Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particular in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

Advertisements

The Accountant (2016)

2017 #73
Gavin O’Connor | 128 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

The Accountant

In this action-thriller from the director of the overrated Warrior, Ben Affleck stars as Chris Wolff, an autistic accountant who excels at auditing complex financial records. No, wait! I did say action-thriller, because Chris’ clients are mostly criminal organisations, and he uses the martial arts training his father instilled as a child to double up as a hitman. See, it’s exciting really.

When Chris is called to audit a robotics company (run by John Lithgow) who have found irregularities in their books (why this criminal accountant is called to work for a legit company I can’t remember, but I’m sure it was explained in the film), he unexpectedly bonds with Dana (Anna Kendrick), the company accountant who spotted the problem. After his audit unearths evidence of embezzlement, both Chris and Dana find themselves the target of bad people (led by Jon Bernthal) who want to keep the company’s secrets. Meanwhile, a couple of FBI agents (J.K. Simmons and Cynthia Addai-Robinson) are on the trail of the mysterious criminal known primarily as “the Accountant”…

Maths!

The Accountant has lots of moving bits and pieces — I’ve not even alluded to all of them in that summary — but to call it a complicated film would be either too generous or a disservice, depending on your point of view. There’s a clarity to it all that keeps it easy to follow but suitably engaging, even as it plays out multiple storylines in a couple of time periods (there are flashbacks aplenty to Chris’ childhood training). And if you’re thinking, “finally a film that makes accounting exciting!”, I’m sorry to disappoint you but Chris’ maths skills are really just a MacGuffin to get the ball rolling. What it does deliver is a decent thriller plot, with a couple of twists to keep things lively. It’s also a pretty satisfying narrative — I’m not sure there’s ever been another movie that so thoroughly tied up everything into nice neat little bows. I suppose that’s at least kind of appropriate given the hero’s condition.

The action element is mainly reserved for the second half, when Chris has to deal with the people out to get him. This isn’t one for adrenaline junkies — it’s not a nonstop fight-fest like, say, a Bourne movie — but there’s a suitably violent climax nonetheless.

Shooting!

In some respects The Accountant shouldn’t be a good movie. It treats autism as a superpower, which is both inaccurate and turning into a cliché; but it doesn’t do it so egregiously that it feels entirely tacky. The whole side story with the FBI also feels kind of clunky, though at least eventually goes somewhere — whether that somewhere is relevant and clever, or pointless and daft for the sake of a twist, is up to your own judgement. Same goes for the other major final-act reveal.

Yet, for all that, it’s kind of fun. Not in the obvious jokey way that, say, Guardians of the Galaxy is fun, but in the way that it provides decent characters, decent thrills, decent action, and a thorough set of conclusions that put pins in everything, including things you didn’t even think needed tying up. There may be points in the middle when you come close to rolling your eyes and almost wanting to give up on it, but by the end it’s all pretty satisfying.

4 out of 5

The Accountant is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Armageddon (1998)

2016 #133
Michael Bay | 145 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

ArmageddonSometimes you have to wait to see a film because it’s not accessible for some reason (no one’s put it out yet, or it’s out of print and costs a fortune, or whatever). Other times… maybe it’s just me, but there are some films that I wait years to watch for no particular reason. Not wait in the sense of “drumming my fingers waiting for the chance”, but in the sense that I’ll get to it someday, it’s just not a priority, for whatever reason. And then one day, with nothing apparently having changed, the time comes when it’s that movie’s turn.

So it was for me with Armageddon, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi disaster epic. It’s a film I’ve been aware of since it came out (how could you not be?) but never cared enough to actually watch, other than a general feeling I’d get round to it one day because (a) it’s the kind of movie everyone else has seen, and (b) when Michael Bay’s good, he is good (at what he does), so it’s at least worth a look. It’s a pretty readily available film — the kind of thing I regularly see in TV listings or on streaming services and consider watching and end up deciding “nah, not today” — so quite what made me finally watch it now — what made me see it in a list and go “actually, yes, today” — I’m not sure. Such are the mysteries of life. Or of my brain, at any rate.

For the few people who haven’t seen it, then, it’s about a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, where its impact will cause an extinction-level event, and NASA deciding the only way to stop it is to send up a couple of spaceships to land on the asteroid, drop nukes inside, and blow it up (it’s a Michael Bay movie, of course the solution is “blow it up”). To learn about the kind of deep drilling this would require, they bring in the best driller around, Bruce Willis, to train the astronauts. But drilling isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks — unlike “how to be an astronaut”, apparently, because it’s decided it will be easier to train drillers to be astronauts than train astronauts to use a drill.

At least they know which way space isIf you’re a reader from outside the UK, I guess you’ve probably not heard of Tim Peake. He’s (quite rightly) been big news here for the last year or so because he was our first (official) astronaut. That it’s taken until now for there to be a British astronaut seems remarkable, but there you go. I guess we always let other people do the initial exploring, then come along later to own the place — I mean, that Columbus fella was Italian, and is Italian the official language of America? No it is not. Anyway, Peake is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, has a degree in Flight Dynamics and Evaluation, was selected to be an astronaut in a process that involved academic tests, fitness assessments, and several interviews, and then received six years of training, including a mission as an aquanaut, before he went into space. But no, you can totally train a group of drillers to do that in a fortnight.

