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Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Review, Theatrical, This Week 1 Comment

Whenever you’re building something, laying the foundations is one of the toughest and most important parts of the job. It’s from there that everything juts bravely upward and outward; the foundations aren’t pretty, but they allow for the architecture to get better and better as the build progresses. It’s a pretty prosaic metaphor for a superhero movie, but that’s exactly what Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is: the foundations. There’s the heavy concrete of exposition; a multitude of joist-like characters that hold up the story; and a big, weighty narrative that crashes around like a barrow full of bricks. But in establishing its intended expansive, interconnected superhero universe of multiple stand-alone flicks and team-up movies, backing studio, Warner (who own DC Comics, the publishing giant responsible for some of the most popular characters in literary history), had to lay the right kind of platform (the preceding film, Man Of Steel, was akin to a general plan), and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is it. It’s epic, involving, exciting, and ambitious, but there’s an undeniable feeling that the best is yet to come.

Beginning during the end moments of Man Of Steel, we witness the rage of Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), as the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) destroys most of Metropolis, levelling buildings and killing innocents. Weary from dispensing justice to well deserving criminals for over twenty years, the jaded Batman sees the hugely powerful and potentially world-destroying Superman as a different kind of threat, and sets about bringing him down. The conniving multibillionaire, Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), meanwhile, has plans for them both, which also involve Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and various other “meta-humans”, or, those with special powers.

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Following through with the heavy, serious tone of Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice at first feels like another all-too-familiar re-run of the classic Batman myth, as we witness the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, recoil during the young boy’s terrifying encounter with a cave full of bats, and follow the jump to an adulthood defined by vigilantism and a scary mask. And while the banter between Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred (along with their dark, gloomy surrounds) might loudly recall the interplay of Christian Bale and Michael Caine in the Christopher Nolan Batman films, the suggested lengthy history of this caped crusader (there’s even a hint of the previous existence of his sidekick, Robin) is what makes him special. The slow-burning tension between the damaged and angry Batman and the saintly but naïve Superman gives the film its drive and intensity, and there are very few light moments in the mix: this is a dark, sombre cinematic take on the subject of action and consequence, and how a good deed is often not done in return.

Happily, director, Zack Snyder, gets his casting bang-on: Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are great once again as Superman and Lois Lane; Ben Affleck is a wonderfully looming, embittered Batman; Jesse Eisenberg is an inspired pick to play the scheming, jittery, and decidedly millennial Lex Luthor (his full-tilt turn will without doubt be the performance that most divides the audience); Laurence Fishburne is all wildfire and well-meaning animosity as newspaper boss, Perry White; Diane Lane brings bundles of salt-of-the-earth charm as Superman’s earthly mother, Martha Kent; and a few notable (but very, very brief) superhero cameos will certainly get the adrenaline pumping. Scene stealing honours, however, unreservedly go to Gal Gadot, who makes a big splash as Wonder Woman despite her brief screen time. Fierce, funny, and courageous (and backed by great theme music), this comic book legend finally gets her due on the big screen, and it’s no disappointment.

Unfortunately, as he did on Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder lets the film get away from him in its final act. Clearly primed to throw a lot at the screen, Snyder ups the action and mayhem, but steers himself into muddy narrative territory, losing hold of character motivation, fraying his story threads, and assuming so much audience knowledge that he creates what appear to be major plot holes. Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice has a hell of a lot to do, and its deadly serious tone (the film is the absolute antithesis of Marvel Studios’ jocular, zippy, highly entertaining output) doesn’t help lighten the load. But despite its creaking, dangerously listing denouement, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is breathlessly exciting in its pop cultural import: this is a big, big film pointing up at the sky at the even bigger things to come.

 
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Eye In The Sky

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The premise here is inherently gripping. Major figures from a militant Islamist group are gathering in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. They’re intent on very imminent and very violent activity, but unbeknownst to them, they are being watched by a host of military/political people in various countries, who are poised to execute a drone strike that will blow them all to smithereens. And then there’s the risk to anyone unlucky enough to be close by. So far, so James Bondish. But the difference is that this is (or purports to be) an extended moral debate rather than just an action story; inaction is in fact the essential name of the game here, with just about everyone, from foreign secretaries to US pilot, Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), vacillating like Hamlet about when and if to “pull the pin.” Only English top brass Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) – who is spearheading the mission – and Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his last on-screen performance) seem at all resolute.

