Savannah Film Festival Schedule

Savannah Film Festival Schedule

This coming weekend marks the start of the Savannah Film Festival. Over the course of the following 8 days or so, I will have the chance to see a large number of films, most of which either have not yet been released or are in limited release in mostly art houses, specialized theaters, and other film festivals.  I won’t have time to review everything I see that week but will try to highlight the best of the best.  Here’s a little preview of what will be playing (titles are links to the trailer on youtube).

Jackie

Life, Animated

Paterson

La La Land

The Red Turtle

American Pastoral

Bleed for This

Me Before You

Arrival

Manchester by the Sea

The Eagle Huntress

The Sweet Life

Trespass Against Us

Loving

The Birth of a Nation – Review

The Birth of a Nation – Review

The life of a film can be a very perplexing history to follow.  In early 2016, an independent film burst on to the scene with some great accolades at the Sundance Film Festival.  It was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight with a nationwide release set for October.  Then, controversy arose.  The writer/director/star of the film was previously accused of sexual assault and talk of boycotts came to the forefront.  October arrived and the film finally became public.  That film is Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, the true story of Nat Turner, the slave-preacher who led a famous slave rebellion in the early 1830s that would intensify the American discussion of slavery towards an eventual Civil War.  The question at hand, could the positive reviews overcome the negative controversy surrounding the film.  The verdict: The Birth of a Nation stands on a wealth of artistic merit worthy of celebration independent of the external conflicts surrounding those who made the film.

cinematographyThe Good:  First and foremost, the cinematography of this film is exceptional.  Not only are the visuals incredibly beautiful, they are also well composed; mise-en-scene is a huge strength for this film from start to finish.  The gorgeous visuals work in stark juxtaposition with the fairly graphic violence and unsettling mistreatment of the story’s characters.  Lighting is used in a very subtle but effective way to relate scene significance and hone the viewer’s attention on important details.  Camerawork is used cleverly to reveal information and accentuate emotional undertones and really drives the story.

The sound design is also a terrific attribute of this film.  While the average person will not walk out commenting on it, the trained ear will note a very rich and complex sound design.  There is a very obvious attempt by this film to demonstrate the serenity of nature (God’s design) through sound and visuals in contrast to the hellish existence of the slaves reminiscent of The Thin Red Line’s similar strategy.  Quite simply, it works.

The narrative is overall pretty strong with some hiccups I will discuss.  It is entertaining and holds your attention, moving fairly well-paced towards the conclusion we all anticipate before the film even begins.  Most importantly, the film itself has very little to do with the actual events on screen and everything to do with its social commentary on the continuing racial tensions in America and even Hollywood specifically.  There are numerous lines delivered in the film that could easily be delivered in direct relation to such conflicts today rather than as smaller pieces of a greater narrative.  This is a credit, of course, to writer Nate Parker, who also directed and starred in the film as Nat Turner.  His performances, along with the vast majority (but not all) supporting roles, are emotional and effective in telling the story.  Parker faced a great deal of resistance in making this film and yet every aspect that he touched was brilliant.

The Bad:  I’ve discussed the fantastic visuals of the film but I would be remised if I failed to discuss the flip-side of that coin.  The sharp clarity of the visuals provides an incredibly vivid picture and thus requires careful attention to detail.  There were some times that this betrayed the film, causing it to feel a bit too clean and staged to be believed.  Production design was often pristine and, though aesthetically pleasing, ineffective in building the gruesome nature of our characters’ existence at times.

rebellionI referenced some slips in acting before with promise of expansion.  There were a few supporting characters who seem to be somewhat limited in their depth and ability, causing certain scenes or bits to feel like, well, a small independent film instead of an Oscar contender.  These are limited and not overwhelming when they do arise.

12-years-a-slaveMaybe the most difficult obstacle for this film to overcome, is the close similarities to another recent Oscar winner about slavery, 12 Years a Slave.  The stories are different but also hold striking similarities at times, relying on many of the same thematic ideas and plot points.  At times, it feels almost like an unintentional spin off of the aforementioned film rather than a film that stands on its own.

Lastly, the biggest detraction from this film’s worth was the final act.  The movie builds up towards the historic rebellion led by the protagonist, motivating him and providing a great deal of emotional support from the audience along the way.  However, when the rebellion itself comes, it is carried out and finished in a few minutes.  The rebellion itself lasted two days and resulted in the death of over 50 people.  It doesn’t feel like the “success” that it truly was.  The action of this film moves along pretty quickly and an additional 10 minutes of rebellion would have done more justice to the historic event.  Understandably, the climax of the story is not the rebellion but the final sacrificial scenes that feel, like much of the film, like a page out of Braveheart.  However, the limited poetic justice of the film is crammed into just a few quick scenes and, as such, appears to not be much of a success.

The Ugly Truth:  Rating (1-5) 4 (see it in theaters)

The Birth of a Nation is the first contender of the year.  It isn’t perfect but considering the extensive lengths that Parker had to go to just to make the film, it is an impressive presentation.  I will note, it is a difficult watch, similar to the previously mentioned 12 Years a Slave, but that should not deter a screening (I don’t ever plan to watch Room, Beasts of No Nation, or American Sniper again but that doesn’t make them bad films).  Visuals and sound, teamed with a timely narrative, are definitely worthy of the price of admission.  Hopefully, the Academy will look past the “controversy” surrounding the film and judge it on its own merits.  Should they do so, they too will find a film worthy of the Sundance accolades it received as well as Oscar consideration.

poster

The Suffering – Review

The Suffering – Review

This is a first for me but certainly a welcome occurence.  I received a request from an actor to watch this film and provide my review.  I’m certainly not one to turn down such a request, especially as I’ve worked with this actor in the past.  That said, I’ve entered my viewing of this film objectively and impartially and will not hold against him that my miserably bad student film is not listed in his filmography on his IMDB account.  Without any further adu, my review for The Suffering.

I’m pretty hard on horror films.  Over the past few decades, many horror films have gotten away from telling a concrete story and have instead relied on gore and grotesque violence to sell fear to their intended audiences.  That’s not what movies are about.  It is rare today to find a good story that uses the elements of horror to its narrative advantage.  Rare but not unheard of.  The original Saw for example has at its heart an interesting story and social commentary buried within the horrific game.  The Sixth Sense, more a thriller than a horror movie, employs a strong narrative known for its show-stopping plot twist.  The Suffering, an independent film written and directed by Robert Hamilton and starring Nick Apostolides finds itself in the rare category of a modern horror film built around a well-crafted story.

