Category Archives: 2017 Movies
My friend and writing partner Ben Bailey asked me to host an extensive essay he was compelled to write after watching the four-hour Snyder cut of Justice League. I’ve never featured anyone else’s words or opinions on this review blog before, but it’s been so long since he really devoted himself to an artistic analysis, and with such detail, that I felt compelled to publish it on my personal review platform. Behold, a guest essay on the nature of Art, Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory, super heroes and their appeal, Zack Snyder as a filmmaker and philosopher, and capitalism.
“Zack Snyder’s Justice League and The Virtue of Shallowness: An Essay In Search of a Point” By Ben Bailey
All Art is self-indulgent, but not all self-indulgence is Art.
Back in 2010, legendary film critic Roger Ebert famously groused that video games could never be Art. His reasoning was largely an attempt to grasp at the essential definition of what Art is, and how it can and cannot be applied to various artistic mediums in order to claim supremacy for his preferred medium, cinema, over one he pompously scorned. At the time, as a 25-year-old man-baby gamer, I objected strenuously to his argument but not in a way that I could articulate with the same thoughtful presentation with which he made his case. I just instinctively rebelled against the notion that a thing I loved in the same way Ebert loved movies could not be Art like movies clearly are because smart people like Ebert said so. I was still struggling with what Ebert struggled with in his piece, as I hadn’t yet developed a working definition of what Art actually was. Unlike Ebert, who never settles on a definition and just decides to declare himself right, I have since found one that at least works for me, and now in the cold hard light of 2021, I’m forced to conclude that Ebert was sort of correct but not for the reason he thought he was. The vast majority of video games are not Art, just like the vast majority of movies, TV shows, and books are not Art, because Art is something special and pretty hard to achieve in a capitalist society designed to stifle creativity at the altar of marketability.
For me at least, Art has a practical and a poetic definition. The practical one can best be distilled as, “Deliberate creative expression done for its own sake.” Artistic Intent is everything. It has to be something done on purpose, not something retroactively defined as Art by someone experiencing it separate from the Artist. It has to be a creative expression, which is to say something done to reflect the internal life or point of view of the Artist as opposed to something a craftsmen might build to be functional but not intellectually or emotionally inspired (All Art is craft, but not all craft is Art). And most importantly, it has to be done for its own sake, free of any creative compromise. For something to be Art, the Artist has to do it because it is something they simply must do, because it is born inside of them and must be birthed through the process of creative expression so that it isn’t left stillborn inside their soul to rot and kill its host. If it is done for any other motive, for profit or to cater to the whims of a prospective audience, it ceases to be Art and becomes Commerce, a commodity that belongs to the world and no longer to the Artist.
The poetic definition is a bit looser as you might expect: “Art is the process of making your dreams come true.” It is how we physically manifest our imagination into literal reality, recreating what is inside of us to bare our souls to the world, not because it matters what the world might think of them or who might want to buy or sell the product of their representation, but simply because the soul of an Artist burns bright and the fire has to go somewhere. Many things are mistaken for Art because they are created with the same tools through the same mediums. A really entertaining movie you love might seem like Art to you, but chances are, just given the realities of how movies are made in the studio system, it wasn’t created by an Artist or group of Artists collaborating to bring something beautiful into the world from their own minds. It may have started out that way, or that may have been the hope at the outset, but inevitably to get the thing made, money people began to influence what it should be, and test audiences and marketing algorithms ultimately dictated its form. A spatula might be used to make pancakes or spank your lover, but that doesn’t make your breakfast foreplay.
You might have noticed by now that my conception of Art is marked by an almost Platonic ideal of the Artist as Rugged Individualist, perhaps an expansive application of Auteur Theory that would mean almost nothing could be Art if it involves any kind of collaboration. That’s not entirely untrue, as I am trying to say that Art is a very rare and exclusive thing, at least when it comes to the kind of creative works we are typically exposed to in a society built on commercial industry. But to clarify, multiple Artists working together on a shared vision like a film or video game, while always more difficult to coalesce than one person articulating a singular vision like a painting or novel, can still be Art as long as the intent remains pure, or if the idea of purity sounds a bit fishy to you, at least free of external influences from non-Artists. Still, it’s just easier to conceptualize the Auteur as Artist for the purposes of discussing artistic intent, eschewing the messiness of multiple Artists trying to figure out the workable common denominator of their unique perspectives. If Art is a person making their dreams come true, the fact that it is their dream and no one else’s would seem to be the pertinent factor in assessing whether it is true to what it is. You might call it the Virtue of Selfishness. And that is where Zack Snyder comes in.
At this point, I don’t think I need to provide too much on the history surrounding the supposed epic tragedy of behind-the-scenes studio machinations that was the 2017 Justice League film. Suffice it to say if you don’t know, the theatrically released version of the movie was a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of two competing visions, one the culmination of original director Zack Snyder’s bleak, realistic take on DC superheroes introduced in two previous films, and the other a studio-mandated effort to re-shape the project to dilute Snyder’s influence and better ape the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) through the inclusion of re-shoots, re-edits, and post production work provided by the MCU’s most notable director at the time, famed garbage person Joss Whedon. The result was widely regarded as mediocre at best, a mishmash of clashing ideas and tones representing diametrically opposing perspectives on what a superhero movie should be. It was assumed at the time that the relative critical and commercial failure of the film meant that it and the cinematic universe it spearheaded was, much like Snyder’s conception of the DC Universe, completely hopeless. And then some weird stuff happened.
A strange confluence of circumstances involving the changing nature of our engagement with modern media, the increasing ubiquity of streaming platforms challenging and possibly supplanting the theatrical model of film distribution, and also a freaking pandemic, led to Snyder getting an incredibly rare second bite at the apple in the form of the Snyder cut. A long fabled, often dismissed as mythical truer version of Snyder’s masterpiece, the Snyder cut had been cruelly torn from him and mutilated beyond recognition by shortsighted naysayers who just didn’t understand the deep and profound things the director of Sucker Punch was trying to say in the movie where Lex Luthor apparently pees in a jar to make a point to a senator before killing her. Or I don’t know, maybe he got his assistant to do it before sending her to die in the explosion he didn’t tell her about? Okay, that’s not the point, but Batman V. Superman is still really stupid. The point is, fans demanded it, and Warner Bros.’ long history of poor decision-making led them to provide a whopping 70 million dollars, roughly the budget of an entire year’s worth of quality Blumhouse movies, to complete a thing that was supposedly already basically done. And now it’s here.
