Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

03/28/2016

Alien vs predator, nobody wins

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RIDDLE me this: how do you put three of the greatest comic book superheroes of all time into one big-budget movie and still make a mess of it?

Just ask Warner Bros. and DC Comics, apparently.

The long-awaited superhero smackdown movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, has finally hit the big screen and, well, it is awful.

Please believe me when I say I really didn’t want to have to say that. There were plenty of early warning signs that this was going to be a dud, but I went in to the cinema full of hope that my fears would be put to rest.

But, sorry, it just sucks.

With every new trailer that was released, each one giving away far too much of the story, it became increasingly clear that something was wrong. And, sadly, it turned out to be exactly what so many feared it would be: overproduced, underwritten fanbait rubbish. The film was just a longer version of its own trailers.

The promise of that classic comic book fantasy of hero vs. hero gets you through the door, but what you get is two hours’ worth of laborious foreshadowing and plotting, with about 30 minutes of almost token pay-off slotted in far too late in the game.

Batman v Superman is set in the wake of the events of the 2013 movie Man of Steel, in which a reckless young Superman announces his presence to the world by engaging in a battle with General Zod that leaves Metropolis in ruins and thousands of people dead.

Billionaire playboy and part-time Batman, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) forms the opinion that having a godlike alien living on Earth and doing whatever the heck he wants isn’t an ideal situation, so vows to destroy Superman (Henry Cavill).

And that’s all there is, really. The writing team worked so hard on creating the pretext for the big fight that they seemed to forget that it had to make sense or be entertaining.

The plot, I think, does make some logical sense if you really look at it, but you have to REALLY work on it. And that’s a problem. I spent most of the film kind of cocking one eyebrow at it and asking “but, why? Why would he do that? Why would she go there? But, why?”

It baffles me that something this bad could come from the pen of David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, Jumper, Batman Begins, Blade, Dark City). And with Goyer and Christopher Nolan also executive producers, what the hell went wrong here? Was the entire thing just made by a committee?

Ironically, the one shining light amid all this mess is Ben Affleck as...


Batman v Superman, with Ben Affleck, is a superhero movie for adults

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As a boy I loved the now old-fashioned Superman and Batman television shows, starring George Reeves and Adam West respectively. The costumed crime fighters’ high-jinks, vocally pungent adventures entertained and amused my young self. One of the great aspects of art, though, is its evolution with that of its practitioners and followers, and so as an adult I far prefer the harder, tougher, meaner, self-doubting superhero incarnations, such as Christian Bale’s remarkable Batman in Christopher Nolan’s 2005-12 The Dark Knight Trilogy. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which owes a bit to The Dark Knight of 2008, is a superior superhero film that puts forward complex, flawed characters, absorbing locations and intelligent ideas, and parallels the terrible wrongs of our world.

Indeed, as I left the Sydney preview screening of the film this week, my phone buzzed with news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels. It was a powerful reminder — one that the engaged Snyder seems aware of — that the daily evils we face have less to do with active gods and extraterrestrials seeking spots on Earth than with the constant abuses of mere earthlings. As offsider Alfred (an excellent, restrained Jeremy Irons) tells Batman (Ben Affleck) at one point: “What turns good men cruel?” Later, a battered Superman (Henry Cavill) laments: “Superman was never real … just the dream of a farmer from Kansas.’’ The title suggests this is a battle between Batman and Superman — and it is at times, spectacularly so — but they are not the most dangerous inhabitants of the planet.

The action opens with a brilliant reimagining of the concluding scenes in Snyder’sMan of Steel (2013), in which the Kryptonian forces assault Earth. We see it all from ground level, mainly though the panicked eyes of Bruce Wayne aka Batman. It’s thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff. We then move forward 18 months and drop in on challenging places, including a terrorist camp in Africa that features reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and, soon after, Superman.

We learn that the human population, assisted by a US government investigation, has started to question the place and role of Superman. “The world has been so caught up with what Superman can do,’’ we are told, “no one has asked what he should do.” Outside the US Capitol, protesters wave...



