Justice League

The DC Universe has been a controversial playground for film fans and comics aficionados. With the exception of this years earlier entry in the collection, “Wonder Woman“, the films have not had a great deal of enthusiastic reception. That has not kept them from being financially successful, but it does leave fans dissatisfied and ready to jump on the next film with every misstep. “Justice League” will probably continue that trend instead of reversing it. Many of the issues that cause hesitation are still present in this entry, but despite the mistakes, this film was satisfactory in accomplishing some of it’s goals but mostly in entertaining the audience. It may not be “Wonder Woman” but it is a step up from the murkiness of the other films that preceded it.

 

Goal number one, get all of the characters in this Universe introduced and started on their own stories. “Man of Steel” was supposed to do that for Superman, and it did set up a lot of the material that has followed, but it was stodgy and grim and lacked the spark that made the Christopher Reeve films fun. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that Clark Kent/Superman does play a significant role in this movie. More on that later, I’ll put a mild spoiler warning on that section for anyone who wants to go into this blind. Batman got reintroduced in “Batman vs. Superman“, a film that was convoluted but had some great spectacle and the irresistible appeal of the two superheroes dueling.  Ben Affleck’s Batman was more impressive in that film, here he seems to be less engaged. It’s not until near the finale that Affleck starts to give the character the energy we want. Gal Gadot can do no wrong this year. She is the character that we most want to see and she leads the narrative strings around so that everyone else can follow what the heck is going on in the story. I’m not tired of seeing her fight CGI bullies yet, but at least she gets a more complete one to fight here than she did in the stand alone film.

Three new characters get introduced in a more elaborate manner than the brief thirty seconds they were afforded in the prior film. You would think with so much to do that the story lines would begin to feel over stuffed. That’s not the case with these three characters. Judicious editing and story telling give us just enough on each one so that we feel they do really exist in this Universe, but we don’t dwell on their backgrounds more than is necessary. I suspect that Jason Momoa as the Aquaman will be a big hit with the fairer sex. My wife liked him quite well and his belligerent humor was one of the things that helped make this movie a little more fun.  Ray Fisher has to perform under prosthetic metal and through elaborate CGI accoutrements, but he still makes a solid impression. His character has the most detailed backstory and includes actor Joe Morton, a face that should be familiar to fans from his association with another cybernetic character. The breakout character however has to be Ezra Miller’s Flash. Like a yopung Justin Long, Miller comes across with puppy dog enthusiasm and a sense of humor that is sorely needed in this Universe.  There is a mid-credit stinger that you will want to wait for that gives him one more chance to make us laugh.

[Something of a mild spoiler ahead]

The best thing about this film however is the restoration of a sense of humanity to Superman. In the initial stages of his return, we are threatened with a repeat of the grim countenance of Kalel and it looks like “Man of Steel” will repeat. Somewhere after Henry Cavill reunites with Amy Adams as Lois and Diane Lane as his mom, Clark Kent returns and Superman becomes something much closer to the character we love.  When the final battle begins, Superman shows up and it feels like Christopher Reeve is being channeled by Cavill. There is a spot where he gets to smile and suddenly, this feels like the movie I have wanted all along. I don’t mind the series being more serious, but our main characters have to give us something to root for. Finally, I think the series is getting to that point. I like the work of Zack Snyder for the most part, but he does have those crutches he relies on for drama in the fights. He is the credited director although Joss Whedon took over in the last few months when Snyder had to step away from his project for personal reasons. Maybe Whedon lightened things up a bit, but this is definately the film that Snyder has been nurturing to fruition for several years.

The antagonist in this story is another CGI creation, but there is at least some backstory and it does not feel rushed. The transformation of the planet into a world that the character wants is  mechanical in nature, but it was tempered with a little family story to make the stakes more meaningful. If everything is about the end of the world every time, it is going to get a little boring. This brief side trip from time to time reminds us of the human stakes involved. This is the sort of thing that seemed to be missing from the earlier films. The stakes have to be something that we can relate to or else it is just going through the motions.

I enjoyed the film far more than the second wave of negative word would have me expecting. Early reviews were promising, round two was wholly negative, and now I have seen it for myself. They have not solved all of the problems the DC franchises have faced but they did make great strides into turning this into something more than just a money making enterprise. If the new characters are given a chance to shine a bit more and Superman keeps up the more optimistic demeanor, I will be able to look forward to more of these films. It is probably a good idea to allow some other directors a chance to invigorate these stories, but the Snyder lead trilogy has set a better framework than many critics have asserted. Good news for film fans, it is also just two hours.

