Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
If you’re unfamiliar with Dear Evan Hansen or do not consider yourself among the fandom of the Tony-wining Broadway musical, then I would highly recommend watching a 2009 movie called World’s Greatest Dad, a film I will be referring to later in this review. It’s a smaller indie starring Robin Williams and written and directed by actor-turned-director Bobcat Goldthwait. It also has a very similar premise of a character exploiting the grief of others to try and better their own personal standing by fabricating an introspective life for a high school student who recently took their own life. The exception is that World’s Greatest Dad played its heavy content for dark comedy and stinging satire and it never excused the behavior of its lead character as he manipulated the collective sympathies of others for personal gain. As I kept watching Dear Evan Hansen, I kept feeling like someone had attempted to make World’s Greatest Dad but played straight and absent the satire, and that was a very bad decision.
Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school senior and has more anxiety disorders than friends. He starts the school year with cast on his arm, the result of “falling” from a tree. Evan writes motivational letters to himself as a therapeutic exercise for his counselor, but Conner (Colton Ryan) steals the paper at school and freaks out when Evan expresses interest in Conner’s younger sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Conner’s only two appearances on screen both involve him shoving, yelling, and threatening Evan. Days later, Conner has taken his life and the only letter his family has found was the “Dear Evan Hansen” paper he snatched away. Conner’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) are eager to know anything about their emotionally troubled and secretive son. They didn’t know he had any friends let alone one he would compose his suicide note for. Evan doesn’t come clean and instead plays along, happy to provide a false version of their son, one who was bristling with thoughts and compassion he could never properly express. Evan spends more and more time with Zoe, trying to share his own romantic feelings, and getting deeper into his lies.
This was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, and I don’t quite understand how fans of the theater show were so moved and uplifted and, frankly, entertained. Maybe all this drama plays better on the stage, though I think many of the same issues I would have with the story would be evidently present for the stage productions as well. The main character is presented as lonely and anxious and depressed and longing to make connections, and this is meant to serve as the emotional explanation for why he leaps at a chance to insert himself into another family and manufacture a false identity about their dead son to score with the girl he’s been crushing on from afar for an indeterminate amount of time. Evan Hansen is, quite simply, a monster of a human being. Through tortured coincidence, he is believed to be Connor’s only friend, and Evan can at any point clarify this mistake and explain the truth. But he chooses instead to supply a fictional version of Connor that he feels every member of his family needs to hear to feel better about themselves. Evan justifies his actions as kind lies, as helping those in mourning by telling them what they want to hear, what he feels like they need. It’s not his place to decide what people need to better grieve, and Evan uses his newly favored position as the rare Rosetta Stone to Conner, the keeper of his secret internal life, to manipulate everyone to like him more.
I felt increasingly uncomfortable and upset the longer Dear Evan Hansen progressed with its treacly story, especially as Evan sets his sights on Zoe. It’s not as if over the course of his mounting lies that he organically grew closer to this woman who had been a stranger; he has been crushing on her and uses fake emails written by her brother to express his unrequited feelings for her in a song that DEFINITELY does not feel like it was written from a brother to a sister unless we’re talking like Game of Thrones territory (“There’s nothing like your smile / Sort of subtle and perfect and real”). Both of those scenarios are bad, but one of them is so much worse, and that’s the route Dear Evan Hansen goes. The romance is gross, and I knew that the movie was going to let Evan off the hook by the end. Once the truth, the real truth comes out, no one should want anything to do with this person. He says he meant well but he’s also the kind of guy who literally uses the fake suicide note, which all the characters believe to be legit, as an emotional cudgel to quiet and shame his biggest doubter as she starts to pick apart his lies. When that moment happened, I wanted to strongly yell at the screen, “Dear Evan Hansen, you dearly suck.”
There’s a worthy message buried somewhere in this movie about reaching out to people who are struggling in the shadows, that mental illness can affect anyone, and that often those who look like they live perfect lives on the surface might just be better at hiding their pain. This is best exemplified in the supporting character of Alana (Amandla Stenberg), the school president who has a raft of anxieties that she keeps to herself. Her moments of vulnerability feel the most honest in the entire movie, and she’s trying to allow Conner’s death to reach others who might also be struggling, to inspire and save lives through their fledgling organization, The Conner Project. She’s the one who is putting in the actual work, both physical and emotional labor, and she’s the one who Evan shames with the mistaken suicide note toward the end of the movie. The tone of this movie is amiss from early on, and there’s a jaunty musical number where Evan and his one friend comically write fake emails between Evan and Conner. It’s played so light and breezy that you’ll have to recall this is Evan manufacturing the evidence of his fabrications. Why is this played so flippantly and like we’re in on the goofy gag? It’s mishandled. The good intentions Evan Hansen the movie, much like the potential good intentions of Evan Hansen the character, are clouded and ultimately sabotaged by its misguided solipsistic approach to grief.
And it’s taken me this long to talk about another key hindrance and that’s the casting of Platt in the title role. Platt originated the role on Broadway in 2015, and yes he wouldn’t be the first actor in history playing a high schooler who was clearly older, but they have made a gigantic miscalculation in trying to make Platt appear as a youthful 18-year-old (for the record, he was playing a college student almost a decade ago in 2012’s Pitch Perfect). It hit me immediately that Platt does not look right for this role. Immediately. In the awkward attempts to make him more youthful, they have made him look like a shifty undercover cop at a school (“Are you a cop, dear Evan Hansen? You have to tell me if you’re a cop.”). His pasty skin is so smoothed out as to appear like a shiny mask. His hair is oily, stringy, and looks like a terrible wig, except I have read that it is unfortunately real. Evan Hansen looks like he’s wearing a bad hair piece. Platt’s performance also left me cold. His mannered, affectless delivery gave me the impression of a sterile serial killer with every fifth line. This may sound overly harsh, but the presence of Platt and his performance dooms this movie’s bid for believability. I understand wanting to reach out to the man who left his mark on the role early, but there is a reason that Lin-Manuel Miranda played an older supporting role and not the headstrong young lead for the In the Heights movie adaptation earlier this year. Let the movie be its own thing from the stage show. Then again, there’s a rubbernecking fascination with Platt in place, magnifying all the other sins. If there was going to be a bad movie for Dear Evan Hansen, and I question if a good movie was at all possible, then why not go for broke with misapplied creative decisions that make it worse?