11/11/2015

The Peanuts Movie / *** (2015)

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Despite the reality of our times to sensationalize family entertainment in massive amounts of color and whimsy, some tiny part of us longs for the days of simpler values. They allowed us to get to the center of narrative philosophies, in which storytellers had something compelling to say, and pitched them home in the hearts of characters we found great commonality with. Those possibilities are at their most precious, I feel, in cartoons; made within the milieu of childhood considerations, they gave young adventurous eyes the chance to comprehend the imaginative depth of the world around them, how to deal with tragedy or danger, and what they could do to instill joy in themselves and others. It is, by all measures, the medium where experienced voices come alive and new ones can be made, usually without the unrelenting nihilism that is prevalent among the modern masses. Only recently did those ideas begin losing their shape in the rush of new technology; as computers improved the dexterity of the images, such yarns lost the nerve to get beneath the surface. The long term consequences are, unfortunately, running silent; as such endeavors continue to drive home box office business, movie studios are exacerbating a growing problem among young minds, which have been taught to be won over by pomp and circumstance instead of plots that might speak to their emotional development.

Every once in a while the past comes back to haunt us fondly, and “The Peanuts Movie” is, perhaps, the most enchanting of those more recent mainstream anomalies. The personalities that dominate the frames of Charles Schulz’s resonating comic strip have all but been absorbed into the timeless awareness of pop culture over the course of decades, and with good reason; collectively, they embody all of the fantasies and aspirations of young hearts, and give us stories that cater to the core desires of living in a world full of mischief and daydreaming. When I too was young, they were the sorts of characters that I visited just as frequently as those of, say, a movie like “The Goonies.” It’s fun to see something on screen that you can connect with like a distant friend, because those possibilities enhance the awareness of simple situations, and create personal stakes. A bunch of schoolkids playing a game of baseball is not inherently exciting, for instance, but when we attach our admiration to the ones pitching the curve balls, it’s hard not to...


The Peanuts Movie: Good grief, they ruined Charlie Brown

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Late last week, in a transparent promotional ploy conveniently tied to Halloween, the cast of The Today Show dressed up as characters from The Peanuts Movie. Photos quickly spread across the Internet, accompanied by disbelieving qualifiers like “horrid” and “awful” and “nightmarish.”

There was Al Roker as Charlie Brown, Matt Lauer in a huge purple-blue dress as Lucy, Kathie Lee Gifford in an overstuffed yellow suit as Woodstock the bird, and so on. The costumes were truly horrendous. Carson Daly’s Linus looked like Gollum from the Hobbit movies. Meredith Vieira’s Pig-Pen was, somehow, even worse.

And yet this bungled plug for The Peanuts Movie managed to say more about it than all the other, considerably less ghoulish promotional material combined. Here were the familiar-ish faces of the Peanuts gang, all ghastly and putrefied and totally repellent. It was like the prototypes of Charles M. Schulz’s beloved characters had been exposed to some ungodly nuclear fallout, been irreparably mutated and skittered howling and half-molten out of our anguished nightmares and onto America’s television screens.

There’s a tendency, I think, to believe that nostalgia preserves things: that it’s a kind of shellac safeguarding memories of things we care about. The Peanuts Movie reveals that the opposite is true. Nostalgia may offer a rosy, redemptive glaze for the stuff we like – typically stuff from our youth, such as Charlie Brown comics or, more generally, Schulz’s charmingly simple notions of small-town life. But underneath that glossy patina, the stuff we like rots and decomposes. Then there’s only the nostalgia and the memory of the thing: a shimmery sheen wrapped over a hollow centre.

While it’s naive to expect that any media property would stand exempt from the relentless grind of rebooting and revival (and perhaps especially a property as thoroughly franchised as the Peanuts comics), there’s something sad about seeing a character as sweet and simple as good ol’ Charlie Brown so totally ruined. The Peanuts Movie trots out everyone’s favourite balding child and hopeless depressive for another rote adventure where he learns the oft-learned lesson that he should just be himself. (Considering what a neurotic loser he is, maybe Charlie Brown should give being someone else...



