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Justice League (2017)

The story behind the Justice League movie is one of turmoil and turnover. Zack Snyder has been the cinematic voice for the DC film universe (DCU) and, if you listen to enough critics and fans, the weight holding down the franchise. Justice League began filming in the spring of 2016, which means they had a considerable lead time before release. Either they went into production with a script they were unhappy with or they learned it. A year later, in the spring of 2017, Snyder bowed out of his directorial duties to spend more time with his family in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. Enter Joss Whedon, the wunderkind behind Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers. The studio was unhappy with Snyder’s rough-cut, deeming the footage “useable,” and tapped Whedon to make drastic reshoots. He rewrote the film enough to earn a writing credit from the WGA. Complicating the already pricey reshoots was star Henry Cavill’s mustache, a holdover from the filming of Mission: Impossible 6. He wasn’t permitted to shave his ‘stach, and so Warner Bros. was forced to pay likely millions… to digitally erase Cavill’s facial hair (DCU is 0-2 when it comes to mustaches this year). The final product is being met with great fanfare, hope, and curiosity. If anybody could save this project it’s Whedon, right? Well Justice League could have been renamed Super Hero Fatigue: The Movie.

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. 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.

Aggressively bland, lazy, and unmemorable, I was genuinely left questioning whether Justice League was somehow worse because it wasn’t worse. It’s not the aggravating stew that was Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad, but those weren’t exactly difficult hurdles to clear. To put it in another colorful analogy: while it may not be a flaming dumpster fire, it’s just a dumpster, something you wouldn’t give any mind to because, hey, it’s just a normal dumpster, and why would you even want to spend time looking at that anyway? That’s Justice League for you, a DCU super hero film that’s better by default and still disappointing to the point that you wish it would be mercy killed to spare us a prolonged death rattle. This movie is ground down to the raw pulp of a super hero movie. It lacks personality. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a modern super hero film. An ensemble of poorly developed characters must band together to stop a dumb villain from world annihilation with a giant energy portal in the sky. There have been now five DCU films in this sputtering cinematic universe and three movies fit that formulaic description. Even the 2015 Fantastic Four remake followed this. The draw of this film is its mythical heroes, yet they are so lazily developed that we rarely feel any sense of awe or reverence with them. The cast chemistry is relatively strong and the actors have been well chosen, but let’s go person-by-person in this league to determine just how poorly the story serves them.

Batman has become the Nick Fury of this new post-Superman world, taking charge assembling a team to combat a more dire, powerful alien threat. He’s the least super in many regards and has fleeting moments contemplating his mortality, but just when you think they might give the older Batman some depth, they pull back. His biggest relationship is with Wonder Woman and their central conflict feels contrived. He’s angry at her for not getting more involved (hey, Wonder Woman, you got out there for WWI but sat out the Holocaust?). It feels like a strange managerial tiff. Affleck (Live by Night) seems to have gotten more growly and smug. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) scowls and scoffs. Considering they’ve each lead a DCU movie, we should be more attached to them in this story. He’s not fun to be around and neither is she. The new members have some degree of promise.

Aquaman is a gruff, shaggy, tattooed loner embodied by Jason Momoa, and his performance works better than the character does. Momoa (Game of Thrones) is charismatic as a wild man but he comes across as a fraternity jock. His cocky, carefree persona and aesthetic are trying too hard to re-imagine Aquaman as a sexy superhero for today. The underwater action scene in Atlantis is so cumbersomely filmed and staged that I think I realized, in that moment, how visually dreary underwater fight scenes are. There goes any last shred of interest in the solo Aquaman film coming in 2018. Cyborg is basically a modern Frankenstein story and should have had affecting characterization about the battle over reclaiming his humanity. Instead he becomes the plot equivalent of a Swiss army knife, able to open any locked device or technological obstacle.

The Flash/Barry Allen is the best part of the film by default (a familiar term in this review). Miller’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) extra jubilant performance feels like a course correction from the criticism of how unflinchingly gloomy BvS was. He’s the stars-in-his-eyes rookie who is also a fanboy first, geeking out about getting to work with legends. It’s not just that the fanboy-as-hero angle was already tackled better by Marvel in Tom Holland’s newest edition of Spider-Man, it’s also that the film doesn’t know when to stop. Barry Allen has to quip for every occasion. While some belie his insecurity and nervousness about being promoted to the front lines of hero work, several are forced. The coolest thing he can do is run so fast time slows down, yet we’ve already seen this displayed better and with more witty panache in the recent X-Men films with Quicksilver. Flash is the only character with anything resembling an arc, and this amounts to little more than not being as terrible at fighting and getting a job. He makes his dad proud… by getting a job, and this is sadly the best example of a character arc in Justice League.

