Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

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I have one quibble with ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.  And it’s a very minor one.  Given the movie is a direct sequel to ‘Man of Steel’, a Superman film, and introduces a new version of Batman that audiences aren’t familiar with yet, I did feel slightly miffed by Ben Affleck’s name appearing first in the opening cast list.  Affleck’s Dark Knight will get his solo day in the sun (and on the basis of this film, deserves to).  But for now, it feels just a little bit cynical that the actor playing Batman gets top billing, presumably from a studio viewpoint that the Caped Crusader is the more popular hero among the general public.  As I say, it’s a minor quibble.

Because ‘Batman v Superman’ is otherwise excellent.  I’ll confess a certain interest upfront, in that I’m a longtime fan of both characters and of DC Comics in general, and so obviously would want a film about either of them to do well.  But even taking that into account, I am genuinely baffled by the negative reviews this film has received.  It is epic, in every sense of the word, with more gravitas than any of the Marvel movies put together (and I say that as someone who is a big admirer of Marvel’s output too, particularly its Netflix offerings).

Picking up 18 months after the ending to ‘Man of Steel’, B v S finds an aging, jaded Bruce Wayne still bitter about the destruction caused during Superman’s final battle with General Zod, including the deaths of many Wayne Enterprises employees.  Discovering billionaire Lex Luthor’s plot to weaponise a substance harmful to Kryptonians found lying in the Indian Ocean, he plots to steal the element for himself and use it to bring down the Man of Tomorrow before he becomes a threat to mankind.  But others are out to investigate Luthor for their own reasons, including a mysterious woman who quickly catches Bruce’s attention.

I haven’t always been a fan of director Zack Snyder’s work.  The video-game aesthetic of ‘Sucker Punch’, in particular, led to one of the few times I’ve ever genuinely wanted to walk out of a cinema.  But in Man of Steel, he found a happy middle ground that incorporated his undoubtedly talented visual skill with proper storytelling and plot, and this trend has carried through to B v S.  ‘Dawn of Justice’ feels operatic, important (something reviewers have levelled at it as a criticism, seemingly from some misguided notion that comic book movies shouldn’t ever try to feel like they have weight).  Although interpreted many times before on screen, the death of the Waynes is a truly impressive opening scene, putting to use the best of Snyder’s ability in a way that really serves story.  And the choreography of the titular battle itself is excellent, with a raw feel that suggests brutality and hurt, a world away from some of the more glamourised takes on the recurring Batman/Superman conflict in the comics.  Other key highlights for this reviewer include Batman’s pursuit of Luthor’s goons for possession of the Kryptonite, and Wonder Woman’s first glimpse of the other Justice League heroes in computer files sent to her by Bruce: a moment that truly sends shivers down the spine for any fan of the existing mythos.

Writers David S Goyer and Chris Terrio have crafted a movie that actually contains a plot, perhaps to the confusion of some reviewers who may have been expecting a more video game-esque Alien v Predator affair.  In one of the best aspects of the movie, Lois Lane gets more to do than in any Superman film previously, driving much of the plot with her investigations.  A more grizzled, cynical Alfred than we’ve seen on screen before provides moments of nicely subtle comic relief, while the movie’s much anticipated take on Wonder Woman keeps the character appropriately enigmatic for now, while at the same time throwing her into the thick of the action in the film’s final act.  Perry White manages the not-insignificant feat of still making us like him while acting like a believably  commerce-driven newspaper editor in the modern age (‘it’s not 1938 anymore’, indeed), while ‘Dawn of Justice’s’ take on Lex Luthor provides a truly interesting and different take on the longtime villain.  Certain moments, such as the outcome of the senate committee hearing, genuinely shock, and on a minor note, it’s nice to see the return of such familiar faces from Man of Steel as the Daily Planet’s Jenny (so perilously close to death in the original), and General, now Secretary, Swanwick.  If I have one reservation about a character being underused, it’s perhaps Martha Kent, although she does get a nice moment with the Dark Knight late on in the movie.

The cast here are on top form.  Henry Cavill, as before, has a tough job portraying a character often seen as boring or stilted in our more cynical age, but his earnestness shines through, making us root for a being who seems to all the world to be perfect and problem-free.  He isn’t, of course, and Cavill and Amy Adams do a great job of humanising the Man of Steel with believable scenes as a couple, earned by this interpretation’s genuinely refreshing decision to let Lois in on the secret identity from the start.  Adams must be glad, meanwhile, that this is the version of Lois she finally got to play (having wanted the role for years, and through various earlier incarnations), as the Lois in ‘Dawn of Justice’, as mentioned before, actually gets to be a plot-driving reporter, rather than a mere damsel in distress.  ‘Superman Returns’’ Kate Bosworth, this ain’t.

