Justice League


Could this be Ben Affleck’s last appearance as Batman?

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ingvar Sigurdsson, David Thewlis, Marc McClure, Sergi Constance, Julian Lewis Jones, Salóme Gunnarsdóttir. Directed by Zach Snyder

 

With the critical and commercial success of Wonder Woman earlier this year, expectations were high that the DC Extended Universe – the comic book publisher’s cinematic arm and their version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – was at last ready to turn around after movies that were disappointing to both fans of the comics and accountants at Warner Brothers alike. That optimism proved to be unfounded as the film, though a hit at the box office was not as successful as the studio execs hoped and after another drubbing from fans and critics alike, the DCEU would eventually undergo massive restructuring. The question is was the movie really that bad?

Well, yes and no. The plot is fairly simple – a cosmic baddy known as Steppenwolf (Hinds in full motion capture splendor) is after three McGuffins called Mother Boxes secreted in various places on Earth. Batman (Affleck), ever the vigilant detective, divines that the Earth is about to come under attack but Wonder Woman (Gadot) is aware that the attack is already under way. With Superman (Cavill) out of the picture, Batman realizes they’ll need a team of superheroes to battle the nearly omnipotent Steppenwolf. He gathers the three others he’s aware of; Aquaman (Momoa) who has dominion over the ocean and those who dwell within it, Cyborg (Fisher) who is learning to adjust to his mostly machine body, and the Flash (Miller), a teen speedster very much unlike the CW version. While the latter is eager to join, the first two are reluctant until they are convinced that they are sorely needed. Massive battle sequences full of mind-numbing CGI follow.

I have to say I found the film entertaining for the most part. Momoa and Fisher make excellent heroes and in their first appearances in anything other than a brief cameo show that they are fully capable of heading up their own films – Momoa’s Aquaman is actually next on the DCEU schedule in December. Gadot and Affleck have proven themselves to be strong screen presences and both know what to do with their material and do it well. The one exception was Miller as The Flash; Snyder and his writers inexplicably went the annoying wisecracking teen route with the character which has already been tried with Quicksilver in the X-Men movies; it worked far better there. Miller is actually a really good young actor but he was sabotaged by the character who is just a jarring note that doesn’t fit in well with the rest of the team.

Snyder has a habit of using a lot of kinetic camera movement and that’s okay but given the massive amount of CGI being used in the movie the effect becomes mind-numbing and overwhelming. It’s visual overload and not in a good way. I would have preferred a little less CGI and a lot more character development but Snyder hasn’t shown the latter to be one of his strengths in any movie that he’s undertaken to date.

For me, the biggest problem with Justice League is Steppenwolf. Not so much in Hinds’ performance capture or his voice work but simply the character as written has absolutely no personality whatsoever and he just felt like a cookie cutter villain who is all like “Oh yes, I want to destroy the world because..” *yawn*

Even with all that going against that I still think that this movie gives some hope that the DCEU can turn things around. As I said there’s been a massive shake-up at the top with a new executive overseeing the franchise – Walter Hamada from New Line who helped build The Conjuring into a multi-film universe that has been as successful in every sense of the word as the DCEU has not been. Although the jury is out on whether Affleck will remain as the Batman for any further films (smart money is that he won’t), Gadot is a proven commodity and it appears both Momoa and Fisher have the ability to take a franchise film and run with it. With the Shazam movie on the horizon as well as a sequel to Wonder Woman there is still something to look forward to in the DCEU. I’m not sure they’re ready to equal Marvel’s cinematic success but there’s no reason to assume that they can’t get there.

