Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - What the?

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Chris Terrio David S. Goyer. Based on Characters published by DC Comics Produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder. Color. USA. 151 minutes. Action, Fantasy.

Sometimes you go to movies because you want to keep up. In that case, you hope for the best as you settle into your theater seat with your overpriced bag of popcorn and your overpriced drink. But nothing can prepare you for the disappointment that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Overlong, it clocks in at just over two and a half hours; slow, you will find yourself looking at your watch fairly often and the biggest sin of all, disappointing on so many levels when it comes to story and character. Like bad porn, the film has no social redeeming qualities. While I don't want to go too much into the plot, I wasn't too far off when I speculated in my review of Superman/Batman: Apocalypse; in this case substitute Darkseid with a CGI Doomsday.

In the best of worlds, you should leave a superhero film, especially one trying to launch a franchise, in this case, the DC Extended Universe, feeling upbeat and wanting more. This is not the case with Batman v Superman, which leaves the viewer feeling that the time they've spent has been a colossal waste.

This is one of those films that stupid determination drives forward. Even though everything else in the film tells you it's the wrong thing to do. It is clear to everyone that Superman (Henry Cavill) is not the right target for his anger, but Batman (Ben Affleck,) does not and he proceeds with a dogged determination that is not admirable.

Batman (Ben Affleck) is wrong when he decides Superman
(Henry Cavill) is a villain, but he can't see it.

Worse yet, the villain of the piece, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), comes off as an annoying millennial who never gets the comeuppance he so badly deserves. Again he is an all-knowing psychopath like the Joker from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). And like those trilogy of films and Man of Steel (2013), this film is also dark, overly so.

Lex Luthor is as annoying as he is evil, if not more so.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) almost feels like an add-on for the sake of launching her own film, which will also be directed by Patty Jenkins, coming in 2017. Her introduction is almost welcomed relief, but she comes in too late to save the film.

More Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) might have helped.

Batman v Superman is chock full of conveniences that it would otherwise fail without. Not only are Gotham City and Metropolis both in the film, but they are conveniently close together, only separated by a river. (Makes you wonder where Superman was when Gotham was being occupied in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)). Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is no longer merely a clever butler, but more of a sidekick skilled with whatever talent is necessary at the moment. The fact that this Batman does not gel well with Nolan's trilogy and seems more in line with the pigheaded sadistic version Frank Miller conceived should say bad things are afoot.

Convoluted and boring are not a good combination for any media and are certainly not here. If you're nothing more than a casual viewer of DC Superhero films, then go see this at a matinee if you insist on going; save your money for hopefully better films to come.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Stubs - Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010) Starring the voices of Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly, Summer Glau, Andre Braugher, Edward Asner, Susan Eisenberg, Julianne Grossman, Rachel Quaintance. Director: Lauren Montgomery. Written by Tab Murphy. Based on DC characters. Batman created by Bob Kane. Superman created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster. Produced by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, Bobbi Page, Lauren Montgomery, Sam Register, Benjamin Melniker, and Michael Uslan. Color. USA. Animation, Action, Adventure, Fantasy 78 minutes

While we rarely review direct-to-video features, we made an exception here. Tell me if this sounds like the main characters of a major motion picture: Batman and Superman, who always seem to be at odds, find themselves fighting on the same side with Wonder Woman against an alien foe. No, it’s not the plot of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but rather Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, an animated feature from Warner Premiere, an imprint, so to speak, of Warner Bros.

This film is a sequel to Superman/Batman: Public Enemies (2009), which sadly I haven’t seen. It probably would have helped, too. Apocalypse sort of assumes that you’ve seen that film and the story it tells does make some references to it, though ultimately it is not required viewing.

Prior to Apocalypse, we’re told President Lex Luthor has been arrested and impeached. This is mentioned at the beginning of the film but has really little to nothing to do with what happens. Into the bay off Gotham City, something lands in the water, causing high surf. Batman (Kevin Conroy) goes underwater to investigate. He finds bits of kryptonite spread around the wreckage, but no one or thing around.

Meanwhile, up on land, three dockworkers, apparently unaffected by the flooding we’ve seen, notice a naked woman watching them in the shadows. As two of them try to take advantage of the situation, the girl fights back and, using her heat vision, lays waste to the men and surroundings. The third man offers her his coat, which she takes and runs off. But Batman finds her and, using a piece of the kryptonite, subdues her.
What the dockworker thinks is a gift from heaven is about to clean his clock.

Superman shows up and helps Batman, who, along with Krypto, aka Superdog, are suspicious of her. The girl convinces Superman that she’s Kara Zar-El (Summer Glau) and is in fact his cousin. Like Superman, her parents knew the end was in sight, built a rocket and sent her to Earth. For some reason her trip took twenty plus more years, but she’s here now. Even though Batman and Superdog are both suspicious of her, Superman takes her under his wing and back to Metropolis.

Superdog isn't friendly towards Kara.

We don’t see the complete transition or even a montage, but Kara quickly learns and masters English and starts to feel more like an Earth girl. Her transition is completed by a fairly lengthy shopping spree. Things seem to be moving happily along.

Superman as Clark Kent doesn't like passerbys checking Kara out as she window shops.

Meanwhile, on the planet Apokolips, Darksied (Andre Braugher) is looking for a replacement for Big Barda to lead his Female Furies, four Amazons led by the incorrectly named Granny Goodness (Edward Asner) who form a sort of ultra-loyal private guard for Darksied. We watch as one recruit, Treasure, is killed as she battles the other four as she fails her job interview. He tells Granny Goodness to send for that Krypton girl on Earth and not to fail him.

