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.

Little Shop of Horrors Director’s Cut Fathom Events

I loved this movie when it first came out. The humor is sly, the songs are hum-able and the performances were hysterical. I’d actually read about the changes made to the film before it was released. There was an article in the LA Times back in 1986 and Frank Oz talked very openly about how the previews just lost all their energy and enthusiasm when the originally planned ending was shown.  “Little Shop of Horrors” is based on a Roger Corman cheapo film, that was turned into an off-broadway production and it was getting a big screen treatment. It’s not as if they were hacking away at a classic and deciding that  Rick and Ilsa should end up together. The stinger at the end of the film still kept the biting edge alive, without losing the two characters that we had just spent an hour learning to love.

Tonight’s Fathom event features the original ending and I have to say there was a lot about it that was impressive, but they made the right choice thirty-three years ago. To call this a director’s cut is to ignore that Frank Oz himself could see what was happening to the audience, and that is why changes were made. The whole of the movie would be done ten minutes before the film ended. The originally planned ending plays out like a Joe Dante film. Not that that is a bad thing, but it is so different from the tone that was established in the first two acts. We start off with a great musical that sets up scene and characters in act one. Act two establishes the drama and romance that makes a story worth paying attention to, and then act three turns into a Japanese Monster movie with repetitive buildings collapsing. It might have felt like a bigger film but it is not a better film. I had seen some of this material on YouTube but in black and white. There was supposed to be a special edition fifteen years ago but it got pulled at the last moment.  It is available now so this is really a commercial for the blu-ray.

Everyone in the movie is terrific. Seeing this tonight reminds me of how much I miss having Rick Moranis in a movie. I also could not believe that Steve Martin was ignored for a best supporting actor nomination, he is pitch perfect in his role. Because the songs were from the original stage play, they were not eligible for nomination, with the exception of one original song written mostly for the new ending. “Mean Green Mother from Outer Space” may not be a classic, but it was a way to honor the music and lyrics of Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman. Of course two years later, they would be showered with awards for their work on “The Little Mermaid” and the prolific work that follows is impressive.Ellen Greene was so good in this film. She has had a nice career but this most certainly was her crowning achievement and it came early.

This might have been a film I saw with Bob and Susan Gass along with my wife and Dan Hasegawa. I have a distinct memory of talking with Bob about the Greek Chorus of singers and him responding to it because he did not really like musicals. I could be conflating this conversation with the theatrical experience however. I do know that I saw the film again at the home of a Glendale Physician who had a spectacular view from a hillside residence in Glendale. My friend’s sister was house sitting for the Doctor and she invited us to come and look at his home theater. There was a descending screen and a projector that was hooked up to a Laser Disc player.  We looked at his discs and selected”Little Shop” for our evenings pleasure. It sounded great and the picture left VHS presentations in the dust. It was just a couple years later that I made the jump to Laser myself.

 

This is the end of a long week that held some sadness for our family. This seemed just the recipe to get us back on track after the disruption and frustrations. We ate popcorn and basically sang along with the movie. “Suddenly Seymour” and “Somewhere that’s Green” are standouts for me, but I giggled throughout the film at the clever lyrics of Howard Ashman.

American Made

Now that we have talked about the foreigners, let’s discuss a home brewed concoction of history, baloney and Tom Cruise. “American Made” is the supposed true story of Barry Seal, who as a convicted drug smuggler negotiated a deal to assist the D.E.A. in in their investigations. The makers of this film, decide to splice the C.I.A., Iran-Contra and every president from Jimmy Carter up to George W. Bush into this story. I just hope that film goers recognize that Hollywood is a bad place to learn about history, even when it is a good place to make an engaging film.

All of the political material is nearly superfluous, since there is no real agenda in this movie other than to entertain us for a couple of hours.  The time line, characters and general insanity that take place are clearly the invention of creative minds rather than advocates with an agenda. In my opinion, this is the movie that “the Wolf of Wall Street” could have been if that film making crew had stuck to telling an interesting story instead of glorifying in excess and then pontificating at us. Director Doug Liman has the good fortune to have his personable con-man played by the personable Tom Cruise, who shakes off the unfortunate “Mummy” curse with a much more polished performance here.

The visions of excess here do not involve repeated episodes of drug use, sex and humiliation of other human beings. Rather, the situation attempts to lampoon the success of the drug trade by noting how problematic the issue of laundering the money would be. While there is one scene where Cruise as Seal gets covered in the imported product, he does not spend two thirds of the movie cranked up like Leonardo DiCapro. Instead, he is waist deep in cash and can’t find a way to hide the money as fast as he is making it. The story plays out like a comedy version of a double episode of “Miami Vice”. Seal and his wife argue over when he should rake up all the buried cash the dog has dug up. The town that he relocates to is flush with newly created financial institutions that seem to be serving a population of under 3000 with the kinds of banking services you’d find not too far off of Wall Street.

Domhnall Gleeson plays the imaginary C.I.A. recruiter who is supposed to have set Barry down the path to self destruction. He has a great American Accent, but not a very believable role. Sarah Wright plays the spouse of our gun running, drug smuggling, money laundering hero. I’ve not seen her before that I recall but she fits the part as written just fine. Caleb Landry Jones plays the misbegotten brother-in-law JB. Up to the point when his character exits the picture, the film plays like “Hogan’s Heroes” set in Central America. The movie takes a nasty turn after that and you will find that the real life BarrySeal had real life consequences to his actions.