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Only the Brave

Most of us will never have to do anything that is heroic in a death defying manner. We will get chances to take heroic positions or act in a manner that is consistent with our principles, but very few of us will be called on to look death in the face in order to protect others. That is one of the reasons that films like this work for me. I have to live vicariously and deploy my empathy for men and women who put themselves on the line every day. Our military, police, firefighters and other first responders have something in them that makes them step forward and say, “My Turn”. Sometimes the stakes of those voluntary actions are grave and this is one of those stories.

I think people have a general understanding of what firefighters in a structure fire face. Everyone has probably heard the saying about those souls, “When everyone else is running out of the building, they are running in.” The people who fight wildfires are working in a completely different environment. There may be no place to run. They set backfires rather than extinguish fires, and their incident may go on for days not simply hours. “Only the Brave” is a film about these types of heroes and the work and sacrifice they go through. I really enjoy films that show me lifestyles and working conditions that are new to me. The cultures and labor of these people can be fascinating. Military stories based on true events, like “Dunkirk“, “13 Hours” or “Lone Survivor” carry with them the weight of history. Even when a story is fictional, like “Battle L.A.“, with aliens invading the planet, the opportunity to watch dedicated people do the things they are trained for inspires me. “Only the Brave” emulates those films by showing us similar kinds of struggles but in a much less familiar context. There are thousands of war films, but movies about dangerous occupations where you don’t carry a gun are much more scarce. The most comparable film to this that I can think of in the last few years is “Deepwater Horizon“.

Since this movie is also based on a real world event, some of you going in will already know the outcome. I know I largely knew what was coming. My daughter did not so she was unprepared for how overwhelming the events in this story would be. Now obviously, this film is an entertainment so liberties are probably taken in events or dialogue to make things more compelling, but there is nothing in this film that does not feel real to a degree. Even the personal stories, which can sometimes be hyped up to make the background more engaging, still seem like they could be everyday experiences for the kinds of people the story depicts.

Miles Teller is a young actor who is making quite a mark on the film business. He was incredible in my favorite film of 2014, “Whiplash”. He has another film out at this same time “Thank You for Your Service”, which is on my “want to see” list. It looks like he has some turkeys  on his resume, but they are offset but some solid performances in quality films like this. Here he plays Brendan McDonough, a young man floating on the edge of self destruction through drug use. He finds a need to redeem himself and a path to do so in joining the firefighting team of Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, the Prescott Arizona supervisor. This municipal unit is attempting to get certified as a “Hotshot” unit, the first line of defense in wildfires. The film has some local politics and extended training sequences and that may feel a little familiar, but it is a legitimate part of the story. The domestic issues that Brolin’s character and his wife, played by Jennifer Connely, have are maybe a little melodramatic but they are not over the top. Teller is a wastrel, trying to change so that he can be a man that his new daughter can depend on. Of course he has a troubled past and the others on the team are suspicious of him, but as in most workplaces, when people come to know each other and especially rely on one another, those relationships develop. Brendan becomes friends with one of his team mates in the unit, another solid turn by actor Taylor Kitch. In a way, Kitch is getting a chance to redeem his career a bit as well. He went from being the next big thing to anonymous very quickly. It is with secondary roles like this and the recent “American Assassin” that he is moving back to a more solid footing as a film performer.

 

Jeff Bridges plays a senior fire official who is assisting  his friend Marsh in trying to get the team certified. Between Bridges and Brolin, you will want to turn down your sub-woofer for home viewing, because they both have their grumbling low pitched delivery styles going. I like the fact that the towns that these guys help protect appreciate the work the team is doing. The folks at the local store or bar, know what it means to do a job like this. Small town America is full of values where neighbors understand each other more often, even when they are not always agreed on things. Of course an official like Bridges character will have a band that plays at the local rodeo or roadhouse. [Bridges by the way is a talented musician]. People in small towns know each other, they see one another at the grocery store or at the local school. When bad things happen, everyone shares in the misery, and when good things happen, they get to bask in the glory of their home town heroes. Be aware that both of these emotions will be present in this story.

The firefighting sequences in this film are harrowing. We have been prepped to know some of the things that are coming because we saw training exercises that deal with those emergencies. Clearly, the best strategies are not always going to work out in the worst case scenario. As the credits role at the end of the film, we get an even greater sense of the enormity of the sacrifice that families and communities make to help each other out. This movie is an excellent tribute to the spirit of small town folk living big time lives. When a film can be dramatically honest and subtle and it still isn’t over the top but it draws you in and makes you care, then you know it is well done. “Only the Brave” might be seen as a cliche by some, but if it would be seen by anyone, you will have a greater understanding of some of the things that make everyday American exceptional.

