Movie Reviews - 2017 postsTuesday November 21, 2017
Movie Review: Justice League (2017)
Just when the world is at its darkest, a hero arrives to save the day.
No, not Superman. And not Batman or Wonder Woman, either. I’m talking Joss Whedon.
Last year, Warner Bros. tapped him to salvage one of its most valuable franchises (this one) from the idiotic clutches of Zack Snyder—the director forever putting adolescent style over mindless substance. Snyder favors gloomy pallettes, glowering, near-naked heroes (see: “300,” “Sucker Punch,” and the new Amazonian costumes), and posing. Much posing. Forever with the pose. He seems incapable of creating any kind of logical continuity between scenes. Two of his movies have been my Worst Movie of the Year—“Sucker Punch” in 2011, and “Batman v. Superman” last year—and it’s probably only two because I began such lists several years into his career. He’s the dude who turned Batman into a raging, Fox-News-watching maniac, Superman into a limp noodle, and “WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?” into one of the most laughable lines in the long, squalid history of superherodom.
As screenwriter with Chris Terrio (“Argo”), and uncredited reshoot director, Whedon, the man behind “The Avengers," holds Zack’s worst instincts in check. We get humor. We get stabs at creating relationships between characters. Whedon and Terrio gamely try to explain away the idiocies of the previous movies: Batman’s plot to kill Superman; Wonder Woman’s 100-year absence from the scene cuz her boyfriend died.
It’s far from perfect. But I went in expecting the worst and when the lights went up I turned to the dude next to me: “You know, that wasn’t bad.”
When does this begin to suck?
The movie opens with Batman (Ben Affleck) battling a rooftop burglar (Holt McCallany). He swings around chimneys and bat-ropes the dude over the edge, forcing him to face a 30-story drop; and when asked what he wants, Batman growls, “Your fear.” OK, so I thought that line was pretty stupid. But then we discover Batman wants the fear not because he’s a dick but to attract a Parademon, a kind of screeching flying monkey-creature (created by Jack Kirby), which is attracted to, or feeds on, fear. Then they battle, Batman wins, but before he can question the demon it’s gone—poof—leaving a greasy stain on the chimney brick.
“Well, that was good anyway,” I thought.
Then a group of terrorists enter a London building, probably the Old Bailey, proceeding with the usual ruthless efficiency and mayhem. The plot? To blow up the entire neighborhood. But there’s Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), standing boldly atop Lady Justice. OK, so I thought that was unnecessary posing. Also, how did she know about this terrorist attack? Isn’t she in Paris most of the time? No matter. She makes a great entrance by shattering the door—just obliterating it—kicks serious ass, throws the bomb high in the air (where it explodes harmlessly), then returns to deflect a hail of bullets directed at the hostages.
“Huh,” I thought. “Wonder when this begins to suck?”
I kept wondering. We’re introduced to the Flash (Ezra Miller, a standout), visiting his father, Henry Allen (Billy Cruddup) in prison. For a short scene, it’s fairly emotional. We get a cameo from Marc McClure, Jimmy Olsen from the Chrisopher Reeve Superman movies, then watch Bruce Wayne recruit Barry onto the team. The Flash is the opposite of the usual Zack hero. He’s not cool; he wears his heart on his sleeve. “Can I keep this?” he asks of the batarang thrown at his head.
Recruiting the Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) doesn’t go as well, and those scenes, I would argue, aren’t as good. Maybe because, unlike the Flash—who agrees to join the Justice League before Bruce even finishes the question—neither guy can see past his own self-interest and/or pain to save the world. Which feels not only unheroic but dumb. World dies, you die, idiot. Also, per Zack’s predilection, the Aquaman drinks hard liquor and hangs out in the grayest, coldest of Scandinavian fishing villages. Why not Hawaii, where Momoa is from? Why not Ko Samui? Why so serious? Also, is it a bit racist that the two holdouts are people of color, or is it just racist to bring it up? And what’s with the definite article? The Batman. The Aquaman. The Kryptonian. I get it—it sounds cool—but dial it back a bit, OK?