Superman and Kara’s idyllic shopping spree is then disrupted by an attack in the park. It turns out to have been staged by Batman, with Wonder Woman (Susan Eisenberg) and Layla (Rachel Quaintance), to show that Kara needs more specialized training. Wonder Woman wants to take her back to Themyscira, where she will be safe and where she can be shown how to handle her powers. Superman reluctantly agrees to let her go.

Wonder Woman doesn't seem pleased to have Superman and Batman come to Themyscira to check on Kara.

Since the film moves along at a quick pace, there is no time for any transitions; again no training montage or indication of the passage of time. When we see Themyscira, Superman and Batman have come to check on Kara. They see Kara paired with her training partner, Artemis (Rachel Quaintance). While Kara and Layla sneak away from the group to take a swim, Themyscira is invaded by Doomsday clones.
In a stand-off that seems reminiscent of 300, Wonder
Woman and her Amazon army hold the Doomsday clones at bay.

Wonder Woman’s army holds them at bay, until Superman vaporizes them with his own heat vision. Sensing a charade, Batman goes looking for Kara and finds Layla’s dead body lying in the water, having been killed by Darksied’s Omega Ray trying to keep Kara from being abducted. Superman vows that Layla will have not died in vain.

Superman vows that Layla will not have died in vain.

Cut to suburbia, into which land Superman and Wonder Woman, who knock on the front door of a non-descript house. Turns out the house belongs to Big Barda (Julianne Grossman). Even though we didn’t see him arrive, Batman is already there. Barda is in no hurry to go back to Apokolips, but they convince her to go.
Barda is in no hurry to return to Apokolips.

When they arrive on the planet, the four Superheroes go their separate ways. Wonder Woman and Barda go through the sewers, coming up in the middle of the fighting arena, where Granny Goodness and the Four Furies ambush them. Batman goes underground as well as discovers the Hell Spores that are the source of Apokolips' fire pits. While one can disarm a planet, Batman activates all of them.

On Apokolips, everyone has an assignment.

Superman meanwhile makes his way into Darksied’s palace, who sicks the now (and quickly) brainwashed Kara on him. Superman doesn’t want to hit Kara and she takes advantage and pummels her cousin, much to Darksied’s delight. The fight is only broken up when Batman arrives and announces he’s activated the Hell Spores and only he can deactivate them. He only agrees to do so in exchange for Darksied letting Kara go and the promising to leave her alone.

Superman refuses to fight back when the brainwashed Kara attacks him.

Back on Themyscira, a funeral for Layla is held and Kara gets to pay her respects.

Superman takes Kara to Smallville to live with his Earth parents, the Kents.

With their lives seemingly back to normal, Superman decides to take Kara to Smallville, and put her in the care of his adoptive Earth parents. But instead, Darksied is waiting to ambush them. Even though he had promised to leave Kara alone, he had not made the same about Superman or Earth. Using his Omega Beam, Darksied sends Superman into space. Kara takes up the fight and with all the training she’s been given, she puts up a good fight, but eventually Darksied turns the tables on her.

Darksied proves that he is not a man of his word.

And just when all hope looks lost, Superman recovers and comes back to Earth. But Darksied once again gets the upper hand, turning his devastating Omega Beam on the superhero. While Superman’s flesh starts to burn, Kara messes with Darksied’s Mother Box (the mini super computer he uses to transport between planets) and changes the coordinates. Darksied is distracted from his attack on Superman just long enough so that Superman pushes him back through the wormhole the Mother Box has opened. Kara informs Superman that she had changed the coordinates so that instead of Apokolips, Darksied has been sent into deep space, where he is frozen by the cold.

Superman and Kara are a little worse for wear after their fight with Darksied.

Now Kara decides that she wants to use her superpowers for truth and justice, so adopts the alias Supergirl. This decision is met with applause back on Themyscira, by Wonder Woman, her Amazons, Superman and even Batman. Together, Supergirl and Superman fly back to Metropolis to continue their adventures.

Kara decides to become Supergirl.

For a short running time, Apocalypse tries to tell a lot of story and makes certain assumptions about how much knowledge the viewer has with Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman mythology and lore. With comic books, especially ones that have been around for as long as these, there are a lot of variables and universes. Superman/Batman: Apocalypse doesn’t stop to explain anything to the uninitiated. It is strictly a follow or be left behind approach to storytelling.

It’s hard, as always, for me to judge voice acting, since you can’t see their faces. I think Summer Glau, Tim Daly and the rest of the cast did good jobs with their roles, but I think casting Edward Asner as Granny Goodness was inspired stunt if nothing else.

Visually, while this is more than just a motion comic, there are times when it’s hard to tell some characters from one another. As an example, Kara and Layla are made to look somewhat alike to the point that when we first see Layla dead, we naturally jump to the conclusion that it’s Kara. Maybe that was pre-planned, but nevertheless it can be confusing, especially if you don’t have any preconceived notions on what some of these characters are supposed to look like.

While there are some enjoyable moments, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse seems meant more for diehard fans of the DC universe and not meant for casual consumption. That’s too bad, because it could be more of a jumping-on-point (what Marvel calls Point One), but instead it leaves the casual viewer with the feeling that there is too much ground to be made up in order to fully enjoy.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Stubs - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) Starring Matthew Broderick, Mia Sara, Alan Ruck. Directed by John Hughes. Screenplay by John Hughes. Produced by John Hughes and Tom Jacobson. Color. U.S.A. Run time: 103 minutes. Comedy.