Ben Affleck need never have worried.  He is superb, easily one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight put to screen, arguably eclipsing even Christian Bale’s take (gone is the manically growling voice, replaced by a far more menacing robotic effect achieved by microphone), and providing possibly the most compelling version of Bruce Wayne in his civilian guise that we’ve yet seen.  Taking on Superman isn’t the easy, instant, morally certain decision for him that the trailers would have us believe, and his slowburning sense of powerlessness, culminating in horror when his failure to act earlier arguably contributes to a terrible atrocity, is keenly felt.  Jeremy Irons lends the gravitas one would expect to his interpretation of Alfred, while Gal Gadot is clearly enjoying herself playing Wonder Woman, sparring off Affleck nicely- it all bodes well for her solo adventure next year.

Jesse Eisenberg isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea as Lex Luthor, and I can understand why.  It’s VERY different to what’s come before.  But that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is no bad thing, and Eisenberg invests the part with a maniacal, sometimes childlike, sometimes scary energy that never fails to compel, regardless of whether one ‘likes’ it or not.  I, personally, did.  A lot.

‘Man of Steel’, for this reviewer, was something of a transitional film.  It had the feeling of something quite different than what had come before from Superman film adaptations, but also stuck very closely to them in its own way- recycled villains, however well done, and a sense of detachment from the wider DC Universe, for example.  This is now well and truly gone.  Storylines from the comics are covered here in an organic, yet epic way, including a resolution that, without anyone having known it was coming, feels like the best take on one particularly famous (or infamous?) Superman storyline that fans could have hoped for; faithful, and yet different.  The scene, in any case, is now very much set for a wider interconnected DC Universe on screen, and, even if the critics have seen fit to totally miss the point of the movie, audience response and approval ratings have been substantially higher enough that the train seems destined to ride on, regardless of their opinion.  Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, at least, are already well on the way from Warner Brothers, and based on ‘Dawn of Justice’, this reviewer will be first in the queue to welcome them.

 

*****

Epic, operatic, and plot driven, Batman v Superman is both a crowd-pleaser and a genuinely interesting film.  Superman IV and Batman and Robin are very distant memories.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

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This first film review could well prove a controversial one.  Much has been made of the refreshing differences between ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the rest of the saga, from John Boyega’s hapless but likeable hero, to Daisy Ridley’s strong female lead, and an intriguingly conflicted villain.  While all of these accolades are certainly valid, good components don’t always make for a good film, and, for this reviewer, ‘The Force Awakens’ is distinctly underwhelming.

I’ll admit to a slight degree of bias to begin with.  I was disappointed by Disney’s decision to completely jettison the Expanded Universe prior to filming TFA.  While the EU’s overall quality is certainly mixed, I had enjoyed many of the expanded novels, in particular the magnificent Thrawn Trilogy, which many fans had regarded as the series’ honorary Episodes VII, VIII and IX, long before J.J. Abrams’ vision.  But I had ultimately decided to put this disappointment to one side, won over by curiosity if nothing else, and to judge the film on its own merits, perhaps holding out some small hope that Abrams would pull a ‘Star Trek’-style plot device out of the bag and allow for the novels to still be canon in some sort of parallel reality.  Alas, no such luck.

But, even taken on its own, ‘The Force Awakens’ just doesn’t feel like ‘Star Wars’.  The movie does get off to a good start, to give it its fair dues, with the eerie Star Destroyer shadow opening shot and night raid on Jakku providing a rich atmosphere, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron quickly emerging as one of the film’s best assets.  But this momentum sadly isn’t sustained.  While Kylo Ren’s early deflection of the blaster bolt is a cool new take on Dark Side Force power, the decision to keep him in his mask until late in the film feels like a misstep: he’s simply not an interesting enough antagonist behind it, coming across as a poor Vader imitation until the moment we actually get to see Adam Driver on screen.  Likewise, Domhnall Gleeson is short-changed in the villain stakes, save for one energetic speech late on, while the less said about Gwendoline Christie’s screen time, the better.

Meanwhile, on Jakku, while Daisy Ridley does her best to put in a strong performance as Rey, the plot drags too heavily for too long for us to be truly engaged by her story, with too many bartering-at-the-market scenes and walking across the desert to spectacular sunsets.  The whole thing feels like a less-interesting retread of Episode IV, the story beats almost identical, but more drawn out.  It’s admittedly nice to see Harrison Ford’s Han Solo again once he and Chewbacca enter the fray, and the old smuggler’s bond with Rey is nicely done, but again, the film drags, with the sequence on Takodana going on for far too long.

Carrie Fisher’s return as Leia is little more than a cameo, and as cute as BB-8 is, this reviewer would much rather have seen more of the old Threepio/Artoo dynamic than the one scene we are given.  Elsewhere, the sequence in which several planets are destroyed by Starkiller Base is treated as almost throwaway, lacking the resonance of the destruction of Alderaan in the original.  As events come together for the finale, the traditional space battle proves underwhelming, with Isaac’s Poe Dameron absent from the story for too long for us to properly remember why we care about him.