If you didn’t pick up on my reference earlier to the Virtue of Selfishness, consider yourself lucky to have never been exposed to any kind of deep dive into the nonsense of Objectivist “philosopher” Ayn (rhymes with “whine”) Rand. I use “philosopher” in quotes because Rand famously rejected all philosophers post-Aristotle other than herself, most likely because all of modern philosophy might as well be collected with the subtitle: “Why Ayn Rand Is An Idiot,” so her rejection of them was likely a preemptive strike done with the same degree of defensive self-awareness that led her to rail against government hand-outs her whole life only to accept Social Security and Medicare in her autumn years. The Virtue of Selfishness refers specifically to a collection of essays encapsulating Rand’s ethical vacuousness better than I could with any description, so I would say you should just read it, though you really shouldn’t. You could also check out her much more popular and well known novels, the CEO’s on strike fantasy Atlas Shrugged, or The Fountainhead, about a self-described brilliant artist who would rather see his greatest work destroyed than allow it to be altered by the people with the moral temerity to think they had the right to dictate what it should be just because they paid for it. Coincidentally, Zack Snyder has been trying to make that book into a film for years.
Snyder is, by his own admission, a devotee of Ayn Rand and a committed Objectivist, and despite my already established aversion to this worldview, I want to state clearly here that I don’t bring this up to say that Zack Snyder believes in something I find ridiculous and is therefore a ridiculous person. I might think that if I got to know him, but that isn’t the point I’m making here. I have no reason to think that Snyder isn’t a perfectly nice, intelligent person as an individual, at least by the standards that we might judge those things in the abstract. I don’t know the man personally, so I don’t know for a fact that his love of a philosopher who said we owe nothing to each other means he believes the same thing wholeheartedly, and I have no way of knowing how he might translate his conception of Objectivism into his daily interactions with other people. He may be a sweetheart or a total bastard for all I know. As a filmmaker, however, I feel like I can say with some degree of certainty that his Randian worldview is at the forefront of his creative vision. If his movies are any indication of his artistic intent (as one assumes they should be), the Artist’s fire that burns in his soul is one that seeks to burn down the liberal social order predicated on the notion that our success as a civilization requires that we care about each other.
I would submit that the reason Zack Snyder’s approach to superhero movies feels so strange and off putting to so many people, whether or not they can articulate why, is because it lacks empathy. That isn’t to say that a movie or even a work of Art requires empathy, but its absence always feels wrong because art is the language of the soul, and having no interest in appealing to our shared humanity is the spiritual equivalent of gibberish. It feels especially wrong in superhero fiction because empathy is the basis for all superheroes on a fundamental conceptual level. The thing that makes them heroes is that they care about other people and, because of that, dedicate their lives to helping others. The people with similar powers who only use them for personal gain or to hurt other people, because they don’t believe we owe anything to one another, are the bad guys. So when Snyder, a filmmaker who views the world and the worlds he creates through the literal and figurative lens of Randian self-interest, tries to realize the characters of Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, it does not occur to him that anyone like them would ever sublimate their own selfish interests for the good of humanity. He has no frame of reference for altruism, so he can’t relate to characters designed to be the personification of it.
Snyder’s Superman spends almost the entirely of Man Of Steel rejecting the idea that he should use his amazing powers to help anyone, and only begrudgingly takes on the threat of General Zod when he is personally threatened and it is in his interest to fight, famously failing to even try to save Metropolis from the destruction wrought by his battle because civilian casualties were immaterial to him. In the sequel Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, the idea that all of this superheroic carnage has any real toll on real people that we should care about is addressed almost as a petty response to the backlash Man Of Steel faced for its callous depiction of the character, with Batman representing the side that at least cares enough to seek revenge, only to be revealed as short sighted in his zeal to defend humanity from this all-powerful alien god after a few common enemies and a coincidence involving their mothers’ names causes him to see the monster as a misunderstood hero. In between this convoluted arc, we have a montage of Superman saving lives that is one of the most morose series of images ever put to film, suggesting its the last thing he wants to spend his time doing. We see Wonder Woman coming out of hiding after decades of refusing to use her powers for the good of anyone, and we also find out that Batman, the billionaire who spent his life and vast wealth defending the innocent from evil, has since broken his oath never to kill and seemingly delights in sending criminals to prison branded with a symbol that almost assuredly marks them as targets for rape and murder.
Back in 2019, Snyder directly addressed the criticism of his dark, “realistic” approach to superheroes, and specifically the idea that Batman would kill, by saying “It’s a cool point of view to be like, ‘My heroes are still innocent. My heroes didn’t fucking lie to America. My heroes didn’t embezzle money from their corporations. My heroes didn’t commit any atrocities.’ That’s cool. But you’re living in a fucking dream world.” And you know what, he’s absolutely right. It’s a dream world called comic books. You could say the same thing about something like Star Trek, the idea that we could all give up on greed and completely restructure society around the idea of helping each other is pretty naive and will probably never happen, but that’s not the point. The point is to imagine a world where it could happen, compare that imaginary world to our own, and think about what we might need to do to bridge the gap between them. Fantasies aren’t supposed to be realistic, they are supposed to be inspirational and aspirational. Most billionaires do probably embezzle money, and most people given the powers of a god would probably be corrupted by that power and commit atrocities. But what if they didn’t? What if those people were innocent do-gooders who helped other people instead? That would be super, and pretty heroic at that.
Of course, Snyder is in no way obligated to like or care about what superheroes are traditionally meant to represent in order to make movies about them, but it begs the question of why he would want to spend so much of his time and effort crafting an entire series of superhero movies if he doesn’t. A cynical approach to answering that question might start with the dumptruck of money Warner Bros presumably wheeled to his home, and might even posit a sort of trollish pleasure in taking down something he clearly detested through creative deconstruction a la Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Or perhaps his motives were even more insidious. Perhaps he hates the very idea of altruistic superheroes and altruism in general so much that he dedicated an entire film franchise to subverting our love of superheroism so that we would lose hope in the empathetic message they are meant to inspire, and with nothing else left to cling to, fully embrace our Randian dark sides. For the record, I don’t think it’s any of those things, but any one of them would be more interesting that what I think the actually answer is, which gets me to my biggest problem with Snyder’s work overall, and especially his latest magnum opus, the Justice League Snyder cut.
Every single movie Snyder has ever made has been at its core a parable extolling the virtue of selfishness, but none of them were intended to be that because they were never intended to be anything. If Snyder were a political or philosophical polemicist for Objectivism or any ideology, I would at least respect the intellectual exercise even if I couldn’t appreciate the end result, but that’s not what Snyder does. While his visual style is marked by hyper-realism, all slow-motion grandiosity, his storytelling is focused on reflecting the real world as he sees it, and his point of view just happens to be skewed the way it is. Remember, he doesn’t want to live in a dream world of his own making, he wants everything to be like the real world, which he just happens to see as one where nobody cares about or likes each other. Beyond that, there’s no inherent meaning in anything he does, which is insane considering how skilled he is at creating visuals meant to evoke the feeling of deeper meaning. When Aquaman stands on that pier with waves crashing over him and “There Is A King” playing in the background, it certainly feels like its saying something, but what? He’s sad? Angry? Symbolic of… anything? When Superman poses like Jesus, he’s clearly not meant to represent any form of Christ narrative I’ve ever read, but the image is iconic and memorable and just feels important somehow, and that’s all that matters.