John Hughes will never go down as one of the greats of filmmaking, but he was very successful for several years making films about teenagers in and around Chicago, his hometown. His films were very much of their time, reflecting not only fashion and music of their day, but also helping to launch many careers. Films like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Weird Science (1985) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) are among the films he both wrote and directed that grew out of his upbringing in Northbrook, Illinois, a suburb of the Windy City.

The screenplay for the film came together very quickly. Hughes pitched his idea to Paramount’s then head of the motion picture division, Ned Tanen, on February 25, 1985. While Tanen greenlit the picture on the spot, there was a looming Writer’s Guild strike, so Hughes wrote a first draft in less than a week. The film went into production with what was essentially his first draft. Rewrites, as it were, was editing down the film's first cut’s two hour and forty-five (165) minute run time by over an hour to 103 minutes.

Matthew Broderick was Hughes’ first choice for the lead, though he did consider such up and coming actors like Jim Carrey, John Cusack, Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox. The then 23 year old actor had already been a successful stage actor appearing in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and as Eugene Morris Jerome in two of Neil Simon’s Eugene Trilogy of plays: Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues.

He had already made the move to films in Simon’s Max Dugan Returns (1983), followed by WarGames (1983), in which he plays a teenager who accidentally nearly launches an all-out Thermal Nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. after hacking into a computer designed to make the decision to launch.

For Ferris’s girlfriend, Sloane Peterson, Hughes cast Mia Sara who had only made one film, Legend (1985), opposite Cruise. Sara was chosen for the role, even though Molly Ringwald, a veteran of Hughes’ films, wanted it.

For Ferris’ best friend and patsy, Cameron Frye, Hughes selected an actor he had previously turned down for a part in The Breakfast Club, Alan Ruck. Even then, the role had been offered to Emilio Estevez, who turned it down. Ruck had previously worked with Broderick on Broadway in Simon’s Biloxi Blues, so the two already had a good working relationship and were already real friends before having to play them on film.

With a budget of a little under $6 million, filming began on September 9, 1985 in Chicago and lasted until November 22nd after returning to Los Angeles to complete production. The film opened on June 11, 1986, earning over $70 million at the box office during its initial release.

It’s a beautiful day and High School senior Ferris Bueller decides too beautiful to spend in school, so he fakes being sick in order to take a day off. As throughout the movie, Ferris talks to the audience. In this case, he’s advising on how to fake an illness.

Ferris (Mathew Broderick) convinces his mom (Cindy Pickett) that he's too sick to go to school.

While Ferris’ parents Tom (Lyman Ward) and Katie (Cindy Pickett) are easy marks, his sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) is less convinced. She knows that Ferris gets away with things she never could. He’s jealous of the fact that she has a car. (Ed Note: Frankly, the ages don’t seem quite right here. They are both in High School and she has a car, which suggests she’s older, and he’s a senior so are they in the same grade? This is perhaps something left on the cutting room floor, but there is no mention of how this happened or of her age in the film.)

Ferris offers advice on how to fake out your parents.

Equally unconvinced is the school principal Edward Rooney (Jeffrey Jones). He notes that this is Ferris’ ninth absence of the semester and calls Katie at work to inform her. She doesn’t believe him and tries to convince him that Ferris is very sick indeed. While they’re talking, Ferris hacks into the school computer and reduces his absences from nine to two while Rooney has his mother on the phone. Ferris explains his hacking by telling us he got a computer instead of a car. Ferris also proves to be handy with a synthesizer, which he loads with a floppy disk to simulate sick sounds while he chats on the phone with freshmen students at the high school. (Not sure who initiates the call, nor why, but it does build sympathy for the “sick” hero and adds to the myth around school as to how sick he really is.)

Ferris talks to students at school and uses a programmed synthesizer to emphasis his "illness".

Rooney is so outraged by Ferris flaunting his disregard for authority that he informs his assistant, Grace (Edie McClurg), that he’s going to catch him himself.

Meanwhile, Ferris calls his best friend, Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), who is also sick in bed, but unlike Ferris who is faking, Cameron is convinced he’s dying. Ferris manages to convince Cameron that is death diagnosis is really a lack of something to do. Eventually Cameron gives in; we assume he always gives in. Ferris needs Cameron because, unlike him, Cameron has a car and even though it’s a piece of s***, Ferris is jealous.

Ferris' best friend is Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck), who is also faking
illness, though he's convinced himself he's dying.

Now that’s over, they work to free Ferris’ girlfriend, Sloane Peterson (Sara Mia). Pretending to be Sloane’s father, Cameron calls the school to explain that Sloane’s grandmother has died and they need her at home for the day. Rooney is convinced that it’s really Ferris who is calling and he informs the father that he’ll let her leave if he can produce a body.

Meanwhile, Grace takes a call from Ferris wanting to speak to Rooney. After Rooney speaks to Ferris, who asks politely if Jeanie could bring home any assignments he’ll miss, he changes his tune when speaking to Sloane’s “father.” (It’s revealed that both Ferris and Cameron are calling from landlines in Ferris’ house, this is in the days before cells. No explanation is given as to how they can both use the same landline at the same time. Again, maybe this is somehow explained in what we didn’t see.) Mr. Peterson demands that Rooney have his daughter out in front of the school in ten minutes.

Rooney is back on his heels and hurries to collect Sloane. There is a very funny scene in which he hurries down the halls, but stops running as he passes each classroom, as if aware of the example he’s supposed to be setting.

Now the issue is what to drive to pick up Sloane from school. Since Ferris doesn’t have a car and can’t pretend that Cameron’s is really a car a well-to-do father would drive, he convinces him to let him take Cameron’s father’s prized 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder, a car which Cameron notes his father loves more than life itself. In one of the funnier retorts, Ferris tells him “A man with priorities so far out of whack doesn't deserve such a fine automobile.”

