Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

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Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊

I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017 at 10:28 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I don’t think I need much from a movie in this genre. Mostly, it just needs to be fun. Some great visual effects, frequent and creative action sequences, and humor are really probably all I need. It’s an added bonus if there is a great story arc and compelling, multilayered characters. In DC’s newest superhero movie, and the first ever with a female lead, we get a lot of the first three things on my list but not much of the second two. Humor has mostly eluded DC until now. Their cadre of films (The “Dark Knight” series, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Watchmen”) have all been pretty grim affairs. Fortunately, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, they seem to have finally found their sense of humor. Jenkins, who has only directed one other feature film (2003’s brilliant “Monster”), knows how to develop strong female leads, as she did in that film and on the tv series “The Killing.” Here, she uses Gal Gadot to great effect, giving us strong doses of her emotional strength, physical strength and compassion. This film works largely because she works so well in the role. There is nothing campy or silly about this Wonder Woman, which then gives space for humor that feels more like laughing with, rather than laughing at, the characters. Jenkins’s visuals were also dazzling. I loved the choreography of her fight scenes and the way she continually slowed down the camera so that we could watch what was happening. Some might find that technique affected, especially with how frequently she used it, but I loved it. Far too often in CGI films, action happens too quickly for the audience to track it. Here, we were able to see all of the great dexterity and grace that Gadot and Jenkins instilled into this character’s fighting abilities. I found myself smiling over and over again at the creativity and fun of those scenes. More and more often, comic book films are able to look like the actual comic book panels that inspired them. The 12-year-old boy in me loves that. What I did not love quite as much was the silly gods-heavy plot line, which effectively minimized the travesty of war by laying the blame conveniently not at our feet. It also set up the very corny, saccharine ending that made me groan out loud at one point (actually, I think I said, “Oh, come on! Really?”). Fortunately, the worst of it comes in the last five or so minutes of an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly fun adventure. I hope this film brings us a great deal more of all three of these women: Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins and, of course, Wonder Woman.

 

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊

Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊

Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

Logan

March 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I said in my last review that “Get Out” was actually a comedy/parody disguised as a horror film. Well, “Logan” is a horror film disguised as a superhero movie. In particular, it belongs among the goriest of slasher flicks. This dark tale must be based on a story from the comics, though it is not one I was familiar with. That was probably best. I have only been disappointed by the truly terrible adaptations that have been made of classic X-Men stories (“Days of Future Past” and the brilliant Wolverine miniseries, just to name two). In general, the entire X-Men series of films has been one boring misstep after another. This was the first one to have any depth of character, any real sense of peril and that required any actual acting. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart were terrific as the two aged and broken heroes. Their banter, bickering and pain were such a nice relief from the typical superhero fare. This is 2029 and its a grim world where both men have lost faith in themselves, each other and everything else. Grittier and far far more violent than any other X-Men film, I found myself drawn into the story, even while I was occasionally distracted by the violence. Somber from start to finish, this was unlike anything I might have expected and I was delighted. I hope we see more filmmakers willing to take this genre into the world of adult emotions and complexity. There are so many heroes that I think could flourish under that treatment.

The Lego Batman Movie

February 26, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊

After the heavier, more pensive films I was seeing toward the end of last year’s list, I thought I might start my 2017 films with something a bit lighter. Well, you can’t get much lighter than this. After the success of 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” clearly Lego and D.C. are planning on doubling down on the concept. This is just the second in what is planned to be a series of Lego movies; in fact, there is another one coming out in just a few months. Well, I suspect this one will be enough for me. I don’t know what I expected. Something light, silly and funny, I guess. And, I guess, it was those things. Still, I was left only partly satisfied. I’m not sure I can even put my finger on why. It was humorous but never elicited much more than a chuckle in me, despite the fact that it was chock full of every type of humor– slapstick, innuendo, parody, sarcasm, irony, social commentary, cultural references (like crazy) and on and on. Somehow, few of them managed to land with me. The novelty of the Lego-style visuals had worn off halfway through the last movie and there was little that was original here. That said, the music was much less annoying this time around, so that’s something. As with the last one, there was a ton of actors lending their voices, everyone from Ralph Fiennes to Mariah Carey, some of whom seemed happy to have just a single line (like Jonah Hill). In the end, the film was fine. I just wish I had as much fun as the actors all seemed to.

Doctor Strange

November 5, 2016 at 10:30 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful for everyone, not least of all Marvel Comics, who was on the verge of bankruptcy 15 years ago, that they must have a full time employee at Marvel whose only job is to dig through every remaining character in their pantheon, looking for their next gold mine. The current list of Marvel characters that have been featured in recent film or television include Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-man, Ant-Man, The Black Widow, The Black Panther, The Falcon, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Nick Fury and the list goes on. At this point, they have to dig deep into their archives to find new material. Fortunately for them, they have more than 50 years of it. Doctor Strange is what you might call one of their B- List characters. He was created in the 1960s and languished in obscurity until he was rescued in the 80s by artist Marshall Rogers. Briefly, he had a cult following before slipping into the background again. Well, Marvel has now revived him for a film series of his own, inspired heavily by Rogers’s art and the visuals of films like “Inception.” The end result is a better-than-it-should-be romp through a lighter, funnier, campier film than either “Inception” or the comic book ever were. There is certainly plenty of magical action (I wish the magic from “Harry Potter” had looked half this good) and the final battle was a visual delight that must have been murder to film but was sheer fun to watch. There was also room for back story, pensive introspection and life lessons without slowing the plot down. In the end, the lighthearted tone eases the audience through the sillier aspects of the story and keeps things going at a jaunty pace. Doctor Strange will never be much more than a bit player among superheroes but this film shows Marvel’s genius at lifting him up enough to at least get a trilogy out of him. He may not be cinematic gold but he’ll be worth a few silver.

