Movie Review – “Justice League” (2017)

 

 

I’ve made it no secret that I do not enjoy the DC Cinematic Universe. With the exception of “Wonder Woman,” I’ve despised every entry in the series for being unappealing to the eye, far too serious for their own good, and above all else, dull and boring. Part of this is because DC wants to establish an identity for their films that is different from what Marvel is doing, by being dark, brooding and serious (in other words, every entry is trying desperately to be like “The Dark Knight” and mostly fails at it). But as “Wonder Woman” showed, you can still make a charming, funny, and poignant super hero movie without doing exactly what Marvel does.

But after watching the latest entry in the DC Universe, “Justice League,” I know exactly what’s holding these movies back – Zack Snyder. He’s directed nearly every entry in the franchise so far, including “Man of Steel” and “Batman V Superman” while also having his fingerprints all over “Suicide Squad.” While I think DC had good intentions by having one director for all of these movies, if the director you choose makes everything look like one big dark blurry mess crammed with far too many Jesus allegories, then you are going to be left with a disappointing product.

“Wonder Woman” broke the trend, partially because it had a different director, Patty Jenkins, and Snyder had little to no involvement in the movie’s production. With “Justice League,” we return to Snyder as director and we get many of the same problems that his previous films had – incomprehensible cinematography, an overbearingly dark and moody atmosphere, and fights that are hard to follow. While there is much more comedy and light-hearted moments than usual, I feel those scenes can be attributed to the films’ second director, Joss Whedon, the man who created “The Avengers” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

Yeah, DC was so desperate to liven their big crossover movie up that they brought in one of Marvel’s biggest directors to fix their problems. If that does not tell you that Snyder is the problem, I don’t know what will.

 

 

Because of this strange hybrid of DC’s atmosphere and characters and Marvel’s writing and comedy, “Justice League” is a bit off-putting and strange. It feels like a movie that desperately wants to create its own identity, but is so wrapped up in the previous DC films’ attitudes and Marvel’s idea of success that it feels like a hodge-podge that doesn’t get either side right. I will say it is leagues better than “Batman V Superman” and “Suicide Squad,” for having characters that you actually want to root for and enjoy being around, but this film is so crowded that it doesn’t give those characters enough time.

Set shortly after the events of “Batman V Superman,” the world is still mourning the death of Superman (odd, considering the world didn’t seem to give a damn about Superman while he was alive, but whatever), and some heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) have used this as a new opportunity to step out into the light and make a difference in the world again. But when a thousand year old threat named Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) returns to Earth with the intention of conquering it once and for all, the two heroes are forced to locate several other super-powered individuals across the globe so that they can team up to fight a threat none of them could take down on their own.

 

 

The aspects that I enjoyed about “Justice League” are few, but certainly worth noting, specifically the new super heroes. First is Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a thrill-seeker who isn’t afraid to speak his unruly mind and foul mouth. He is a brute and ends up being the least developed of the new characters, since we learn little about Aquaman outside of him being the rightful heir to the throne of Atlantis and that he’s an outsider. Other than that, his best scenes come from the pure joy and excitement he gets from a good fight and when he accidentally sits on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.

Up next is Cyborg (Ray Fisher), the techie with a tragic backstory and powers even he doesn’t fully understand. Of the new characters, he gets the most screen time and Ray Fisher’s performance sells most of his scenes, especially with his conflicted rage and confusion with his cybernetic body and implants and his fear that he could lose himself to the machine. He comes across the most down-to-earth and logical of the group, even if he never gets a chance to be funny.

Finally, we have the Flash (Ezra Miller), the comedic relief and the best part of the movie. He gets all the best lines in the movie, has great chemistry with Ben Affleck’s Batman, and it is refreshing to see a superhero with such a wide-eyed innocence and sense of fun to all of this. Erza Miller’s performance gives an honesty to the Flash the others lack – while people like Aquaman and Batman have to put on an act, with the Flash, we get the genuine article, a nerdy kid who likes to talk but has few people to talk to.

