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
Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain. The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy. For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore. Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which will likely break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Jackie (Natalie Portman) is still reeling from the loss of her husband, President Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson). In the weeks that followed the assassination in 1963, her life was a whirlwind of change. She was leaving the White House while another administration took control of her husband’s office and agenda. She was leaving a life of glamour and privilege and it all came to a halt. Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) is worried about the Kennedy policies getting lost as well as his own potential presidential prospects. Lyndon Johnson (John Carrol Lynch) is worried about asserting his own control. While trying to work through her grief, Jackie must protect her husband’s legacy among all the well-wishers, political vultures, and craven opportunists.
We’re left with an immersive, impressionistic look at America’s most famous first lady since it’s hard to distinguish the layers of performance from the woman herself. She was used to adopting the façade of what the public expected of her, how her husband’s friends looks at her with desire and dismissiveness, and the differences between her private life and her public persona. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the interior space of a famous woman that so many people think they know well because of her glamour and television appearances, but do they really? Her identity is in free fall. She gave up everything for this man and now he is gone and her cherished position is gone. It’s said each first lady leaves her stamp on the office, and now Ladybird Johnson is already itching to undo that stamp, erasing Jackie’s presence and supplanting it. Will these last few days define her and will they define her husband? While dealing with raw grief, Jackie also takes the position of being the first to protect her husband’s legacy. While planning the particulars of the funeral march and exact burial site, she’s really framing his place in the greater annuls of history, tragically cut short and questionably memorable. His life has been taken from her and now the only thing she can do is protect his place in history. The funeral details and conflicts they consign the new Johnson administration to are interesting, as is Jackie’s simmering disdain for the Johnsons, but it’s more than just placation; Jackie has an underrated knack for theatrical optics. The country is in mourning, just like its (former) first lady, and she offers a spectacle as an outlet. Some term it vanity and even Jackie admits that many aspects were for her, for her grief, for her rage at the world and her doubters, for her wounded soul searching for meaning. She wanted the American public to see her in mourning but she wanted just as much to see them in mourning too.
Eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave biopic, as well the noveau approach of using one clarifying moment to better examine and sum up the person (see: Selma, Steve Jobs), Noah Oppenheim’s script is a triptych, a hypnotic exploration that zips along non-linear but thematically-tethered memories. It’s a more interesting approach because we’re not locked into a linear progression of plot events, though the immediate aftermath and her interview with the Newsweek reporter (Billy Crudup) serve as the directional compass. It also provides a clever conceit for meta-textual levels. We have scenes that lay as direct conflict with the public Jackie and the private Jackie, and we have scenes that lay into the different levels of performance, from her show model tour of the White House furnishings and fixings to putting on the brave face to speak to her children. Director Pablo Larraine (No, Neruda) shoots the movie in a style reminiscent of its 1960s time period, with a film stock that blends the difference between documentary and recreation, further adding another stylistic level to the proceedings. The various threads of connectivity are so much more interesting to dissect with this storytelling approach and it makes the movie a much deeper and more contemplative experience to unpack.
There’s a scene in the middle of Jackie that stood out to me. During a night of drinking, Jackie puts on the record for the Broadway production of Camelot and wanders the large empty spaces of the people’s house. For my younger readers, the Kennedy administration was dubbed by many as “Camelot,” first coined by Jackie, out of a sense of its idealism, youth, and inspirational promise to change the world into a nobler place. It’s practically a mythical time and the real people get lost amidst the romantic spectacle. Nowadays, our presidents can often be the same mythical figures as the kings of old, figureheads whose humanity and details we iron out and soften as we eulogize and entomb them. The music echoes through the different chambers but there’s no one to hear it, no one to enjoy it, the vast emptiness communicating much of Jackie’s anguish. “There will be great presidents again but there will never be another Camelot,” she says. That moment is left as a passing memory, a picture of nostalgia that will only have its realism dampen in time as it becomes enshrined in American myth making. Amidst all her privilege and esteem, there is an existential sense of loss for Jackie and the nation as a whole into the turbulent 60s.
