Retrospective Reviews #9: Batman Reanimated

After my massive disappointment with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I figured it was time to look back at some older Batman productions. Specifically animated ones that were more consistent and had a better grasp on their aims rather than the ambitiously moronic vision of Zack Snyder.

3/26/16: Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Re-Watch)

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Warner Bros

Batman: The Animated Series was my first exposure to the character and probably my favorite overall incarnation of the property. Sure, I enjoy the entire Nolan trilogy and the Tim Burton films hold a place in my heart, but the 1990s animated series managed to do something few other film versions of The Dark Knight could; balance a genuine respect for the character with a consistent sense of humor and style. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm gave The Animated Series creator Bruce Timm and his team the chance to both tell an engrossing modern story for the character and give a unique take on his early years. No, it’s not the typical “parents died, slowly realizing he can become a vigilante” storyline as much as one where Bruce is already aware he wants to fight crime while masked yet finds a plausible way out. With a genuine romance that could bury his purpose before it starts yet a constant tugging need to uphold the promise he kept to his parents. The modern tale seems reminiscent of something like Batman: The Long Halloween, but flawlessly connects with the flashbacks and showcases more of The Caped Crusader’s detective skills than any other feature length take on the character. The style showcased reminds one of the neo noir timelessness of Burton’s version of Batman, but allows for a more nuanced sense of scope and expression that live action can’t quite capture with every image. The voice acting fits the gravitas wonderfully, whether it be Kevin Conroy getting to show the full range of Bruce Wayne, Mark Hamill continuing to ooze the perfect type of slimy giddiness he usually does for The Joker or Dana Delaney expressing the perfect mixture of knowing regret & firm wherewithal. For an age where theatrical animation from major studios was right in the middle of a true Disney plagiarizing ghetto, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm takes its subjects and world seriously and with the style & substance of a three dimensional live action thriller.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Abandoned World’s Fairs

3/26/16: The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest

world'sfinest

Warner Bros

In 1996, Bruce Timm followed Batman: The Animated Series with the obvious second DC property Superman: The Animated Series. This sixty minute production is technically a three part episode of that show that marked a crossover between both shows, though at the time Batman: The Animated Series went through a major style redesign to match the Blue Boy Scout’s show and became The New Batman Adventures, which is probably the biggest issue I could honestly have with this special. It particularly stings with the new look of The Joker, which weirdly resembles the titular character of another WB show of that era Freakazoid! with black eyes and white irises that are quite jarring. Regardless, the characters are consistent with the previous series in terms of behavior and tone. What works about this version is that there’s obviously an adversarial relationship between Superman and Batman, but its not so one sided. It has different layers, including the love triangle between Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne and Superman that actually makes for fun conflict while never wasting Lois or overemphasizing either hero. Plus, there’s an intriguing sense of conflict even between Lex Luthor and Joker, who have clashing yet believable motivations that would intertwine them. Still, Joker’s final fate being on a rather ambiguous note feels disingenuous, given his extreme likelihood of returning. One of their confrontations also leads to the film’s best comedic moment between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves, two of the characters created for both series that would end up being integrated into the DC Universe proper. That alone shows the impact of this series, one that will hopefully not mirror the choices made in certain other recent adaptations.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Kryptonite Statues

3/29/16: Batman: Year One

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Warner Bros

The recent rash of DC animated films don’t have any real connection to the earlier mentioned attempts at the DC animated universe Bruce Timm created. Sure, Timm is a credited producer on most of them, but they share no real continuity with his stabs at the characters from the 1990s-2000s. Instead, these versions attempt to adapt specific stories or runs from the comics, many of which I can admit I’m not as familiar with. Batman: Year One, however, is one story I’m rather familiar with. Released in 1987 as a three part story written by comic book legend turned crazy kook Frank Miller tells the story of Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham & first year as Batman as well as James Gordon’s move to Gotham with his pregnant wife Barbara. The story Miller crafted contrasted Batman’s return to his crime infested hometown with Gordon’s introduction to this same crime infested area from the perspective of the police. Both have a sense of temptation, either for Bruce to give in to his occasional desires to stop fighting crime or Gordon’s attraction to Essen. These moments make them human and – more importantly – set up the bond between the two of them that culminates in their partnership as that slowly incriminate the organized crime of Gotham throughout the story. Ben McKenzie and Bryan Cranston display all of this vocally, showing the anxiety and determination they have as characters. Visually, this is one of the more impressive examples of the DC animated films, given that it so closely resembles Dave Mazzucchelli’s cinematic art style quite well. Still, the film fails to translate something pretty vital, even when directly lifting time after time from the page; an authentic sense of grit. The color palette and animation is rather smooth and elegant, which looks good in terms of a direct-to-video animated film, but sacrifices the genuine grit on display in the original book. Still, a solid adaptation of the character and one of the better films in the recent DC Animated Canon.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Flaming Trays

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“Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016): The Ends Don’t Justify The Mess

This is a spoiler free review of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of JusticeI’ll be discussing spoilers on an upcoming episode of my podcast Horror News Radio.

Three years after giving the world the first non-Richard Donner inspired version of Superman with 2013’s Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder has released his follow up to firmly establish his larger version of the DC Comics universe.  Batman V. Superman: Dawn of the Justice continues threads from its predecessor, mainly in terms of the fallout of Superman’s climactic fight with Zod on both Bruce Wayne and the world at large. Some are frightened by Superman. Others worship him as a savior. Similarly, the “Bat Vigilante of Gotham” is both heaped with praise and feared as a madman. In their own rather blatant ways, these reactions from everyday citizens mirror the divisive critic and audience reactions to Man of Steel, full of fervent emotions that take sides.