A lone saving grace for this movie is that the music is actually pretty solid. Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, the Oscar-winning team behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman, can craft some catchy melodies with soaring choruses. If you only listen to the music you might come away with a different opinion of this show and movie. However, the context of what these songs are meant to serve in the larger story besmirches the good feelings you may derive from them. I suggest casually listening to the soundtrack and forgetting the icky context of every tune. Julianne Moore, as Evan’s overworked, stressed-out mother, has a nice song toward the very end that feels more honest and pared down than much of the drama allows.
I was re-reading my review of World’s Greatest Dad, an underrated movie that managed to make my top ten of that year. It reads so closely to this movie but also how this story needs to be told: “The movie satirizes grief culture with sharp acuity… Suddenly their fallen peer has transformed from the kid nobody liked into the wounded soul that touched all their lives. Bullies reexamine their behavior, girls that never would have given him the time of day now immortalize Kyle, and the faculty that wanted to expel him now wishes to rename the library in his lasting memory. This warm, fuzzy gauze of grief is Goldthwait’s target. He is satirizing how people turn tragedy into hypocritical attitude shifts. He ridicules the easy revision of history under the guise of collective sympathy. Not every youth is necessarily taken before their time. Not everyone was going to grow up to contribute selflessly to society, making the world a better place to live. Not every youth is deserving of canonization. Some people are just jerks from beginning to end, and Goldthwait proposes we do a disservice when we whitewash reality in the name of kindness and good taste.” That sounds like the better version of Dear Evan Hansen to me, except that’s not exactly the kind of musical that people hug over and buy a T-shirt or hat to adorn on the drive home.
If you’re among the fandom for Dear Evan Hansen, I’m sure you’ll find enough to enjoy with director Stephen Chbosky’s big screen adaptation. I don’t want this to sound condescending, but you’ve likely already built the excuses for the characters and the story and made peace with whatever ethical foibles persist, so whether it’s on the stage or on the screen matters little. For those unfamiliar with the popular stage show, I don’t know what your takeaway will be but I’m positive this is not the best introduction. Again, Dear Evan Hansen is not the first musical to deal with complicated ethical scenarios and with morally compromised characters trying to do their best with the hands that fate has dealt them. Empathy is a powerful tool for storytelling, and that’s what Evan Hansen weaponizes for his own personal gain. I found this movie to be uncomfortable, misguided, and emotionally exploitative just like its hero. If the movie was critical of Evan’s bad behavior, then maybe this would be a different matter. It wants you to understand that Evan is hurting and therefore complicated. Well, Evan Hansen, there’s a lot of people in this world that are struggling with mental health issues, and suicide ideation, but they don’t manipulate and exploit those they deem are most important to them. Sorry Evan, and sorry Dear Evan Hansen, but you can stay waving behind a window for all that I care.
Nate’s Grade: D+
The Woman in the Window (2021)
The story behind The Woman in the Window is far more fascinating than the finished movie, based upon the 2018 best-selling debut novel by Dan Mallory under the pseudonym A.J. Finn, a hasty rehash of popular thrillers, notably Rear Window, mixed with recent unreliable narrator mystery/thrillers like The Girl on the Train. It’s actually somewhat shameless how derivative it comes across, so much so that you might be able to guess one of the movie’s Big Twists in the literal opening minutes. Amy Adams plays an agoraphobic psychiatrist who believes the new neighbor (Julianne Moore) across the street has been killed by her husband (Gary Oldman), and no one believes her because of her drinking and medication and general misogyny and obvious twists. I cannot tell if screenwriter Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) and director Joe Wright (Darkest Hour) were going for camp or sincerity, as the movie veers chaotically until its final groan-worthy revelation, which is apparently taken right from the source material. There aren’t any significant moments of tension. I was more confused why and how everyone was constantly coming into this lady’s opulent New York brownstone. I was also wondering why the filmmakers made Oldman look like Jon Voight. The troubled movie was delayed twice, went through several re-shoots by Tony Gilroy (hey, it worked for Rogue One, right, Disney?) and ultimately cast off to Netflix. The most interesting aspect of this movie, by far, is the author being discovered as a fraud and fabulist of the first order, lying about everything and anything to elicit pity and use it for personal and professional manipulation, and I’m talking lies about his mother dying of cancer, his brother committing suicide, himself suffering from a recurring brain tumor, and even pretending to be his brother to write emails to colleagues while still maintaining the same distinct writing voice. Mallory’s years of pathological lies (he blames it all on being bipolar now) have actually inspired a TV series where Jake Gyllenhaal is set to play him. You should spend the time you would have used watching The Woman in the Window on Netflix and instead read the extensive New Yorker article that painstakingly paints the damning portrait of Mallory as a narcissistic con artist who would weaponize people’s sympathy.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
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
Hillbilly Elegy (2020)/ Feels Good Man (2020)
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B
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
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Fashion designer Tom Ford made a big splash with his debut film, 2009’s A Single Man. It was a gentle and introspective character study of a middle-aged gay professor determined to end his own life. It was lush, full of feeling, and anchored by a deeply humane performance from Colin Firth. In short, it is everything that his follow-up Nocturnal Animals is not. This is a movie overflowing with vacant artifice that is mistaken for profundity.
Susan (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner and living a posh life with her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). She gets an unexpected present in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s sent her his newest manuscript, a departure from his usual works. It’s dedicated to Susan. With Hutton away on business, and philandering with a mistress, she dives into the story. It tells the story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber) traveling through west Texas. They run afoul of some contemptuous locals lead by the sadistic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who kidnaps Tony’s wife and daughter. Left for dead, Tony teams up with a terminally ill police officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), to hunt down Ray and make him suffer for his crimes. As Susan continues reading, she goes through a mixture of emotions trying to determine what her ex-husband is trying to communicate to her within the subtext and metaphor of his sordid story.