Another course correction was ditching overly complicated plotting for simplification, which can be a virtue. With Justice League, simplicity gives way to a dispirited lack of ambition and effort. The plot is thusly: Batman has to recruit a team to stop a Big Bad from getting three boxes buried around the world. Perhaps some will characterize this as a facetious oversimplification, but that’s really all that’s going on for two hours. The only other significant plot turn is the resurrection of Superman. The concluding image of BvS was the dirt hovering over Clark Kent’s casket, heavily implying he was coming back, so this really shouldn’t be a spoiler. The heroes suddenly decide the mother boxes can bring Superman back, and they know how to do it, and then just do it, without any setup. If it had been Cyborg who came up with this plan since he shares the alien technology that could have made some degree of sense. No, it’s Bruce Wayne who comes up with this idea, a man with no experience with alien technology. The heroes use one of the magic mother boxes to bring Superman back from the dead and then, inexplicably, leave it behind for our villain to capture. Literally the characters look over their shoulders and, whoops, a giant energy vortex has sucked up the final item needed to destroy the world. Maybe one of you should have had somebody watching that important thing.

There are other moments that speak to the troubles of simplicity leading to laziness. The opening sequence with Wonder Woman involves a group of criminals taking hostages in a bank. Oh, these are sophisticated bank robbers you might guess. No, these are, in their own outlandish words, “reactionary terrorists,” and they’re here to set off a bomb. Why did you have to enter the bank, let alone take hostages, and call attention to yourselves then? Would a bevy of car bombs not get the job done? These guys are on screen just to be dispatched by Wonder Woman, but at least put some effort into them. Here’s another example of the effects of oversimplification. Steppenwolf’s base of operations is an Eastern European/Russian bloc city in the wake of an abandoned nuclear facility. We see one desperate family fret over the flying Steppenwolf hench-demons and barricade themselves in their home. We then keep cutting back to them again and again. Will they have a greater importance? Is the final mother box to be found underneath their home? No, they are merely an on-the-ground a perspective and offer no insights, complications, or interest. We just keep checking in with them as if they are the most irrelevant war correspondent. When the climactic battle ensues, they’re the sole lives we see in danger from the epic fighting.

The villain is also a severe liability, as Steppenwolf feels plucked from a mid 2000s video game. He feels like a mini-boss from a God of War game. Not a boss battle, a mini-boss. His entire character design is ugly and resembls a goat. He may be twelve feet tall or whatever he is but he is completely unremarkable and nonthreatening. He wants to bring about the end of the world by collecting his three world-destroying MacGuffins and making them cross the streams. His back-story happens midway through the film and is shockingly a rip-off of the Cate Blanchett-narrated prologue from The Lord of the Rings. All the races of the world and beyond teamed up against this dumb dude and then they took possession of his source of power, the three boxes to rule them all, and divided them up among the different races for safety. They’re even dressed like Middle Earth fantasy characters. They foolishly split up the boxes in a way that the bad guy would know exactly where they are if he ever came back. This lame villain is also hampered with a lame back-story. I don’t understand what about this character makes him invincible in the first half and what changes to make him beatable in the second half. His powers and potential weaknesses are ill defined and you too will struggle to work up any interest for what may be one of the most boring and useless villains in super hero film history. According to my pal Ben Bailey, Steppenwolf makes Malakeith (Christopher Eccleston) of Thor 2 look like Loki (Tom Hiddelston) in Thor 2.

Justice League feels like two movies indelicately grafted together, and if you have a trained eye for cinematography you’ll easily be able to spot the difference between the Snyder parts and the Whedon parts (final product looks 70 percent Snyder, 30 percent Whedon). Snyder is much more the visual stylist so his camera arrangements are far more dynamic, and his cinematography also makes more use of space within the frame, especially from the foreground and background. His scenes also have a more crisp, filmic look. By contrast, the Whedon scenes feel overly clumsy and with too much strained humor. The Whedon humor holds on a beat longer, as if it’s waiting for a canned laughter response to clear. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) remarks about how Superman smells, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) drops a malapropism about her son calling Lois the “thirstiest reporter,” Barry Allen’s inability to grasp what is brunch, which is the only thing shoehorned into the middle of Snyder footage. Then the brunch joke is brought up again in the first post-credit scene, which had me convinced that Whedon was going to produce some sort of meta moment with the Justice League final post-credit scene mirroring The Avengers, with the team out enjoying a casual meal together. Not only do I think I enjoyed the Snyder parts better but I think I also enjoyed the humor of the Snyder parts better.

The color correction is also completely different. Check out the Justice League trailers and you’ll see two different climaxes, one before Whedon that takes place in Snyder’s typical landscape of diluted grays and blues, and another after Whedon that looks to be set on Mars. An unintended consequence of altering the color correction so decisively is that the costumes suffer. These outfits were clearly designed for the landscape of colors for Snyder’s darker vision. Whedon’s brightening up makes the costumes look like discount cosplay. It’s not that the Snyder parts are that much better, it’s that the Whedon parts aren’t that great.