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Warner Bros

The trouble is… we really don’t get that much of a reaction from Clark Kent/Kal El/Superman to any of this. No jeers. No rebuffs. No defending his actions. Just minuscule sighs reminiscent of an absent father who just wants to read the paper and stop his kids from annoying him. Henry Cavill’s Superman is a largely detached alien that shows no genuine emotion for anyone except for those he’s directly involved with. Even one of the few outsiders he saves in this movie is merely one in a faceless horde that worships him as a savior more for the sake of the visual rather than through his typical actions. Superman never gets to actually develop or grow in this follow up, instead regressing to a selfish alien God except for when contrivances of the plot decide to change his decisions on a whim for the sake of repetitive visual metaphor.

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Warner Bros

Henry Cavill isn’t even allowed to go much farther in emotional range than a face that makes him look like a constipated screaming twat. Given the way director Zack Snyder portrays him and the dialogue of returning Man of Steel cast member Laurence Fishburne, it seems like this universe’s Superman isn’t much more than a means to an end. An end that involves composer Hans Zimmer regurgitating the main theme from Man of Steel to make it seem like this hero is contemplative rather than completely uninvolved god like being. This should, in some way, perfectly bounce off of the modern tech powered and mythology obsessed Alexander “Lex” Luthor. Yet, Jesse Eisenberg portrays the mogul with all the subtlety of a college shut in with severe social disorders and dual degrees in theology & manic giddiness. So, essentially an unrelenting comic book fanboy you’d find in your average comments section. He and Superman clash with all the chemistry of expired peanut butter and battery acid, containing nothing but a deadly poisonous taste and irrevocable damage to the intelligence of those who partake.

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Warner Bros

So, if it doesn’t work as a Man of Steel sequel, surely Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice should at least work at opening the door with an intriguing take on the rest of the DC universe, right? Not quite. Admittedly, some of the performances from this star studded cast show promise for the future. Mainly, Ben Affleck’s dual take as an effortlessly brazen Bruce Wayne & no holds bar Batman and Gal Gadot’s resourceful warrior Diana Prince/Wonder Woman manage to hold court as the film’s shining attributes. Even as the story confines them to downward ski slope of unrelenting stupidity, Affleck and Gadot show their dedication to presenting the nuance these characters need in a world with a Superman as coldly uninvolved as this one. Much of this can be seen in Affleck’s scenes with Gadot and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred, showcasing a man of the world either meeting his savvy equal or commiserating with a beloved chum.

batman-v-superman-wonder-woman

Warner Bros

If only Affleck’s charisma and Gadot’s brutal veracity  were enough to make up for Zack Snyder’s thick headed attempts at reinventing either character, which is constantly filled with hypocrisy and contradiction. Batman is a justifiably angry humanist with the mercy of an unrepentant psychopath. Wonder Woman is an experienced self reliant warrior who can’t seem to get around the actions of the human swinging phalluses that are Superman and Batman. Their decisiveness – along with Supes’ empathy – seems reliant on the whims of Zack Snyder’s visuals, which are often framed beautifully, shot with the artistry of a comic book panel and translated to this story with the empty thud of a dolt unaware of how context works. There’s no self awareness or true contemplation of these characters’ implications here. Instead, there’s a passive nihilistic shrug of “Gods will be Gods, lets just get out of the way of the microscope” style acceptance. Oh, and there’s also the universe building for the rest of the DC characters, which ultimately amounts to shoe horned in viral marketing and a perplexingly muddled attempt to seemingly hint at a future somehow grimer and darker than this super serious present we already have.

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Warner Bros

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is never boring. It’s confusing, perplexing, laughable, enraging and even occasionally entertaining. But it’s never boring. It’s a bizarre adaptation that runs for very long, doesn’t care about past continuity for much except visual inspiration and contrives actions for its characters to enact for the sake of spectacle. And I’m not against any of that in theory. Having merely perused through some of the bigger DC Comics stories, all I really wanted was a brand new take on these characters that engaged me within its own rules and story. Yet, that story and it’s consistent contradiction does far more harm than it does good. At its best, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a plane crash that explodes with opulent style. At its worst, it’s a bloated grandiose exercise in masturbatory fan (dis)service excess that doesn’t have the courtesy to give its audience a tolerable progression to lead to and follow up its titular battle.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Lex Fed Jolly Ranchers

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Retrospective Reviews #8: Superman Revisited

So, Retrospective Reviews has returned, but you’ll noticed I’m a bit behind. The Kevin Smith Retrospective (along with various other real life commitments) has pushed a lot of things back, including most of the back log of stuff I saw in March. For those curious, I’ll be posting a few small scale reviews of those over on my Letterboxd account. Otherwise, these longer mini-reviews will be for films I care to go on about… like the delayed next entry in the Harry Potter Retrospective, which I promise is coming back in April with a vengeance. Anyway, this bit of R & R is focused on revisiting some of the older Superman films in honor of the release of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This doesn’t include the first two, which I have coming in a sizable retrospective over at OneOfUs.net soon. No, this will focus on a few films following those… which are checkered at best.

3/16/16: Superman III

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Warner Bros

Following Richard Donner’s ousting from the production of Superman II, Warner Bros decided that Richard Lester’s version of Superman he inserted into the film was probably the right way to go. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this wasn’t the way to go right from the start of this awkwardly stilted “comedy” of sorts, where Lester’s attempts at comedy constantly fall on their face. The opening sequence is a harbinger of not just how out of whack this supposed sequel is, mainly with how little Superman really appears in it during the first hour. No, instead of focusing on the titular character, this third entry gives much of the spotlight to Richard Pryor, who’s usual knack for comedic deliver is weighed down by wacky slapstick and poor excuses for him to perform characters.