The other rich aspect is that we are watching a woman process her grief in real-time and it can often put a lump in your throat. I challenge anyone not to feel an outpouring of empathy when Jackie has to explain to her two very young children why daddy isn’t coming back from Dallas, having to explain something horrendous to those so innocent. In some scenes it feels like Jackie is numb to the world around her, focused on the little things as an escape from her horrible reality and its trauma. We do get a recreation of that fateful day in Dallas twice. The first is the immediate aftermath with Jackie bloodied and protected by the Secret Service, keeping her at a distance from us too in the audience. The next is a closer view inside the car as we’re with Jackie when the awful event happens, and the sudden shock of gore is still a disturbing gut-punch no matter how much you anticipate the moment. We watch her crazed instincts trying to collect the pieces of her beautiful and broken husband, stressing she was trying to keep everything together, figuratively and literally. The scene plays out longer and it serves as an emotional climax to the film, a frank reminder that for everything people believe they know about this woman, at heart, for all her riches and fame and privilege, she is simply a human being trying to make sense of death. It’s this final moment in the car that reminds us.
This is an acting showcase and Portman (Black Swan) excels, delivering the best female performance I’ve seen this year at the movies. It’s an Oscar bait dream role and she nails it. She goes beyond mere imitation though Portman does an excellent job of that. Thanks to critic/blogger Jeffrey Wells for this great quote about the imitable real-life Jackie from author Tom Wolfe’s novel, The Right Stuff: “She had a certain Southern smile, which she had perhaps picked up at Foxcroft School, in Virginia, and her quiet voice, which came through her teeth, as revealed by the smile. She barely moved her lower jaw when she talked. The words seemed to slip between her teeth like exceedingly small slippery pearls.” Portman stunned me early with her exquisite recreation of Jackie and then she stunned me moments later with the depth of emotion she was able to convey in the scene where she stares into the Air Force One mirror, dabbing her husband’s blood from her face as her eyes are swollen with tears. Lorraine favors plenty of exacting close-ups to watch the array of emotions play across her face. She has moments of strength, moments of pettiness, moments of heart-tugging lows and weakness, and Portman is always fascinating, holding your attention rapt as you study her study. It’s a mesmerizing performance and one that deserves to earn Portman her second gold statue.
Jackie is a movie that has stayed with me for days after I’ve seen it. The exceptional and empathetic work by Portman is the first thing I recall, and then the thematic and symbolic relevance of the storylines as they fold on top of one another, providing a hypnotic and immersive portrait of a very famous woman who sought and spurned the spotlight. As far as I’m concerned this is the definitive film presentation of Jackie and Portman’s searing performance is the dazzling standard that won’t be beat. You walk away having additional appreciation for this woman but also further curiosity. The movie doesn’t expressly state who she is as a human being, providing a range of personas, some that conflict with one another, and allows you to put it all together for your interpretation. It’s a bold gambit and a fitting gesture for a woman defined by others’ perceptions.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Spotlight is the true-story behind the 2002 expose into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse and it is unflinching in its focus and animated by its outrage, which is the best and worst part of this awards-caliber movie. Writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) is a splendid curator of unlikely movie families, and with Spotlight he follows the titular investigative team (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James) at the Boston Globe as they go about their jobs. That’s really about it. Over the course of two tightly packed hours, we watch as the Spotlight team chases down leads, goes through archives, interview subjects and know when to push harder and when to fall back, and day-by-day build their case to expose the massive corruption within the Church. It’s invigorating material and worthy of the careful and sincere reverence that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer have afforded, though the flurry of names can be difficult to keep track of. However, that’s about the extent of the movie. We don’t really get to know any of the journalists on much of a personal level or as a character; they are defined by their tenacity and competence. We don’t get much time for reflection or contemplation on the subject, especially its psychological impact on a majority Catholic city/staff, and the culpability of those within systems of power that chose to ignore rather than accept the monstrous truth. I don’t need more “movie moments” or emotionally manipulative flashbacks, per se. With its nose to the grindstone, Spotlight is an affecting and absorbing news article given life but it feels less like a fully formed movie of its own. It’s confidently directed, written, acted, and executed to perfection, and I feel like a cad even grumbling, but the ceiling for this movie could have been set higher had the filmmakers widened its focus.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Eat Pray Love is based on the best-selling memoir about Elizabeth Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a woman in her 40s trying to recover from personal setbacks. She’s divorcing her husband and she’s generally unfulfilled with her life. It seems to be missing meaning. Her solution is to set off on a journey to Italy, India, and Bali in order to rediscover who she is and what is missing in her privileged life.
