Justice League

How long have I been waiting for this movie? Probably since I saw the first Superman film from back in the late 70s. I got a taste of what it might look like in Batman vs Superman. And it did not taste good. (Sheesh, that was an annoying movie. I think Dreamscape might have had fewer dream sequences. Anyway…)

You could tell from the marketing of Justice League that they were looking for a lighter tone. Which I was looking forward to. But would things gel? Would this be the one that makes the DC cinematic universe thing worth it?

Long story short, this is a very mediocre film. Better (by far) than BvS, and better than Suicide Squad. Not as good as Wonder Woman or Man of Steel. Still, that’s a pretty big range of possible quality. Put simply, the story is kind of lazy, the villain is somewhat pointless, and there are a couple of scenes with very annoying special effects (more on that in the spoiler section below). What did I like? Pretty much all the performances and most of the comedy. Ezra Miller as Flash steals the show. Jason Momoa is excellent as Aquaman. Gal Gadot is fine, though not as magical as she was in her solo film. And Ben Affleck is okay, if not quite as punchy as he was in BvS.

The action scenes are pretty good. I particularly liked one that takes place in a park in Gotham City (which I will not describe), and the one in Atlantis. That one makes me hopeful for the Aquaman film they’re working on. I liked how things felt weighted down by the water. Considering how CG stuff usually looks too fast, this was a nice surprise.

I’ll dig into some specifics below, but put simply, if you already like any of the DC films, you’ll probably like at least some of this, but it won’t be going on any of your ten-best lists.

Spoilers next. Be warned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re going to start your film with a shot of Henry Cavill as Superman, make sure it doesn’t look weird and fake. Yes, I get that you weren’t allowed to shave off his mustache because reasons. But if you can’t make his CG shave look good, maybe don’t include the scene in your movie?

My biggest problem with the film was that I liked it better when it was called The Avengers. A dude with horns arrives via sky beam to steal a cube-shaped thing that people have been experimenting with? And he’s followed by a horde of faceless CG goons? And his goal is domination of Earth? I get that this is a plot line from the actual comics, but I don’t care. Maybe DC even invented Steppenwolf before Marvel invented Thanos. Also don’t care. I live in the movie world. The first film that comes out wins. (Also, if the first film that comes out is demonstrably better written, that’s another thing.)

I give the WB marketing team props for holding back on Superman, but there’s very little suspense for the audience about whether Batman’s plan will actually work. The only real suspense is how he’ll react once he’s been resurrected. I loved the scene where he goes postal on the rest of the League. It felt different and inventive. (Okay, maybe it was a little bit too much like Vision’s birth in Age of Ultron, but that’s a quibble.)

Sadly, this Superman is way too powerful. Once he’s involved in the final battle, the tension is gone. There’s little point for a whole league of super heroes if Superman can do everything they can do and never be hurt. This isn’t a Justice League problem, it’s a Superman character problem. I’m not super sure that there’s a solution. I think we may have to accept the fact that Justice League films will never really work.

Maybe when they reboot the whole thing in a few years.

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Mummy v. Mummy

I just saw the Tom Cruise starring The Mummy, the critically panned and financially disappointing tent-pole film from this past summer. I could dig into the way it tries (and pretty much fails) to set up a cinematic “Dark Universe” for the traditional monster properties that Universal is known for. It seems that kind of thing is elusive for anyone but Disney.

What I’m more interested in is how the film functions as a film, and why it’s so underwhelming compared to the much campier and much more beloved The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser from 1999.

The Setting

M99 was set entirely in Egypt, and back in the 1920s. Part of that was, I’m sure, an attempt to catch some of the glow of the Indiana Jones films, which were of course an inspiration. It also put moviegoers in the mindset of this as being an homage to the classic monster pictures from the 30s. It gave the filmmakers license to have arch dialog, stylized action sequences, one-dimensional characters and a few old-school camera tricks. At the time, the film was decried as an example of Hollywood soullessness, but it was exactly what a summer blockbuster should be–fun.

