Batman Vs. Superman — a review

Call  me Robo-Bat one more time...go ahead, I dare ya!

Call me Robo-Bat one more time…go ahead, I dare ya!

In Batman Vs. Superman (to be referred to as BvS from here on out), Zack Snyder’s grandiose epic, we’re introduced to Batman first–or, rather, to Bruce Wayne, where we once more witness the gunning down of Thomas and Martha Wayne outside of that frigging movie theater. As a life-long Batman fan I’ve had to put up with watching this scene over and over in various films and TV shows, which makes me appreciate the 1989 Batman film all the more for how director Tim Burton instead hints at the tragedy.

But as we see in BvS, Snyder is more of a blunt force director. While he’s a good visual stylist in his own right, he’s never been big on subtlety. So we have no choice but to watch Martha Wayne (played by Lauren Cohan, Maggie from The Walking Dead, in a blink and you’ll miss her scene) get shot in the face, which haunts Bruce Wayne (a superb Ben Affleck) to begin his crime fighting career as the Batman. Snyder’s take on Batman is that the Dark Knight is a twenty year veteran of the superhero game who is absolutely brutal on criminals; he brands special cases, like sexual deviants, with a bat-symbol, signaling them out in prison for further rough treatment by the general population. It’s a harsh take on the Dark Knight, who at least is decked out in a marvelous new costume.

Wayne has lost a building filled with his employees during the free for all battle that erupted between Superman and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel. Two years later Wayne’s still simmering with rage at Superman (once more well played by Henry Cavill). Along comes Lex Luthor (a hyper-active Jesse Eisenberg), who takes advantage of Wayne’s anger at the Man of Steel to manipulate him into fighting Superman in the rumble of the century.

What's with you guys? Mingle, already!

What’s with you guys? Mingle, already!

While I enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought I would have, there are problems galore, such as how self-righteous Batman is at Superman slaughtering untold innocents when the Dark Knight becomes a one man wrecking crew in his pursuit of criminals, carelessly causing all sorts of destruction with his Batmobile (which is not the most inspired design; it looks like a giant grey pancake on wheels), not giving much thought to injuring any innocents in his single-minded rampage for justice. The always good Holly Hunter is largely wasted in the role of a senator who tries to reel in Superman. And a bomb goes off with Superman right in the room, killing hundreds, yet the Man of Steel never notices the device until its too late. Just like in Man of Steel Superman seems to be dropping the ball by letting innocents die literally all around him.

It’s because in BvS, as well as in Man of Steel, it’s clear that Zack Snyder really doesn’t know what to do with Superman. He’s treated like an all-powerful god who’s above the cares of mere mortals, and yet whenever Snyder tries to humanize Superman, like when he makes love to Lois Lane in a bath tub, it falls flat. And come to think of it, much of the movie feels this way. As spectacular as the imagery looks, there’s rarely any sincere feeling or emotion behind it. And the whole film, which is designed to set up a cinematic Justice League series, feels unfinished. It’s also unrelentingly grim and solemn to the point that during the rare moment when someone actually cracks a joke it comes off as being more of a shock than being genuinely funny.

Stand aside boys, I got this.

Stand aside boys, I got this.

There are bright spots here, one of them being Gail Godot as Wonder Woman, who infuses her character with so much vitality that I wished she was in the film a lot more. I’m really looking forward to seeing her standalone Wonder Woman film, now. Another bright spot is Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, whose frantic performance makes sense when you view it within the context of the story: he is the herald for a far greater evil that will threaten earth. Perhaps being in the presence of such a monstrous threat, or even just knowing that it exists, would be enough to make anybody a wild-eyed maniac.

While far from being the perfect film (Snyder seems hell bent on pissing off DC comics fans at every turn, which is annoying) BvS is still fascinating to watch, largely for the big battle at the end, and the promise of an even more epic story to come that has a truly frightening villain at its core. Here’s hoping the Justice League movies, which is something I’ve wanted to see since I was a boy, are handled correctly. With Snyder at the helm, I have my doubts that it will be done right, but time will tell. –SF

Westworld — a review

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

You hear what he called us? Are these robots programmed to say stuff like that?

