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: “Thor: Ragnarok”

I am so mad at Taika Waititi right now. I am up late at night, with a staggering head cold, long after I intended to be asleep, having written and deleted over ten different starts to this review. Because as it turns out, reviewing a nearly flawless movie? Is a real bitch.

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so good it barely even registers as a movie—you shuffle in, sit down, and are so thoroughly entertained, and at such breakneck pace, that the two hours feel more like two minutes. There is no chance to reach the bottom of your popcorn, much less murmur to a companion; forget using the bathroom. You will not move until the end, and then you will beg for more. This merciless ride comes courtesy of Taika Waititi, New Zealander, writer/director of (among other things) “What We Do in the Shadows”, “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, and “Eagle vs Shark”, and my new nemesis. He is the reason I may never sleep again, because now I have to convince you that a movie about the end of the world should be as colorful as an Orlando candy shop; that you can feel emotions about a hammer; that there is an undiscovered application of Jeff Goldblum’s shtick.

 

The tragedy is that “Thor: Ragnarok” has arrived so late in the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that those not steeped from the beginning in the studio’s closed ecosystem of interconnected movies will likely pass this movie by, thus missing out on the giddy delight of a fully-matured blockbuster director finally getting his hands on a $180-million-dollar toy chest. Think Spielberg, going from battling a malfunctioning fiberglass shark to getting the remote control for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Waititi has wisely charted a course just a little left of expectations, setting up familiar dilemmas (estranged siblings; a city besieged by dark supernatural forces; what the hell to do with Karl Urban) but solving for consistently unexpected values. The dialogue crackles along like microwave popcorn at the precise moment that everything goes apeshit in the bag—laugh too loud at one punchline, and you’ll miss the next four. But this isn’t a Whedon or a Sorkin or a McFarlane joint; you never get the self-congratulatory reference bingo that bogs down many clever screenwriters. For every joke, there’s a corresponding visual subtlety, a moment of pathos or panic that doesn’t get verbalized, creating a visual story as rich as the dialogue itself, of which a stunning eighty percent was improvised. Perhaps that freedom accounts for the sheer oddness of some of the movie’s conceits: in one setup, a rock-monster with a Kiwi accent carries around a dead slug pal because he “doesn’t have the heart to set him down”. That’s a joke setup. Nothing like that has ever survived a focus group before, but now that “Thor: Ragnorok” has arrived, maybe some more of it will. Welcome, weirdness. Welcome, Taika Waititi. Now please leave. I need to sleep.

Movie review: “Spiderman: Homecoming”

“Spiderman: Homecoming” contains a tiny homage to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” at its center, which is fitting, because Matthew Broderick seems to be the first actor to have been reincarnated while still alive. Tom Holland plays an alarmingly fresh-faced Peter Parker, so young that when he skives out of high school, you fight the urge (as you never did with Bueller) to convince him to stay. Inside high school, there are bearable torments; outside, Michael Keaton is waiting.

 

Coarsened by age and desperation, Keaton’s blue-collar Adrian Toomes is an unlikely villain for a superhero movie. He doesn’t strut or preen, his most dramatic bit of costuming is a tatty bomber jacket, and his motive is as prosaic as they come—squeezed out of his government contract for salvage, he keeps his mortgage paid with illegal weapons. The fact that some of them glow blue and can reduce a human to a crumbling cone of embers makes Toomes a bit less scary; director Jon Watts is savvy enough to understand this, and arms Toomes with an ordinary handgun for his most threatening scene, a simple conversation with Peter Parker that will make the muscles in your neck go tense. Keaton can now summon the voltage that Jack Nicholson once could: in his gaze, you can sense the menacing hum of a transformer ready to blow.