All of this commendably sensitive umming and ahhing is increased when a little girl – sent off to sell bread by her father – arrives and sets up her stall right outside the targeted premises. As you would hope, no-one is especially keen on including her in the collateral damage. Whether this consideration would cause extended procrastination and high-level discussion in the real world is a moot point, and even if it would, it’s a pity that the scriptwriter had to spell out General Benson’s humanity so pointedly and neatly by showing him buying a doll for his own young daughter. But what follows is undeniably compelling.

Eye In The Sky is sporadically sentimental, unrealistic, and overburdened with intrusive soundtrack music. But it gets you in, and it’s suspenseful, claustrophobic, and a fairly unusual take on the counter-terrorism sub-genre.

 
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A Bigger Splash

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When Marianne (Tilda Swinton), her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his formerly estranged daughter, Pen (Dakota Johnson), retreat to a sun-drenched Italian island, relationships become confused, jealousies flare, and it all culminates in a death. Bestrewn with references to songs, album titles, and personnel, A Bigger Splash is a virtual paean to The Rolling Stones, and simultaneously a remake of 1969’s La Piscine, whose death by drowning denouement is now recontextualised to include Ralph Fiennes and the watery demise of Stones founder, Brian Jones, at the bottom of his swimming pool.

The reconfiguring is odd, but only in a comparative sense. The restlessness of the film comes from its quavering attempts to reconcile archetypal rock debauch with modern sensibility. As such, articulate character pathos vie intermittently with a Bacchanalian sense of fun that doesn’t stop short at misfortune.  When one of the protagonists perishes, Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire” suggests less a sense of chaos than a mordant dance of joy. The film’s sense of opposition is partially appropriate because two of its main characters are intentional artefacts: Harry is a hedonistic Limey record producer, and Marianne, his ex-lover, is a washed up, Bowie-esque androgen recovering from throat surgery. Yet simultaneously, the logistics of time suggest a serious displacement, a nostalgia that exceeds their own middle age.

Fiennes is a standout in an excellent cast, including Swinton, who barely talks, and Johnson, whose frequently poor roles belie her own ability. A Bigger Splash is both livelier than the movie on which it was based, and more confused in its intent. Like the band that it adulates, its best asset is the vulnerability with which it underscores its own sleaze.

 
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Brand New Testament

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If asked to picture God, most of us would conjure up images of a charismatic Morgan Freeman or a cantankerous Graham Chapman peeking out from behind a cloud to berate King Arthur. Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film, The Brand New Testament, challenges this by positioning God (portrayed with detestable aplomb by Benoit Poelvoorde) as a Belgian slob with anger management issues – and an unquenchable desire to see humanity suffer.

Dissatisfied with her father’s uncaring and cruel lordship over the Earth, Ea (portrayed by the superb Pili Groyne) takes matters into her own hands; she sabotages his outfit, recruits a handful of apostles, and sets about penning a “brand new testament” for the people of Brussels to live by.

The morbid humour and morose aesthetic may feel a million miles away from the sunny Garden Of Eden, but a deft screenplay from Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig finds room to inject gentle flecks of hope. The string of encounters (or “gospels”) that follow Ea’s flight into the world showcase the length and breadth of Van Dormael’s proclivity for mixing touching human stories with absurdist comedy and abstract visual metaphors. Whether it’s a life-long sex pest (Serge Larivière) pining after a childhood crush, or a bored housewife (Catherine Deneuve) committing adultery with a gorilla, Van Dormael’s eye for the unsettling and the striking never fails to disappoint.

The meandering second act might test the patience, but a sweet seaside finale sees everything tie together for a touching and suitably strange conclusion. The central message – what would you do if you knew the hour of your death? – is delivered in rousing fashion. If you can wrap your head around Van Dormael’s surrealist imagination, you’ll find a confounding and uplifting tale of love, compassion, and morality.