I grew increasingly restless with Nocturnal Animals because it failed to justify its excessive dawdling and vapid artistic pretensions. This is a movie that doesn’t really know what it wants to be so it dabbles in many different genres, none of them fully convincing or worth the effort. It’s a high-gloss erotic thriller, it’s a gritty exploitation film, it’s a morally compromised revenge thriller, and it’s a subtle relationship drama amidst the upper crust of the L.A. art scene. It’s none of these. It’s two primary stories, neither of which justifies the amount of time spent on what amounts to so little. The worst offender is the frame story with Susan, which amounts to watching Amy Adams read for two hours. She takes a lot of baths and showers in response (symbolism!) but most of the cutaways and time spent with Adams is to merely watch her react. It’s like she’s a nascent studio audience handcuffed to tell us how to feel with her reactions. Would you have known that you should feel bad during onscreen death if we didn’t cut back to Susan also feeling bad and concerned? It amounts to emotional handholding and it’s grating, also because Susan is an terrible character. She’s conceited and thinks she is owed better, which is why her mother successfully pressured her to dump Edward, a man well below her self-styled station in life. Her second marriage is crumbling apart and part of her sees Edward’s out-of-the-blue note as a potential romantic rekindling. That’s right, this is a person who reads a revenge opus that may be all about seeking cosmic vengeance against her, and she thinks to herself, “Ooo, I think he like likes me after all.” Her self-involvement is rewarded in the end but the ambiguous ending is more just missing in action. Ford’s film just peters out and leaves you hanging, just like its heroine.
Edward’s manuscript is easily the best story and even that is only by default. It’s an easier story to get involved with because of the simple story elements that naturally draw an audience in, namely a revenge fable. The initial altercation with the family and Ray’s crew lasts almost a half hour. Specifically the roadside confrontation itself is a solid ten minutes and it just goes round and round, repeating its overdone sense of menace. I wasn’t dreading the horror to come but more so getting impatient for it to be over. Without depth to the characters or escalating stakes and complications, it all just amounts to a Texas hillbilly repeatedly threatening a cowering family for ten solid minutes. The vengeance in the second half of the movie is just as predictable and too drawn out. Edward schemes with Bobby Andes to take justice into his own hands, but the movie takes far too long to reach its predictable conclusion, which still manages to be so drawn out that I was screaming at the screen for the inevitable to finally happen. When the movie ended I felt a rush of relief to go along with my general sense of perplexity.
Nocturnal Animals has the illusion of highbrow art mixing with lowbrow thrillers but it lacks the substance of the former and the courage of its convictions for the latter. Ford’s mercurial taste in costuming and set design shows in every moment with Susan, as the sets feel exquisitely designed and the cinematography designed to encapsulate this. It’s a good-looking movie but there’s not enough under the surface. It’s all empty window dressing to disguise the vapid whole at its center. Let’s tackle the opening credits, which will most certainly capture your undivided attention. It’s a foursome of overweight women dancing naked and in slow motion, their large bodies bouncing and jiggling to the self-serious musical score. Eventually it’s revealed that these women are part of an installation exhibit in Susan’s art gallery, and that’s when you get a tip-off just how hollow and attention seeking the movie will be. The gallery consists of overweight women lying face down on raised platforms. That’s it. No wonder her gallery isn’t doing that well (note: not a fat-shaming comment but more a comment on the lazy application of its sense of “art”). You get a sense that Ford comes most alive in the scenes where he can arrange figures and images, not so much the demands of storytelling.
I can already hear supporters saying I just don’t get it; no, I got it because there’s very little to understand with Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story-within-a-story so we’re already training our brains to look for parallels but they aren’t obvious so they’ll be more metaphorical. I kept waiting for it all to tie together in a substantial way by film’s end, and sorry but it just doesn’t (spoilers ahead). Edward has a whammy of a day when he discovers 1) his wife is pregnant, 2) she’s aborted his child, and 3) she’s in the arms of her new boyfriend, and he discovers all of this standing in the rain for further symbolism. He has a grievance against Susan, though we’ve been suspecting it for some time. His manuscript is a revenge thriller about a family murdered and how a weak man finds the strength to seek justice and retribution. The parallels are fairly obvious there, and the fact that there are only so many characters in the story-within-a-story means there are few options to play the analogue guessing game. I’ll just claim that Ray is meant to represent Susan since he/she is the murderer of Tony/Edward’s family. There’s a reason that Tony’s family all share Susan’s red hair. He dedicated the book to her, after all, and said she was who made it all possible. From there you could argue whether Tony represents Edward’s real past, weak and remorseful, whereas Bobby Andes is meant to represent how he wishes he could be, decisive and strong (end spoilers). That’s about all the parallels you’re going to find because the story-within-a-story only involves a very tiny number of characters. There just isn’t much to go on here and yet Ford’s movie stretches and drags and just keeps going until it reaches its predictable destination. There isn’t any more depth here than straightforward avatars and even those are lean.
I was debating a question with my friend Ben Bailey while we watched this movie, and that’s whether the stakes are removed somewhat when you know that a storyline within a movie is fictitious. Knowing that Tony is a pretend person, does that eliminate some of the tension and investment in his storyline? I recognize this is a distinctly meta question considering that a majority of film characters are fictitious by nature, but I do think there’s a different set of standards for the people of the story-within-a-story. I don’t remember feeling less for the characters in A Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story, or Adaptation. My only conclusion is that I just did not care a lick for any of the characters in Nocturnal Animals, whether they were fictional or twice fictional. They didn’t deserve my attention just because pretty people were playing them. They didn’t deserve my attention because Big Bad Things caused them to experience Big Emotions. Combined with the ponderous plot and the emaciated substance, the dull characters and the overwrought acting they inspire are a recipe for audience detachment. I can’t help but shake my head as other critics trip over themselves to shower this film with overly enthusiastic plaudits. Nocturnal Animals is a tiresome exercise in lazy symbolism, patience-demolishing pretension, and emptiness masquerading as contemplation.
Nate’s Grade: C-
For the new sci-fi film Arrival, I felt that an unconventional review might be suitable considering that the movie is about communication. Therefore I sought out my pal Eric Muller to converse over the many qualities of this intelligent movie. Enjoy, dear reader.
General plot synopsis: a dozen mysterious alien ships hover above the ground across the globe. The government seeks out the assistance of Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), an expert linguist, to try and establish a communication line with the aliens and determine whether they are friend or foe.