All of which points to a structural problem with the movie that even Whedon can’t solve: We’re introduced to too many characters at the same time. By the time “The Avengers” was released in 2012, four of the six (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America) had already starred in their own movies/origin stories, while the other two (Black Widow, Hawkeye) had extensive cameos in those films. Here, three of the six are basically introduced for the first time. So the movie has to simultaneously explain who they are while moving the plot forward. The backstories of both Aquaman and Cyborg wind up getting short shrift. Maybe deservedly.
The plot forward is fairly dull business, too. Supernatural badguy with horns and a rock ‘n’ roll name (Steppenwolf: voice and motion capture by Ciarán Hinds), wants to take over the world by ending it. Apparently in ancient times he nearly did this by bringing together three power sources, called “Mother Boxes,” which would create “The Unity,” which would turn Earth into a hellish landscape. (Shades of Zod’s plot in “Man of Steel.”) But Steppy was beaten back by three other power sources: the Amazonians, the Atlanteans and Man. Afterwards, they each hid a Mother Box to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. Well, “hid.” The Amazonians kept theirs on display in a temple, and the Atlanteans in a temple under the sea. Only Man buried the mother.
Why is Steppenwolf returning now? Because the Kryptonian was killed in the last movie, creating a power vacuum on Earth. Which explains but doesn’t. In Steppenwolf terms, Superman’s only been here a short while. So why not return in 1848? Or 1492? There’s a suggestion that without Supes, many on Earth are suddenly fearful, and Steppy and his Parademons are attracted to fear. But fear compared with ... World War II? The Cuban Missile Crisis? C’mon.
What’s interesting about the post-Superman world, though, is how similar it is to our own: white racists filled with hatred attacking immigrant shop owners. For a major studio franchise flick, that’s not bad political commentary. What’s the ascendancy of Donald Trump like? It’s like the death of Superman. It’s that fucking sad.
Of course, Superman is brought back to life because the JLers need him to defeat Steppenwolf and the studio needs him to make billions of dollars. Batman, et al., take his undecayed corpose, dip it in some Kryptonian waters, turn on the third Mother Box, and have Flash jolt it with lightning at just the right moment.
It’s alive! It’s alive!
And oh shit, it’s angry! (Love the “Pet Cemetery” reference from the Flash.)
During the subsequent battle at Heroes Park, Supes seems close to killing Batman, but Bats go to Plan B—bringing in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to restore his humanity. Which raises the question: Why wasn’t that Plan A? And seriously? Clark is dead, too? With a gravestone and everything? Someone's gonna have some splainin' to do. Imagine the Smallville conversations: “Hey, isn’t it weird that Clark Kent and Superman died at the same time, and then both came back to life at the same time? That just seems like a pretty weird coincidence to me. Also, isn't Superman’s girlfriend forever hanging out at the Kent house? And don't Clark and Superman kinda look alike except for the glasses? OK, can we just stop this fucking charade already? How dumb do they think we are?”
But even with Lois, it takes a while for Supes to come around. First he has to fly to Smallville, to the Terrence Malicky wheatfields there, and have several conversations with Lois and his mom (Diane Lane). Meanwhile in Russia, the world begins to burn. That’s where Steppenwolf is creating the Unity and a hellish landscape. (Seriously, I long for a good actor in a grounded supervillain role—like Ian McKellan as Magneto or Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Enough with the space operas already.)
I’m glad they didn’t draw out the final battle too much. Once Superman returns, he and Flash vacate the civilians (including that one annoying Russian family that’s supposed to represent all of humanity or something); then he and Cyborg pull apart “the Unity” (we get a humorous line from Supes even if it feels contrary to his entire character since “Man of Steel”); then Supes freezes Steppenwolf’s sword while Wonder Woman slices it to bits. Weapon gone, Steppenwolf grows afraid, and the Parademons sense this and feed on him. Nice little irony—even if you figure Steppy should’ve worked out safety protocols on that centuries ago.