The Good:  This film lives and dies on its sound design.  Many of the visuals and natural sound of the film do very little to create the tension and suspense necessary for the overall effect of the movie.  This problem is made that much larger or more apparent due to the distinct difference in funding of an independent film such as The Suffering as opposed to a similar thriller made by a major studio.  This sound design overcomes that issue and levels the playing field, largely building the world of the film and dictating the pacing and tension of the narrative through a surprisingly effective score and a clever motif of music boxes and churchy organ music throughout.  I had pretty high expectations for the sound design going into the film based on the trailer’s use of repetition reminiscent of the flashbulb in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre(the real one, not the remakes).  I’m glad to say, it lived up to and maybe even exceeded those expectations.

searching-henry
Apostolides searches for atonement in The Suffering

The sound design works hand in hand with the narrative, another strong point of this film.  As the story opens and we meet the characters of our journey, most are seemingly void of any interesting backstory; the driver, the house attendant, even our protagonist, Henry, seems to be lacking that major nugget of likability (we sympathize with his growing family but there still seems to be something rather bland about him).  Henry arrives at the old house in a black car which you cannot help but compare to a hearse, then enters a house filled with organ music and the immediate funeral-style arrival hints at the macabre nature of the coming subject matter.  Over the next twenty minutes or so, we largely search for the purpose of the story, not knowing that it has been spelled out for us in terms we don’t yet understand.  It is the back two thirds of this movie, the highly symbolic characters Henry meets, and its narrative that shine; the biggest mistake you can make on this movie is giving up on it too soon.  The third act offers a plot twist Shyamalan would be proud of, one I dare not give away.  As any good reveal should do, it puts to rest many of the earlier questions of plot irregularity and serves as an “ah-ha moment” to an audience who has grown increasingly confused or frustrated with the direction of the story beforehand.  The Suffering is, if nothing else, clever storytelling and a prime example of the power of a good script.

 

The Bad:  As mentioned above, independent films have an inherent lack of resources in comparison to the blockbusters of Hollywood’s major studios which get to set par.  Most of the elements of this film that don’t work are likely a result of just that.  However, in reviewing a movie, you cannot put it on a separate scale based on circumstances.  I’m a firm believer that a lack of resources simply requires an abundance of creativity to overcome; Val Lewton is well known for producing horror B-movies that were considerably better than your standard B-movie.

Leatherface.png
Horror under the Texas sun in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

The visual style of the film seems somewhat disjointed, largely the early part as compared to the latter.  Many of the early scenes are considerably brighter than later scenes (and the majority of the film could use another pass through color correction).  Daylight seens aren’t necessarily a bad thing though it is a little out of the ordinary for the genre, and considering the amount of genre tropes and clichés used in the film, it seemed that adherence to genre was the name of the game.  The scenes could have easily been filmed in less light, sunset, dusk, etc. with an added effect both narratively and visually.  Bright light can be used effectively in horror/thriller genres however it must be done with careful deliberation.  For example, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mentioned before baits you with the safety of daylight only to force you to endure the same or even worse terror in the light.  Perhaps a higher contrast in the color range could have helped to achieve less of a misleading brightness.

 

Additionally, there were some concerns with the acting.  While Nick Apostolides does an overall admirable job as Henry, there are certainly moments in his performance that lack the depth or reaction necessary to drive the story.  One great example occurs on his first full day appraising the estate when he finds something very unexpected in an attic.  His reaction feels forced and lacking authenticity; he is clearly acting and not experiencing what the character would be feeling.  This is an important scene, as is the following scene, and an inability to connect to the protagonist’s humanity in this instance does detract a bit from the believability of the story.  Additionally, many of the characters in the story are given accents.  This can be a powerful technique for representing the different backgrounds of the many characters, which makes a lot of sense looking back knowing the full scale of the story.  However, with inconsistency of those accents, it can easily draw attention to the fact that this is a performance and can take the viewer out of the world of the film.  As such, filmmakers must be very careful to utilize only strong and consistent accents or the compromise the integrity of the entire performance.  Lastly on acting, there were some performances that simply did not work for me.  The house attendant or “nurse” has a forced zombie-like performance.  Given what we know about the character by the end, this may very well have been intentional but to me was very distracting.  In one scene we get to see a much more human side of her and I think it plays considerably better.  The driver pushes the creepy factor as much as possible, sometimes going a bit too far and becoming very obviously acting.  For both characters, a slightly subtler representation could have portrayed the ominous vibe they sought without going too far and making their performances obvious.

henry-close-up
The Suffering personalizes the individual’s struggle with their own sins

The Ugly Truth:  Rating (1-5) 2 (Worth a view on Amazon)

That’s a misleading rating.  First of all, this film is solidly between 2 and 3 (maybe 5 out of 10 sounds better and more accurate).  Unfortunately, I never round up but I do concede that without the inherent roadblocks of being a low-budget independent film, it easily could have been a 3 or higher.  Secondly, this is not a film in theatrical release.  That said, if I was given the chance to see it on the big screen (and especially hear the sound design in a theater) I would probably be willing to pay for the matinee ticket for it.  As it is, The Suffering is available on Amazon and other for-purchase streaming services and I do recommend a viewing, especially as we enter the fall months that carry that need for horror and suspense.  The film has a great center in the story and sound design.  It is held back a bit from its full potential but it is entertaining and clever.  Also, keep in mind, I gave Sully a 2 (my review here) and this is decidedly better than that, just not a 3.  So this independent film is better than a Clint Eastwood film; that should give you enough incentive to watch.

Snowden – Review

Snowden – Review

Moral dilemma is an issue that unfortunately plagues many people.  Ranging from minor issues in your personal life to matters of national or global scale, nearly every person will face a decision at one point in their career to do what they feel is morally correct or to compromise those morals to allow continued status quo.  Upsetting the established order often has massive repercussions, sometimes in the form of retaliation against the whistleblower, sometimes in the ending of a friendship or relationship, sometimes in people losing their jobs, and sometimes in the end of a well-established standard which has actually been thoroughly corrupted.  Anyone who faces such a dilemma, whether of small or great scale, must know these possibilities and weigh their options; only they can decide if correction of such missteps is worth the possible repercussions.  Snowden, an Oliver Stone film, is the true story of Edward Snowden, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a former CIA and NSA contractor who discovers massive illegalities in common daily practices of the two agencies and must weigh his responsibility to his country and his obligation to do the right thing.  The film largely explores Snowden’s discovery and deliberation process with a crescendo towards the release of information that made headlines across the world about the American government’s practice of monitoring its citizens without just cause or legal warrant.

split-screenThe Good:  It is impossible to find any marketing material or even brief mention of this film that doesn’t reference its star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Edward Snowden, and rightfully so.  JGL carries much of the narrative and does so in a transformative presentation, replacing his voice with a deeper, gruffer tone more akin to Snowden’s.  The physical similarities between JGL and the real life Snowden, with a little help from hair and make-up, are uncanny and help to allow the viewer to experience Snowden’s story and not simply JGL’s acting.  But more than this, JGL tackles the internal struggle of a man who cannot say much about the problems he is struggling with.  The anxiety and tension of the character come through clearly, balanced with moments of happiness, fear, and disappointment when appropriate.  The vast majority of screen time is given to JGL and he guides the story with his mostly understated performance.