REASONS TO GO: The film was reasonably entertaining. Momoa and Fisher acquitted themselves well. Affleck and Gadot continue to impress in their roles. There is still hope that the DCEU can turn itself around.
REASONS TO STAY: Miller’s Flash is way too annoying. The camera is too kinetic and the screen too filled with CGI, making everything look overwhelming and busy. Steppenwolf had zero personality which is a massive problem for your lead villain.
FAMILY VALUES: The film is loaded with action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Snyder’s daughter passed away during shooting; at first he and his wife (a producer on the film) tried to stay on as a way to work through their grief but after two months both decided to step down to spend time with their family. Joss Whedon stepped in and completed post-production as well as overseeing some reshoots
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avengers: Age of Ultron
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story

Advertisements

The LEGO Movie


You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it's black.

You can get the Batmobile in any color, as long as it’s black.

(2014) Animated Feature (Warner Brothers) Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco, Charlie Day, Will Forte, Cobie Smulders, Channing Tatum, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Shaquille O’Neal, Keegan-Michael Key, Jadon Sand, Melissa Sturm. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Okay, when you’re wrong you’re wrong and I was wrong. I thought that a movie about LEGOs, the plastic brick building set for kids, would be as cold and as soulless as the bricks they were essentially pimping – a 100 minute LEGO ad. Far from it, as it turns out.

Emmet (Pratt) is an ordinary construction guy, as innocuous as they come. He lives in Bricksburg, a dynamic town which is constantly building and demolishing then building again so it pays to be a construction worker. People don’t really notice Emmet and he doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Did I mention that Bricksburg was built entirely out of LEGO bricks?

People conform in Bricksburg. Everyone’s favorite TV show is Where Are My Pants? and everyone’s favorite song is “Everything is Awesome!” (which I have to admit is awfully catchy). Everyone knows their place and what they’re supposed to do.

But then Emmet stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, a mysterious item the likes of which he’s never seen before. This gets the attention of Wyldstyle (Banks), a pretty ninja-like minifigure who also happens to be the girlfriend of Batman (Arnett). She takes Emmet to Vitruvius (Freeman), a blind seer who informs Emmet that he is The Special, the subject of a prophecy that states that The Special will save everybody.

You see, the ruthless and megalomaniacal President Business (Ferrell) intends to unleash a fearsome weapon, the Kragle, on the unsuspecting people of the various LEGO worlds – Bricksburg among them but including places like Middle Zealand (a suspiciously Tolkein-esque fantasy world), the Wild West and Cloudcuckooland which is kind of a disco rainbows and unicorns kind of place.  Only the Piece of Resistance can stop the Kragle and only the Special can wield it. Help will be given in the forms of Metalbeard (Offerman), a pirate who had to reassemble himself from scratch after an encounter with President Business, Superman (Tatum) and his clingy sidekick Green Lantern (Hill), the 80s spaceship-obsessed Benny (Day), the too-cute Unikitty (Brie) and Wonder Woman (Smulders). Chasing them is President Business’ evil henchman Bad Cop (Neeson) whose head swivels into a Good Cop mode, and an army of Micro Managers.

The question is whether Emmet is too ordinary and unimaginative to face down the bad guy. The answer is that Emmet has his own kind of imagination and surprisingly, it comes in handy when they need it.

Lord and Miller who surprised with better than I would have thought they would have been adaptations of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street show again that it is not smart to underestimate them. They are an imaginative pair of filmmakers with a terrific visual sense and a quirky sense of humor. They aren’t household names but after this one they may be the most sought-after animation directors in Hollywood. They certainly deserve to be.

The visual flair here is near-perfect; everything and by that I mean everything looks to be made of LEGO other than in a live action sequence that I don’t want to spoil. They are so creative with the bricks that even the ocean looks like moving bricks. Lord and Miller go for an almost stop-motion feel in the on-screen movements so at time you almost believe that rather than this being all animated on the computer (which it is) that someone went to the trouble and time of assembling everything out of LEGOs.

I will admit that I’m of a generation whose LEGO experience is pretty basic compared to what you see here. We didn’t have many of the special brick types and we had a limited color palate – red, black, white, yellow and grey. We certainly didn’t have the mini-figures – that came later. People of my age will probably find a good deal of the LEGO in-jokes flying over their heads.