M17, on the other hand, eschews Egypt almost entirely and moves the action to the present day. There’s an (overlong) introductory history lesson, but then it moves to Iraq (an excuse to add some of-the-moment fire fights and a drone strike), and from there to London (an excuse to shoehorn in Dr. Jekyll). Everything seems off point. This could have been enjoyable, if the film had any kind of a sense of fun with the time/place displacement for the action. But it doesn’t. Instead of a face in a cloud of sand, there’s a face in a cloud of shattered glass. Snore.

The Hero

Brendan Fraser was known before M99, but he was far from a household name. This film put him on the map (for a brief time). He was charismatic, roguish, insistent on his own intelligence, which was more often than not effective. Tom Cruise has charisma for days, but his character in M17 is all over the map. He’s kind of a doofus (which I don’t have a problem with) but there needs to be a point in the film where he stops reacting and starts acting. This moment is saved for very nearly the last moment, and it’s overdue.

The Heroine

Both films have a “strong” female character who is more knowledgeable and more considered than their male counterpart. I put strong in quotes because neither Rachel Weisz in M99 nor Annabelle Wallis in M17 have any real impact on the story beyond providing occasional information and then getting saved by the hero. But at least in M99 there’s some real chemistry between the leads. The “romance” between Cruise and Wallis is laughable, for more reasons than just the fact that he’s 22 years older than she is.

The Villain

I can’t really say that Sofia Boutella is better or worse than Arnold Vosloo. Both of them run around in skimpy clothes and kill a bunch of people in a bid to sacrifice someone to bring someone else to life. Vosloo gets points for never speaking English. The endless dream sequences between Cruise and Boutella had me flashing back to Dawn of Justice, and that’s not a good thing.

The Sidekick

In M99, there are two sidekicks: John Hannah as Johnathan and Kevin J. O’Connor as Beni. Both are greedy and underhanded, but one is just a little nicer than the other. And both are pretty funny. In M17 we get a poorly used Jake Johnson who is kind of an amalgam of both, but is way less funny than he should have been. (Honestly, he was the best part of Jurassic World, wasn’t he?)

The Expert

In M99 we get a glimpse into a secret society of people dedicated to protecting the world from evil, personified in Oded Fehr and Erick Avari. They get to be the ones to say to the heroes “You done messed up.” In M17 that role is filled by Russell Crowe as the Nick Fury of this universe, Henry Jekyll. Personally, I loved him. I even loved the weird diversion of Hyde taking over and tossing Tom Cruise around the room for a while. This is the one place I think this version of the film wins out.

The Tone

This is where M17 falls down in a major way. This is a film about an ancient mummified creature causing havoc in the modern world. It’s not supposed to be gritty and dark. They leaned really heavily into the horror aspects. That made for some great imagery. (I loved the version of Ahmanet hobbling around the church early on.) But trying to splice that into a big action movie (with plane crashes and gun play) left the film an unmanageable mess. M99 knew what it was about–fun. There’s a very similar scene in both films, where a character is about to be sacrificed on an altar surrounded by mummies. This leads to a big fight sequence. The M17 version is probably more technically proficient, but it’s not fun. That sequence in M99 is rousing and leaves you happy to have spent your hard-earned money on a movie ticket.

My Conclusion

M17 isn’t a terrible film. It’s just amazingly lackluster. I don’t think it’s going to be remember unfondly. I think it’s going to be forgotten. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than having a Battlefield Earth level disaster, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

Wonder Woman

It’s kind of expected, when reviewing a film that’s part of a cinematic universe, that you place it in that context, and review it as such. Fine. I’ll bow to convention.

Wonder Woman is the second best film in the DCEU. There. I said it. I like Man of Steel better. But only by a little. WW is excellent film-making. Way better than Batman vs Superman or Suicide Squad. The story of Diana of Themyscira, a princess who dreams of being a warrior, only to become, you know, a warrior, is lots of fun. The World War I setting is enjoyably different. (My experience with Wonder Woman pretty much began and ended with Lynda Carter’s portrayal, which put her in World War II.) I like Gal Gadot as the title character, and Chris Pine is perfect as Steve Trevor, her tour guide to the world outside her “paradise island”. My favorite aspect is how her quest to stop Ares (the god of war, natch) is treated as possibly a fantasy of her own making until the very end of the film.

