(Before we start: I am trying out a new aspect to my reviews by jotting down notes on movies right after I see them, then officially marking down the dates from when I collected those thoughts. When I post reviews here for movies that I saw in theaters long enough ago that memory alone might not suffice, keeping track this way should help me as a critic and you as a reader.)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Directed by Zack Snyder. Notes from April 13: After deciding on a quiet Wednesday evening’s whim to see the newest DC extravaganza on the last day that it was available at my favorite IMAX theater (thanks a lot, new Jungle Book), I have too many questions buzzing around my head. If I went down just a slice of the list – What was the point of Lois throwing the Kryptonite spear into the water in the first place? Is Ben Affleck’s version of Bruce Wayne/Batman intended to be read as a Republican, given that the character’s argument for why Superman should be destroyed is rooted in a conservative-sounding desire to rid America of an illegal alien interloper who has taken the job of Big Important Superhero away from Wayne? Isn’t it sort of wrong that Jeremy Irons’ velvety voice should make the Alfred character so sexy? Why is our Superman, Henry Cavill, a star despite being such a terrible actor? Conversely, when will supporting player extraordinaire Scoot McNairy be upgraded to better roles in mainstream movies? And why do Bat and Supes seem to be fighting in the bathroom from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? – we might be here all day and night. Instead, the main puzzle I want to try to unpack is what’s going on with how the Lex Luthor character is written and how the role is performed by Jesse Eisenberg.
When I first saw the trailer for BvS last year, I noted that Eisenberg’s Luthor appeared eccentric (partly because of the awkward length of his hair), but I didn’t have any takeaways other than that. While watching the completed film, however, I began to catalog all of Luthor’s/Eisenberg’s tics and quirks in a mental cabinet. Eisenberg is known for his ability to deliver dialogue in a hyper-fast style that plays up his characters’ neuroses, but in BvS that tendency is amplified to the point that I wonder if Luthor’s verbosity is indicative of his being somewhere on the autism spectrum. (One might also observe his discomfort at public speaking, or perhaps the psychopathy that manifests in his kidnapping people or pushing them off of buildings, as other indicators – though of what, I’m not quite sure.) Then there are the sartorial choices: the patterned shirts (example 1, example 2), wearing white sneakers with a pale blue suit (can’t find an image, but I assure you it was interesting), and again the soft waves of hair.
All of this could probably be chalked up as weird choices on the part of screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, but there are too more factors in this equation of DC Villainy: 1) a scene in which Luthor asks a corporate henchman to get him access to various kinds of dangerous weapons, and in doing so, seems to be flirting with and/or teasing the man by asking (well, essentially forcing) this high-grade lackey to eat a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher candy, this action followed by Luthor licking his (own) fingers (you may watch the homoerotic exchange here); 2) Luthor’s constant paraphrasing of literature by assuming the voices of different characters: affecting a Southern accent to reference Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (”We don’t have to depend on the kindness of monsters…”), comparing himself to the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, and most tellingly, rewording Humbert Humbert’s famous opening paragraph in Lolita when meeting Lois Lane (”Lane Lo in the morning. Lola in slacks…”). If the above combined idiosyncrasies had not already clued you into cinematic perversity, then the Nabokov citation was probably meant to be the final nail in Luthor’s coffin. (I would also like to mention that Luthor’s brief affectation of a Southern accent links him to one of his main antagonists in the film: a woman, the do-gooder senator played by Holly Hunter. Hunter’s Georgia twang is a major aspect of what defines her screen persona. Curiouser and curiouser…) Like Javier Bardem as Bond villain Silva in Skyfall (2012), Eisenberg’s Luthor is coded as gay, or at least gay-adjacent. Maybe the Lex Luthor character isn’t really supposed to be gay, but I think that the screenwriters did everything they could to heighten his effeminacy and undeniably softened masculinity as the subtexts for any and all aberrations perceived by the audience. (Eisenberg’s Luthor also briefly makes reference to his father, Lex Sr., as physically abusive, so that adds another layer of complexity to the young man’s development.) Whether sexuality is an active, conscious element of the Lex Luthor characterization in BvS or not, I would not be surprised if the audience’s identification of Luthor as “abnormal” has been interpreted on some level as “not recognizably heterosexual.”
P.S. After all that ranting: Larry Fong’s cinematography was a definite improvement on the lackluster visuals from BvS’s predecessor, Man of Steel.
P.P.S. Michael Shannon’s performance as General Zod’s corpse was better than Henry Cavill’s acting as a live Clark Kent/Superman. Ouch.
Captain America: Civil War. Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Notes from May 18: The latest Marvel extravaganza is definitely entertaining when seen in IMAX 3D (as I did last night), but don’t get your hopes up that it’s anything you haven’t seen before. Just like we saw in DC Comics’ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, two sides are pitted against each other by a guy with major problems (in this case played by the delightful Daniel Brühl, whom I adore more with each movie I see; in one crucial scene his “Baron Zemo” character looks like an overdressed professor – I approve) and by the end it doesn’t feel as though anyone has won.