Many Hollywood blockbusters have ludicrous concepts, but Armageddon feels designed to plow new furrows of ridiculousness. Apparently NASA show the film to new managers and ask them to spot the errors. There are at least 168. It only takes a few minutes before it’s already so OTT that it seems like a spoof of Bay — I mean, the title card explodes for crying out loud. When the president makes a speech just before the launch, the quaint shots of the world listening in make it look like the film’s set in the 1950s. Despite being a full two-and-a-half hours long, Bay manages to make the whole film feel like a plot-summarising montage. The average shot length must be Moulin Rouge-level crazy, though where that film weighs super-fast-cut scenes against more measured ones, I think Armageddon is out-of-control-freight-train fast for every last second. Bay is so impatient, the credits start rolling before the film has even finished! And why the fuck does the drilling vehicle have a fucking great machine gun on it?!

Bruce Willis flashesApparently Michael Bay thinks it’s his worst film. In 2013, he said, “I will apologise for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could.” The problems stretch further than that, Michael.

Believe it or not, it’s not all bad. The bit where Bruce Willis’ life flashes before his eyes is actually really good — ten seconds of artistic moviemaking in a 150-minute movie! Visually it looks great throughout, meaning DoP John Schwartzman is possibly the only person who comes out of the whole thing entirely unscathed. The special effects are excellent for 1998. I thought Independence Day’s were still effective when I re-watched it earlier this year, but Armageddon’s feel much less dated, and it was only made two years later. As an effects showcase, it absolutely still holds up today. That said, the top of the Chrysler building falling off, complete with plummeting screaming people, is considerably less palatable since 9/11. And just a minute later there’s a shot of the World Trade Center with burning holes in it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been re-edited to remove those shots, especially as it’s a Disney-owned movie and they have a history of self-censoring stuff that is no longer considered acceptable.

Armageddon was, famously, released the same year as Deep Impact, which I watched many years ago but remember as a character-driven drama about an asteroid threatening the end of the world. Armageddon’s action-packed bluster was more successful at the box office, of course, but Deep Impact was the more mature movie. SPACE EXPLOSION!Maybe I’m wrong — it has a lower rating on IMDb. But then, that is IMDb. I should probably watch it again, but even without doing that I feel pretty confident saying it’s the better film.

If Michael Bay knew he was making a comedy, Armageddon might be a great movie. But he didn’t. While it’s definitely bad, I did kind of enjoy it… but mainly to laugh at. Make of that what you will.

2 out of 5

The ⅔ Monthly Update for August 2016

2016 is 66.67% over — here’s how my film viewing went for the last 12.5% of that, i.e. the most recent 8.3% of the year.


#128 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (2016)
#129 Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)
#130 The Good Dinosaur (2015)
#131 Pride (2014)
#132 Road Games (1981), aka Roadgames
#133 Armageddon (1998)
#134 The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
#135 Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
#136 Enemy (2013)
#137 Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
#138 Deep Blue Sea (1999)
#139 Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
#140 Duel (1971)
#141 The Salvation (2014)
#142 The Maltese Falcon (1941)

.


  • With 15 new films watched, August is my best month since April. It’s also my 27th month in a row with 10+ films.
  • With two-thirds of the year still to go, 2016 is already my second highest year ever, having sailed passed 2014’s final tally of 136 in the middle of the month.
  • This month’s WDYMYHS viewing was the progenitor of much of what we know as film noir, the 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon.



The 15th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
There are a few quality films up there this month, in my opinion, both the expected (Duel, The Maltese Falcon) and the less-so (BvS Ultimate Edition, The Good Dinosaur), but probably my favourite of the lot was the Ozploitation flick you could call “Duel Down Under”, or “Rear Windscreen” — Road Games.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
For all the faults of Armageddon, the recently released Honest Trailer has just served to clarify/remind me of the disappointment of Batman: The Killing Joke.

Best Song I’d Never Heard Of Until I Saw It in a Trailer This Month
After I watched something or other on Amazon this month, one of the recommended films was Demolition starring Jake Gyllenhaal. (It wasn’t after Enemy, because I watched that on Now TV; it was probably Dallas Buyers Club. Anyway.) I knew nothing about the film but have seen it come up a few times, so I watched the trailer, and the best part of that was the music: Heart’s Crazy On You. This has been a real “how have I never heard this before?!” moment. It also made me really want to see the film, so, y’know, trailers work.

Best Bit of Audio Commentary Ever
I am going to review Armageddon eventually, but really, all you need to do is watch these 2 minutes of Ben Affleck’s commentary:

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
I tend to find reviews of alternate cuts do particularly well, hit-wise (I figure that’s why the first two Harry Potters are far and away my most-read posts ever, and still usually top the list for each day, while the other Harry Potters just see average-to-good figures). The post that topped this month’s tally doesn’t surprise me greatly, then. The winner, by a country mile (it’s already my second most-read new post of the entire year), is my review of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition.



It’s a heady genre cornucopia this month, with nine movies spanning Action, Comedy, Drama, Musical, Romance, Sci-fi, Thriller, and Western — usually more than one at once.


The 8.3% of the year known as September.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

2016 #65
Zack Snyder | 151 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

With Warner Bros’ universe-launching superhero epic now in its second weekend (unless you live in Myanmar or Poland, anyway), you’ve probably more than had your fill of spoilerphobic reviews. So allow me to provide a spoiler-filled one. (There are a fair few of those around too, of course, but not all reviews can be beautiful or unique snowflakes.)