Snyder’s shallowness is not in and of itself a problem, even if given his talents it represents a crushing waste of potential. The problem is that when your movie is four hours long and serves as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rectify the injustice of studio meddling as a battle cry for every artist who ever had their work stolen from them, not having anything of importance to say and adding literally nothing of substance to the two-hour studio cut everyone hated is maybe the most disappointing thing you could have done. Obviously, the tragic circumstances surrounding his leaving the project in 2017 and the seemingly shady way Whedon was brought onto the project do not make Warner Bros look good, but if I’m supposed to believe this narrative that Snyder was betrayed and his dream project was bastardized by philistines, I shouldn’t be coming away from his original vision with so much more respect for the mediocre hatchet job. I know the prevailing critical consensus coming out of this is that whatever you may think of Snyder’s version, it’s at least better than the Joss Whedon version, but these people are just wrong.
Comparing the two cuts is apples and oranges. One of them is a movie, created under the auspices of a studio director’s responsibilities to their contract, and the other is a vanity project with no such restrictions. Whedon completed a film that was palatable to a wide audience and within a reasonable running time to be shown in theaters, which is presumably what the studio thought Snyder was going to do too. If we are to believe that what we have now is Snyder’s true, uncompromised vision for it, then what was he going to do when they told him you can’t put a four-hour movie in theaters? What would he have cut to get it to two hours? If I had to guess, I’d say probably almost everything Whedon did, since the stories are so similar that its clear the content Snyder put back in was largely superfluous to the narrative. Most of what Whedon cut was unnecessary slow-mo, call backs to movies we wanted to forget, and setups for movies nobody wanted, and redundant moments already covered elsewhere. All the action scenes are present between the two cuts, except for the completely pointless Flash sequence, but in the Snyder cut they’re all twice as long. Same beats, same information conveyed to get the point across, just longer and less well paced than in the theatrical version.
Is Steppenwolf a more interesting villain now that we know he serves Darkseid because of some past mistake we don’t know about, rather than just assuming he does it because he’s from Darkseid’s totalitarian world where everyone serves him? Does Darksied’s comical incompetence as a despot make him a more enticing prospect for a sequel, somehow forgetting that the thing he devoted his life to searching for was on the one planet he failed to conquer, which just so happens to be the one planet where they left behind all those doomsday devices waiting centuries to be easily activated? We’re told it’s such a shame that we missed out on the great character of Cyborg, and now we finally get to see what could have been, but to quote the black clad Superman at the end of the Snyder cut, I’m not impressed. What more did we learn to deepen his story? Daddy never came to his football games but he still misses him when he’s dead? Riveting! Did we need a six-minute excursion into his mind palace with a voice over explaining all of his powers like we’re children when the original just demonstrated all of them by showing them to us? And what does it all amount to? In the end, he gets to ascend to his rightful place as the least interesting mopey superhero who hates being a superhero with all the other mopey self-hating superheroes. Hooray?
Naturally, you’re probably thinking, it wasn’t all just cuts, what about all that stuff Whedon added in? “What about brunch?” you say. Sure, I’m not going to defend everything Whedon did to make his version work. You’re mileage may vary; I would say about half of his new additions worked for me and half were cringe worthy, but the good half seems even more vital now than it did when we didn’t know the alternative. The brighter color palette alone is a welcome change from the dreary, washed out look of the Snyder cut, and for every bit where Flash wedges his face in Wonder Woman’s cleavage, we get one like Cyborg laughing about his injuries after stopping the mother box, the only moment in either version where he resembles the fun, lighthearted character from the comics and TV shows. The Flash never gets his hot dog-strewn first meeting with Iris West, but he gets a heart-to-heart with Batman about how being a real hero means saving people one at a time that speaks to the greatness of both characters in a way nothing in the Snyder cut does. When Superman smiles in Joss’ version, it’s because he’s saving lives and he’s happy when he gets to do that. When he smiles in the Snyder cut, it’s a menacing sneer because he’s about to lay the smack down on a weaker opponent to show him who’s boss. And then we get that delightful Russian family.
Yeah, I know, you hate the Russian family, and I get it. I hated the Russian family when I first saw the 2017 cut. Why would they waste time showing these characters who don’t seem to have any bearing on the story? The thing is, we only thought that because we were treating this superhero movie like a superhero movie, where we don’t necessarily need to be reminded that superheroes save lives as long as that’s a base-level assumption. But in Snyder’s world, it isn’t. In his cut, there’s no family to save because who cares about saving families? The stakes in the Whedon cut are clear and personal, real people will be hurt if they fail. We are them and they are us. It’s not subtle but neither is anything Snyder has ever done in his life. In the Snyder cut, we know that the Earth is doomed, but it’s all theoretical, our entire planet reduced to the same collateral damage that Metropolis became in Man Of Steel, where the people are there, we assume, but they don’t matter enough to be our focus. And in the end (of the Whedon cut anyway) the villain is defeated by his own fear, because the fear he represents cannot stand up against what the heroes represent in opposition to him: love, for each other and for the world they fight for. In the Snyder cut, they just savagely whale on him, stab him, and cut his head off with terrifying glee in their eyes, and then we cut to a flash-forward into a future world seemingly based on the Injustice video game series where we find out they failed to save the planet anyway.
Again, I would like to stress that I am not making a one-to-one connection between filmmaking style and personal character. I’m not saying that Zack Snyder the person doesn’t care about people, and I know Joss Whedon doesn’t. I assume that before he shot those Russian family scenes, he made sure to make some of his female employees feel like dirt because making women cry is the only thing that gives Whedon an erection. But the real-life context matters. You might be asking why I keep bringing up the Ayn Rand stuff even though I don’t even think he’s intentionally injecting it into his movies. It’s because when I saw the original 2017 cut, I was disappointed but I didn’t hate it. When I saw this new cut, I was incensed, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until that side of it clicked for me. I went through something similar with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Everybody was loving it but I couldn’t explain quite why I didn’t until it dawned on me that it wasn’t anything about the filmmaking but the larger context, a director who made millions working with Harvey Weinstien, making a love letter to old Hollywood in the wake of the Me Too movement centered around the exploitation of an actress and making the story about two clueless men. It just felt wrong, and I’m finally to the same point with Snyder’s movies.