10/23/2015

Deep Focus: Rock the Kasbah

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For Barry Levinson’s nimble, big-hearted comedy-drama Rock the Kasbah, writer Mitch Glazer has come up with Bill Murray’s richest role in years, one that exploits the comedian’s love of tawdry old-time show biz and rejuvenates him at the same time. The result is a frisky, inventive, and endearing performance in a movie that is, like its lead character, full of surprises.

As Richie Lanz, a one-time rock tour manager who sees himself as an inspired agent/manager and signs up with his protégé for a USO tour to Afghanistan, Murray displays the ability to think on his feet and on his back and in all postures in-between. He has a touch of the demotic poet in him: he spins out juicy bits of rock history to lend a mythic size to the seediest situations. When his assistant, Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel), also his only pro or semi-pro client, refers to their bumpy plane ride into Kabul as a “death trip,” he says, no, the Bangles tour in ’85—that was a death trip.

The modest miracle of this movie is that, by the end, it’s both funny and touching to discover that Richie considers the contract between management and talent a sacred bond. By then, he’s discovered, signed, and imperiled a Pashtun village girl, Salima Khan (Leem Lubany), who becomes the first female contestant on the American Idol-like TV show, Afghan Star. The real series was chronicled in a moving 2009 documentary named after the show. Levinson and Glazer dedicate this feature to one of its trailblazing female competitors, Setara Hussainzada, who sang and danced in front of the camera, received death threats, then moved to Germany.

Salima lets down her niqab and sings, in English, Cat Stevens’s biggest hits from the early Seventies. Songs like “Wild World” and “Peace Train” would be perfect for this movie even if Stevens hadn’t converted to Islam in 1977 and changed his name to Yusuf Islam. Rock the Kasbah restores the truth to the honorable clichés of Show Biz Past, like “the show must go on” and “talent will out”—tenets often forgotten in pop arenas where bad behavior and burnouts are predictable. They become matters of life and death to Richie and Salima.

Refreshing in its unexpected mix of cynicism and hopefulness, Rock the Kasbah refuses to get moralistic about a character like the spangled hooker Merci...


Rock The Kasbah is a smaller, dumber Ishtar

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There’s a fine line between straight-faced and sincere in cinema, where viewers have to take presentation and action as character, and can’t necessarily dig deep behind a character’s façade unless the story expressly encourages it. Bill Murray has walked that fine line for decades, shouting sarcasm without cracking a smile. He’s charming and funny enough to make his barely repressed sardonic smirk feel charismatic instead of offensive, but it can be hard to tell from his performance alone whether a given character is meant to be an appealing rake or a caustic jerk cruising through life, looking for comeuppance. (The answer is often “both.”) And when his caustic jerks do find comeuppance—in Groundhog Day, say, or Scrooged—even his most unrepressed celebrations of life tend to have that same tone of wink-wink remove that says, “Yeah, I’ve been a bad boy, but I know you love it, and I’m not that sorry.”

All of which makes Murray the perfect star for Barry Levinson’s vaguely-based-on-a-true-story would-be uplift movie Rock The Kasbah, a comedy that’s openly afraid to seem too sincere or too mawkish, and doesn’t fully commit either to its comedy or its uplift. Like Murray, it’s wry and presented largely in air quotes, with an accompanying eye-roll.

Screenwriter Mitch Glazer (who also scripted Scrooged) was inspired by the story of Setara Hussainzada, a Muslim woman who defied the ultra-conservative post-Taliban culture in Afghanistan by singing and dancing on the American Idolequivalent Afghan Star in 2008. In an era following shortly after a complete ban on music or dancing—let alone women entertaining on television—Hussainzada dealt with death threats, extensive personal harassment, and widespread condemnation, as documented in the Sundance-award-winning documentary Afghan Star and its much more intimate follow-up, Silencing The Song. Given such an outspoken, humorous, iconoclastic real-life character, Glazer finds the least interesting possible angle on her story: the question of how her bravery affects a down-on-his-luck American scam artist who hopes to ride her burka-train to glory.

