THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity, Violence and Language

Directed by: Guillermo Del Toro

Written by: Guillermo Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lauren Lee Smith, Nick Searcy & David Hewlett

I’ve yet to see a bad movie from Guillermo Del Toro. Whether it be the eerie combination of Gothic horror and old-fashioned romance in his highly underrated CRIMSON PEAK, a dark fairy tale/war drama in PAN’S LABYRINTH, or Lovecraftian sensibilities in both HELLBOY movies, Del Toro clearly creates the films that he wants to make. Even lesser efforts like giant insect B-movie MIMIC still is miles above other 90s B-flicks of its same genre. Del Toro knocks another film out of the park with THE SHAPE OF WATER! This film plays out like CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON meets BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. With an audience-pleasing narrative and loads of imagination, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a wondrous cinematic experience!

In 1962’s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute custodian working at a top-secret government facility. Esposito is looked down on by her snobby superiors, but has two great friends in talkative Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and oddball artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Everything changes when Elisa’s workplace receives its latest experiment: an Amazonian humanoid-like amphibian (Doug Jones). In a strange twist of fate, Elisa and the “monster” begin to form a romantic bond. All the while, headstrong Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns into a fearsome villain intent on dissecting the creature and concerned scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to keep the creature safe at all costs.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that THE SHAPE OF WATER began as Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea for a CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake. When he was a child, he wanted to see the creature and Julie Adams romantically end happily ever after. Unsurprisingly, Universal (the same studio that effectively killed its “Dark Universe” in the space of one movie) rejected Del Toro’s original take on a remake. Del Toro then transformed his idea into THE SHAPE OF WATER and has also dubbed it as his first “adult” film that tackles issues he’s concerned about in the modern age…as opposed to childhood fantasies and nostalgia seen in previous entries in his filmography. As a result, THE SHAPE OF WATER just might be Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH.

Although it might sound hard to buy in a believable manner, the romance between Sally Hawkins’ protagonist and Doug Jones’ creature is totally compelling from start to finish. The ways in which these two outsiders bond over food, music, and sign language is beautiful. Hawkins is able to communicate everything she means without ever speaking a word…save for one dream sequence that serves as a great stylish WTF moment in the best way possible. Doug Jones does his usual weird thing as a monster, but doesn’t deliver any frights (save for when the creature is threatened).

Besides being a simple fantasy-romance between a mute woman and a fish-man (a description that woefully undersells this film), SHAPE OF WATER also has many subplots that further flesh out its characters in interesting ways. Nearly every character in this film receives a story arc that occurs around the woman-monster relationship. The most interesting of which easily belongs to Michael Shannon’s unusual villain. Strickland is easily one of the best roles that the madly talented Shannon has taken so far and allows him to flex his evil acting muscles as the story’s despicable antagonist. He also delivers a particularly gruesome moment that made my theater’s entire audience cringe and exclaim in unison.

I won’t mention too many details about the rest of the subplots. However, Michael Stuhlbarg is a very interesting character and his story arc is especially relevant to the time period of the 1960s. Richard Jenkins is just plain weird in spots, but that’s his character in this film. His distinct brand of quirkiness provides some chuckles, as well as many emotional moments that resonate in unexpected ways. Octavia Spencer is exactly a major character, but she does very well as a best friend who’s caught up in this monstrous mess. One thing that’s easy to notice is that almost all of these good characters are outsiders in some way, shape, or form. All the while, the main villain is the stereotypical 1960s macho-man American who’d usually be the hero in a 1950s/60s monster movie. It’s a fascinating switch-up to watch and one that only Del Toro could create in such a compelling manner.

As you might expect, SHAPE OF WATER’s visuals look amazing…much like the visuals in pretty much every other Del Toro production. The 1960s era is captured in a way that almost seems foreign…pointing out big problems that existed in the supposedly clean old-fashioned 60s. However, this is never done in a way that seems distractingly excessive or intrusive to the film’s story. Instead, it adds yet another layer to this wonderfully creative cinematic beauty. The effects are also worth praising as the blending of practical effects (in Doug Jones’ monster suit and brief gory bits) and computer-generated imagery (in the underwater sequences and shots that would be impossible to capture practically) is seamless.