These days the late Michael Crichton is best known for Jurassic Park, having written the original bestselling novel before Steven Spielberg turned it into a monster movie hit in the summer of 1993. But twenty years earlier, Crichton was the writer and director of Westworld, a science fiction movie that had the same basic theme as JP, that of a high-tech amusement park that goes awry. I first saw Westworld as a kid on TV, where it was heavily edited and had its image cropped to fit the square screens of the TVs of that era. The only thing that I vividly remember from this viewing was being impressed at how one of the Westworld techs could order breakfast while sitting right at his console.

What with Westworld coming back as a TV series (???) in 2016, I figured it was time to re-watch this film. Richard Benjamin stars as a tourist who goes with his friend John (James Brolin) to Westworld, which is a theme park that presents the experience of living in an 1880s old west town. Guests at this resort can go full cowboy by shooting up whoever and whatever they want without facing any consequences. The secret is that the inhabitants of the town are extremely sophisticated robots. If they get shot up, it’s no big deal because they’re fixed up and sent back out the next day.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He's great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

Did you ever see this guy in the King and I? He’s great. So be careful with his voice when you put him back together.

Yul Brenner gives a nicely understated performance as a robot gunslinger that’s modeled heavily after his part in the Magnificent Seven. When Benjamin’s character guns him down, Brenner goes looking for revenge the following day–only to be gunned down again. It’s all in good fun, until everything goes haywire and the robots start hunting down and killing the guests. Earlier in the film, Alan Oppenheimer, best known as Rudy from the Six Million Dollar Man, plays a scientific supervisor who tries to track down a strange glitch that seems to bounce from robot to robot.

But when he brings this up at a meeting, Oppenheimer’s colleagues laugh off the concept of a robot disease. But knowing what we now know about computer viruses, I can’t help but wonder if Crichton was being prescient here. It should be noted that there’s also a Medieval World, as well as a Roman World, but the bulk of the action takes place in Westworld. Dick Van Patten also stars as the newly minted sheriff of Westworld. Majel Barret, the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, also has a small part as the madam of a brothel.

I'm really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don't mind helping you out.

I’m really supposed to be in Westworld, you know. But I really don’t mind helping you out.

Watching Yul Brenner’s unrelenting pursuit of Benjamin at the climax reminds me very much of the same merciless quality of the Terminator robots, the first film in that series would premiere some eleven years later. While Westworld has some plot holes (why would they upgrade Brenner’s robot with heat vision? Granted, he later used it to pursue Benjamin, but what was the in-world reasoning behind making a gunslinger robot used at an amusement park even more lethal than it already is?), it’s surprising how well the film holds up, even with its outdated concepts. It just goes to show that some ideas still stand the test of time, and it’s heartening to see that, eight years after his death, Michael Crichton’s vision is still entertaining people. –SF

All Things Must Pass — a review

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Back in the 1990s I attended movie nights gatherings at friends’ houses every two weeks. We would watch the latest films that had been released on video (we started with the laser disc format and then over the years moved onto DVD). These gatherings were always on Saturday evenings, and I would have a ritual before heading up to whoever hosted movie night. On Route 17 in New Jersey, there used to be a Hobby store called Hi-Way Hobby. I would drive up there, check out the new models, then come back down the highway and check out Barnes & Nobles. Right after B&N, I would make my last stop at Tower Records.

I’m sorry to report that, out of the three stores I always hit on movie night, only Barnes & Noble is still chugging along (and I’m glad to see it’s still sticking around, too). The late, great Tower Records became my favorite place to get music (back in the prehistoric age when we bought it on CDs), as well as movies, and magazines. The magazine rack at Tower was to die for, with row after row of virtually every magazine that was being published, no matter how obscure. It was also a place where I kept running into friends, and we would chat up the latest releases.

I often wondered, as I walked out of Tower holding one of their distinctive yellow and red bags, where did they get the name for the store. Well, that question, among many others, is answered in All Things Must Pass, the wonderfully entertaining and fascinating documentary directed by Colin Hanks (Tom’s kid) that details the rise and somewhat fall of this mighty record store. Tower Records founder Russ Solomon had a vision of a “record supermarket” that sold only music.

Many people thought he was crazy, but he proved them wrong by opening popular stores first in Sacramento and then in San Francisco. Eventually, the Tower Records store in LA was not only an extremely popular hangout with regular music lovers, but also with the people who produced the music, with superstars like Elton John going on weekly shopping sprees there for new albums. Hanks tells his story through interviews with the people who worked at Tower, revealing that having a job at Tower was more fun than work. Very informative and captivating, All Things Must Pass is a highly recommended look at a lost era in entertainment retail. –SF