Nate Zoebl: So Eric, my good friend, let’s talk about our first impressions of director Denis Villenueve’s Arrival. I was really taken with just how cerebral it all was. Given the director’s pedigree (I absolutely loved Sicario), I was expecting an intelligent movie that wouldn’t follow the same blueprint as, say, Independence Day: Re-Something or Other Go Boom, but in many ways this movie feels like you’re studying for the SATs. I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s a rather highbrow movie that follows a team of smart people doing something incredibly hard with a level of precision that brings an intense sense of realism to the scenario. It made me think of Arthur C. Clarke science fiction where if first contact were to happen it might go very much like this. It’s a linguistics puzzle box and I found that to be fascinating. The movie delivers on that front. I’m sure the casual moviegoer will be bored by the lack of intensity for two acts of movie but I was delighted. You?
Eric Muller: My first thoughts were, “Wow, Hollywood made a first contact movie that looks like how the real first contact would go.” Unlike other Hollywood blockbusters, this movie is patient. The focus of the movie is not the actors or special effects like other contact movies, the focus of Arrival is the script. The movie is a love letter to language and communication. The director did an amazing job of telling the story and also flipping conventional storytelling.
Nate Zoebl: We’ll get into more of the flipping the script, so to speak, in our spoiler section but I heartily agree. I’ll also admit that I feel much like Amy Adams as I await your next reply in this discussion (not to make any general comparisons to you and heptapod aliens). I think patience, as you cited, is one of the movie’s greatest virtues. It takes its time, it naturally develops, and this is definitely evident in the first act. The step-by-step process of Adams and Jeremy Renner and the other scientists being escorted to the alien ship, suiting up, being told the hazards and unknowns, and going inside, experiencing the different gravity, and coming up close to the giant white wall that promised so much on the other side, it’s teased out in a fashion that allows for anticipation to rack your nerves. The fear of what they’re stepping into really settles in.
Eric Muller: I’m okay with being compared to a heptapod. I appreciated the movie taking its time, allowing the audience to learn and discover at the same time as Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. In other movies, learning the new language is usually done in a 15-minute montage. This movie is a Sci Fi movie dedicated to discovery, which is what science is.
Nate Zoebl: It’s definitely a movie of discovery and I appreciated that it doesn’t gloss over the challenges and details of that. It’s also a discovery of our heroine, but again we’ll save that discussion for a little bit. At its core, it’s a movie about language and communication. How are we able to connect and interpret others? If 12 giant alien ships, which kind of looked like Pringles chips, were to one day appear randomly across the globe, how do we interpret intent? That’s the movie’s ticking clock, uncovering the intent of the seven-legged squid-like aliens before the more alarmist elements of our society give in to paranoia and destruction. How would an alien species even begin to try and have another understand its language? That’s a fascinating starting point. I appreciated that the alien language was, indeed, alien. It’s made up primarily of inky pictographs, circles with slight variations. This movie must have been nirvana for a calligrapher.
Eric Muller: There are going to be a lot of tattoos based on heptapod language. But you said it; the language barrier would be the first and hardest barrier to overcome in this situation. And there is one scene that really illustrates that point. When Forrest Whittaker asks Amy Adams why she is showing the aliens just simple words. Adams breaks down why the question “What is your purpose here on Earth?” is such a complicated question. Especially to anyone who doesn’t understand English.
Nate Zoebl: I think that’s such a smart scene because it opens up for us dumb-dumbs in the audience just how complicated language can be. He asks why teach them words and she says so that they have a vocabulary that they can answer back with. Arrival is kind of like the most intriguing ESL class you never took at the Learning Annex. What technical elements really stood out for you in the film?
Eric Muller: My favorite thing was them getting inside the spaceship. I know it was a simple camera trick with some CGI but it looked so good.
Nate Zoebl: Villenueve films are downright impeccable when it comes to their technical merits. Sicario was, top to bottom, a beautiful movie from looks to sounds to editing. The cinematography for Arrival was tremendous and really accentuated the overall eeriness. Also, the sound design deserves an Oscar. The sounds of the aliens as well as the disconcerting musical score kept me on the edge of my seat. The special effects were best used sparingly. The aliens themselves worked best when they were somewhat shadowed, allowing our imaginations to go into overdrive to fill in the rest.
Eric Muller: Was it just me or did the aliens looks like the final form of the Elcor species from Mass Effect? For a budget of only 47 million, Arrival looks better than a lot of movies made with three times that budget.
Nate Zoebl: My question for you: was this central mystery enough for you before the pieces fell into place in the third act and the movie’s larger end design was revealed? I think we’re getting close to talking about all that good spoiler stuff, but before we do I wanted to know if the central drive was enough for you and in particular if the characters worked well enough. We’re treated to a tragic series of flashbacks to provide some back-story to Adams, but I don’t know if I’d say the movie presents much in the way of characterization until the third act (promise, we’re getting there…). Hear me out, old friend: I almost think Renner’s character is the typical “girl” part that Hollywood fills in these kind of larger movies, the co-lead which is really meant to support the main character and, typically his, journey of self-actualization or healing or whatever. I think there might be some subtle gender politics being subverted there or maybe I’m reading too much into an underwritten character.
Eric Muller: The central mystery was more than enough to keep me interested. As I noted earlier, we were discovering the events just like Any Adams. And you are right that this movie feels like if it had been made 10-15 years ago the genders for the two main leads would have been swapped. Probably have had Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.
Nate Zoebl: The natural sequel to The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down. I suppose it’s here we should start getting into spoilers, so if anyone would like to remain pure, please come back later to read the rest of our conversation.
[WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE]
Nate Zoebl: It’s a movie about language and our interpretation of language and I think, very cleverly, Villenueve and the screenwriter play with the language of film storytelling. We’ve been assuming from the start that these snippets of sense memories from Adams were of her tragic past. Au contraire my friend, they are revealed to be not flashbacks but flash-forwards to a future she has yet to live. Rust Cohle was right; time is a flat circle.
Eric Muller: This movie is a classic twist on a golden age Sci Fi story. Amy Adams’ character arc could have been an episode of the Twilight Zone and been just as good.