Granted I am not in the target demo for this movie’s audience, but I found the main character to be rather hard to relate with. The film opens with her deciding to end her marriage to Billy Crudup (Watchmen). So far I’m okay. The dissolution of a marriage, especially when you’re older, is a prime starting point to reevaluate your life now that you’re on your own and, frankly, terrified by that prospect. But then the movie presents Gilbert as a rather self-involved and almost callous individual. Her husband is devastated, but she’s only tear-eyed one night as she prays to God why she’s in her marriage. Then we get a scene where the couple meets to talk about their impending divorce. Crudup wants to talk and work on fixing whatever problems exist. Gilbert won’t even do that. She is bailing. Her refusal to even try to fix her marriage, in the face of her husband who is willing to choose his wife over everything in the world, is a perplexing filmmaking decision. Gilbert seems shallow. The movie throws out some half-hearted excuse, saying her husband is wishy-washy about his career, but it’s a smokescreen. Why even leave this stuff in there if we’re just going to dislike Gilbert? That’s like including an opening scene in Schindler’s List where Schindler beats a child to death. A hyperbolic example, yes, but proof that it’s a terrible idea to have an early scene kill audience sympathy for your main character.
And so Gilbert goes about on her globetrotting voyage of self-discovery, chiefly to fulfill her health, spirit, and heart. Except the movie seems to get worse with every stop on the map. The overly long beginning in New York shows that our flighty main character shacks up with a hunky theater actor (James Franco), and then even there agonizes over how unhappy she is with this new guy. She needs to learn to love herself before anybody else, she says. Not to sound sexist, but I think many women wouldn’t have problems being in relationships with Crudup and Franco (edit: written before revelations of Franco and sexual harassment surfaced). Now people can find unhappiness in all stripes, especially with beautiful people, but Gilbert is packing up a lot of self-absorption before she ever leaves New York City. In Italy, she finds freedom in losing herself to food. She feasts on fine Italian cuisine and doesn’t obsess over her weight gain. In fact, she and a buddy treat shopping for larger sized jeans as a joyous celebration. I?m pleased that people can become more comfortable with their bodies, but Roberts celebrating gaining 10 pounds and not caring may rub some core audience members the wrong way. However, this Italy section focuses on food and fellowship, and Gilbert learns the language, enjoys the company of a group of locals, and cooks a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for her new friends. This is easily the most likeable Gilbert will be in the film.
First off, a film about a character finding personal discovery and self-awareness is going to be hard to pull off. Internal journeys of self-actualization and enlightenment don’t necessarily scream great movies, a medium of images and movement. For this to work you need a good story and a character worth rooting for, somebody who the audience can empathize with and cheer on the arduous path to personal grace. Elizabeth Gilbert is not that character. The other two segments in India and Bali are a true test of patience. Watching Roberts sway around, chant to herself, and look forlorn waiting for enlightenment to come is not the best use of 40 minutes. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) gives the film’s best performance in the most tedious segment, which kind of reignites the “tree falling in a forest” scenario. When Indians have spiritual crises do they travel to New York? The end feels even more leisurely paced and I found myself nodding off here and there. The movie was failing to keep my attention short of some lovely scenery.
Director Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TV’s Glee, knows that his audience wants beautiful countryside, beautiful food, beautiful men, and Julia Roberts smiling. To that end, Eat Pray Love is a success. Murphy seems to enjoy filming the food sequences the most. The food is portrayed like a glamour reel. It’s easy to feel the rumbles of hunger while watching this movie, and my wife and I came directly from dinner when we saw the film. Pizza from Naples looks divine. But Murphy also serves as co-writer, along with Jennifer Salt, so he should have known better about the plot deficiencies that keep the audience at a distance from embracing Gilbert. The actors all seem to be having a good time, and why wouldn’t they? Visiting exotic places and stuffing their faces with local delicacies? It feels like I’m watching someone else’s boring vacation videos that go on for 135 laborious minutes.