Thor: Ragnarok

 

If anybody was holding their breath because they were worried about this film, you can let it out now. “Thor: Ragnarok” is as good as promised and entertaining as hell.  I keep hearing how it is the shortest of the Marvel Films, but it did not feel to me like it was shorting us on anything. We got an expansion of the Asgardian Universe, there are significant connections to the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “the Avengers” get to play a little in this sandbox as well. It may not be essential to the progress of the phases of the Marvel plan, but it is a solid stand-alone with enough Easter Eggs to keep the faithful happy.

I want to start with something that is usually a side-note or an endcap to most film reviews, the use of source music. Whatever they paid for the use of the Led Zeppelin “Immigrant Song”, it is worth twice that. You almost certainly heard it in the teaser trailer and you know the hypnotic effect it can have when combined with images from the film. In the movie itself, the tune gets used in two places and each one is just perfect. It works the way the “Mission Impossible” theme does, it underlies the mythos  of Thor, it accentuates the mood and it tells us that a moment of heroic action is on the way. Zeppelin may have been finished since 1980, but the songs have continued to transfix listeners for almost 40 years since they left the stage, with this use of the tune, they will safely be around for forty more years. There is one other tune that gets used in a slightly different spot. It has not been advertised so I won’t spoil it for you, but if you don’t laugh out loud when it comes up, you are either without a sense of humor, or you were never a child of the seventies.

 

Since we are on issues not related so much to the plot, let me explain how valuable a second investment the makers of these movies chose that pays off in spades. The Grandmaster is not an essential character in the Cinematic Universe, but he is essential to the humor in this film. It may be that any movie without Jeff Goldblum in it will never seem funny by comparison. You “Jurassic Park” fans will smile with every line reading. It is as if the funny parts of Ian Malcom were transplanted onto this alien being who has control of a trash planet and uses his power for evil. His line readings are incredibly arch and dry. Goldblum’s facial expressions match the vocal performance with the same kind of wit, it is never over the top but rather pitch perfect for the brief moment we are given it.

Cate Blanchett is Hela, the villainess of the film. Her character has a more reasonable explanation for existence than most of the similar female antagonists in these kinds of films do ( see “The Mummy” or “Suicide Squad for examples). In the big scheme of things, Hela turns out to be a one off for this story, but she was an exceptionally effective one off. Taika Waititi is a director that I am not familiar with although his two prior films have lots of admirers, I’ve yet to see either one of them. He deploys Blanchett in small doses and lets her actually act in some of the scenes rather than simply pose, but she does also get to pose. If the three point stance of a super-hero is now a trope, the slow motion turn of a villain must be as well, and it is used here regularly.

 

The relationship of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor to Tom Hiddlestons Loki, continues to be the thread that holds the line of films together. The characters have grown enough to be interesting, Thor is still arrogant, but he is wiser and his humor is much more self effacing than in previous installments. Loki doesn’t change so much as he does adjust to circumstances. We can almost always count on him to betray his brother, but we can also now see that he understands how important it is to have someone to betray. It is an amusing conundrum. The two actors play off of each other really well. When you throw in Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, it gets even better. At one point Thor gets the treatment that Loki did in “The Avengers” and the smirk of satisfaction on Hiddleston’s face is great.

Earlier this year we got Chris Pine in “Wonder Woman”, this film has a feature role for Karl Urban. Now we somehow have to get Zachery Quinto into one of these super hero stories so that all the main cast of the “Star Trek” films can point to a comic book movie on their resume. I did not recognize Urban at first but I did know that the actor in the part was much better than the part first appeared to require. As the film went on, there was more to it and suddenly we see why you needed an actor like Urban. Anthony Hopkins appears to finish off his role as Odin, the father of the main characters, and a figure of stature that seems to embody the idea of real Gods. He is used sparingly, but just his visage matters in the later parts of the story.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is funny as heck, with a couple of subplots that pay off in the end. I don’t see a huge tie in to the whole Marvel Universe but maybe I was laughing to hard to notice some of the connections. It feels like a seventies psychedelic comic book has come to life. The colors and characters will keep you amused and the story is just about as solid as you can get for a non-Avengers Avengers movie. It’s hard to think of this film as being part of the same world as the Spiderman film we got earlier this year, except someone clearly remembers  that the word “Comic” implies funny.