Friday, March 25, 2016

Thank God For Wonder Woman: Batman V Superman Is A Colossal Waste Of Time

This review originally appeared on

Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is not so much a movie as it is an extended warning: You comic book movie fans better like this, because there's going to be a hell of a lot more where this came from.

Coming out of the film, I felt like I had suffered a slight concussion, so let me relay the basic plot as best I can remember it. (And not revealing any "spoilers" as we were implored not to, multiple times, once from a prerecorded message from director Zack Snyder himself).

Batman's parents were still killed during a robbery attempt, leaving him orphaned and free to run around the family estate, which is also home to pits filled with (possibly) magic bats. But now he's an older Batman, which we can tell because Ben Affleck's wig has some grey at the temples, but not a kinder Batman, now taking to branding the criminal scum he captures, with a bat logo, of course. He also has a chip on his shoulder about Superman (Henry Cavill).

It has been 18 months since the events in Man of Steel, when General Zod and Superman basically destroyed the city of Metropolis by flinging each other into buildings and burning down entire blocks with their laser eyes. One of the casualties of that little spat was a Bruce Wayne-owned building, and several of his employees, and he, as well as a lot of the world, are all kind of like "Uh, thanks Superman? For saving us? We think? Don't have a house or office building to go to anymore but that's cool!"

Enter Lex Luthor, Jr., (Jesse Eisenberg), who knows an opportunity when he sees it. He wants to weaponize some kryponite to help "protect" the country from another potential Kryptonian attack, but he's not fooling the Senate with that proposal. (The Senate makes an appearance in the form of Holly Hunter as Senator Finch. And so does CNN, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, Soledad O'Brien, among other real-life figures. Because realism?) Of course Luthor has a plan B, and that involves pitting Batman and Superman against each other. (And then a plan C if that doesn't work.)

Everything in Batman Vs. Superman is big, so we get not one, not two, but THREE superheroes. Not one super villain but a super villain AND a monster AND a side of human trafficking and possible child porn (?!) The giant BvS battle wouldn't have to happen if they just exchanged one single sentence first. And who are we supposed to root for in that fight? Does anyone really want Batman to kill Superman? Or vice versa? It's a colossal waste of time and something I feel Joss Whedon would have been able to handle a lot better.

One good thing can be said about the works of Zack Snyder: he doesn't shy away from naked male torsos. (FYI, Superman remains hairy, and Batman's workout routine involves pounding giant tires with giant hammers.) I was also thankful he kept his usual overabundance of slow-mo to a millennium. If he hadn't, the already bloated two-and-half-hour running time probably would have reached three-plus.

Henry Cavill is a much hotter better Superman than Brandon Routh was; Ben Affleck makes a more convincing Bruce Wayne than he does a Batman; and Jesse Eisenberg's Lex Luthor is a literal snot-nosed kid, and a twitchy mess. Every time he appeared on screen my soul cringed and I almost had to cover my eyes in embarrassment. And, of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is back, doing some sleuthing--when she isn't being rescued by Superman.

And then we have Wonder Woman...

If the movie gave me any glimmer of hope it was Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman. Sure, she's insanely beautiful, and impossibly thin, (quote heard coming out of the theater: "Wonder Woman's supposed to be Amazonian. Amazons are THICK! She ain't thick!"), but when she shows up it's like a breath of fresh, testosterone-free air. We'll have to wait another year until her movie comes out--what's one more year after decades of waiting?--but I will continue to live in hope that her appearance in Batman vs Superman, in which she rises above the doom and gloom around her, is a preview of at least one better thing to come.

When I was a comic book-reading teenager, I only read DC comics. Not one Marvel title. Which is why it continues to hurt me to the core that Marvel movies are, as a whole, just better films. I know the Christopher Nolan Batman movies have a lot of fans, but they never worked for me, were way too serious and pretentious, and sorely lacking in humor. But the success of those films seems to have set the tone for this new batch of DC movies (and, assuming this one isn't a complete bomb, we can expect a steady stream of them through 2020). Alas, they've seemed to forget that the original source material is comic books. Where's the fun?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'Wicked' Returns To SF, Is Still A Lot Of Fun

This review originally appeared on

Wicked, the 10th longest-running musical on Broadway, has returned to San Francisco for the first time since 2013. But Wicked and San Francisco have a long history, as it was here that the show had its pre-Broadway trial run in 2003, and its swung back through SF many times since.
And shockingly, I'd never seen it.

That didn't seem to be the case with much of the audience on opening night. I heard folks around me talking about traveling some distance to "see it again," and I definitely heard a lot of singing along during the show.

While I'd never seen Wicked, I was familiar with its story, having read Gregory Maguire's original book, even if the stage version isn't entirely faithful. It centers on Elphaba, (Emily Koch), born with green skin because of her mother's fondness for a certain green elixir. As a young woman, she and her sister Nessarose, (Megan Masako Haley), who has a handicap of her own, enroll in a school that is not unlike Hogwarts. There she is bullied by most of the students, including Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), a popular, exceedingly bubbly blond. But, as tends to happen in these kinds of tales, they eventually become friends, and we follow they're progressions from students, to powerful witches.