But it’s not a perfect film. The ending was a little doofy. I don’t want to spoil it, but the way they handle the resolution of Diana and Steve’s romance didn’t feel earned.

However, my biggest problem with the film is that it was better when it was called Captain America: The First Avenger. Think I’m nuts? Let’s take a look… (Spoilers. You are warned.)

A young wannabe warrior is given a chance by a mentor figure (against the advice of their superior). The young warrior exceeds expectations, but still has to watch their mentor die. The warrior develops a flirtatious, but ultimately unrequited romance with another military figure who is much more experienced in war, and in the ways of love. (Our main character is probably a virgin, though the film is vague on that point.) The two central characters put together a ragtag group of mifits to go deep into enemy territory and stop a crazy German (who has been chemically enhanced to be super strong) and his scientist underling. These baddies have a plan that will turn the tide of the war. The only way to stop the madness is for the lead guy to sacrifice himself in a plane. Cut to present day, where the main character still pines for their lost love.

I’m convinced the only reason they set the film in the First World War was that the parallels would have been too obvious otherwise.

Anyway. all that said, I still think it’s a good movie.

Jason Bourne

I apologize for being so behind in the reviews. Perhaps no one will care about this one anymore, but I like to fill in the gaps in my reviews from time to time.

I am an unapologetic fan of the first three Bourne films. The Bourne Identity was a revelation. The hero of an action film didn’t have to look like the hero of an action film. And Matt Damon didn’t. But it worked, largely because he didn’t know who he was. He was as surprised as we were every time he did something cool. It took place entirely in Europe. It felt like cinema verite, with the hand held camera work, and the stoic, quiet lead. And that music. All things told, I feel like The Bourne Identity was the most influential film (at least in the buzzy, blockbuster parts of cinema) of that decade.

Then The Bourne Supremacy one-upped everything. The action was better, the story was better, the acting was better. Everything about that film is pretty much perfect. Is there a car chase in any movie better than that one in Moscow at the end of the movie? No. There is not.

I liked The Bourne Ultimatum too. It didn’t have the whiz-bang originality of the first (of course) or the seamlessness of the second, but it has its own charms, not least of which the delightfully clever way they interweave the story of this film with what was really just a throwaway scene at the end of the previous.

I heard Matt Damon, after the third film, asked if he saw there being a fourth movie. His response: “They’d have to call it The Bourne Redundancy.” Well, you shouldn’t have spoken so soon, buddy. Apparently there is enough money to get Paul Greengrass (the director of Supremacy and Ultimatum) and Damon back onto the set for the simply titled Jason Bourne.

Is this film a step down in quality. Yes. Just a bit. Just the tiniest bit. I still enjoyed it thoroughly. The action is solid. The story is interesting. I liked Tommy Lee Jones taking the role of the government goon who’s just indiscriminately evil. (A position filled by David Strathairn, Brian Cox and Chris Cooper in previous installments.) I appreciated the return of Julia Stiles as Nicky, a constant presence in the films. But the MVP of this film (apart from the always engaging Damon) is Alicia Vikander. I watched the movie, and I still don’t know if she was evil, or if she was really on Bourne’s side. If someone tries to greenlight a fifth film, I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t figure prominently.

I guess this could be considered something like nostalgia porn, but I can’t say I wasn’t on board.

Baby Driver

From Edgar Wright (the guy who directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, At World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) comes a film that’s like the illegitimate child of Pulp Fiction and La La Land. Maybe. I haven’t seen La La Land, but I get impression that it has some of the same sensibilities.

The central character here is Baby (Ansel Elgort), a preternaturally gifted driver who’s in the employ of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal mastermind who delights in a good bank heist. There’s a rotating group of toughs that Doc uses for his jobs, but the ones that figure most prominently in the story are Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza González) and Bats (Jamie Foxx).

Baby is clearly just working these jobs to clear a debt to Doc, but his desire to be clear of the crime scene is amped up by the appearance in his life of Debora (Lily James), a waitress who seems to get Baby when he doesn’t necessarily get himself. Nearly every feature of his character is designed to remind you that he’s been emotionally stunted by the death of his parents (particularly his mom).