The 2017 cut of Justice League came out shortly after the election of our fascist, white supremacist, and eventually traitorous former president Donald Trump, a man so comically evil that he literally served as one of the inspirations for Lex Luthor when he was transformed from a mad scientist into an 80’s-style corporate tyrant. His rise to power, or rather the lie he tells people about being a self-made man and not a trustfund baby, is basically a Randian Horatio Alger story, and not just because both men were fabulists rumored to be pedophiles. You might even call him a Randian Superman, and the line from Randian Self-Interest to CEO worshiping Social Darwinism to Trumpian fascist strongman politics is undeniable. This new Justice League, where Zack Snyder tries to turn all my favorites superheroes into fascist action figures, comes out only a few months after a bunch of traitorous right-wing scumbags tried to raid our nation’s Capitol to usurp our democracy at the whims of a would-be king. One technically doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but the images are iconic and the connection just feels like there’s something meaningful there, even if it’s unintentional. I just can’t treat Snyder’s bad politics as just some interesting facet of his directing style anymore. I don’t want it in my polity, I don’t want it in my entertainment, and I sure as hell don’t want it in my superheroes.
So what was the point of any of this? Why start with that long boring excursion into the definition of Art? And what’s more, if Art is the one place where the Virtue of Selfishness makes sense, where does any audience or any would-be critic like myself have any place to question an Artist like Zack Snyder? Why write 20-plus long paragraphs, the Snyder cut of Snyder cut hot take think pieces, if an Artist should never care about what anyone thinks of what they create? That’s where I’ve been the last few days. As you might guess, I find the whole notion of Art criticism to be utterly worthless and without merit. The entitlement that audiences have surrounding the Art they consume is equally abhorrent to me, as if what they think of something should have any bearing on the form it should take. So where does that leave me? Feeling like a hypocritical piece of garbage.
I keep coming back to The Fountainhead (as a metaphor, not the actual book, because I read it once in college and that was enough). The protagonist Roark was hired to design a building and insisted he could blow the thing up if they didn’t let him build it the way he wanted, and when he does, he goes to trial, and makes a passionate plea in defense of his own rights over his creation that wins over all the doubters who couldn’t force him to conform to tradition. I keep wanting to force this narrative where Snyder is Roark and the saga of the Snyder cut is his quest to finally build that eyesore upon the skyline the way he always wanted, but it just doesn’t work for me. Art is deliberate creative expression for its own sake. The Snyder cut is certainly deliberate, and while it was made at the behest of the studio for a profit and an audience, I’m even willing to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t care about either of those things and really did set out to make it for its own sake. But then there’s that middle part, creative expression, something that reflects the internal life or point of the view of the artist. What if there’s nothing interesting about the internal life to reflect, and any apparent point of view is accidental and despicable at that? Is Zack Snyder the architect Frank Gehry, building beautiful sculptures people just happen to live and work in, or is that just who he thinks he is and who we want him to be, and really he’s just a very skilled craftsmen with nothing to say? How boring and uninspired can a work of Art get before it ceases to be Art at all from the sheer weight of its pointlessness?
Roger Ebert tried to say that video games could not be Art, but really he just didn’t understand them or like them, and for years, similar charges have been leveled at comic books and comic book movies. Whatever I might feel about Snyder or his work, he has been instrumental in lending a degree of legitimacy to comic book storytelling in the minds of a lot of people who otherwise dismissed it. Maybe not as much as the MCU has, but he’s still a part of it, and as a lifelong comic book fan, I can’t ignore that. I feel like I should be right there with everyone else, if not loving the Snyder cut, then at least loving what it represents, that for once the little guy won over the big guy, even if the little guy is usually on the side of the big guy unless he’s the one getting screwed, and he didn’t really win so much as reveal his limitations and give me a reason to say “I have more respect for Joss Whedon as an artist” which is something I never wanted to say again. But I’m not there, and I don’t think that’s what this represents, and really, I just wish that someone else, or really anyone else could have gotten the opportunity that Snyder did. Maybe this release makes that more likely in the future, but I don’t have much hope for that. I don’t have much hope for anything left in me anymore because I just watched a four-hour Zack Snyder movie and I’m pretty sure our future is going to be a Randian dystopian Knightmare. Release the David Ayer cut! Release the Gareth Edwards cut! Release the Lord and Miller cut! Release the Michael Cimino cut! Release all the cuts!
Just try to keep them under two hours, please.
Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.
Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.
I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.
With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.
However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?
The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.
And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.
In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.
Nate’s Grade: C
I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.
Nate’s Grade: C-
When the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced, one of the bigger surprises was the amount of love the Academy dished out for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. In hindsight, maybe this should have been more obvious considering the Oscar-friendly pedigree (Anderson a.k.a. PTA), the acting phenom (Daniel Day-Lewis), the setting (1950s), and the subject matter (obsessive artists). I had no real desire to see Phantom Thread after enduring PTA’s last two movies. I strongly disliked Inherent Vice and The Master, to the point that when I read about the love for either I can only stare at my feet, shake my head, and hope one day these defenders of rambling, plotless, pointless navel-gazing will come to their better senses. While not nearly ascending to the heights of his early, propulsive, deeply felt works, Phantom Thread is for me a marked improvement as a PTA film experience and an intriguing study in toxic desire.
In 1950s post-war London, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is famous for dressing movie stars, princesses, and the rich elite of the world. His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), acts as his business manager and personal manager, including kicking out the old muses who have overstayed their welcome. After a day out in the country, Reynolds becomes instantly smitten with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a foreign waitress. He pulls Alma into his highly secluded world. She lives in the Woodcock offices and he summons her at all hours, caught up in the madness of inspiration. Alma is overjoyed by the attention and adoration from such a famous and brilliant artist. It’s the kind of feeling she doesn’t want to end, and when Reynolds begins to lose interest with her, Alma will fight however she can to stay longer in this new and exciting world.
While this doesn’t have nearly the same amount of plot in comparison to early PTA, Phantom Thread at least held my interest and felt like what I was watching mattered. The character dynamics were compelling. Reynolds is a puzzle and we’re side-by-side with Alma trying to figure him out, suss his moods, and analyze why he is the way he is and how best to compensate. It becomes something like a portrait of a Great Artist who doesn’t operate on the same social and interpersonal levels as the rest of us, leaving Alma fumbling for stability. A breakfast in silence can become a battle of wills on the sound design team (you’ll never notice the sound of bread scraping like ever before). It’s not quite the thorough character study that There Will Be Blood purported to be, but Day-Lewis is as reliable an anchor for a movie as you’ll get in cinema. I was especially fascinated by the role of his sister, Cyril. She’s the gatekeeper to a very private world and knows the precise routines and preferences of her very fussy brother. She doesn’t necessarily approve of his actions but she sees them out, though occasionally she has to be more of the responsible one of the pair. Cyril is his lifeline, enabler, and enforcer. She treats Alma as a visitor into their home, further magnifying her worry about eventually being replaced by another muse for Reynolds. This insecurity is what drives much of the film’s second half as Alma tries everything she knows to assert power and influence so that she will not be unceremoniously craved out of this new special life for herself.