Thinking about the details of this loud, proud epic of CGI-designed proportions causes me too much of a headache, but here are the important takeaways from my experience at the movies: Chadwick Boseman is handsome and compelling as one of the newest members of the Avengers team, T’Challa (aka Black Panther); Chris Evans, who plays Steve Rogers/Captain America, continues his reign as our nation’s most boring leading man, coasting by on his good looks and easy smile without displaying any noticeable acting ability; Paul Bettany (as a synthetic robot-alien called “Vision”) and Elizabeth Olsen (as telepathic Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch) have way more chemistry as a potential romantic pairing than most humans do in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; last but never least, it seems like a missed opportunity that there are scenes set in Bucharest and yet we don’t get to hear Romanian-born Sebastian Stan speak more than a couple of mumbled words in his native language (by the way, as someone on the IMDb asked about Stan’s character: “How does Bucky make a living in Romania? He has been in hiding for 2 years? How does he get money to pay rent and to buy plums?”). Maybe the next Marvel outing will step up to the plate and recapture some of the higher power from the first two Captain America vehicles.
Florence Foster Jenkins. Directed by Stephen Frears. Notes from August 11: The weird but true tale of 20th century socialite-turned-opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, infamous for her almost complete inability to sing in tune, is told in an entertaining, funny and often quite touching manner. In the Wednesday night screening that I attended at the Museum of the Moving Image, the film elicited both gales of laughter and many streams of tears as Florence (played beautifully – as if you would expect anything less – by Meryl Streep) pursues her lifelong dream of performing her beloved arias, first at the Verdi Club (an organization she founded and supported financially) and then, as her crowning achievement (of sorts), in concert at Carnegie Hall. FFJ is aided in her endeavors – no matter how ridiculous they were – by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, which is a career-best role for Hugh Grant. Grant imbues his performance with both his customarily droll charm and a good deal of tenderness towards his dear Florence. Simon Helberg also has an excellent role, playing Florence’s piano accompanist, Cosme McMoon, with an immediately lovable sweetness and deft comic timing. Some good work is also done by Rebecca Ferguson (as Bayfield’s mistress, Kathleen), Allan Corduner (as Carnegie Hall house manager John Totten), Christian McKay (as newspaper columnist Earl Wilson) and David Haig (as Carlo Edwards, a Metropolitan Opera conductor and Florence’s personal singing coach), although their screen time is far less than that of the film’s three main stars. The principal weakness of the film is in the casting of Nina Arianda as Agnes Stark (an original creation of the screenplay, I believe); she is a stereotypical brassy, not-classy Brooklyn blonde who cracks gum, wears tight dresses, shimmies all over the place like a precursor to Jayne Mansfield and generally embarrasses the viewer with her non-stop parade of clichés in her characterization. If not for Arianda, I would rate Florence Foster Jenkins higher; it certainly has three leads that carry the film extraordinarily and no shortage of top-of-the-line costumes, art direction/production design and cinematography.
P.S. Hugh Grant attended the screening I went to and he was absolutely as funny and self-effacing as you would hope. He talked about having done research on St. Clair Bayfield and Florence Foster Jenkins in preparation for his role, so it’s to credit that when many of the audience’s questions revolved around the “true history” of these figures, he had the answers. (When asked what his favorite Meryl Streep movie was, HG said he liked “the one with the dingo” and when asked “So what’s your favorite Hugh Grant movie?” he said that he was proud of About a Boy and Florence Foster Jenkins.) One of my other favorite comments that Hugh made (though I will probably paraphrase it) was about the “brilliant” Simon Helberg, who really was playing music live on set: “He can do it all – comedy, drama and piano too!”
Star Trek Beyond. Directed by Justin Lin. Notes from August 3: Ah, so the catching with the first two films in the rebooted Star Trek series finally led me to the moment when I was able to see a Star Trek movie in IMAX 3D, which I did last night (a rather mild Tuesday night compared to what NYC’s weather has been like lately). Beyond isn’t perfect, but I really enjoyed it and for the most part I liked the energy that Justin Lin (he’s new to this particular cinematic universe, but he honed his skills with the Fast and Furious franchise) brought to the action scenes. I love the rush of seeing those exciting moments on the IMAX screen. I am also one of the people who absolutely loved the “Sabotage” scene (the song is broadcasted across radio airwaves, destroying other spacecrafts’ communication), which is both a great callback to Kirk’s music of choice at the beginning of ST (2009) and an excellent track anyway. Plus you get a quick but wonderful shot of Anton Yelchin’s Chekov tapping his foot to the beat and John Cho’s Sulu practically headbanging. It’s totally worth it.
