movie a lot of potential excitement and payoff.  As a result, there’s very little for Cavill as an actor to hang his hat on, and even less so for us an audience to find ourselves truly invested in the outlandish conflict presented here.

And that’s a shame because, for a while at least, “Man of Steel” seems to be on to something.  Snyder’s visual flair is firmly intact here – with the flashback sequences recalling the wistful, daydream-like nature of Norman Rockwellesque Americana, and a bit of polished-cinema verite style to many of the action sequences (think a glossier version of the destruction in films like “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle”).  But Snyder just doesn’t know a good thing when he’s got it.  He’s like a poker player sitting pretty with 19 who says, “hit me.”  He just can’t help but overplay his hand.  He doubles down with a tedious second half filled with ridiculous exposition and an endless barrage of climactic sequences that are so noisy, chaotic and numbing, they make the finales in the “Transformers” movies look refined by comparison.

That I don’t even feel the need to mention should-be major plot points like Clark’s relationship with reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows just how insignificant the film treats their burgeoning romance.  They have very little interaction and know each other for only a few days, yet there they are kissing and getting all teary-eyed over one another by the end of the movie.  Adams does what she can with the role, but their relationship just doesn’t wash.  It doesn’t help that she’s the rebellious, adventurous type and he’s the strong-silent type – hardly a convincing or interesting couple.  But Goyer has a franchise to reboot, so I guess he had to shoehorn the Lois Lane character in there somehow, right?

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A convincing romance is not a problem in “Iron Man 3”, however.  In fact, Tony Stark’s love for Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is his main motivation throughout much of the latest installment in this cash-cow series, which now by extension also includes “The Avengers” (AKA The Highest Grossing Superhero Movie Of All Time).  This time around, Stark faces threats new and old.  The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is a psychotic Middle-Eastern terrorist bomber who intimidates our nation with murderous viral videos before launching each attack.  Meanwhile, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) is a one-time would-be Stark protégé who still harbors scornful rage towards Stark for blowing him and his ideas off over 13 years ago.  Now he is a biological weapons-manufacturing scientist who’s genius is on par with Stark’s, and if he can’t get Stark to buy his latest idea, he’ll use it against him – and the world.

The problem is, Stark has been so rattled by the events that concluded “The Avengers” that he now suffers anxiety attacks at the slightest mention of “New York”.  Taking a page from Nolan and Goyer’s “The Dark Knight Rises”, Stark spends his days as a tormented recluse, toiling away in his Malibu mansion-cum-workshop, and letting Pepper take care of Stark Industries.  It isn’t until she is targeted and placed in immediate danger that he becomes determined to step back into action.

And that’s only “Iron Man 3’s” plot at face value.  There are several reveals in the film – scripted by its director Shane Black (who takes over for Jon Favreau, who helmed the first two installments and has a cameo here) and Drew Pearce – that turn several plot strands upside down.  They aren’t necessarily believable or satisfying – or make the film better than it would have been had it stayed the course – but in the bargain we also get a second act that has more in common with Black’s “Lethal Weapon” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” scripts than the usual non-stop stunts and explosions of the more typical superhero flicks.

After The Mandarin sends Stark’s cliff-side mansion – and his entire weapons workshop, housing all of his Iron Man gear – crashing into the ocean, Stark spends the entire mid-section of the film as himself rather than the titular hero.  It’s a bold move on Black’s part but it pays off thanks to some terrific writing and dialog.  Not only is Robert Downey Jr. as impressive as ever as the humorously sarcastic and smug Stark, but he also has winning moments with Paltrow, Ty Simpkins as a small town kid Stark is marooned with for a spell, and his de facto partner, Don Cheadle’s Colonel James Rhodes.  Stark and Rhodes buddy-cop speak and their sarcastic one-liners are right in writer/director Black’s wheelhouse; and the movie, characters and dialog feel fresher than they otherwise might have had Black not deviated from the Iron Man course for a good chunk of the film.  Indeed, when the movie returns its focus to the usual razzle-dazzle special effects and convoluted exposition of the rather contrived plot points, the movie loses zip in the place where it should be gaining it.  Only a mid-air rescue aboard an exploding Air Force One feels truly inspired.  The finale that follows is entertaining enough from an action standpoint, but memorable it is not.

Still, “Iron Man 3” is a great deal better than the second movie.  For one thing, it feels like an actual film, not simply an excuse to get the remaining necessary characters introduced before “The Avengers” film.  “Iron Man 3” is also a bit less exhausting than “The Avengers”, even if it lacks a good deal of that film’s energetic pizazz and great comic moments.  That’s not to say “Iron Man 3” doesn’t have enough of its own; most of them courtesy of Downey’s typically masterful portrayal of Stark(I still say there is no reason a guy can’t be nominated for an Oscar simply because he wears a giant metal suit), though you can’t praise him without acknowledging Black and Pearce’s script.