At its core Phantom Thread is an exploration of the stubborn artistic process and the toxic relationship of chasing those mercurial, waning affections. It’s very easy to feel for Alma, a relative nobody plucked form obscurity and whisked away to a glamorous world of London’s fashion scene where she is the chief muse of a brilliant man. When he lays the full force of his attentions on her, it’s like feeling the warmth of the sun, and her world revolves around feeling that intensity. When his attention is elsewhere, Alma can feel lost and discarded, desperate to seek that warmth and fulfillment once more, though running into barriers because of Reynolds’ peculiar personal habits and demands. She plans a surprise romantic dinner that Reynolds resents, and he congratulates himself on the “gallantry” of eating his asparagus with butter instead of the salt he normally likes. Reynolds is a powerful figure who casts a powerful shadow. You feel for Alma as she tries again and again to find the exact formula for pleasing and comforting this obsessive man given to routines. She’s tying to crack the code back into Reynolds good graces. He’s an inscrutable force and one Alma is willing to genuflect to for his affections. Because of this dynamic, much of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and fail to impress or win back the attentions of Reynolds, which is part fascinating and part humiliating. The film explores Reynolds’ history of burning through his shiny new muses, relying upon the iron-hearted determination of his sister to finally push out the discarded lovers/muses. For Reynolds, his muses follow the cyclical pattern of a love affair, the excitement and discovery of something new, the possibilities giving way to artistic breakthroughs, and then what once seemed en vogue is now yesterday’s old fashion.
Because of this tight narrative focus, the film does become repetitious in its second half, finding more ways to expound upon the same ideas already presented. Reynolds is a jerk. His process is of utmost importance and must not be altered. Alma is struggling to make herself more essential and less expendable in his orbit. She doesn’t want to end up like all the other prim women who have been elbowed out of the spotlight. She’s feisty and pushy and will challenge Reynolds, and this doesn’t usually work out well. While the strength of the acting never wavers, the plot does feel like it reaches a ceiling, which makes the film feel like it’s coasting for far too long (and it’s also far too long). It feels like Alma is fighting an unwinnable battle and after all her efforts she’ll just be another muse in a history of muses. That’s probably why Anderson gooses his third act with a thriller turn and with a specific plot device I’ve weirdly seen a lot in 2017. It feels like this plot turn is going to disrupt the cycle of Reynolds affections, and then as things begin reverting back to the old Reynolds, it all feels so hopelessly Sisyphean. And then, dear reader, the literal last few minutes almost save this entire movie’s lethargic second half. It’s a new turn that made me go, “Ohhhhh,” in interest, and it redefined the relationship and power dynamic between Alma and Reynolds in an intriguing way. It says a little something about the relationship between self-sacrifice and self-sabotage and how the power of giving can approach perverse levels of distorted self-fulfillment.
The biggest selling point of any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is the man himself. He’s literally only been in four movies over the last decade, and in two of them he’s won Best Actor Oscars and was just nominated for another with Phantom Thread (Gary Oldman has that thing in the bag this year, though). The excellence of Day-Lewis is beyond dispute, and yet I would argue that Day-Lewis is pushed aside by the acting power of Krieg (A Most Wanted Man). This woman commands your attention enough that she can go toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and win. She’s the worst at holding back her emotions and playing games, which makes her the most affecting to watch. When her romantic dinner goes badly, you can feel her reaching for reason, thinking out loud, her eyes glassy with uncertainty. When she’s speaking in an interview about her relationship with Reynolds, the warmth in Krieg radiates out from her. The other standout is Manville (Harlots) who does an incredible amount with mere looks. She can be withering. It’s a performance as controlled as Alma is uncontrolled, relying on the facade of calm to operate through a manufactured space of rules and expectations. And yes Day-Lewis is terrific. It’s also the first time he’s used his natural speaking voice in decades on screen.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie is about the world of fashion but it’s really about three characters jostling for understanding, attention, and control. We follow the tumultuous power dynamics of an artist-muse-lover relationship and the toxic implications it has on Alma as she struggles to maintain her position. The second half can get a bit repetitious and feel rudderless, but the eventual ending and wealth of great acting makes it an arguably justified journey. I lamented that Anderson was no longer making movies for me with the lurch he had taken with The Master and Inherent Vice in particular. He doesn’t have to make movies for me at all, but it was this sad realization that made me feel like I was undergoing a breakup with an eclectic artist I had loved tremendously in my younger days (Boogie Nights remains one of my favorites). Phantom Thread doesn’t exactly return things back to the way they used to be but it at least rights the ship, offering a mild course correction with a movie that is accessible and substantive. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last movie, at least it was better than Nine.
Nate’s Grade: B
A slow-paced Western with A-list actors, Scott Cooper’s Hostiles is a ponderous Western that feels too lost in its own expansive landscapes. It’s about an Army captain (Christian Bale) reluctantly taking the lead to escort a Cheyenne chief to die on his native soil. As you could expect from that premise, Hostiles is reverent and meditative to the point of boredom. It deals with Major Themes about man’s place in the world, connection to nature and the land, and our treatment of Native Americans, but it feels like it believe it’s saying a lot more than it accomplishes. The final film is over two hours but I kept waiting for the movie to feel more substantial, for the real story to start. The premise is workable and there are some interesting side characters, notably Rosamund Pike as the sole survivor of her family’s Native American attack, but it all feels underdeveloped to serve the central figure. It’s a story of one man having to come to terms and forgive himself for the cruel things he’s done in the past in the name of glory, honor, and patriotism. There are too many moments where characters reach out to remind him that he is, in fact, a Good Man. It gets to be too much. The talented supporting cast is generally wasted. Bale (The Big Short) is very internal, almost far too insular as a man speaking with looks and eyebrow arches, as he feels the weight of his soul over the course of this journey. I just grew restless with the movie and kept waiting for it to change gears or get better. Hostiles is not a poorly made movie, nor without some artistic merit, but it’s too languid and lacking.