“Justice League” still has problems beyond those already mentioned. How does Batman know about the Parademons? Why are they kidnapping civilians again? How come the Amazonians haven’t progressed past arrows, swords and horses? And the CGI to remove Cavill's moustache during the reshoots just doesn't work. We also get way too much flirty talk with Wonder Woman, which sounds particularly bad post-Weinstein. The whole thing is a mash of Whedon’s light touch and Zack’s heavy hand, so expect unevenness.
Just don’t expect anything nearly as bad as “Batman v. Superman.”
Movie Review: The Little Hours (2017)
A 77% rating, movie critics? Why? Because it’s an indie, written and directed by the guy who did “Life After Beth,” with an assortment of your favorites from “Parks and Rec” (Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman), “Community” (Allison Brie), and “The Big Bang Theory” (Kate Micucci)? Along with indie faves John C. Reilly and Fred Armisen? And Jemima Kirke reprising Jessa from “Girls”? Because you like these people?
It’s a one-joke movie. It’s 14th-century nuns with modern attitudes and vocabulary. They basically swear the fuck out of the thing. It’s funny the first time we hear it, less so the 37th.
In a convent in 14th-century Italy, Fernanda (Plaza, of course) is the main swearer and tormenter of a well-meaning gardener; Ginerva (Micucci) is a tag-along tattletale, while Alessandra (Brie) just wants to get married—but her father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), doesn’t like the dowry that’s being demanded, so there she stays, embroidering.
Into this not-so-sedate world stumbles Massetto (Dave Franco, “21 Jump Street”), his blouse undone, fleeing his previous master, Lord Bruno (Offerman), whom he cuckolded. Father Tommasso (Reilly), knowing nothing of his background but needing a gardener to replace the one Fernanda scared away, tells him to pretend to be a deaf-mute, which, he feels, will placate the nuns. It doesn't. Instead, they take turns seducing him.
The big reveal in the third act is that Fernanda and her friend Marta (Kirke) are part of a coven of witches that meet regularly in the woods. Oh, and that the Father is getting it on with Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).
We get comeuppance from the Bishop (Armisen), but that’s about it. As for the confusing title? Apparently the last word is supposed to begin with a “w.” Hilarious.
According to IMDb, writer-director Jeff Baena based his movie on Pasolini’s “The Decameron” (1971), but he didn't do much actual writing—just an outline. The cast improvised the dialogue. It shows.
Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
For a movie in which Thor loses: 1) his hammer, 2) his father, 3) his locks, 4) his eye, and finally 5) Asgard itself, “Thor: Ragnarok” is pretty loose and funny.
It’s a testament to director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), and the writing team (Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost), not to mention the improvisational talents of the cast, that this doesn’t seem like too much of a disconnect. But does it undercut the drama? If you keep winking at the audience, or at each other, how much does the stuff on screen matter?
Actually, let’s break down each of above losses and see. Do these losses matter? To us. OK, to me.
Asgard itself. It’s an idiot realm with a rainbow bridge. In the first Thor movie they describe it as a “beacon of hope” but to whom? They’re a monarchy, for freak’s sake. Here, we’re told time and again that “Asgard is a people, not a place,” which allows for its destruction, because the people survive a la “Battlestar Galactica.” But this doesn’t exactly help. Because the people—beyond Thor, Loki, et al.—are really fucking boring. They huddle together in clothing left over from some ’50s Biblical epic or ’70s “Planet of the Apes” episode, in constant need of saving. They’re great huddlers. You need huddling? Go Asgard. But not missed. A zero on the 0-10 missed scale.
His eye. One moment it’s there, the next moment his older sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), gouges it out. He fights the rest of the last battle with a bloody empty socket, then pilots Battlestar Asgardia with the kind of eyepatch Odin always wore. It’s a bit of a shock—Thor loses an eye!—but puts a deserved chink in his armor. He’s no longer pristine. Plus Stark Industries can create a fake eye if they want to. A four on the missed scale.