Del Toro has done it again! This director has yet to make a bad or even mediocre film as he continues his winning streak in THE SHAPE OF WATER. WATER’s performances are stellar across the board, with especially impressive acting from a soundless Sally Hawkins. Spectacular special effects, a whimsical soundtrack, fantastical atmosphere, well-developed characters, and clever writing that blends a main story with many subplots, all make THE SHAPE OF WATER worth your time. If you want to see an out-of-the-ordinary romance that is romantic but not conventional by any means, then dive into this wondrous cinematic oddity.

Grade: A+

ELVIS & NIXON (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language

Directed by: Liza Johnson

Written by: Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal & Cary Elwes

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Michael Shannon, Alex Pettyfer, Johnny Knoxville, Colin Hanks, Evan Peters, Tate Donovan & Sky Ferreira

A meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon seems like a bit of an odd historical event to stage a movie around. Comedy Central’s DRUNK HISTORY hilariously summed this story up in about five minutes, so to make a feature out of it seems like it might be a tad excessive. Still, with a cast of A-list talent, ELVIS & NIXON is an okay movie. Amusing is a good way to describe this entire film. It’s not great or bad. It’s fun in spots and drags in others. It’s just amusing and nothing more.

December 21, 1970: Rockstar Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) becomes frustrated with the state of the country and decides that he needs to meet with the President of the United States, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). Talking to the country’s leader is no easy feat, but Elvis doesn’t see any problem in walking up to the White House gates and requesting an urgent sit-down with the POTUSA. As you might expect from the film’s premise, humorous circumstances arise and the meeting concludes in one of the most bizarre photographs to ever be taken within the White House walls. Also, there are a couple of subplots featuring Nixon’s advisors (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) and Elvis’s childhood friend (Alex Pettyfer).

Credit to ELVIS & NIXON, because this film occasionally goes deeper than it would seem a story about Elvis meeting Nixon would go. The movie’s first half is devoted to the meeting’s set-up, with White House officials desperately trying to make Nixon see the benefits of meeting with the country’s most famous celebrity and Elvis’s friends trying to control his erratic behavior. The king of rock-and-roll attempts to bring guns on an airplane within the first ten minutes. There’s also a subplot involving Alex Pettyfer’s Jerry Schilling attempting to make it back home to meet his girlfriend’s parents, all while Elvis demands that he remain by his side.

The performances are solid enough to raise the material above its meager script. Kevin Spacey’s Nixon make-up didn’t quite sell on him being one of the most notorious presidents in history, but his acting abilities triumphed over the so-so make-up job. Spacey also gets lots of laughs as his potty-mouth and stern demeanor conflicts with Elvis’s cool cat demeanor. Colin Hanks and Evan Peters are somewhat funny as two of his advisors, both of their characters also had a hand in the eventual Watergate scandal.

Although Michael Shannon is a fantastic performer, I wasn’t too sure about him as Elvis and he barely (if at all) resembles the celebrity he’s playing. However, Shannon sells his role with charisma, over-the-top swagger and a laid-back attitude. The best pre-meeting scenes see him going into a donut shop (among jazz-loving African-Americans who call him out for not being original) and reflecting on how people only see him as an icon (not a human being). The latter scene is easily the best moment of the film as it brings to light something that celebrities might struggle with on a daily basis. Johnny Knoxville is disappointingly underused as one of the King’s best friends, but Alex Pettyfer is competent as Schilling.

ELVIS & NIXON occasionally gets too over-the-top for its own good. This is mainly showcased in a scene that involves Shannon’s Elvis and Knoxville’s Sonny West giving a karate demonstration to Nixon. Shannon initially protested the scene saying that it was too silly and I agree with that point. That whole moment is cringe-worthy and doesn’t fit the semi-realistic feeling of the rest of the film at all. There are still very funny bits in people’s star-struck reactions to Elvis, especially when a crappy Elvis impersonator believes Shannon’s King to be a fellow imitator.

In the short span of 86 minutes, ELVIS & NIXON comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. The film is seemingly desperate to fill the feature-length running time by adding unnecessary subplots. Though the Schilling storyline marginally works, it does feel cheesy and like a last-minute addition to the proceedings. The same can be said about Colin Hanks and Evan Peters, who are both regulated to a few lines after the titular meeting begins. Good acting and amusing moments considered, ELVIS & NIXON’s story is funnier and more entertaining as a brief segment on DRUNK HISTORY. This film is an okay time-killer if you cannot find anything better to watch.

