Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

This essay review is about the frustratingly-titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It reaches for higher concepts than most foreign dramas despite being “just a comic book movie,” it does things to my favourite comic book hero that made me angry, it held me in suspense for two years before disappointing me in two hours, but it still managed to do things that made me give it three stars. It was many things; suspenseful, scary, bombastic, and original, but it forgot that none of those things matter if it fails to be entertaining.

The philosophy of Batman or Superman, the philosophy of any fictional world or character, is fun to think about, write about, and debate among like-minded geeks. But that writing, where we analyze the reasons Batman doesn’t kill and the impacts that a real Superman would have on the real world, should not be adapted into a summer blockbuster. At best they could make good documentaries.

Summer blockbusters - particularly this decade’s comic book blockbuster - are built out of a need for entertainment. There is huge range in the genre because of this. If entertainment is the bare minimum requirement for a blockbuster then there are no real limits. That is why we can have the conspiracy thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier next to the quirky adventure Guardians of the Galaxy. And outside the comic book world we get the giddy nostalgia of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the oh-so-serious literary epic The Lord of the Rings, and everything else successful under the summer sun going back to Jaws.

If Batman v Superman has one failing (and it doesn’t, it has many), it’s that for most of its two-and-a-half hour run-time it fails to be entertaining. It’s challenging, it’s suspenseful, it’s stressful, it’s action-packed, it’s ambitious, it’s even clever, but it is never simply entertaining. I was interested in the journeys these characters went on, and in the references to the comics and films that have come before. It kept my attention for many reasons. But it did not let me be simply entertained.

It did this in many ways, which is why it warrants such a long review.

The music was, from the very beginning, operating at the level of a climax. Gothic choirs like something out of a Lord of the Rings battle were ringing out over every fight or wide angle. The only shift or elevation I noticed in the soundtrack to amplify the content of the screen instead of over-rule it was at the big reveal of Wonder Woman. She received a unique tune that did aide the visual storytelling. Everyone else got the musical equivalent of a stress dream: unrelenting and inescapably “epic”.

The span of the story means that no scene could be wasted on character moments; everything had to drive the plot forward, which suffocates the performances under exposition. Only Alfred escapes sometimes, but he does so in the quickly worn-out pattern of saying something philosophical and then following it with a snide comment under his breath that is still clearly directed at Bruce Wayne. At least Michael Caine’s snide comments were after Wayne left the room, and were directed more at us, the audience, to get a laugh. Here, the laughs are scattered and short-lived.

As a comic book film, there is no escaping it’s roots and the fans that come with it. Tim Burton got away with altering Batman’s origins in 1989. He even sort of got away with having Batman murder a guy in 1992. I think it was because his films had the clear mark of a non-comic book fan who thought the arguments that comic book readers get into about the picky details to be stupid. But Zack Snyder and his team are not snidely looking down their noses at comic book fans, daring them to argue that this thing they love is anything more than entertainment for children; they are fans. They do diligent research and it shows. There is a reference in this film to The Mask of the Phantasm, a great animated Batman film from 1993. The background of the Bat-cave is littered with references, and ever since they announced this film by quoting Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns they have made it clear that the fans come first in the imaginary audience they made this film for.

So one day they will have to explain why Batman kills people. There were a few close calls that I thought about and said, no, they survived, some of the camera angles didn’t make it clear, but surely they didn’t just show him kill a guy, and that other scene was a dream sequence so that doesn’t count. But eventually they run over every possible explanation I had to offer and showed Batman blowing up a truck with two guys in it, and crushing one car of bad guys with another car of bad guys. There’s no getting out of that one.

For now, Ben Affleck is still set to do a solo Batman film, which rumour has it will be a prequel for his Batman. And this I am still looking forward to. Despite this film’s flaws, Ben Affleck is not one of them. He is a solid Bruce Wayne and a promising Batman, and a good director. If he can tell me what happened to Robin (whose suit is seen defaced in the Bat-cave), and explain what happened to change Batman’s moral code, I will throw him my full support. Bring on Suicide Squad and more from The Man Who Wasn't Daredevil.

Same goes for Wonder Woman. Nothing much about her small part in this film raises red flags for Patty Jenkins’ production. Wonder Woman is the character that comes out of this gladiator match with the cleanest hands.

(Another note for the comic book fans: the brief appearances of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg give me, in order: a good feeling, cautious skepticism, and a shrug of disinterest. But those are essentially my feelings about the original comic characters, so nothing much has changed.)

