Movie review: “Justice League”

A long time ago, in an America far, far away, there was a movie adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s jewel-like novel, “Practical Magic”. Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman were wisely chosen to play witch siblings Sally and Gillian; Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, the sisters’ maiden aunts. The actresses got drunk as hell for the scenes requiring them to get drunk as hell. Every detail, from the Harry Belafonte song on the soundtrack to the blossoms on the trees (custom-sewn from silk), was painstakingly calibrated to match the tone and spirit of the book. The movie looked and sounded perfect. It was completely soulless. Something elemental had gone missing between book and script; while Hoffman had used magical realism to intensify the colors of a recognizable world, the movie used magic to distance the audience, reminding them at every turn that this was not their world; that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

 

I was fifteen when “Practical Magic” broke my heart; today, “Justice League” reminded me exactly how it felt.

 

With a tool chest of $300 million dollars; with a capable cast of charming and talented actors; with unfettered access to some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century, “Justice League” manages only to give us a frustrating, tantalizing taste of the better movie that could have been. That better movie comes through in glimpses: the delightful, motor-mouthed Flash (Ezra Miller) realizing that Superman (Henry Cavill) can track him at full speed, surprise nearly knocking the younger superhero ass-over-teakettle. A brief, hurtful conversation between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) where you can see both characters realize—and regret—the moment they’ve gone too far. A recurring joke about brunch. Unfortunately, these gems are buried in a script that feels as if several different screenplays were shuffled, deck-of-cards style, to create it. Conversations frequently feel as though the characters aren’t responding to each other, the disjointed dialogue a hallmark of Zack Snyder’s work. Consider the following exchange between Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman:

“Of course, you took us back here.”

“It’s home.”

“You smell good.”

Are these two even in the same room? Even clunkier exchanges await you, but Snyder’s Mad-Libs approach to dialogue means that many of the worst lines will erase themselves from your memory ere the second you’ve heard them. (This should be regarded as a mercy: the only comparably awful dialogue in modern cinema, Anakin Skywalker’s love scenes with Queen Amidala, cannot be remembered without sustaining brain damage.) To their credit, the actors soldier bravely forward; Jeremy Irons, who deserves better, reminisces about exploding wind-up penguins with only the faintest whiff of a smirk, but even he can’t save us from an exchange like this:

Alfred: “I don’t recognize this world anymore.”

Batman: “I don’t have to recognize this world. I just have to save it.”

Well, bully for Batman, but us poor mortals in the theater seats do need to recognize the world of a movie, especially if we’re supposed to give a damn about it. Unfortunately, this movie’s villain is a generic, greyish CGI goat-goblin with a backstory of “Bwahaha” and a motive of “Mwahaha”, and the climactic battle is set in a barren, reddish, vaguely Russian desert scattered with an afterthought’s worth of unnamed civilians. Who are they? We couldn’t care less, because this movie doesn’t care at all: the civilian characters are there solely to insulate the franchise from the criticism leveled at “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—that Batman and Superman were acting more like villains than heroes, brawling through cities without regard for human life. In “Justice League”, there is a moment in which Superman, caught on cell-phone video as a group of excited children fire questions at him, is asked what his favorite thing is about our planet. Henry Cavill squints off into the distance, chuckles awkwardly, then falls silent. As written, the scene could be an elegant and evocative little grace note. Siegel and Schuster would have had a lot of trouble writing the next line—because their kind-hearted Superman would’ve had difficulty choosing just one favorite thing about Earth. Snyder’s stilted Man of Steel, though, has a different reason for his silence: he can’t think of anything. This is what DC’s come to. I don’t recognize this world anymore.

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Movie review: “Wonder Woman”

 

DC has arrived. Kicking and screaming, getting in its own way at every opportunity, the Little Movie Studio That Couldn’t has finally put an unqualified win on the board with “Wonder Woman”. Gal Gadot is note-perfect in Patty Jenkins’s cohesive vision, creating a Wonder Woman / Diana Price who’s worth waiting for. Like all the best superheroes, she is at once complex and predictable, because even though Gadot’s Diana is multi-dimensional, sometimes conflicted and occasionally outright wrong, the character’s inner moral compass needle continues to point due danger. Raised on an island of literal Amazons and trained from an early age to defend the earth from the return of Aries, the god of war, Diana is quick to identify Aries’s fingerprints on a minor scuffle outside her island’s borders: World War One. She strikes a deal with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), shipwrecked pilot and spy—get her to the center of the action, and she will defeat Aries and end the conflict. Easy peasy, right? Diana’s naïveté would overwhelm a less capable actress, but Gadot’s charm easily carries the audience past exasperation—in her hands, Diana is a glutton for all kinds of carnal pleasures, from ice cream (“It’s delicious! You should be very proud!” she tells the stand-owner upon first taste) to sex, which she’s game for, but Steve the spy pilot is disappointingly uptight about. Diana’s first reaction to wartime London (“It’s hideous!”) is jarring and funny, but as the camera pulls back to reveal a smoke-choked hellscape, registers as accurate: Jenkins keeps finding new ways to show the world afresh through Diana’s eyes, while Gadot alchemizes innocence into idealism, giving us a Diana who reacts with total incredulity to trench warfare, because trench warfare surpasseth all understanding. By the time she goes over the top into no-man’s land, in a sequence that immediately joins the all-time great superhero moments in movie history, we’re ready to scale the backs of the movie seats to join her.

