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.

Trumbo

Well here is a movie that I don’t have to worry about spoilers for at all. “Trumbo” is a biopic that follows a well known chronology concerning events that occurred about sixty years ago. Film fans will be familiar with the lead character, they know the end of the story and the villains for the most part are identified early on. Hedda Hopper would be the main figure of evil in this piece but there is plenty of vitriol to be spread around, and most of Hollywood gets some on them. The script plays it as if Trumbo were a saint with magical powers and a short sighted ego that crushes his family as much as the events that take place do. As with all stories, the history is more convoluted than the film is and we will not in that direction here. Instead we will focus on the film and it’s many fine qualities and few weaknesses.

The greatest asset the film has is it’s star, Bryan Cranston. In the last few years he has moved from being the excellent but often overlooked comic performer in “Malcolm in the Middle” to a celebrated TV performer, who impressed for multiple seasons of “Breaking Bad” and enjoyed the endorsement of many in the industry for his fine work there. He has worked effectively in an ensemble including the award winning “Argo”, but he has not yet shined as a movie star, that is no longer the truth, he fills the screen with talent in this movie. His line delivery is distinctive and works well with many of the grandiose passages of dialogue that have been written for him. Even when he is in simple conversation he sounds as if it could be a speech he is delivering to an audience. That fits the character quite well. His sly smile, furrowed brow and mannerisms with a cigarette holder all feel genuine for the outlandish egocentric that Dalton apparently was.

The supporting cast is also excellent, ranging from Elle Fanning as the apple that does not fall far from the tree to John Goodman as the crass studio head that exploits the blacklisted writers but also respects their work. The film is a who’s who of Hollywood talent. Diane Lane is effective as Trumbo’s wife Cleo and she gets a juicy scene with Cranston when they fight over his behavior. Helen Mirren is Great Britain’s answer to Meryl Streep, always cast well and always excellent in her scenes. With the exception of Dean O’ Gorman as Kirk Douglas, most of the actors portraying famous performers from the period have little resemblance to their real life counterparts. Some nice digital work inserts O’Gorman’s face into a scene from “Spartacus” and that did enhance the believably of that sequence. While John Wayne would probably be considered on the wrong side of the issue, the screenplay makes him a fairly sympathetic adversary, at least one who has a true sense of morality concern the human beings involved. Trumbo is shown to have flaws (although they are largely skimmed over) when he uses Wayne’s military status during the war as an attack point and then self righteously suggests that he be allowed to remove his glasses before being punched by a man whom he has just invited to do so. It was one of a few ugly moments that Trumbo as a character is allowed to have.

 

Not faring quite as well is Edward G. Robinson, a supporter of the Hollywood Ten until his career is mangled by the blacklist.  Another opportunity to show Trumbo’s vindictive side occurs when he confronts Robinson, who ultimately testified as a friendly witness, and Trumbo dismisses Robinson’s justification for his actions, despite the fact that he gave many of the same justifications earlier to fellow refusenik Arlin Hird ( a very solid Louie C.K.), an apparently fictional character that espouses some of the true philosophies of the Communist Party of the United States. Whether the confrontation took place or not, it must surely have been endemic of Hollywood at the time since there were so many people effected in some way by the blacklist.

I am usually suspicious of a movie that works in a speech to an audience as a story telling device, it seems a lazy way to sneak in narrative with an emotional content, but the speech given at the end to the Writer’s Guild appears to have been genuine and it is suggested that it went a long way to healing the wounds of the blacklist. That makes it all the more odd that after finishing with an effective dramatic moment, the film turns polemic with a series of screen scrolls that start the argument all over again. The sour tone is probably designed to make the political message more important, but it feels like the screenwriter simply felt like the drama had failed to do so and therefore a post script was required. I thought it undercut what was to that point a human drama that showed the turmoil of the times and the confusion of the figures involved. That’s too bad because for the most part, what came before really was compelling.