Eat Pray Love seems to be missing something, namely the soul of its journey. By design, so much of this existential crisis is internal, which is where the book can fill in all the clarifying and illuminating details to make this feel like a full story. As a movie, it just doesn’t work on screen no matter how powerful Roberts smiles. The main character is hard to relate to and even harder to sympathize with as she becomes swallowed up in her self-absorption. How many people can solve a midlife breakdown by flying across the world for over a year? How did Gilbert afford this? I’ll tell you how. Gilbert pitched the idea to a publisher and then used the advance to pay for her yearlong trek of dining and self-discovery. She was banking on her travels solving her personal woes before she ever left the country. That makes me question some of the Gilbert’s motives. It makes me doubt how genuine this whole journey really was, considering she sold the ending before she ever reached her catharsis. Maybe the title should have been Eat Pray Cash Check.
Nate’s Grade: C
Considering the talent in front of and behind the camera, it’s hard not to describe Public Enemies as anything but a letdown. This Depression-era gangster film is heavy on period details and very tight-fisted when it comes to characterization. You’d think given 140 minutes and the natural charisma of Johnny Depp that an audience would come to some kind of understanding with notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Nope. The characters remain perfunctory the entire time, pushed into conflicts by a brisk pace that manages to squeeze in three bank robberies, two prison breaks, and many police shootouts. Because the movie barely takes time to breathe, the love story between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, a dead ringer for pop singer Katy Perry) is never credible, the tension never feels palpable, and director Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral) seems overly smitten with his distracting high def digital photography. You never really feel any sense of danger or interest. The characters on screen feel like strangers even after 140 minutes. Depp makes the movie more tolerable than it would be without his presence. Mann, one of three credited screenwriters, seems to assume the audience is well versed in Dillinger history and so he skips over plenty of fertile territory. Public Enemies certainly hums with plenty of polish but it comes across as mostly mundane due to such flimsy character work. It’s a collection of good scenes that fail to make up a satisfying whole.
Nate’s Grade: B-
In the realm of comics, Watchmen is tantamount to the Bible. It consisted of 12 issues released between 1986-1987 but it arguable changed the medium forever afterward. TIME magazine listed the book, by author Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, as one of the 100 greatest 20th century novels. Therefore, there has always been heavy trepidation within the geek community when Hollywood came courting the Watchmen property. Different directors have tried tackling the material, going back to the late 1980s when Terry Gilliam was hired to direct and producer Joel Silver was adamant about getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to portray Dr. Manhattan (back then, they totally just would have painted him blue — like they did when he was Mr. Freeze). The movie would seem like a tantalizing possibility and then the production would collapse, most recently in 2004 with director Paul Greengrass attached. Director Zack Snyder (300) understood all of the concerns from the notoriously vocal geek community and attempted to make the most faithful Watchmen film possible. He accomplished that goal. But was it the right goal?
In this alternative account of history, masked crime fighters exist and were even bankrolled by the U.S. government. President Nixon is re-elected to a third term, thanks in part to superheroes winning the Vietnam War, and then he outlaws all masked vigilantes. Flash forward to 1985, and Nixon is on his fifth term and staring down Soviet aggression into Afghanistan. It appears that the world on is on the brink of nuclear annihilation by the dueling super powers engaged in a staring contest. Edward Blake, a.k.a. the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), is thrown from his apartment window and killed. Blake used to belong to a second-generation superhero team in the 1970s called the Watchmen. The other members consisted of Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Night Owl (Patrick Wilson), Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Adrian Veidt (Matthew Goode), a.k.a. Ozymandias, the glowing blue man Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who was transformed into a god-like figure of power after a laboratory accident, and then there’s Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. The Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), who was following in her mother’s (Carla Gugino) footsteps, the first Silk Spectre. The death of the Comedian brings the old team back together and rekindles some interest in putting on the super suits and fighting crime one more time. It seems someone out there is trying to knock off the retired superheroes, and Rorschach is convinced that a bigger conspiracy is unwinding.