Taking place in a land as magical as Oz means there are plenty of special effects, and they are, for the most part, effective and not too showy (although there were some issues with the sets on opening night). I loved how the costumes kind of played off ideas seen in The Wizard of Oz, but with some steampunk additions. And the gradual introduction of characters from the movie was a lot of fun, although I do have to say I didn't think those original flying monkeys could ever be creepier; Wicked makes them the stuff of nightmares.

The show got its start on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good, and Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel as Elphaba the Wicked. Those are some pretty big shoes to attempt to fill, but Koch and Cooper both tackle the vocals with aplomb. But it's in their acting and comedic timing that they really shine. Koch's Elphaba is perfectly nerdy, but also tough and deadpan, while Cooper's ditzy and vain Glinda grows up a bit through the course of the play, while still maintaining that bubbly personality that's the center of her comedic performance.

They both have their standout numbers. For Glinda's it's "Popular," in which she expounds on her plans to give Elphaba a makeover. Elphaba's best moment is, of course, the now Glee-enshrined "Defying Gravity," which closes the first act, and demonstrates one of the show's best special effects.

But nothing in the second act lived up to either of those first-act numbers, and that was perhaps the most surprising thing about the production for me. I figured a show that had become so legendary would be filled with numbers I'd be humming all night. Instead, the thing I'll probably remember the most are the lovely moments of friendship between the two witches.

Oh, and those flying monkeys. *Shudder*

Friday, March 11, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

This review originally appeared on

10 Cloverfield Lane arrived almost out of the blue, with a trailer dropping before anyone even knew the movie existed. Since it was produced by J.J. Abrams and the title includes the word "Cloverfield," the immediate assumption was that it's a sequel to the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield...

And this I where I will do you all a favor and not say any more about that. I will say, if you liked Cloverfield, you should see 10 Cloverfield Lane. And if you never saw Cloverfield, you don't really need to in order to enjoy this.

The majority of the movie's fun comes from its surprises; from never really knowing where the characters stand, or where it's going to end up. So all I'll give you is the bare bones plot: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michele, a young woman who finds herself in an underground bunker after a car accident. John Goodman is Howard, a man who explains he saved her life and brought here there. John Gallagher, Jr. is Emmet, a young man with a broken arm who is also living in the bunker. Howard tells both of them they can't leave because of what's happened to the world above ground — basically that there is no more world above ground. Is Howard crazy? Or right?

Goodman is genius casting. He's a huge and menacing presence, but, because he's John Goodman, he can also come off as lovable, caring, and a little pathetic. Winstead, who I last remember seeing in the remake of The Thing, is great; how come she's not in more movies? Gallagher, who got his start on Broadway, is the movie's welcome comic relief. (And see if you can locate Bradley Cooper's cameo.)

Regardless of the film's quality — and indeed, I did like it — I think what I appreciated even more was seeing a movie that was able to build up a lot of anticipation without the year's long — or more! — hype that so many other movies seem to get. There was no time to get tired of hearing about 10 Cloverfield Lane before I saw it, and that's, ironically, one of the most memorable things about it.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Tina Fey's second movie in three months is more serious than Sisters was, but I found myself liking it more. One of the issues I had with Sisters was Fey playing against type, taking on the role of the slightly dumber and carefree of the two siblings. In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, she's back to playing it smart, but with that combination of partial naïveté that was key to Liz Lemon's appeal.

Loosely based on the book The Taliban Shuffle, written by real-life print journalist Kim Barker, Fey plays Kim Baker, a copywriter for a TV news organization who's in a personal and professional rut. When the brass decides to send more reporters to Afghanistan, they offer the position to all of the "unmarried and childless" employees. Baker decides to forgo crying about her status, and embrace the opportunity as a welcome challenge.

The first half of the movie is a bit typical, with fish-out-of-water comedy showing Baker getting used to life in a war-torn and chauvinistic country. She befriends a fellow female reporter, played by Margot Robbie, and learns that in the "Kabulbubble" she rates a lot higher on the "attractiveness" scale, due to the lack of visible females around them. She also learns it's a bad idea to carry around a bright orange backpack when embedded with a troop of Marines, (headed by a perfectly cast Billy Bob Thornton).

Eventually Baker acclimates, and begins to crave the adrenaline of reporting and finding that next story. This often means she does stupid things, but some of those stupid things allow her to uncover stories male reporters wouldn't be able to. And it's that feminist thread that ultimately saved the movie for me. Yes, she ends up falling into bed with a Scottish photographer (Martin Freeman), but that story ends up going in a direction completely opposite from the way a traditional romance would.

The movie is not without its problems. The fact that the English-speaking Afghan characters are in fact played by white actors is quite troubling, (even if they're all pretty good, especially Chris Abbott, who is unrecognizable as Barker's local fixer, Fahim). The politics of the early 2000's war aren't delved into much, and the movie has less to say about it than it does the politics of reporting, so it won't rank up there with the best war comedies. But I think it will rank up there with Tina Fey's better movies, and as proof that comedy isn't the only thing she can do well.