Does Star Trek Beyond have flaws? Yes, naturally. Isn’t Krall’s motivation lacking and rather by-the-numbers? (Also: by casting Idris Elba, I am reminded of Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse – these are villains played by male actors of color by having the them conceal their real skin under alien makeup and by having them hide their real voices under accents or other voice modulations. What’s the good of that?) Why is there is no explanation as to what became of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), who was introduced to Abrams’ Star Trek universe in Into Darkness? (Note: I didn’t mind her absence in Beyond because she was not particularly interesting in the aforementioned previous sequel.) How did Scotty get himself up from hanging off the edge of the cliff? Isn’t it disappointing that Uhura’s only involvements with the Beyond plot are her relationships to men – her complicated relationship with Spock and her being a captive of Krall’s who needs to be rescued (by Spock, of course)? Is it weird that we didn’t get the follow-through on seeing that Sulu’s family made it through the attack on Yorktown (or am I simply forgetting that the film confirmed their survival)? And is it silly that the use of the Beastie Boys song “Sabotage” (which, I have to say again, is awesome) to destroy alien warships is too similar to the use of “Indian Love Call” in Tim Burton’s sci-fi satire/parody Mars Attacks!?
I’ll bring up one point of confusion for fans that I actually don’t consider problematic. I know that a lot of people are confused by the inclusion of the photo of the original show’s crew among Spock Prime’s belongings, but in this universe those characters don’t literally have to be Kirk, Bones, Uhura, etc., right? They can just symbolize the crew members who lived and worked with Spock, without actually being the same characters.
Luckily the actors are up to the task of following through on the emotional, non-CGI components of the film. Chris Pine has finally grown up as Captain Kirk, no longer the wild rebel and now an adult with gravitas. As always Karl Urban is fabulous as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, adding more delightful “dammits” to his repertoire of constant irritation with Kirk and Spock. Zachary Quinto adds even more emotion to his characterization of Spock, both in melodramatic moments and in humorous ones. Sofia Boutella brings some oomph, both as an athletic presence and as an actress, as a new character, the space warrior Jaylah. Zoe Saldana has less to do here as Uhura, but Simon Pegg (who co-wrote the screenplay this time) has many great scenes, John Cho has some marvelous moments and the late, lovely Anton Yelchin has even more to do in this film than in the previous two Star Treks, his eager puppy-dog version of Chekov always being a joy to watch; he’ll make you smile even as you continue to mourn the real-life loss of the actor. In spite of some narrative weaknesses, you’ll feel more than ever that this Star Trek family has the most important ingredient for a successful franchise: unity. They stand together.. As the end credits roll and the Sia-penned Rihanna song “Sledgehammer” pounds through the speakers (which, by the way, has those now sadly ironic lyrics about “I hit a wall…”), you’ll feel the love for Star Trek more than ever.
X-Men: Apocalypse. Directed by Bryan Singer. Notes from June 12: On the one hand I’m glad I saw this on the big screen (although I wonder if I should have experienced it in 3D rather than 2D), but on the other hand I don’t feel bad about using my free movie tickets for Regal theaters – the X-Men franchise doesn’t need my money. Here are the good points: James McAvoy does his usual fine work as Charles Xavier; Michael Fassbender has some great scenes during the part of the movie set in Poland (Magneto made me cry, who’d have thunk it?); Nicholas Hoult, once again doing solid work as Hank/Beast; Evan Peters, again charming us all as Quicksilver, especially in the “Sweet Dreams” sequence (which, in my most humble opinion, is more enjoyable than the similar “Time in a Bottle” scene from Days of Future Past since the Eurythmics are more fun); Tye Sheridan continues to grow as an actor (he’s wonderful in Mud), doing a nice job of introducing us to a rebooted Scott Summers/Cyclops; and in an interesting bit of casting, Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (whom I have not seen in any other films) was terrific as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, an unusual but very entertaining character (although Smit-McPhee’s German accent sounded a bit weird at times).
The bad news? There’s so much strange stuff going on in Apocalypse. Why cast Oscar Isaac (a great actor) as the title bad guy (aka En Sabah Nur) if he must be hidden under blue makeup and prosthetics? How much does Michael Fassbender’s Magneto character have to suffer in every film, and when will he grow tired of the good/evil/good again (or evil/good/evil again) formula before he finally picks a side? Why is Beethoven’s 7th symphony such an overused theme in movies and TV shows? What was the point of Rose Byrne’s character (CIA agent Moira MacTaggert) returning to the franchise, especially since the character doesn’t have much to contribute? Does anyone really care about Olivia Munn’s character (Psylocke) since we don’t know anything about her backstory and her “superpower” is her ability to wear a barely-there leather costume? Oh, and how many millions of people die over the course of the events in Apocalypse? Or are we not supposed to care that probably most of Cairo’s population is decimated by En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse?