The smartest thing about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition (Warner, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, Ultra HD Blu-ray, DVD, Digital, VOD) is its revisionist take on the destruction that concluded Man of Steel, Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman as a harder, more troubled hero in a darker big screen superhero universe than previous incarnations. After an unnecessary (but at least relatively brief) recap of the origin of Batman laid under the opening credits, we are plunged back into the battle and this time Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the protagonist. This perspective comes from the ground. He’s simply an agent of destruction in the sky as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck with a hint of stubble and gray in the temples) roars through the street in what is surely, at least under the hood, the civilian answer to the Batmobile. Man of Steel quite rightly was slammed for its insensitive portrait of epic destruction in an urban center without a thought for the victims below and Snyder, in all his heavyhanded Olympian grandeur, seemed just as oblivious as Superman. Both were so caught up in the personal fight with the demons of Krypton that neither could be bothered to notice civilians crushed like ants in a battle of the titans.
Deadpool (Fox, Blu-ray, DVD, 4K UltraHD, VOD) – Irreverent, outrageous, and strewn with self-aware commentary and dark humor, Deadpool is the polar opposite of the self-serious Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is raunchy and gory and features a hero with no compunctions about killing the henchmen sent after him. In fact, he relishes it.
It’s based on a Marvel comics character but it’s not a Marvel movie per se. Technically an offshoot of the X-Menmovies developed by 20th Century Fox, it both embraces and spoofs the Marvel movie formula. The opening faux credits set the whole tone, trashing the entire superhero industry and the film’s own star, Ryan Reynolds. His first superhero outing, Green Lantern, was one of the biggest disasters of the genre. Deadpool isn’t about to let him live it down and Reynolds plays along with it, making him perfect casting. He has the attitude necessary to pull off the balance of self-aware joking, sardonic commentary, and tormented anti-hero hiding behind humor.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.
Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.
Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.
Deadpool, Ryan Reynolds’ second crack at Marvel’s most in-your-face character (following a forgotten appearance in the misbegotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is a terrifically faithful adaptation of some awfully obnoxious source material. If you’re a pre-existing devotee, the film’s nonstop assortment of cartoony assholes and elbows to the ribs might very well make your head pop off in a paroxysm of joy. (Seriously, the employees at the crammed preview screening I attended probably wished they had put down plastic beforehand.)
Jellyfish Eyes (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the debut feature from visual artist Takashi Murakami, is a fantasy of childhood innocence and fantastical creatures come to life as Pokemon-like playmates. It’s also a strange conspiracy involving a cult of young researchers in a post-Fukushima world applying an alchemy of science and magic to a transporter device linked to an alternate reality.
Masashi (Takuto Sueoka), the young son of a widowed mother (still trapped in her mourning), moves to the idyllic little town next to an ominous, secretive research lab. He’s practically adopted by a flying creature that looks like a mushroom crossed with a jellyfish and turned into a rubber doll you might win from a carnival game, right around the time he starts having nightmares of his father, the tsunami that took his life, and jellyfish. Then Masashi discovers that every kid in town has their own creature, which they explain are called F.R.I.E.N.D.s and controled with the help of a handheld device. The boys send their F.R.I.E.N.D.s into battle in arena-like matches, much to the outrage of a shy girl (Himeka Asami) with giant sheepdog of a F.R.I.E.N.D. who hates the bullying culture that this violence inspires.
[Originally published in Movietone News 32, June 1974]
In the opening sequence of John Boorman’s new film, a huge stone head resembling a Greek tragic mask drifts in the air above the Irish countryside, like the floating spirit of Astaroth; it spits forth a spray of rifles and exhorts a congregation of horsemen to go forth and kill. This is the god Zardoz, who decrees that the rapidly reproducing populace must be exterminated, that the gun is good and the penis evil. Here, “deep in a possible future,” the Year 2293, we thus discover John Boorman, in his first film since Deliverance, dealing once again with the conflicts between nature’s way and humanity’s way.
I wonder which of the ingeniously placed revelations will get the biggest cheer in the new Star Wars movie. My money is on the way the camera casually discovers a certain neglected hunk-of-junk spaceship in the middle of a frantic escape.
No spoilers on the other big moments. You’re going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens anyway, so let’s leave the surprises to be enjoyed fresh. And you will enjoy this movie, unless you’re disenchanted with the world-dominating nature of “Star Wars” hype, or such a purist that you think any Star Wars movie made after 1980 is a stain upon the original holy text.
[Originally published in Movietone News 35, September 1974]
Our Man in Vancouver and I have been carrying on a (mutually, I trust) enjoyable dialogue-by-mail over the virtues and failings of Mike Hodges’s The Terminal Man. Some of the failings were set forth in a review heading up last month’s quickies section. As it happened, I encountered the review before the film, and while I don’t wish at all to cast aspersions on a very fine commentary, I must admit that the movie thrilled me a good deal of its running time, to the extent that I feel compelled to file what has become—in the light of still other reviews—a minority report on its behalf. I don’t discount for a moment the possibility—indeed, the likelihood—that Mr. Eisler’s objections might have served as a sort of cadmium rod inserted into the cinematomic pile, catching a lethal dose of oversimplified ideas, narrative inconsistencies, and plot lacunae, and reducing my exposure to them. If so, I’m grateful, because I was then enabled to like what I saw.