His locks. To me, not many guys look good with long hair but Hemsworth pulls it off. But he looks even better with short hair. 1.
His father. I love me some Anthony Hopkins but was there ever a worse father? In the first movie, after the war with the Frost Giants, he not only brings back an enemy baby, not only raises it as his own, but sets up a rivalry with his biological son. “Only one can ascend to the throne,” he tells Thor and Loki, “but both of you were born to be kings.” Thanks, Dad. Later, he strips Thor of his powers and banishes him to Earth, then goes into an “Odin Sleep” that allows Loki to take power and create havoc. In the second movie he just gets everything wrong. At one point, for example, he shouts, “The Dark Elves are dead!” right before the Dark Elves attack. And in this one? He dies at the beginning, but not before telling Thor and Loki, “Oh, by the way, you have an older sister who went crazy with power, and whom I’ve entombed all these years, but with me gone she’ll be back. With a vengeance. And she’s way more powerful than you dudes. Bye.” Plus he’s not even gone. He returns the way Obi-wan Kenobi returns in the original “Star Wars” movies: to dispense wisdom. Such as “Asgard is not a place, it’s a shitty huddling people.” Missed scale? Zero.
His hammer. This is the one that really hurts. And yeah, Dead Odin tells Thor that his power was never in his hammer, it was in him all the time, allowing him to become all Lord of Lightning and shit and defeat Hela. But it ain’t the same. Thor without his hammer is like Spider-Man without his thwip, Wolverine without his snkt. Something indelible is lost. Missed scale: 10.
Again, for a movie that’s down-to-Earth figuratively but never literally (i.e., we’re always in various “astral realms” rather than on terra firma), “Thor: Ragnarok” ain’t bad, just undeserving of its 90+ Rotten Tomatoes rating and general critical acclaim. Hemsworth’s comic timing is excellent, Blanchett is slitheringly good, Jeff Goldblum kills as Grandmaster, an emperor in another realm forever pitting warriors against each other, and Tadanobu Asano as Hogun makes a short, futile stand against Hela that feels meaningful—maybe because Asano doesn’t wink at us. His sacrifice feels real and noble because he takes it seriously.
Tessa Thompson, recent of “Dear White People” and “Creed,” makes a credible Valkyrie, even if forever neutralizing Thor with an electronic device seems an easy out. Plus she seems an asshole. As does the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—regaled on Grandmaster’s planet as the ultimate warrior. BTW: Do we ever find out why he stays the Hulk for two years? Is it the air on that planet?
The mid-credits ending scene is like the beginning of “Star Wars”: our smaller ship of good guys being dwarfed by the bigger enemy ship of bad guys, indicating the size of the problem. It sets up “Avengers: Infinity War,” due in May 2018, with its All-Star cast, and, after six years of teasing, Thanos. Let’s hope it doesn’t overdo the winks.
Movie Review: Never Say Die (2017)
OK, if you’re going to do a male-female body-switch comedy, wouldn’t it be funnier if each gender started as, you know, a typical or extreme version of itself? Like Sofia Vergara and the Rock? So you can play off that once the switch is made?
In “Never Say Die,” the male lead, Ai Disheng (pronounced “Edison,” and played by Allen Ai), supposedly an ultimate fighter with the UFK, is thin, untoned and not particularly macho, while the female lead, Ma Xiao (Ma Li, so outstanding in the 2015 sleeper hit “Goodbye, Mr. Loser”), an award-winning TV reporter, is short, squat, and looks like someone who can throw a punch. She looks like she could take him from the start.
Thus when the switch is made, and he suddenly starts acting feminized, and she’s all tough guy, it’s not ... particularly different. Or logical. Or funny. Although I did laugh when, trying to get something from her boyfriend, he (inner she) resorts to a little sa jiao, freaking the dude out.
