Vixen (2017)

aka Vixen: The Movie

2017 #137
Curt Geda & James Tucker | 75 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12

Vixen

Received wisdom is that while DC comics adaptations are floundering on the big screen (because $3.1 billion from four movies is such a failure), they’re flourishing on the small one, with their ever-growing Arrowverse suite of shows a huge success on the US’s CW network. So named because it began with Arrow in 2012, said ‘verse now also encompasses The Flash, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. As well as these main shows, they’ve produced a couple of animated spin-offs for their online platform. The first of these was Vixen, which has so far produced two seasons of six five-minute episodes. Here, those two runs are combined with about 15 minutes of extra bridging material to produced a movie.

The titular Vixen is Mari McCabe (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who discovers that her family-heirloom necklace has the ability to grant her the power of any animal — so she can run like a cheetah, climb like a spider, stomp like an elephant, fly like an eagle, etc, ad infinitum. While contending with these new skills, she’s also accosted by superheroes Arrow and the Flash (Stephen Amell and Grant Gustin respectively, reprising their roles from the live-action shows), and has to battle with, first, Kuasa (Anika Noni Rose) trying to claim the necklace for herself, and then Eshu (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) trying to, er, claim the necklace for himself…

Foxy lady! Also lion lady, gorilla lady, elephant lady...

Firstly, it must be said that it’s really obvious Vixen consists of multiple episodes and seasons stitched together. It’s probably not so bad on the episodic level — me being me, I was watching out for where the breaks likely fell in the original five-minute-ish format — but it’s undeniable that it wraps up its first story in about half-an-hour, then moves on to a new story that lasts about 15 minutes, before finally telling another half-hour tale. It feels a bit like watching a movie and its sequel back-to-back, with a related aside in the middle, though in this case each ‘movie’ is the length of an animated TV episode. So, releasing it as Vixen: The Movie was perhaps a bit silly and/or disingenuous. It doesn’t desperately need to retain its original short form, but putting it out as two half-hours — with the added value of a bonus mini-episode containing that bridging story — might’ve felt more satisfactory.

Putting issues of form and presentation aside, the story — or, unavoidably, stories — are alright. The first has the shape of a pretty standard superhero origin story, given some added flavour thanks to the character’s African roots and the relationship with the villain. The short linking part feels like a run-of-the-mill episode of any superhero cartoon series. Apparently some fans complained that Vixen had mysteriously learnt to use her powers between the end of season one and start of season two, so this section attempts to address that point. The final section, as alluded to above, feels like a sequel, with a new primary antagonist but still carrying over threads and points from the first. It goes a bit awry the longer it goes on, with some very for-the-sake-of-it random cameos from the live-action shows, and a disappearance of internal logic during the climax.

At times it’s own format works against it: Mari says she has no identity and needs to find one, but the narrative doesn’t have enough room to let her. It probably would have if Vixen originated as a 70-minute movie, but in the form of five-minute episodes, which need to use their limited space to fulfil fan expectations of things like action sequences, there’s little to no room for genuine character development. The overall quality is often a bit cheesy and blunt — again, in part to make it satisfying for viewing in five-minute bursts, no doubt, but it does also feel in keeping with the overall style and tone of the Arrowverse.

Queen of the jungle

The animation itself is relatively cheap and basic — on a par with the lower end of Warner’s other direct-to-DVD DC animations; probably even a bit simpler. It’s not bad, but no one’s likely to be impressed. That said, when they pop in for cameos, the likenesses of the live-action actors is shit. On the bright side, they’ve used the animated format to create powers and action sequences that would require expensive CGI in a live-action show. These days they can manage that kind of thing, of course (Vixen eventually turned up in an episode of Arrow, in fact, and a version of the character is now a regular on Legends), and you can believe Vixen‘s first season wouldn’t’ve been a huge problem for one of the live-action shows. The second season, perhaps as a result of that, goes more all-in on the effects-y action.

Fans of any or all of the other Arrowverse shows may well find something to enjoy in Vixen. Otherwise, it’s newcomer-friendly (aside from those cameos it’s fundamentally standalone) but I doubt it would do much to persuade the uninitiated that they’re missing out.

3 out of 5

The Arrowverse returns to UK screens this week, with new episodes of Supergirl on Mondays, The Flash on Tuesdays, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow on Wednesdays, and Arrow on Thursdays. That’ll certainly keep you busy (if you let it).

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100 Favourites II — The Penultimate 20

Week 3 of this list (the first two parts are here and here) sees us hurtling towards the top of the chart — the films that are among my very most favouritest that I’ve seen in the last decade.

