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.

POEM XLIX: “ORIGIN STORY”

My job, as I understand it,
is to get the coffee away from Dr. Finkl
before he starts to vibrate
like a poorly balanced centrifuge.

Mrs. Finkl told me so;
they’ve been married forty years,
and he’s onto her tricks by now.
He will not set the Thermos down
whenever she’s in the lab,
but he always wants to show me something.

Amoebas in a petri dish.
Jellyfish on glass.
Once, a bit of irradiated squid.

The Finkls never had
a child of their own
so when my family came to grief
they took me in their home.
Hid me, fed me,
changed my name,
so when the secret police came
to see if Dr. Finkl was up to his old tricks again,
I was simple Herschel,
their nephew,
who had never been the same
(since the farming accident.)

I am not simple.
I never was.
I can calculate and sum,
use the centrifuge and microscope,
and understand the data he gives me.

Still, there are things he doesn’t tell me.
(If I were to be questioned,
it’s better for me not to know.)
But I sometimes learn them anyway.

Tonight, he’ll be working with electricity,
and a certain type of venom
derived from the sting of the sea anemone.

I will creep down the stairs,
and crouch, and crane,
and see.