And if you’re doing the gender switch then get into it. I.e., What would you want to explore if suddenly you became the other gender? She (inner he) visits the women’s locker room, and of course it’s as sexy as in any teenage boy’s imagination. But what if it weren’t? What if it were boring? I like that they start out enemies—she’s the award-winning reporter that ruined his career three years earlier, while he’s managed by the father she hates—so they each do things to try to ruin the other. He (inner she) runs around the fight ring like a coward; she (inner he) files idiot reports and gets suspended. The former isn’t a bad bit but the latter is either unfunny or doesn’t translate well.
Sadly, per the rom-com rules, they have to fall in love with each other, but how weird is that? You’re falling in love with you. That’s way creepier than the movie lets on.
It all leads to a championship fight. And man does it miss an opportunity there.
The UFK champ is Wu Liang (Xue Haowen), to whom Edison lost the big match three years ago, after which it was revealed—via Ma’s intrepid reporting—that he took money to throw the fight. It ruins Edison’s reputation and his career. Kinda sorta.
There's immediate problems with all that. First, Wu looks like he could take Edison with one punch. In other words, what odds are you getting on Wu to win? Also, Wu turns out to be Ma’s boyfriend. She's exposing the corruption of ... her boyfriend’s opponent? And no one thinks this odd? Does she at least give full disclosure?
It's no surprise that Wu turns out to be our villain: corrupt, manipulative, and cheating on Ma. She finds this out when he brags about it all to Edison, but with her mind/soul inside. More, Edison never threw that fight. He actually won that fight (on points), but the results were skewed by the UFK commission, which is run by Wu’s father. It's a crooked family affair.
All of this leads to a big rematch. But since Edison’s body now houses Ma’s untrained instincts, they have to go to the Buddhist mountains to train. Some of this isn’t bad—particularly when a Buddhist master flies off a balcony, robes fluttering in the Hong Kong movie manner, and stumbles on landing. I also liked the two of them being trained in dexterity by shooting Buddhist fliers into passing cars. But the whole thing isn't far removed from “Rocky IV“ and all the rest. It's ”We‘re gonna need a montage."
As for the missed opportunity? Ma is now in Edison’s body about to fight the ex-boyfriend who cheated on her. She’s got her inner toughness and his muscles—such as they are. She’s the woman scorned with the power to throw a punch. She should be a rage machine. She should slaughter him. But we don’t get a glimmer of that. Instead, in the second round, they switch bodies back again so Edison can be the hero who never says die and wins the championship and gets the girl.
That's what never dies. That storyline.
What Never Dies II
“Never Say Die” was created by the same production company, Happy Mahua Pictures, that made “Goodbye Mr. Loser” two years ago, and the two films share characteristics: low budgets, no stars, an easy route to magic realism. There, he time-traveled by getting drunk; here, they switch bodies when they’re hit by lightning.
Both are also box-office smashes. “Loser” was anything but, becoming the highest-grossing comedy in Chinese history: $226 million. “Die” swamped it: $320 million and counting. So expect more of the same. That's also, sadly, what never dies.
Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes (2017)
On September 20, 1973, when I was 10 years old and a few weeks into fifth grade, the media circus/tennis match known as “The Battle of the Sexes,” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, roared into the Houston Astrodome. I have two strong memories about it.
Mostly I remember my mom watching it on the small black-and-white TV we kept in our south Minneapolis basement. I remember being surprised by her intensity. She was usually calm and sweet, but this was something she needed. It made me want to root for Billie Jean. I probably was anyway—Minnesotans are preternaturally inclined to root against the braggart—but this underscored that. I remember her pride when Billie Jean won. It felt like Mom’s victory, too.