I will say, there are more superhero movies than I expected…

#30
Deadpool

2nd from 2016 (previously 8th)
I feel like I should’ve matured out of finding Deadpool so entertaining, but it definitely appealed to my inner adolescent. It’s a riot. More…
#29
Super

5th from 2011 (previously 5th)
More superhero comedy, but Super’s low-budget grittiness and James Gunn-imbued barminess gives it an edge, even as its action climax is viscerally satisfying. More…
#28
Before Sunrise

4th from 2007 (previously unranked)
Richard Linklater distills the essence of twentysomething life and relationships into one night in the first (and best) of his decades-spanning Before trilogy. More…
#27
Citizen Kane

3rd from 2007 (previously 7th)
A film now overshadowed by its reputation, if you try to shed the baggage then Orson Welles’ debut still stands up very well in its own right. More…
#26
Watchmen: Director’s Cut

1st from 2009 (previously 3rd)
The most acclaimed superhero narrative ever penned became a film that is equally as complex and flawed, but also brilliant. More…
#25
Gravity

4th from 2014 (previously 1st)
Sandra Bullock is stranded in space and we’re right there alongside her in Alfonso Cuarón’s gripping and technically astonishing survival thriller. More…
#24
Sherlock Holmes

4th from 2010 (previously 8th)
Exciting, funny, with exceptional evocations of how it would feel to be the Great Detective. Not a traditional depiction, but surprisingly faithful. Plus: a proper mystery with a proper solution. More…
#23
Toy Story 3

3rd from 2010 (previously 2nd)
Lightning strikes thrice for Pixar’s studio-defining trilogy. Funny and moving, it tackles big emotional themes while still providing a kid-friendly adventure-comedy. More…
#22
United 93

2nd from 2007 (previously 1st)
Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 film almost feels like a documentary, with its naturalistic performances and handheld camerawork. That it was endorsed by the families is another stamp of approval. More…
#21
12 Angry Men

3rd from 2014 (previously 5th)
Twelve men talk to each other for an hour-and-a-half in this tense, gripping courtroom (without the courtroom) thriller. A directing masterclass from a debuting Sidney Lumet. More…
#20
Supermen of Malegaon

3rd from 2015 (previously 4th)
This little-seen documentary is an inspirational film about living your dreams even when the world won’t let you. Genuinely, I think it’s an absolute must-see for any lover of film. More…
#19
Requiem for a Dream

2nd from 2014 (previously 8th)
Darren Aronofsky’s addiction drama may ultimately be grim and without hope, but the verve of the filmmaking transcends expectations. More…
#18
Anatomy of a Murder

2nd from 2010 (previously 4th)
A precision-engineered procedural crime drama that refuses to deviate from the methodology of the case, but still finds room to deepen its array of characters. More…
#17
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

2nd from 2012 (previously 4th)
Boasting an original variation on Batman’s backstory, plus a fine turn from Mark Hamill’s arguably-definitive Joker, this animation is among the very best Bat-films. More…
#16
X-Men: First Class

4th from 2011 (previously 2nd)
The X-Men begin in this origin story that shows us another side to familiar characters, with a unique feel thanks to its ’60s setting and plot that riffs off Cold War spy-fi. More…
#15
The Raid 2

1st from 2016 (previously 2nd)
Bigger and grander than its predecessor, this is a sprawling crime epic that still has time for huge, elaborate fight sequences. One of the greatest action movies ever made. More…
#14
My Neighbour Totoro

3rd from 2011 (previously 7th)
Gorgeously animated with a beautiful soundtrack, Hayao Miyazaki lures you in to a world and tells you a thoroughly nice story with no enforced peril. Refreshingly lovely. More…
#13
The Guest

2nd from 2015 (previously 3rd)
This ’80s-inspired thriller (with a horror-influenced edge) offers a witty screenplay, engaging characters, stylish visuals, and a fab score. Dan Stevens can definitely be my guest. More…
#12
Brief Encounter

1st from 2007 (previously 6th)
A romantic affair of cups of tea, discussions of the weather, tea, trips to the cinema, tea, guilt, indecision, and more tea. All the repressed emotions make it truly British. That and the tea. More…
#11
The Social Network

2nd from 2011 (previously 1st)
Unlikeable brats sit at computers, writing websites and arguing, but with dialogue by Aaron Sorkin and direction from David Fincher that becomes engrossing and exciting. More…

Next Sunday: the top 10.

Unbreakable (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #95

Are you ready for the truth?

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 107 minutes
BBFC: 12
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 22nd November 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 29th December 2000
First Seen: DVD, 2001

Stars
Bruce Willis (Armageddon, Looper)
Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction, Avengers Assemble)
Robin Wright Penn (The Princess Bride, The Conspirator)

Director
M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village)

Screenwriter
M. Night Shyamalan (Stuart Little, The Visit)

The Story
When security guard David Dunn is the only survivor of a train crash, and without a scratch on him, he encounters comic book fan Elijah Price, who has an unusual theory: that David is indestructible, a real-life superhero.

Our Hero
David Dunn is just an ordinary guy, with a low-key job and a wife and kid, but after his near-impossible feat of survival he begins to test himself. Could he be more remarkable than he ever imagined?