[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]
What a fancy exploitation flick this is! The Terminal Man‘s dressed to the nines with gleaming color, elaborate art direction, smooth camerawork (lotsa tracking shots and long-focus). All this, and—wait for it—”ideas” too! Oh, yeah. THRILLER STUDIES MIND CONTROL goes the headline over Michael Walsh’s long, respectful review in the Vancouver Province. (Walsh: “Since men first began clubbing one another over the head, violence has been a serious social problem….”) George Segal’s brain has been damaged in a car accident, see, and now he’s subject to fits, a dangerous man. They gonna plant these bad bundles of computer-controlled electrodes in his haid; maybe the computer’ll abort the fits. The Psychosurgery Question. In the back of the lecture hall, a very old doctor rises to his feet. Why, he’s … Mr. Humanism personified! Denounces the proposed procedure, the intervention, in a furious quavery voice; draws political parallels. Heavy stuff. But They (with the patient’s consent) go ahead. “Medical totalitarianism” (Walsh). Result: “a tale of psycho-horror.” Because something, of course, goes wrong, terribly wrong.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
Although he has gone on to make such films as Charley Varrick, Dirty Harry, Madigan, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Baby Face Nelson, The Lineup, Hell Is for Heroes, The Killers, and The Beguiled, there are many who still regard The Invasion of the Body Snatchers as Don Siegel’s best movie. If I continue to prefer several of the others, it’s because Siegel himself seems to come through more directly. Many of the virtues of Invasion inhere in the writing of Daniel Mainwaring, an author of no mean importance whose scripts for Out of the Past (based on his own novel) and The Phenix City Story likewise postulate and effectively sustain film-worlds wherein the characters seem to breathe doom out of the very air; in Out of the Past the mutual corruptibility and mortality of Mitchum, Greer, and Douglas proceeds inevitably from the bemused sadomasochism that constitutes their behavioral style; Phenix City Story, filmed the year before Invasion, recounts the terror of a syndicate-controlled Southern town in which not only the back rooms, alleys, and dark streets but also the homes and the very minds of the citizenry prove insidiously, almost ineffably, pregnable. Then too, there’s the question of the belated and perhaps invalidating framing episodes of Dr. Bennell trying to convince Drs. Hill and Bassett about what’s happening in Santa Mira. Bob Cumbow has sorted out the interpretive problems which that gives rise to. But, in addition, I wonder how the main body of the film has been affected by the revision. In the original, did the events of the film simply unreel without benefit of voiceover commentary? Maybe, maybe not—in Out of the Past Robert Mitchum describes that past to Virginia Huston, which accounts for about half the movie, and the fact as well as the tone of the narration contributes to that film’s sense of eerie masochistic reverie. There are moments in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when Siegel’s camera just gives us Miles Bennell’s car moving through the streets of the town, fast and slow, by night and by day. Now we vvusually hear Kevin McCarthy’s voice describing the intensification of his concern, the specific doubts that specific details of the changed life of Santa Mira are stirring in his mind. But what if we didn’t hear that commentary? What would be the effect of those calculatedly mundane images and movements? I ask it with some regret because one of the grabbiest moments in the movie is the sight of the town square about 7:45 one Saturday morning; Miles peers down at it from the window of his office, and even before the pod-laden trucks arrive, that natural-sunlight scene has something unshakably awful about it.
[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
American officials and the American public began to believe that the Soviet Union was bent on building a Communist empire and that it would halt its expansion only when forced to do so.
With this conviction, the American government took steps to block further Soviet expansion. From then on, relations between the two powers bordered on a state of war….
The Red Scare after World War II … had roots not only in the cold war but in long-buried currents of anti-intellectualism and in the rapid social changes attendant on the shift from depression to prosperity. …
Much of what was widely believed during the scare was nonsense. There was a notion, for example, that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the American government. … There was another notion that large numbers of Communists had infiltrated the news media, the motion picture industry, and the clergy, so that news, movies and sermons had gulled the public into approving pro-Communist policies. These beliefs rested on the fantasy that the United States, if it chose, could shape the world to its will, and that, whenever anything went wrong, the fault had to lie at home.
—Ernest May, Anxiety and Affluence, 1945-1965
The wave of anti-intellectualism crested with McCarthy and washed over much of the remainder of the decade. Blacklisting had become such a threat that many filmmakers consciously made openly anti-Communist films, to preserve their reputations and obtain favors. Red Paranoia was so widespread that many more filmmakers reflected the fear of subversion and infiltration in their movies, even unconsciously. In either case, the monster movies of the Fifties in general reflect an intense fear of infiltration and dehumanization by a subversive, colonizing power (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Brain Eaters) or by a communal society bent on destructive expansionism (Them!, War of the Worlds). Creeping Communism became one of the main themes of monster movies in 1954, and the monster movies themselves became one of the main proponents of the battle against Communist ideology (or what was generally understood to be such). Its metaphors were monsters, from outer space, from under the earth or on it, bent on conquering the human race (always starting with the United States of America), and often determined to create a mindless Utopia devoid of feelings and individuality.
The movie begins with a hurricane on Mars, a life-threatening debris storm, and a spaceship that might not be able to lift off in the chaos. And that’s the easy part. After the rocket finally blasts from the surface, an astronaut—presumed dead—is left behind on the Red Planet, and he’s got to figure out how to stay alive by himself until a very improbable rescue mission could pick him up. That will take many, many months, if it happens at all. So The Martian is a problem-solving movie: How will castaway Mark Watney (Matt Damon) figure out the fundamental problems of food, shelter, and communication? The movie doesn’t waste much time worrying about issues of loneliness; after we’ve spent time with Watney, who has a complete lack of introspection and neurosis, it’s no wonder.
Even among the legions of characters in long underwear, the Fantastic Four have always stood apart, both for their squabbling family dynamics and an endearingly retro squareness. The latest attempt to move the team to the big screen captures, well, exactly neither of those aspects, with results that are too bloody and dour for kids (heads start popping off toward the end, GWAR-style), too laissez faire for continuity geeks, and too uninspired for everybody else.