Despite being a sequel to Man of Steel and featuring a Superman-heavy supporting cast (from Batman’s world we have Alfred; from Superman’s we have Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White, Lex Luthor, Martha Kent, and (spoiler for something that was in the trailer) Doomsday), Batman v Superman is really a Batman movie. It begins with the latest recap of his origin story — pretty much a prerequisite for any new big-screen incarnation of the Dark Knight. But don’t give up on the film within the opening minutes, because BvS is actually going somewhere with this — the Bat’s backstory has a role to play in the climax. Anyway, after that we get a recap of the end of Man of Steel: as Zod and Supes turn Metropolis into rubble and slaughter untold thousands in the process, we see Bruce Wayne driving and running through the collapsing city streets, heading for a Wayne Financial building where he does superhero-y stuff like save a little girl’s life, and fix the flying Kryptonians with a glare that says, “you are my new enemies.” Central conflict, right there.

I say this is a Batman movie, but in many respects it’s actually a Bruce Wayne movie. Is there a difference? I suppose you could argue not, what with Bruce being the man inside the Batsuit, but I would say a “Batman movie” concentrates on what he gets up to in that suit — fighting crazy villains, essentially — while a “Bruce Wayne movie” would be more about the man, his decisions, his emotions. Now, I’m not about to claim BvS is big on its characters’ inner lives, but if it really taps into the thoughts and feelings of anyone, it’s Bruce. This is a Batman who has perhaps lost his way, scarred by too many tragedies in his life. There are unmissable references to his 20-year crimefighting career; to good people turning bad; the Joker-graffitied Robin suit… This isn’t fan-pleasing/teasing background detail, it speaks to Bruce’s mindset. He’s become the kind of person who believes lines like, “if there’s a 1% chance he’s our enemy, we must take it as an absolute certainty.” He’s a bit of a right-wing nut, basically. If you want to find a character or emotional throughline to the movie, it’s Bruce learning to be a better hero again.

Of course, this being a Zack Snyder film, it often does a muddled job of presenting this kind of material to us. There’s also a heavy vein of what it means to be a hero, with Superman under constant scrutiny for his actions, with questions being asked about what rights he has to act the way he does, and whether methods are needed to stop him. These are potentially interesting themes to tackle, provided you buy into the whole superhero genre in the first place — they don’t really have any real-life equivalent, if that’s what interests you in movies; they’re predicated in the thought process of, “if Superman was real, what would it be like?”

So assuming we consider these as valid things to dig into, it’s a shame the film does a muddled job of it. There’s some grandstanding and speechmaking, and some heavily portentous dialogue, but what is it really saying? Good luck finding out. Maybe repeat viewings and some proper consideration will reveal more depth tucked away there. Certainly, I’ve been a bit annoyed with some of the glib online criticism of the dialogue and the ideas presented through it; commentary that chooses to focus on one sentence that comes at the end of a discussion, so the clever-clever internet person can laugh at the silliness of that line’s question or observation, ignoring the fact that there was a whole range of dialogue before that one line, and in that dialogue the idea was more fully considered or explained. But no, it’s easier to take a soundbite and analyse it as, “lolz, shit dialogue, dude.” I’m not saying BvS has a script of Oscar-worthy, polished, believable, insightful dialogue, but it’s not that poor, either.

But if we are criticising the screenplay, let’s turn our attention to the story and its structure, which leaves something to be desired. This isn’t just the writers’ fault, of course, because myriad things affect a film once the screenplay is signed off. In the case of story structure, editing seems a likely culprit — not the actual cutting together of individual shots to craft a sequence or scene, which is as good here as in any action blockbuster, but in terms of storytelling. Frankly, that’s a bit of a mess. Or a lot of a mess, maybe. Whole scenes serve literally no purpose or are clearly in the wrong place — the bit where Perry wanders up to Clark Kent’s desk and wonders if he’s clicked his heels and disappeared back to Kansas, for example. What purpose does it serve? None. But where it might have a role is where it clearly belongs: a couple of minutes later, right before the scene where Superman is in Kansas, chatting to his mom. Why is it not right before that scene? It’s like someone accidentally dragged it out of place on their computer editing timeline and never noticed. Sure, this is a minor point in the grand scope of the film, but it belies a sloppiness to the entire storytelling.

That extends all over the place. Someone clearly thought the movie was short on action — it has a lot of plot to get through, and whereas once upon a time it would’ve just got on with that plot and happily let all the action sit at the end, that’s not allowed these days. So, unable to find a combat or chase within the real narrative, Bruce has visions of a possible future where Batman wears some kind of dusty trench-coat and battles Superman-symbol-emblazoned soldiers in a Mad Max-esque landscape. In itself it’s a neat, fanboy-pleasing “alternate world” idea, and it’s an exciting sequence with some excellent action choreography, and it certainly looked good in the trailers, but in the film it’s a total aside from anything.

The only purpose it might serve is teasing the future — what is the giant Omega symbol? What are those flying devil-creatures? DC fans know that’s all related to alien supervillain Darkseid, and late in the film Lex Luthor makes a veiled reference to imply that some such alien badass is on the way. Yep, it’s Marvel-style foreshadowing, where every film is just a stepping stone to the next. Except BvS does it even more heavy-handedly than Marvel. As I said, the dream/vision is utterly unnecessary; Lex’s line is nonsensical (how does he know?); and the way other members of the Justice League are teased… You know, I don’t even want to discuss it. It’s a bad Marvel post-credit scene shoehorned into the middle of the movie. It feels like someone accidentally cut a teaser trailer into the actual print of the film. It’s not even so bad it’s good, it’s just tacky. And, I have to say, though I’m not the biggest fan of The CW’s Flash TV show (I think it’s been massively overpraised by some of superhero fandom), Cheery TV Barry Allen seems a much more likeable, comics-accurate version of the character than the movies’ Hipster Beard Barry Allen. Maybe it’s just the beard, I don’t know; but even if it is just the beard, it’s a hipster beard, and it’s wrong.