Cameron's father's 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California Spyder.

Pretending to be her father, Ferris picks up Sloane at school. In the back, hiding under the car cover, is Cameron. The three drive into the city, where they leave the car in the hands of attendants at a parking garage. No sooner have they left the car, then two of them (Richard Edson and Larry "Flash" Jenkins) take the car for an extended joyride. We’re treated to updates on their ride from time to time throughout the next part of the film.

Ferris catches a ball hit into the stands at Wrigley Field.
Cameron and Sloane (Mia Sara) look on.

During their day in the city, the three teens visit the Art Institute of Chicago, the Sears Tower and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange as well as Wrigley Field, where Ferris catches a ball hit into the stands, before having lunch at a French Restaurant. In order to get a table, Ferris poses as Abe Froman, the "Sausage King of Chicago". Still they narrowly miss being seen by Ferris’ father who is having a business lunch there as well. (This has to be the longest morning on record for them to do all of these things. I’m no aficionado, but I don’t think the Cubs play morning games either, which is the only way the sequence of events would even remotely work. Again, this might have been better dealt with if the screenplay had gone through a rewrite.)

Abe Froman, the "Sausage King of Chicago" and friends stop for lunch.

Mother Bueller comes home from her job as a real estate agent to check on Ferris. When she enters his room, she activates a pulley system which turns a mannequin torso in his bed and activates pre-recorded snoring. Fooled into thinking Ferris is resting up, she leaves him be.

The Bueller's house.

Principal Rooney, meanwhile, drives out to the Bueller household. Ferris has rigged the intercom to play an endless loop of pre-recorded messages about being too sick to come to the door, etc., which at first frustrates Rooney until he figures out what’s what. He searches for an open window, but gets one of his shoes stuck in thick mud by the house. When he tries to get in through a doggy door, he comes face to face with the Bueller’s dog, a Rottweiler. After suffering that attack, he is helpless to stop his car, which he conveniently parked illegally, from being towed away.

Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) goes too far and actually breaks into the Bueller home to catch Ferris.

Meanwhile, Jeanie skips classes herself in an attempt to catch Ferris at home. When she gets there, Jeanie discovers Ferris’ ruse, but when she calls her mother she gets the brush off. Mom is too busy to talk to Jeanie and doesn't seem to take her daughter seriously. When Jeanie hears strange noises in the house, she goes downstairs thinking she’s caught Ferris. Instead, it’s Rooney, whom she kicks several times in the face, knocking him to the ground.

Mom has little patience for Jeanie when she calls her at work.

She goes back upstairs to call the police about a break-in, but Rooney manages to slink away before they get there. The police then arrest Jeanie for calling in a false report. While sitting waiting for her mother to come get her out, Jeanie makes the acquaintance of a juvenile delinquent (Charlie Sheen). For a delinquent, he gives Jeanie some sage advice: Don’t pay attention to what her brother gets away with.

Back in Chicago, Ferris, Sloane and Cameron are enjoying a cab ride when they get stuck in traffic. Sitting in the cab next to them is Ferris’ father, but when he glances over, the only person he sees is Sloane, whom he must not recognize, since she flirts with him.

Ferris lip-syncs a couple of songs at the Von Steuben Day parade. 

After the cab ride, Ferris momentarily disappears into the crowd, but emerges atop a float in the Von Steuben Day parade, lip-syncing Wayne Newton’s signature version of “Danke Schoen.” He then follows that up with lip-syncing The Beatles’ famous version of The Isley Brothers’ classic “Twist and Shout”, which, naturally, ignites the whole parade into frenzy.

Ferris has the whole parade and city in a frenzy.

Afterwards, they go back to the garage to retrieve the car, so they can get home ahead of their parents at six. They discover that the car has over 100 additional miles on the odometer. So shocked is Cameron that he becomes catatonic with fear of his father’s wrath. It takes a little doing, like a plunge into a pool, to break the spell.

They take the car back to the garage and try to reverse the miles off the odometer, but that’s not how things work. Ferris suggests that they open the odometer and manually reset the mileage, but Cameron refuses. Instead, he takes out his pent up frustration with his lousy relationship with his father on the symbol of his father, the Ferrari. He kicks the car, denting the front. Disturbed by what he’s done, Cameron decides to confront his father. As he talks, he leans against the car, knocking it off its jack and with the car in gear; it drives itself backwards through the back of the garage and into a ravine behind the house. Ferris offers to take full blame for what has happened, but Cameron is determined to take the heat for the car.

Things seem hopeless after the car goes out the back of the garage.

Meanwhile, back at the police station, Mrs. Bueller comes to take Jeanie home, only to find her making out with the delinquent.

Ferris' sister Jeanie (Jennifer Grey) finds chemistry with a juvenile delinquent (Charlie Sheen).

Ferris returns Sloane home and realizes he only has a few minutes to make it back home ahead of his parents. (It's established  that his father comes home every night at six sharp.) Ferris runs all the way back, taking the backway and short cuts, but stops to introduce himself when he passes a couple of girls sunbathing.

Ferris takes Sloane home.

While his father doesn’t notice him, Jeanie, who is driving her mom’s station wagon, does. She nearly runs over Ferris when he rushes out in front of the car. She then tries to run him down, but gets pulled over by the police, allowing Ferris to make it home just ahead of his parents. With them arriving in front, Ferris tries to go around back. (Once again there’s some time-bending going on. If you’ve ever gotten a ticket, it is not a quick process, but Jeanie and her mom arrive only seconds behind Ferris.) But Rooney is waiting for him and, thinking he finally has the goods on him, asks “How would you feel about another year of High School under my close personal supervision?"