Nate Zoebl: I think the filmmakers make something we’ve seen before, and frankly have become somewhat trite, and subvert it while making the movie and the central protagonist far more interesting. We’ve seen the tragic character that has to overcome the grief over the death of a child before, even recently in 2013’s Gravity. We’re primed for that kind of familiar Hollywood back-story to provide a dollop of depth to the main character. And then when the reveal comes, it makes the scenes have even more emotional power. Adams knew that she would have a daughter who would ultimately die as a teenager of some sort of awful disease, and Adams chooses to go ahead with this future fully knowing the unbearable pain that waits. This revelation instantly makes her character so much more interesting and puts the audience in her place to ask whether we would do the same.
Eric Muller: It is a great twist on a story we have seen before. Also it puts her in the position of whether she tells her husband about their daughter’s future.
Nate Zoebl: And that philosophical divide is ultimately what dooms her marriage. Here’s my choice, and I’ll be interested if yours varies: I would have gone along with it too. Yes, knowing what is to come means that a child was brought into existence to die sadly as a teenager and will suffer, but she will also live and love and laugh for many days beforehand, and knowing the end provides a lens that incentivizes every moment spent together. Yes she will die eventually but any one of us could be snatched from the world at any moment. At least she got to know love and life for so many years before it was taken away from her. How would you choose in this scenario?
Eric Muller: I would let my wife know so we could enjoy every minute with our child.
Nate Zoebl: Let’s step away from the emotional aspects. The end reveal also provides a jolt of energy to the climax because now it becomes a race against time, but time is also forward and backwards. Amy Adams has to stop the Chinese military from striking the alien ships and she has to use information from events that have not happened to save the day in the past. It’s a heady moment of criss-crossing plot streams that really works.
Eric Muller: That reveal, that scene with Amy Adams with the Chinese general, was my favorite scene in the movie. The writing, the way it was shot, and the timing. The timing of that scene gave the audience a chance to breathe and fully take in the reveal.
Nate Zoebl: The scene reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film I wasn’t that fond of beyond its second act planet-to-planet investigations. The screenwriter in me wants to criticize the use of the future to bail out the past because it feels a tad too easy. However, while it really irritated me in Interstellar (couldn’t you be a bit more helpfully specific, Future People?!) I didn’t have a problem with its use in Arrival. Maybe I’m a hypocrite but I feel like the execution is much more impactful here and it doesn’t undo the plotting from before. It doesn’t feel like a cheap trick. The heptapod aliens experience time as a circle rather than linearly, much like Dr. Manhattan crushing through the past, present, and future simultaneously. If we could see our future selves and the actions we make, and inform our current decision-making, I think that would probably bring about a rare world peace. Also, I really liked that the aliens weren’t just these benevolent gifters but had an agenda as well because they know humans will save them thousands of years in the future. It’s like they intervened so we could save ourselves.
Eric Muller: I also liked that the aliens said they will need us in 3,000 years. We never discover what the aliens need from us then. I think we went over this earlier, but Arrival is not a new story but just a great take and twist on that story.
Nate Zoebl: I liked that open-ended nature of the story. What if the aliens had come to Earth and spoke in nothing but emojis? Lots of pictures of eggplants and “A-ok” fingers and strangely anthropomorphic poop.
Eric Muller: Then we would use Amy Adams’ soon-to-be-dead daughter to solve the mystery.
Nate Zoebl: The aliens would essentially be modern teenagers (I’ll shake my old man fist at The Kids Today). The daughter would be all like, “Whatever mom.” And then we’d all be dead. Though the ending reveal raises the question of fate versus free will. Can these future events and memories be prevented? I don’t have an answer.
[END OF SPOILERS DISCUSSION]
Nate Zoebl: So Eric, what would you rate this movie?
Eric Muller: I have to go 5 out of 5 stars. One of the best movies I have seen this year. It was a better version of Contact. When you look at it versus Independence Day: Resurgence, it did everything right that ID4 2 failed at, like how you view Civil War versus BvS.
Nate Zoebl: Fair enough, though please don’t ever bring up BvS in polite conversation without first giving me plenty of advance warning. I’m still working through that one. I think I’d rate it an “A-” myself, and I might change that in time. I think the only thing that held me back from a full “A” is that it saves the emotional investment a bit too late to have the full wallop I think it intended.
Eric Muller: I think saving the emotional investment was the wise choice. Cause we get it to start with the investment and then the ending flipflops it.
Nate Zoebl: Now, on a scale of eggplant emojis, how many eggplants are you giving this movie?
Eric Muller: Is this where I admit I’m too old to understand emojis?
Nate Zoebl: I’ll also admit that I don’t understand the appeal, especially conversations that are nothing but emojis. Fittingly, I’ll end this discussion with pictographs:
[Smiley face emoji + cat dancing emoji + little green alien with “we’re number one” foam finger emoji + movie theater emoji + eggplant emoji + “A-ok” fingers emoji]
Nate’s Grade: A-
Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Batman and Superman have been a collision course for a while. The two most famous superheroes were once scheduled to combat in 2003. Then the budget got a tad too high for Warner Brothers’ liking and it was scrapped. Flash forward a decade and now it seems that money is no longer a stumbling point, especially as Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice cost an estimated $250 million dollars. I wasn’t a fan of director Zack Snyder’s first take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel, so I was tremendously wary when he was already tapped to direct its follow-up, as well as the inevitable follow-up follow-up with 2017’s Justice League. You see DC has epic plans to create its own universe of interlocked comics franchises patterned after Marvel’s runaway success. Instead of building to the super team-up, they’re starting with it and hoping one movie can kick off possibly half a dozen franchises. There’s a lot at stake here for a lot of people. That’s what make the end results all the more truly shocking. Batman vs. Superman isn’t just a bad movie, and I never thought I’d type these words, it’s worse than Batman and Robin.
Eighteen months after the cataclysmic events of Man of Steel, Metropolis is rebuilding and has an uneasy relationship with its alien visitor, Superman (Henry Cavill). Billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is convinced that an all-powerful alien is a threat to mankind, especially in the wake of the dead and injured in Metropolis. But how does man kill a god? Enter additional billionaire Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) and his acquisition of a giant hunk of kryptonite. Bruce runs into a mysterious woman (Gail Gadot a.k.a. Wonder Woman) also looking into the secrets held within Luthor’s vaults. Clark Kent is pressing Wayne for comment on this bat vigilante trampling on civil liberties in nearby Gotham City, and Wayne is annoyed at the news media’s fawning treatment over an unchecked all-powerful alien. The U.S. Senate is holding hearings on what responsibilities should be applied to Superman. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is worried that her boyfriend is getting too caught up in the wrong things. Lex Luthor is scheming in the shadows to set up one final confrontation that will eliminate either Batman or Superman, and if that doesn’t work he’s got a backup plan that could spell their doom.