 
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Miracles From Heaven

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According to Christy Beam’s memoir, Miracles From Heaven, her daughter, Annabel, spent her childhood in and out of hospital with a rare and incurable gastrointestinal disease from which she would probably have died. After a freak accident in which she fell 30ft down the middle of a hollow tree, Annabel awoke not only unscratched from the accident, but inexplicably cured from her disorder, and claiming to have had an out of body experience in which she saw Heaven.

Miracles From Heaven is the latest in a spate of books and movies about toddlers visiting Heaven. Heaven Is For Real was a bestseller turned into a movie that grossed $91 million.  Then there is The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, now debunked after its author confessed to fabricating its content. That the miraculous has become its own market genre makes it difficult to approach a movie like Miracles From Heaven without a degree of cynicism. There is a lot of suffering in the world, and you have to wonder why God looks so favourably on white kids from Middle America over apparently anywhere else.

Nevertheless, you don’t watch a movie called Miracles From Heaven without realising that you need to check your cynicism at the door. This is a story about faith, and it asks you to take a leap into what – if we grant the veracity of its claims – is a genuinely amazing, perplexing story. As a movie, it sets out to be inspiring, and in that regard, it succeeds. While it would have been interesting to explore the questions and aftermath surrounding Annabel’s recovery in greater depth, the film centres on the time leading up to her accident, and not the time after it.

The film leans largely on Jennifer Garner as Annabel’s mother, and she supports it ably with a strong performance as a woman who is both holistically maternal and beleaguered by doubt. Martin Henderson, as her drawling husband, however, fails to enliven an underdrawn, two-bit character; and Queen Latifah makes an arbitrary appearance as a well-meaning stereotype. Miracles From Heaven is treacly, to be sure, while it raises a host of unintended theological dilemmas that it couldn’t answer if it tried. While it may not be for everyone, its basic decency and sense of great hopefulness are very often touching.

 

 
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Zootopia

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The creators of animated films are now, more than ever, prone to include nods and winks at the accompanying parents of the little kids that make up the films’ primary audience. This might mean incorporating a few surreptitiously risqué gags or pop culture references, or – as in the case of most Pixar films, and in particular their recent smash, Inside Out – creating an emotionally resonant and nuanced experience that appeals almost equally to both halves of the audience. Disney’s latest animated effort, however, is a completely different barrel of monkeys. Already a major hit in the US, the zippy and gorgeously designed Zootopia is so complex in its themes, narrative, and references that it appears to be geared primarily to adults, with their kids merely a subsidiary gain when it comes to audience satisfaction.

Set in a fantastical, human-free world where animals have wholly evolved, Zootopia takes place in the titular metropolis, and follows the sprightly Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), the first rabbit to ever become a fully-fledged police officer. At first fobbed off onto writing parking tickets by her sneering boss, Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), Judy eventually finds her way into a major conspiracy, in which – through a circuitous train of events – she is forced to work with Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a wily fox and con artist. As their unlikely friendship develops, Judy and Nick’s investigation will soon change the peaceful city of Zootopia forever.

Structured like a straight-up police procedural (hardly the first genre that anyone would think of when spit-balling ideas for a kids’ flick), Zootopia bumps through a series of ingeniously oddball and very funny set-ups (a private club for animal “nudists” – complete with volleyball – who like to revert to their “natural” state; a bustling, miniature city for rats and mice; a service centre staffed entirely by a glacially slow group of sloths), before eventually revealing itself to be a parable about, yes, racial discrimination. In this complicated world, foxes experience prejudice because of their reputation for being duplicitous sneaks, rabbits are viewed as largely useless, and there’s a somewhat tenuous relationship between traditional predatory animals and what would once have been their prey. It’s certainly a thoughtful approach to mainstream studio animation, and if that wasn’t enough, Zootopia also makes comment on – at the risk of dropping a spoiler – the ice/crystal meth epidemic, complete with a Breaking Bad reference. There’s rarely been so much sub in the text of an animated movie, and while it makes Zootopia a surprisingly thought provoking experience, there’s also something slightly disconcerting about Disney’s willingness to so keenly embrace adult themes in its latest kid-friendly extravaganza.

