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.

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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.

 

 

 

Movie review: “The Legend of Tarzan”

“The Legend of Tarzan” presents a curious spectacle—a movie that erases itself from memory nearly as quickly as it is viewed. I watched it today; I no longer remember the names of any characters beyond Tarzan and Jane, and I knew those before I went into the theater. King Leopold of Belgium doesn’t count—he is name-checked countless times, but we never make his acquaintance, and thus one of the bloodiest genocidal maniacs ever to draw breath is squandered. Instead, we meet Christoph Waltz, performing a familiar trick: a fictional baddie dropped into real history, freeing the filmmakers up to reroute events to a more satisfying, if ahistorical, conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is not “Inglourious Basterds”, nor any other movie by Quentin Tarantino; “The Legend of Tarzan” was directed by David Yates, whom alert viewers won’t remember at all, because he directed the last four Harry Potter movies, three of which cannot be viewed before operating heavy machinery. Perhaps the studio wanted the audience drowsy, lest they notice that once again, our protagonist is a white man out-nativing the natives, becoming their leader, and repelling the invading forces of less enlightened whites (see: “Dances With Wolves”, “The Last Samurai”, “Avatar”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, etc., etc.).

But this movie is too muddled even to be effective racist propaganda: it begins with a business proposal so convoluted that Samuel L. Jackson, lurking in a corner, must interrupt and translate it to the bewildered Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), who promptly refuses it. Jackson’s character must then chase down Greystoke’s carriage and re-explain the proposal with the additional twist that his motives are precisely the opposite of the proposal’s intended effect, because reasons. I was completely adrift, which is not what usually happens when Samuel L. Jackson speaks. Time does not improve matters: Jackson’s character exists only to provide historical exposition and questionable comic relief. One cringe-inducing scene centers on gorilla testes—the joke’s deeply unfunny the first time, yet is mystifyingly called back to in the final scene. On the evil side of the equation, Waltz’s goals are similarly vague: he is first a treasure hunter, then a mercenary, then an intermediary between slaveholders, and he wants to capture Tarzan for reasons that remain unclear until they no longer matter. (Accountants may thrill to a plot hanging upon the question of when mercenary soldiers will be paid, but ordinary humans can be forgiven for not giving a damn.)

Stuck between them is Tarzan himself: Skarsgård is certainly fit enough, but he brings none of the predatory self-confidence to the role that made him such a memorable vampire in “True Blood”, and his inert chemistry with Margot Robbie neutralizes a romance that, in its best iterations, can be relied upon to provide a pulpy thrill. When Tarzan meets Jane, he investigates her by touching her hair, jawline, and neck—then dropping to his knees to sniff her through her skirts. She leaps away, what should be a jarringly carnal moment is played off as a douche-commercial joke, and the embarrassed audience suffers through an extended soliloquy about the mating calls of various animals before being put out of its misery by a climax as unsatisfying as the romance. (Spoiler alert: the mercenaries are not paid on time.) Analyzing why all this hoopla is disrespectful to the Congolese dead would be pointless, because the filmmakers probably couldn’t find the relevant area on a map—the historical window dressing falls away the instant it’s inconvenient, and we’re left watching a CGI herd of wildebeest reclaim a city from the Belgians as Tarzan and Jane kiss on a dock. “Now, isn’t that a sight,” remarks Samuel L. Jackson. I will have to take his word for it. I can’t remember a thing.