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.

Nocturnal Animals

I’d considered a video post for this film comment so that you could hear the tone in my voice as I spoke about it. I have been told by family members and some of my students that I have a way of sounding that can be harsh and sharp and bitingly dismissive, often without any intention. Well let me say, I have every intention with this review but I thought better than to subject you to the bile of my notes in an auditory fashion and will leave them to your imagination instead. I hated this movie. I hated the characters, I hated the attitude, and I hated that I was so irritated by it. The trailer suggests that this is a thriller with a revenge theme built in. There is a revenge theme in the movie, but the thriller part is all a distraction to show off  creative story telling tools which only makes the movie more irritating.

Director Tom Ford made one movie before this, the well respected “A Single Man”. He is apparently best known as a fashion designer. In this movie it shows. The film is full of images that are designed to evoke a reaction. Amy Adam’s character Susan, has a house that is all clean lines, grey and black contrasts, and there is almost nothing to suggest that human beings actually live there. It is as if it were put together by a sales stager for Hollywood mansions. The offices she works in look like outtakes from the set of “2001”, round rooms with tiered levels all in white. Since she is an art dealer/curator and Ford moves in those circles, maybe he has it right, but the impact is to make the pretentiousness that he seemingly is mocking, feel even more pretentious. If you can get past the opening titles without thinking about how hypocritically artsy they are, maybe you will be able to enjoy this film. I prefer the way Susan sees it, she speaks of her opening that night as being “Shit”. You might think that Ford is saying the same thing, but that is not the attitude the camera takes nor is it the viewpoint of the editing. There is nothing subtle about the way this movie is made. Ford even goes so far as to have the word REVENGE, mocked up as a piece of art on display at the offices of Susan’s company.

The one aspect of the film that I do admire is the narrative structure of the film. There are three stories being told simultaneously,  and that works to make the connections between them understandable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays two parts, Susan’s ex husband Edward and the lead character in the novel that Edward has written, Tony a husband and father. We get plenty of Tony’s stopry and if it had been the plot of the film without all of the literary and personal baggage surrounding it, this might have been an effectively dark thriller. Instead, it turns out to be a piece of work designed to be a big “FU” to his ex wife. We barely get any of that story and Ford the scrip[t writer relies on a five minute piece of exposition with Laura Linney, as a way of short cutting that part of the story. It just does not work. Armie Hammer plays Susan’s current husband and his moments in the film feel so thin that they might just be some applique that Ford is putting on his dress to try and make it more interesting. Again, it doesn’t work.

There were two references that occurred to me as I was watching this movie.The first is “The World According to Besenhaver” a novel within a novel, from the book The World According to Garp”. In that book, the violent and revolting story is told as a way of expunging a character’s guilt. The author becomes famous for the book but ultimately has very negative feeling about it’s success. “Nocturnal Animals” is the title of the book Edward has written and dedicated to his ex-wife. Rather than exorcising his demons, the story allows them to run wild and attempt to punish Susan for her abandonment of their life. In the visualization of the story, Tony’s wife and daughter are doppelgangers for  Susan and her own daughter. The anguish and destruction of Tony as a character is Edward vomiting his bile on Susan’s consciousness. The second reference that this film evoked in me was to a film called “The Rapture”. In that film, a woman who finds redemption in her life in Christianity, has it ripped away from her in the most cosmic manner imaginable. This film has two equally unfulfilling endings, one for the novel and one for the lead character. Having devoted two hours to the film, I felt ripped off by an incomplete resolution to one story and an unsatisfying but at least understandable ending to the other.

The performers are all fine in portraying characters that are flawed, but ultimately those characters are reprehensible. Susan is the shallow and unsatisfied woman her mother predicts she will be. Hammer never establishes any character that would matter. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays a character that we all might enjoy seeing tortured to death. Gyllenhaal is sympathetic as Edward when he and Susan are together, but as the unseen author of the manuscript, he is a monster. Only Michael Shannon as the fictional Bobby Andes, a West Texas detective with a strong sense of justice elicits any of our sympathy. The film is clever and well shot and acted but it will make you want to take a long hot shower before you go out into civilized society again. The dark characters of Gyllenhaal’s movie “Nightcrawler” were also awful, but that movie had something to say about the world and especially the media. This movie is a cruel joke played on an audience who might be expecting a thriller and who are subsequently tortured themselves by having to endure the unpleasantness that passes for art in Mr. Ford’s film.

Arrival

Well, the title of this film could easily be announcing the start of the awards season as well as first contact with aliens. Amy Adams is a front-runner for acting honors and the film has an outside chance at being included on a honer list of nominees if the voting works out right. The last film I saw was the Mel Gibson directed “Hacksaw Ridge and along with this movie, we are now getting to the meat of the quality film season. “Arrival” is a cerebral science fiction film that manages to build tension with almost no violence at all, and it ponders some interesting questions about the nature of the planet and our future. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951 raised many of the same questions and used a similar style of tension to hold us in it’s thrall. “Arrival” has a story that is much different but themes that are similar and a tone that mirrors that sixty-five year old film precisely. We probably need that sort of message every half century or so.