He’s also sharing screen time with Robert Vaughn as a poor man’s Lex Luthor/Mr. Burns, an 8-bit Superman tracking system and a computer embezzling scheme that would be done far more coherently in Office Space a decade and a half later. The few moments we get with Superman are spent either on a dry love story between him and Lana Lang or a muddled attempt at Clark/Superman going through a Kryptonite induced identity crisis. It’s really a shame, since Christopher Reeve is still trying his hardest to convey the struggle between the Kal El we know & love and this darker side of the character, but he’s constantly betrayed by this all out bore. But it wouldn’t be the last time.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Super Human Benders

3/17/16: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace

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Warner Bros

While Superman III suffered from too much poorly implemented intentional humor, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is made entirely watchable thanks to the incredibly moronic attempts at sincerity. This fourth entry tries to juggle the nuclear arms race, another Lex Luthor scheme, rehashing of Lois’ discovery of Clark Kent as Superman and a new super powered clone menace in the form of Nuclear Man. Needless to say, it’s a jumbled mess. Yet, it’s a hysterical mess, dolled out with a clearly miniature budget that makes the heavy handed attempts at Cold War era conflict fall flat on their face as Supes flies with the hand of the Statue of Liberty in front of a terrible green screen. The reality (even in context of a Superman film) is constantly broken by abrasively poor visual effects and decisions that clearly had little to no impact on the mind of director Sidney J. Furie or anyone in the production offices of Canon Films that produced this, particularly when a human woman is flown out into space without any sort of protective covering or how Superman’s hair can be easily cut by bolt cutters.

It’s the kind of lack of consistency that makes one laugh uncontrollably. Most of our returning cast seems to be on autopilot, to varyingly hilarious effect. Daily Planet regulars Margot Kidder and Jackie Cooper seem to be on another planet entirely, Gene Hackman spends most of his time in a robe or more comfortable letterman jackets & Marc McClure… well, sort of sits in the background. Once again, Christopher Reeve shows more of an earnestness that serves as the sole remaining facet of Richard Donner’s vision. It stings in a particularly bad fashion when Reeve’s story credit shows he wanted to address bigger issues that ultimately become sidelined for silly action and ghastly visuals. Well… at least he went out on a somewhat entertaining note.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Easily Cut Kryptonian Hairs

3/19/16: Superman Returns (Re-Watch)

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Warner Bros

Clearly, after a blunder of a fourth entry, it took awhile for Superman to return to the screen. After several failed attempts at reworking the character, director Bryan Singer – leaving his potential X-Men trilogy to whither elsewhere – decided to return to the style that brought Superman to life in the first place… and literally dub it Superman Returns. Singer goes to great lengths here to recall the work Richard Donner did on Superman, reusing John Williams’ iconic score, the classic Fortress of Solitude crystal set design and heavily emphasizing the struggle of characters over fisticuffs. There’s a sincerity to it all, but much of it is so dull and hollow. Singer’s attempts to recreate Donner’s touches come off as rather ill advised pandering, the type of mimicry that feels more at home in an internet fan film than a major studio production. Evoking the iconography is one thing, but adding so little to make it distinct or new in its own right feels like a waste of time. I’m not saying we just need the constant fights that were missing from Donner’s films (and I’ll be saying more of that later), but resting on old laurels for two and a half hours gets incredibly tedious after awhile.

This is particularly evident during the scenes where Kevin Spacey uses his honed impressions skills to imitate Gene Hackman’s Luthor with direct yet underwhelming accuracy alongside a wasted Parker Posey and befuddled Kal Penn. Meanwhile, Kate Bosworth feels woefully miscast as Lois Lane, having all the ace reporting gumption of a pre-teen girl putting on her mother’s clothes. The only people who feel dead on in their portrayals are a crabby Frank Langella as Perry White and the charmingly jovial Brandon Routh as our titular hero. Routh isn’t just the bright shining hero of the film’s narrative, but also the glue that keeps Superman Returns together. He captures the same type of lovable charm that Reeve had in the part, but adds a believable layer of remorse for his actions that shows as he hears the cries of the people he abandoned with his super hearing or tries to lift a mountain of Kryptonite. Routh sells it far more than Singer does, but it’s a shame that a solid Superman was stuck in a nostalgia driven slog that showed glimmers of greatness.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Crystal Shards

3/22/16: Man of Steel (Re-Watch)

man of steel

Warner Bros

Man of Steel is a film that takes chances. That alone makes it more intriguing than the previous attempt to revisit the man in blue tights. Director Zack Snyder and writer David Goyer decided to give this version of Superman a harder edge that drifted slightly more towards reality than any of the previous adaptations. Their film strives to showcase an alien being dropped into our world, heavily emphasizing on the ramifications of this being living among us and struggling to admit who he is. A lot of this is portrayed wonderfully on a visual level by Snyder, who fills the film to the brim with breathtaking shots of spectacle that show off the scope of Superman’s powers and abilities. Noble pursuits all around… but boy is all of that laid on thick. Producer Christopher Nolan often gets criticism for his Dark Knight Trilogy using far too many speeches to display character motivations, but Man of Steel drops it on us constantly. Pa Kent speechifying to Clark, Jor El speechifying to Clark, Perry White speechifying to Lois Lane, it keeps on going. Even worse, this speechifying often ends up being contradicted or muddled by how little we’re aware of Superman’s maturity or true control over his powers thanks to bizarre decisions in editing for non-linear flashback sequences.