 
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The Witch

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The cliché that they just don’t make them like they used to gets thrown into sharp relief with The Witch. Modern filmmakers rarely craft features as stark and sparse as Robert Eggers’ New England-set folktale – or as insidiously unsettling, either. Though its narrative plays with the persecution of suspected evil, as anyone who has seen The Crucible will recognise, this award winner more closely resembles the unnerving silent horror efforts of the twenties. That Eggers will next tackle a remake of Nosferatu is fitting.

The Witch doesn’t just feel ripped from another time, though its patient pace and symmetrical framing furthers its old-fashioned approach. The feature is set in the 17th century, when the fear of the occult was a real concern in Puritan circles. After the youngest of farmer, William (Ralph Ineson), and his wife, Katherine’s (Kate Dickie) five children vanishes, they’re quick to suspect eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Blame, paranoia, and hysteria engulfs the family, heightened by crop failures, a creepy goat called Black Phillip, the ominous woods surrounding their settlement, and their self-imposed exile from their fellow fundamentalists, over religious differences.

Writing as well as directing, feature debutant Eggers proves a master of mood more than story, though the success of the former overcomes the familiar nature of the latter. Even when the script tries to have its supernatural cake and eat it too, the movie writhes with tension in more than just its many jump scares. Some may find the verbose language a stumbling block, though it is ably handled by the excellent cast. That’s Eggers’ other masterstroke; with few familiar faces on screen, audiences have little choice but to get swept up in the threatening tone and slow-burning terror of an anxiety-inducing thriller like they’ve likely never seen before.

 
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The Daughter

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The contemporary Australian drama, The Daughter, is based on Henrik Ibsen’s classic 19th century drama, The Wild Duck. This is both a reason for rejoicing and a slight problem, depending on how you look at it. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t “reproduce” Ibsen or successfully transpose his dilemma to Tasmania (where the film is nominally located). After all, all you need to say is, this is a “reimagining.” Still, if you know the source material, it’s hard not to compare (unfavourably) this slightly muddled version. Also, the film has to engage those who have never had the good fortune to read Ibsen.

The centre of The Wild Duck is a young woman (the daughter of the title) called Hedvig, who is fretting against the stifling conformity of her age, and the sick family secrecy which keeps the patriarchal order in place. Here, as directed by actor-turned-director, Simon Stone, the Hedvig character is still at the centre of the action, but she is operating in a different age, and may be read differently by today’s audiences. Odessa Young certainly looks the part. She succeeds in making us feel for her plight without ever tapping into a convincing Ibsen-like anger, which could balance the claustrophobia with some righteous prospect of change.

The film has its strengths, most notably the strong ensemble of Sam Neill, Geoffrey Rush, Ewen Leslie, Miranda Otto, and Nicholas Hope, all of whom give creditable performances. American actor, Paul Schneider, however, struggles to get the tone right in his turn as Christian, the angry returning son. The art direction and costume design are all polished, and the direction is smooth enough not to get in the way of the performances. The film ticks along, but for all its pedigree, one is left wanting just a little more.

 
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An

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An

Director, Naomi Kawase, has made over a dozen features, but she is still not that well known internationally. Her last film, Still The Water, received critical acclaim, and this gentle tale should extend her reputation. It is a simple enough story, but engaging if you re-tune your expectations away from the busyness of Hollywood fare.

Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase) is a middle aged man running a small doryaki (pancake) cafe in the city. He has a “past” (we later find out), and that might account for his daily sense of irritation as he sweats to make the perfect doryaki. He cannot help being slightly annoyed by the giggling school girls who gather in his cafe. One day, an old lady called Tokue (Kirin Kiki) walks in. Even though she is 76, and has damaged hands, she is very keen to get the lowly job of kitchen hand. When she makes an azuki bean paste that is simply the best ever, Sentaro hires her. The film then follows their unlikely friendship.

If all this sounds a bit inconsequential, it is. An contains relished foody pleasures, but it certainly isn’t fast; the first reveal isn’t until about forty minutes in. By then, we have had so many loving close-ups of bubbling red beans that you feel like changing your diet. However, the part of Tokue is very well played by Kiki (if this is remade into English, they would have to cast Maggie Smith). It is a calm, centred performance, as it needs to be. She has a sort of end-of-life wisdom, a sense of finally getting in rhythm with nature in order to savour our brief time on earth. It is a simple pleasure but, like the doryaki pancake, there is sweetness within.