I think it’s only fitting to tackle each of the particular heavyweights in this huge showdown and devote time to dressing down why exactly the movie fails them.
Let’s start with Batman because quite frankly he’s the character that the American culture prefers (his name even comes first in the title for a Superman sequel). Ben Affleck (Gone Girl) was at the bad end of unrelenting Internet fanboy-fueled scorn when the news came out that he was going to play the Caped Crusader, but he’s one of the best parts of this movie, or perhaps the better phrasing would be one of the least bad parts. He’s a much better Bruce Wayne than Batman but we don’t really get much of either in this movie from a character standpoint. There isn’t much room for character development of any sort with a plot as busy and incomprehensible as Batman vs. Superman, and so the movie often just relies upon the outsized symbolism of its mythic characters. We have a Batman who is Tough and Dark and Traumatized and looking for (Vigilante) Justice. We only really get a handful of scenes with Batman in action, and while there’s a certain entertainment factor to watching an older, more brutal Batman who has clearly given up the whole ethical resolve to avoid killing the bad guys, under Snyder’s attention, the character is lost in the action. The opening credits once again explain Batman’s origin story, a tale that should be burned into the consciousness of every consumer. We don’t need it, yet Snyder feels indebted to what he thinks a Batman movie requires. So he’s gruff, and single-minded, and angry, but he’s never complex and often he’s crudely rendered into the Sad Man Lashing Out. He’s coming to the end of his career in tights and he knows it, and he’s thinking about his ultimate legacy. That’s a great starting point that the multitude of live-action Batman cinema has yet to explore, but that vulnerability is replaced with resoluteness. He’s determined to kill Superman because Superman is dangerous, and also I guess because the Metropolis collateral damage crushed a security officer’s legs, a guy he’s never met before. The destructive orgy of Metropolis is an excellent starting point to explain Bruce Wayne’s fear and fury. I don’t know then why the movie treats Wayne as an extremist. I don’t really understand why there’s a memorial for the thousands who lost their lives in the Metropolis brawl that includes a statue of Superman. Isn’t that akin to the Vietnam Wall erecting a giant statue of a Vietcong soldier stabbing an American GI with a bayonet? This may be the most boring Batman has ever been onscreen, and I repeat, Ben Affleck is easily one of the best parts of this woefully begotten mess.
Next let’s look at the other titular superhero of the title, the Boy Scout in blue, Superman. The power of Superman lies with his earnest idealism, a factor that has always made him a tougher sell than the gloomy Batman. With Man of Steel, Warner Brothers tried making Superman more like Batman, which meant he was darker, mopey, theoretically more grounded, and adopted the same spirit of being crushed by the weight of expectations and being unable to meet them. Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) was a Superman who didn’t want to be Superman, where dear old Pa Kent advocated letting children drown rather than revealing his powers (Father’s Day must have been real awkward in the Kent household). It wasn’t a great step and I wrote extensively about it with Man of Steel. The problem is that Superman and Batman are supposed to be contradictory and not complimentary figures. If one is brooding and the other is slightly more brooding, that doesn’t exactly create a lot of personal and philosophical conflicts now does it? It clearly feels that Snyder and everybody really wanted to make a Batman movie and Superman just tagged along. Superman clearly doesn’t even want to be Superman in the Superman sequel, often looking at saving others with a sigh-inducing sense of duty. He’s still working as a journalist and making moral arguments about the role of the media, which seems like a really lost storyline considering the emphasis on blood and destruction. He wants Superman to be seen as a force of good even if others deify him. That’s a powerfully interesting angle that’s merely given lip service, the concept of what Superman’s impact has on theology and mankind’s relationship to the universe and its sense of self. Imagine the tectonic shifts acknowledging not only are we not alone but we are the inferior race. We get a slew of truly surprising cameos for a superhero movie arguing this debate (Andrew Sullivan?) but then like most else it’s dropped. Clark is trying to reconcile his place in the world but he’s really just another plot device, this time a one-man investigation into this bat vigilante guy. The other problem with a Batman v. Superman showdown is that Superman is obviously the superior and would have to hold back to make it thrilling. We already know this Superman isn’t exactly timid about killing. The climax hinges on a Batman/Superman connection that feels so trite as to be comical, and yet Snyder and company don’t trust the audience enough to even piece that together and resort to a reconfirming flashback.
Arguably the most problematic area of a movie overwhelmed with problems and eyesores, Eisenberg’s (Now You See Me) version of Lex Luthor is a complete non-starter. He is essentially playing his Mark Zuckerberg character but with all the social tics cranked higher. His socially awkward mad genius character feels like he’s been patched in from a different movie (Snyder’s Social Network?) and his motivation is kept murky. Why does he want to pit Batman and Superman against each other? It seems he has something of a god complex because of a nasty father. He is just substantially disappointing as a character, and his final scheme, complete with the use of an egg timer for wicked purposes, is so hokey that it made me wince. If you’re going with this approach for Lex then embrace it and make it make sense. Late in the movie, Lex Luthor comes across a treasure-trove of invaluable information, and yet he does nothing substantive with this except create a monster that needs a super team-up to take down (this plot point was already spoiled by the film’s marketing department, so I don’t feel guilty about referring to it). If you’re working with crafty Lex, he doesn’t just gain leverage and instantly attack. This is a guy who should be intricately plotting as if he was the John Doe killer in Seven. This is a guy who uses his intelligence to bend others to his will. This Lex Luthor throws around his ego, nattering social skills, and force-feeds people Jolly Ranchers. This is simply a colossal miscalculation that’s badly executed from the second he steps onscreen. The movie ends up being a 150-minute origin story for how Lex Luthor loses his hair.