Louise Banks is a linguist, who is recruited by the government to lead a team trying to communicate with the occupants of an alien craft that is located in one of twelve spots around the globe. The American team is working in Montana, a location that is remote enough to keep millions of people away, by also central enough that the whole country might feel threatened by the ship’s presence. If you remember the cover story used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you know that there might very well need to be secrecy when a first contact event takes place. The “X-Files” made the notion of secrecy a paranoid environment for intrigue, but this movie confronts the reality of what such an event would do to the planet. Panic, fear, riots and economic disruption of our way of life would be inevitable. The film shows these things only as news background though. The focus is not on how the social fabric of civilization might be torn by such an occurrence, but rather how it might be responded to by the leadership and scientific personnel that we trust.

I have a casual interest in linguistics as it relates to human communication. My problem is that I have no facility with language or patience with mathematics. So I am an outsider looking in on the process that was being explored here. I understood parts of it but frequently felt as if I should be getting more because after all, I am a communications person. Jeremy Renner is Adam’s counterpart from the math end of the team. As Ian Donnelly, he works with Louise to solve the puzzles of an alien language so that we as a planet can figure out whether to embrace the contact or fear it. The two of them have some great scenes where they in essence are acting against a screen, much like a giant aquarium, hoping to find a path and pattern to the linguistic puzzle. Adams must emote to light and early on through a hazmat suit. Inevitably, in order to make breakthroughs, the contact will have to be closer. In “Darmok”an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Captain must manage to communicate with a species that uses only metaphor. As complicated as that might be, this film quadruples the challenge because the communication issues involve four dimensions, and we ultimately discover that the key to understanding is in the dimension we have the least ability at the moment to function in.

There is a prologue sequence that at first seems to be setting up our main character. That five minute section establishes Adams as a person, but there is far more going on here than we first suspect. I always avoid spoilers but I feel safe in saying that the devastating sequence, nearly as effective as the opening of the film “Up” will be understood in greater depth as the movie goes on. Amy Adams is wonderful as she goes through a nightmare scenario, but also as she relives it in several spots in the film. In addition to the moments of wonder that she impresses us with, there are expressions of pain and memory that are just as significant. This film is very nicely put together by director Denis Villenevue, to give us a non-linear story that we don’t even realize is happening in front of us. There are however a few clues as we go through the film. The picture window that looks out on the property that Adams experiences the prologue events through, is nearly identical in shape and background as the window in the alien vessel. The disconcerting gravity and physics of entering the alien ship are similar to the distortion that comes in a dream or memory.

The music of the film is oppressive without being dour, and that gives the story a feeling of expectation that the visuals also live up to. It is a science fiction film, but not one based on spectacle. The ships are simple, the vision of technology is interesting and the alien design is not anthropomorphic but it is not frightening in the way we see in most films about invaders from another world. The thing that works the best in the story from my point of view is the depiction of human uncertainty. The various countries that have contact with the pods communicate through a network, but they also disengage and keep secrets. There are no “bad” guys per se, rather there are people making the best decision they can with the information available to them. The Chinese General who appears to be turning the contact into a conflict, is simply acting in the best interests of humanity as he sees it. The problem is that communication with the aliens is not the only communication problem that the governments and scientists face. Humans are limited in their ability to frame information by their experience. It takes a whole new kind of experience to change any perceptions.

There is not much humor in the film but there is a great deal of humanity. Not everything will be explained by the resolution of the story. There are blind spots and questions about how any of this could work. Having seen “Interstellar” for a second time just a few weeks ago, reminds me that there are tough questions that are hard to answer when you get to theoretical physics. I will say that I hope the answer to one of those questions is in fact a piece of humor found in the movie. I now want to check out the places in the world that Sheena Easton had a big hit on the radio in 1980.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

We live in a binary world. At least we do in the current times. People play games like “Would you Rather?” or they swipe left or right. With the rise of social media, the desire for instant gratification has encouraged the most extremes of views to be the ones we pay the most attention to. The whole idea of social comparison has been reduced to “It’s Awesome” or “It Sucks.” Well my friends, on this blog we don’t play by simple binary rules. Even though the title of today’s subject seems to suggest we come down on one side for one hero or the other, the world is more complicated than that, and so is this movie. If all you are looking for is an instant up or down, prepare to be disappointed. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice”, is not the holy grail that comic book fans would hope for, but it is also not the POS that so many haters on the internet are willing to tag it as. As a story it is something of a mess, as a movie it is a puzzlement, but as a spectacle it is pretty impressive and there are some other small things to recommend it.

Here is another example of the twofold choice that is foisted upon us by our social peers: D.C. or Marvel? The success of the Marvel Universe in the movie theaters over the last few years is a credit to patience and planning as well as good writing. Starting with “Ironman” the comic worlds of the Marvel stories have been brought to life and linked very effectively. Even though there are glaring failures with Marvel Product, that can usually be attributed to rights issues which have resulted in three different studios trying to manage the comic universe. Disney now owns the most successful of these and with “The Avengers” has merged them together into the kinds of elaborate story lines that readers of the comics have enjoyed. Cross pollination has produced some fun moments and at least two great films, “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”.  Certainly, the D.C. comics, with the most iconic Super heroes of all times could do the same. The Christopher Nolan Batman films are pretty much a separate property that Warner Brothers would like to merge into a cohesive Universe with Superman. 2013’s “Man of Steel” was an attempt to restart that franchise with an eye to building a comparable comic universe to the Marvel films.