To imply, however, that the film is a disaster would be to do it a disservice.  It isn’t, and several elements are impressive enough to save it from the brink.  As suggested before, Driver’s Kylo Ren becomes an interesting antagonist once the mask is off, and his pursuit of Rey through the forest is suitably sinister.  The final confrontation with Han on the gangway glues the eye to the screen, and the denouement is a genuinely startling moment, even if one character’s ‘death’ does scream ‘sci-fi resurrectable’.  The moment Rey catches the lightsaber is brilliantly badass, and it’s wonderful to finally see a female Force user in action.  The friendship between Poe and Finn begins cheesily but ultimately turns into an enjoyable dynamic, while Andy Serkis’ questionably-named Supreme Leader Snoke proves intriguing.  This reviewer, for one, hopes that one popular fan theory doing the rounds about his identity turns out to be correct- it would tie the films together in a great way.

Alas, the film finishes on another dud note, and perhaps it’s my Irish background, but the final encounter with Luke on Ahch-To is so clearly Skellig Michael that no amount of CGI-ed Millennium Falcon sitting on the rocks can convince me that this is the world of ‘Star Wars’- say what you like about the prequels, but at least they always felt like they took place in a different galaxy.

This reviewer’s lasting impression is that ‘The Force Awakens’ feels cobbled together.  The fact that three different writers, Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan, are credited with the script may help to explain the patchwork feel, and in this regard the movie is perhaps best judged as a writing failure rather than any fault of the actors who, by and large, are excellent (though it’s deeply disappointing to find the movie contains John Williams’ least-impressive score of the series).

I’ll still go to see Episode VIII.  Curiosity alone will guarantee that.  I’ve been used to disappointment with the saga before, as ‘Revenge of the Sith’ was released just as I was becoming old enough to judge the films objectively beyond the excited eyes of a child or young teenager, and I’m sure few fans need convincing of that movie’s flaws (Darth Vader being TRICKED into turning to the Dark Side, anyone?).  So I know from experience that one or two dud movies don’t necessarily ruin the saga as a whole.  But, for this reviewer, the next film will need to up its game considerably, and not, first and foremost, despite the legendary status of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, simply feel like a retread of that movie.

 

***

 

An underwhelming addition to the ‘Star Wars’ saga, rescued by some genuinely innovative elements.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Introduction

Welcome to Sleepy Sheep, a writing blog by a Northern Irish literature graduate and recent TV screenwriting student, currently working on a novel and coming to the end of a year studying in Glasgow.

To start with, the title of this blog is taken from an in-joke with a good friend of mine (as good a way of finding an original title as any), so it’s not just something I plucked from the ether.  This will, however, be as far as I ever explain it…  Probably.

The blog is an amalgamation of what had previously been four different sites, streamlined into one for simplicity’s sake.  ‘Sleepy Sheep’ had previously been the home to Film and TV reviews, but will now also host my short stories, book reviews, travel and appreciation pieces, the occasional theatre review, and general reflections.

I love fiction-writing with a passion, and the creativity it draws out and nurtures.  I’ve done courses and degrees in novel-writing, stage-writing and screenwriting, and have a genuine love for all three mediums, as well as trying my hand from time to time at short stories and flash fiction.  This blog is intended as somewhere to showcase some of my shorter pieces of work, prose being my original, and still very powerful, love when it comes to writing.

As a recent MATV Fiction Writing student at Glasgow Caledonian University, however, screenwriting is also something that has really grabbed my imagination, and so I’ll be using this blog as a space to share my thoughts on current (and occasionally older) films and television dramas.

Having loved books since I was a child, and having greatly enjoyed studying literature for my undergrad at Queen’s University Belfast, I also want to use ‘Sleepy Sheep’ as a place to reflect on books I enjoy, both current and classic, of any genre.

Meanwhile, having travelled a lot these last few years between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and occasionally further afield, I want to take the chance to write some pieces on my impressions of various places I’ve spent time in, and convey my affection for both my home and adopted home.

Finally, having completed the Fireworks Young Writers programme for Tinderbox theatre company in Belfast during 2014, I’ve developed a love of theatre and the excitement, immediacy and raw quality of that medium, and while I already review Northern Irish theatre for the blog Scene Docs (https://scenedocs.wordpress.com), I’ll include any reviews of theatre I happen to see outside the province here.

At this point, I’d like to give a shout out to a few different groups of people who have supported me on my writing journey and provided invaluable feedback.  Firstly, the 2013 Curtis Brown Creative three-month novel-writing course alumni, many of whom I still exchange feedback with on a regular basis.  Secondly, Writers’ Block, the creative writing group at Ballymena Central Library, who have been a great source of local support at home.  And thirdly, the Glad Writers Circle in Glasgow Southside, who have been a fun, dynamic group to write with during my time studying in Scotland.  You’ve all been great friends and a huge source of encouragement.

I hope everyone who visits the site, whatever their area of interest, will find something to enjoy in my writing, and please feel free to leave comments or thoughts on any of the pieces.

Happy reading, viewing and writing, and safe travels 🙂

 

Christopher Moore 

@Moore_27Chris