So much of Superman’s (and to a lesser extent Lois Lane’s) agency is taken away during these moments, as he’s preached to about making a deliberate choice yet isn’t really allowed to make one most of the time. When he’s able to, it makes for some of the film’s best moments like the interrogation scene, where Clark willingly gives himself up in order to quell humanity’s fears. There’s an understanding of his role as a savior that feels organic to the character, unlike the rather blatant religious nods that make similar moments in Superman Returns look tame by comparison. Then the controversial third act comes and highlights many of these problems tenfold. The large scale fights initially impress, but end up weighing down this ever lasting climax that pits Superman and Zod against each other. It’s obviously more grand than any of the fights in Superman II, but at a certain point is pumbles the senses to the point of diluting the crucial point Superman realizing how far his limits can be pushed and his desire to keep civilians out of harms way. All of this does more damage than something as beautifully simple as a boy with powers trying to imagine his mother’s voice as an island. Sometimes, less says more.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Boy Childs

“Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday” (2016) – Same Old Pee-Wee, For Better or Worse

Of all the sort of nostalgic properties, Pee-Wee Herman is one of the oddest ones. With influences from the rather bizarre kids show hosts of the 1950s, Paul Reubens infused his character with a similar insanity that flourished under the knowing slyness of occasional adult humor. The latter element was a big staple during the character’s initial introduction in the early 80s, but was tempered once he became a household name following Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and the series Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. So now, roughly 30 years after his height comes the new film Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, which takes a similar tact of sending Pee-Wee on a road trip that Big Adventure did, but with new wacky hijinks to run into this time and a new mission besides looking for his bike. The central arc of having Pee-Wee learn a few life experiences while on the road is a bit more of an arc than pretty much any of his previous incarnations and one that’s introduced through the welcome presence of Joe Manganiello as… Joe Manganiello.

Manganiello takes the role of the wandering cool guy with stride and has an impeccable chemistry with Reubens that’s oddly charming. It’s honestly a shame that Pee-Wee has to travel to New York to meet back up with Manganiello, with the two of them only sharing screen time occasionally during bizarre dream sequences after their delightful introduction. Still, Reubens – despite now being a 63 year old playing a child – really hasn’t missed a beat as he steps back into the grey suit and red bowtie. His affable charm still shines radiantly as he ventures into the world, which makes everyone’s appreciation of him seem believable in this bizarro universe. This is particularly true during gags that seemingly go on for ages, yet are some how made tolerable thanks to Reubens’ giddy smile and warm dedication to the bit.

The only trouble is that these other characters are pretty hit or miss in terms of chemistry with Pee-Wee or fun. The best examples are a gang of roving switch blade wielding female bandits that kidnap Pee-Wee at one point, particularly Alia Shawkat as a character with a familiar nickname. In contrast, you have Pee-Wee hanging out with a guy that loves novelty items or a group of Amish people that only goes so far. The big strength of something like a Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is that every side character Pee-Wee encounters are just as memorably odd in their own identifiable way. Here, it seems as if most of these characters are merely there to bounce one gag off of Pee-Wee rather that have an individual identity, which makes this 90 minute film ware rather thin until Manginello comes in with his delightful exuberance to end things on a charmingly odd note. If anything comes from this, it should be him and Reubens teaming up for more.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Root Beer Barrels

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Retrospective Reviews #7: Kevin’s True Stink Palms

This is it. The Kevin Smith retrospective has reached it’s end… finally. Sorry for the delays, given other articles and life in general have kept this going for quite sometime. As a result, the next Retrospective Reviews may be a bit more brief than the more elaborate mini-reviews. Anyway, the main course here are the latest films in Smith’s canon. All of these were produced at the start of this new decade, which doesn’t look bright for Kevin for my own personal taste. But let’s elaborate on that.

2/22/16: Cop Out (Re-Watch)

cop-out

Warner Bros Pictures

Cop Out is the first of Kevin Smith’s directorial efforts to not be written by him. It’s yet another attempt from Smith to diversify his portfolio, giving him a chance to handle someone else’s material and craft a studio action comedy that heavily emphasizes on action rather than stagnant camera set ups. It’s unfortunate that said film is the definite low point of Smith’s filmmaking career. An attempted throw back to lesser Beverly Hills Cop clones of the 80s, Cop Out has the rhythm and pace of a cop comedy thrown into a paper shredder, with jokes awkwardly edited to the point of never landing a punchline and action sequences where not a single shot feels coherent enough to feel invested in. Much of this stems from our completely uninteresting leads Tracy Morgan and Bruce Willis, who have little to no chemistry despite informing us the entire time that they’ve been friends for roughly a decade. The dialogue’s exposition heavy nature is a crutch to attempt to get us invested in what Morgan’s indistinguishable yelling and Willis’ robotic delivery can’t convince us is an actual partnership. There’s also such a reliance on underwritten cop film cliches and unenjoyable characters stumbling around this surprisingly cluttered story that feels extremely unnecessary as it wastes people like Kevin Pollack & Adam Brody as the secondary “asshole cops” partners or Guillermo Diaz as an underwhelming “wacky” villain. It all just ends up being a major failure of a crime film, a buddy movie and an action picture on every level.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Poorly Constructed Action Sequences

2/22/16: Red State (Re-Watch)