Our Villain
Spoilers! Which, considering this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, is basically a red flag saying “here’s where the twist is”. All I’ll say is, keep an eye on David’s kid, Joseph. I mean, pointing a gun at your parent is never innocent, is it?

Best Supporting Character
Comic book art dealer Elijah Price was born with Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, a rare disease that makes his bones extremely fragile and prone to fracture. Losing himself in the world of comic book superheroes throughout his childhood, he develops a theory: that if he represents an extreme of human weakness, there must be someone at the opposite extreme…

Memorable Quote
Elijah: “Why is it, do you think, that of all the professions in the world you chose protection?”
David: “You are a very strange man.”
Elijah: “You could have been a tax accountant. You could have owned your own gym. You could have opened a chain of restaurants. You could’ve done of ten thousand things, but in the end, you chose to protect people. You made that decision, and I find that very, very interesting.”

Memorable Scene
As well as his indestructibility, David comes to believe he may have a form of ESP, that allows him to glimpse people’s criminal acts when he touches them. Encouraged by Elijah, he goes to a bustling train station, stands in the middle of the crowd, and holds out his arms…

Next time…
Reportedly the plot of Unbreakable was merely Act One of Shyamalan’s original concept, until it wound up expanding into an entire movie. Talk of a sequel and/or trilogy used to occur regularly, but Shyamalan made a bunch of crap no one liked instead. 16 years on, I guess hopes of a continuation are long dead.

Awards
1 Saturn nomination (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)

What the Critics Said
The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Unbreakable, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s dazzling reunion with Bruce Willis confirms he’s one of the most brilliant filmmakers working today. […] The deliberately paced Unbreakable, make no mistake about it, is a vehicle form-fitted to Bruce Willis’ burgeoning gifts as an uncommonly subtle and affecting actor. Willis should get the Oscar nomination he deserved for The Sixth Sense, and Jackson’s enigmatic Elijah – who has devoted his life to searching for the sole survivor of a disaster, for reasons that won’t be explained here – is equally commanding in a difficult if somewhat underwritten role.” — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

Score: 68%

What Quentin Tarantino Says
“The final film, alphabetically, on my top twenty list is M. Night Shamalamadingdong’s Unbreakable, which I actually think, 1) not only has Bruce Willis’ best performance on film that he’s ever given. I think he’s absolutely magnificent in the film. It also is a brilliant retelling of the Superman mythology. In fact, so much so that, to me, the film was very obscure when it came out as far as what it was about. I actually think they did themselves a disservice, because you can actually break down what the film is about by basically one sentence, that I should think would’ve proved far more intriguing than their ad campaign, which is basically, “what if Superman was here on Earth and didn’t know he was Superman?”, which is what the film is about. Course, you don’t know that until actually you see the movie. Anyway, Unbreakable is, I actually think, one of the masterpieces of our time.” — Quentin Tarantino’s Favourite Movies from 1992 to 2009

What the Public Say
“The story is unique… I mean we see stories about superheroes everywhere… everywhere, and despite things here and there changed, they are still the same stories we have heard a thousand times before. This film had an original story that was both compelling and intense. The use of the camera angles is so well done it is a shock that Unbreakable is not at the top of everyone’s favorite Shyamalan film. It is masked under the presumption that it is moving slowly, because in reality… a lot is going on.” — Dave, Dave Examines Movies

Verdict

Some people view Unbreakable as the start of M. Night Shyamalan’s inexorable quality slide after the debut peak of The Sixth Sense (not that it was his debut). Those people are wrong. Partly because that degeneration doesn’t really start until the final act of The Village; partly because Unbreakable is Shyamalan’s best film. We’ve now had countless big-screen takes on superhero mythology, but none are quite like this. Man of Steel may have attempted to ask “what would happen if Superman were real?”, but it’s Unbreakable that better answers that question. With subtle performances, including arguably a career-best turn from Bruce Willis, and a plausible handling of its fantastical material, which nonetheless develops into a satisfying climax, Unbreakable is still one of the most original and best superhero movies ever made.

#96 will be… gunpowder, treason, and plot.

SuperBob (2015)

2016 #29
Jon Drever | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15

Comedies about superheroes tend to come in the form of big-bucks mainstream-aimed effects-y pieces (Hancock, My Super Ex-Girlfriend), or R-rated deliberately-shocking genre deconstructions (Kick-Ass, Super). SuperBob is something else again: a low-key, almost sitcom-y, kind of polite, very British take on the sub-subgenre.

It follows the life of quiet, mild-mannered Bob (Brett Goldstein, who also co-writes), an ordinary postman who’s struck by a meteorite and gains Superman-esque powers, and whose personality doesn’t change with it. He’s put under contract by the British government and kept on a strict schedule for his world-saving activities, monitored and controlled by Catherine Tate. The Americans aren’t best pleased, because they want him. That kind of thing goes on in the background, though, because the film follows Bob on his day off, as he finally arranges a date with a librarian he fancies (Laura Haddock) and, because he doesn’t have a clue how to go about such romance-related things, asks his cleaner (Natalia Tena) for help. Romcom-ish antics ensue.