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s rare to see an original musical given this sort of stage and attention. We usually reserve this space for tried-and-tested properties from Broadway or whatever animated film Disney has deigned to remake for an extra billion dollars in goodies. Another question is whether the movie will make the use of its big screen potential, as we’ve been inundated with smaller-scale musicals that are satisfying but lacking in an awe-inspiring sense of scale. The Greatest Showman is a big, splashy, 80s-styled Broadway musical that deals with big moments, big characters, and big emotions. It wears its mighty sincerity on its sleeve and challenges you not to get swept away with all of its charming pomp and circumstance, and for the most part I did just that.
P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an unemployed salesman trying to provide a life of luxury and imagination to his wife Charity (Michelle Williams) and two daughters. He opens a theater in New York City and hires folks with unique appeal, a bearded woman (Keala Settle), a little person dressed as Napoleon, other so-called “freaks” and several trapeze artists. The show garners some controversy but still attracts a crowd. He reaches out to a rich playboy Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to better shore up the finances. Phillip is reluctant but eager to step away from the pull of his parents, which includes falling in love with Anne (Zendaya), a trapeze performer. Barnum achieves enough success to force his way into the moneyed world of New York high society but he doesn’t feel they accept him, so he reaches out to renowned opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and convinces her to come to America. Barnum plans a cross-country tour for his newest star and plans on going with, soaking up every standing ovation from the upper class. With his focus distracted, Barnum is in danger of losing those closets to him.
This is a loving throwback to those old Broadway days and it succeeds admirably on the big screen, taking its circus setting and opening up the space. There’s a rooftop dance among hanging sheets that reminded me of classic Rogers/Hammerstein. I was particularly fond of the choreography of two duets, both with Efron. The first, “The Other Side,” he is being wooed by Barnum in a bar and the two men circle each other in negotiations, eventually jumping on tables, the bar top, and pounding and sliding shot glasses to naturally match with the percussive elements of the catchy song. The “Rewrite the Stars” lovers’ duet is playful and romantic as envisioned in its location, the center ring of the theater . Zendaya swings along ropes, rings, and weights, making their “will they won’t they” song a literal flirtatious dance, their orbits getting closer to one another, and the staging makes the emotions of the song feel even larger and more resonant. If you’re a fan of the unabashed, big audacious musicals of old with a sincerity that could approach mawkish, then you’ll definitely be in for a treat with what The Greatest Showman offers.
Reading that the Oscar-winning musical team behind the listless tunes from La La Land was the ones cooking up the original Showman songs did not inspire me with confidence. Well, apparently what they really needed was people who could sing and a canvas that allowed for a wider array of musical instrumentation. The songs mimic the movie in its presentation of exploding emotions and earnestness, and the big group numbers have a habit of feeling very kitchen sink in their melisma. It’s all the notes, all at you, with a thundering backbeat, and it can be a little overpowering at first to process, but eventually you adjust to its ecstatic rhythms. The opening number “The Greatest Show” threw me for a loop, with quick audience foot stomps cut with a millennial whoop and then laid over a dozen other musical tracks. It hits you hard but serves as a fine introduction, teasing you about the world to come and Barnum’s showcase. The song is also emblematic of my biggest quibble with what is otherwise rousing musical numbers insofar that it’s overproduced. There are solid melodies with each song and its reprise; however, it feels like the arrangements cannot settle on when to stop adding stuff. The songs can feel cluttered, weighed down by the added production. Barring that, it’s 39 minutes of original music that puts the Oscar-winning La La Land to shame.
With any musical, different numbers will strike people differently, so I’ll highlight some of my favorites. The aforementioned “The Other Side” has a playful jaunty beat that builds and builds, nicely lending itself to showoff moments for Jackman and Efron as they try and outsmart and eventually out dance (the musical equivalent of persuasive speaking?) one another. the lyrics are also sharp (“I live among the swells/ We don’t pick up peanut shells”). It’s also a nice change of pace from the anthems and ballads that populate much of the soundtrack. Speaking of ballads, “Never Enough” might come from the least important character in the overall story but my goodness does Voice alum Loren Allred, providing vocals for Ferguson to lip synch, give it such a wallop. The emotion in the singing is crystal clear and made me wince because it’s so good. I’m one of those crazy people who care more about the performances in my big screen musicals than hitting all of the correct notes (see: Les Miserables), but it’s nice when a performer can grant you both. There’s no shame in lip-synching, La La Land. “Tightrope” is Williams lamenting her martial changes but the real revelation is her singing. She takes a fine song and makes it better. The song getting the most awards attention is the anthemic “This is Me” about accepting one’s self like a “Let it Go.” Keala Settle takes complete ownership with her booming vocals and passionate intonation. It’s a calling for all outcasts and delivers the inspirational groundswell into a millennial whoop pinnacle. There wasn’t a song that didn’t engage me at some level, either musically, performance-wise, or even presentation, and that’s one of the most important aspects for a musical.
Jackman (Logan) might just be blessed with more charisma than anyone on the planet, and so when he has that twinkle in his eye, you’re willing to go on whatever journey with the man. This has been a passion project of his for years and Jackman and he puts his all into being a captivating conman who can get high on his own hokum. He’s leaping off the screen to entertain and his dexterity and natural showmanship parlay well into bringing great, bustling life to his character. Efron (Baywatch) is an appealing actor who can so easily pull you in with his adeptness at comedy, acting, dinging, and dancing. It’s been a while since Efron hoofed it up on the screen and he hasn’t missed a step. Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) is a born star. She has a moment late in the film where her hoarse voice repeats the chorus of “Rewrite the Stars” and she pushes it from being cheesy into being touching. Williams (All the Money in the World) is better than her underwritten material affords and brings warmth to her understanding, doting wife. For fans of the excellent Netflix series GLOW, which is also all about showmanship, that’s Sheila the She-Wolf as a young Queen Victoria (Gayle Rankin) greeting Barnum.
Now, the direct sincerity of the entire production is somewhat called into question by its very sanitized approach to P.T. Barnum. One way of looking at his “freak show” was that he was empowering the less fortunate and providing a safe space for them to call a community and earn a wage in a discriminatory job market. Barnum gave them a sense of dignity. Another way of looking at it is that Barnum was exploiting people who had no other options and selling tickets for the public to indulge its morbid curiosities. Barnum is a fascinating figure before he even conjures up the idea for his circus. He was an abolitionist who dropped out of school at fifteen, owned and operated a newspaper by age 21, was jailed for libel, exposed a credit scheme to gain his theater, four in the Civil War, and was a purveyor of any ridiculous and ghastly theatrical stunt, including an enslaved African woman’s autopsy to prove she was really 160 years old. Barnum is a complicated historical figure with a wealth of anecdotes that would make great storytelling potential.