But just when things look their darkest, Ferris gets a break. In a little bit of Deus ex Machina, Jeanie has discovered Rooney's wallet on the kitchen floor, proof he was the one who broke in and she uses it to blackmail Rooney into backing down, saving the brother she’s been trying all day to reveal as a fraud. And as she closes the door on him, the family Rottweiler attacks Rooney again.

Dashing upstairs, Ferris manages to get into bed just before his parents come into his room. Using the baseball from Wrigley Field, he manages to silence the snooze machine. His parents are clueless that he had ever been out of bed and even suggest that maybe he should stay home again the next day.
After they leave, Ferris reminds the audience, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Ferris then smiles at the camera before the screen goes dark.

Mom and Dad (Lyman Ward) have no idea the ruse Ferris has pulled.

Dejected and thoroughly defeated, Rooney is walking back home when the school bus happens by and offers him a lift.Nothing adds more to his humiliation than the look of the students as he boards the bus and makes his way inside. The only seat available is one next to the girl apparently no one else wants to sit next to. As if to add insult to injury, she offers him a gummy bear that she’s been carrying around in her pocket all day, so it’s warm and soft. (Best not to think too hard about it, but if it's supposed to be six o'clock,  these poor students have been on that bus for hours.)

After the credits run, Ferris emerges from his room, in his bathrobe, and tells everyone to go home; “You're still here? It's over!”

When the film opened on June 11, 1986 in 1330 theaters, it made more than $6.25 million finishing second to the Rodney Dangerfield starrer Back to School, which also opened that weekend and also, coincidentally, includes a rendition of Twist and Shout, this time sung by Rodney Dangerfield on the soundtrack. If you go by these two movies, you’d think everyone was singing this song in the 1980s.

The film received good reviews, being called “fun” and “sophisticated” for a teen film. And the film is fun to watch; even on repeated viewings, the Ferris is still funny.

While I’m not a huge fan of his, this is easily my favorite Matthew Broderick film role. He seems like such a natural to play the devil may care Ferris. He’s since gone on to make a career on the Broadway stage, especially when starring opposite of Nathan Lane.

But like any ringleader, Ferris needs a supporting cast and Ruck and Mia provide him with good backup, especially Ruck. This is only the third film in a career which has included stints on television in Spin City (1996-2002) and supporting roles in a couple of big but vapid films: Speed (1994) and Twister (1996). There is an almost Joe E. Brown quality to Ruck’s persona in this film and some thought he deserved more recognition for the role.

Jennifer Grey, who played Ferris’ sister, would have her breakout performance a year later in Dirty Dancing (1987). She’s good in this role and one senses a lot of teenage angst from being the forgotten child in the house with obvious favorite, Ferris.

Prior to this movie, Jeffrey Jones was probably best remembered for his role as Emperor Joseph II in Amadeus (1984). He makes for a good foil for Ferris, someone who really wants to catch him and will do almost anything to bring the boy to justice for his truancy. But in the end, our hero wins the day. Jones, who would also play a prominent role in Beetlejuice (1988), would have his career derailed when he was arrested for possession of child pornography and solicitation of a 14 year-old boy in 2003.

I would be remiss not to mention all the other character actors who populate the film, including Edie McClurg as Grace and Ben Stein as Ferris’ Economics teacher. Both make the most of their small roles and leave a good impression. McClurg, who has appeared in 90 films and 55 TV episodes, has become a fixture on the voice actor circuit voicing roles in Cars 2 (2011), Wreck-It-Ralph (2012), Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016).

Ben Stein makes a cameo as Ferris' Economics teacher.

It would take too long to outline Ben Stein’s career, but he started out as a writer before becoming a speech writer for both Presidents Nixon and Ford. A conservative, Stein moved into films. While Ferris Bueller wasn’t his first, it was certainly the one that put him on the map as an actor. He’s appeared in Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Ghostbusters II (1989), the TV show The Wonder Years and even played himself in Dave (1993). An intellectual, Stein even hosted his own game show, Win Ben Stein’s Money (1997-2002), in which he supposedly put up his own money should a contestant best him, in reality the money was put up by the show’s producers.

Like many of John Hughes' film, Ferris Bueller is a glamourized snap shot of the era it was made in. Everything about the film screams mid-1980s, which is part of its charm. Ferris is more than just a teenager’s fantasy; who wouldn’t want to play hooky whenever they want and just enjoy life? Despite my criticism of the film’s time-bending, it is really a very enjoyable and funny experience. I’ve seen the film maybe four times now and it never gets old.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane - A Sequel in Name Only

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher, Jr. Directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Written by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle.  Produced by J. J. Abrams and Lindsey Weber. Color. USA. Science Fiction, Thriller, Horror

If you saw Cloverfield (2008) and hoped there would be a sequel (why?), then it is not, in more ways than one. The films are tied together in name only and by the behind the scenes presence of J. J. Abrams. While Cloverfield was a dumb plot driven by poor decisions by the main characters, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a much more psychological thriller, tied in with a sci-fi horror storyline.

There is an Independence Day (1996) meets War of the Worlds (1953) meets Psycho (1960) plot. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up after a car crash in an end-of-the-world bunker owned by Howard (John Goodman). The only other person there is Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.), a simple guy who helped build the bunker. Not sure how she got there or what’s going on, Michelle learns that Howard has saved her from death. Emmitt, who, unlike her, is happy to be there, had to fight his way in.