The narrative follows a very old and well-accepted structure reminiscent of the early Hollywood studio system.  Snowden is the moralistic hero, nearly immune to corruption and vice, striving in life with a respectable job, steady girlfriend, status among his peers, and more than enough money to live happily.  With all of this in place, he is a reluctant hero of the story, just looking to live his life happily, not hoping to change anything or make his mark in any way.  However, the events of the story slowly and systematically force action.  Moreover, the old Hollywood method of confining a universal challenge to merely a personal issue is clearly represented in Snowden’s arc.  This is represented early when Snowden and his girlfriend share a scene in Washington D.C. in which a protest against the war in Iraq and George Bush takes place.  Snowden’s girlfriend (played by Shailene Woodley, surprisingly very well) signs a petition against the war and questions Snowden as to why he doesn’t.  He responds that he loves his country and doesn’t feel right speaking up against it.  The scene then represents the central struggle that will be reduced to a personal issue for Snowden to tackle; can you love your country and speak against it in the same breath?  This idea is explored intimately for the next nearly two hours, resulting with of course the overwhelmingly moralistic decision to do what is right and not what you have been told to do.  It’s a tried and true structure and serves the story well.  Other elements, not so much, but this general structure and the strong theme work very well.protest-scene

The Bad:  As is mentioned in the film, a lot of the information of the story is very mundane and full of jargon, which can be boring to the average audience and easily lose their attention.  The Big Short had a similar issue in making the detailed information of the housing market collapse comprehensible and entertaining to the everyman.  They did so by providing explanation from Margot Robbie in a bubble bath or Selena Gomez in Vegas.  For the most part, this strategy worked.  Snowden attempts to take advantage of the same methodology, finding opportunities to inject strip club parties, pole dancing classes, partial nudity, and sex scenes into an otherwise “unsexy” story.  This, coupled with a very out-of-place score, results in a film that feels like it has lost its identity somewhere between 21 and The Bourne Identity (without all the action).bigshortrobbie

The editing is dominated by other highly questionable decisions.  The film is presented mostly chronological but with constant flash forwards to Snowden meeting with the media to leak the information and the drama of determining exactly how to do so.  These flash forwards feel largely unnecessary and take away from the actual moral dilemma of the protagonist, taking us away from the story at hand and dropping us into a second related but different situation.  This second movie running alongside the feature seems to place little or no focus on Snowden’s actions or decisions, finding our protagonist largely passive for scenes at a time, destroying any momentum that had been made in the story.  A chronological, linear story would have likely been much better as these flash forwards take away any doubt what Snowden will choose to do in the main storyline and will succeed in his efforts.  Therefore, plenty of scenes that should be full of tension fall flat with the knowledge that any obstacle that presents itself has already been overcome.

The Ugly Truth – Rating (1-5) 3 (See it, but maybe at home)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance alone is worth seeing this movie for.  That coupled with the strong narrative is enough to get a recommendation from me.  Unfortunately, the confusing editing decisions don’t have the desired effect and leave the film feeling like it is trying to be something it isn’t.  Realistically, this is a 3.5, better than most 3s but not good enough to be a 4.  It does also carry a decent amount of not-so-subtle left-leaning political slant.  Personally, I prefer that politics be left either out of the movie all together or much more understated and implied; Snowden is more of a donkey kick to the conscience.

Sully – Review

Sully – Review

It’s that time of year again.  Theaters are about to be flooded with formulaic pictures directed by big name, award-winning directors starring long lists of Oscar-nominated actors in a push for Oscar gold in February.  Many of these stories will be based on true stories, some based on books, and still fewer based on original ideas.  The first such award-hopeful story is Warner Brothers’ Sully, based on the true story of pilot Chesley Sullenberger who famously landed a badly damaged plane in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff, saving all people on board.  The film, like the flight, seemed doomed from the start.

The GoodTom Hanks does an overall good job, as he usually does, of bringing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to life.  He plays well on the internal struggle of the character battling with the possibility of his own errors and what they could mean for not only himself but also his family and hundreds of other people.  Ultimately, he is betrayed by a poor screenplay, worse editing, and some very odd directorial decisions by Clint EastwoodAaron Eckhart plays his copilot, Jeff Skiles, largely as a comic relief, a role he fills decently with understated humor that could have easily derailed the film that much more.

sully
Hanks usually-solid acting was a rare bright spot in Sully.

Visual effects and sound design worked very well to create a realistic and believable image of the events that took place, allowing the audience to experience the flight that only 155 people previously endured.  They are also believable in several daydream scenes, fitting seamlessly into the open visuals and chaotic mindset of the film.  They are by no means groundbreaking or exceptional but they serve their purpose very well.

The BadLaura Linney is, well, Laura Linney in her role as Mrs. Sullenberger, sharing all of her scenes on phone with Hanks and seemingly just nagging him about mostly trivial matters considering the guy just landed a dead-stick of a plane in a river without losing a single person.  I’ve never been a huge fan and that holds true with this performance as well; I’ve always felt she plays every role the same with no real depth of character.

tom-and-clint
Eastwood comes nowhere near his most recent directorial venture, box office smash and Oscar darling American Sniper.

This film is far removed from Clint Eastwood’s last production, American Sniper, which was a huge success both at the box office and in racking up Oscar nominations.  He sticks with his strong patriotic themes in Sully, though not going to quite the same extremes.  I walked out of American Sniper feeling as though I had PTSD while I left Sully just wishing I had my hour and a half back.  Eastwood makes some very interesting decisions that ultimately betray the story and leave it confused.  Most importantly, Eastwood chose to adopt a somewhat non-linear style in telling the story, meaning we bounce through time rather than watching events chronologically (though the bouncing is typically elongated flashbacks).  This can work very well; it is a staple of Christopher Nolan’s successes such as Memento, Batman Begins, and to some extent Inception.  But with this film, it just feels as though Eastwood wasn’t sure exactly how to tell the story and then pieced it together after filming.  Adding to this feeling, we see the flight twice, cut almost identically, with little dramatic effect to separate the two or prompt our replay of previous events.  There is no new information revealed, no higher stakes, just a replay of something we have already seen.  It feels like it is dropped in purely to fill time and reach the 90-minute runtime that usually serves as a floor for feature-length productions.

eckhart
Eckhart largely leads the comedic attempts in this film, usually falling flat.

Additionally, the story leans on occasional comedy to break up the tension.  I wonder if, perhaps, it would have been better with no comedy at all, Batman v. Superman style.  The jokes are often fairly cheesy and don’t progress the story much if at all.  They are out of place, as if the finished script was handed for rewrites to the uncle everyone has who always makes the bad jokes you roll your eyes at.