Grade: B-

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Menace, Graphic Nudity, and Language

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Directed by: Tom Ford

Written by: Tom Ford

(based on the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright)

Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Isla Fisher

On paper, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS sounds like a Hitchcockian psychological head-trip crossed with a pulpy crime thriller. While that description of the film is correct, things do stray into metaphorical and artsy territory more than initially expected. There’s nothing wrong with being an art film, just look at most of the output from Refn, Lynch, Cronenberg, and Von Trier. However, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS occasionally weaves dangerous close to becoming downright pretentious and also attempts to be a little too ambitious, consequently leaving one of its narratives far stronger than the other.

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Susan (Amy Adams) is an uppity art gallery owner who collects and displays bizarre pieces. These strange works of art include: nude morbidly obese dancers who guide us through the film’s opening credits, a cow with arrows sticking out of it that litters the background, and a so-so painting that obviously states one of this film’s main themes. When yet another nail is put in the coffin of her crumbling second marriage, Susan coincidentally receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Titled “Nocturnal Animals” (his nickname for her), Edward’s new novel tells a dark story of murder, madness and bloody revenge. As she becomes hooked on the emotionally damaging book, Susan finds herself remembering her failed relationship with Edward and begins to suspect that the novel might actually be a veiled threat.

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On a visual level, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS looks great. The cinematography is crisp and has a distinct attention-grabbing style. You might want to look away during certain scenes but will find yourself unable to do so, because the film displays its ugliness through the most beautiful lenses. If you want to be a stickler for details, this movie is technically composed of three narratives (though I read it as two). There’s Edward’s novel and then there’s Susan reading it whilst reminiscing (tying past and present scenes together). The tense revenge tale kept me completely engaged to the point where I forgot it was actually a book being read by the main character and this happened numerous times. Personally speaking, the failed relationship plot seemed far more scattershot and less impactful. I think many moviegoers are bound to latch onto one narrative over the other. Whichever one they prefer will likely hinge on the genre they gravitate towards the most.

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The scenes of Edward’s book feature Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Tony. Gyllenhaal does a brilliant job in the role (which was kind of expected from his previous work) and this character is made all the more fascinating when you tie him into Gyllenhaal’s performance as author Edward. There’s clearly a symbiotic connection between the real-life writer and his fictitious creation, with Gyllenhaal putting in two distinct performances. Amy Adams is believable as emotionally distressed, deeply depressed Susan. Her facial expressions and body language say far more than any ham-fisted dialogue that explicitly tells us how she’s feeling ever could. Michael Shannon delivers his best work in years as a grizzled vengeance-seeking detective in Edward’s novel. Meanwhile, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is positively terrifying as the psychotic villain of Edward’s book.

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The five main characters from four great performers aren’t where this movie’s acting talent stops though, because many big faces pop up in the sidelines. Armie Hammer doesn’t receive a whole lot to do, but still makes a strong impression as Susan’s disinterested second husband. Isla Fisher shows up as a character in Edward’s novel, resembling Amy Adams in a possible parallel of her. Michael Sheen has an all-too brief appearance as an interesting friend of Susan’s. Finally, Laura Linney shows up for one scene and becomes borderline over-the-top as a stereotypical rich aristocrat, though her small moment does feed into the story in a big way.

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS seems to have a lot on its mind, with certain themes being rather obvious and others bound to be discovered upon repeat viewings. It’s a metaphorical piece of cinematic art that follows the formula of a tragic drama about a failed relationship and the motions of a grisly crime thriller. However, the latter far outshines the former in this humble reviewer’s opinion. I was expecting the film to tie everything together in more ways than it actually did. This movie certainly keeps the viewer thinking about it long after the credits have rolled and fans of dark, depressing arthouse cinema are bound to find something to love here. Without getting into spoilers, I will also say that the film’s conclusion is unsatisfying in the best possible way. I really liked NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. I think it’s a fascinating piece of work in many respects, but the disconnected difference in quality between the narratives kept me from loving it as much as I wanted to.

