Category Archives: Features

MOVIE PREVIEW: BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

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In 2013 the movie Man of Steel established itself as the beginning of a new cinematic franchise. DC Comics and Warner Bros hugely successful re imagining of Superman for modern audiences told not just a compelling origin story for the Last Son of Krypton it also sewed enough ideas for a sequel and for many more films in the future. Here are just a few reasons you should be excited about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ahead of it’s release on March 25th 2016.

A NEW TAKE ON BATMAN

Batman is being presented in a way not seen on screen before. Here is a grizzled veteran of forty something years of age. He has been fighting crime for decades but now is presented with a threat in the form of Superman the likes of which he has never seen before. The movie trailer cleverly shows how one of the buildings destroyed in the huge battle in Man of Steel was a Wayne Enterprises tower. Superman maybe a force for good but in Batman’s eyes he is an alien threat with power beyond what anyone should have and Bruce Wayne sees himself as the only person on Earth who can stand in his way. The casting of Ben Affleck could prove to be an inspired choice, the actor/director has been on a hot streak in the last few years hoovering up awards and critical acclaim for weighty dramas The Town and Argo. He should provide the character of Batman with a real gravitas and standing at 6ft2 tall an impressive physicality too.

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DEALING WITH CONSEQUENCES

The viewing public got their collective knickers in a twist at the amount of destruction shown in Man of Steel particularly in the final battle in which a huge chunk of Metropolis was leveled. Director Zack Snyder has publicly stated that the fallout of these events will be addressed in the sequel. How will the public see Superman, yes he saved the city and the planet from Zod’s schemes but could he have done more and who will hold him accountable? Scenes glimpsed in the trailer include the Man of Steel attending a Senate hearing and members of the public protesting about the issues of an alien and the place he has on Earth. Of course the actions of powerful opposition to Superman are ripe for exploitation especially from…

LEX LUTHOR – A NEW TAKE ON AN OLD FOE

The film makers took a bold step casting thirty something Jesse Eisenberg as Superman’s most famous foe. Usually presented as a middle aged bald headed grand schemer this new take on Lex re imagines him as young Millennial prodigy with an over the top exterior that you just know will be camouflage for his true intentions. It’s a wise choice after Gene Hackman nailed the original take back in the 70’s and 80’s any attempt to imitate would have been foolish. Eisenberg has proven himself adept at playing young and successful before after his superlative turn as Mark Zuckerberg the founder of facebook in The Social Network. He should bring an intensity and menace not seen in the role before on the big screen.

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RETURNING CHARACTERS AND NEW FACES

Man of Steel gave us in Henry Cavill not just a superbly cast actor as Superman it also provided huge amounts of talent amongst its supporting actors too. Amy Adams returns as Lois Lane, fully aware of Clark Kent’s secret identity and continuing to offer the troubled hero support and a down to earth perspective. Laurence Fisburne is back as Daily Planet editor Perry White and screen veteran Diane Lane once more fills the shoes of Martha Kent after her touching and tender moments with Clark in Man of Steel expect more from her in the sequel as evidence that even the strongest of people need their Mum to turn too sometimes.

With a new Batman comes a new Alfred and this time its classically trained British actor Jeremy Irons. Snippets in the trailer show him as strong and determined and not afraid to question Batman on the choices he is making.

A VISUAL CONSITENCY

Man of Steel doesn’t look like others superhero movies, it’s got a muted color palette so the more outlandish scenes are given a grounded sense. This works because if things had been turned up too brightly DC would have been seen as trying to copy the Marvel style. With such contrasts in visuals it should prove that there is plenty of room at the cinema for two very different sets of superheroes.

WONDER WOMAN

Glimpsed fleetingly in the trailers both in civilian wear and full costume the movie will introduce Wonder Woman in a big way. Snyder has been coy as to how much involvement she will have but confirmed its more than a cameo and she is seen taking part in a huge battle alongside Superman and Batman. Her appearance here will also serve to prime audiences for her solo movie in 2017. It may seem shocking with modern superhero movies being so common these days that not one has been headlined by a female hero before. Introducing her here should whet appetites for her own film and hopefully prove to studios that modern audiences want heroes that represent everyone.