For a movie that critics stuck it to*, there’s an awful lot to say about BvS — genuine stuff, not just facile observations on hipster beards. This is not a film that needs an extra 30 minutes in an Ultimate Edition. It does need scenes re-arranging; it does need focusing in on its various plots — because there is actually a throughline here; a story that connects all the disparate strands together. Some people will miss it because those strands are so varied and so haphazardly put together, but there is a character who has an overarching plan and has engineered a lot of what’s going on — and as this is a spoilersome review, I can say that character is Lex. It surprised me a little that there was method to the madness; that someone had been orchestrating all these disparate elements. Surprise is good; surprise that makes you rethink the film even better — but you’re meant to rethink to look for clues you missed, not rethink to see if that even fits with everything we’ve seen. That’s because even if you do latch on to the almost-throwaway sliver of dialogue that indicates Lex put all of this together, the way it’s presented in this cut makes it come a little out of nowhere. However, I believe it’s a plausible explanation of events (within the realms of the version of the genre these films are in), and would tie the whole thing together neatly, were it just a little clearer.

So, saying “there’s an awful lot to say about BvS” and then not saying it is a cop-out, but we’re 1500 words deep into this review and I haven’t mentioned: the role of Lois Lane; the role of Wonder Woman; the role of Alfred; how good Ben Affleck is; how wasted Henry Cavill is; Jesse Eisenberg’s performance, for good or ill; what, if anything, the film is saying about government oversight and/or domestic terrorism; the car chase (purely as an action sequence, I liked it); the presence of Doomsday; the battle with Doomsday; the death of Superman and its almost-immediate sort-of-retraction, and whether that was a good idea or not, or if it even matters; why the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle is an accurate addition to the title, but also a pain in the ass to the “Batman v Superman” part; heck, I’ve said nothing of that titular duel itself. When it comes, the fight is inspired by — but not completely adapted from — Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which should surprise precisely no one as, a) Snyder is an avowed Miller fan, and b) if you’re doing a Batman vs. Superman smackdown, that’s the one to do.

(I also wanted to write something about the film’s lack of attentiveness to cityscapes, because that’s something that interests me and I’ve not seen anyone else discuss it; but I’ve only remembered this after the entire review is finished, illustrated, and scheduled for posting, so it’s quite late at night to get my brain in gear and add it. But if anyone’s actually interested, there’s always the comments section.)

As to those other points… look, I don’t want to get too off-topic, but there’s a rant to be had about discussions of films stopping at opening weekend. “It was cool” / “it wasn’t cool”; “it was fun” / “it wasn’t fun”; “it was an irredeemable piece of crap and I hope it kills off the franchise” / “I can’t wait for Wonder Woman” — followed by, “done now, when’s Civil War out?” Hey, hang around for a minute! There’s stuff here. I know critics just want to barrel on to what’s next because they didn’t like it, but maybe if they stopped to discuss it they’d find there’s more to unpack than they’d like to think? Because yeah, you can see the movie as one long mess before Batman and Superman finally fight, at which point it degenerates into a mess of CGI and aural bombast (seriously, there’s too much noise during the climax), and ends with characters stood around having conversations where the pre-first-draft filler dialogue said, “Give audience an idea what future film(s) will be about while saying absolutely nothing concrete about what future film(s) will be about.” But in that mess (the mess I mentioned at the start of that last really long sentence, remember? OK,) there is stuff going on; there are ideas the filmmakers want to put across, possibly with the intention that they’ll actually be thought about.

And I know it’s just a superhero movie, and I know they’re just ideas about superheroes, and I know if you get into discussions of its representation of women or the legal/political system or any other real-world-connected points then you’re getting into a minefield that the film may not have fully-considered ideas about… but for all his faults as a filmmaker — for all his focus on visual Cool — Zack Snyder has now made at least three films where, buried beneath all that surface noise (both visual and aural), there are things to think about, but because that surface is so polished that it suggests the film must only be skin-deep, the ideas get ignored. The other two films, for what it’s worth, are Watchmen (where, yes, he’s given a leg-up by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ uncommonly thoughtful graphic novel) and Sucker Punch — a movie even more dismissed than BvS has been, but which I maintain has a lot going on.

I’ve even lost myself at this point, so I’ll call it a day. Batman v Superman is a long way from being a perfect movie, and anyone who likes the lightweight fun of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to be ill-served here. (Oh man, there’s a whole other semi-off-topic discussion. Ten to fifteen years ago, the only things that could be Cool were dark-and-moody, self-serious, po-faced, grim-and-gritty films/games/whatever; nowadays, you do that and you get lambasted for not being colourful and humorous. Back then, I was miffed that everything had to be the former and when anyone did the latter it got shat on, and now I’m miffed that everything has to be the latter and when anyone does the former it gets shat on. I’m not contrary, I just think we can have, can enjoy, and can accept, both.)

As I was saying: not a perfect movie, but one with a lot of material to provoke thought about both the inherent concepts of superheroes and, external to that, the genre itself, especially the way it’s presented in cinema. I’m not going to slag off the Marvel movies, because they are fun, but the entirety of the big-screen MCU** put together hasn’t given us even a fraction of as much stuff to consider, dissect, analyse, and process as this one bold, messy, controversial movie. I kinda love it for that.