Another major issue within the story itself was the demonstration of Sully’s fear.  From the opening credits, we are alerted that Sully feels anxious about the proceedings.  Interestingly, he sits calmly through interrogations but the subjective imagery of the film tells us that Sully has doubts.  Soon, he starts outwardly questioning if he did something wrong.  Suddenly, he is resolute that what he did was right.   The changes in the character seem to be sweeping and without realistic motivation.  And while Hanks plays the part decently as I said above, the changes in the character make the story that much harder to follow narratively.  Is this the story of Sully against himself, debating what he did?  Is this him on trial for making the wrong decision?  Is this just a story Clint Eastwood really wanted to bring to the screen?  Yeah, probably a little bit of all of those.  Now let’s take a 15-minute break to watch the flight, then we’ll get back to the actual story.  And then at the end, let’s talk about unity and how we all did this together so we can completely confuse the message of the film.

The Ugly Truth – Rating (1-5) 2 (Wait for Redbox)
You could walk away from this film with a theme of trusting yourself; knowing that you must ultimately answer to yourself and that is more important than answering to others.  That is there for the taking but it is not played very well as confidence comes for Sully in an instant, not providing much arc, not changing the character, merely getting him through this one challenge.  It has a feel-good ending and is a well-known story so I’m sure plenty of people will go to see it.  Unfortunately, Flight 1549 made it much further than this film did in holding my attention.  I was already prepared to ditch into the Hudson myself no more than ten minutes in.  Poor scripting coupled with hokey comedic bits and a confused narrative are way more than even Tom Hanks can overcome.  I would save the money on this one and find it on Redbox or Netflix in a few months.

Foxcatcher: The Illusion of Truth

Foxcatcher:  The Illusion of Truth

Many of the people who frequently read my reviews may have noticed a fairly prolonged absence in the months of November through February.  Now that I’m back to reviewing on my blog, I wanted to share some of the work that I was doing at that time.  I submitted this, along with several reviews, to Savannah College of Art and Design as part of my application for their Graduate level Cinema Studies program.  I’m proud to announce that I have received word of my acceptance to this program for the fall 2016 semester.  This is a fairly long research analysis (works cited included at the end) of what happened to the film Foxcatcher to keep it from winning the many Oscars it seemed tailor-made for back in 2014.

 

The typical box office weekend holds at least a single film in wide-release with a few smaller releases.  More often, a handful of new art samples make wide release for the public to examine and enjoy and as many as a dozen or more smaller-release films.  Over a 52-week year, hundreds, if not thousands, of films make their rounds through local cinemas, art houses, and second-run theaters.  It can be daunting for the average movie-goer to discern which pictures they would enjoy from such a wide sample.  Often, they turn to the published work of critics and entertainment periodicals to form their opinions as these reports include detailed analysis and understanding of filmatic elements, as well as the interest of the general public.  In November of 2014, Esquire published such an article about the film Foxcatcher, stating “Not only is Foxcatcher arguably the most accomplished film out of this year’s high-profile pack, but in many ways, it’s also tailor-made for attracting attention from Oscar voters, based on what we know about the Academy’s history” (Schager, para. 2).  The article also calls the movie a “true American story” and urges readers to “have Foxcatcher at the top of your Oscar pool stable now.”  Esquire was not alone in this initial praise of the film, also earning high praise and similar Oscar buzz from Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, and USA Today to name a few.  However, when the Oscar nominations were released a handful of weeks following such reviews, Foxcatcher received five nominations, missing a nomination in the prophesied category of Best Picture.  When the dust settled at the Academy Awards in late February, Foxcatcher emerged empty-handed.  From mid-November to late February, Bennett Miller’s biopic on the life of wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz and the eccentric heir who aided their training but also led to the demise of both of their careers, John du Pont, fell from an Oscar frontrunner to an unawarded and largely forgotten film.  From the outside, this seems to be a puzzling reversal of fate.  However, a brief look into the inaccuracies and negative attention those miscues created in those months provides a very clear understanding of what doomed the film’s award hopes; a tragedy in its own right.  Foxcatcher lost the favor of Academy voters through demeaning misrepresentations of key characters, numerous historical inaccuracies, and finally the failed credibility of the film’s main source.

 

Foxcatcher Make Up
Steve Carell as John du Pont in Foxcatcher

The film relies on strong performances, two of which were Oscar-nominated.  One such role, that of John du Pont played by Steve Carell, demonstrates the film’s antagonist, a wealthy man set on pursuing his own interests at the expense of others, buying people as he needs to.  The film parallels wrestlers with the horses and dogs du Pont’s parents bought, bred, and trained on the farm before him.  However, as became increasingly clear in the first month following Foxcatcher’s nationwide release, not everyone enjoyed the portrayal of du Pont.  Many remembered John du Pont as a philanthropist, a man with lifelong Olympic dreams, and someone who tragically fell victim to mental illness.  In an open letter published on the website “SwimSwam,” Bruce Wigo, the CEO and President of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, collected such opinions from people who had known du Pont personally:
 

“The Carell character in the movie is not the man I knew,” said coach Frank Keefe, who walked out of the film before it ended in disgust. “The John du Pont I knew was my friend, a patriot and a hero. He was a man with great ideas and unlike most of us, he had the resources to turn his ideas into actions that helped a lot of people.”

 

Stanford Coach Jim Gaughran, remembers du Pont as “a friend who was generous to a fault.”

 

John Leonard, Executive Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association called him “a national treasure.”

 

“Behind this terrible tragedy,” says Coach Jack Simon, “was a man who believed in people and did much to assist their success.”

 

Coach Richard Shoulberg says “I loved the man! John wasn’t the nut depicted in the movie, he was mentally ill. He needed help and didn’t get it. That’s the tragedy” (Wigo, para. 3).

 

The letter provides great detail into the generous person du Pont actually was within the swimming community, which he had been involved in much longer than the wrestling community.  In fact, Team Foxcatcher was originally a swimming club which trained on the farm for roughly a decade before Mark Schultz received a request to come to Pennsylvania and continued alongside the wrestling program.  Though the film would have you believe du Pont’s interest in athletics was sudden and only for his own glory, several other sources indicate it was a much longer interest and admiration of athletic ability.  Carol Turkington, a respected psychological journalist, penned a biography of du Pont in 1996 following the events of the heir’s arrest in the murder of Dave Schultz and provided much more detail about his swimming (and wrestling) career in high school and college, as well as his time on the esteemed Santa Clara swimming team that trained legends of the sport such as Don Schollander and Mark Spitz.  Initially, he was disliked, undoubtedly on the team due to his money (he was not an Olympic-caliber swimmer), but the team soon grew to appreciate his dedication and hard work.

“Eventually he rode in our carpool and came to our parties,” [Donna] deVarona said. “We bought him ice cream because he never seemed to have a penny in his pockets.  We teased him about being so slow.  I felt sorry for him because he was a man who could buy just about anything, and what he wanted was to be a great swimmer.  He wanted what he could not have.  I think those were the happiest years of his life.  After we accepted him, I think he really enjoyed himself” (Turkington, 68-69).