Suicide Squad

August 9, 2016 at 4:03 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

In the newest film from the DC universe, we are beginning to see an emerging pattern that does not bode well for future films. Warner Bros did a brilliant job of marketing this movie and it is well on it’s way to being the highest August earner of all time. But, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was a massive earner, as well. And both films are similar in another way: tons of people saw it and most of them promptly grumbled about it afterwards (there is even a guy in Great Britain who is suing WB because he is that upset about this film). The press has offered a dozen different opinions about why, often pointing out the tone of the recent Superman and Batman films. I don’t think that’s it, though. At least, not for me. I much prefer the darker vision over the cartoonish versions DC has put out in the past and, in “Suicide Squad,” we are introduced to some very intriguing dark characters. Margot Robbie’s (“The Legend of Tarzan,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”) take on Harley Quinn is brilliant, as she captures crazy/happy-go-lucky/sinister perfectly. I was particularly interested in seeing Jared Leto’s Joker. He has proven in films like “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Chapter 27” and “Requiem for a Dream” that he has a remarkable ability to disappear into a character. In that sense, he has the sort of intensity that Heath Ledger had. Leto’s take on the Joker is as unhinged as Ledger’s, but in a different way. Ledger’s Joker seemed to have a calculated craziness, whereas Leto’s is more impulsive, chaotic and randomly destructive. It’s a powerful performance that seems part Ledger/part Cesar Romero; I wish I had seen more of it. Additionally, I loved Viola Davis’s character, who she imbued with a deep cynicism (she is the dark-hearted version of the Avengers’ Nick Fury). I also liked Jay Hernandez’s ambivalent and heart-broken take on Diablo. However, most of the other characters fell flat for me and that’s a problem in an ensemble piece. In fact, Will Smith’s Deadshot is symptomatic of exactly what I think is wrong with DC’s films these days. This is a dark film about villains (psychopaths, essentially) who are forcibly recruited to do good against their will. Deadshot is a hitman. This should not be a nice guy. But, in Smith’s hands, he is a loving dad, a comedian to Joel Kinnaman’s straight man, and a firm leader with a conscience that his team can rally behind. But where this film most went astray was in its convoluted story, with excessive flashbacks, overly complex plot lines and uninspiring villains, which is exactly the same problem “Dawn of Justice” had. In both cases, it felt as though Warner Bros or DC were more interested in setting up the larger franchise than in making a good film. I say WB or DC deliberately, because I don’t think we can blame the director. David Ayer, who wrote the script for “Training Day” and wrote and directed the terrific “End of Watch,” knows how to create dark characters and write taut stories. Both this film and “Dawn of Justice” feel more like movie-by-committee, and therein lies the biggest problem. All of the reshoots for “Suicide Squad” have become famous. This is what doomed Marvel’s recent “Fantastic Four.” So much money is now at stake with superhero films that studios are unwilling to trust a director’s vision. The real wonder is the way Marvel has managed to avoid that with the MCU films. If there is any lesson for DC to learn here it is that one. Hire directors you trust and then trust them. Maybe then you will get well written films that viewers actually want to watch, recommend and watch again.

X-Men: Apocalypse

May 29, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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“Everyone knows that the third movie is always the worst,” says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones” fame) to her friends after they have just seen “Return of the Jedi.” It would be a funnier inside joke if it weren’t so bitterly true of this, the 3rd in the new incarnation of X-Men films. If there is any silver lining to having sat through 2 1/2 hours of a mind-numbingly self-important B-movie, it is that I can finally end my long streak (almost 15 months) of not hating a movie. When there are so very many things wrong with a film, it can be hard to know where to start or what to include. But, I think I have to start with what felt like the biggest sin of all: turning good actors into bad ones. Nobody can honestly question the skills of the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac or Rose Byrne. Even lesser known actors like Evan Peters (“American Horror Story”), Tye Sheridan (“Mud”) or Kodi Smit-McPhee (“The Road”) have shown they know their craft. Yet, if there is a truism in Hollywood it is that you cannot always get a good performance out of a bad actor but you can always get a bad performance out of a good one. Melodramatic, emotionally-disingenuous dialogue and ham-fisted direction will result in moments like Fassbender’s painful, “is this what you want, God?” speech. Director Bryan Singer, who once was capable of the genius of “The Usual Suspects,” has shown a recent perverse glee at trading emotional honesty for the illusion of it. He doesn’t try to make simple, fun comic book escapism, like Marvel Studios does so well. Nor are his films dark, brooding and atmospheric the way the current DC films are. He seems happy to create films that think they are saying something important about life but are just dull, emotionless and self-important. This one plods along with a storyline that is not worth explaining and full of contradictions, both big and small. In an attempt to reboot the series, Singer and Fox Pictures decided not to simply recast and start over (as so many superhero films have done).  Rather, they decided to go with an altered timeline (a la the “Star Trek” franchise reboot). However, unlike JJ Abrams’s carefully constructed re-envisioning, this one has been an increasingly lazy attempt. Characters are reintroduced in radically different ways that could not have been created by the timeline reset as envisioned in the last movie. That said, the one positive here is that some of these reimagined characters (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel and, especially, Storm) are real improvements over past incarnations. This movie was both vapid and pretentious, impossibly convoluted and dreadfully dull. But, maybe… just maybe… it doesn’t deserve a ∅ because it introduces the characters that might make for some interesting films in the future. No, wait. I changed my mind. It does deserve a ∅.

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