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THE JUSTICE LEAGUE

This is the big one, it’s been known for a while that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will also introduce heroes Aquaman and Cyborg who alongside the title characters and Wonder Woman will go on to form The Justice League. Synder has already begun preparation for the two part movie which will follow Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman in DC’s ongoing series of films. Other than one publicity photo of Aquaman not much is known about the role these two will have but expect it to be just enough to make you want to see more and to make the wait for Justice League just that bit harder to endure.

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is released on March 25th 2016

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Beneath the Surface: A look back at Blue Velvet

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A David Lynch film is not so much a movie as an event to experience. He shapes dark and macabre worlds populated by the eccentric and sometimes the downright terrifying. However this isn’t a world a million miles away from ours in fact its lurking just beneath the surface.

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And that’s where his 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet begins. After establishing shots of picture perfect America, a fireman waving from his truck and the whitest picket fence you will ever see we are confronted by the ordinary sight of a man watering his garden on a summers day.

As the man tugs at a stuck garden hose we follow his collapse to the floor (as he suffers a stroke) but the camera doesn’t stop there as it plunges into the grass searching out what is beneath and then we see it, insects crawling all over each other. We recoil at this disgusting sight but we are going to witness much more to haunt us from the human protagonists.

Blue Velvet centres around four main characters, fresh faced young man Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan), college senior Sandy Williams (played by Laura Dern), psychotic gangster Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper) and sultry night club singer Dorothy Vallens (played by Isabella Rossalini). Each of them representing various stages of innocence and corruption. Yet it the most innocent of them that sets events in motion.

When Jeffrey finds a human ear in a field he takes it to a police detective. Before he takes it to the police the camera zooms in to the blackness inside. This can be seen as representing the start of Jeffreys journey into darkness. Or his fall into it if you will.

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The police detective just happens to live near Jeffrey and while visiting the officers home he encounters his daughter Sandy. The epitome of pure innocence she becomes the facilitator of Jeffreys corruption by giving out information she has overheard from her fathers office. This exacerbates the curiosity Jeffrey already has in his heart and provides the opportunity to solve a mystery.

At this point the audience could be lulled into thinking that this would be a straight up story of a young man solving a case the police can’t. Back in 1986 seeing a Lynch movie was not the guarantee of unexpected happenings that it is now. His directing career up to this point had been very varied from low budget Eraserhead to historical drama The Elephant Man and then the big budget disappointment of Dune. Lynch however giddily defies any expectation with this film (and continues to do so to this day).

Jeffrey manages to sneak into the apartment of night club singer Dorothy who is somehow involved. His plan backfires when she discovers him hiding in the closet. It is at this point he goes from being voyeur to active participant in events. Initially the scene is a mixture of threat and sexual tension with knife wielding Dorothy seemingly in complete control as she begins to seduce the helpless Jeffrey while holding her weapon.

Dorothy seduces Jeffrey

Dorothy seduces Jeffrey

Her power doesn’t last long though a banging at the door signals the arrival of a person who is less a man and more of a monster. Frank is psychotic, he subjects Dorothy to a ceremonial rape of extreme brutality. It becomes apparent that Dorothy has had to deal with this more than once and has seemingly accepted the broken spirit she now has. This leads to her screaming at Jeffrey to hit her.

Frank attacks Dorothy

Frank attacks Dorothy

Jeffrey is a character at the tipping point, he doesn’t want to hit her he wants to help her. She represents to him a sexual thrill, a worldly wise woman who can steal his innocence in the most pleasurable way. Though he eventually caves and strikes her while they have sex. His exposure to the dark world beneath ours that is inhabited by Dorothy and Frank breaking his pure spirit. Can he truly do anything to help her or will he turn into a monster like Frank. His own inner flaws prevent him from walking away, he can not resist his inner temptations. He wants sex from her, he wants to solve the mystery and he wants to know more than is good for him.