But most parents and most kids will find this right in their sweet spot. Everyone, even those my age, will appreciate Arnett’s spot-on performance as Batman (who is a little bit of a prick) as well as Ferrell who gets a surprising scene at the end of the film that helps truly elevate the film. Pratt, best known for his work in Parks and Recreation, is appropriately upbeat as Emmet, also adding some unexpected depth by the end of the movie.

This is the kind of work that made Pixar great and given that Pixar themselves have been less-than-stellar of great, it is a bit of a relief to know that quality kids movies are still being made. Hopefully this movie – which is making some truly impressive box office hay in the first two weekends of release – will inspire Pixar to raise their bar, which they are fully capable of. I know it certainly is inspiring me to want to go out and build something with LEGOs which I imagine is exactly what the makers of LEGO wanted all along so I suppose it turns out to be a 100-minute advertisement after all.

REASONS TO GO: Appealing to both kids and adults. Terrific animation and creativity. Some nice vocal performances by Arnett, Pratt and Ferrell.

REASONS TO STAY: Those unfamiliar with the various LEGO building sets and animations may miss a good deal of the humor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some innocuous violence and a bit of rude humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Vitruvius was named after a 1st century BC author and architect who wrote important volumes on the science of architecture. The word “architect” can roughly be translated as “master builder.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toy Story

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Monuments Men

Top 5 Movie Superheroes That Didn’t Start Out in Comic Books


MegaMind is something of an homage to the superhero comic books that are as indelible a part of the American landscape as the Super Bowl and Disney World. Of late, the movies have picked up on the viability of the great superhero characters, from Marvel (Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men) to DC (Batman, Superman) and the independents (Hellboy, Kick-Ass). They’ve even gotten into the act of creating their own superheroes, some of which have had comic books created for them. Here are the best of them.

HONORABLE MENTION

Captain Zoom (Tim Allen) in Zoom (2006) didn’t benefit from being in a really good movie, but that’s the breaks. While the movie is a forgettable mess, the character had a good deal of potential as a kind of cross between The Flash and a kind of alcoholic, broken-down Yoda. Allen did his best here and in a better movie, Captain Zoom would have rocked. The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church) wasn’t the most likable hero you’ll ever find, not even among his own group, The Specials (2000) but he still had something likable about him. This low-budget movie about heroes who weren’t on the A-list was barely seen, either theatrically or even on cable but it deserved a better fate. More soap opera than superhero film, it was more of a study of life in the limelight more than a special effects extravaganza which might be why audiences stayed away. Finally, while not strictly about a superhero, Jingle All the Way (1996) contains Turbo Man, a TV superhero whose action figure became the center of attention for Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sinbad. Arnold even got to try the suit with all of its nifty gadgets. While played strictly for laughs, there weren’t very many of those as it turned out.

5. CAPTAIN EXCELLENT, PAPER MAN (2009)

Captain Excellent, played by soon-to-be superhero expert Ryan Reynolds, acts as more of a conscience for writer Jeff Daniels in this indie comedy. While his superpowers are essentially undefined, Excellent appears from time to time to counsel Daniels who is pretty much falling apart in real life. It’s an interesting role and an offbeat use for a costumed hero; quite frankly, I thought it quirky enough to make the list.

4. SHARKBOY, LAVAGIRL, THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL (2005) 

Robert Rodriguez has become rather adept at CGI-heavy kid films like Spy Kids and this superhero adventure, which features pre-teen heroes shepherding a daydreamer of a boy to a far out world. The dream world sequences were filmed in 3D while the real world sequences were presented in regular 2D, which meant that audiences were taking off and putting on their 3D glasses throughout the movie which was a bit of a drag. However, Sharkboy was played by a pre-Twilight Taylor Lautner which by itself may have plenty of pre-teen girls scrambling to order this on Netflix.  