The movie isn’t perfect: fragments of modern dialogue are jarring in context (did anyone really say “you guys” or “cool” in 1918?), and MCU fans could be forgiven for noting the cinematic similarities between Steve Trevor (who rides a motorcycle through a forest and crashes his plane an awful lot) and his merry band of wartime accomplices, and Steve Rogers and the Howling Commandos. (Note: I do not give one spiraling crap which character—Steve Trevor or Steve Rogers—appeared first in print eighty-seven years ago. The point is that MCU showed us this on the big screen really recently, guys.) There is exactly one baddie too many, and the most interesting one (Elena Anaya, playing a dark mirror of Diana) goes underexplored. But a compelling backstory for a villain is a fair trade for enchanting battle sequences that seem both burnished and dynamic, like Caravaggio paintings brought to life. Smoke and fog are used to gorgeous aesthetic effect against skeletal, war-blasted pines; a sunrise mingles eerily with orange poison gas. The violence, too, is starkly beautiful. Jenkins uses stop motion to great effect, slowing Gadot’s fight choreography to a pace that can be admired but not quite parsed—the camera stays just ahead of your ability to register each block, kick, and turn, and the sum effect is like watching a talented magician do a trick very slowly. You’re dazzled, but none the wiser.
Which leads us to the movie’s conclusion, in which mankind’s salvageability is called rather severely into question. DC has not performed an about-face with “Wonder Woman”—this movie still has a darker, more somber tone than Marvel’s product. For the first time, though, that’s a good thing.

 

 

Movie review: “The LEGO Batman Movie”

Three years ago, “The LEGO Movie” surprised everyone by being genuinely funny and heartfelt, with a tear-jerking final twist balanced like a lemon peel on the edge of the movie’s sugared rim. For many, the best part of the movie was a cameo appearance by Batman as a sullen, brooding tool who “only works in black—and very, very dark shades of grey”. Now, he’s been given his own movie in which to work out his issues, beatbox, and punch criminals, sometimes at the same time. This Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) is as spoiled and puddle-shallow as any trust-fund baby, but his life is echoingly empty, a condition beautifully illustrated by the sequence in which he comes home, heats up a Lobster Thermidor in the microwave, and eats it while floating on an inflatable donut in the center of an enormous, empty swimming pool. Being rich has never looked like so little fun. Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) tries to push Batman towards human contact, but the vigilante doesn’t work or play well with others: he regards civilians only as audiences, and the rest of the Justice League are avoiding him. Even his old nemesis, the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), wants more from the relationship—try as he might, Batman can’t quite choke out the three little words every archenemy wants to hear (“I hate you.”)

The setup is solid, but the movie falters in the second act; newly minted city commissioner Barbara Jordan (voiced by Rosario Dawson), and beguiling orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) stumble into Batman’s life, but they don’t strike up much chemistry or fun with him, and the movie’s “found family” dynamic feels stilted. The Batman/Barbara Jordan relationship in particular never gels; we’re supposed to see growing mutual respect, but Batman alternates between treating Jordan as an inconvenient meddler and a sex object, while Jordan is stuck endlessly intoning concern. When, at the end of the movie, Batman refers to Jordan as his “totally platonic” coworker and friend, then tries to steal a kiss (only to be dropped on his ass), the awkward muddle feels emblematic of the entire relationship. As is so often the case, it falls to the villain to redeem things—parachuting back into the scene with an entire raft of Warner Brothers baddies (including Voldemort, King Kong, and Sauron), the Joker brings all the oxygen back into the movie in time for the climax, which registers as a burst of explosive, Simpsons-colored yellow whirling with pink and black bricks. As in the first movie, the actual building and disintegrating happens at a pace too fast to examine, which left me feeling a bit cheated; anyone with a LEGO piece or two buried in their couch cushion would want to see how such dazzlement fits together. But it’s hard to be peeved during a perfectly deployed Michael Jackson song, just as it’s hard not to walk out of the movie with a bounce in your step and a growl in your voice. “Always be yourself,” the meme goes, “Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.”

There are worse things to be.