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Lionsgate

Of all the various attempts from Kevin Smith to revamp his career, Red State was his most ambitious and diverging stab. While the opening bits with our teenage characters evokes memories of the foul mouthed antics of Jay & Silent Bob, the majority of the film is a tension filled exercise of a thriller with religious connotations. Obviously, the cult featured here is extremely similar to the existing Westboro Baptist Church, as Smith was never shy about mentioning his direct inspiration, including in the film itself. That’s one of the more disappointing aspects of the film’s attempted dark satire, cutting off the Fred Phelps comparisons at the knee for what feels like a hasty attempt at not getting sued. When Red State is at its biggest stride during the first half, it’s a solidly tense thriller that barks directly at the extremes of religion, government meddling and human apathy in general. It’s grimy and dark in a way that puts everyone’s fate at stake, including bigger leads that carry the weight of the material like John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Stephen Root. Of course, the majority of that is embodied by underrated character actor Michael Parks as the leader of this cult, showcasing a grandfatherly southern charm and veracious hatred that melds seamlessly. Yet, as the film plods along, it seems like Smith’s bag of tricks thin out. The sudden bouts of violence and shaky camera cinematography grow stale and Parks’ preachings become more and more repetitive as regurgitated Phelps madness. Then the ending approaches, an ending that was Smith’s apparent second choice and it shows. It’s sudden in a way that tries very hard to ape the nihilism of The Coen Brothers, but feels more like a hastily cobbled together mixture of force comeuppance and blatant vapid descriptions to the camera that ring hollow after disconnecting the Westboro Baptist Church from all this. Still, a solid try for creeping out of his comfort zone.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Cult Followers

2/22/16: Jay And Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie

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SModcast Pictures

Jay and Silent Bob’s Groovy Cartoon Movie breaks the trends of this retrospective for a lot of reasons: it’s animated, it’s not directed by Kevin Smith himself (as he’s merely a writer, producer & co-star) and it’s not really even a feature film. What it is is a poorly cobbled together masturbatory exercise for Smith as a creative talent, poorly sewing together the threads of a story ripped from a comic book he wrote over a decade ago that revels in dick, fart and weed jokes for about an hour. Now, this wouldn’t be too much of a problem if any of the jokes hit, especially for someone who’s well versed enough in Smith’s film, television and podcast work to get the many in jokes like myself. I did get those jokes… they just weren’t funny. Said jokes are implemented in this stiff, lifeless animation from director Steven Stark, who worked better when animating Smith’s stream of consciousness conversational tone for short web videos than he does here, where the bits are extended endlessly and really only hinge on either annoying recognition or a repetitive visual. Even worse, so much of Kevin Smith’s casual bitterness is on full display here, with bits about the death of Internet back talkers and a song with a title “Fuck a Critic In The Mouth.” It would be one thing if either of these were genuinely humorous or well constructed gags or lyrics, but they’re rather bluntly hateful and kind of sad, showing Smith’s seeming inability to get over the intense criticism of films like Cop Out. This sort of thing doesn’t offend someone attempting to critique Smith’s work like myself, but it bums me out that a guy I used to respect has to resort to rather lower level bullying that are about as cheap as any of the other gags. It seems like Smith’s fan base is enabling him to make stuff like this and it seems pretty detrimental to anyone trying to join in on the fanbase if this is the kind of bile it produces.

Rating: 0.5 out of 5 Horrendous Flash Animations

2/26/16: Tusk (Re-Watch)

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A24

The latest Kevin Smith effort Tusk is a showcase for everything that Smith has become over the course of these last few years. The lack of concern for what anyone thinks reached critical mass with this story of a man being turned into a damn walrus, which would in theory be an interesting horror comedy project. Unfortunately, it all ends up being a tedious exercise in both, where the comedy puts dull characters to task so the horror can punish them in odd ways. Justin Long in particular is stuck with this role where we’re supposed to hate him, but he’s not intriguing enough to make his punishment worth watching. Nor is it that exciting to see Genesis Rodriguez & Haley Joel Osment chase after him, particularly when they enlist a mugging Inspector Clouseau-esque Johnny Depp giving probably the worst performance of his career. Smith also makes some rather bizarrely unfortunate choices with his directorial style, whether it be the incredibly over barring lighting or the awful musical choices. It’s especially sad that all of this stuff clutters the film’s best strengths, like Michael Parks’ genuinely seething performance or Robert Kurtzman’s well designed walrus suit. I give Smith credit for the ambition of producing something that doesn’t exist, but maybe this didn’t exist for a reason.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Fake Johnny Depp Noses

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“Me Him Her” (2016) – Film Finds Identity With Characters

Me Him Her is kind of a mess. It’s got a rather freeform stream of consciousness craziness to its story, a variety of characters that strike the audience directly in the face with their presence and massive tonal shifts that disorient on every level. The events that unfold feel like a whirlwind couple of days, rarely allowing the audience to breathe as writer/director Max Landis suffocates us with rapid visuals that showcase our characters’ state of mind at a breakneck pace. The major characters even range from engaging to unrelentingly narcissistic at times. All of it sounds rather exhausting and it really can be if an audience member has their guard down. Yet, despite all the insanity, Me Him Her has this genuine sincerity to it all that keeps it in check and occasionally picks something poignant to say amongst the chaos.

All of our leads in Me Him Her are wrestling with aspects of their own identity. What they want out of their sexual partners, public personas & happiness in general and how confronting those issues head on can be messy and full of false starts especially in a world where admitting their individuality could be costly. Much of this is told through rather unconventional means of writer/director Landis that can feel a bit insufferable in terms of how awkward the shots are framed and how loud the situation is at any given moment. It’s clear at various points that this is Landis’ directorial debut, showing off his lack of consistency in terms of executing a bigger gags or visual sequences with complete consistency. It manages to feel even less coherent than a typical Landis pitch rant he’s become Internet-famous for. Yet, more often than not amongst the raucous noise and occasionally overwhelming sense of limited execution, is a film that taps into a believable workings of a quarter life crisis.