The Pulp Fictionness of the film is the violence, the disregard for law and order, the constant tension between all of the criminal characters. Perhaps the most interesting dynamic is between Bats and Buddy. They have a couple of great scenes. And, of course, everyone is also filtered through Baby. Sometimes these people feel like a kind of dysfunctional family. Sometimes they feel extremely dangerous. These relationships are thrown into relief by the adorable way Baby cares for his ailing foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).

The La La Landness of the film is how it’s driven, beginning to end, by the soundtrack. Borrowing a little from Guardians of the Galaxy, Baby uses a collection of iPods to continuously curate the soundtrack of his life. He uses music to score his walk to get coffee, to romance Debora at the laundromat, and, of course, to drive.

The film never lets us forget that Baby’s gifts are most effective behind the wheel of a car. I don’t know how many cars he drives in this film, but it’s a lot, and he’s adept at controlling every one of them, leading police and others on astonishing chases through the streets of Atlanta.

For the first half of the film, I was liking it. Then, in the second half, when the story started jerking and jiving in directions I didn’t expect, I started loving it. If you don’t mind your crime drama sprinkled with a little bit of “movie magic”, you’ll probably love it, too.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Last weekend I was in the mood to watch a poorly reviewed movie. The Mummy was playing too late, so, I saw Transformers: The Last Knight.

Before I saw the film, I perused some of the review online. It was truly astonishing how many claimed this was the worst film of the franchise. Maybe that lowered my expectations, but, come on, let’s be real. This is the fifth in a series of films about alien robots that can transform into cars and planes and (?) clocks, apparently. So expectations start low.

But, let’s break it down. In my review of Dark of the Moon, I analyzed which aspects of the films are best. Here, I’ll look at some different things, and analyze which are worst.

Most Embarrassing Appearance by a Respected Actor — The first film (and all the sequels) has John Turturro. He’s kind of fun, and at least gives it his all. Revenge of the Fallen has none! But in Dark of the Moon we get Patrick Dempsey (good), Frances McDormand (boring) and John Malkovich (fine, I guess). I’ve already explained how much I enjoyed Kelsey Grammer in Age of Extinction, and Stanley Tucci was at least funny. In this one, Anthony Hopkins brings the crazy. I enjoyed him thoroughly. Winner: Frances McDormand.

Most Useless Eye-Candy Performance by an Actress — When Megan Fox left the franchise I wasn’t saddened…until I saw her replacement (Rosie Huntington-Whitely). Yawn. And Nicola Peltz’s inclusion was kind of skeevy. Laura Haddock (playing a history professor in this one) is easily the best in this category, yielding what might be Michael Bay’s least sexist film! (It’s a low bar, people.) Winner – Tie: Rosie Huntington-Whitely and Nicola Peltz.

Most Egregious Flouting of the Laws of Physics — Okay, this is going to be a tough one. Every film has humans flying around in robotic carnage and not dying. Revenge of the Fallen had three “dead” characters (two robots, one human) get resurrected, not to mention that stupid Matrix subplot. Dark of the Moon had that “building falling down but everyone is okay” sequence. But both of the last two films had Cybertron (the home planet of the Transformers) appear right next to the Earth without anything realistic happening. (Enormous ocean tides, planet pulled out of orbit, moon crashing into it, etc.) Winner – Tie: Cybertron Proximity

Stupidest Historical Reimagining — I continued to believe that the alternate explanation for the building of Hoover Dam is awesome. The star killing machine inside the pyramid is weak. The secret mission of the Apollo astronauts was probably the least crazy of them all. Reimagining the death of the dinosaurs as caused by Cybertronian technology was not very interesting. Putting Transformers into the Arthurian legend was a middle of the road inclusion from this latest film. On the other hand, I would pay folding money to see an entire film about Bumblebee fighting Nazis! That flashback was excellent. (The actual Bumblebee spinoff is said to take place in the 1980s. Oh, well.) Winner — Star Killing Pyramid Machine

Bottom line, The Last Knight is a middle of the pack film. Better than Revenge of the Fallen, but not as good as the original.

