RAZE / BIG BAD WOLVES / THAT AWKWARD MOMENT / WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE / NEED FOR SPEED / THE RAID 2 / OCULUS / LOCKE

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By R. David

These are capsule reviews of films viewed after their initial theatrical release.  Theatrical release dates are noted in parenthesis next to each film’s title.  All star ratings are out of four stars.

RAZE (January 10th, 2014) – A bloody hybrid of “Saw” and “The Hunger Games”, “Raze” stars New Zealand-born stuntwoman and frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Zoe Bell as one of a group of women kidnapped, held captive in a secluded location, and forced to fight to the death for a bunch of rich weirdoes’ amusement or their loved ones on the outside will be murdered.  The movie is basically one long grudge match, with “So-and-So VS So-and-so” popping up on the screen, those two characters running into a room and brutally fighting to the death, then the next title card pops up, repeat.  Almost perfunctorily, a few plot points are dropped between the mayhem to advance the story (as it were) which really just boils down to the ‘who, how and why’ question hanging over the proceedings.  The answer is hardly worth any audience investment; of course, it isn’t likely that most who sign up for this flick care much about an engrossing narrative.  It’s about the fights, right? How exciting, well-choreographed, and – depending on your penchant for such things – violent are they?  The answer to all three of those criteria is ‘very’.  The throwdowns are fitfully exciting and fairly innovatively staged, and gorehounds will get a few squirm-inducing fatalities.   That said, the film really wears itself down with its repetitive structure, and the finale leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Though, to be fair, for a modern if low budget spin on the “Girls In Cages” genre (no sex here though), “Raze” will keep its target audience invested enough for the duration; and Bell is, as always, an impressive specimen to see in action.  2½ Stars (Out of 4)

BIG BAD WOLVES (January 17th, 2014) – Quentin Tarantino famously called this nasty little Israeli import the best film of last year.  I don’t agree with him, but it’s easy to see why he’s such an admirer.  The film is fearless and challenging, dealing with the ramifications of sexual predators, vengeance and torture.  It’s also unflinchingly violent in all the ways Tarantino seems to relish.  Obviously it’s not for all tastes, and the film is frankly flawed even if you take its heavy themes out of the mix, but there is much here to admire, starting with the coldly determined lead performance from Tzahi Grad as a man convinced he has found his daughter’s rapist/murder (Rotem Keinan) and enlists the help of a police detective (Lior Ashkenazi), whose own daughter has been kidnapped, in exacting his brutal revenge.  The film is an uncomfortable simmer of rage.  Grad is well past the point of the obvious emotions over his daughter’s death and calmly goes about his revenge with the precision of a man tasked with a job to do, which makes the “how far will he go” question hanging over the film all the more gut wrenching.  You know he’s not going to have a sudden change of heart or be convinced to show mercy.  But the film isn’t telling whether Keinan is indeed guilty which makes Grad’s revenge and attitude towards his captive all the more disturbing.  This is all fairly fascinating, but the movie begins to spin its wheels – hammering the same points about justifiable vengeance home again and again – and even with the stakes as high as they are for the suspected murder/pedophile, his plight becomes tedious, something that even the filmmakers must have recognized because they introduce another character late in the film just to keep things interesting and moving along.  The movie is not for the squeamish (hands are hammered, toenails are removed, you’ll have a hard time looking at a blowtorch for a while), but what’s not so clear is if the film is holding a mirror up to its characters’ ugly extremes as commentary, or reveling in them as entertainment.  3 Stars

THAT AWKWARD MOMENT (January 31st, 2014) – Some movies you just don’t want to write about because they are so generic and forgettable it’s hard to muster any passion to sit down and discuss them, never mind come up with an interesting way to describe their tired premise.  So please forgive me if I sound less than engaged here.  Three mid-twenty-something’s are afraid of commitment so they all pledge to stay single (only sex).  Except they all fall in love, but then realize they can’t tell each other.  Lies and their wacky ramifications ensue, rather than the 10 minute conversation that would solve all the problems in real life, naturally.  The movie stars Zach Effron, Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller, all whom have garnered a fair amount of “that kid could really be big” acclaim, but none of whom display any of that potential here.  This movie is a soulless slug through romcom (and bromcom) clichés, which many might expect given the genre or thanks to the trailer (not that expecting the filmmakers to at least try to do something different should automatically be laughed off when it comes to these kinds of comedies), but it is also insultingly stupid to boot.  The characters constantly make the stupidest possible decisions in every conflict, just to score a cheap laugh – or awkward moment, if you will – never mind that it completely insults the audience’s intelligence and renders whatever stakes the movie would have you invest in completely moot.  Everyone has seen this movie at least 20 times already.  1 Star

WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE (February 4th, 2014) – “Welcome to the Jungle” is an amusing absurdist hybrid of “Lord of the Flies” and “The Office”, most notable for its (surprisingly good) comedic turn by Jean-Claude Van Damme as an overzealous ex-marine type who runs a motivational survivalist camp on a remote island.  A cast of familiar comic faces (lead by Adam Brody) star as a group of advertising executives who find themselves stranded on the island after their boss (Dennis Haysbert) sends them there for a teamwork and morale-boosting exercise.  And boy does this group need it.  Rob Huebel is the narcissistic, cocky, insecure office hot shot who immediately wants to take charge of the situation, despite his lack of any survival knowledge or experience.  He is so threatened by the more-capable Brody upstaging him with his Boy Scout experience that he eventually divides the group into rival gangs ala “Lord of the Flies”.  The laughs in “Welcome to the Jungle” come not from its sitcomy scenario, but from the game and talented cast and their considerable (and obvious) improve skills.  You may not know actors like Huebel and Kristin Schaal by name, but you’ll likely recognize their faces and their agreeable brand of comedic riffing immediately from their numerous TV show credits and supporting film roles.   “Welcome to the Jungle” wisely lets them run with the scenarios set up in the script, resulting in some hilariously ribald dialog and insult humor.  For his part, Van Damme may not have the natural comedic ease of his costars, but he seems to be enjoying himself as he mocks his badass personality.  He’s so game for the challenge, it’s easy to forgive any stiffness in his performance.  This is one of those comedies where the story and plot are beside the point.  It was clearly made by a group of like-minded comedians as a vehicle for them to slip into the broad character personas they excel at and throw humor at the wall to see what sticks.  “Welcome to the Jungle” is admittedly slight and fairly forgettable, but it’s surprisingly plenty of fun while it lasts.  3 Stars

NEED FOR SPEED (March 14th, 2014) – Another year, another video game-based feature film; this one notable for staring Aaron Paul in first major big screen role after the phenomenon that was “Breaking Bad” wrapped production.  But if Paul wants to be a movie star – and the jury is still out as to if he has those chops (he was terrific on “Bad”, but he has yet to prove he has munch in the way of range) – he might want to consider choosing roles that don’t require him to spend the entire movie glowering like a poor man’s James Dean (I’m guessing the script called for leathery, tough-guy cool, but Paul just looks sleepy and disinterested) and scripts that aren’t riddled with clichéd dialog and situations.  “Need for Speed” would have felt tired even in the 1980s.  Paul is a small-time garage owner by day and drag racer by night who does a prison bit after he is deemed responsible for the racing death of his friend.  The real culprit is Paul’s longtime nemesis, now a professional racer (an also slumming Dominic Cooper). Both men find themselves in a notorious, underground cross-country race overseen by a billionaire puppet master gearhead (Michael Keaton, who after this and that “RoboCop” remake earlier this year can stop taking roles in movies just to prove he is the best thing in them – we get it; you’re awesome; put it to better use).  Paul vows revenge by winning the race, naturally.  He is also saddled with a pretty, pain-in-the-ass passenger (Imogen Poots), a car broker babysitting her investment.  Might they bond or even find themselves attracted to one another?  Guess you’ll just have to watch to find out…  I’m not generally one to get too down on the conventions of the action genre.  Storytelling clichés can be forgiven in service of an absorbing plot, interesting characters, well written dialog and genuinely thrilling action sequences (see “Speed”, for instance).  But “Need for Speed” has almost none of those things.  The plot is predictable, pedestrian and beside the point.  The dialog has no zip or snap to it.  The characters are uninteresting and all nothing more than stock ‘types’.  There is no suspense generated by them or the story, so there is no real reason to care about any of this.  The movie is also wildly overlong.  At 130-plus minutes, they could have cut out at least a half hour of this nonsense.  Worst of all, this movie is completely insulting to the audiences’ intelligence.  I don’t expect a realistic documentary from a movie like “Need for Speed”, but the contempt for real world logic and consequences here really leaves a bad taste.   On the plus side, the car chase stuff is fitfully entertaining; nicely staged and filmed.  If that’s all you care about, you might find some value in “Need for Speed”.  2 Stars