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FilmBuff

Sure, a man coming out as gay or a woman recognizing her bisexuality may seem quaint in a gender sphere as varied as some can be right now, but they’re both told from a very honest – if occasionally silly and manic – perspective. It’s not about how brave either of these people are being as much as how honest they’re being with themselves about their fears and regrets about confronting who they are head on. Of course, these are the sequences that center mainly on Luke Bracey‘s Brendan and Emily Meade‘s Gabbi, who have dimensional aspirations and believable journeys along the way. Our third lead Dustin Milligan as Cory is much more of an uphill battle, with a massive annoying streak early on that makes him distrustful and arrogant as a friend or lover (aside from the occasional burst of refreshing contemplation of consent), which makes his eventual turn feel sort of unearned by Me Him Her‘s end, mostly due his horrendous treatment of the Brendan character that persists up until the end of the second act. Of course, their antics are helped along by the welcome supporting presence of talents like Alia Shawkat, Casey Wilson, Scott Bakula, Geena Davis and a bizarre Haley Joel Osment cameo to keep things balanced.

Ultimately, Me Him Her is a story about pronouns. The title probably makes that obvious, but it’s central to the major theme of find a way to label oneself, between society’s standards and one’s own. Not just in terms of sexual identity, but truly coming to terms with how you’re treating yourself as a person. It’s a film about embracing one’s inner feelings and how often that can clash in catastrophic ways. Because of that, it’s often scatter brained as all hell between wants of the heart and the elaborate fantasies that one finds themselves escaping to during their darkest moments. Sometimes writer/director Landis can’t quite stick the landing on how to portray those thoughts, but that often crosses over into being part of the charm given the central thematics. Despite the frenzied confusion of style and pop culture sensibilities that occasionally turns this into a much lower budget and lesser executed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, there’s an endearing search for understanding that keeps the entire affair from collapsing in on itself… even if it’s being held together with sparkling duct tape.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Haley Joel Osment Cats

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“10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016) – Contained Chaos

There’s a huge amount of mystery attached to 10 Cloverfield Lane. How does it connect to the 2008 film that shares two thirds of its this name? What are the connotations of its major mystery? Who can be trusted in this highly mysterious situation? Well, while all of these are pretty notable questions to ask for such an outing, most of them aren’t central to the film’s effectiveness. The only one that does is the latter, which thrusts us into the an essential element to the original Cloverfield: consistent tension. 10 Cloverfield Lane operates on the essential stream of consciousness narrative that breeds forehead sweating fear of characters clashing in a contained space that filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock exploited to gorgeous effect.

That tight space shows off the flourishes in detail for the set design. Every nook and cranny is filled with telling aspects of John Goodman‘s character, which are equal parts terrifying and intriguing. His character has this phenomenal veil of mystery that producer J.J. Abrams prides himself on keeping with his productions, as you’re never quite sure where Goodman stands at any particular moment. The performance obviously lends a lot to this, allowing Goodman to slip from the lovable blue collar father figure we loved from Roseanne slip into the unpredictable madness of the man we grew to fear in Barton Fink. For that reason, Mary Elizabeth Winstead serves as a refreshing counter to his mystery, constantly using her expressive wide eyes to get across the frantic pace at which her mind is calculating a way to figure out what exactly is going on both outside and in this bunker. She continuously uses her problem solving skills to get out of dense situations, yet has a very believable human character flaw that constantly keeps the audience connected to her as a human being, especially in this situation.

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Paramount Pictures

The third presence in the form of John Gallagher Jr keeps the rather intense moments of fret and worry grounded thanks to his warmth & humor. He, Winstead and Goodman form this unconventional family unit of sorts that illustrates 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s major theme of subverting traditional family roles that Goodman’s character constantly attempts to preserve and Winstead’s character tries to break out of. Gallagher Jr feels stuck in the middle, initially trusting of the head of the house before recognizing human doubt and quarries from Winstead that mirror children wishing to leave the nest. They’re struggling to get out of this containment that director Dan Trachtenberg constantly keeps them on the cusp of escaping from, utilizing his limited space with an impeccable sense of setting and claustrophobia. His style is expansive enough to make the audience feel like they’re in this bunker, yet still small enough to where they can’t see much hope in getting out.

Now, the big elephant in the room is how this connects to the 2008 found footage masterwork that shares its name. I won’t go into detail about how 10 Cloverfield Lane relates to that film from eight years ago, but I’ll say this much: the film isn’t what you think it is and it’s all the better for it. The major tagline that’s been used for the film is “monsters come in all sizes” and it’s incredibly appropriate. The monsters here are in a variety of forms, but their commonality is how destructive they are towards our main characters. They try to box our heroine into roles she doesn’t fit into and the challenges of her overcoming these varying adversaries as well as her own self doubt. All of this is vague, but it’s worth not having too many preconceived notions going into this one… even if the title made some of them unavoidable.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bottles of Swamp Pop Soda

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Retrospective Reviews #6: Not So Snoochie Boochies

As I explained in our previous entry, this is part two of my journey back through the Kevin Smith filmography. While the first third saw us find Smith’s initial spark, this second part shows the gradual start of decline and self indulgence that’s made Smith the filmmaker we know now. But we’ll save that for next time.