Movie review: “Suicide Squad”

Someone at Warner Brothers—not everyone; not even everyone involved in the making of this movie—is listening. “Suicide Squad” is a wobbly, uneven, half-baked step in the right direction. It features a howlingly awful “Method” performance by Jared Leto; a script that exhaustingly, pedantically informs us what we’re seeing; characters that pop in and out of the script with as little reason as quarks.  It gives inexplicable acres of screen time to Scott Eastwood, the blandly handsome and be-cheekbone’d son of Clint, yet gives him nothing to say. It fails, again and again, to convincingly establish stakes, build tension, make us care. The ending is an anticlimax; deaths don’t mean anything; did I mention how much the Joker sucked ass?

Still better than Batman v Superman.

I take that back; that’s unfair. Many things are better than “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”, including basement flooding, doing your own taxes, and the semi-pleasant lightheadedness you get after three days of stomach flu. Which is a feeling you might recognize after long enough in David Ayer’s world—a colorful and not unpleasant collision of Tim Burton’s Wonderland and Zac Snyder’s Gotham. In tone and feel, “Suicide Squad” comes closest to “The Watchmen”, another messy movie half-redeemed by a bright soundtrack and committed performances from actors whose best efforts were buried under an avalanche of incoherent story fragments. There are glimmers of hope in “Suicide Squad”, just as there were in “The Watchmen”. Let’s enumerate a few:

First: Will Smith as Deadshot. One of the movie’s most glaring flaws is the feeling that it was stitched together, Frankenstein-style, out of multiple scripts—each character authored by a different writer. The upshot (heh) is that Smith drew one of the good scripts, and delivers an even-better, deeper, more multi-dimensional version of the wiseass character that he’d already honed to perfection twenty years ago.

Second: Viola Davis as Amanda Waller. Every moment Ms. Davis is on screen is like a moment spent in a refrigerator box with a cobra; while Leto swans and spits and swoons like a seventh-grade summerstock Iago, attempting to summon scariness and eliciting only snickers, Ms. Davis just exists, and rivets your attention with a life-or-death force. She approaches her character at a weary, workmanlike angle; but just when we are set to see Waller as a pragmatic functionary, she turns the corner and becomes something much more frightening. When another character admits that they didn’t see Waller coming, she responds, “No one else does, either.” The line lands, resonates, and chills. The idea that this woman, this genius, was stuck working on a movie set with the infantile and repugnant Leto (who mailed some of his costars dead animals and used condoms, using Method acting as an excuse for criminal harassment and sexual assault), is well beyond infuriating—it should be punishable by public stoning of every casting director, producer, lawyer, and handler involved. It is impossible to imagine a movie production treating Meryl Streep (the only living actress whose talent compares with Davis’s) with such cavalier disregard for her dignity or safety, and I invite you all to consider the reasons why that’s so.

Finally, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. I’m working hard to articulate precisely why I liked her so goddamn much, because I want to get this right; because it’s important; because this character, for me, redeemed the whole unholy mess of this movie. Here goes: Harley is the heroine I think a lot of us have been waiting for, a female character whose heroism is rooted, 100%, in the experience of having a bad boyfriend. Think hard before you push back. How many women do you know whose experience with a boyfriend has drastically derailed their lives? How many do you know who have had to flee—move—seek therapy—talk to their friends for hours—regain their career confidence and self-esteem for years—because of their boyfriends? How many do you know who are in that relationship right now?  I can think of a lot. I have friends who barely survived. I have friends whose entire personalities changed. I have friends I don’t speak to anymore, because they disappeared with those bad boyfriends and no one knows where they are. And Harley isn’t free or clear of her bad boyfriend yet, or even at all—she’s embroiled in him, entangled, still drowning, but miraculously, stubbornly, fiercely fucking alive. That’s the most real-world, relatable heroism I’ve seen all year. The fact that it’s delivered in candy-colored short shorts is for your benefit.

Let me be clear: this Harley is not a badass because she beats people up with a baseball bat. She is not a badass because she kills people. She is not a badass because she’s hot, or fuckable, or flexible, or a “crazy bitch”. Harley is all of those things, but those factors are camouflage. Put another way: a woman “kicking ass” is only considered kickass, in 2016 America, when she’s doing so violently—if she’s kicking ass in the boardroom, she’s a cold, robotic bitch who needs to be brought down a notch and “taught how to love”. If she’s kicking ass in space or the military, ditto. If she’s kicking ass in high school or a rock band, she’s cripplingly shy or awkward in her dating life and needs to loosen up and again, be “taught how to love”. And if she’s kicking ass at mothering a child, she’ll be regarded as a model not of feminism, but its opposite. Violence—done sexily—is still the only surefire avenue, for female characters in 2016, to the unqualified respect of male characters and a male audience. So violence, along with a fetchingly displayed ass, is Harley’s ticket onto the squad. But that’s not what makes her so cool. Surviving the emotional violence of a terrible, toxic love affair is Harley’s superpower, and if that’s a superpower you just don’t see the point of, look again. You may realize that you’ve been surrounded by heroines all along, and just didn’t realize it.

That’s alright. No one else does, either.