 

 

One of my favorite scenes in “Justice League” is when Flash admits that he’s never fought anyone in his life to Batman, and Bruce simply tells him to “save one life.” He uses his powers to do just that, and the reaction on Miller’s face feels so satisfying and proud that its infectious. We now share his desire and drive to keep going, to keep saving that one life and strive for more. For a character that was only supposed to be there to bring comedy, Erza Miller’s Flash also brings the most humanity and strength to the film.

As for the returning characters, Ben Affleck’s Batman is still his stoic statue-like self who only gets a couple of good scenes or one-liners about what his super power is. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman takes the character that was established in her solo film, of an godly yet innocent warrior turned flawed yet loving human, and adds experience and wisdom.

Finally, we have Henry Cavill’s Superman who finally gets a chance to smile and be more than just a reference to Jesus, even if he does get resurrected in this movie. It comes across like he’s finally having fun with his abilities and immense power, like in the opening when a bunch of little kids ask him questions and he answers them honestly. His character also ends up having great chemistry with the Flash, since the two consistently go out of their ways to out-do one another. This is certainly Cavill’s best performance as Superman to date.

With all of that being said about the characters of “Justice League,” because there are so many characters that are new to us, it doesn’t feel like any of them get enough time to shine. Characters like Flash and Cyborg were the best part of the movie, but they spend far more time developing the lame and forgettable villain Steppenwolf with his effects that would have looked bad in the late 1990s, let alone compared to today’s effects. There is hardly enough time spent on the more interesting aspects to make “Justice League” feel like a satisfying experience.

 

 

There is one other aspect I adored about this movie though – the music. Hiring Danny Elfman, the composer of the original “Batman” to do the soundtrack for “Justice League” was a stroke of genius because we got to hear so many classic superhero tunes. Elfman uses his original Batman theme, Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme from the Christopher Nolan films, John William’s Superman theme, and the new kickass electric guitar theme for Wonder Woman. It’s like a perfect mixture of the best superhero music of all time and sells many of the action scenes.

However that’s about all I can praise “Justice League” for. The rest of it is your standard superhero-fare, with overly dark and CGI-filled action sequences. It doesn’t feel like anything is at stake, mostly because Steppenwolf is a terrible villain with no plans or motives outside of being evil and a desire to conquer. He has about as much character as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, or a monster-of-the-week from Power Rangers and is undeserving of being the threat that brings the Justice League together.

Overall, there are some fun and enjoyable aspects to “Justice League,” but I feel like most of those are due to Joss Whedon’s influence. The acting from Affleck, Gadot, Fisher and Miller is great, the comedy gives the film a breath of fresh-air, many of the new characters are great additions, and the soundtrack is phenomenal. But the film is overly crowded and too busy for its own good, to the point that nothing feels satisfying. The action sequences are rather forgettable, the effects are laughable, and Steppenwolf is the worst villain in any DC film. This is the superhero definition of a mixed bag.

Final Grade: C+

 

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Movie Review – “The Dirty Dozen” (1967)

 

 

I want to say that “The Dirty Dozen” fits in the same vein as “The Great Escape,” except where “The Great Escape” had a certain likable charm to it, where even the sour and down moments were undeniably optimistic, “The Dirty Dozen” is cynical, hardened, and fits in more with the action clichés one would expect from a war movie. “The Dirty Dozen” is the proto-typical war film that would inspire the films of today, like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Fury” and “Hacksaw Ridge,” trading in charm and wit for realism and big action sequences.

The film follows Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) being given the impossible task of penetrating an impregnable Nazi fortress with only the help of twelve prisoners condemned to either death row or life in prison, that way if anything goes wrong the military can put the blame on a bunch of criminals. The majority of the film is Reisman establishing trust and honor among these men who have been locked up for years, the prisoners learning to be productive members of society again, and the military watching over Reisman’s operation like a hawk.

 

 

The best scene in the movie is when Reisman’s commanding officer, Colonel Breed (Robert Ryan) makes a deal with Reisman to see if his men could infiltrate Breed’s command and capture him without being detected. It shows these men were always more than just hardened criminals, but intelligent soldiers who are quick on their feet. What makes this scene enjoyable is that it comes across like the dozen are truly enjoying themselves, like they take joy in messing their own army’s heads, fooling them at every turn.