“Iron Man 3” may stumble when trafficking in some of the more tired superhero tropes, but just because it has a more familiar style and tone than “Man of Steel”, doesn’t mean it can’t be the more satisfying film.  Snyder’s attempt to break new ground for the Superman franchise has many admirable qualities, but he and Goyer largely drop the ball where it counts:  giving us a story we can care about and action sequences that are something more than an exhausting, endless blur of uninspired special effects.  “Man of Steel” looks great and boasts some nice moments and clever ideas.  Too bad they only serve to makes us all the more aware of the kind of film it could have been.  “Iron Man 3” is not as ambitious or grandiose (only relatively speaking in this case, of course), but it gives the series a breath of fresh air while still giving fans what they want.

Snyder should take notes.

Man of Steel: 2 stars out of 4.

Iron Man 3:  3 stars out of 4.

 

“The Killing”, Following Season 3: What Now?

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I found AMC’s “The Killing” somewhat by happy automated incidence.  I had just finished watching the first season of “American Horror Story”, and Netflix suggested “The Killing”, which is based on the Danish series “Forbrydelsen” (or “The Crime”).  I decided to give it a try, and after a sluggish first episode, I was into it.  The bleak and rainy Seattle atmosphere reminded me of “Twin Peaks”, and the show seemed to have genuine interest in fleshing out the characters rather than stamping them as archetypes and calling it a day.  Homicide detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) were an unlikely pair in a ‘police procedural’, with Linden small in stature and big on following her own emotional cues as well as her intellectual ones, and Holder a recovering addict with a penchant for being “pretty fly for a white guy”.  I was not overly upset at the conclusion of the first season, when young Rosie Larsen’s killer was not revealed, because I had no preconceived notions that the case would be wrapped up in that first season, however tidy and satisfying that might have been.  I wanted to see the show continue, to follow Linden and Holder as they got to true bottom of the personal, social and political crises that had arisen out of the chaos surrounding Rosie’s much-publicized murder. 

That said, I breezed through the first two seasons of “The Killing” on Netflix in a matter of weeks, because soon after I watched the first season, the second season became available.  This chain of events left me keen to catch on to the live airing of Season 3, which began in June, in order to experience it like the weekly serial I’d been missing since “The Walking Dead” ended.  As Season 3 began, I was drawn into the world of the new characters, especially the lives of the young men and women who dwell in the shadowy world of drugs, prostitution and homelessness.  Would the street-hardened Bullet (Bex Taylor-Klaus) succeed in finding her friend Kallie before it became too late?  It was nice to shed the Rosie Larsen story in Season 3, and the season began with several pronounced scenes, with the disappearance of Kallie, the death row sentence of Ray Seward (Peter Sarsgaard) and the discovery of 17 dead bodies at a swampy dumping ground in the woods.  Ever since Adrian Seward’s drawing of an area with trees and rocks began appearing repeatedly in previous seasons, I’d assumed a new layer of complexity and discovery was waiting in Season 3.  When the 17 bodies were discovered so early on in the season, I was excited about what Linden and Holder would find lurking in the dark.  After all, it seemed that Adrian’s drawing had nearly driven Linden insane in the previous season. 

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Much has been said about showrunner Veena Sud and the writers’ love of red herrings in the plot of “The Killing”.  As with the Rosie Larsen case, Season 3 subjected the audience to many potential suspects throughout the season but many avenues come up useless.  In fact, by the time this season rolled around, many fans of the show had practically been trained to expect false suspects throughout the season’s run.  How could Pastor Mike (Ben Cotton) be guilty when there are still four episodes left?  Certainly, it’s difficult to create a show like “The Killing” with all its moving parts and potential endings without including some implausibility in the writing.  At times during Season 3, it did appear that Linden and Holder were chasing the latest carrot with little real analysis of the evidence at hand. 

But regardless of the occasional inconsistencies or leaps of faith that must be tolerated, “The Killing” is at heart a dark drama about the characters of Linden and Holder and the desperate lives they live.  Linden has lost her son to the boy’s father in Chicago.  She works around the clock, gets little sleep, lives alone and has few human connections other than her partner.  Holder is similar: an ex-addict struggling to live in a new reality that’s not much brighter than that of world-blotting drugs from which he emerged sober.  He has a tenuous relationship with a woman, Caroline (Jewel Staite), and must rely on her accommodating kindness for their fledgling pairing to survive.  Perhaps it’s that magnetism around which the show successfully revolves: Linden and Holder are birds of a feather in a small flock, and they need each other to remain coherent and functional people.  They share their passion for finding those responsible for grisly murders, they share their ever-waking hours in the middle of the night, laughter and tears, share their cigarettes.  They see the world in similar ways and gravitate toward each other because few other law enforcement personnel are shown to possess the depth of their empathy for the missing, dead or grieving.       

Season 3 had many strong characters and a story that shone powerfully in many areas.  I was hoping for more overall, but the discovery of the dumping site for the bodies was very startling.  It was gripping to watch Kallie’s mom, Danette (Amy Seimetz), realize the consequences of her daughter’s disappearance, and the role her savage lover may have played.  At first I was skeptical of the Ray Seward plot, but I came to enjoy the tantalizing mix of humanity and inhumanity of both Seward and the prison guards who were his last accomplices.  The implication of James Skinner (Elias Koteas) was, yes, disappointingly simple.  When I watch a show like “The Killing”, I want it to complement the fact that I am an intellectual, acute observer.  I want to be surprised, to find discovery, rather than be served with an ending that appeared to be both lazy and convenient.  It was almost as if they wanted to wrap things up in the most miserable way possible. 