Grade: B+

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and Action

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Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Starring: Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard & Jaeden Lieberher

After two critically praised down-to-earth dramas and one intense dark thriller, indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols has moved onto stranger territory with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Clearly paying homage to early Spielberg and Carpenter, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is a science-fiction slow-burn that has interesting ideas and good performances, but never fully melds either of these qualities together into an emotionally involving story. The film is worth a look for fans of old-school less-is-more science fiction, but will likely be a one-and-done sort of viewing.

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The opening minutes reveal two men and a small child hiding out in a hotel room: eight-year-old Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), Roy (Alton’s father, played by Michael Shannon), and Lucas (Alton’s friend, played by Joel Edgerton). Their destination is unknown to us, but what we do know is they are on the run. You see, Alton isn’t like other children. He has abilities that have caused some to worship him and others to see him as a potential weapon. It’s up to Roy and Lucas to keep Alton out of the hands of creepy cult members and the federal government…while heading towards an unknown destination for an unspecified reason. I’m being intentionally vague, much like the first half of this film.

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL has a lot of cool ideas and remarkable visuals, but these never really reach their full potential as the film is mysterious to a fault. It’s apparent that director/writer Jeff Nichols didn’t want to give away too many details during the first half of this film. This less-is-more approach is admirable and works to an extent. We are immediately sucked into the chase and have to use our imagination to figure certain things out with clues that are slowly given to us throughout the film’s second half. Nichols’ restraint is also a negative as his glacial pacing makes for dull stretches of the story that were too damn vague and underdeveloped. The running time is almost two hours and probably could have been tightened up or expanded with a better screenplay. The combination of a half-baked script and uneven pacing cause the movie to keep the viewer at a noticeable distance from the on-screen happenings.

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In the area of performances, the big name cast members are doing their damndest to elevate the underdeveloped dramatic-supernatural material. Taking the lead is Michael Shannon as Roy, who plays his character as a loving father who would do anything for his son…despite his child’s dangerous powers. Joel Edgerton is enjoyable as Lucas and provides some unexpected comic relief. I was shocked to see that Kristen Dunst is in this film, because the marketing hasn’t really given her the time of day. Usually, I’m not a fan of Dunst, but she is actually convincing as one of Alton’s former followers turned protectors. These three well-known adult performers are joined by Jaeden Lieberher (who was previously seen in ST. VINCENT) as the mysterious Alton, who sells his young character as a weird kid who remains innocent in spite of his dangerous superhuman abilities.

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On the opposing side of things, we get an unusual antagonist in NSA analyst-turned-investigator Paul Sevier (played by Adam Driver, who was recently evil in THE FORCE AWAKENS). Driver makes for a bit of mousey bad guy and has unexpected developments as the film goes on. Sam Shepard has a disappointingly short appearance as cult leader Calvin Meyer (who was definitely inspired by Fred Phelps, as evidenced by his congregation’s hairstyles and outfits). Shepard is built up to an intense antagonist, but the threat of the cult actually manifests itself through two of his henchmen (who are only given a handful of brief scenes). Though this story doesn’t necessarily need a main villain, the screenplay might have done better to develop these threats a bit more.

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MIDNIGHT SPECIAL hooked me enough to keep me interested in where things were going, even when the slow pace came dangerously close to boring me. The performances definitely elevate this film above its shaky screenplay, which has many good ideas that never quite satisfyingly come together. This is a slight disappointment for Jeff Nichols, whose track record has been very solid up to this point, but he’ll return again with an awards season drama in November. Overall, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL is worth a look for sci-fi junkies and indie film fans, but it’s a one-and-done experience that wouldn’t necessarily be any less impressive on the small screen.

Grade: B-

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 33 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action throughout, and some Sensuality

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Directed by: Zack Snyder

Written by: Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer

(based on the DC Comics)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter & Gal Gadot

The cinematic Cold War between DC and Marvel has officially begun! As a result, many films will be arriving in the next four years from both companies, much to the delight of superhero fans everywhere. After delivering a brand new Superman with 2013’s MAN OF STEEL (which was a polarizing film, but I fell on the side that liked it as big dumb fun), DC is back with a clash of superhero titans that also serves as a backdoor for the Justice League to be formed. However, DC might have been better if they had slowly built up their Extended Universe before getting into crossover plotlines, because BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a movie that is brimming with potential and almost none of it comes to the screen. I really wanted to love this film or even just enjoy it as another big budget superhero blockbuster, but I walked away very disappointed.