Still, I only ever felt like I got to know about half of the dozen characters, with the rest filling the role of cannon fodder for the final sequence. It is the typical war movie cliché of building up a straw man character just to knock him down in a storm of bullets.

Overall, “The Dirty Dozen” is a fine war movie, if a bit predictable and cliché nowadays. There are some charming moments, but for the most part this is a cold and sterile look at World War II. Not the best WWII film out there, but certainly not the worst either.

Final Grade: C+

 

Movie Review – “Ugetsu” (1953)

 

 

“Ugetsu” is an odd piece of work that takes two common Japanese genres, the ghost story and the jidaigeki (period drama), and combines them to produce a film that is accessible to a wide audience by giving us a uniquely human samurai tale with a supernatural edge. The film focuses on how war affects the minds of those who cannot fight and the toll it takes on them and their families, both physically and emotionally.

It starts in a small Japanese village during a time of constant civil war between rival clans. The village is populated by farmers and workers trying to make a decent living without getting involved in this conflict. These villagers include the pottery maker Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who dreams of making it big and living a luxurious life with his wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka), and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa), who dreams of making a name for himself as a samurai. After Genjuro gets a taste of real money from selling his pottery, he becomes obsessed with getting more at whatever cost, even risking his life in the face of the evil clans.

After their village is attacked, the two families leave together and split up at the nearest town after they learn of the threat of pirates, leaving the men to head into town and make as much money as they can. But both Genjuro and Tobei get lost in their own greed and ambition, with Tobei looking for a way to make a name for himself as a samurai, while Genjuro is visited by a creepy princess who wants more than just his pottery.

 

 

There is not much else I can say about “Ugetsu” without spoiling the plot and the journey of self discovery and tragedy these two go on. But I will say that, like most Japanese period pieces, pain is a constant companion throughout their trip and the land of Japan has an odd sense of justice. While the film is slow at times, it only helps with the scenes involving Genjuro and the princess and the gnawing feeling that something is wrong with their forceful relationship.

If you are at least familiar with the genres at play in “Ugetsu” then give this film a try and see how they blend together in this sorrowful tale. And even if you do not know about the themes and atmosphere of a Japanese period piece, this is still a great tale about two small men who wish for something bigger in a harsh and brutal world.

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “THX-1138” (1971)

 

 

Unless you are a diehard movie fan, the biggest thing to come from this movie is that it gave way to that annoyingly loud introduction to DVDs in the 2000s from THX.

“THX-1138” is George Lucas’ directorial debut and is about as minimalistic of a depiction of the future as possible, with lots of empty white and blank landscapes, with every character wearing the same plain jumpsuit and shaved haircut. Set in the far off future, humans now live a robotic lifestyle underground where their given designated tasks, take pills to suppress emotions, and can no longer have sex. Everything is done automatically and mechanically, including the production of offspring, psychological treatment and even a Mecha-Jesus to act as a confessional. People don’t even have names anymore, just numbers like a bar code.

Basically, imagine “WALL-E” if we went underground instead of into outer space.

The making of “THX-1138” is the most fascinating part of the movie – George Lucas originally made this movie while he was in college but found the final product unsatisfactory. After he graduated, Lucas was taken directly under the wing of Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” movies and “Apocalypse Now,” where Lucas would help Coppola in pretty much every aspect of filmmaking. For one of Coppola’s bigger projects, Lucas basically acted as the “assistant to everything,” but Coppola couldn’t find the best way to pay Lucas for doing all that work. The best thing Coppola came up with was to fund Lucas’ directorial debut entirely. Lucas used this as an opportunity to redo and reshoot his final college project, and this time with a nearly $800,000 budget and A-list actors like Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence.

 

 

Lucas made “THX-1138” as a direct response to the rise of consumerism, with television, newspapers, and magazines forcing products and advertisements down our throats, treating us like mindless drones that will buy anything that’s put in front of us if it has enough pretty colors. The film is also a slam against then-President Richard Nixon, as the villain of the film takes direct excerpts from his speeches to propagate his evil point-of-view.

And that’s about all that’s interesting with “THX-1138” – Everything else is pretty standard for a dystopian science fiction film where everything from emotions to duties to society is handled by computers. Maybe it is because of the blank voids this film uses for backgrounds, or the bland designs of the characters, but because everything looks and feels the same, nothing truly stands out. This movie just feels like one giant shade of gray.