The movie invents a Barnum for an invented tale, which isn’t necessarily a problem except that what we get is absurdly simplistic in comparison to the complex source. Barnum becomes a poor kid with great aspirations, most of which seems to be either joining the rich elites or sticking it to them and their snooty sensibilities. Likewise, being a champion of the “freaks” is naively unsophisticated for a man as craven for publicity as Barnum. The simplicity also extends into the supporting characters that have meager morsels to work with considering the considerable attention Barnum draws. An interracial romance between Phillip and Anne has tremors of importance but falls back on easy signifiers lacking greater examination, like Phillip’s agog family response to him being interested in “the help.” It’s a shame because Efron and Zendaya are terrific together and a simple gesture like reaching out to hold hands can have such power. Charity is the put upon wife we see all-too often in the stories of Great Men, and her domesticity represents the source of Barnum’s true happiness. You see, dear reader, Barnum’s character arc is that he wants to stick ti to the rich elites, than he wants to be accepted by them, and then he learns the errors of his ways and goes back to appreciating his family and life’s smaller pleasures, those pleasures are still living comfortably. It’s a strange stop-and-smell-the-roses sort of lesson, and it’s even weirder when Barnum seems to lose interest in his community of performers he’s gathered. The subplot where Barnum abandons his theater to tour with Jenny Lind feels both obvious and unnecessary. The only tension is whether or not there will be an affair, and the impact of Jenny Lind seems overall fleeting, forcing conflict in contrived fashions. For a man whose life story was writ large and fascinating, The Greatest Showman conjures a sedate replacement.
As I was watching and smiling to the soaring emotions and tunes, I kept thinking how 17-year-old me would have likely tore this movie to shreds, lambasting its earnestness as a mawkish attempt to wring out a feel-good story from a questionable source. 17-year-old me would have snickered about how gloriously unhip The Greatest Showman is. Mid-30s me has a much easier time not just accepting sincerity but also appreciating it. The performances are charming, the performers able, and the songs slyly catchy. The story of P.T. Barnum is sanitized with mixed results but the ebullient feeling coursing through this film is undeniable and worked its magic over me. If you’ve been missing the big Broadway musicals of old, The Greatest Showman will be a three-ring treat.
Nate’s Grade: B
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a twenty-year plus sequel that is way more fun than you would have expected for a twenty-year plus sequel. It’s updated to modern-day by ditching a living board game and instead transporting four Breakfast Club high school stereotypes into the world of an old school adventure video game. The biggest boost is the camaraderie and comic interplay of the four leads (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black), each blessed with memorable moments to shine and a satisfying arc. The adults are great at playing as children-in-adult-bodies. The film does a good job of introducing the rules of its world while also explaining the mechanics of video games (cut scenes, life meters, re-entering the game), at the same time holding your hand through it all. The satire of video games is often amusing like the strengths/weaknesses discussion, and there’s a very good reason why Gillan is dressed in a skimpy outfit, which even the movie calls out. It’s a simple story told without subtlety but this movie is packed with payoffs and spreads them evenly throughout. The actors are truly delightful and this should be a breakout role for Gillan. She is very adept at being silly with physical comedy and has a wonderful bit where she tries to seduce some guards after some flirting coaching from Jack Black. Thankfully, Black being a self-obsessed teen girl on the inside doesn’t veer into transphobic/homophobic mockery. The awkwardness of the body swap scenario is never forgotten, which lends itself to consistent comedy and heart. There are a lot of great little moments and enjoyable set pieces. Jumanji is a tremendously fun movie that won’t insult fans of the original. If you’re looking for an unexpected amount of entertainment this holiday season, check out the Jumanji sequel and one of the year’s best comic teams.
Nate’s Grade: B+
I don’t automatically hate Tyler Perry’s alter ego/monstrous matriarch, Madea. I didn’t even hate the first Boo film, but its sequel is exactly everything Perry’s critics have accused his films of being. This is the movie everyone thinks the Madea films are. This feels like 90 minutes of vamping, where there clearly wasn’t a script and Perry hoped each new scene would somehow stumble into hilarity. The premise could have worked, placing Madea in a Friday the 13th scenario, but they play it as a lesson to teach the youth about their fool ways. It’s so listless and repeats itself often, stretching to fill out the running time of a feature film. It’s poorly developed, poorly planned, and none of the characters matter as they sometimes change abruptly by the moment. There was clearly no plans to do a sequel for the first Madea Halloween movie, until it became the second highest-grossing film of his career. Everything about this movie smells of desperation. Everybody is just dancing around on screen, speaking in circuitous improv jags that go nowhere, and there’s even an extended sequence of twerking from a famous dancer. This is a punishing movie that plays to Perry’s worst instincts. Let the Boo franchise die.
Nate’s Grade: D
Two new awards-caliber film releases couldn’t be more different. One of hyper-literate in a high-stakes world of drama, gambling, and crime, and another is somber, lackadaisical, and personal, chronicling a summer love that changed lives. One movie has scads of plotting it zooms through with high-powered visuals and voice over, and another luxuriates in the moment, a placidity on the surface interrupted by rising passions. One of these movies I found captivating and the other I found perfectly nice but unremarkable.
Molly’s Game is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, clearly having studied at the altar of David Fincher, and he packs a lot into his 140 minutes chronicling the rise and fall of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former Olympic hopeful who found herself running an expensive, private series of poker games. She’s drawn into an unfamiliar world and through her tenacious grit, preparation, and fortitude, she is able to become a fixture amongst the rich. Then the FBI comes knocking and wants to charge her in conjunction with being part of a Russian money laundering operation. Driven by a fierce performance from Chastain, Molly’s Game is a gloriously entertaining movie that glides by. It burns through so much plot so quickly, so much information, that you feel like you might have downloaded Bloom’s book while watching. The musical Sorkin dialogue has never sounded better than through the chagrined, take-no-prisoners Chastain. The snappy dialogue pops, the characters are richly realized, and even during its more outlandish moments, like a surprise paternal reunion therapy session, Sorkin packs multiple movies of entertainment in one brisk, excellently manicured production.
In contrast, Call Me By Your Name is a slower peak into the discovery of romantic feelings between 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) and grad student Oliver (Armie Hammer). Set amid the sunny countryside of northern Italy, the film takes it sweet time establishing the lazy world of its characters and their closely intersecting orbits. I became anxious because the characters kept me at arm’s length, leaving their burgeoning romance to feel distant and tame. I understand the hesitation of both parties and the age difference complicating matters. I understand caution. But it feels like the film is cautious to a fault, to the point that one of them laments later why they wasted so much time. The acting is pleasant if undistinguished. The best scene is a terrific monologue by Michael Stuhlbarg as the world’s most lovably accepting father. For an earth-shattering romance, I too often felt unmoved and restless. If we’re going to spend this much time hanging out with these people we should get to know them more intimately, and not just in the physical sense. I missed the compelling artistic charge of something like a Moonlight. I’m a bit stupefied at all the praise heaped upon Call Me By Your Name, a fine indie drama that, for me, too infrequently delves below its pretty surface into something more substantial.