SuperBob begins as a faux-documentary; a film being made about Bob and his life, which makes sense because who wouldn’t be interested in a documentary on the world’s only superhero? For us real-life viewers, though, it’s a form that feels a little tired at this point — I involuntarily groaned out loud when I realised that’s where it was going. Stick with it, though, because the conceit is all but dropped fairly early on, and the film begins to develop in nice directions. It starts out as pure comedy, and while it doesn’t lose that aspect, it does develop a strand of endearingly genuine sweetness. That helps to see it through the predictable rom-com beats that follow, leaving you (or this viewer, at least) not minding that it’s predictable where the story’s going to go because, thanks to the characters, that’s where you want it to go.

If you’re after a comedy that seeks to mine humour from the world of superheroes, you’re better off looking elsewhere (Kick-Ass and Super, as mentioned; Superhero Movie, definitely not), but for a likeable romantic movie with a twist, SuperBob does the trick.

4 out of 5

100 Films v 2016: Month of March

Tell me — do you watch films?

You will.


Barely Lethal#45 Chappie (2015)
#46 Blackhat (2015)
#47 The Witches of Eastwick (1987)
#48 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)
#49 Barely Lethal (2015)
#50 The Book of Life (2014)
#51 Kill List (2011)
#52 Fast & Furious 7 (2015), aka Furious Seven
Lincoln#53 Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
#54 Office Space (1999)
#55 Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
#56 The Boxer from Shantung (1972), aka Ma Yong Zhen
#57 The Descendants (2011)
#58 One-Armed Swordsman (1967), aka Du bei dao
#59 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
Batman v Superman#60 Bridge of Spies (2015)
#61 Scotland, Pa. (2001)
#62 Lincoln (2012)
#63 Brooklyn (2015)
#64 Turbo Kid (2015)
#65 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
#66 The Color Purple (1985)
#67 Grave of the Fireflies (1988), aka Hotaru no haka


  • After sitting out last month, I got back to WDYMYHS in March with IMDb voters’ 7th favourite war movie, 5th favourite ’80s movie, and 3rd favourite animated movie: Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies.
  • With Bridge of Spies coming out on Blu-ray, Lincoln premiering on TV, and The Color Purple being removed from Amazon Prime Instant Video, the last week of March turned into a bit of a Spielberg-athon for yours truly. I’m now just 3¼ films away from finally having seen all his features…
  • Value For Money Assessment, Part 4: adding 10 more films from Now TV to the 10 (plus the Oscars) from last month gives a final cost of £0.48 per film. I’d say that’s good value.


With 23 new films watched this month, March 2016 joins the elite pantheon of months to reach 20 films — it’s only the sixth ever, and the third this year. In the process, it became the 22nd consecutive month with a 10+ total; it leapt spryly over March’s previous best tally (2013’s 17); and it handed 2016 the record for earliest #50, on the 6th (besting last year’s 8th April). It raises the March average from 11 to 12.3, and nudges the 2016 average up a smidgen from 22 to 22.3.

And there I was thinking that 13 hours of Daredevil would knacker my film viewing. (As it is, I’m actually only 10 hours through Daredevil. It’s really good, though.)

I normally end this with a prediction for the rest of the year, but they feel increasingly meaningless. I mean, they’ve always been meaningless — they’re based on averages, which only hold true until they don’t — but I’m still intending to cut back on film viewing this year (at some point), so they’ll definitely go awry. That said, I’m also intending to maintain my 10-film-minimum for a second calendar year, meaning 2016’s final tally should be at least 157 films. And, frankly, I’m intending April and May to continue in a similar vein to these first three months; at least until I reach #100, anyway. Assuming I do get there in May (which will be a whole Thing that I’ll discuss at the time), 2016 will be looking towards 170+ films.

2015 has really recalibrated my notion of “a lighter year”…



This month: Bourne, Bond, and Ben Affleck twice.



The 10th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Although a couple of fun action movies turned my head this month, none of them were fun enough to detract from the sheer class of Steven Spielberg’s collaboration with Abraham-Lincoln-pretending-to-be-Daniel-Day-Lewis-pretending-to-be-Abraham-Lincoln (last time I make that joke, promise) in Lincoln.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
My memories of it have softened a little in the four weeks since I watched it, but as it remains the only film this month that I’ve got down for a 2-star rating, the loser is Michael Mann’s disappointing cyber thriller Blackhat.

Winner of Batman v Superman
Wonder Woman.

Loser of Batman v Superman
Film critics, apparently. Or not.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
This almost went to everyone’s favourite movie about a blind superhero*, but it was edged out by everyone’s second favourite filmed production of Shakespeare’s Scottish play starring an actor who’s also played Magneto** — Macbeth.