If you’re curious how the creator of “Star Wars” got his start and the his first attempt at science fiction, then give “THX-1138” a shot. But if you’re truly interested in watching a worthwhile dystopian science fiction, look to other more visually interesting tales in the genre and save this one for a rainy day.

Final Grade: C

 

Movie Review – “Carnival of Souls” (1962)

 

 

Imagine if “Night of the Living Dead” was a ghost story instead of the first true zombie film, and you would get “Carnival of Souls.”

Except where “Night of the Living Dead” was an exciting piece of horror with startling effects and poignant piece on racism, “Carnival of Souls” is a meandering tease of a movie that only benefits from having odd cinematography. Combine this with the pacing of a David Lynch film and you get a movie that feels like a chore to get through.

“Carnival of Souls” is an independent horror film about a teenage girl who miraculously survives a car accident, and tries to find meaning in her life after said accident. All the while, this girl feels like she is being followed by people who are not there, including a man that no one else can see. She is mysteriously drawn to an old carnival just off the Great Salt Lake, where she continually sees pale people who won’t stop dancing.

 

Watching “Carnival of Souls” is like seeing someone go to a paint store, tries out different samples, literally watches that paint dry, and then leaves the store without buying anything. It comes and goes, but without anything significant or important being accomplished. The characters are dull and lifeless, especially the main female lead, and I routinely found myself checking the clock. Even though this movie is less than 90 minutes, it felt like it was nearly three hours.

Don’t bother with “Carnival of Souls,” there isn’t much to see here outside of how it influences directors like David Lynch and George A. Romero.

Final Grade: D+

 

Movie Review – “Destry Rides Again” (1939)

 

 

When I first heard that James Stewart was the lead actor in a western in the early part of his career of the 1930s, I was genuinely shocked that the wholesome every-man would play such a rough and tumble role. I was even more surprised to learn that Stewart plays a deputy sheriff who refuses to use his guns and wins the towns people over with law and order instead of barbarianism, despite everyone initially thinking he’s crazy.

In other words, Jimmy Stewart is still playing the wholesome every-man in the unlawful old west. And the strange thing is that he makes it work.

“Destry Rides Again” is set in the old west town of Bottleneck, which is run by a corrupt mayor and a power couple who run the saloon that has a vice grip on the local farmers. The attractive German dance hall queen named Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) lures in the boys, and her boyfriend Kent (Brian Donlevy) runs a rigged poker game that makes the farmers gamble away their land and property until it all belongs to Kent. The sheriff catches on to their game and gets shot in the back for his troubles. The town elects a new sheriff jokingly, the town drunk Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winninger). But much to the shock of the townsfolk (and me), Wash sets down the bottle and gives a grand speech about how he will clean up Bottleneck and make it a town worth living in.

Wash declares that he’ll do it by bringing in the son of the famous gunslinger, Destry and make him his new deputy. But, as everyone quickly finds out, Destry Jr. (Jimmy Stewart) is not like his father. He’s quiet, reserved and wants to solve every problem peacefully instead of with more violence. He walks around town without wearing any guns on him and tells lots of stories about people he knew and the kind of trouble they got into. But he shares a massive similarity to his father – he’s damn good at his job.

 

 

The more I thought about the setup for “Destry Rides Again,” the more I realize that it has a lot in common with “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – an official is killed in an unruly region, Jimmy Stewart is praised for being the young up-and-coming and is sent in to replace the official, but his wide-eyed innocence makes everyone see him as little more than a child wearing his dad’s boots. Just replace the Senate from “Mr. Smith” with the old west and you’ve got “Destry Rides Again.” It gets even weirder when you realize both films came out the same year, and the leading female had top billing over Jimmy Stewart in each movie, mostly because Jean Arthur and Marlene Dietrich were bigger stars than Stewart at the time.

Outside of Jimmy Stewart’s lovable performance as Destry Jr., I adore this movies’ charm and atmosphere. It takes the time to flesh out everybody in this town while having a sense of humor about everything. From the odd yet quirky Boris Callahan (Mischa Auer) to the heart-broken and homeless Claggett family, there is no shortage of colorful characters here. Yet even this its great slapstick comedy and wordplay, the film still finds time to have impactful and emotional scenes, the best one being the aforementioned fiery speech from the new sheriff to rile up the townsfolk.