The one character that somewhat works is Wonder Woman and this may be entirely due to the fact that her character is in the movie for approximately twenty minutes. Like Lois, she has little bearing on the overall plot, but at least she gets to punch things. I was skeptical of Gadot (Triple 9) when she was hired for the role that should have gone to her Furious 6 co-star, Gina Carano (Deadpool). She didn’t exactly impress me but I’ll admit I dropped much of my skepticism. I’m interested in a Wonder Woman movie, especially if, as reported, the majority is set during World War I. There is a definite thrill of seeing the character in action for the first time, even if she’s bathed in Snyder’s desaturated color-corrected palate of gloom. Realistically, Wonder Woman is here to introduce her franchise, to setup the Justice League movies, and as a tether to the other meta-humans who each have a solo film project on the calendar for the next four years. Wonder Woman gets to play coy and mysterious and then extremely capable and fierce during the finale. One of the movie’s biggest moments of enjoyment for me was when Wonder Woman takes a punch and her response is to smile. I look forward to seeing more of her in action and I hope the good vibes I have with the character, and Gadot, carry onward.
The last act of this movie is Snyder pummeling the audience into submission, and it’s here where I just gave up and waited for the cinematic torment to cease. The action up to this point had been rather mediocre, save for that one Batman fight, and I think with each additional movie I’m coming to the conclusion that Snyder is a first-class visual stylist but a terrible action director. The story has lacked greater psychological insights or well-rounded characters, so it’s no surprise that the final act is meant to be the gladiatorial combat Lex has hyped, the epic showdown between gods. In essence, superheroes have taken a mythic property in our pop-culture, and Batman and Superman are our modern Mt. Olympus stalwarts. This showdown should be everything. The operatic heaviness of the battle at least matches with the overwrought tone of the entire movie. It’s too bad then that the titular bout between Batman and Superman lasts a whole ten minutes long. That’s it, folks, because then they have to forget their differences to tackle a larger enemy, the exact outcome that every single human being on the planet anticipated. I’m not even upset that the film ends in this direction, as it was fated. What I am upset about is a climax that feels less than satisfyingly climactic and more like punishment, as well as a conclusion that no single human being on the planet will believe. Snyder’s visual style can be an assault on the senses but what it really does is break you down. The end fight is an incoherent visual mess with the screen often a Where’s Waldo? pastiche of electricity, debris, smoke, fire, explosions, and an assortment of other elements. It’s a thick soup of CGI muck that pays no mind to geography or pacing. It’s like Michael Bay got drunk on Michael Bay-filmmaking. What the hell is the point of filming this movie in IMAX when the visual sequences are either too hard to decipher or something unworthy of the IMAX treatment? Do we need an entire close-up of a shell hitting the ground in glorious IMAX? The Doomsday character looks like a big grey baby before he grows his spikes. I was shocked at how bad the special effects looked for a movie that cost this much money, as if ILM or WETA said, “Good enough.” Once it was all over, I sat and reflected and I think even Snyder’s Sucker Punch had better action.
Another problem is that there are just way too many moments that don’t belong in a 150-minute movie. There’s an entire contrivance of Lois disposing of a valuable tool and then having to go back and retrieve it that made me roll my eyes furiously. It’s an inept way of keeping Lois involved in the action. How does Lois even know the relevancy of this weapon against its new enemy? Then there’s her rescue, which means that even when the movie shoehorns Lois into the action to make her relevant, she still manages to become a damsel in needing of saving. She feels shoehorned in general with the screenplay, zipping from location to location really as a means of uncovering exposition. Then there’s the fact that there is a staggering THREE superfluous dream sequences, and we actually get a flashback to one of those dumb dream sequences. The most extended dream sequence is a nightmarish apocalyptic world where Batman rebels against a world overrun by Superman and his thugs. There’s a strange warning that comes with this extended sequence of future action but it doesn’t involve this movie. Batman vs. Superman suffers from the same sense of over-extension that plagued Age of Ultron. It’s trying to set up so many more movies and potential franchises that it gets lost trying to simply make a good movie rather than Step One in a ten-step film release. In the age of super franchises that are intertwined with super monetary investments, these pilot movies feel more like delivery systems than rewarding storytelling. Payoffs are sacrificed for the promise of future payoffs, and frankly DC hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt here.
I must return to my central, headline-grabbing statement and explain how Batman vs. Superman is a worse movie than the infamous Batman and Robin. I understand how loaded that declaration is so allow me to unpack it. This is a bad movie, and with that I have no doubt. It’s plodding, incoherent, tiresome, dreary, poorly developed, and so self-serious and overwrought to the point that every ounce of fun is relinquished. It feels more like punishment than entertainment, a joyless 150-minute exercise in product launching. By the end of the movie I sat in my chair, defeated and weary. Here is the most insidious part. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice obliterates any hope I had for the larger DC universe, let alone building anything on par with what Marvel has put together. If this is the direction they’re going, the style, the tone, then I don’t see how any of these will work. What’s to like here? “Fun” is not a dirty word. Fun does not mean insubstantial nor does it mean that larger pathos is mitigated. If you’re going to have a movie about Batman and Superman duking it out, it better damn well be entertaining, and yes fun. It’s not a Lars von Trier movie. The Marvel movies are knocked for not being serious, but they take their worlds and characters seriously enough. They don’t need to treat everything like a funeral dirge, which is what Batman vs. Superman feels like (it even opens and closes on funerals). This movie confirms all the worst impulses that Man of Steel began, and because it gutted all hope I have for the future of these oncoming superhero flicks, I can’t help but lower its final grade. Batman and Robin almost killed its franchise but it was in decline at the time. As campy and innocuous as it was, Batman vs. Superman goes all the way in the other direction to the extreme, leaving a lumbering movie that consumes your hopes. The novelty of the premise and seeing its famous characters standing side-by-side will be enough for some audience members. For everyone else, commence mourning.
Nate’s Grade: D
Big Eyes (2014)
Like most people, Tim Burton is a filmmaker who likes working with a select set of familiar faces. Since 2001, Burton’s wife Helena Bonham Carter has appeared in every one of his films. Johnny Depp has appeared in every Burton film since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, save for Planet of the Apes. It got to the point where you knew if Burton were attached as director, these two would be riding shotgun. No so fast, as Big Eyes is absent Depp, Carter, other longtime collaborators like editor Chris Lebenzon, and really any noticeable sign that Burton actually was the director. This bizarre biopic about a scandalous secret in the art world fails to justify more than a casual viewing.