I don’t know if this recent comparison sheds light on any personal insight, but perhaps I just love big, showy, obvious plot that calls attention to itself, with characters that fill a room, rather than an airy romance that moves at the speed of its own breeze. Anyway you have it, one of these movies makes my Best Of list and the other just makes me shrug.
Molly’s Game: A-
Call Me By Your Name: B-
I think La La Land has a shadowy culprit to blame for the big slip-up at the 2017 Academy Awards where it mistakenly was declared Best Picture before the rightful winner, Moonlight, was crowned. Actress Faye Dunaway was the one who spoke aloud the infamous slip-up, but I think she had something else on her mind. She was so preoccupied with trying NOT to think about the Bye Bye Man that she wasn’t fully paying attention to the moment. Fortunately, Moonlight got its rightful due. Unfortunately, The Bye Bye Man exists as a horror film and Dunaway within it. This is a movie whose mantra is “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” all but begging to be forgotten.
If The Bye Bye Man had been the film it appears to be in its opening scene, we might have had an effectively unnerving horror thriller. We watch in a single long take as a distressed man drives home, mutters to himself, and takes out a rifle and systematically kills every person who admits they said “it” or told someone. He goes from person to person, pleading whether they told anyone, and it’s always yes. Then he moves on to kill that person, asking them the same question. It’s an effectively chilling scene and a fantastic way to open a horror movie. And it’s all sadly downhill from there, folks. The rest of the movie is a stupid thriller with stupid teenagers doing stupid things.
Any power the Bye Bye Man has as a concept, a mimetic virus, is wasted as a goofy Boogeyman knockoff with vague powers and intentions. Apparently, one of the insidious side effects of the Bye Bye Man is his ability to cause erectile dysfunction. After the first night he-who-shall-not-be-named is named, two of our college students talk about trying again and how “that” never happens to them, all but implying the Bye Bye Man was a sexual detriment. Another weirdly defined power is that the Bye Bye Man causes his victims to see hallucinations, though sometimes they’re nightmares like maggots crawling out of eyeballs, and other times they’re fantasy, like a naked friend beckoning for a lustful tryst. One character hears disturbing scratching noises and then visions of people standing buck naked on train tracks (the amount of brief nudity made me recheck that this received a PG-13 rating). “We’re all losing our minds at the same time,” a character bemoans at the 41-minute mark. At one point, the Bye Bye Man sends himself as a GIF, knowing how to reach millennials. I don’t understand why these kids don’t accept that if they see something horrific it’s probably false. They know the Bye Bye Man is terrorizing them with their fears and yet they fall for it every time. When you’re talking with someone and all of a sudden they start seeping blood from every orifice, maybe that should be a clue. If Elliot (Douglas Smith) knows he’s afraid of his girlfriend sleeping with his best friend, then shouldn’t he doubt the voracity of seeing them together after the malevolent force with evil visions has entered his life? What’s the point of scratching “don’t say it, don’t think it” as a preventative measure? That calls more attention to the forbidden item. It’s like in Inception, when they say, “don’t think about elephants,” and invariably that’s what you’re going to think about.
If the Bye Bye Man can make people say its name, then why isn’t it doing this all the time? Why all the hallucinations to drive teens to kill themselves? That seems ultimately counter productive to Bye Bye Man business. Any businessperson will tell you the key to expanding your outreach is through happy customers. Fulfill these people’s wishes and then come to collect later. I can write an entire proposal for the Bye Bye Man to shore up his business. He seems to be doing everything wrong. If the goal of the Bye Bye Man is to spread its name/message, along the same lines of self-preservation through proliferation like the haunted Ring VHS tape, then it needs a more straightforward approach. Let these doomed teenagers know their nightmares will end if they bring in an additional however many new victims. Alas, the Bye Bye Man is painfully unclear (it even has zero references on the Google imitator search) and just another boo spook.
Even for horror movies, the characters can be powerfully boring and meaningless. The entire premise is a group of college kids moving into a house that used to be owned by the crazy guy in the opening flashback. They each take turns seeing things, hearing things, and doing things, some as mundane as scribbling without their direct knowledge. The plot is in a holding pattern that requires characters to repeat the threat over and over. The only setup we have with these characters is one house party so we don’t exactly know what they’re like before they start going crazy. Much of their hallucinatory confusion could be mitigated if they just communicated with one another. “Help, Friend A, I am seeing [this]. Is that what you are seeing as well, Friend A?” It leads to a lot of rash actions for supposed friends. Elliot even refers to his friend as a “jock,” which is a term I don’t think anyone out of high school says. When the police suspect Elliot of foul play once his friends start dying, he is acting completely guilty. He begs Carrie Anne Moss (The Matrix) not to force him to say a certain name or else her kids might be in danger. That sounded like a thinly veiled threat. And then the police let him go!
The mystery of the Bye Bye Man’s history is the only point of interest in this story, and even that has its limits. The librarian (Cleo King) is hilariously hyper focused on delivering exposition. She even knows the protagonist on a first name basis. I think she lives to tell people about this one weird event in the school’s history. She even calls Elliot on the phone! The librarian reaches out to him, saying, “I’ve had some strange dreams ever since we talked.” She then asks if she can come over to his house later. What kind of relationship does this person forge with students? Dunaway is featured as the wife of the opening killer, and I just felt so sorry for her during every second on screen. She deserves better than this. Somebody go check on Faye Dunaway and make sure she’s okay.
The Bye Bye Man is a horror movie that’s so bad it can be outlandishly funny. It starts off well and deteriorates rapidly, abandoning sense and atmosphere for jumbled scares. There’s an extended bit during a climactic dramatic moment where a father has to convince his daughter to pee out in public. I felt so bad for every actor involved. I’ll even spoil the ending, which made me howl with laughter. A little girl talks about how she saw a table with some writing. “What did the writing say?’ her father asks, and oh no, here we go again you think to yourself. Then a second later the little girl says, “Daddy, you know I can’t read in the dark! What do you think I am, a flashlight?” My God, that moment should have been followed by a rimshot. This half-baked movie opens up a lot more questions than it has the ability to answer. What is the mythology of this character? What’s with the constant train imagery? Why does the Bye Bye Man have a pet dog? Why are the coins a significant part of its Bye Bye motif? And always, if it can simply make people talk, why isn’t it doing this all the time to spread its name? The Bye Bye Man is fun bad but oh is it still bad.
Nate’s Grade: D