Du Pont Santa Clara
Du Pont at his home pool on Foxcatcher Farm

Du Pont eventually conceded he would not be an Olympic swimmer and instead turned his attentions to pentathlon at the urging of his friends and coaches at Santa Clara.  He turned Foxcatcher Farm (then called Liseter Farm) into a pentathlon course for training and hosted events.  However, he failed to qualify for the Olympics in this new venture as well.  He then turned his attention to training others and providing the encouragement and resources needed to be successful.  “[Du Pont] would remark that what he learned at Santa Clara was that a supportive, friendly atmosphere was as responsible for creating winners as was raw talent” (Turkington, 69).  Du Pont continued to support swimmers for years, allowing them to use the Olympic-size pool he had constructed at Foxcatcher and donating large sums of money to USA swimming consistently, helping others through the supportive atmosphere he found so important.  “I called John after the finals to tell him that Dave [Wharton] had won the 200 IM and then handed the phone to Trina [Radke],” says Dick [Shoulberg]. “She got on and said, ‘John…. I didn’t make it.’ There was silence on the other end. Then just as John started to say how sorry he was, Tina screamed, ‘Just kidding, I got second and I’m going to Seoul.’ He was so happy he started to cry” (Wigo, para. 56).  He also continued to host pentathlon events and allowed the local police to train at his shooting range and use his personal helicopter for police business.  Even after beginning the wrestling program (and after Mark left Foxcatcher) he was supportive of the wrestlers on the farm.  “According to reports by athletes close to John at the time, there was a ‘core group’ of wrestlers who really loved du Pont, and whom John treated like his own children.  They would sit with him at night if he wanted company, eat dinner with him, and watch TV with him” (Turkington, 120).  While those wrestlers admitted he was starting to slip into mental illness, they remained supportive of du Pont, the chief example of such support being Dave Schultz himself:

 

‘He was starting to lose his enthusiasm through the end of the 1980’s,’ one wrestler close to du Pont commented.  He was paranoid, others complained.  He thought everyone was trying to get him or take his money.  Athletes would constantly be asked to check the grounds for strangers or even “aliens” tunneling their way in.  They would be asked to check the walls for potential break-ins (Turkington, 122).

Du Pont’s descent into mental illness is further documented in the pages of Tim Huddleston’s study, titled Wrestling with Madness.  “John was slipping away.  Every day his behavior became more erratic.  Every day, he had another ridiculous concern or episode.  One day he drove his car into a pond on the property, almost drowning his passenger.  Another day, he demanded that all the treadmills be removed from the gym because he

Schultz and Du Pont
Dave Schultz was often considered one of Du Pont’s closest friends and one of the only people who could calm him down during his fits of paranoid schizophrenia

was afraid that they were taking him back in time” (Huddleston, 58).  What the film fails to depict in even the subtlest or implied sense is that John du Pont would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, that he feared the geese in his pond were spying on him, and that he believed he was Jesus Christ, the Dalai Lama, and the President of the United States during the two-day standoff following the murder of Dave Schultz.  Even Nancy Schultz, Dave’s wife who was present at his murder, speaks of du Pont with at least some sense of understanding of his situation.  “’He was a little child king who never matured as a grown-up human being,’ Ms. Schultz said.  ‘He was neglected as a child and that stunted his emotional growth.  Add severe alcoholism and cocaine abuse, and you end up with quite a mess’” (Buckley, para. 9).  Du Pont was not an easy man to live with.  He was described as weird by many people, he was a prankster who often went over the top, he had a long-standing fear that people would come after him and his money, and he admittedly had a problem with substance abuse.  However, at least in the memory of those who knew him, he was also a generous and giving person who wanted to help others succeed in ways he accepted that he could not.  Ed Giese, a former Team Foxcatcher member and close friend of Dave Schultz, noted in a Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VKUesea-k0) that several wrestlers visited du Pont while he was in prison and continued to offer their support as he was diagnosed and began treatment.  Foxcatcher’s portrayal of the man many owed their success to as a selfish, creepy, and manipulative villain sent the first ripples of concern through the Oscar-voting community.

 

The public response from du Pont’s friends forced movie-goers and critics alike to take a deeper look at the accuracy of the storytelling previously praised in Foxcatcher.  Upon closer examination, the movie which opens with a title card advising viewers “The following is based on a true story” is found to lean heavily on the phrase “based on” and is wrought with stretched, altered, and altogether fictitious situations and events.  The story’s tendency to rely on misrepresented relationships and fabricated events rather than factual information further led Oscar voters away from supporting Foxcatcher.  The first example of altered relationships, the one between Mark Schultz and John du Pont, develops gradually but by the middle of the film has accelerated to a point that Schultz never states or implies in his biography, one of control, physically, emotionally, and sexually:

He seems to view John as, simultaneously, a father figure, an alternate older brother, a boss, and a friend, not to mention a person who has put him at the center of his life after many years in which Mark felt neglected and alone. John is carrying his own set of burdens, which he never spells out to Mark, his protégé, employee, surrogate son, and eventually, lover; but we gather that Mark understands them anyway, on some level, thanks mainly to Tatum’s naturally empathetic energy (Seitz, para. 7).

M Schultz Du Pont.jpg
Schultz and Du Pont as depicted by Channing Tatum and Steve Carell

Schultz’s account of his time with du Pont refutes this quite plainly.  He notes that he was always skeptical of his patron and uncomfortable with him from his first meeting but he took the offer (to coach a new wrestling team du Pont was starting at Villanova, not to live and train at Foxcatcher as the movie suggests) for the benefit of the salary and a place to train for the upcoming World Championships and Olympic Games.  “My gut was telling me to walk away.  But the potential benefits seemed great.  And what risk was there?  If for whatever reason Villanova didn’t work out, I could just walk away” (Schultz, 171).  At no point in his biography does Schultz suggest du Pont was someone he revered or felt anything other than disdain for, with the exception being pity upon his determination that du Pont was desperate to be accepted by others (Schultz, 197).  More importantly, there is no mention of any homosexual interaction between the two other than du Pont attempting a move he called the “Foxcatcher Five” in which he made his hand into a claw and grabbed a wrestler’s groin.  The move was one that Schultz admits to having used in at least one match and became a common joke of du Pont’s.  Schultz remarked that he ended the interaction with a “touch me and you’re dead” look that du Pont understood and never attempted anything again (Schultz, 205).  But the film also implied a combative relationship, at least for some time, between the Schultz brothers.  Du Pont’s character urges Schultz to create his own success and break free of being “Dave’s little brother.”  This results in some scenes of confrontation between the Schultzes with Mark flat out telling Dave that he does not need him, he is doing this on his own.  While the two were brothers and had an ongoing sibling rivalry of light competition, it never manifested in any aggressive manner as is seen in the film.  Schultz opens his biography with carefully chosen words, saying “My brother was the one constant in my life until John du Pont murdered him” (Schultz, 7).  The next 300+ pages reaffirm this thesis.  Dave, a year older, attends college at Oklahoma State but leaves after one year to join his brother, who elects to attend UCLA (Schultz, 59).  Mark mimics the training habits and studying techniques of