4 out of 5

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is still on release everywhere. The 30-minutes-longer Ultimate Edition is scheduled to be part of the DVD/Blu-ray release, probably in July.


* I won’t trot them all out here, but there are interesting (if you’re into that kind of thing) stats about its critical drubbing vs. its box office performance — essentially, it’s far and away the worst-reviewed super-high-grossing movie ever, as if some omniscient power felt the point really needed ramming home that critics no longer matter to franchises that have what-they-call “pre-awareness”. ^

** “Big-screen” because, in fairness, Daredevil and Jessica Jones are a whole different kettle of fish. ^

Dogma (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #24

It can be Hell getting into Heaven.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 128 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 12th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 26th December 1999
First Seen: DVD, c.2004

Stars
Ben Affleck (Armageddon, Daredevil)
Matt Damon (The Rainmaker, The Bourne Identity)
Linda Fiorentino (The Last Seduction, Men in Black)
Salma Hayek (Desperado, Frida)
Alan Rickman (Die Hard, Galaxy Quest)

Director
Kevin Smith (Clerks, Red State)

Screenwriter
Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy, Zack and Miri Make a Porno)

The Story
When two fallen angels discover a loophole that might allow them back into Heaven, a normal woman is charged with stopping them before they bring about the apocalypse. Hilarity ensues.

Our Heroes
Abortion clinic worker Bethany has greatness heaped upon her when the voice of God gives her a mission (“I don’t want this, it’s too big.” “That’s what Jesus said.”). She ends up collecting a motley crew of followers and helpers, including 13th apostle Rufus, Serendipity herself, and idiot-prophets Jay and Silent Bob.

Our Villains
Banished angels Loki and Bartleby are fed up with living on Earth, but that’s okay because they’ve found a loophole that will get them back into Heaven. It might destroy the world or something, but, y’know, collateral damage ‘n’ all that.

Best Supporting Character
Alan Rickman again (see also: last time), this time as Metatron — not an anime hero or Power Rangers villain, but the dry-witted, genital-less Voice of God.

Memorable Quote
“Any moron with a pack of matches can set a fire. Raining down sulphur is like an endurance trial, man. Mass genocide is the most exhausting activity one can engage in, next to soccer.” — Loki

Memorable Scene
Whiling away time until they can execute their plan, Bartleby and Loki invade a company’s board meeting and expose the members’ secrets. (Any scene that features Bartleby + Loki + dialogue is among the film’s best bits.)

Truly Special Effect
I suppose it’s a relatively simple one really, but I’ve always thought the various characters’ wings look magnificently ‘real’. That’s the beauty of practical effects for you.

Letting the Side Down
This isn’t about the film itself, but they made a behind-the-scenes documentary, called Judge Not: In Defense of Dogma, which wasn’t actually ready for the film’s DVD release. Instead, it was included on the later DVD of Vulgar (not heard of it? Me either.) Eight years later, when Dogma made its way to Blu-ray, the making-of… still wasn’t included. I mean, how hard is it to pay attention when creating a new release and do more than just “copy and paste” the DVD’s contents?!

Making of
Even before the film opened it was picketed by Christian protestors. Unbeknownst to that mob, the film’s writer-director Kevin Smith joined them… and, unrecognised, got interviewed on TV. Sounds kinda implausible, but it happened.

Awards
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Salma Hayek, also for Wild Wild West))

What the Critics Said
“those who would call it sacrilegious (and there will be many) should look beyond the foul language and crude humor, to see more deeply into Smith’s intentions to give the dusty doctrines of the ancient faith a fresh new perspective. Foul language aside, the film has some interesting things to say about human nature, and about the nature of those non-humans we have come to know and love, and hate, and pray to, and obsess about, over the last few millennia.” — John R. McEwen, Film Quips

Score: 67%

What the Public Say
“The beginning of the movie has a few disclaimers pleading with a sensitive audience to not hate this movie because of its seemingly antireligious rhetoric. To be honest, I thought the message of ultimate religious tolerance was fairly clear. […] I don’t think Dogma will make you examine your faith any more than before you watched it. Instead it will let you turn a more satirical eye to the absurdities of the modern church bureaucracy and hopefully make you laugh a little bit about how ridiculous some of this shit is. It’s okay to have faith in a higher power, but getting too extreme with your ideals can make you an asshole.” — ThomFiles

Verdict

Not nearly as disrespectful to Christianity as the Bible-bashing protestors would like you to think, Kevin Smith’s religious comedy can be a bit of a mixed bag — the story is occasionally a tad baggy and the toilet humour sometimes goes too far for my taste, but there are plenty of amusing scenes, lines and performances. Irreverent and crude, to be sure, but sometimes surprisingly clever, and consistently funny.

#25 will be… setless.

Daredevil (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #22

Take the dare

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 103 minutes | 133 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13 (theatrical cut) | R (director’s cut)

Original Release: 14th February 2003 (USA, UK & others)
First Seen: cinema, February 2003

Stars
Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice)
Jennifer Garner (13 Going on 30, The Invention of Lying)
Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile, Sin City)
Colin Farrell (Minority Report, Alexander)

Director
Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider, When in Rome)

Screenwriter
Mark Steven Johnson (Grumpy Old Men, Ghost Rider)

Based on
Daredevil, a Marvel Comics superhero created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett.

The Story
Blind New York lawyer Matt Murdock defends the innocent by day, and by night uses his special abilities to bring the guilty to justice as costumed vigilante Daredevil. When crime boss Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin, hires Bullseye to take out a business associate, the assassin frames Daredevil for the crime, which brings him into conflict with the businessman’s combat-trained daughter, Elektra.