* It’s true! If you can find another one, I’ll retract that statement.
** OK, I’m certain some people prefer the Fassbender one to the old McKellen-and-Dench one, but acknowledging that fact would’ve ruined the mirroring structure of my sentence.


¾.

Batman Returns (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #9

The Bat
The Cat
The Penguin

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1992) | 15 (cut, 1992) | 15 (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence”

Original Release: 19th June 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 10th July 1992
First Seen: VHS, c,1993

Stars
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)
Danny DeVito (Twins, The Rainmaker)
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ladyhawke, Hairspray)
Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths)

Director
Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows)

Screenwriters
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Demolition Man)

Story by
Daniel Waters (see above)
Sam Hamm (Batman, Monkeybone)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

The Story
Batman has a lot on his hands when abandoned Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, emerges from the shadows seeking acceptance by running for mayor, backed by corrupt businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile, a newly-created Catwoman has an axe to grind with Shreck, and won’t let Batman stand in her way…

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, with a kind of ’30s Gothic edge.

Our Villains
A triumvirate of terror! Danny DeVito is the Penguin, deformed, abandoned as a child, and out for revenge against the city. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman, PVC-clad, kinky, and also out for revenge. Christopher Walken is Max Shreck, a morally corrupt businessman with political needs, who clashes with Bruce Wayne as much as Batman.

Best Supporting Character
The one significant constant through the four ’80s/’90s Bat-movies, Michael Gough is a near-peerless Alfred.

Memorable Quote
Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
Catwoman: “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Memorable Scene
Batman and the Penguin are having an argument. Suddenly, a figure comes backflipping towards them — Catwoman. They stare. “Meow.” The building behind her explodes. It’s not actually her first appearance, but it’s quite an introduction.

Technical Wizardry
The whole design of the film, and Gotham City in particular, is fantastic; a kind of ’30s-but-also-modern art deco style. It’s all quite Burtonesque too, though not too much so for my taste.

Truly Special Effect
The Penguin’s army of penguins, an effective mix of real birds, animatronics, and actors in suits.

Making of
The first draft of the screenplay was intended to be more of a direct sequel to Batman: subplots included gift shops selling fragments of the destroyed Bat-Wing, revelations about the past of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne proposing to Vicki Vale by the end of the film. However, Tim Burton was uncomfortable with making a direct sequel, so the script was rewritten. Ah, the days when people wanted sequels to be less connected…

Previously on…
Tim Burton’s first Batman film brought the dark ‘n’ gritty ’70s/’80s evolution of the character from the comic books to the big screen for the first time. It was a huge success, though I think it feels notably more dated today than Returns does.

Next time…
Two semi-direct sequels — though with Burton and Keaton both abandoning the series, they took a distinct downward turn in quality. The 2005 reboot has so far led to three more Bat-movies, and now another new series dawns starring Ben Affleck.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Make Up Artist)
1 Saturn Award (Make-Up)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito), Director, Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito))
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Most Desirable Female (Michelle Pfeiffer))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history, he’s made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. […] Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. […] a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.” — Kate Bellmore, Reel Club

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’. Of Returns, I wrote that “Tim Burton’s first Batman film is great, no doubt, but Returns is a much better film in so many ways. The direction, writing, acting, action and effects are all slicker. They spent over twice as much money on it and it really shows.”

Verdict

Controversial on release — and since — but for me, Batman Returns holds up best out of the four ’80s/’90s Batman movies. Tim Burton brings his own stamp to the Bat-universe, crafting a darkly Gothic fantasy world that’s both striking and effective, populated by grotesques (in different senses) like the Penguin, Catwoman, Shreck, and perhaps even Batman himself. There’s chemistry between the entire cast, memorable scenes and set pieces, and the sense of an entire artistic vision that the Bat-series wouldn’t have again for over a decade.

#10 will be… a tale as old as time.

Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

2015 #130
Joss Whedon | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Avengers: Age of UltronIt feels kind of pointless reviewing Avengers: Age of Ultron, the written-and-directed-by Joss Whedon (and, infamously, reshaped-in-the-edit-by committee) follow-up to 2012’s “third most successful film of all time” mega-hit The Avengers Marvel’s The Avengers Avengers Assemble Marvel Avengers Assemble. In terms of consumer advice, you’re not going to watch this sequel without having seen the first, and therefore “more of the same (more or less)” will suffice for a review. In terms of a more analytical mindset… well, what is there to analyse, really? I’m not sure this movie has anything to say. “Of course it doesn’t, it’s a blockbuster,” you might counter, which I think is unfair to blockbusters. Not to this one, though. Nonetheless, I have a few thoughts I shall share regardless.

Firstly: Marvel’s initially-stated goal of keeping each of their film series separate enough that you don’t need to watch them all has clearly gone out the window by this point. Okay, you really needed a fair bit of knowledge from The First Avenger and Thor to fully understand Avengers Assemble (indeed, as I noted at the time, that first team-up movie is practically Thor 2), but I reckon you could get by without. In between, things have got worse: jumping from any of the pre-Avengers films to their post-Avengers sequel without viewing the team-up movie renders them semi-nonsensical, and now swathes of Age of Ultron make little sense without at least having seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which fundamentally shifted the status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That’s not all, though, because Age of Ultron is also concerned with setting up the future. Far from being self-contained, there’s heavy-handed set-up for Avengers 2.5: Civil War Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, and the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Titular threatEven though the first half of that is still three years away, we’re still very much on the road to it. Heck, we have been practically since the MCU began, thanks to those frickin’ stones (if you don’t know already, don’t expect me to explain it to you), but now it’s overt as well as laid in fan-friendly easter eggs. The titular threat may rise and be put down within the confines of Age of Ultron’s near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, but no such kindness is afforded to the myriad subplots.

Said threat is Ultron, a sentient robot born of Tony Stark’s work, who seeks to make the world a better place by obliterating humanity. As played by James Spader, it seems like Whedon has created a villain in his own image. Oh sure, every character speaks a little bit Whedon-y, but Ultron’s speech pattern, syntax, tone, and sense of humour is often reminiscent of how Whedon himself sounds in interviews; and if you told me Spader was doing a Joss Whedon impression for the voice, I’d believe you. Considering the well-publicised behind-the-scenes wrangles the film went through, especially in post-production, it does make you wonder how conscious it was — Whedon casting himself as a villain with good intentions who’d like to destroy the Avengers. Something like that, anyway.

A behind-the-scenes story Marvel Studios are more keen to emphasise is how they did a lot of real-world-related stunts for real, like in the Seoul bike/truck/Quinjet chase, for instance (you know, the one where Black Widow is on the bike in the film but controversially not in the toy because of the “no girl toys!” rule). Behind-the-scenes features on the film’s Blu-ray detail the extent they want to in closing down real locations, performing dangerous or hard-to-achieve stunts, and so on and so forth. You have to wonder why they bothered, because there’s so much CGI all over the placeNo one wants to play with Scarlett Johansson (not just obvious stuff like the Hulk, but digital set extensions, fake location work, even modifying Stark’s normal Audi on a normal road because it was a future model that wasn’t physically built when filming) that stuff they genuinely did for real looks computer generated too. All that time, all that effort, all that epic logistical nightmare stuff like shutting down a capital city’s major roads for several days… and everyone’s going to assume some tech guys did it in an office, because that’s what it looks like. If you’re going to go to so much trouble to do it for real, make sure it still looks real by the time you get to the final cut. I’ll give you one specific example: Black Widow weaving through traffic on a motorbike in Seoul. I thought it was one of the film’s less-polished effects shots. Nope — done for real, and at great difficulty because it’s tough to pull off a fast-moving bike speeding through fast-moving cars. What a waste of effort!

Effort invested elsewhere has been better spent, however. For instance, this is a Joss Whedon movie, so we all know somebody has to die. Credit to Whedon, then, for investing in a thorough attempt at misdirection. He goes all-out to imply that (spoiler!) the bucket shall be kicked by Hawkeye: the archer has suddenly got a bigger role; we get to meet his family; every time there’s a montage and someone starts discussing sacrifice or the inevitability that they won’t all survive, it’s Barton who’s on screen; he’s the most sacrificeable Avenger anyway, the only one with neither his own movie nor fan demand for one; and Jeremy Renner’s dissatisfaction with the role he got in Avengers 1 has been well documented. If anything he goes too far in that direction — it’s so obvious Hawkeye’s for the chop that it’s not wholly surprising when there’s a ‘twist’ and (bigger spoiler!) the even-more-dispensable Pietro Maximoff (he apparently has just seven lines in the entire film) is the one who make The Ultimate Sacrifice. Which is… neither here nor there, really.

Double troubleThe really daft thing is, Whedon specifically added Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver… wait, are Marvel allowed to call them that? I forget. Anyway, Whedon added the Maximoff twins because, as he said himself, “their powers are very visually interesting. One of the problems I had on the first one was everybody basically had punchy powers.” I know Hawkeye’s power is more shoot-y than punchy, and we all know X-Men used the silver speedster even better, but still… Well, I guess it’s not his problem anymore. Nor is the fact the film ends with a radically new status quo, including most of the big-name heroes having sodded off to leave a 66%-replaced Avengers line-up… which will be completely shattered almost instantly in next year’s Captain America: Basically The Avengers 3. But hey, nothing lasts forever, right? Or even a whole movie, it would seem.