A few months later—Nov. 16, according to IMDb—Billie Jean and Bobby appeared on an episode of “The Odd Couple,” which my brother and I watched every Friday night. The commercials promoting the episode gave them equal time but it was mostly Bobby’s show—she simply gets a cameo at the end. Maybe with reason. She was a bit wooden and he was a natural actor. Or ham. He played himself, of course, an old friend of Oscar’s who winds up scamming him out of everything he owns. Felix tries to win it all back, there’s a ping-pong match in which Bobby spots the two of them a 19-0 lead, then psychs them out to take it all. “I feel hot tonight!” Bobby says as he checks to see who has the table reserved next, then tries to leave ... but not before the reservee, Billie Jean, shows up. “Who’d you hustle today, Bobby?” she asks, and he points to Oscar and Felix, chagrined, and wearing their own psych-out garb: the two-headed man; the huge blow-up sandwich-board photo of Billie Jean. After the two tennis stars begin to play, and get a rally going, Felix suddenly tells Oscar, with excitement, “I think we can take them.”
And ... scene.
I was oddly bummed that that “Odd Couple” episode was missing from the movie, “Battle of the Sexes,” starring Emma Stone and Steve Carrell. Couldn’t they have run it during the end credits or something? For fun?
But I was more bummed that my mom was missing.
Of sharks and dolphins
“Battle of the Sexes” was written by a Brit, Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours,” “Everest”), and directed by the wife-husband team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (“Little Miss Sunshine”), and it’s a nice movie but oddly insular. It’s too nice. It’s mostly about the lives of the two tennis stars in the year leading up to the match. And mostly about her. And a lot of that is just ... off.
She’s the top women’s player in the world but disrespected by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), recent founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals, so, with her agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman), she creates the Women’s Tennis Association and goes off on a seemingly perpetual low-budget Virginia Slims tour on the California coast. There, for the first time, she gets involved in a same-sex relationship—with her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough)—and deals with its psychic, marital and professional repercussions.
More on that in a second.
He’s a former No. 1 tennis player, now 55, with a rich wife, Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue), and a dull office job via his father-in-law. He escapes it, and the wife, by meeting the boys, drinking and betting. His betting here is seen as gambling rather than (as in the day) hustling. It’s good-natured—as he is. He goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and gives a carpe diem-ish “life is a gamble” speech. He just wants to have fun. The unstated joke is that the No. 1 male chauvinist pig is basically a henpecked husband.
He isn’t even the villain in the movie! The villain is Kramer, and, more generally, social mores. As a result, you don’t get a sense of all of the women in the world like my mom desperately rooting on Billie Jean. That’s just wrong. Dude played into reactionary, misogynistic forces for money and fame. Riggs was a shark but the movie makes him into a dolphin.
It does something similar to Marilyn Barnett. You certainly get an odd vibe from her. She shows up during the tour like, “Here I am,” and, worse, shows up a half hour before the Riggs match for a haircut and a chat. Really? When Billie Jean is repping her gender in the grudge match of the decade, you take the risk of throwing off her concentration? But their relationship in the movie is still steeped in romanticism. It's positive. Which I get. You can’t make this first lesbian relationship for Ms. King seem “bad.”
But it was. Barnett scared Billie Jean with her controlling ways, then attempted to extort her eight years later. She outed her in the press, and they faced off against each other in court. Billie Jean won that match, too, but you don’t get a glimmer of it here. It’s not even mentioned in a title card. It’s all soft focus. Or no focus.
Jumping the net
Interestingly, Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell), may be the most sympathetic person in the mix. Even as he’s getting pushed out of the picture, he always seems to have Billie Jean’s best interests—certainly her best professional interests—at heart. And the moment in the hotel room when he realizes he’s being cuckolded, and maybe all of the suspicions he’s had tumble into place, is heartbreaking.
But this, too, is screwed-up history. Watching, you'd think they divorced that year or the next, but they remained married until 1988. They're still good friends.
After Bobby loses in straight sets, he jumps over the net to congratulate Billie Jean—which is at least something that truly happened. I remember because I remember being incensed. Even as a 10-year-old I knew: “You don’t jump over the net if you lose; that only happens if you win.” It felt like Riggs was taking away some aspect of Billie Jean’s victory. And by portraying Riggs and Barnett in such soft focus, it kind of feels like the movie does the same.