Our Hero
Blinded as a child, Matt Murdock found his other senses heightened. Following the murder of his father, he trained in the law. Now by day he’s a defender of the innocent, and by night hunts the guilty as superhero Daredevil. Even though the film mixes in his origin story, it doesn’t take a “Year One” approach to his crimefighting, which makes a change of pace even now. (In recent years a lot of the blame for the film’s failure has been laid at Ben Affleck’s door, because it’s popular to bash ’00s-era Affleck. Rotten Tomatoes’ short summary of contemporary reviews tells a different story, stating “Ben Affleck fits the role” as one of the film’s key qualities.)

Our Villains
Coming off the back of The Green Mile, Michael Clarke Duncan was the obvious chap to step into the giant shoes of Hell’s Kitchen’s crime lord, Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin. The real fun comes courtesy of Colin Farrell’s crazy, campy killer, Bullseye, who enlivens the film any time he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Jennifer Garner is terribly miscast as Elektra, really, but she makes a fair fist of it nonetheless, and the film doesn’t shy away from the outcome of that storyline.

Memorable Quote
“Hey, that light, at the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven… that’s the C train.” — Daredevil

Memorable Scene
Matt and Elektra spar in a children’s playground. It’s a scene some people despise, probably because of what it thinks passes for dialogue, but you can’t say it doesn’t stick in the mind.

Memorable Music
If you were of the right age and disposition back in the early ’00s, the Daredevil soundtrack was more influential than the film itself. It was partly responsible for launching gothy rock group Evanescence, who you may remember for Bring Me to Life, which was on the film’s soundtrack and was their biggest hit (it was #1 here for four weeks). I think they’re still going, despite numerous changes of line-up, though they release albums once in a blue moon.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
Originally greenlit as a relatively low-budget film, at roughly $50 million, during shooting Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released and became a huge hit (it was the first film to gross over $100 million in one weekend). Consequently, Fox upped Daredevil’s budget to $80 million, specifically to “enhance the film’s visuals”. I guess that’s where all the Spider-Man-esque CGI tumbling came from, then.

Previously on…
Although this is the first full-blown adaptation of Daredevil to actually make it to the screen, he’s turned up in other characters’ series down the years, including both live-acton (1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, which starred John Rhys-Davies as Kingpin) and animation (episodes of the ’90s Spider-Man and Fantastic Four series).

Next time…
Although no sequel was forthcoming, Jennifer Garner starred in spin-off Elektra. Whatever you think of the 2003 Daredevil, Elektra is much, much worse. Numerous attempts at a reboot movie faltered, until the rights reverted to Marvel Studios, who used the property to kick off the Netflix arm of the MCU. As much as I like the movie, the TV series is much better. Season two is released this Friday, so if you’ve not seen any then you’ll soon have 26 episodes to catch up on, you lucky thing you.

Awards
1 Razzie (Worst Actor (Ben Affleck, also for Gigli and Paycheck))
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Actor of the Decade (Ben Affleck, also for everything else he did in the ’00s))
1 Kids’ Choice Award nomination (Best Female Butt Kicker)
2 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nominations (including Best Colin Farrell in a Movie (it lost to S.W.A.T.))

What the Critics Said
“This is the Unforgiven of superhero films. Conventions are turned on their head, twisted, questioned. […] In almost every superhero film, there’s another conventional scene where the villain has the hero cornered and helpless. Yet the villain never unmasks the hero. That scene drove me nuts in Spider-Man. […] In Daredevil, no one ever hesitates to unmask DD. That’s what I mean by this being a film grounded in reality. People act real, do real things. Even if they are wearing silly costumes.” — “Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr”, Ain’t It Cool News

Score: 44%

What the Public Say
“Colin Farrell is deliciously hammy and steals every scene he’s in, showing he’s having a total blast (and to be honest, the hamminess suits Bullseye). Michael Clarke Duncan is PERFECT casting for Kingpin, for his size, stature, overall menacing feel. And honestly, I like Ben Affleck in this, too. He makes me believe he’s blind. He makes me believe that he’s a broken, tortured character who tries to put on a brave face in front of his friends.” — Nick Piers

Verdict

The runt of the litter when it comes to the (first) modern explosion of superhero movies, Daredevil has, believe it or not, always had its fans. The darker tone than contemporary X-Men or Spider-Man films works in its favour in that respect, though I know not everyone feels that way. Ben Affleck actually does a solid job as the titular hero, while Michael Clarke Duncan was perfectly cast as hulking villain Kingpin. Most enjoyable, though, is Colin Farrell’s finely-judged camp craziness as henchman Bullseye. Okay, the Netflix series has now easily surpassed it, but the Daredevil movie is still a moderately underrated film for its era. (The Director’s Cut is apparently much better, too, though I’ve still not made the time for it.)

Season two of Marvel’s Daredevil is available on Netflix from Friday.

#20 will be next… with character actors planning genocide.

Gone Girl (2014)

2015 #18
David Fincher | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Gone Girl“Horrible people do horrible things to each other” is the Post-it Note summary of this dark drama-thriller from director David Fincher, adapted by screenwriter Gillian Flynn from her own novel, which is short on heroes and overloaded with villains. An alternative brief summation is, “modern society is shit.”

Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Oscar-nominated Rosamund Pike) are a married couple living an affluent-seeming life in middle America. One morning she goes missing, their house showing signs of a violent struggle. Nick calls the police, naturally. He has an alibi, but there are gaps — both to the police and for us, the viewer. Flashbacks reveal the courtship and subsequent middle-class-hardship of the Dunnes, their picture-perfect marriage built pretty much like one might build a picture of a perfect marriage. As the media descends on Nick’s small hometown, he’s swept up in the narrative of a nation deciding his guilt or otherwise in tweet-sized bursts of opinion, due process be damned. The heightened situation and an ever-lengthening chain of increasingly incriminating evidence bamboozles Nick into some ill-advised decisions, which only compounds the public’s negative perception of him. And halfway through there’s a killer twist that turns everything on its head, sending the film spiralling out in all kinds of new directions.

Depending on which set of critical reactions you choose to follow, Gone Girl is either Fincher’s latest masterpiece — possibly his most masterful masterpiece — or Fincher-by-numbers, a director treading water with a film so tailor-made for him that it’s all a bit too obvious. I think the latter is to reduce the greatness of Fincher’s work — and Flynn’s too, not to mention the talented cast and everything else that’s superb about this movie. Girl, goneHowever, that opinion may stem from the same point as my view on the more praise-filled reactions: that Gone Girl is not a film as great as Se7en, Fight Club or Zodiac, but that it is, along with The Social Network, a half-step behind them. Who knows, perhaps if I re-watched the pair they’d catch up with the pack; but then Se7en is my oft-cited “favourite film ever”, so good luck with that.

So, the people who have written Gone Girl off as a thriller made of audacious twists but, ultimately, no more than that have, I would wager, missed something. Analysis pours forth already — Richard Kelly, director of Donnie Darko and several other lesser films, wrote a lengthy comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous final film that had a mixed-to-poor reception on its release but, in the ensuing decade-and-a-half, seems to have been re-evaluated as something of a classic. Kelly’s piece is worth a look for those who don’t mind pieces that include multiple uses of the word “heteronormative” (no, wait, come back — he’s not as bad as most people who insist on using that phrase! And you’ll be pleased to know “cisgender” doesn’t even come up once), but do be aware it thoroughly spoils the plot of Gone Girl (and, I presume, Eyes Wide Shut, but as I’ve not seen that I’m not sure how much I’ve been spoiled).

Comparisons to Kubrick are nothing new for Fincher, of course; both directors being equally famed for their technical virtuosity and obsessive perfectionism, notoriously expressed in their renown for insisting on dozens, sometimes hundreds, of takes. (There’s a bit in the Gone Girl commentary where Fincher addresses this reputation head on, highlighting a shot that was achieved perfectly on the first take, so they didn’t do another.) However, A.V. Club’s list of the 100 best films of the decade so far (which places Gone Girl at #40) has a different suggestion: “isn’t there a bigger hint of Hitchcock in his choice of projects, the “disreputable” material to which he applies his immense talent?”

PolicierThis is an argument for which I have a lot of time. The majority of Fincher’s filmography is made up of policiers and thrillers of one form or another, and even when he breaks out of that mould — in The Social Network, for instance — he often brings a similar perspective and toolset. Many of these films are borderline-rote, heavily-generic schedule-fillers at screenplay level, and would have been just that in the hands of a lesser director; in the hands of a master filmmaker, however, they become genre-transcending classics. I think that same sentence could be said about most (all?) of Hitchcock’s best films.

Gone Girl is the latest in that vein. Yes, there are the straightforward thrills of a twisty whodunnit plot, but that’s carried off with infinite panache, the film as crisply edited and with as darkly glorious cinematography as anything else on the Fincher filmography. Beneath and around that, there’s a seam of thematic material for the engaged to sink their teeth into. Some have labelled it as a deconstruction of marriage, which is a bit broad. Although there’s no functioning relationship on screen to serve as a counterpoint, I think we’re all capable of imagining one. Rather, Fincher and Flynn are showing what a certain kind of person will do to fulfil their ambitions, especially when that ambition is only multiplied by contact with a similarly desirous other. This is a ‘perfect storm’ of two people — perhaps two fundamentally unlikeable people — setting out to achieve their goals with a “rest of the world be damned” attitude; an all-or-nothing game where the stakes are both life-or-death and, at the end of the day, the chance to live the American (1%-er) Dream. Is that worth what they go through? It is to them.

No news is good newsIs it for the masses, too? Maybe. In his review for Little White Lies, David Jenkins reckons that “ideas of the essential unknowability of other people and the fluid nature of trust… form the basis of the entire movie [and] this is where the 24-hour TV news cycle comes in… As events in the film play out, panel shows, news pundits and twitter feeds are swift to offer their unique spin on things, spouting wild conjecture as if it’s copper-bottomed fact.” I can’t help but be reminded of the social media reactions surrounding the Oscar Pistorius case: so many people on Twitter were so convinced they they knew what happened, and what should be done about it, that they had pre-judged him and were shocked by the trial’s outcome, leading to condemnation of the judge and/or the entire South African legal system, which must of course be inferior to the American one (because it’s different and therefore the American one is by default superior).

It’s this kind of reaction that the film is, in part, observing and commenting on; it is, as Jenkins dubs it, “the ocean of fickle public backwash… the collective hunger to say something, anything, [that] will, in the end, prevent justice from prevailing.” The role of the media may seem like a subplot, or even a sub-theme, early on, but by the end it has become vital to the film’s third act: key decisions are made to influence the media and public; further decisions are based on the media and public reaction to that influence; and, come the climax of it all, it’s the media and its consumers — more than the police, or even Nick Dunne and his relatives themselves — who decide the outcome.