I was a little nonplussed at the inclusion of a sequence that seems to have been taken from last year’s “Jack Reacher” film, also starring Cruise. I suppose the allure of Tom being so untouchable is just too much catnip to resist for film makers. I will however advise that they drop this soon to be Cruise Trope before the next “Mission Impossible”. I don’t think you want your Crown Jewel film franchise to be seen as cribbing from lesser works. Even if they are entertaining.

The Foreigner

Doesn’t everyone like Jackie Chan? Although he has made some political statements over the last few years that I think are ill informed, I still love the guy. He is a true athlete with charisma to burn and even at his age he makes most younger action stars look like they are standing still. His new movie was produced by him and financed by Chinese media companies, but it is as slick an action spy film as you might hope to see for the price. As an added bonus we get two former Bond veterans to go along with it.

If you watch the trailer you might be expecting a straight action revenge film, but there is a lot more involved here. Quan is a bereaved father on a one man mission to take out the terrorists that killed his daughter. To do so he must squeeze whatever resource he can to find out who is at fault. Here is where the extra material comes in. Pierce Brosnan is a Deputy Minister for Northern Ireland, working for the British, he happens to be a former terrorist with the IRA who now seeks the best interests of the area in peace. There are conflicting goals for the people he represents and he is caught in the middle. The plot is full of multiple double crosses, switching loyalties and complex twists of real political events. It’s the usual spy territory and Jackie Chan just happens to have dropped into it.

 

I’ll make a confession here that will probably result in a few points being deducted from my “Man Card”. As  reference let me include this two and a half minute scene from the 1985 movie “VisionQuest”:

 

The way this character responded to Pele’, is the way I respond to Jackie Chan. I feel elevated as a human being when I see the stuff he is capable of doing. I teared up at “Rumble In the Bronx ” twenty years ago because Jackie Chan is so damn graceful and amazing. I didn’t choke up today, but I should have, because he is older than I am and he still does this incredible stuff. He is also a very solid actor in this part. There is no clowning around in the film. We don’t get a shot of that 1000 watt smile of his. Quan is nearly a broken man, and he fights back the tears and memories in a way that reminds us that Chan is not just an athlete but an actor as well.

Brosnan gets a chance to act as well. He is reunited with the director of his first 007 outing, Martin Campbell. Campbell has twice revived James Bond, first with “Golden Eye” and then a dozen years later with “Casino Royale”. He knows his way around material like this. There are some great action sequences true, but he also gets the drawing room show downs right as well. He may not be anyone’s idea of an auteur, but he clearly knows his way around a movie like this. Brosnan is good as the duplicitous minister with a hidden agenda that ties into the events but also shows how good outcomes can’t necessarily justify bad deeds.

 

“The Foreigner” is a well made , standard issue action spy film that is elevated by the presence of the two stars. It may not play well for MI-5’s public relations but those of us who like to see justice done in the cinema world, now have one more film to add to the list. Now can we please get that Jackie Chan, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham movie going? If Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell are available, let’s cast them too.

Happy Death Day

A horror film for 14 year old girls. It’s not particularly scary, it’s not as funny as it could be, and it is designed to mock those things that the Queen Bees do in belittling and mocking the other girls. It is so derivative of “Groundhog’s Day” that it actually mentions “Groundhog’s Day” at the conclusion of the film. There is little to recommend here despite the fun idea of stealing the Bill Murray premise.

From the moment the film starts, the screenplay fills every crevice with suspects. “Tree” our birthday girl, has what appears to be a drunken night with a handsome but apparently socially outcast stranger. Her sorority house is filled with women who might have reasons to hate her, or at least think they do She is having an affair with one of her professors who is a medical doctor, and she meets his wife when they are almost caught in a clinch. She is dodging her Father’s birthday call and brunch appointment. Oh yeah, there is also a serial killer who has been caught and is being treated in the hospital, we learn this from a news broadcast in the background.

If the repeated deaths that “Tree” has to endure were a little more creative, this could have been a lot more fun. It is only the automobile sequence that seems to care about providing thrills. The college mascot of the University she attends is “The Babies” which explains the creepy masks in every dorm, frat, office and locker room on campus. The murder sequences and red herrings are standard stuff and it just does not pop out at you the way these movies need to. This is another case of PG-13 undermining the point of the horror film.

The one thing that the film does manage to do is humanize “Tree” the same way that Bill Murray’s “Phil” learns a little humility. When the film starts, you are not going to have a lot of sympathy for her, but as it progresses, she starts to recognize the bad choices she has made. She can see the “bitch” in the mirror and she tries to rectify that persona as part of the process of discovering who it is that repeatedly murders her.It’;s not a great reason to see the film, but it does give it a little bit of emotional substance.

 

.happy_death_dayThe rules of the repeating universe she finds herself in are not very clear. The injuries she sustains disappear, except when they don’t. In one scenario she kills herself, and that seems odd. Her motivation for that action is partially explained, but why she thinks that solution is better that stopping the whole process is not clear at all.  I probably should not worry about inconsistencies in a movie like this, but sometimes those thoughts creep into your head and then the story premise gets undermined. I saw this on Friday, and there was a pretty big crowd, it’s so embarrassing to be part of a species that will see this movie but not bother with “Blade Runner 2049”.