One of my major complaints about the new version of Superman is that the story and the character are so serious as to lack any joy at all. Henry Cavill has a sly smile that could be used effectively if the screenwriters and the director choose to do so, if any of you saw last year’s “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” you know what I am talking about. There is really only one moment when Clark Kent/Superman seems like he might be enjoying his time her on Earth, of course if you came home to Amy Adams sitting in the bathtub, you would smile too. That’s about it though. There should be more by play between the main characters and there is not much. The only other time a smile might cross your face when this film is running is when Wonder Woman shows up and the two guys simply look at each other and “wonder” where she came from. Superman gets duped a couple of times in the film and that feels like a problem also. Cavill’s best scenes are with his co-stars from the original film he appeared in, otherwise he seems to be brooding and angry most of the time.

Now you expect Bruce Wayne/Batman to brood, after all he is “The Dark Night”. One of the things that should surprise the pessimists about this film is the performance and portrays of Batman by Ben Affleck. A redeeming feature of this film is that it accurately suggests that there is an aftermath to the wanton destruction that took place in the earlier film. This story connects Bruce Wayne to those events as an eyewitness and a victim. Batman’s frustration with taking down criminals is exactly right, they are like weeds, as soon as you pull up one, another rises to take it’s place. This Bruce Wayne is suspicious of Superman and willing to try to take a stand, even though Alfred and the rest of us can see that it is a little bit driven by tunnel vision. Affleck does a good job playing a conflicted and grim Bruce Wayne as he tries to figure out what plots are afoot and what role Superman plays in them. There is a scene at a fancy reception given by Lex Luthor, that allows Afflect to play detective and try to flirt a little. Just like Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne is given an insufficient amount of time with his personal life to feel much of a stake. Jeremy Irons is a great choice to play Alfred, but he is very under-utilized in the movie and that is a pity.

Neither character gets much of a chance to make an impact on us emotionally because so many things are happening in the story it is hard to keep track. Kryptonite is being discovered, as is Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor is plotting three different things at once, some of which feel unnecessary in the long run. There is an investigation into Superman’s intervention in a terrorist camp and a disgruntled victim of the war with Zod is part of the intrigue. In the course of two and a half hours, there are a half dozen story lines and they are interspersed with flashbacks and dream sequences so often that it is sometimes difficult to tell how it all fits together and what actions really are supposed to be taking place. It does not help that Jesse Eisenberg has been directed to play Lex Luthor as a victim of ADHD with a touch of paranoia. Comic book fans who complain about the villain monologuing the hero, should appreciate the frequency with which Eisenberg simply can’t complete an idea out loud, or in one very obvious case, coherently. This film is really a straight drama with very little in the way of heroics. The drama is complicated and the characters are shown in such murky circumstances that it is hard to fathom motive even when the actions are explained. One person in our group put it in a straight forward way, “Why can’t Superman and Batman see that they are being manipulated and simply kick Luthor’s ass?” That’s a good question and it is not an easy one to answer.

So, at this point we have that the tone is grim, the plot is convoluted, the characters lack much character, and it is long. So whats there to recommend? Well, the look of the film is impressive in scope and original in conception. Batman’s toys are integrated into the story well and as I’ve already said, Afflect does a fine job with an older, discouraged and angry Batman character. There are two sequences with Superman’s family that are pretty solid, and Amy Adams is naked in the bathtub. So that’s an inventory of what’s good about this film, is there anything great in it?  The best element of the film is Wonder Woman, who is kept mysterious for the most part and arrives on the scene in a moment spoiled by the trailers for the movie but still able to give us a thrill. Gal Gadot was in four of the “Fast and Furious” movies and I don’t remember her at all [OK, I’ve only seen three of them myself, but she was in all three of those],  here you will definitely remember her. She is shooting a stand alone “Wonder Woman” movie and her presence in this film, makes me want to see that. I  also like the seeds that have been planted for future films featuring characters from the Justice league. The problem that I foresee is that the tone of each of those stories will be as down as these first two films have been.

 

We need a little less sturm and drang, and a lot more character. The central characters don’t have to be cartoons but they could be more human by having some emotion other than being pissed off. Two charismatic actors are being played with by director Zack Snyder. He has them as his action figures to move through an afternoon of a child’s version of a story, “fight-explosion-fight-chase-fight.” The screenwriters need to take a lesson from the films from the past that used these characters. We should like them because they have strength but also personality. A shot like Michael Keaton in gravity boots or Christopher Reeve discovering that phone booths have become phone kiosks, would go a long way in creating some goodwill for these projects. Spectacle is enough for now, but if you want people to stay engaged for a dozen more films from this universe, you better give us more to care about.