Schultz brothers
Dave and Mark Schultz

his brother, who he clearly idolizes, to become a better wrestler (Schultz, 37). He even refers to Dave, not du Pont, as his “leader” and calls himself his “follower” (Schultz, 280).  And while Mark does make a point to become his own person, he never outright confronts or opposes his brother at any point in his real-life account of these events.  Another important note on this inaccuracy, the two brothers were never living at Foxcatcher at the same time.  Mark was on the farm in 1987 and 1988 while Dave moved to the farm shortly after Mark left and remained there until his death in January of 1996.  All of the events of the movie in which the brothers both lived on the farm were fiction designed around rare points of fact or general impressions of reality.  The film is overflowing with other altered or outright fabricated events, though.  Du Pont attempts to lure the younger Schultz brother to the farm with the promise of wealth and success.  As previously discussed, he was actually brought to coach a new wrestling program at Villanova.  Schultz lived away from the farm and only interacted with du Pont at work.  He later chose to move to the farm to conserve his money as the Villanova wrestling program was falling apart.  Additionally, the film suggests that du Pont corrupted Mark using drugs, creating an addiction that keeps Mark from training and drastically altering his otherwise clean character.  In actuality, Mark had smoked marijuana frequently as early as the age of 15 (Schultz, 7-8) and was arrested for assaulting an officer while at UCLA (Schultz, 64-65).  He does point out that he and du Pont used cocaine together two or three times while he was living on the farm but there is no mention of hesitancy or regret and certainly not a long-standing and debilitating addiction.  Many of these inconsistencies came to light, largely due to the increased interest that the film spurred in Schultz’s written account of the events.  Schultz himself even acknowledged through social media that the movie was largely fiction.  “’Foxcatcher’s scenes are mostly straight out of my book, except a few,’ Schultz tweeted on Monday.  ‘But the relationships and personalities are complete fiction.  They’re based on a kernel of truth but not much more than that’” (Yamato, para. 4).  Readers found a generally similar story to that of the movie with drastically different details.  Just as Oscar voting season began, Foxcatcher was finding its way onto the pages of entertainment periodicals and newspapers again but not in the positive way it would have hoped for at this time of year.

 

The final straw to break the proverbial camel’s back came the week Oscar voting began.  The film’s significance was already challenged by the exposure of exaggerated and invented events and relationships but the response of Mark Schultz himself destroyed the remaining credibility of the film and simultaneously detracted from his own credibility.  Schultz had initially praised the film.  In the republished version of his book released following the Oscars, he discusses the premier of the film at the Cannes Film Festival.  “I took [director] Bennet [Miller] by the wrist and raised his [hand], too, as the applause picked back up.  Then I hugged him, Steve, Channing, and Mark” (Schultz, 304).  However, after several reviews pointed out the fictitious homosexual relationship between du Pont and Schultz, Mark changed his views on the film and the director quite drastically and did so in the very public world of social media.  “Leaving the audience with a feeling that somehow there could have been a sexual relationship between du Pont and I is a sickening and insulting lie.  I told Bennet Miller to cut that scene out and he said it was to give the audience the feeling that DuPont was encroaching on your privacy and personal space.  [It] wasn’t explicit so I didn’t have a problem with it.  Then after reading 3 or 4 reviews interpreting it sexually, and jeopardizing my legacy, they need to have a press conference

Mark Schultz, the subject of the film Foxcatcher
Mark Schultz’s views on the film and director changed drastically in a short amount of time

to clear the air, or I will” (Yamato, para. 3).  Schultz also left some very colorful tweets directed at Bennett Miller seemingly threatening to kill or seriously harm the director and end his career if he did not clarify that the relationship between the characters in the movie were not representative of the characters in real life, ending his rant with a plain note in all capital letters that read simply “I HATE BENNETT MILLER” (Yamato, para. 7).  This presented two shocking revelations for Oscar voters.  First, Miller had moved forward with a change to the actual story that the main source (who is also listed as an executive producer of the film) asked him not to do.  Second, this wild sweeping change (from overwhelming approval to disdain for the director and denouncing the film as fiction) damaged the credibility of this source and the film itself all at once.  Further examination indicates that Schultz frequently shifts his opinion and lends to his failing reliability. While it has been noted before that Mark always felt something was wrong with the job offer from du Pont, at first mention Mark notes that nothing du Pont said surprised him or made him question his intent (Schultz, 168).  Additionally, while Mark notes his opinion of du Pont openly and repeatedly; that du Pont was pathetic and weak and that he faked his mental illness to avoid a greater sentence for his crime despite earlier mentions of du Pont fearing aliens, Nazis, and shadow people living in the walls of his house. Then, no more than a paragraph later, he seemingly changes his mind entirely from the stance he has held throughout his book.  “My analysis of du Pont was that he was an evil, selfish drug addict.  But now I agree that John was mentally ill” (Schultz, 300).  He also points out that he has learned more about du Pont since his trial and better understands his motivations and does not feel such hatred towards him despite spending the previous 300 pages of his book denouncing the man as a creepy, evil, pathetic, manipulative drug addict, all of which are words he uses to describe the man.  Lastly, Schultz notes that people cited the death of du Pont’s mother as a turning point that cued the start of his decline into mental illness but he never saw such signs and feels that is a failed attempt to build his insanity case (Schultz, 218) however, about ten pages later he notes that the rest of his time at Foxcatcher after the death of du Pont’s mother got “worse and worse” as du Pont’s mental state declined and weird occurrences became increasingly frequent (Schultz, 229).  The contradictions of Schultz’s storytelling coupled with the admitted falsities of the filmatic adaptation left Foxcatcher lacking the truth many had praised it for.  With a storm of negative public and social media attention surrounding the film, the previous favorite for numerous awards found itself idle on Oscar night.

Character misrepresentations, historical inaccuracies, and a loss of credibility ultimately doomed Foxcatcher’s Academy Award hopes.  Following nominations, Michael Calia, writer for a New York Times entertainment blog, affirmed that a combination of historical inaccuracies and Schultz’s social media tantrums were likely to blame for the Best Picture “snub” (Calia, para. 7).  It is not, however, the first film to fall prey to the voters’ desire for truthful storytelling and an avoidance of negative publicity.  In the same year, Selma lost much of its Oscar favor following questions of the film’s historical accuracy, possibly suggesting that then-president Johnson had a hand in the violent events against the peaceful protest in the title town (Yamato, para. 9).  In previous years, the accuracy of Zero Dark Thirty was attacked very publicly by three high-ranking US Senators for the suggestion that torture was a main technique used in obtaining information used to find Osama bin Laden (Yamato, para. 8).  The Hurricane was also attacked for historical inaccuracies and dropped off the Oscar radar, gaining only one nomination after months of high expectations (Yamato, para. 8).  With historical truth stripped away and the one-sided war of words playing out between Schultz and Miller on social media, Foxcatcher seemed to be demonstrative of its own cautionary theme rather than an artistic depiction of it; the wealthy elite (here being Hollywood) manipulating and taking advantage of the struggles and efforts of the middle class for their own financial gain and esteem.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Buckley, Cara. “‘Foxcatcher’ Postscript: A Wrestler’s Widow Still Goes to Meets.” Carpetbagger Foxcatcher Postscript A Wrestlers Widow Still Goes to Meets Comments. The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

 

Calia, Michael. “Oscar Nominations: Why Did ‘Foxcatcher’ Miss the Best Picture Cut?” Speakeasy RSS. The Wall Street Journal, 15 Jan. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

 

Huddleston, Tim. Wrestling with Madness: John Eleuthère Du Pont and the Foxcatcher Farm Murder. Middletown, DE: Absolute Crime, 2013.