Murray plays scammy Van Nuys talent agent Richie Lanz, a divorced deadbeat dad who’s reduced to working out of a low-rent hotel and cheating talentless wannabes for pocket cash. Not that any of...



09/15/2015

‘The Perfect Guy’ review: Don’t bother with stalker-boyfriend movie

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THERE HAVE been enough stalker-boyfriend movies over the years that any new one must change the formula. But “The Perfect Guy” has no such ambition. It’s a lazy, by-the-numbers bore. It almost jumps through hoops to not be different in any way. In fact, you could sleep through the movie and still recite what happened. Which, incidentally, is basically what the person sitting three seats down from me did.

Sanaa Lathan plays Leah, a lobbyist who breaks up with her boyfriend because she wants to start a family and he doesn’t. Two months later, she meets Carter (Michael Ealy) a charmer who sweeps her off her feet. She thinks she’s met the (wait for it) perfect guy, but she dumps him after he displays a sudden violent temper, beating the snot out of a man who was talking to Leah.

Carter doesn’t take the dumping well and begins stalking Leah with calls and unannounced visits. But this behavior goes on, and on. Pretty soon it’s turned into a live action Pepé Le Pew movie. Leah goes for a walk. Carter’s there. Leah goes to a restaurant. Carter’s followed her there.

At one point Leah gets the police involved, and a cop remarks that he thinks there’s more to what's going on here than a standard stalker situation, which is incredible because there is nothing that happens here that is not standard.

Tyger Williams’ script features some remarkably leaden exchanges, and the actors look as though they want to be anywhere else. I certainly can’t blame them.

The only difference between this thrill-less thriller and a Lifetime movie is a $15 ticket.


The Perfect Guy Review

The Perfect Guy‘s marketing campaign doesn’t do the self-consciously campy stalker-thriller (a less over-the-top but still ideal double billing with last January’s The Boy Next Door) any favors – its tagline, “Trust One, Fear the Other,” promises a tastelessly regressive sort of love triangle in which two possessive men clash violently over the affections of a lady love. That’s not the kind of film, in a year that’s already delivered some of the decade’s most indelible female characters (in fare as diverse yet mainstream as Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Spy and Inside Out), many critics are chomping at the bit to sample.

Luckily, this is one of those rare Hollywood productions with surprises in store, most notably lead actress Sanaa Lathan, who takes a simple harangued-heroine part and draws out of it enough charisma and complexity to elevate the entire movie above the bargain-bin fare it probably would have been in less capable hands. Playing successful working woman Leah, who dumps her longtime boyfriend Dave (Morris Chestnut) after he blanches at the thought of starting a family, the actress quickly constructs a deeply sympathetic and likable protagonist whom audiences can genuinely root for (a rarity nowadays, especially in the romantic thriller genre).

Soon after she gives Dave the boot, Leah finds herself falling for the very handsome, impeccably put-together Carter (Michael Ealy), whose whirlwind courtship soon leaves the girl wondering if she’s finally met the right guy. Carter, with his high-flying career, force of personality and flawless smile, seems too good to be true. And because everyone going into the theater knows what kind of movie this is, it’s no surprise when that’s exactly the case- turns out, the dude’s a controlling head-case prone to outbursts of terrible violence. Horrified, Leah slams on the brakes and tries to leave Carter in her rearview. But unfortunately for her, this perfect guy is actually a perfect nightmare, tech-savvy and obsessive enough to make her life a living hell.

Now, nothing in The Perfect Guy is going to knock your socks off with originality – director David M. Rosenthal and writer Tyger Williams wear their influences on their sleeve, from Fatal Attraction to Obsessed to Lakeview...



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