The action sequences are just as unmemorable as the rest of the movie. Action sequences need variation, they need mini-goals, and they need multiple points of action. There’s a reason many film climaxes involve different pairs or groups fighting different villains. It keeps the action fresh, involves all of the characters in meaningful ways, and provides more payoffs. The action becomes more dynamic and complex and simply entertaining. The action in Justice League is thoroughly underwhelming. With the exception of Cyborg being a hacker plot device, none of the characters use their powers in integral ways. All they do is punch and jump. When that happens the heroes are too interchangeable. They also don’t seem to do anything different in the third act nor does the climax require them to do anything different, so their victory as a team feels perfunctory and arbitrary. The special effects feel unfinished and unpolished for a $300 million movie. A sequence set on Wonder Woman’s home island looks like it was taken from a cheesy Dynasty Warriors video game. A montage during the conclusion has shockingly bad CGI of the Flash running in a goofy, gangly, leg-failing way that made me doubt Whedon’s eyesight. The most hilarious special effect, possibly of all time, is the fake Superman upper lip. It kept me analyzing every Cavill mouth I saw. His upper lip looked too waxy with shine and indented too widely. We are not there yet my friends for realistic mustache removal technology. We’ll just have to go back to old-fashioned razors and rue this primitive existence of ours.

Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. 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. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.

Nate’s Grade: C

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3 Days to Kill (2014)

3-days-to-kill-posterLuc Besson has long been a household industry when it comes to action movies, especially in the last ten years. The man has had his hand scripting, producing, and sometimes directing the Transporter films, Columbiana, Lockout, District B-13 and its soon-to-be released American remake Brick Mansions, The Family, and most popular of all, the Taken movies. Besson’s got his fingers in just about every Parisian action movie. But with a prevailing influence there is also the challenge of keeping things fresh. It’s easy to fall back on formula, which is precisely where 3 Days to Kill finds itself stuck.

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is one of the top spies for the CIA, but a rare and terminal medical condition has taken him out of the field. He seeks out his ex(?) wife (Connie Nielsen) and their teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), a girl he’s mostly sent messages on her birthday as the extent of his parental involvement. While living in Paris with his family, the mysterious Vivi (amber Heard) promises a radical drug treatment to extend Ethan’s life, but in return she needs his help killing some notorious terrorists in town.

112896_galWe’ve all seen this movie before. In fact we’ve probably seen something similar enough produced by Luc Besson just in the last year or so. The formula is worked over and only the most die-hard action junkies will walk away fully satisfied. The plot is predictable from start to finish, short of the comic flourishes, and has all the trappings you’d expected with a simple middle-of-the-road genre picture. It’s a major surprise that the action sequences are lackluster and unimaginative. With Besson as co-writer, and McG as director, I expected at least a few sequences that would stand out from the crowd, some inventive takes on the action genre. Alas, it’s the same old shootouts, car chases, and the like. I’m not a huge McG fan but I can at least credit the man for his visual style, which, despite the quality of the films, was evident in Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation. With this movie, you would never be able to tell that a former music video stylist directed this. There is no trace of style outside a brief series of shots inside a Parisian tattoo parlor/club that provides some PG-13-approved partial nudity. It’s workmanlike direction with few images or compositions that rise above ordinary. Like most of 3 Days to Kill, the visuals are disappointingly bland and drably familiar.

There are also sizeable plot holes that jump out immediately. I’m not even talking about the usual action film clichés, like the good guys being expert sharpshooters, etc. First off, the name implies a remote time period, a natural opportunity for a ticking clock. He’s got three days to kill the bad guy… or else. But the movie never really provides an or else, nor does it really justify the title. Why does Ethan need three days to kill the bad guy? He’s spending three days watching his daughter, but that’s it. We’re given no real sense of urgency and the characters, the spies, don’t ever seem to sweat or panic. Ethan spends most of the second act bonding with his teenage daughter, teaching her how to ride a bike, and so on. These are not the actions of a man with a ticking clock. Then there’s the premise that Ethan has a rare cancer that requires a rare treatment that only Vivi offers. Ethan injects himself with this magic substance and it seems to do the tick, that is, unless his heart level gets too high. Then he starts to hallucinate and collapse. So there you have it, the plot of the Crank films now with a French polish. The problem with this scenario is that it ONLY happens during the most stupid of times. Instead of Ethan’s heart rate getting too high in the middle of deadly shootouts and speeding car chases, it’s generally when he’s one-on-one with an unarmed bad guy. Even with this, apparently drinking alcohol will slow down his heart rate. Knowing this, why doesn’t Ethan carry a flask of liquor on his person at all times then? He’s supposed to be a professional!