2/20/16: Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (Re-Watch)

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Dimension Films

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is a fan service movie. Kevin Smith managed to get $22 million to pander to the universe he created and the fans he had amassed for one final film in the View Askewniverse. That’s objectively what the movie is and it never shies away from it. But, even with those meager goals, Smith’s pandering isn’t that funny, even for someone like myself who gets all the references and understands the continuity of this world. What worked about that continuity is less that it hinged exclusively on that referencing, only adding a tapestry that gives more of a sense of community to his films. Community that ends up being used for cheap referencing material here, which becomes more and more cringeworthy. Jay and Silent Bob worked as side characters who delivered fun levity, but as  leads their schtick resembles more of the Mallrats style of ill-timed slapstick. Jason Mewes himself is endearing enough to save lesser bits, but Smith’s Silent Bob mugging, overused gay jokes or even his early screed against critics that was the climax. The cavalcade of supporting characters end up being the most uneven batch, from the one note jewel thieve characters that includes our annoying love interest or the endless cameos, the best of which involves Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as themselves shooting a scene from the fictional Good Will Hunting 2. It’s a heavily mixed bag, but the vibrant cinematography of Jamie Anderson and the best efforts of Mewes & some of the side characters help give this a decent enough live action cartoon. But it’s ultimately an early sign of the kind of indulgence that would severely cripple Smith’s career.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Bongsabers

2/20/16: Jersey Girl (Re-Watch)

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Miramax

Jersey Girl signaled a potential big change for Smith’s career. Tossing aside the universe he had dabbled in, Smith sought to make a mark as a more commercial and varied director who didn’t need Jay and Silent Bob. Of course, he didn’t plan on the massive backlash of his star Ben Affleck and on-screen/off-screen romantic desire Jennifer Lopez that serious hurt the film’s chances of succeeding. Yet, removed from any of that context, it’s not that horrible a film. It’s just kind of generic, but in an oddly respectable way. Feeling like a far more mainstream dramedy, it’s a solid step in the right direction for Smith in terms of diversifying his portfolio as a director. There’s a few turns of phrase in the dialogue that feel familiar to his more foul tendencies, but when limited the genuine sincerity shines through in these archetypal, yet likable characters. This is especially true of George Carlin as Affleck’s blue collar father and Raquel Castro as the adorable and authentic titular child. Still, the sincerity only goes so far to make up for the bigger cloying moments of the movie, particularly Affleck’s chase to the school play, Liv Tyler’s entire character and the return to the record industry subplot that drags to “Disney Dad” style trope of an overworking dad that all feel like a screenwriting convention rather than the intriguing choices Smith used to make. Still, it isn’t nearly the low point for Smith’s career as claimed at the time of release.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Rented Porn Tapes

2/21/16: Clerks II (Re-Watch)

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The Weinstein Company

A circular return to the film that started his career feels only natural for Kevin Smith to due to truly close off the View Askewniverse he created. Deciding to tap back into the lives of Dante and Randal has a lot of potential, seeing the slackers age into their 30s with more responsibilities and more cynicism to cloud their judgment. However, Clerks II feels more like a Mallrats than a maturing meditation on age and defying expectations that Smith wants to be. In between a few surprisingly emotional scenes is a tonally confused comedy that relies on poorly attempting to update the pop culture conversations and broken taboos of the work place to heights that are somehow less believable than the incredibly goofy Clerks: The Animated Series. Dante is a rather skeezy unlikable jerk, showing little to no progression as a person up until the climax that makes him rather unwatchable as a protagonist, not helped by Brian O’Halloran’s stiffer deliver that also shows a stagnation in his performance level. Jeff Anderson’s Randal isn’t that much better, but his issues mostly center around the monologues given to him by Smith to spew that are far less funny and drag on endlessly. The elaborate set pieces and comedic dialogue rarely work, showing early signs of Smith’s inability to edit his films with a solid amount of restraint. The only consistent characters really are Jay & Silent Bob with a few more creative choices to accommodate Jason Mewes’ sobriety and Rosario Dawson as the down to earth love interest who’s caring attitude & charming delivery somehow make her scenes with O’Halloran believable. However, Clerks II ultimately suffers from talking down to the premise it establishes, saying that this advanced form of immaturity is fine with the additional fiscal responsibility the duo ultimately assumes. It hurts even more when the potential peaks through for the emotional arcs of Dante and Randal, as the more effective scenes are the ones where the two have an authentic sense of regret rather than making repetitive jokes about going ass to mouth or the term “porch monkey.” There’s a mature follow up to Clerks in Clerks II, but it gets lost in the stagnation of Smith’s comedic filmmaking ability.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Mooby’s Cow Tippers

2/22/16: Zack & Miri Make A Porno (Re-Watch)

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The Weinstein Company

Given its limited impact on the box office and second false start for Kevin Smith’s new career, Zack And Miri Make a Porno gets lost in the shuffle in terms of his filmography. Smith himself has admitted that he saw the film as his attempt to recreate the success of Judd Apatow films, a director who clearly has Smith as an influence on his work. There are clear moments where those tendencies pop out, mainly with minor elements like Gerry Bednob clearly hired to recreate his role in The 40 Year Old Virgin or the the more long winded back and forths. Even Smith’s telegraphed lame comedy set pieces occasionally get in the way. Yet, his sincerity shines through far more here, mainly on the strength of its titular leads. Their struggle feels authentic and the stakes are high, as they attempt to get through a snowy winter with little resources. Yet, Zack and Miri find a very palpable connection through their friendship that believably blossoms into a romance, particularly with the tender chemistry between Elizabeth Banks and Seth Rogen that carries the film through its rough patches. Their foundation is thoroughly kept structurally sound by the supporting players though, from the reliably laid back antics of Craig Robinson to the bubbly fun of Katie Morgan to a gut busting small turn from Justin Long. Zack and Miri Make a Porno even serves as a fun parallel to the start of Smith’s career, shown through the excitement of the team making a movie in secret and at night in their workplace that mirrors the production of the first Clerks without ever being too cloying. There’s a genuine sense of comradery there that makes this dog and pony show feel authentic. It’s nothing mind altering, but it’s honestly more successful a reflection of can do spirit and finding happiness than Clerks II was. With all that in mind, Zack and Miri Make a Porno  deserves to be called the “hidden gem” of Smith’s filmography.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Trash Compactor Monster Dildos