 

Schager, Nick. “Why ‘Foxcatcher’ Is the Oscar Movie to Beat.” Esquire. Esquire Magazine, 26 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

 

Schultz, Mark. Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John Du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2014.

 

Seitz, Matt Zoller. “Foxcatcher Movie Review & Film Summary.”  RogerEbert.com. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

 

Turkington, Carol. No Holds Barred: The Strange Life of John E. Du Pont. Atlanta: Turner Pub., 1996.

 

Wigo, Bruce. “Before Foxcatcher: The Story of the Swimming Hall of Fame and the John Du Pont Not Depicted in FOXCATCHER, the Movie.”SwimSwam. N.p., 24 Dec. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2015. <http://swimswam.com/foxcatcher-story-swimming-hall-fame-john-du-pont-not-depicted-foxcatcher-movie/&gt;.

 

Yamato, Jen. “‘Tis the Season: ‘Foxcatcher’, ‘Big Eyes’ Latest Oscar Contenders Under Attack.” Deadline. Deadline.com, 01 Jan. 2015. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.

 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Review

There were a lot of warning signs that this movie could be a runaway train bound to derail.  When the idea of Batman fighting Superman first became public, it was greeted by comic fan enthusiasm while the majority of critics and movie enthusiasts groaned, realizing that DC was trying to quickly push their franchise towards a Justice League movie to keep pace with their rival Marvel, who already has two Avengers films out and is a few short years away from the Infinity Wars they’ve been slowly building to since 2008.  When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman, again, the movie world was divided, some feeling he could carry the load, others fearing this was Warner Brother’s attempt to match the star power of Marvel’s franchises without much regard to the character that needed to be played.  Soon, we learned that other heroes would make an appearance and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (a title that gives away the production company’s intentions) would clearly be a blitz towards their Justice League movie.  We should have seen the signs.  At each one of those junctures, I said to myself “this is going to be awful.”  And yet, in the final weeks before the release, I felt some sense of anticipation.  Warner Brother’s did a great job of hiding these red flags in that time with some intense visuals and a relentless marketing campaign.  However, from the time the lights dimmed in the theater and the intense noise blared from the speakers, from Superman’s first appearance on screen, this movie delivered exactly what I had feared all along.

The Good:  Gosh, this section is a little hard to write.  It’s been nearly 24 hours since I saw the movie, time to process and reflect, and my opinion has only gone from bad to worse in that time.  Let’s give a nod to Ben Affleck.  He was better than I expected as Batman.  That said, he was not a good Batman.  He was two-dimensional at best.  This is partially because of the incredibly poor scripting, the true villain of this film.  However, a good actor can take a shallow character and add depth.  I’m not saying Ben Affleck is a bad actor but in this instance, he failed to give Bruce Wayne/Batman that level of depth and reality that any movie needs to stand on its own.

Staying with Batman, there was a good deal of character building.  In fact, you could make the argument that this was more a Batman movie than a Superman movie given all the attention paid to Batman, who he is, why he is on the quest he is on, how he plans to achieve his goals and overcome his obstacles, and he has a much more concrete arc than Superman.  That said, again, scripting betrays the character and ultimately hurts the film more than it helps.

Some of the music is decent.  Some.  Just overdone, but we’ll get there.

Batman V Superman heroes
Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman as depicted in Dawn of Justice

Lastly, it’s always interesting to see real life displays of fictional characters we all know so well from comic books, video games, etc.  While the movie overall fails, I will give them credit when due, the majority of the characters in this film look and kind of feel like the characters we all know and love (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) with some exceptions.

 

The Bad:  Ok, time to get comfortable, this could be a long one.  First and foremost, this story is about two and half hours long and feels about twice that length.  The pacing is ridiculously slow, made so by the Michael Bay-esque attempt to shove intense action scenes and forced suspense down our throats from the opening scenes.  A good movie builds this over time, creating a crescendo entering the final act of the film when the odds are stacked against our protagonist(s) and things seem the worst they could be.  Not in this movie.  Like in Bay’s Transformers films (minus the first), this film tries to make each action sequence feel as important as the climax.  So when you reach those all-important moments later in the film, they feel dry and disappointing because the same recipe has been used in every action sequence before it.  The biggest problem with this, as I mentioned, is pacing.  The mind gets used to the accelerated pace of everything on screen and sets it as par in your mind.  Therefore, later scenes need to be that much more intense to create much excitement.  Since the action and (attempted perception of) suspense start high and are pushed to stay that way, everything seems to drag a bit, waiting for that push to the next level that never comes.

Similarly, the sound in this film is… well, it was horrible.  The music/score is ridiculously loud for no real reason from start to finish.  I’m thankful I didn’t see this in Imax 1. because it isn’t worth the extra money and 2. because I would have walked out with a migraine (my viewing partner did).  Volume, of course, is an issue of mixing.  That was bad across the board.  The sound design and score were often louder than the dialogue, making it difficult to hear what characters were saying at times (there are at least three instances I can think of where someone said something and I thought “that seems important, I wish I knew what they said”).  But more than the mixing, the score itself really doesn’t lend itself to the film.  The movie tries to shovel suspense and action down your throat from the first few minutes and yet the score fails to accentuate that, largely for the same reason the visuals and story don’t (no movie can sustain that level of constant action and suspense for two and half hours).  Hans Zimmer did a great job with the Dark Knight Trilogy.  This debacle, however, saw the deck stacked against him before he penned the first note.  I guess we can blame co-composer Junkie XL (when I saw this in the opening credits, my stomach turned a bit and I feared what might lay before me).

Ben Affleck Angry
Ben Affleck looking rough and angry, which is pretty much the whole movie.