Other people’s opinions, and the expectations they foster, have a lot to answer for when you first watch these films months after release. I found the first Avengers to be massively overrated — only sporadically fun; not that funny; in places, really quite awkward, or even dull. I couldn’t really enjoy it; it just was. This sequel, on the other hand… isn’t underrated, but comes with so much negative, niggly baggage that, with lowered expectations, I was able to just enjoy it on a first viewing. I found it funnier than the first; I thought the characters and their relationships were smoother. It’s still flawed (the Thor arc is clearly bungled; the climax is too much; stuff they did for real, at great expense and difficulty, looks like CGI; and so on), but no more than the first one. I think people’s over-hyped memories make them think it’s worse than it is by comparison. Then again, there’s no accounting for taste — there are definitely things people have criticised about the movie (the level and style of humour; the focus given to Hawkeye) that were actually among my favourite parts.

Some assembly requiredAt the end of the day, what does it matter? Age of Ultron isn’t so remarkably good — nor did it go down so remarkably poorly — that it deserves a reevaluation someday. It just is what it is: an overstuffed superhero epic, which has too much to do to be able to compete with its comparatively-simple contributing films on quality grounds, but is entertaining enough as fast-food cinema. Blockbusterdom certainly has worse experiences to offer.

4 out of 5

Avengers: Age of Ultron is on Sky Movies Premiere from Boxing Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Justice League: The New Frontier (2008)

2015 #109
David Bullock | 72 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG-13

The second release in Warner Premiere’s series of direct-to-video DC Universe Animated Original Movies (which now stretches to 24 titles and counting) is adapted from writer and artist Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed comic book miniseries DC: The New Frontier, which sees Golden Age heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman) meeting Silver Age heroes (the Flash, Green Lantern) for the first time in the 1950s.

With so many characters (those are just the tip of the iceberg), Justice League: The New Frontier has a many-pronged narrative to squeeze into its brisk hour-and-ten-minutes running time. The connecting tissue is an unknown entity that has decided to destroy all life on Earth, which eventually will lead all of the various characters to come together to combat it. Other than that, I’m not even going to attempt to summarise the story because there’s so darn much going on. Uncommonly, it spends a lot of time focused on the likes of Hal Jordan (David Boreanaz) and the Martian Manhunter (Miguel Ferrer) rather than the usual big names.

Frankly, there are too many characters, and the film doesn’t always seem to know what to do with all of them. The array of cameos in minor roles is fine, and sure to please thoroughly-versed comic book readers, but it’s the main characters who are sometimes sidelined. In some cases, literally: Wonder Woman disappears off to her island after two scenes; the Flash retires early on; Superman gets sunk in the ocean at the start of the climax. The plot feels underdeveloped too. There are snippets of Batman investigating the entity, for instance, but before he can really learn anything the thing just attacks, so his storyline was needless. Maybe Cooke’s original graphic novel had more time for all of this. If some things have had to be sacrificed to streamline the tale into a 70-minute movie, then it wouldn’t be uncommon for these DC animations. I’ve not read the book so I don’t know. However, there are definitely bits that could’ve been sacrificed or abridged further (the Flash’s two early action sequences, for instance) to make more room to tell the story in full.

On the bright side, a period-set superhero movie makes a nice change; and it just gets on with it, rather than feeling the need to explain itself with alternate worlds or time travel or any such BS. It has the confidence to start with many of the heroes already in play, rather than worry about giving each one a full-blown origin story or something. At one point I thought it might manage to pull off something akin to Watchmen, but in the ’50s and with recognisable DC heroes. Such a comparison might be a kindness too far. There are some good concepts here, but the execution pootles out as it goes along. At times it feels a bit like a pilot episode, as if they were somehow expecting to spin a TV series out of it — for all I know maybe they were — but the problem with pilot episodes is that they are, by definition, unresolved. The New Frontier has a climax that wraps up the immediate threat, but it also feels like it was laying character and supporting cast groundwork for something longer-running.

On technical merits, the art design is… variable. At times it appears to have been inspired by Cooke’s awesome style, which is both pleasing in itself and marks a nice spot of variety from these animations’ norm, but at other points the style reverts to simplistic “Saturday morning cartoon” familiarity. Disappointingly, the actual animation is always of that level. Warner have definitely put out worse examples in this range (Superman vs The Elite), but they’ve also done much better (Batman: The Dark Knight Returns).

I really wanted to like The New Frontier, for all sorts of reasons. It does start well, with moments of promise sparkling here and there, but the longer it spends juggling so many balls, the fewer it can keep flying smoothly. (Do balls “fly” when juggled? Anyway, you get my point.) Considered as a whole, the overall result is fairly disappointing.

3 out of 5

* The New Frontier has never had a disc release in the UK (or a theatrical one, naturally), so has never been classified by the BBFC (I thought you needed that for streaming or download nowadays, but turns out it’s optional). Amazon choose to list it as a PG, but the US’s PG-13, aka a 12, seems nearer the mark (depending how much you care about cartoon violence and blood, anyway). ^

Birdman (2014)

aka Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 #164
Alejandro G. Iñárritu | 119 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Oscar statue2015 Academy Awards
9 nominations — 4 wins

Winner: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography.
Nominated: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.



I started the week by reviewing the first Best Picture winner, and now end it with a review of the most recent — which just so happens to be coming to Sky Movies and Now TV from today (couldn’t’ve planned that much better if I’d tried!)

Birdman isn’t a superhero movie, though if the title sounds like one then that’s no accident: Michael Keaton is an actor who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, to clarify, Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan Thomson, who once played a superhero in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the Birdman of the title. Decades later, he’s trying to be taken seriously by starring in a play on Broadway… which he’s also written… and is directing… and has sunk his personal finances into. So it’s probably not a good thing that one of his cast can’t act, his personal life is all over the place, the critics hate him before the play’s even opened, and he’s hallucinating superpowers.

Birdman is a comedy. “How the heck did a comedy win Best Picture at the Oscars?” you might well wonder, because that never happens anymore. Well, it’s a comedy-drama — it’s certainly funny, but drily so, and with lots of Personal Character Drama and a few Issues along the way. As it goes on, and gets a bit weird and kinda arthouse-y (as if it wasn’t to start with), you may forget that’s where it began. Nonetheless, I found it more consistently amusing than other recent acclaimed comedic Best Picture nominees, like the disappointing American Hustle.

In part this is thanks to Keaton, who gives quite an immersive performance as the numbed, self-deluded star. Some people were very much behind him for the Best Actor gong, but I think it found its rightful home: Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking was transformative to the point you forgot you were watching an actor; Keaton is just rather good. Anyway, for me the more enjoyable performance came in a supporting turn from Edward Norton. Norton is a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor… sorry, Norton plays a notoriously difficult-to-work-with actor, who joins Riggan’s production and begins to wreak all kinds of havoc.

The rest of the cast are dealt very mixed hands. Emma Stone is good, but was there enough meat on the role’s bones to justify Best Supporting Actress, other than one awards-clip-baiting shouty monologue? I’m not sure. The most memorable thing about her performance is how extraordinarily large her eyes are. Andrea Riseborough is thrown a bone or two; Zach Galifianakis doesn’t showboat like I’d’ve expected a comedian with his background to; Lindsay Duncan appears for one scene, but it’s a pretty good one (sometimes it really benefits American movies that there are swathes of fantastic British actors who are capable of first-rate leading performances, but so low down the food chain that they can be drafted in for single-scene roles); and Naomi Watts is utterly wasted. (At one point Riseborough and Watts kiss, which is apparently a spoiler for Mulholland Drive because she kisses a woman in that too. Oh IMDb trivia section, you will let any old rubbish in.)

Famously, almost the entire film takes place in a single take. A fake one, of course. Well, I say of course — Russian Ark did a feature-length single take for real. I’d assumed this meant the film took place in real time, because that seems the obvious thing to use an unbroken shot for — to show us everything that occurred in the time it occurred. But no. Iñárritu uses that and the fact it’s faked quite cleverly at times, to pull off impossible changes of location. For example, at one point the camera leaves Norton in the theatre’s gods and drifts down towards the stage, where we can see him mid-performance.

The most curious aspect of the single take is: what did it need two editors for?! Everything had to be meticulously planned in advance — apparently, longer was spent on the screenplay than is normal, because once it was shot nothing could be cut — so surely all someone had to do was stick it together at the joins? Some of those joins are actually fairly obvious (your familiarity with filmmaking techniques and where joins might be hidden will dictate exactly how many), but a decent number remain hidden, I think. Well, I presume — I didn’t see them. Anyway, it’s more a feat of logistics and cinematography, the latter of which Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki did win an award for. How deserved that was, I’m not sure. It’s very impressive to work out how to shoot a movie in a single take, even a pretend one, but surely cinematography awards are for the quality of the images, not the logistics of moving your camera around? Birdman is by no means an ugly film, but the best-looking of the year? I’m not so sure.

Birdman is an entertaining film, both funny enough to keep the spirits up and dramatic enough to feel there’s some depth there. It’s also a mightily impressive feat of technical moviemaking, but then I do love a long single take (even a fake one). Is it the Best Picture of 2014? Well, from the nominees, it’s not the funniest (The Grand Budapest Hotel), nor does it have the most impactful performances (The Theory of Everything), nor is it the must gripping or thought-provoking (Whiplash), and it doesn’t feel the most significant (Boyhood). There is an interesting element of having its cake and eating it about Birdman, though, as it berates The Movies for their current superhero obsession while telling the story of a Hollywood actor who sets out to prove those snooty New York theatre critics wrong. Hm, however did this win Best Picture from an organisation whose main voting bloc is Hollywood actors?

4 out of 5

Birdman debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 1:45pm and 10:10pm.