In the 1960s, Margaret Keane’s (Amy Adams) portraits of waifish children with large, tragic eyes were the most popular art of the decade. They fascinated the public who couldn’t get enough, including clamoring for reprints so everyone could have their own Keane work of art. Except the world at large never knew that Margaret had painted them. Her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), was posing as the real creator. He appeared on television, ran with famous celebrities, and always looked for the next platform to elevate the Keane name, all while Margaret stayed home and painted. She agreed to go along with Walter’s version of events because the public was more accepting of a male painter, and Walter was such a natural salesman. The world could never know the truth.
Being a true-life story, there are certain limitations inherent in sticking to the facts while still telling an engaging story, and Big Eyes suffers from this. There is an interesting story here, no doubt, and that is clear and on display when Margaret and Walter square off in court as a majority of the third act. Before then, the screenplay by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) plays in a very linear fashion, telling the story very conventionally except for the annoying narration of a news reporter (Danny Huston). The reason this character is clumsily inserted into being our narrator is because the real main character, Margaret, spends two acts being so passive and often hidden before she gathers the courage to challenge her husband and expose him. Naturally, there’s got to be a realistic character arc where our heroine goes from naïve and inactive to stronger and active, but it takes most of the movie. In the meantime, she paints and paints and literally hides herself from the world. It feels like the movie forgets about her while Walter is gallivanting around on her fame. Ironically, the movie actually becomes a series of men attempting to tell Margaret’s story; the first is her husband but the other is the invented and unnecessary narrator.
To make up for the time the film seems to paint a more flattering than deserved picture of Walter. I think perhaps they want the audience to fall under his spell just like Margaret and then slowly come to the same dawning realization. His initial argument is that female artists are not taken as seriously in their era, and I’m sure there’s truth to this. It was generally harder for a woman to be seen as legitimate in just about any capacity other than homemaker in the 1960s. We spend a full two acts with him charming others and hoodwinking the art world. He’s portrayed as more of a used car salesman con man than what could be described as a dangerous egotistical drunk who exploits his wife. The movie gives him a few nasty moments but it seems to portray Walter with light judgment, even after he endangers Margaret and their daughter’s lives. With Margaret figuratively and literally a kept woman cooped up for so long, Walter’s antics start to come across as vamping, filling time until Margaret hits that point on her character arc to leave him. It becomes tiresome then to just watch Walter sputter and spin his way to greater fortune and fame, though he deserves credit for popularizing the printing of painting reproductions that sell for cheap. Walter Keane, footnote in the art world for commercializing it for the masses. Waltz (Django Unchained) is an effortlessly entertaining actor and charming cads with a thinly veiled air of menace are his specialty. It’s a waste of his talents because Walter is kept as an ongoing mystery rather than an opportunity to explore a complicated character’s psyche. We find one falsehood after another, but in the end, he’s still just a mystery left unsolved.
There is amusement to be had at points as to be expected when it comes to keeping up a con, almost getting caught, the scrambles to continue hiding the big lie. This fun is at the expense of Margaret, which the movie wants you to think about and not think about at various points. There are streaks of comedy but I’d hardly call Big Eyes a comedy (sorry Golden Globes categorization). Terrence Stamp is enjoyable as a disapproving art critic who cannot believe what Walter is doing or why he is popular. The final act is easily its most entertaining as Margaret finally gets to call out her scoundrel of a husband for his bad behavior. It takes several unexpected turns that seem too fanciful to be true, and yet they are. The courtroom setting feels right for this script, and if there were a rewrite, I would have used it as the primary setting. The story could be introduced through a series of flashbacks. At least that way we don’t have to wait for Margaret to be the strong heroine we need, and we don’t have to be constrained by the wait of linear storytelling. This approach would strip away some of the redundancies of the plot and at least allow Margaret an opportunity to be the one telling her story.
Another problem with Big Eyes is that at no point does it feel like a Tim Burton film. The man is better known for his dips into Gothic fantasy, but in 1994 he showed he could more than pull off a conventional film in Ed Wood. Just because the story doesn’t involve weird fantasy characters and violence doesn’t mean that Burton cannot still add value being the man to tell that tale. Unfortunately, there is no point while watching Big Eyes that feels like it was directed by Burton. The director could have been anybody. If you kept the identity of the director secret, I cannot imagine more than a slim number of participants accurately guessing who directed the picture. I wonder what attracted Burton to the script, which does have its share of true-life eccentrics and hucksterism, both appealing aspects for the man. It’s just lacking a sense of vision that Burton usually has in spades, even if that vision over three decades has become a tad commoditized. I won’t go as far to say the film is poorly directed because a majority of the problems remain with its script rather than the actors or shot selections. Still, Burton doesn’t bring much to elevate the material. Perhaps that’s a positive, he didn’t attempt to overpower the narrative with a superfluous detour in style, but then why hire Burton?
Adams (American Hustle) is a consistently good actress and she does her best with the part, but the limitations are even too much for her talents. By no means is she bad but she’s playing a passive character often given to worry. She’s stashed away for a majority of the movie. You feel like Adams is acting with one hand tied behind her back.
Big Eyes is a movie that intrigues you with its potential only to frustrate you with its eventual execution. The true story behind the film is juicy and outlandish, crying out for the venue of cinema. The struggle between husband and wife over the ownership of an empire is a conflict that hooks an audience. Thanks to a repetitive plot structure and character vamping, the film limits the heights it can achieve. Burton’s presence is not felt at all throughout the film. The comedy often sours when you realize the full context of what’s going on, a much more serious affair than the film often wants you to think about. The characters are kept at a distance and given arcs rather than deeper exploration. She will become active and find her voice, fighting for credit. He will be the con man who wants to keep everyone distracted, fueled by jealousy at his wife’s abilities. There’s more psychological complexity here, but Waltz and Adams are slotted in very narrow boxes. They have little to work with and their performances show it. Big Eyes isn’t a bad film but it’s one that deserved to be better in just about every regard. It’s a fleeting curiosity more than a fully developed film, and that’s a shame given the source material. Expect Burton to return back to the safe embrace of Johnny Depp’s arms at any moment.
Nate’s Grade: B-
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