Now let’s dive into what really lays waste to this film.  As I mentioned above, there is a lot of character development for Batman.  We are bored with the same old images of young Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents.  Honestly, how many times do we need to see this?  Why does every reboot of this series insist on devoting 10-20 minutes of screen time to flashbacks of this event?  I get that it’s important.  I understand that this is the driving force of Batman but can we please get a fresh take on it?  The “parents shot in an alley in slow motion” has been done so many times now that it feels incredibly stale.  Batman Begins did a good job of building the character with other memories of his parents that made their death create more depth for Bruce Wayne and his rise to Batman.  The depiction in this movie is the same old retelling and makes Batman feel like an angry teenager who can’t move on from something that happened 30 years ago.  In fact, that’s the overall feel of Batman.  From his constant angry scowl (as Batman and as Bruce Wayne) to his hulking body and his constant quest for vengeance rather than justice, the Batman of this film seems to be little more than a Neanderthal out to beat on those he feels are wrong.  And while Batman always has that rough exterior, it seemed to lack the motivation we get in other movies, TV shows, comics, and video games.  And finally, it’s really unclear what storyline this Batman is a part of.  I’ve read articles that this Batman is completely separate from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.  Yet, it seemed in one scene that Batman returned to the burned out remnants of Wayne Manor, destroyed at the end of Batman Begins.  Also, Clark Kent seems to attack Batman’s actions as if they are some new threat but Alfred references that Bruce Wayne has been ”doing this for 20 years.”  So… what’s going on?  All that “mommy and daddy died” character build (which anyone who has read a Batman comic or seen a Batman show/movie already knows) and you neglect to clear up that backstory?

 

Superman Fight
Superman takes a pretty big beating in this film from all angles and yet it is difficult to sympathize

Superman was a letdown as well.  Henry Cavill spent most of his screen time channeling Robert Pattinson’s Edward Cullen, looking blankly sad and concerned, brooding if you will.  He seemed tortured.  And yes, a lot of the story aims at the public questioning and even tearing down Superman.  But why is Superman such a basket case instead of a strong character?  He seems to have no confidence in what he has done or stands for.  He stands up for himself and his ideas at work in a scene or two and is promptly put down by his boss played by Laurence Fishburn, who seems to indicate a track record of Clark being “that guy” who always stirs the pot with a healthy dose of insubordination.  In fact, the character outright says that “no one cares” about what Clark wants to write about.  Enter Clark Kent’s sad face with all the feeling of how unfair it is that he can’t write what he wants to, he should just take his ball and go home.  Superman shares scenes with Lois Lane, played by Amy Adams, in which he discusses the view the world has of him, why he’s done what he did, and his confidence in himself and yet he never seems to lose that underlying fear that he made a mistake, he’s been a bad boy, and now he’s going to get a timeout.  It feels like a teenager complaining that no one understands him.  I can see this being an attempt at building the humanity of Superman, which is a big part of the climax of the battle between Batman and Superman, but it’s overdone and makes our “hero” seem whiny and difficult to sympathize with.  After all, if Superman has this underlying doubt in the resolve of his actions, doesn’t it make sense that the rest of the world would, too?

 

Eisenberg Lex Luthor
Eisenberg as the Joker… er, Riddler… er Lex Luthor???

And finally, we have Lex Luthor, played horribly by Jesse Eisenberg.  From his first scene, I wondered if perhaps someone told Eisenberg that he was playing a different character, maybe the Joker, I’ve heard others suggest the Riddler as well.  Either is accurate, he plays a sort of psychotic over-indulged child who wants nothing more than to destroy Superman for reasons that never manifest themselves.  His over-the-top laugh feels like much of his research for this film was spent watching The Dark Knight on loop trying to pick up nuances of Heath Ledger’s Joker to incorporate in what is usually one of DC Comic’s most methodical, composed, and well-prepared villains.  This Lex Luthor clearly has a few screws loose from start to finish and while even the real world admittedly has a history of excusing eccentricity for the sake of a person’s wealth, this seems to go a bit too far as he obviously has ill intentions yet no one seems interested in shutting him down.  Instead, let’s buy into his notion that Superman is dangerous and let Luthor himself go unchecked.  In previous storylines, Lex Luthor always seemed to be a man of powerful influence, similar to the way Wilson Fisk is played in Netflix’s Daredevil series.  That was what made him Superman’s rival, they were competing for the title of most powerful man in Metropolis, at least in the mind of Luthor.  He crafted a public persona of philanthropy and goodwill to hide his devious actions and ongoing war with the hero of Metropolis.  But here he has no influence other than his father’s reputation.  People seem to detest him and yet put up with him anyway and give him a seat at the big boy table because of who his father was.  I found the character annoying, overplayed, underdeveloped, and incredibly distracting from any semblance of a story this film may have been trying to pull together.  Eisenberg didn’t help but I have a hard time blaming any of the actors given how poor the script was.

 

So let’s finish things out on that.  The story is incredibly convoluted.  The writers clearly decided to try tying together about six comic storylines into one film to jumpstart the franchise towards the Justice League.  While Marvel gave each hero a film of their own to build characters and storylines (Iron Man had 2) before the first Avengers, DC has decided to cram roughly four movies into this one story.  This gave Marvel the ability to build ideas and plotlines subtly (Civil War was first hinted in the first Avengers, then built on and is now coming to the screen four years later after each main character has had another standalone film and a second Avengers film).  DC tries to cram everything together in a hurry and as such never takes the time to flesh out the many ideas they are building.    We are hit with dream scenes that show us where the story may be headed, we get glimpses of other heroes that are bound to join the tale, Wonder Woman just kind of shows up without any exposition, and everything builds not-so-shockingly towards uniting the heroes and moving towards a Justice League film.  The purpose of the movie doesn’t seem to be to tell a story but to build towards the next one.  With so many points to tie in, the plot is left rather bland and most of the twists could be seen twenty minutes in advance by a third grader.  And the film carries a largely dark tone from start to finish.  One thing Marvel has done a great job of is balancing the gravity of the situations in the film with bits of comedy to let the audience relax a bit, creating an emotional range that makes the more serious moments feel, well, more serious.  Not Batman v Superman, it just keeps hitting you over the head until it ends.  If that’s the tone DC is going to take, it’s going to be a bit difficult to enjoy these films the way the public is able to enjoy Marvel’s productions thus far.

The Ugly Truth:  Rating (1-5) 2 (Wait for Redbox – and keep your TV’s volume low)

There is so much wrong with this movie I could continue writing a few more pages.  I know that critic reviews have largely slammed this film, though I haven’t read any myself just yet; I never do before writing my own.  I entered the film concerned by that fact but hoping to see them proven wrong (Titanic got bad reviews and… well… that turned out ok).  The bad reviews were right in this instance as highlighted above.  I’ve heard a lot of people say you can’t or shouldn’t compare this to Marvel’s films but I disagree.  The Dark Knight Trilogy set the bar for superhero movies and Marvel responded with their own greatly successful style.  This was DC’s bid to take back the title and they failed miserably.  They very obviously want to catch up to the Avengers’ storyline but have a long, long way to go.  The movie is loud, slow, overly predictable, and full of flat, underdeveloped characters that make the story feel that much longer and unrewarding.  Set up movies, which this definitely is, can be well done and stand on their own (see The Empire Strikes Back for more information) but this simply isn’t.  We can only hope Suicide Squad can resurrect this campaign or I fear the Justice League will have a difficult, if not impossible road to production.