Things are never as they seem in 10 Cloverfield Lane. From left to right:
Howard (John Goodman), Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Emmitt (John Gallagher, Jr.)

Michelle is only told enough to make her suspicious of Howard’s story, but everything he has told her is shown to be right, but also very wrong. To tell more would be to give away too much.

While I have now seen Cloverfield three times, four if you count the Riff Trax version, I’m not a fan of the original. And no, it didn’t take me three viewings to come to that conclusion, but sometimes you watch bad movies for what they are. In that film, the plot is constantly driven forward by irrational decisions and every choice made seems to get the protagonists in deeper and deeper. While the found video concept was new, it was not innovative and it is not enough to save the film. Sense runs out long before the movie is over. You come to hate the leads and their deaths are a cathartic comeuppance.

10 Cloverfield Lane keeps you wondering and guessing throughout and while you root for Michelle, you hope that her suspicions prove correct and are not without merit. I will admit, I wanted to see the film for the lead, Winstead, whom has proven herself to be an engaging screen presence in such films as Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and the very underrated Scott Pilgrim (2010), in which she was the object of Scott’s desire, as well as her seven exes’ revenge. I went in liking her and left more impressed.

Much of the drama lies in the relationship between Howard
and Michelle. Is he a savior or villain? Or a little of both?

John Goodman’s acting is hard to miss as it seems he appears in two to three films a year. In this film, Howard is a very complex fellow, as smart as he is crazy. This allows Goodman to showcase his range. In the hands of a lesser talent, Howard would not be as compelling as he is.

Emmitt is really caught between the strong wills of Michelle and Howard. While he readily believes everything Howard has told him, he is not above being convinced by Michelle that there is more going on. While I’m sure I’ve seen John Gallagher, Jr. in some of his previous films, Whatever Works (2009) comes to mind, this is the first time I can remember his work. He is a good actor and will no doubt get a career boost from this role.

Production values were good, but one has to imagine that production costs were kept pretty reasonable as ninety percent of the action takes place in one space. Profits will no doubt come quickly. There are some fairly impressive special effects, but they are mercifully kept to a minimum. Most of the strength of the film comes from the acting. You have to give Dan Trachtenberg some credit in his debut as a director that he let his actors carry the work.

I was amused that there were two casting directors listed in the credits, when there were only three main characters and three minor ones. Bradley Cooper does some voice work, but his talent is somewhat wasted here as anyone could have done it and his voice wasn’t recognizable.

Since most of the action takes place in an underground bunker, 10 Cloverfield Lane may not be for anyone who is claustrophobic. But if the first Cloverfield did not totally sour you on the name, then you might enjoy this genre-bending film. Unlike the first, I look forward to the inevitable third bite at the Cloverfield apple, that success at the boxoffice will surely bring, especially if Mary Elizabeth Winstead is featured.

Stubs – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Based on the play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, produced on the stage by Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder (New York, 13 Oct 1962). Produced by Ernest Lehman. USA Black and White 130 minutes Drama

My DVR was getting quite low on room, so I decided to go back and watch the oldest film that I had recorded to clear up space. For over two years, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? has been waiting patiently to be watched. Finally on a recent Friday night, we got to it. And after finally watching it, I feel bad about having made it wait so long.

One of the landmark films of the mid-sixties, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is based on Edward Albee’s play, which opened four years previously. At the time, the language used in the play assaulted its audiences and it was considered to be unfilm-able by Hollywood, which had that out-of-date Production Code, which forbade much of the play’s language and subject matter. But, as Bob Dylan had already sung, the time’s they are a-changing.

The play was purchased by Warner Bros. and gave it to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who also acted as the film’s producer. Lehman made the decision not to change any of the play’s dialogue and despite grumblings for the Catholic Legion of Decency, the MPAA and even Warner Bros., Lehman would prevail.

Originally, Bette Davis and James Mason were considered for the leads. If you’ve seen the film, you can only imagine the delight in seeing Davis do an impersonation of herself from the film Beyond the Forest (1949), in which she had exclaimed the famous line “What a dump!” which is referred to in the play and the film. But sober heads prevailed. Elizabeth Taylor and her then current husband, Richard Burton, whom she had met on the set of Cleopatra (1963), were case in the leads.

Taylor, who had grown up on camera in such films as Lassie Come Home (1943), National Velvet (1944) and Father of the Bride (1950), was considered one of the world’s most beautiful women at the time and about 10 years younger than the Martha character in the play. But Taylor, who had already been nominated four times for an Academy Award for her acting in Raintree County (1957), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and finally winning for Butterfield 8 (1960), had already proven herself to be more than just a pretty face.

Richard Burton was a well-known actor in his own right. Six years older than Taylor, Burton had spent time on stage before getting into the movies with The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949). The Welsh-born actor had also been nominated for his acting, first as a Supporting Actor in My Cousin Rachel (1952), then as Best Actor in The Robe (1953), Becket (1964) and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965).

Like the play, the film had only four credited parts. Rounding out the cast were George Segal, a relative newcomer to film, having only started with 1961’s The Young Doctors and Sandy Dennis, making only her second film after having acted on the Guiding Light soap opera on television.

Virginia Woolf, the well-known writer, modernist and feminist in the early 1900s, mentioned in the title, really has no role in the film other than her name is used in song. Sung to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush", instead of the Disney song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” which it references, Virginia Woolf’s name is used instead of the Big Bad Wolf.  Albee described the inspiration for the title:

I was in there having a beer one night, and I saw "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who's afraid of Virginia Woolf means who's afraid of the big bad wolf . . . who's afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical, university intellectual joke.