 
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London Has Fallen

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If you thought that 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen was the end point when it comes to xenophobic wish fulfilment, then think again. The loopy, goofy sequel, London Has Fallen, takes everything that was inappropriate about that smash hit, and magnifies it to even more garish extremes. The result is, well, not quite a guilty pleasure, but it’s certainly a guilty something, inadvertently painting a broad-stroke picture of American arrogance that gives the film far more import than it deserves. The action sequences are stunningly orchestrated, but there’s a sadism and sense of superiority here that is occasionally hilarious in its bold political incorrectness, but also undeniably sour in its mean spiritedness.

After saving the life of US President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) in Olympus Has Fallen, Secret Service hard-man, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), is now eyeing off a career change so he can avoid being killed and be a good husband and father to his wife, Leah (Radha Mitchell), and their unborn child. But when the British Prime Minister dies, Banning accompanies President Asher to London, where hell soon breaks volcanically loose. With vengeance minded Middle Eastern arms dealer, Aamir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul ), pulling the strings in retaliation for the US drone bombing that killed his on-the-way-to-the-altar daughter and all of her wedding guests, London is soon under attack, with terrorists jumping up out of nowhere to kill off the visiting world’s leaders, and anyone else who might be in the way. But the man that they really want is President Benjamin Asher, who they plan to behead live online. Their problem? Mike Banning is a barn-storming, Bruce Willis-style badass, and he has other ideas about how things are going to pan out.

With insensitivity the order of the day, London Has Fallen merely uses the wholesale destruction of the English capitol (where all of the free world’s leaders – thankfully, Australia is not represented, obviously not really deemed a major player by the US – get gruesomely assassinated) as a curtain raiser for the big show – namely, the survival of the US President. It’s hard to imagine any American citizen making jokes straight after 9/11, but that’s exactly what happens here; as London burns and its population bleeds (and a cast of acting heavyweights – including Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, and Colin Salmon – is criminally under used), the tough talking Mike Banning and the too-good-to-be-true President Asher set off on something akin to a boys’ own adventure, mowing down terrorists (Banning blasts more bad guys in London Has Fallen than Clint Eastwood did Nazis in Where Eagles Dare) and cracking jokes about their driving skills. Admittedly, Mike Banning is an hilariously balls-to-the-wall character, for whom even taking a drink of water is an act of war. “I don’t know about you,” he growls to President Asher in a rare moment of post-violence repose, “but I’m thirsty as FUCK!” Banning’s full-tilt machismo is gut-bustingly over-the-top, but its cruel and xenophobic edges (“Why don’t you fuck off back to Fuckheadistan,” he seethes before dispatching a bad guy) cut a little too deep, no matter how many scenes show him being all doe-eyed with his pregnant missus.

Disturbingly, London Has Fallen constructs a number of buffers to sneakily allow this kind of rampaging trash talking into the film’s deliriously hyper-aggressive mix. Crucially, the villain here is not a Muslim fundamentalist terrorist, but rather an angry arms dealer with an axe to grind who supplies Muslim fundamentalist terrorists with weapons, setting up a kind of apolitical playground that uses current real world terrorist horrors to make the metaphorical swings go higher and the slides dip steeper. It’s a cynical cloaking device, as is – at the risk of defamation – the hiring of Iranian-born Babak Najafi (Sebbe, Easy Money II: Hard To Kill) to direct. While his skills as an action point-man are beyond reproach, you can’t help but wonder if the film’s producers thought that having a Middle Eastern-born filmmaker at the helm might smooth over the cracks wrought by the borderline offensive antics in which the film so gleefully indulges.

While it starts off as a taut, straight-from-the-headlines thriller, London Has Fallen eventually devolves into a giddy, cartoonish fantasy, where the world’s complex problems can be solved with a punch to the face and a follow-up wisecrack. It’s as unashamedly gung-ho as wrong-headed 1980s actioners like Invasion USA, Rambo III, and Red Dawn, but without the benefit of the softening passage of time. When you feel yourself enjoying the propulsive, excitingly staged London Has Fallen, it’s decidedly more difficult to feel good about it.