 

Opposite Keaton, Robert Downey, Jr. plays a distracted Tony Stark, one who checks in occasionally and lavishes Peter with tech—maybe a little too much tech—but isn’t really aware of his young protégée’s interior life. And since Holland reads as genuinely fifteen years old (he’s actually twenty), and capable of the kind of staggeringly bad decisions that only a fifteen-year-old can make, his fatherlessness feels risky. Marisa Tomei, as Aunt May, senses Peter drifting, but the movie insists she react by A) crying and B) giving Peter dating tips and makeovers. Beyond the retrograde gender role, this is a waste of Marisa Tomei, who had already set up the character (in “Captain America: Civil War”) as a delightful source of good sense and mischief in equal measures. You wanted to go drinking with Aunt May, and possibly get matching tattoos on your shoulderblade, though she’d stop you from getting one on your neck. Why is she reduced to behaving like a second-string friend in a Kate Hudson romcom? The rest of the girls are similarly squandered; Laura Harrier, as Liz, vacillates between serving as a crush object and a helpless victim for Spiderman to rescue. Zendaya fares only slightly better: playing an appealingly scruffy classmate of Peter’s, she’s given nothing of her own to do, and instead must provide a snarky Greek chorus on the doings of boys. Of all the 80’s movie tropes to call back to, sidelined women wasn’t a good pick; let’s hope by the next installment of “Spiderman”, the girls will have at least joined the 90’s.

 

As for Peter Parker, the movie brings him to a graceful landing back in the center of Tony Stark’s regard; the moment is understated and perfect, and both characters play it off as if nothing much has happened, even though everything has. This movie may not have the faintest clue what to do with women, but it absolutely gets boys, and that delicate, bittersweet moment when they finally become Spidermen.

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: “Logan”

When I was about nineteen, I saw X2 at midnight with a crowd of rapturous fans in varying degrees of costume, from “Marvel t-shirt” to “blue body paint”. The better costumes got nods and chuckles as we shuffled into the theater, but the only attendee to get a real rouse was the guy, otherwise unremarkably dressed, who’d styled his hair like Wolverine. He got a full round of applause.

That’s Hugh Jackman’s doing. No other actor in the “X-Man” franchise is so identified with their character—Patrick Stewart, while he makes a tremendous Xavier, will always be Jean-Luc Picard to the majority of the planet, and Ian McKellen, Gandalf. But Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. He’s been doing it longer than about 25% of the world’s population has been alive[1], and he looks it—now sinewy and greying at the temples, he’s more weathered limestone than carved marble. Which makes playing an immortal character difficult; hence, “Logan”. In Jackman’s final curtain call as the character, we meet a Wolverine whom time has finally chased down. Weathered and exhausted, he’s driving an El Paso limousine and commuting nightly across the border to an unspeakably depressing hideout, population four: himself, the dying professor Charles Xavier, the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and their shared misery. Caliban tends to Xavier and doles out a grating ration of criticism; Xavier has nightmarish seizures that send his psychic power washing through others like radiation; Logan is stuck between a Prof and a nursemaid. No help is coming over the horizon, either. As the mutants slowly die off, private companies hunt the last stragglers for biological experimentation. And one of those stragglers needs help—a young girl, mute and furious, is rescued from a lab and thrown into Logan’s care like a stray kitten. His resistance to her need is the hard emotional kernel around which the plot is wound. If you’re picking up whiffs of Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, that’s not coincidental. “Logan” is a Western, from the unforgiving light to the barren landscape to the increasingly Eastwoodian set of Hugh Jackman’s squint, but most especially in its harrowing formula: put a group of characters in a vise and squeeze. It wouldn’t be sporting to reveal who survives the squashing, but I will say that fewer will escape than you’d like—the movie’s pitch-perfect dialogue pulls you in like real family squabbling, with all the attendant intimacy and frustration. Dafne Keen (as the young Laura) especially holds up her corner of the tent, which, given that she is twelve and playing against 166 combined years in Stewart, Jackman, and Merchant, goes well beyond impressive and into the realm of suspiciously supernatural. Someone should get that kid tested for the mutant gene.

[1] http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.0014.TO.ZS