Is Sandy blameless here? She gave Jeffrey the information which helped him gain access to Dorothy and assists his plans beyond the point of no return but she retains a real naivete not realising how bad things could possibly get. Plus she is played with such sweetness by Laura Dern that it would be a very harsh audience member to be mean to her.

Sandy and Jeffrey, young love

Sandy and Jeffrey, young love

Jeffrey has begun a love affair with Sandy yet he shows no remorse about what he is doing with Dorothy behind her back. Perhaps this can be seen as how the dark world he has entered has now ensnared him and he has been corrupted, no longer able to tell right from wrong or no longer caring. Yet can a person ever have their cake and eat it? In this case no as Jeffrey is discovered by Frank and subjected to psychological torture and a beating at the psychos hands. Frank remains an enigma throughout the film, we learn nothing about him and experience only the worst kind of behaviour from him. He is the representation of everything that is cruel and vicious. When it comes to audience reactions there can be nothing but hatred towards him. Many actors would have shied away from such an irredeemable part but Dennis Hopper who was not long out of rehab for drug abuse shows total commitment.

So once these people have gone to the dark side (paraphrasing not entirely intentional) is there anyway they can come back to the light? What are they clinging to? In the case of Dorothy it is that she will be reunited with her kidnapped husband and young son. When it comes to Jeffrey it seems he is unable to resist the lure of this world but Sandy wants to drag him away and to see that in their more ordinary lives things aren’t so bad. It is only Frank who has gone beyond the point of no return.

As events progress Sandy realises what this world is doing to the man she has fallen in love with. In one of the emotional scenes of the movie Sandy and Jeffrey are confronted in the street by a naked Dorothy who it seems has now been pushed totally over the edge. She is delirious and screams about how Jeffrey has put his disease in her. Perhaps the disease is one of tenderness as all she has known is brutality. Sandy is naturally horrified never in her naïve way imagining that Jeffrey would be doing anything with this woman other than solving the mystery.

Sandy begins to realise what has been going on between Dorothy and Jeffrey

Sandy begins to realise what has been going on between Dorothy and Jeffrey

The film stands out as it takes the tropes of police procedural, film noir and mystery thrillers and pushes them to extremes.

Through this bleakness and trauma that the characters are faced with the question of, is there anything left that is good? Can the world be a kind place and is there any hope left? Jeffrey sums all these feelings up when he tearfully asks Sandy “Why are there people like Frank?”

Sandy is the figure of hope and she tells the story of a dream she has where thousands of robins flying down represent love returning to the world. Towards the end of the movie the happily reunited (and seemingly now in a state of domestic bliss) Jeffrey and Sandy witness a robin through the kitchen window yet its appearance tells us two key things.

The robin eating an insect

The robin eating an insect

Firstly the robin looks very fake yet they are still enraptured by it. They see its beauty but are unable (or unwilling) to see how fake it is and what is really in front of them. Just like the world they live in.

Secondly the robin is eating an insect. Insects open the movie in the shot of them crawling beneath the surface and they are a recurring motif throughout. Lets not forget that Jeffrey first gains access to Dorothy’s apartment when he pretends to be a pest control man. It is like he feels he can exterminate her problems and has no idea how misguided he really is.

Just before the robin appears we witness a shot coming out of an ear, the reverse of the beginning and though we may think Jeffrey and Sandy have escaped the trauma of their experiences the fake robin reminds us that the façade remains and beneath it the darkness hasn’t gone away.

Back from the darkness

Back from the darkness

The film may be nearly thirty years old but it has lost none of its power to shock and serves as a timely reminder that we should always look beyond surface appearances though we may not like what we find lurking beneath.

Blue Velvet is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD

The Quest for Peace: Superman’s Darkest Hour

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With the release of Man of Steel last year Superman was back where he belonged, ruling the box office in a critically acclaimed new take on the most beloved of all superheroes. In 1987 it was a different story though as the release of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace would send the franchise into hiding for almost twenty years. Come with us now faithful reader as we look at the film that nearly defeated our hero.

