Monday, September 26, 2016

DC's Film Franchise a Lukewarm Start--But Hope for the Future?

The "DC Extended Universe" (DCEU) has gotten off to a surprisingly rocky start, perhaps as much as the anticipation that preceded it. What with the releases of this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, the rival studio to Marvel has showcased some of the latest examples of blockbusters that represent a gap between critical and audience reception (or in some cases, a comparison of both). In fact, both films hold a 20 percent vicinity score on Rotten Tomatoes.

What is the reason then? Could these films really be poor in quality? Did critics and/or audiences each respectfully fail to understand the filmmakers' visions? Were the filmmakers too ambitious or too ahead of their time? Were they breaking new ground with stories that have relevance in today's culture? Did the studios reportedly interfere and demand cuts for these films (leading to extended director's cuts on home video later)? Is it just art and action for their own sake, or is there actually substance behind it or added to it? Or maybe it's all of these things, one way or another. 

There certainly has been a long history of films that have met with lukewarm or poor reception upon their initial release, only to be met in later years with universal acclaim. Such examples include Citizen KaneFantasia, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. ( has an interesting YouTube video on the subject.) Now, I'm not saying that history may eventually warm up to the ultimate duel between DC's most iconic heroes and their well-known rogue's gallery. For now, though, it's easy to see why audiences and critics continue to be divisive on these films.

Dawn of the Justice League in Batman v Superman
In retrospect, the "Extended Universe" for DC films began in 2013, one year after director Christopher Nolan concluded his highly-regarded Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises. Director Zack Snyder's Man of Steel rebooted Superman's origin story in the same way Nolan and company did, by grounding the titular character in reality and setting him in a grittier world. What was different about Snyder's (and co-writer David S. Goyer's) take, while engrossing and well-meaning, was how grim and destructive it got, especially during the film's climax.

Snyder returned to the director's chair with the follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Set two years after the climactic events of the previous film, Superman is viewed as a threat and alternatively as a hero by the world. Bruce Wayne a.k.a. the Caped Crusader (Ben Affleck, in surprisingly fine form) views him as the former, and a clash of worldviews ensues in one of the year's most debatable and provocative films. Snyder's DC films (as well as the 2009 big-screen adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen) have been criticized for being too dark and serious, much like Tim Burton's Batman movies from 1989 and 1992. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film "smothers a potentially powerful story - and some of America's most iconic superheroes - in a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action."

To be sure, there certainly is a lot of action, CGI destruction, and much incoherence in the film's plot and execution -- at least according to views of the theatrical release. (An "ultimate edition" just released on video this past summer was praised even more than the initial release, with one reviewer on commending said version for filling significant plotholes and even discussing the film's philosophical and ethical undertones in meticulous detail.) Alongside Affleck, viewers got to see the scene-stealing feature debut of Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman (Fast & Furious's Gal Gadot), as well as fleeting cameos from future DC heroes.

Suicide Squad's rogues gallery
Suicide Squad is essentially an ensemble of DC supervillains, including the Joker, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, and Killer Croc. Having seen the theatrical cut, what starts out intriguing (with snippets of key characters and dark humor, not to mention an engaging soundtrack) becomes incoherent, lacking in character (much of Jared Leto's scenes as the Joker were left on the cutting room floor), and disappointingly conventional of superhero movies (i.e., a "save the world from total destruction" scenario). According to the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, the film "boasts a talented cast and a little more humor than previous DCEU efforts, but they aren't enough to save the disappointing end result from a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing."

On August 11 last month, an alleged former employee of Warner Bros. reportedly wrote an open letter to the respective studio executives, criticizing the studio's slate of theatrical releases since 2013, including DC's films. Despite these criticisms, the latter movies have made a lot of money at the box-office, and stand as two of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2016 worldwide. In addition, the folks at Warner Bros. and DC have taken steps to ensure that they're get back on the right track with their slate of future releases (read here), which will continue next year with the highly anticipated solo outing Wonder Woman and the equally anticipated ensemble Justice League.

Here's hoping they'll be more exciting and entertaining, and less grim and bleak. (Well, let the following teaser trailers give you some assurance.)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

REVIEW: "The Light Between Oceans" (2016)

When it comes to romance dramas, most people will think of Nicholas Sparks novels. Others may think of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" series, while others may recall Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore romancing to pottery. And then there are the romance dramas that exceed such mere fleeting emotions as love-at-first-sight and encompass the universal realities, joys and heartaches of love. 

"The Light Between Oceans," based on the novel by M.L. Stedman (and written for the screen by director Derek Cianfrance) tells the powerful and heartbreaking story of a Post-World War I married couple who live on an island overseeing the lighthouse off the coast of Western Australia. Tom Sherbourne and Isabel Graysmark (the extraordinary Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander) have experienced many a tragedy in their lives and are looking to settle not only as husband and wife, but also (and hopefully) as mother and father. But after a few miscarriages, the couple begin to lose hope. Until they hear cries coming from an adrift rowboat offshore, which carries a baby girl and her deceased father. Was this a coincidence? Was this destined? Should they report to the authorities (as Tom believes they rightfully should) or should they claim the baby as their own (as Isabel pleads, out of desperation), all by the insistence of one small lie? 

Alicia Vikander
This may all sound weepy and sentimental, like a Sparks novel or Lifetime flick. But Cianfrance is not one to go with such conventions. As he demonstrated in his previous films "Blue Valentine" (2010) and "The Place Beyond the Pines" (2012), sentimentality works more effectively (if more powerfully-wrenching) when it's bare-boned and shaken to its core. And only actors as good and accomplished as Fassbender and Vikander could make us believe in, empathize, and even question these characters' motives, doubts, self-conflicts, and questions of forgiveness, especially when they meet the little girl's biological mother (a stellar Rachel Weisz) years later. The same could be said for the film's structure, which is a little unnerving to sit through at times. But it ultimately pays off in a poetic and compelling story of raw emotion, tender yet complex love, and ultimate forgiveness.