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The story kicks off with MAN OF STEEL’s final fight from a different perspective: Bruce Wayne/Batman’s (Ben Affleck) who frantically rushes to save civilians from falling rubble. Traumatized by Clark Kent/Superman’s destructive powers, Wayne becomes obsessed with the Man of Steel being able to wipe out humanity. This eats away at his personal life as Batman’s crime-fighting tactics become more vicious. Meanwhile, Clark Kent becomes obsessed over the violent vigilante in the neighboring Gotham City. Once Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne cross paths at a party held by the villainous Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a conflict arises between both heroes that can only resolve in a brutal fight…with possible world-ending stakes also at hand.

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I’ll list the positives about this film first. Despite many overreactions to his casting announcement, Ben Affleck is pretty damn good as Bruce Wayne/Batman. He brings a level of intensity and grittiness to the character that we’ve come to expect and goes slightly darker (akin to Frank Miller’s more violent take on the hero). Jeremy Irons is perfectly cast as Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler/Batman’s loyal servant. Though he isn’t given much to do…other than delivering a handful of snappy one-liners and quick-witted remarks, Irons is a lot of fun in the role. Finally, the expected fight scene between Batman and Superman is well-done. There are creative set pieces utilized (leveling the playing field between the two) as well as the sequence just being plain cool to watch as two iconic superheroes duke it out!

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Now that those positives have been stated, allow me to mention the many downsides to this film. Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill don’t have a hell of a lot of screen time together. In fact, Batman and Superman aren’t given much to do before the big fight scene (that arrives in the second half of the film). We see Batman hide in a corner and chase a truck, but that’s about all we get. As far as Kal-El is concerned, we get a montage of Superman rescuing people from disasters and occasionally saving Louis Lane (as per usual)…but not much actual crime fighting. Instead of any superhero action or excitement, we’re treated to Bruce Wayne having horribly cheesy nightmare sequences (one of which actually used the dream-within-a-dream cliché) and Superman being demonized by a Senator.

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If only the villains were entertaining to watch while Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent go about their daily lives. Instead, Luthor and Doomsday are two underwhelming antagonists. Lex Luthor is being played by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Though its clear that they were trying something new with the famous comic book villain (who was previously portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey), this young and hip approach didn’t work as Luthor comes off as a whiny spoiled rich kid as opposed to being a legitimately intimidating, despicable baddie. I didn’t hate this villain like I should have, but was rather annoyed every time he was on the screen. It’s like they told Jesse Eisenberg to do a slightly quirky, hyperactive version of Mark Zuckerberg from THE SOCIAL NETWORK and then played classical music over it. Eisenberg’s Luthor is laughably bad to behold.

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As for Doomsday (playing a major role in the second half of the film), his inclusion feels arbitrary, half-assed and useless. Poorly rendered CGI cause this alien foe to resemble a radioactive version of the cave troll from LORD OF THE RINGS. This monster looks like it belongs in a Syfy Channel movie as opposed to a 250-million-dollar blockbuster. The only positive thing to come out of his appearance is a glorified cameo from Wonder Woman. However, watching the trio of DC heroes fight off this damn near unstoppable villain becomes repetitive and dull after five minutes.

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There are a number of reasons why BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a disappointment. One might be from the DC Extended Universe shooting themselves in the foot by shoving this tent pole title out too soon. Imagine if Marvel had put out THE AVENGERS before developing any other characters besides Iron Man? Another big reason why this clash of superheroes underwhelms is due to its messy, unfocused script. There’s not nearly the level of action, excitement and humor that there should be in a film where Batman is fighting friggin’ Superman! The animated series had a better well-rounded conflict between these characters. Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne barely encounter each other before the admittedly well-done fight scene. The main problem though is that BATMAN v SUPERMAN is a film packed with too much filler and obvious bridge-building for future installments (something that Marvel’s AGE OF ULTRON also suffered from), and not nearly enough of the titular promised hero vs. hero conflict.

Grade: C-

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