The first two Superman movies despite all the behind the scenes problems with director/producer fall outs were both a massive success. Keen to capitalise on this father and son producer team Alexander and Ilya Salkind had released Superman III but this is where the rot started to set in. Richard Pryor’s casting as the comic relief was a gimmick intended to cash in on his fame while Gene Hackman did not appear being replaced by Man from U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn playing a millionaire businessman/genius who was a poor substitute for Lex Luthor. After a critical drubbing and the commercial failure of Supergirl the Salkind’s decided to sell up.

Enter The Cannon Group at this time owned by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Cannon had become a hugely successful company releasing several action movies which tapped into the cinematic trends of the time though their output was more diverse than most people credit them for. Their company would co-produce the new Superman movie along with Warner Bros.

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If you watched a lot of movies in the 80’s this was a familiar site

When the producers approached Christopher Reeve about reprising his most famous role they did not even have a script and the star was reluctant as he was concerned the new movie would be a parody like the much maligned third film.

Golan and Globus were to make Reeve an offer that was impossible to turn down. They would give him story input on the new Superman movie and also finance his pet project a drama titled Street Smart. Ironically Street Smart though commercially not a success was highly praised by critics and led to co-star Morgan Freeman being nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. With their star on board the producers were also able to secure the return of Gene Hackman and series regulars Margot Kidder, Marc McClure and Jackie Cooper. The screenplay would be written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, the latter providing a DVD commentary some twenty years after the films’ release but more on that later. Sidney J. Furie who had helmed Iron Eagle for Cannon the year before would take the directors’ chair.

Not long before production started though Cannon was running into serious financial problems leading to the movies budget being slashed in half mere weeks before shooting. Christopher Reeve revealed in his autobiography that Cannon had 43 movies in production at the time but Superman was offered no special consideration despite the effects heavy nature of the project. This is unfortunately evident in the finished production with some extremely poor special effects which were not even close to the standard established by the first Superman movie which had been released nearly a decade before.

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Look out, dodgy special effect ahoy!

Nowhere is this lack of money more obvious than in the scene where Superman strides down 42nd Street to the United Nations building. No money was available to shoot in the real location so Milton Keynes in England was forced to substitute. What should have involved thousands of extras gasping in awe as our hero leads a crowd to the U.N. is reduced to about 100 extras and no moving vehicles or wide reaction shots. In the scene where new bad guy Nuclear Man flies up through the Daily Planet floor by floor the strings are clearly visible round his wrists pulling him upwards.

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Superman in Milton Keynes pretending to be New York

It’s the threat of nuclear war that is the main focus of the films narrative and during the 1980’s the world was as close to obliteration as it had ever been so the film makers can’t be accused of not being topical. However having a fictional character solve the worlds’ problems devalues the hero as we know no one person, possessor of outrageous powers or not can ever hope to achieve such a thing. For a much more complex and successful take on Superman tackling real world problems try the graphic novel Peace on Earth by Paul Dini and Alex Ross which shows how impossible a task this would be even for Superman.

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Read this, it’s better than the movie!

When the film was completed it ran for 134 minutes but after a disastrous test screening (where studios show the film to the public before release to evaluate their feelings to it and gauge how well it comes across via score cards for audience feedback) it was cut down to 89 minutes. This shorter running time hurts the film even more as narrative strands are not followed up and characters, most notably the little boy Jeremy (who asks Superman to get rid of the planets’ Nuclear missiles in the first place) disappear entirely halfway through!

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Jeremy, missing in action for the second half of the movie!

So would the film be better served if the extra material had been put back in? It’s hard to say, the Blu-ray release includes thirty minutes of deleted footage which include a prototype Nuclear Man (played by British actor Clive Mantle who would go on to find fame in the BBC series Casualty and can currently be seen in HBO’s Game of Thrones) being created and then battling Superman outside a nightclub. However the character is portrayed as a bumbling simpleton, offering even less threat than the blonde haired version that would follow him.

Here is an apt moment to talk about the movies villain, the original plan and one Reeve was keen on was that he play both the hero and the villain which would offer a fascinating duality and with his acting talent what surely would have been a superb performance. There is a taster for how this may have played out in Superman III when Clark battles an evil Superman in a junkyard. The slashed budget would unfortunately nix this idea and keep it from being filmed.