At the beginning of the story, Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband George
(Richard  Burton) are waiting for their guests to arrive.

The story is set on the campus of an unnamed small New England college. It is two in the morning and associate history professor George (Richard Burton) and his hard-drinking wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the daughter of the college president, have just arrived home from a party. As soon as they're home, Martha informs George that she’s invited a young married couple, whom she met at the party, for a drink. George isn’t in the mood for company and Martha teases him about a song that was sung at the party that got a lot of laughs, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” George is not amused.

Nick (George Segal), the new biology professor, and his wife,
Honey (Sandy Dennis), come over for drinks. And drinking they will do.

The guests, Nick (George Segal), a biology professor (even though Martha thinks he teaches math), and his wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive and the four start to drink. They will not be too far from a bottle of liquor for the rest of the movie.  Martha and George engage what appears to be their usual scathing verbal abuse and while Nick and Honey are at first embarrassed, they still stay.

Early on the two couples share a laugh,

The wives go into the kitchen and when they return, Honey tells everyone that Martha has told her about her and George's son and that the next day, Sunday, will be his sixteenth birthday. George is visibly angry and upset that Martha has told her their shared secret.

Martha continues to taunt George and his response is passive aggressive. Martha tells Nick and Honey how much of a failure George is, considering that he married the college president’s daughter, he should be more than an only an associate professor. A humiliated George reacts violently by breaking an empty liquor bottle. In order to screen Martha out, George grabs Honey and starts to dance, singing “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Too much giggling on top of too much alcohol sends Honey running to the bathroom to throw up.

Martha taunts George until he smashes a bottle in humiliation,

After tending to Honey, Martha goes to the kitchen to make coffee. Meanwhile, George goes outside and Nick follows him. Like a lot of husbands, the two complain about their marriages and their wives. Nick confesses to George that he only married Honey because she thought she was pregnant, what is referred to as a hysterical pregnancy. George mentions that Martha has never had any pregnancies before going on to complain about his marriage as a series of accommodations.

Nick follows George outside and the two talk and open up.

Sort of out of the blue, George tells the story of a boy he once knew at prep school. The boy had supposedly killed his mother accidentally when he was younger and had joined George and other boys on a pre-holiday drinking binge. George goes on to describe the laughter around the boy ordering “Bergen” instead of bourbon or gin. When Nick asks what happens to the kid, George hesitates, but then tells him how the boy, then sixteen and with a learner’s permit, swerved to avoid a porcupine and hit a tree, killing his father, who was a passenger. The boy, upon learning the news, went insane and has been 30 years in a mental hospital.

Nick goes on to tell George about Honey’s father’s money and how he jokingly plans to move up at the University by sleeping with the wives of the prominent professors and administrators. He even suggests starting with George’s Martha.

Martha comes out of the house and yells across the yard that they’re making coffee and the boys go inside. But instead of coffee, Nick and Honey want to go home. George, even though he’s been drinking, insists on driving them home.

In the car, the talk once again turns to George and Martha’s son, which further annoys George. On the way, they pass a still open roadhouse and Honey suggests they stop to dance. At this hour, they are the only patrons. Honey dances wildly while Nick tries to calm her down. Honey and George watch as Martha and then Martha and Nick dance suggestively. Fed up, George unplugs the jukebox and announces the game is over. Martha alludes to the fact George may have murdered his parents like the protagonist in his unpublished, non-fiction novel, as well as his Bergen-ordering friend from his earlier story. George can only be pushed so far and he starts to strangle Martha until Nick manages to pull him off.

At the roadhouse, Nick stops George from strangling Martha.

The owner of the roadhouse (Frank Flanagan) tries to kick them out, but George convinces him to serve them one more round before closing. The owner's wife (Agnes Flanagan) brings them drinks. Soon after George proclaims that he's through playing "Humiliate the Host" and announces the four are going to play a new game, "Get the Guests".

Still at the roadhouse, George invents a new game, "Get the Guests."

George then tells the group that in addition to his one unpublished novel, he’s written a second novel and the story he tells, about a young couple from the Midwest, which closely mirrors everything Nick had told him in confidence about the marriage and the hysterical pregnancy. Honey recognizes their story and their secrets and runs from the room. Before Nick goes after her, he promises to get revenge on George.

In the parking lot, George tells Martha that he cannot stand the way she constantly humiliates him, and she suggests that he married her for that very reason. Supposedly fed up they declare "total war." George is still surprised when Martha drives off without him. He watches as she stops to pick up Nick and Honey and then drives off. George resigns himself to walking back home.

Martha argues with George in the parking lot before driving off with Nick and Honey.

Arriving, he finds their station wagon sitting run up on the curb. In the backseat, he finds a half-conscious Honey lying across the backseat. In the second story bedroom window, George sees the outline of his wife and Nick, suggesting they are presently engaged in sex. George overhears Honey's drunken babbling suggesting that her pregnancy was real and that out of fear she had a secret abortion. George then gets an idea for how to get even with Martha.

Back in the house, Martha is obviously dissatisfied after her sexual encounter with Nick. He blames his performance on the liquor he’s been consuming all night. Martha starts to treat Nick like a servant.

George then appears at the door with a bunch of snapdragons. In yet another game, George starts to throw the snapdragons at both Martha and Nick. George mentions their son, which prompts Martha to reminisce about him. She accuses George of nearly destroying him. George counters, accusing Martha of destructive behavior that caused the boy to frequently run away from home.

George arrives at the door with a bunch of snapdragons.