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (2016) – A Tour De-Fey Of Sorts

Tina Fey rarely works in films that aren’t written by her. Attempted vehicles like Baby Mama or Admission always put her in the type of “socially awkward working girl” role that Fey brilliantly satirized for seven seasons on 30Rock. Aside from the role she wrote for herself in Mean Girls, Fey’s filmography rarely ends up working for her capable comedic chops. Luckily, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has the benefit of Fey’s 30Rock co-creator Robert Carlock behind the screenplay to play to her strengths. In Foxtrot, Fey’s character Kim Baker (an actual journalist who’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan was the basis for the film) has a more authentic neurotic worry to her that’s endearing, especially when thrown into the unexpected environment of a party den filled with war journalists that contrasts with the heavy artillery she deals with on the job.

All of this is helped by the enjoyable supporting cast, particularly Margot Robbie as Fey’s buddy within the war journalism community and Billy Bob Thornton as a general who’s constantly butting heads with Fey. The conflicts that build with this supporting cast take interesting turns that help to test Tina’s abilities both as a reporter and a person trying to keep whatever life she has together. This is even the case with Christopher Abbot and Alfred Molina’s characters, who have a decent rapport with Fey, though are never quite convincing as Afghani characters given their more Italian looks that slightly took me out of their supposed authenticity.

Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa decide to shoot Whiskey Tango Foxtrot in a style similar to more dramatic War in Afghanistan films of the past decade or so. It’s a dicey choice, which occasionally frames the comedy in rather ill advised shaky camera moves. Yet, it also builds a solid authenticity to the desert landscapes early on. It also manages to fit the fear of the situation, but more so than the few attempts at tension do. Despite the scenarios in the script screaming for worry over what could happen, yet there’s never a full on dedication to that tension for anything to feel genuinely at stake. It does kind of lessen the tension we’re supposed to feel during the climax, but the film isn’t really about. It’s more directly about the responsibility of journalism and how often personal arrogance can get in the way of that. Sure, it also features Tina Fey peeing on a branch due to drinking too much water, but the message somehow manages to shine through.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Bad Knees

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“Zootopia” (2016) – Anthropomorphic With Purpose

Zootopia isn’t the first Walt Disney Animation Studios feature with animals that talk. I know, you’re all really shocked by this, but it’s an important truth to understand this film’s significance. Since Pinocchio‘s Jimminy Cricket first introduced himself to the audience, Disney’s features have used the general gimmick of cute animals in human clothing with bipedal mannerism to varying effect. Sometimes you get a Robin Hood, other times you get Home On the Range. However, Zootopia is the first film in that canon in a while to use that idea for incredibly relevant and tactful social commentary. Despite being about fuzzy animals, Disney doesn’t hold back from making this fantastical titular city into a hot bed for profiling and identity that’s more direct than similar themes of Frozen or Wreck It Ralph. Yet, there isn’t a huge 1:1 direct comparison with its political allegories like an Animal Farm. Those who are persecuted don’t directly correlate to any specific race or ethnicity as much as a general metaphor for persecution that fits the potentially unyielding yet solid allegory for prejudice far better than it honestly should have.

Yet the use of this social commentary isn’t just to make a point as much as it is to build the titular world of Zootopia. Along with giving us a true sense of how these varying animals interact on a social level, the look of the city has a surprisingly practical look to it that believably sells the general co-existence of all those creatures with transportation, food service and varying sections. This all speaks to the phenomenal animation team over at Walt Disney Animation Studios, who give every environment such vibrant detail and paces out these chase sequences with an expert sense of scale and style. The scenes in the rainforest environment in particular are striking, showing off just how far water effects in particular have come in the history of CG animation. They even manage to keep the evolved behavior of all the animals consistent, showing signs of their older animal behaviors or instincts, but still showing a progression that helps sell the film’s ultimate message of biology being far less crucial to the integrity of someone’s character.

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Walt Disney Animation Studios

Speaking of which, all of the characters here are incredibly endearing. The contrasting earnestness of Judy Hopps’ (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) dedicated optimism and Nick Wilde’s (voiced by Jason Bateman) quick witted cynicism, which speaks to the expressiveness of both the actors’ surprising vocal range and the animation’s style. The charm of classic Disney animal characters can be seen in the populous of Zootopia, but with a more texturized and detailed look that gives even more believability to this world. Of course, there’s a huge array of other animals along the way brought to life wonderfully by the eclectic cast of voices that includes Idris Elba, J.K. Simmons, Octaviai Spencer and even Shakira.

Directors Rich Moore and Byron Howard manage to juggle this immense cast without really short changing any of this cast. They’re utilized to fit this noir-esque detective story and that message, constantly subverting stale cliches of such a story. Many of those aren’t necessarily groundbreaking changing spins of the familiar, but they feel true to the characters and situations on display. None of the subversion shown is merely for innovation, but instead to serve the story. That’s something that shows that Zootopia is a rather significant and bold turn for the modern version of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which feels like it’s pulling another renaissance with this decade that hasn’t been seen for roughly two decades.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Slow Turning Sloths

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