Instead we are left with the blonde beefcake that is Nuclear Man (version 2 though the audience wouldn’t know this) and the hope must have been to give Superman some one of equal strength to battle against. Unfortunately the character is a massive failure from the start, Nuclear Man is supposed to be primal and animal like in nature but grunting out dialogue and having animal sounds dubbed on to express rage does not make for a compelling villain. The less said about his costume the better and the part would do actor Mark Pillow no favours as he has not appeared in anymore films and has since given up acting. Another side effect of this is that many scenes featuring Lex Luthor with Gene Hackman at his mercurial best were left out of the final film.

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Look out it’s Nuclear Man! Boo Hiss!

The films finale is simply the hero and villain slugging it out there is no sense of a grand scheme being foiled and no pay off of any kind other than with the minor subplot of the Daily Planet being bought back from its trashy headline loving new owners.

The Daily Planet has been a fixture of Superman for as long as the character has appeared and the subplot of the paper being taken over by new owners is potentially very interesting as veteran US stage actor Sam Wannamaker installs his daughter Lacy played by Mariel Hemingway (who had found fame in Woody Allan’s Manhattan) in charge of the paper. Presented as an 80’s yuppie uber bitch she goes through perhaps the most satisfying character arc in the whole movie as she falls in love with Clark Kent.

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Lacy and Clark on a date in a deleted scene

The scenes with her trying to romance Clark maybe heavy handed but at least show some heart and offer a fun reversal of Clark trying to get Lois to notice him while she pines over Superman. The highlight is a scene where Lois and Lacy are meant to go on a double date with Clark and Superman. Having to be two people at the same time means our hero has to constantly find ways to get himself out and back into the apartment where the date is taking place. The editing here maybe sloppy and to slow but still gives us some great comic moments and allows Reeve to show off some admirable Cary Grant style character beats.

This is not the only moment to love, needing advice from someone he can trust completely Clark reveals his secret identity to Lois and yes the effects here are again very poor but their dialogue is good and when he takes her memory away with a kiss it offers a nice reversal of the fairy tale motif of waking the Princess with a kiss.

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Ok so this photo is from Superman II but you get the idea

As mentioned earlier all the scenes with Gene Hackman as Lex are wonderful, he plays it just right with the comic moments knowing when to be flippant and when to be deadpan. He is joined by his nephew Lenny played by Jon Cryer (who would go on to star in the hugely successful comedy series Two and a Half Men). Lenny was created as a way to appeal to younger viewers and while now it is easy to look back and laugh as he “dudes” his way through most of the film he is still good for a few laughs and leads to the priceless put down from Uncle Lex “Lenny I have always thought of you as the Dutch Elm disease of our family tree.”

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Lenny and Lex

After such a catastrophic production period it is no surprise that the when the film finally limped into cinemas it was not a success and any plans for a fifth instalment were immediately cancelled. This would be the last time Christopher Reeve would play the role he made his own and has been described co-scripter Rosenthal as one of the great performances of American cinema.

So if you have never seen it before is Superman IV: The Quest for Peace worth spending your time watching? The simple answer is yes. The effects and plotting maybe poor and the villain risible but Reeve still shines brightly and Hackman is delicious as always as Lex. Another notable feature is the score. John Williams was unable to commit to the film but did compose new thematic material while his friend Alexander Courage would write the majority of the music. It took almost twenty years for the music to see commercial release as part of the 8 CD set Superman: The Music. It has since drawn praise from critics and fans with many remarking it is the best thing about the film. If you ever do decide to sit down with this movie I recommend you watch it with the commentary track provided by co-writer Mark Rosenthal who goes into great detail about everything that went wrong with a film that was supposed to reinvigorate the franchise.

So Superman could not bring us world peace but he also proves that no matter how shambolic the final film you can’t keep a good hero down.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Special thanks to the insight provided by Mark Rosenthal on his commentary track.