Nick also learns how thick George and Martha are when he joins in on berating George and Martha turns on him.

George then announces that they had received a telegram with the bad news that their son was killed that afternoon while driving on a country road. George recounts the details of the accident, which sound very familiar to Nick; the boy swerved to avoid a porcupine and crashed his car into a tree. Honey stumbles in just in time to corroborate George’s story about the delivery. When Martha asks to see the telegram, George taunts her that he ate it.

Martha turns on Nick the same as she has on George before.

When Martha argues with George not to "kill" their son, Nick realizes the truth that Martha and George’s son is imaginary. For reasons never explained, they never had a baby and in one more game, they pretend to have a son and invent stories about him. George explains, to Nick and Honey, that their one mutually-agreed-upon rule was to never mention the "existence" of their son to anyone else, and that he "killed" him because Martha had broken that rule by mentioning their son to Honey, earlier in the morning.

The revelation that Martha and George’s son is imaginary isn’t a total surprise as there are hints sprinkled throughout the film. As an example, when Nick and George are outside telling marital war stories, George admits that Martha never had a pregnancy. No doubt both men were too drunk to be paying too close attention to who said what. Honey’s motivation for backing George’s wild tale of the imaginary early morning telegram delivery seems to come out of left field, but she no doubt wants to hurt Martha for sleeping with her husband and sees the story as the best way.

As the sun starts to come up, Nick and Honey quietly finally leave. George and Martha are now left alone. They speak quietly, and in the last lines Martha answers the title question with "I am, George, I am."

George and Martha come to truce after their guests leave.

There is a stark look to the film, which black and white does much better than color, that’s right for the subject matter and mood. And as crisp as the cinematography are, nothing seems to get in the way of the acting or of the dialogue. Black and white is the perfect treatment for this type of story. As with most of the film, Nichols does not seem to hit a wrong note.

Make no mistake about it, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is slow paced. There are no quick cuts and few reaction shots. Director Mike Nichols rather lets the story unfold like a good stage play. With the exception of drinking, there is little stagecraft. Rightfully, Nichols lets the acting carry the day.

Director Mike Nichols on the set with Taylor and Burton.

Nichols knew something about acting himself, having started on the stage. Before directing, he was probably best remembered for his all too brief collaboration with Elaine May. After that comedy duo broke up in 1961, Nichols went back to the stage, but this time more as a director. His big break came when he was chosen to direct Neil Simon’s play Barefoot in the Park. Nichols had found his calling. He would also direct Simon’s The Odd Couple. By 1966, he was very much an in-demand director partially because he knew how to get the most out of his actors.

Elizabeth Taylor shines here, showing a fast range of emotions, though mostly crazed anger throughout. In the hands of a lesser talent, some of her antics could have led to chewing the scenery. But with Taylor, she manages to make Martha seem believable; crazy, but believable.

Richard Burton is also quite remarkable as George. You get the idea both of them feel trapped by the other and rather than take action to change things (divorce, therapy), they weave a web of deception that they hide behind to make life together bearable. They even go so far as to invent a son that is their little secret and seems to be the one thing that binds them together. When that secret is revealed by Martha, things go from bad to worse between them.

And while they are at each other’s throats, both figuratively and literally, throughout, woe be the person who tries to get in between them. As Nick finds out, Martha and George will eat you up and spit you out. Like most people I associate George Segal with more comedic roles, but he really shows that he is a talented dramatic actor as well. He holds his own quite well given the heavyweights he finds himself sparring with on the screen.

Sandy Dennis’ character is on the surface less complex than the other three. She is fragile and sickly, but she is not above participating in the shenanigans, backing up George’s wild story about the nonexistent telegram announcing the death of their nonexistent son. Her motivation in doing so is not apparent, but one gets the idea that she is also a little crazed, perhaps also feeling somewhat trapped in her marriage to Nick.

In fact, as the night wears on, one gets the feeling that Nick and Honey are on their way to becoming their own version of George and Martha. A somewhat loveless marriage in which vows of fidelity are not taken seriously, where babies are imaginary and with a more than generous amount of alcohol showered over the top. Lips are loose and anger over the situation in life simmers just below the surface.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a landmark film in many ways. Its subject matter and use of language, along with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), was responsible for the MPAA’s film rating system which Valenti unveiled on November 1, 1968 and which, in revised form, still exists today. Though the MPPA required some minor changes and the agreement with theaters showing the film not to allow anyone under eighteen to attend unescorted by an adult, the film was remarkably faithful to the play, something that only four years earlier would have seemed impossible.

When it came to the Academy Awards, the film was only the second to be nominated in every eligible category; the other having been Cimarron (1931). It was also the first film in which all the credited cast was nominated for acting honors; a feat matched twice since, by Sleuth (1972) with two actors nominated and Give ‘Em Hell Harry (1975) in which the lone actor received a nomination. In all, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning five. Not only were Taylor and Dennis winners, but so was Haskell Wexler’s stark black and white cinematography, winning the last Best Cinematography, Black-and-White award before the category was eliminated.

So strong was the acting that the unusual step was taken to release a version of the soundtrack that included all of the film’s dialogue in its entirety. While there were some alternate takes used, this was the only way at the time for the home consumer to relive the film once it was out of theaters. In the days before home video, there was no way that this film would be shown on network television, the only secondary medium available in 1966.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deserves to be seen. If you’re like me and have it waiting on your DVR then by all means watch this film now. While not necessarily the feel-good film of 1966, unless of course you’re comparing your rather mundane life to the dysfunctional marriages depicted on the screen, it is still very intriguing and in its own way enjoyable.