That said, I want “The Killing” back again next year.  I forgive the writers’ fallacies.  The acting and cast on the show is very solid.  The core of Linden and Holder is fun enough, rare enough, to continue with this story.  I want to investigate how Linden recovered from the end of THE CASE, if she recovered at all.  I want to see how the events of Season 3 affected the relationship between Linden and Holder.  Holder, for all his brashness, is a cool and funny guy and it’s very enjoyable to watch him stick it to people who deserve his wrath.  Linden, with her flights of fancy as well as her extremely sharp intuition, is a fascinating character because she makes plenty of mistakes and while she may not ever recover from some of them, she is a broken person, just like the rest of us.  She marches on and doesn’t give up even if the world wants to silence her.  The viewer is tied to the struggles of this pair and despite what may happen around them, their characters are a legitimate reason to carry on.  I want Linden and Holder next year, and a new case to unravel. 

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LOVELACE

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By R. David

Published August 9, 2013

For a real-life tale rife with so many harrowing moments, the biopic “Lovelace” sure fails to make an impression.  There was no lack of messy, ugly, or flat-out horrible circumstances “Deep Throat” star Linda Lovelace had to endure on her way to the adult-film stardom and notoriety she never wanted or asked for, mostly at the hands of her abusive, coke-head husband, Chuck Traynor.  But “Lovelace” settles for being an all too familiar biopic, moving headlong through all the salacious bullet points of Lovelace’s story with indifferent precision.  This film feels more like a report being submitted for grading than something its creators were truly passionate about.

That isn’t necessarily true of the performances, however.  Amanda Seyfried attacks the role of Lovelace with respectful aplomb.  She obviously has a great amount of admiration and empathy for the tragic icon.  Seyfried disappears convincingly into the role.  But “respectful” and “empathetic” aren’t generally words used when describing great drama.  Despite some powerful moments, “Lovelace” never seems to be able to commit to going the distance required to rattle its audience.  It dips its toe in the water, but then runs back to shore.

The exception here is Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Chuck.  His glassy-eyed, simmering intensity and eerie calm is “Lovelace’s” most effective asset.  Laid back and charmingly cool at first, Chuck meets young Linda Boreman at a roller-disco in the early 1970s and immediately sweeps her off her feet.  Linda has dreams of being an actress that she is not allowed to pursue under the over-protective eye of her religious-conservative mother (an unrecognizable, but excellent Sharron Stone) and aloof father (Robert Patrick, nicely underplaying it).  But Chuck is her ticket to independence.  Unfortunately, he proves to be a selfish, greedy and manipulative monster who discovers Linda’s hidden “talent” (see: the title of her infamous film) and immediately sets his sights on ways he can exploit it for his own financially gain – first forcing her into prostitution, then into porn, and finally allowing her to be raped by a group of men in exchange for a bag of coke.

Sounds intense, right?  Those moments are – or at least have the potential to be.  But the film simply moves from beat to beat, with a matter-of-fact attitude that is almost at odds with the whirlwind excitement, chaos and trauma supposedly being dissected here.  Whenever events threaten to get too graphic, too ugly, too intense; directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“The Celluloid Closet”) cut to the next scene.  Being safe does Lovelace’s tale and this film no favors.

Epstein and Friedman’s best and most interesting idea is their framing device.  The movie is essentially cut in two halves.  The first  is a “Boogie Nights”-esque, disco music-infused ramp-up to Lovelace’s induction into the high life.  But just as she is on stage at a screening of “Deep Throat” (after it has already become a crossover hit and cultural touchstone), bowing to an adoring room full of fans – including Hugh Hefner (James Franco, because of the rule that James Franco must appear in every other film now), the film skips ahead six years to Lovelace taking a polygraph.  She then recounts her tale again, only this time all the blanks are filled in.  We see that what we assumed was Lovelace becoming the star she always wanted to be was in reality Chuck manipulating her every move.  The star-studded high times at Hollywood parties and movie premieres in the film’s first half are now accompanied by behind-the-scenes glimpses of the abuse, threats and nightmares that followed.  It’s an interesting and novel approach to storytelling.  Unfortunately, ‘glimpses’ of the harrowing behind-the-curtain drama is all the film is interested in sharing.

The great performances notwithstanding, “Lovelace” more often than not simply fails to connect on a visceral level.  The film has its moments, but it never breaks the biopic mold.  It lacks the infectious energy of something like “Boogie Nights”, but even as a conventional biopic it fails to connect all the dots; leaving out large swaths of its subject’s tale and legacy (such as her post-“Deep Throat” activism and the aftermath of her tell-all novel).  Considering the talent involved here and truly fascinating subject, it’s a shame “Lovelace” seems to have no concern for the details.

2 stars out of 4.