3. MEGAMIND, MEGAMIND (2010)

 It’s unusual for me to include a movie I just reviewed in the Top 5, but MegaMind is such a great character there was no point in excluding him. Of course, he also has a death ray pointed at my skull at the moment, so that might also have something to do with it. In any case, this is a hero who we can all relate to; someone who has been put down and pushed around all his life to the point where he just gives up on being liked. It is only when he is forced to find his inner hero that he discovers he is a hero for all of us. This may well turn out to be the best animated movie of the year.

2. THE COMMANDER, SKY HIGH (2005) 

Kurt Russell going back to his early Disney movies was always adept at playing the hero; giving him superpowers was a masterstroke of an idea. In this teen comedy, he is the most famous hero there is, married to a beautiful super-heroine and father to a son who may eclipse the accomplishments of his parents, but on whom the pressure has become so great that he can’t perform. This was meant to become a Disney Channel series but the movie never really generated enough revenue, so despite the terrific performance of Russell (and Lynda Carter as the school principal), this remains a movie that is all about what could have been.

1. THE INCREDIBLES, THE INCREDIBLES (2004)

I admit a soft spot in my heart for this movie, and many a fellow comic book fanboy knows why. This is a comic book superhero team done Pixar-style. It incorporates many elements of typical comic superhero teams, making them a family (very much influenced by the Fantastic Four) with an alpha male (Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) who ironically enough had Reed Richards’ superpower of super elasticity, their son speedy Dash (Spencer Fox) and force field-generating daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell). There are references to 60s spy movies as well as the comic book heroes of the 90s and before. It’s a terrific movie and the heroes are all heroes I’d follow in the comics, which really is the benchmark for any movie hero.

Hollywoodland


Hollywoodland

Adrien Brody gets ready to punch out this photographer in preparing for his next role as Sean Penn.

(Focus) Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck, Diane Lane, Bob Hoskins, Molly Parker, Robin Tunney, Jeffrey DeMunn, Joe Spano, Dash Mihok, Lois Smith, Zach Mills, Larry Cedar, Seamus Dever, Daisy Fuentes. Directed by Allen Coulter

Fame is a glittering object, dazzling and seductive. Many are seduced by the incandescent glow that promises immortality, adoration and wealth. Fame is also vain, fickle and cruel and it can turn on you, eat you alive from the inside and spit you out, a desiccated husk. It has happened in Hollywood too many times to count and the names of those who fell victim to the allure of Tinseltown is long. One name on it is George Reeves.

Reeves (Affleck) is an actor who once had a small role in Gone With the Wind. He came to Hollywood looking for fame and glory and finding it a political entity in which the major studios had absolute autocratic control. Trying to break in, despite his matinee idol looks and acting chops, is near-impossible. However, he does manage to land a role in a TV series that doesn’t have much of a chance for survival – in fact, it has no sponsor whatsoever, usually the kiss of death in the television landscape of the 1950s.

Still, Reeves needs the money and although he has doubts about the quality of the show and his role in it, he takes the paycheck and dons the grey and brown tights of – Superman. The show becomes a hit to everyone’s surprise and Kellogg’s Cereal takes the sponsorship of the show, allowing them to film in color (and allowing Reeves to don the more familiar blue and red tights seen in the comic books).

Reeves becomes a hero to million of kids and his life is forever changed. He chafes under the restrictions of the role and fears that typecasting as Superman will effectively end his aspirations for a serious acting career, fears that are realized after Superman is canceled. Despondent over what is apparently a dead-end dream, he says good night to some guests (which included his fiancee, Lenore Lemmon (Tunney) whom he was due to marry in three days) at a small dinner party in his home the evening of June 16, 1959, calmly walked upstairs and shot himself in the head.