THE RAID 2 (March 28th, 2014) – “The Raid 2” was a big disappointment for me.  I loved, loved, LOVED 2012’s “The Raid:  Redemption”.  It was and still is the best action movie I’d seen in years.  Breathless and invigorating, it was like nothing I’d ever seen.  Literal non-stop action.  The sequel, however, takes a different tactic: more plot than action.  The result not only robs the film of the main thing that made the first film so special and spectacular (that literal non-stop action), but does so in the service of standard-issue police potboiler about rival gangs and the cop obsessed with bringing them down.  Like so many generic action movies, the particulars don’t matter.  The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, yet the film insists on spending a lot of time on longwinded exposition that really only serves to run down the clock in between action scenes, which are admittedly still spectacular here, but too short and too few.  At two and a half hours long, it’s just not worth it.  “Raid 2” (or more accurately this first film) is yet another reminder that sometimes less is so much more.  2 Stars

OCULUS (April 11th, 2014) – Haunted mirror, y’all!   Yeah, meh.  This silly movie does have some interesting mystery-solving aspects early on, but like nearly every horror movie with potential and restraint at the start these days, “Oculus” quickly devolves into clichés and chaos simply to get the requisite amount of money-shot horror-action in for the ADD crowd.  There are some good ideas buried in this movie, mostly about children coping with unhinged parents.  But IF there is any intended real-world commentary about families, it’s lost in the supernatural muddle and “Oculus” ends up feeling like yet another horror film that utilizes the cheap (and questionable) tactic of placing children in danger simply because it generates sympathetic scares (we all remember what it was like to be young and afraid of the dark; adults with the ability to reason and defend placed in these scenarios never seems to be an easy thing for directors to make terrifying).  This is another one you’ll confuse with the ever-growing multitude of possession and haunted house flicks with no-name casts a few months down the road; if you remember anything about it at all. (Not for nothing, but there was already a killer/possessed mirror movie just a few years ago, remember?  Of course you don’t.)  1 ½ Stars

Locke (April 25th, 2014) – The phrase “it’s more about the journey than the destination”
 gets thrown around a lot in film criticism.  I use it semi-regularly myself to warn audiences against, if you’ll forgive another expression, missing the forest for the trees.  Not every movie is about its outcome; rather, the pleasures are to be found in the nuances along the way:  the dialog, character vignettes, directorial flourishes; the list is endless.  But some movies are literally about the journey and do not concern themselves at all with a traditional narrative conclusion.  “Locke” is such a film.  It stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a hard-working contactor on the verge of erecting the skyscraper he has tirelessly fought to see to fruition.  On the eve of his company breaking ground, however, he gets into his BMW SUV and begins driving out of town.  ‘Why?’ is the question that consumes the rest of the film, so to say more would be spoilery, but the film is a one-man show with Hardy behind the wheel of his car and on his phone in series of conversations that change the course of his family, his life and his soul.  When he gets to his destination, the movie is over.  No epilogue or postscript; we are just with him for the ride.  What happens after that is anybody’s guess.  This style of filmmaking might prove frustrating for certain audiences.  I won’t soapbox about people needing plot details spoon-fed to them or pat conclusions in order to comprehend or enjoy a movie.  But if you can allow yourself to accept a nontraditionally structured film, there is much to appreciate in “Locke”.  First and foremost is Tom Hardy’s magnetic performance, which is etched in the considerable details of his vocal inclinations and facial expressions.  Arguably, the film is something of stunt, with its construct that might seem better suited to the stage than a feature film.  But writer-director Steven Knight finds plenty of arresting visuals and intimate angles to keep the viewer engaged throughout.  His taunt, complex script is equally compelling.  As much as Hardy is the force that elevates the proceedings from a mere experiment to a transfixing character study, Knight’s script and direction create a fully realized character study rather than a mere gimmick.  “Locke” is not a thrill ride, if that’s what you’re hoping for.  At least not in the traditional sense.  It’s a high wire act for Hardy though, and an important cautionary tale for men, both of which make a “Locke” a riveting journey. 3 Stars

ROBOCOP

Robocop-Remake

By R. David

Viewed February 12, 2014

On my list of 1980s action movies that Hollywood needs to keep their greedy little remake-happy hands straight the fuck off, “Die Hard”, “Lethal Weapon” and “RoboCop” are at the very top.  All three films are simply too iconic and, frankly, perfect just the way they are to justify any sort of “upgrade”.  Moreover, they all hold up incredibly well even 25 years later.  If you take things like fashion and hairstyle out of the mix (and even to that degree, these films hardly scream 1980s – They aren’t “Pretty in Pink” or some shit – no one is dressed like Michael Jackson or Madonna – we all still generally wear the same clothes as John McClane or Riggs and Murtaugh), there is nothing in the acting, writing, directing and overall filmmaking in any of these classics that dates them beyond the most superficial of surface level distractions (“Ha, ha!  Look at the size of that cell phone.”  “LOL!  That limo has a VCR!”).  These films don’t make any commentary on the fads, music or general pop culture of the era.  They are just lean, mean – and as it turns out – timeless classics of action cinema.