Ghost in the Shell

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a new film on the Thursday before release date, but I did here, so let’s see if I can unpack this complex film experience, topic by topic:

It’s a Remake

I did see the original Ghost in the Shell anime a couple of decades ago. I remember not liking it, and that’s all I remember. I couldn’t tell you if anything in the 2017 version is like or not like the original. So keep that in mind.

If you care about the premise, here you go. A woman’s brain is placed into a robot that looks eerily like Scarlett Johansson, and she kicks a lot of ass.

Personally, for the record, I don’t care if films get remade. Bad, good, indifferent. I don’t care. You want to remake Die Hard, more power to you. You want to remake it for a different culture or audience? Go for it. Personally, I’d love to see the film reimagined with the lead as a woman. An Indian woman if you want. Have fun.

Actually, the way they address the fact that Johansson is playing a character known as “Motoko” is pretty deftly done.

Okay, back to the review.

It’s Gorgeous

I knew from the previews this would be the illegitimate love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element in look. And it works. The futuristic-retro cars, the multi-layered roadways, the endless high-rises decorated with mammoth holographic ads, the robots, the computer interfaces. Everything worked for me. It was without a doubt the best thing about the film.

The Acting is Spotty

Johansson as Major, the central figure of the story, does good work, though there’s nothing in the performance that anyone familiar with her work in the Marvel films will find surprising. Major and Natasha Romanov have similar character arcs, actually.

Pilou Asbæk turns in the best performance in the film, as Batou, Major’s sidekick. He’s funny and heartfelt and effective in a fight. He has a great presence. I expect to see more of him in the future.

Takeshi Kitano is also pretty good as Aramaki, Major’s boss at this police organization. Though, I suspect there’s some fan service for this well known Japanese actor that kind of goes over my head. There were one or two scenes where I could tell I was supposed to be in awe of this guy, and the film hadn’t really earned my awe. Still, though, nice performance.

Michael Pitt is entirely forgettable (and leaning into annoying) with his performance of Kuze, a mysterious terrorist figure that Major is chasing. Bleh.

Juliette Binoche is poorly used as Dr. Outlet, the scientist responsible for Major’s resurrection. Binoche has such a presence, casting her as this weak of a character seems dissonant.

Peter Ferdinando is pointless as Cutter, a honcho (the honcho?) of Hanka Robotics, the firm that seems to run the world with their robots. As a villain, he’s neither empathetic nor easy to root against.

The Story is Spotty

I loved the first, say, thirty minutes of the film. Then the middle third was okay. The finale was just boring. It’s rare for me to start checking my watch on a film that clocks in at less than two hours.

I didn’t analyze the story enough to really find plot holes, except for one. There is a point in the film when the robotics company guy has lost track of Major. She’s basically a robot he built, right? How can she not be lo-jacked? Dumb.

Anyway.

The Race Thing

I do have some thoughts on this. There’s been plenty of sturm and drang over the fact that they’ve whitewashed this property. As I said before, if you want to remake for a different audience and alter the race/gender/whatever of the characters, I don’t care. But the end result should be logically consistent. And this one wasn’t.

They never specify what city this film takes place, but there are plenty of hints that we’re in Asia somewhere. There’s Japanese script everywhere, the head of the police group speaks only in Japanese, most of the advertisements have Asian themes to them. There’s even a bit about Major being a refugee who came to this country, which I liked. The very Anglo-looking Johansson being a refugee puts this definitely into a different kind of world than we’re used to. All of that indicates we’re in an Asian (perhaps Japanese) place which is dominated by that culture.

But with the exception of Kitano, the Chinese guy from The Dark Knight, and one small role for a Japanese woman (which I won’t spoil here), everyone else is either European or African. (Mostly European.) So, does that mean we are in Tokyo, and Japanese culture and language continues to persist, but Europeans have taken control of the place? Or are we just lucky enough to be seeing a story that just happens to be about European characters.

I get that they were going for “colorblind” casting. But when the themes of race are baked into every aspect of the production design, you can’t simply wish away contradictions in your casting.

The Upshot

This film was diverting and enjoyable, but uneven enough that it’s hard to recommend unless you simply enjoy looking at amazing visuals.