And poor Superman can’t catch a break. He gets his big comeback film in Man of Steel and then the moody guy from Gotham steals his spotlight (and top billing). The weight of Batman on this film pulls it too far to his side for the blue boy scout to remain the main character. Since Ben Affleck’s Batman has not been seen before it ends up feeling more like Superman is cameoing in Batman’s origin film, and not starring in his own sequel.

In the end I find myself latching on to a sad idea. Buried in this film, slotted between a dream sequence and a training montage, is a cameo that gives me a different kind of hope. There is, it seems to me, a small possibility that in a future film this entire experience will be rewritten, Days of Future Past-style, and this frustrating film will be pushed out of canon like X-Men 3 and Wolverine. Some time-travel could do some good, and that is the real tragedy of this whole thing. All this work and build-up and the best hope I have for this film is that it will be written off as a discarded timeline in some future Justice League story. That is a sad place for a film to end up.

I said I had complex feelings about this film, and I don’t think this essay review scratches the surface, but the short answer I would have given the customers at the movie rental counter is this: it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan, the same way the Star Wars prequels are worth seeing, but if you want to be entertained by a serious, non-Marvel, superhero film, rent Batman Begins.

Friday, April 25, 2014

TheatreOne's Doubt: A Parable

TheatreOne is finishing its season with John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable.

Many will be familiar with Shanley’s film, but this stage version is highly recommended if you have not seen the film, and even more highly recommended if you have.

Doubt introduces us first to Father Flynn (frank Zotter), a charismatic priest who opens with a sermon, and then to strict principal Sister Beauvier (Norma Bowen) and young, idealistic teacher Sister James (Julie McIsaac).

Once insinuations are made about Father Flynn’s attentiveness with certain boys, we also meet one of the boys’ mothers, Mrs. Muller (Monice Peter).

The schoolchildren are off-stage, only sounds and subjects of conversation, and Flynn’s congregation is us, the audience.

Other nuns, other priests, and the busy population of New York City weigh in on the story, but the elegant structure of Shanley’s script means we never need more than these four characters.
This allows four actors the opportunity (and challenge) to keep the audience’s attention, and TheatreOne’s cast has no weakest link.

Instead, the four players offer very effective interpretations that build to be just as impactful as any previous performances.

The production team for TheatreOne has created an elegant, simple set that makes great use of the revolving stage.

A constantly scattered light, like sunlight through trees, throws shadows across parts of the set that would otherwise be plain, and the soft dimming between scenes as the set rotates, through to the final blackout, allow the entire production a hypnotic rhythm that avoids the stop/start awkwardness of amateur shows.

TheatreOne has done a marvellous job working with a script that is unquestionably a modern masterpiece. Even if the production were messy (it’s not), and the actors were lousy (they’re not), Doubt is a play that must be seen on a stage.

Doubt performs nightly at 7:30 in the Malaspina Theatre at VIU until Sunday, April 27. For tickets, call: 250-754-7587.

Originally published in the Nanaimo Daily News and Harbour City Star

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What if James Bond was American?

Inspired by BuzzFeed's clever What If "Doctor Who" Was American? column, I decided to consider that other 50-year-strong British franchise.

1. Paul Newman

The one and only original Bond, James Bond. Winning the part over Fleming-favorite Robert Redford, Newman made the role iconic and cemented his career as a leading man for decades to come. The elements that make the Bond films what they are were all established during Newman's tenure including the classic Ford Torino GT and Ernest Borgnine as Q.

2. Warren Beatty

Although he only played Bond in one film, Beatty managed to prove that the franchise didn't have to end with Newman's retirement. And with the tragic death of Tracy Bond (Faye Dunaway), 1969's On the People's Secret Service remains one of the series' most emotional films.

3. James Garner

Originally expected to take over after Newman, James Garner signed up for another season of Maverick and was unable to take the role until 1973's Live and Let Die. Garner's lighter persona proved popular, and he became the longest-running Bond with 7 films between 1973 and 1985.

4. Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton was a return to the darker, more violent Bond films of the Newman era, bringing back the physicality that had been lost with Garner's increasing age. After 1989's Licence to Kill, Keaton decided not to return.

5. Kevin Costner

In a post-Cold War world, Kevin Costner became known as the best Bond since Newman. He saw Bond into the modern era of computers and terrorism in 4 films between 1995 and 2002. Costner's Bond was under the command of the first female M (Meryl Streep), and he was the last Bond to work with Ernest Borgnine's Q before he retired in The World is Not Enough and replaced by Bill Murray.

6. Johnny Depp

For the 21st Bond film it was decided the franchise would reboot with a young Bond at the start of his career in Casino Royale. Skyfall, Depp's third film as Bond, saw a new Q (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a new M (Bryan Cranston), and new Miss Moneypenny (Zoe Saldana) usher in a return to the classics.