The difference between “RoboCop” and the other two aforementioned titles is that much of “RoboCop’s” action and appeal hinges on its futuristic setting and special effects setpieces.  And if there has been one legitimate improvement in filmmaking over the last 25 years, it has been in the SFX arena.  We can argue all day long about the charms of old school technology (and I will in a minute) or the fact that action movies today are too reliant on CGI, to the point of overkill and that little things like storytelling, logic and character development are being treated as an afterthought as long as there is enough eye-popping spectacle on the screen (*flips “Transformers” the bird).  Still, the fact remains that they can indeed do some amazing – and amazingly convincing – things with SFX in movie these days (cough, cough “Gravity” cough). 

So it makes some sense, I suppose, to theorize that a movie as great as “RoboCop” could only be that much cooler with a bigger budget and today’s awesome arsenal of CGI.  Of course, ten seconds after someone floats that theory, they should immediately laugh out loud at the prospect of messing with a film of such sheer perfection simply to update effects that, frankly, were a major part of the very reason the original is so memorable and beloved 25 years later. 

For example, when one thinks “RoboCop”, who doesn’t immediately recall the ED-209 with its hulking frame, blazing guns and delicious stop-motion animation?  The 209 is not as memorable and entertaining as it is because it looks cheap or dated (though young punks brought up on a steady diet of “Avatar”-like SFX might beg to differ), but rather because it is a surreal and unique character.  ED-209 feels organic, original and very much like an actual character in the film.  It even has personality (that awkward footing issue!).  The animation may lack the technical sheen of newfangled CGI, but that only matters if you see the ED-209 as an effect, rather than something organic. 

As for the other action FX in “RoboCop” – as in “Lethal Weapon”, “Die Hard”, and a good number of other ‘80s action flicks – they are actually preferable to the needlessly homogenized action we get in this day and age of CGI everything.  Back when they used stuntmen, real cars and actual locations.  CG blood?  Hell no!  Squibs.  And tons of ‘em.  Extra bloody, please.  Everyone remembers that scene where that one bad guy gets drenched in toxic waste, then gets hit by a car and explodes into a human stew.  They didn’t have CGI for that, and it wouldn’t have looked any more perfect if they did.

It is probably a moot point however because, sadly, they probably wouldn’t do anything like that today.  Sure there are still plenty of movies being made for gore-hounds, and a few directors still revel in their ability to come up with some inspired splattery action; but by and large big-budget, major-studio films that are designed to become franchise crowd-pleasers avoid these sort of outrageously violent gags.  In fact, most of these remakes of formerly hard-R action classics are bloodless PG-13 knock-offs of their inspirations (like last year’s “Total Recall” remake, for instance). 

Which finally brings us to this “RoboCop” 2.0.  It is rated PG-13, because of course it is.  And there is a ton of CGI.  Everything looks really polished, but none of it has any impact.  There is nothing surprising or moving about it.  Nothing that anyone will walk out of the theater feeling they have experienced for the first time or seen in a new, enlightening way.  Nothing that will make audiences ooh and ah or shout out in glee.  It just sits there, looking pretty and professional, indistinguishable from dozens of other films just like it.  There is nothing particularly wrong with it or terribly bad about it.  It is hardly the laughable disaster or insult to the original it could have been.  The performances are fine, but nothing special.  The plot is serviceable.  There is some admirable attempt at social and political commentary.  A few entertaining set pieces.  “Robocop” 2014 is a perfectly fine, but bland and forgettable bit of sci-fi action. 

The problem with all this – besides the fact that mediocrity is hardly something a film should strive for or the best audiences should hope for – is it is the exact opposite of everything the original was.  Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 “RoboCop” was gleefully un-PC, deliriously unhinged, and deliciously fearless.  It made points, pushed buttons, and aimed to be shockingly entertaining.  It was like “Wall Street” with bazookas.  It had imagination to spare and dared to follow the filmmakers’ imaginations wherever they went.  The result was – well, we all know it is a revered classic today.  To remake a movie like that is stupid.  But if someone must, remaking it as the total antithesis of everything that made it so special is giant, colossal fuck up.  That’s why, despite the fact that I admittedly didn’t hate it as much as I might have, I can’t muster anything but utter disdain for its very existence either.