I haven’t written much about Gone Girl’s production elements, because I think with a Fincher film you can trust they’ll be exemplary and you can focus on the dramatic/thematic points instead. One thing that does merit highlighting, however, is Rosamund Pike’s performance. She is incredible, offering a performance with more layers than a pack of onions, all of which she negotiates with supreme skill. Given the story, Amazing Rosamund Pikea lesser actress could’ve given a performance with fewer notes and the film still would’ve functioned; or they would have struggled to contain the numerous sides to Amy’s personality in the form of a plausible human being. Pike does that, and more. She goes on my list of “people who were robbed of an Oscar because it was someone else’s ‘time’” (alongside Paul Greengrass’ United 93 snub in favour of The Departed).

Ultimately, Gone Girl works as a twist-laden dramatic thriller, with reveals and developments that are best discovered unspoiled for the full rollercoaster experience. Underpinning that, however, is the kind of observation and deconstruction of our modern world that has elevated several of Fincher’s best films. Even if Gone Girl isn’t quite among the films in that very top tier, I think it can stand proudly beside them.

5 out of 5

Gone Girl debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 9pm and 1am.

Changing Lanes (2002)

2015 #75
Roger Michell | 95 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Changing LanesHot-shot lawyer Ben Affleck and down-on-his-luck Samuel L. Jackson are involved in what Americans like to assonantly call a fender bender, making the latter miss a custody hearing and the former lose an important document worth millions… which Jackson happens to pick up. Cue a game of tit-for-tat retaliation, as Affleck tries to recover the file by ruining Jackson’s life further, and an increasingly-desperate Jackson enacts increasingly-violent revenge.

I don’t know if Changing Lanes was aiming to be a state-of-the-nation thriller (it was made a good few years before the financial collapse, after all) or just a character drama, but either way, the storyline is a mite too implausible, and the ending — where everyone suddenly realises The Right Thing To Do — is rather pat (apparently it replaced a more combative finale that test audiences didn’t like). These factors are only emphasised by the fact it supposedly all takes place in one day. The characters’ taxi bills must’ve been enormous…

Jackson and Affleck give good performances, all things considered, with each treated to worthwhile (if commensurately obvious) speeches. As Affleck’s wife, Amanda Peet appears for one strong scene, though some other cast members — I’m thinking specifically of William Hurt as Jackson’s AA sponsor — are rather wasted. Also, for a film I still thought of as rather recent (my error — it’s 13 years old), it feels quite dated — I mean, it’s shot on film! Despite being released in April 2002 in the US, and not until November over here, they left in a shot of the Twin Towers (apparently they were initially removed with CGI, then it was decided to leave them in as a tribute. Considering they appear for a sole, fleeting glimpse in the middle of a montage, in a shot that doesn’t even feature any of the cast, Fender benderI don’t know why they bothered). The worst offender is David Arnold’s score — all turn-of-the-millennium club-y electronic-drum-kit-y beats, for a character-driven drama/thriller? Ugh.

Changing Lanes isn’t a bad film, it just doesn’t feel like the best realisation of a concept that has some potential.

3 out of 5

Runner Runner (2013)

2015 #23
Brad Furman | 88 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

Runner RunnerSometimes, films are so maligned that you feel you just have to see for yourself. Or I do, anyway. Crime thriller Runner Runner, with its 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is one of those occasions.

Set in the world of online gambling, it sees Justin Timberlake’s college student and gambling expert being scammed by a casino website. After flying down to the site’s Costa Rican HQ to confront its owner (Ben Affleck), he finds himself with a job that entangles him in the business’ illegal activities. FBI agent Anthony Mackie wants Timberlake to turn on his new employer, under threat of punishment himself, while he learns from Affleck’s right-hand-woman and love interest Gemma Arterton that he’s being set up to take the fall for everything. However will he extract himself from all that?!

More importantly, will you even care? Well, no, because the film gives you no reason to. It’s fatally marred by flabby storytelling, which substitutes voiceover and aimless montages for plot, with a pace that’s shot to hell — some of it rushes by, too fast to comprehend, but then later it just drags on. Director Brad Furman, who previously helmed excellent thriller adaption The Lincoln Lawyer, has tried to make a con thriller, indulging in the genre’s schtick of keeping characters’ plans hidden purely to play their success as a series of twists later. Unfortunately, it just feels like the film’s failing to elucidate necessary information. That includes all of the gambling rules and concepts, which are simply poorly explained — if you don’t know the world already, parts of the film will run away from you instantly.

Everyone in this photo deserves better than this film. Yes, even him.Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s screenplay is packed full of dreadful dialogue, which isn’t helped by phoned-in performances from all the principle cast, in particular Affleck. I guess he needed a payday between his Oscar-winning directorial efforts. I’ve seen some assert that the dialogue and delivery are meant to be mannered and stylised, but I just don’t buy it. Unless the style was meant to be “cable TV cheapie”, anyway. The Puerto Rican filming locations are quite prettily shot by DP Mauro Fiore, at least, but that’s scant consolation when everything else is so woeful.

There can be entertainment found in poorly-reviewed films: sometimes, they’re an undiscovered gem; sometimes, they’re just quite funny; but sometimes, they really are trash. There is no quality to be found here, though. If there’s such a thing as a lover of gambling-related thrillers, I guess they might find some enjoyment from the mere fact this film even exists. Otherwise, avoid.

2 out of 5

Runner Runner featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.