Despite the overwhelming mediocrity and formula-laden efforts, there are a few surprising and effective notes in 3 Days to Kill. The humor, Besson’s tongue-in-cheek genre riffing, is spry and involving enough that I wish the film had followed this tantalizing angle and become an all-out comedy. Ethan’s attempts to balance watching his daughter with his spy hijinks bears well developed comedic moments. Take for instance an informant that Ethan is intimidating for vital intel. His daughter’s phone call interrupts the scene, and she says she needs a recipe for spaghetti sauce. It just so happens the informant is an actual Italian, and so Ethan puts him on the phone. The informant recognizes that the longer he talks the longer he might live, so he draws out relating the recipe, and keeps mentioning how much he truly loves his mother and how she has no one else to take care of her. It’s a small scene but it’s clever and a nice twist on the formula. There’s another humorous scene where Vivi and Ethan debate the difference between beards and mustaches, since she told him to kill the guy with one and not the other. Ethan also forms an offbeat relationship with another informant, a limo driver named Mitat (Marc Andreoni), that becomes so casual, he knowingly helps himself into Ethan’s car trunk, requesting to be back before 4 PM since that’s when his daughters get home. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll make an effort,” Ethan says before slamming the trunk shut. This is the kind of stuff the film needed more of, well-crafted asides that punctuate how silly spy movies often are. If only the film just wanted to be funny.

video-undefined-1A34901500000578-98_636x358I think Besson and his coterie believed that Heard’s (Paranoia, Machete Kills) character was a constant source of comedy, but she’s really a hollow pinup, a video game avatar come alive. There is no character here, which may be part of the jape, because she’s all style and moody, pert sexuality. She just sort of appears whenever the movie needs a dose of sex appeal (sorry Costner fans). I think her aloof and calculating manner is meant to be taken as comedy. She’s brusque but without any real sense of joy. Not to take anything away from heard; she is a woman of stellar beauty, but just having a sexy gal make droll quips while dressed in a corset isn’t the stuff of comedy but fetish.

I have enjoyed Costner’s (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) late spate of film roles and even enjoyed Mr. Brooks. But he’s all wring for this film, which looks like a modern Liam Neeson vehicle that he wisely passed on. Costner is convincing as a no-nonsense authority, but he’s not ready to take that Neeson-sized step into AARP action star. He sounds like he has a frog permanently lodged in his throat, or they filmed the entire film during a month where Costner was getting over a furious case of step throat. Perhaps he was doing his best Harrison Ford impression. Whatever the case may be, it’s not exactly winning, and while the actor sells the comedy bits easier, the badass moments lack the real punch the movie needs. Steinfeld (True Grit, Ender’s Game) has a nice rapport with Costner and she doesn’t overplay the teenage outbursts. Her character starts to grow a more intriguing dimension when she seems to possess her father’s traits, but she’s too quickly funneled back into being a helpless damsel to shriek and cry.

When it comes to 3 Days to Kill, there isn’t enough new to justify or even enough effectively entertaining to justify your valuable time. Now, if your time is less valuable, say disposable, and your expectations are low, then perhaps you’ll find a serviceable amount of entertainment in this formulaic action thriller. When the most exciting part of your movie is the comic relief, then maybe it should have been time to start over.

Nate’s Grade: C

Drive Angry (2011)

Without a hint of self-awareness, and not nearly enough tawdry camp, this exploitation throwback manages to be completely serious with a ridiculous plot and a celebration of muscle cars, gory violence, and women in hot pants. And yet for a film about Nicolas Cage literally escaping from Hell to save his baby granddaughter at the hands of a Satanic cult leader (Billy Burke), it’s awfully complicated. The plot is hard to nail down, rarely does it spell things out, which means the audience is left trying to piece together the scraps of logic in between fetishizing cars and violence. Amber Heard (The Informers) and her cut-off high-waisted jeans becomes Cage’s sidekick and she gets to hold her own. The 3-D elements are mostly distractions flying at the screen, the violence is extreme but with a distasteful nihilistic edge, and the tone lacks any traces of irony or appreciation of genre. There’s more potential here that never feels tapped, like Cage’s special “God-killer” gun that spooks even the Grim Reaper/Angel of Death (William Fichtner, having a blast). At one point, Cage is locked in coitus with an overly animated waitress, and he kills an onslaught of goons while still engaging in sex. While Shoot ’em Up did it too, it’s a sequence that hints at what the film could have been had it given in to more tawdry impulses. Instead, Drive Angry isn’t nearly passionate enough to register as anything but a mundane retro, country fried rehash of 1970s action movies.

Nate’s Grade: C

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