Overall, I was extremely surprised by how much fun I had with “Destry Rides Again.” It is a quirky western that is loaded with outstanding performances and a great atmosphere. Jimmy Stewart is his usual lovable self that never seems to grow old or tiresome and adds a great deal of heart and strength to this movie. I think the similarities to “Mr. Smith” make this film even stronger, making this one of the most memorable westerns I’ve ever seen.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)

 

 

If you were ask me which film(s) was my least favorite in the Marvel cinematic universe, I would be quick to point directly at the first two Thor movies. This is because both “Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World” seem at odds with the rest of the Marvel movies and don’t have fun with their ridiculous scenarios. In a way, the idea that the Norse Gods are real should lead to the most creative and awe-inspiring films in the series, yet the first two are so bland and forgettable that it makes them much worse. When you focus more on Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings than the god of thunder, you know you are doing something wrong.

Luckily, every problem I had with the previous Thor movies is fixed with the latest entry, “Thor: Ragnarok,” and we finally get a film that fully embraces its over-the-top ridiculous nature. This movie reduces Thor to his most basic elements and throws away all superfluous material to give us a all-out insane ride that never skips on laughs, thrills, and impressive visuals. Nearly every scene has something memorable, whether that’s a new character that steals the show, the superb acting from Tom Hiddleston or Cate Blanchett, or just the great sense of humor this movie has.

This is best brainless popcorn flick of the year.

 

 

This film takes place during the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns home to Asgard after failing to locate any of the infinity stones, where he learns that his adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been disguising himself as their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) for a while. The two head to Earth to find Odin, who foretells of Hela’s return and her intent to retake Asgard. As Odin’s power diminishes, the goddess of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) emerges and effortlessly destroys Thor’s hammer and casts the brothers to some trash planet while she heads to Asgard to claim the throne as the rightful heir. Now it’s up to a devastated Thor, a treacherous Loki, a fallen Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and a familiar green rage monster to retake Asgard from Hela before she destroys all nine realms with her undead army.

I would like to applaud these filmmakers for so drastically altering the tone and atmosphere of the previous Thor movies to a more light-hearted and joyous tone, while still keeping the same sense of scale and grandiose. Gone are characters like Kat Dennings’ Darcy and Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig, as well as a film that relies too much on Thor just swinging his hammer around a lot. Instead, we get a film that is still engrained in Norse mythology but has some of the best comedic writing of the entire Marvel cinematic series. Even the previous films’ over-reliance on Loki stealing every scene is toned down here while Hiddleston still turns in a great performance.

 

 

What I enjoyed the most about “Thor: Ragnarok” was its sense of humor. I sat in a fairly packed theater, and I probably laughed out loud more than everyone else combined. There are plenty of new characters that were designed specifically for laughs, especially the gladiator Korg, an alien made entirely of different types of rocks with a soft spoken British accent who always seems to be on the receiving end of bad timing. Another standout is the eccentric and kookey ruler of the planet Thor and Loki get trapped on, the Grandmaster, played by the always awkwardly hilarious Jeff Goldblum, who turns in his best performance since “Jurassic Park.”

The film takes every chance it has to tell a joke or point out the ridiculous nature of its setup. Most of the jokes worked for me, though there were a few that missed their mark.

On top of that, “Thor: Ragnarok” goes all-in on the crazy and goofy to give audiences a movie that is, above all else, fun. How can anyone hate a movie where the Hulk fights a giant wolf demon on a Technicolor rainbow bridge while Led Zeppelin is playing? How can you not have fun with Thor and Doctor Strange messing with each other? This movie had me grinning the entire time and I loved every second of it.

 

 

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the best escapist film of the year, packed with impressive visuals, great performances all around, the standard great sense of humor you expect from Marvel films nowadays, and is never short on thrills and fun. It is goofy and over-the-top, but never to the point where that gets in the way. This is some of the most fun I have had with a superhero film since “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and one I wouldn’t mind seeing again soon.

Final Grade: A-