But there are some admirable qualities here for those tempted by the prospect of a new “RoboCop” flick, no matter how sanitized and impersonal.  First, the performances are all pretty good.   Joel Kinnaman from TV’s “The Killing” is a much more hardened and brooding Alex Murphy than Peter Weller’s idealistic cowboy in the original.  In this version, Murphy and his partner Lewis (played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who fans just might notice is a black male and not a white female here) are on the trail of a ruthless crime syndicate who might-it can’t be!-but probably do have a mole in the Detroit police department.  Murphy is getting too close, so the bad guys decide to do away with him via car bomb.  This of course is a much less gruesome option for murdering the hero of your PG-13 movie than having him gun down into a bloody heap by a bunch of cackling, sadistic coke heads (However, this movie doesn’t mind showing suicide bombers explode themselves and kids get blown away by the ED-209 2.0 – because violence is fine for the whole family as long as there’s no blood, boobs or f-bombs, says the MPAA, apparently.)   Anyway, Murphy loses everything but his head, lungs and one hand (I forget which one – right, I think) in the explosion.  It’s good timing though to be reduced to three body parts, because it just so happens OmiCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) is looking for a more human version of his robot street soldiers to sell the American people on.  So, what the hell, make the head-lung-hand guy RoboCop!

This RoboCop is allowed to remember his past and maintain a relationship with his family, which is the most interesting new wrinkle the new writers here have come up with.  But he still comes with a neurological implantation or something that renders him incapable of taking down his crooked superiors and creators.  He also has an off-switch that is kind of a nuisance – always getting turned off at the most inconvenient, just-about-to-bust-the-bad-guys times.  

There’s a framing device of sorts here with Samuel L. Jackson as the blowhard host of a propaganda news program on which he basically tries to manipulate his audience’s political views by inciting a bunch of fear and faux outrage.  This is the remake’s version of the original film’s many breakaways to those satirical commercials.  It is also, obviously, the remake’s attempt at some sort of commentary and social import.  It’s a fine enough effort, and Jackson is fun to watch chew scenery as always, but it feels forced and shoehorned into this otherwise soulless Hollywood product.  Verhoeven’s political satire in the original was anything but subtle, but it all felt like part of the world his film created.  The remake, with its generic dirty cop saga at one end and scenes of drones and street soldiers wreaking havoc in Afghanistan at another, feels like two separate movies awkwardly spliced into one.  And even more awkward is how all of this is muddled down into something acceptable for tween audiences.  Needless to say, none of it makes any impact.

The real tragedy here is Michael Keaton.  Always the most energetic and engaging of performers, and in far too few films as of late, Keaton is cast here as a fairly buttoned-down corporate type.  He’s great in the role, mind you, but it gives him little opportunity to be the kind of volatilely energetic villain he’s capable of being.  Why cast such a manic, livewire actor as a straight-laced CEO when his casting is practically begging for the role of the villain that Kurtwood Smith portrayed so devilishly in the original?  Oh that’s right; because that part doesn’t exist here.  In fact, there are like four or five bad guys in this thing, but it still manages to lack a strong villain. 

Adding insult to injury, this film also features creepster extraordinaire Jackie Earl Haley as a shady military honcho-but-also-head-of-security-at-OmniCorp-I-think-and-RoboCop-trainer/hater-or something and fails to give him a role that is the least bit mysterious or intimidating.  Why would you hire two actors with such flair and unique charisma as Keaton and Haley only to cast them in roles that don’t allow either to play to their strengths?  They are fine here, and so are Kinnaman and Jackson – they all do their best with the material they’ve been given and inject some of their distinctive personalities where they can – but these are really nothing roles across the board.

Holy shit!  I almost forgot.  Gary Oldman is also in this!  I don’t know why, but he is; and like all the other talent here, he’s better than the role or movie deserves.

This is the second bastardization of a 20-plus year-old Paul Verhoeven action classic Hollywood has churned out for mass consumption in as many years (last year’s infuriatingly inept “Total Recall” was the first).  It’s one thing if Hollywood has become so bankrupt of original ideas they have to resort to remaking older films, but is it too much to ask they show some damn respect?  If the very thing that made a film such a phenomenon was its fearless originality, why shart out a pale imitation that replaces everything that made the original so special with the same tired junk we can see in every other movie?  I’d probably still bitch if Hollywood remade, say, “Mr. Mom” or “Adventures In Babysitting”, but have at ‘em if they must.  As good as those movies are, stuff like that is simple, derivative, middle of the road entertainment.   If all Hollywood needs is a recognizable title to put butts in seats, use stuff like that.  But for the love of God, please stop tainting the legacy of these groundbreaking iconic classics with lazy renderings that don’t offer an ounce of the original film’s heart and soul, never mind a justification for why the remake even exists beyond the all mighty dollar.

2 Stars (Out of 4)

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.