The police called it a suicide and closed the case with unseemly haste. The victim’s mother, Helen Bessolo (Smith) contracts a private investigator to look into a case that the police have already written off. Louis Cimo (Brody) is a bottom feeder, reduced to accepting money from a delusional paranoid (Cedar) who believes with absolute certainty that his wife is cheating on him, despite the lack of any evidence to support his claim. Cimo, a headstrong headline-hunting investigator who prefers to do much of his work through the press, is divorced and living a squalid existence. When a police buddy (Mihok) steers Cimo towards Bessolo, he takes on what he hopes will be a high-profile case that might get him noticed, and in turn generate more business.

As he investigates further, he begins to find out more about the man George Reeves. He discovers early on that Reeves is having an affair with Toni Mannix (Lane), the aging wife of powerhouse mogul Eddie Mogul (Hoskins), a bigwig at MGM. She buys him a house and supports him in getting the part that he will forever become identified with, much to the delight of his agent (DeMunn). Still, George chafes at his situation; he doesn’t necessarily want to be a kept man.

As Cimo delves into the case, things turn ugly. He is given a terrible beating and warned to back off. He becomes disillusioned when one of his previous cases turns to tragedy, and he descends further into alcoholism, imperiling his relationship with his son (Mills) and his estranged wife (Parker). As he gets closer to the truth, he realizes that the truth is a dangerous commodity in a town built on creating illusion.

This is a film noir thriller at heart, one which relies on shadows and grit to create a mood. There is a certain degree of fatalism in the movie; the more we get to know Reeves, the more likable he becomes and the more tragic his death is. Director Coulter, whose background is in some of HBO’s most critically acclaimed series including The Sopranos, Sex in the City and Six Feet Under, recreates Hollywood in the late ‘50s nicely. Although the studios remain all-powerful, their grip is slowly slipping as the aging moguls rail against the TV monster that is evaporating their audience before their eyes. It is a town built on the dreams and the desperations of the young, and both qualities are captured nicely.

It doesn’t hurt that Coulter has a terrific cast to draw on. Lane, Brody and Hoskins are all Oscar winners or nominees, and they all do exceptional work here. Brody, in particular, has the most expressive eyes I think in Hollywood; often the expression in his eyes is far more telling than the dialogue.

Better still is Affleck, whose career has been on the downswing ever since his disastrous hook-up with J-Lo. He is charismatic, vulnerable and flawed and he makes George Reeves a real, breathing human being which is a difficult task given that most of us that remember him at all remember the smiling man in the horrible Superman suit. This is the kind of performance that can really turn things around for him and get him some roles that better suit his talents than the ones he has been reduced to lately.

The movie presents several of the theories of what really happened to Reeves to this day. Although suicide continues to be the official verdict, there are many who believe that Reeves was murdered, a belief that persists to this day. Eddie Mannix, who had mob ties, may have been responsible as well as his fiancee, whom it was rumored that George was going to break up with. Most who knew him couldn’t believe that he was suicidal; he had just started filming a new Alfred Hitchcock movie (which turned out to be Psycho – his scenes were refilmed with Martin Balsam in the role) and he was optimistic that he had a future as a director or producer.

The movie does seem to take a position at the very end (although the filmmakers are coy even with this) and you won’t walk out of the theater with a feeling like you know what happened. At this point, it is unlikely that the questions surrounding the case will ever be answered. Still, this is an extremely entertaining movie, well-acted and nicely put together. The language is a little raw, and the movie is a little short on lightness to balance the darkness, but all in all this is something I can confidently recommend to just about anyone. Note the “R” rating, however.

WHY RENT THIS: Affleck nails his role, making Reeves feel both human and vulnerable as well as egotistical and frustrated. Director Coulter captures the period and the place nicely. Supporting cast is superb.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The tone is unrelentingly grim. Anyone looking for insight into the death of George Reeve may walk away disappointed.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic violence, particularly in the depiction of Reeves’ death, as well as some sexuality and a great deal of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Alvis automobile that Reeves is shown washing is an extremely rare vehicle which the producers had a difficult time finding but eventually had one of the few remaining models shipped to the set for filming. Reeves actually drove an Alvis, although not the same model shown here.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Bourne Ultimatum