It’s difficult for me to formally express my feelings and reactions to the Watchmen film adaptation. Count me among the throng of fans that feels that Moore’s source material is a remarkably dense and witty deconstruction of the superhero mythos. Imagine a Superman that can’t be bothered to help out humanity because he feels life is overrated, or a group of super heroes that don’t necessarily do anything heroic; when they beat up the bad guys it’s because they get a sexual thrill from the rush of violence. My voice was among the cacophonous crowd screaming, “Don’t you dare butcher this great work! Keep it as close to the comic as possible!” And that’s pretty much what Snyder delivers. But now I’m left to wonder if a literal-minded interpretation is truly what I wanted all along. Watchmen is not like Sin City, a comic that was already a movie in panels. Frank Miller’s ode to film noir was ready and waiting to be a splashy action movie with style to spare. Watchmen is not a ready-made action vehicle, as it really only has about two extended pieces of action. Moore’s story examined what kind of people would become vigilante crime fighters if the government approved the practice. Surprise, it’s a bunch of sociopaths that are now getting checks from Uncle Sam! Watchmen is a nihilistic account of human behavior and far more cerebral than any superhero film that has ever graced the screen. Seriously, what other superhero movie opens with a fictitious episode of PBS’ political yak fest, The McLaughlin Group? So I suppose this paragraph is a sheepish way of admitting that perhaps Watchmen should have stayed place on the page unless, gulp, it was advantageously adapted for the medium of film.
It’s not that Snyder does a bad job or that the film itself is poor. While Snyder isn’t the best man to handle actors, he is certainly a skilled visual tactician and knows how to make some immensely pleasing imagery. He breathes great life into the images of the comic book and filled in the blanks nicely, and his one big artistic addition is one of the film’s best moments. In the opening credits we get a series of shots that perfectly establish this alternative universe, where JFK shakes Dr. Manhattan’s hand on the White House lawn only to be later gunned down by none other than the Comedian in Dallas. The segment is cleverly set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A Changin'” and is a terrific intro into a re-imagined America. I wanted to spend more time exploring the differences, like watching a giant Dr. Manhattan win the Vietnam War in one week’s time. In many ways, Watchmen is Snyder’s epic pop commentary on the history of the United States. Dr. Manhattan takes the first pictures of the astronauts on the moon. It is a female crime fighter that swoops a woman off her feet for that iconic celebratory kiss marking the end of World War II. The flick even has a period appropriate, synth-aided score, which is fine, though the use of period pop songs can be distracting. Watching Laurie and Dan make love to the raspy tunes of Leonard Cohen’s already overused tune “Hallelujah” is a deeply uncomfortable moment. Also, the aging makeup is horrendously bad. Gugino looks like she has a turkey waddle and the older Nixon looks like a freaking Halloween mask.
At what cost did Watchmen make it to the screen? Wacthmen plays as an adaptation like the first two Harry Potter movies, like there was an assigned checklist rather than a fully developed script. I achieved a brief understanding with the characters and each central figure provides a glimpse of the trouble beneath the surface. Laurie is a girl with daddy issues who’s been pressured to follow her mother, a rape victim who still loves her rapist. Dan is a self-pitying putz who has never felt more alive than when he puts on a costume. Rorschach has the same pessimistic view of mankind that Travis Bickle did, viewing many people as vermin clogging the gutter. Yet Rorschach also is the most single-minded of all the characters and abides by an innate moral code and sense of duty, never mind the fact that he may have lost his mind. Dr. Manhattan has been turned into a supreme being and has lost his connection to humanity. The Comedian is a man of wanton desire who declares himself to be the epitome of the American dream: giving in completely to the id. Watchmen has been deemed as an unfilmable book, and perhaps they were right. It feels like Watchmen and looks like Watchmen, but the movie never seems to become anything grander than the sum of its parts. The Dr. Manhattan back-story, where we see him live life in the past, present, and future simultaneously may be one of the best moments in the movie, but it doesn’t add up to much more than an interesting aside. The trips to Mars and Antarctica provide nice visual landscapes but do little else. The other quandary is that everything Snyder cut from the comic (the side characters, the pirate comic, the alien squid) is something that ultimately was unimportant. All of the important and memorable moments from the comic are here, though abbreviated and truncated. Even a 2-hour and 40-minute movie feels like too much of a sprint through such rich material probably better suited to the more accommodating narrative confines of a glossy HBO miniseries. The movie ends up becoming a handsomely mounted and reverent homage to the source material, but I question if the movie serves any other purpose than as an advertisement to go read the book. Will people unfamiliar with the book enjoy a movie practically tailor-made to appeal to fans of the book? Who will watch the Watchmen?
Make no mistake, Watchmen is a hard R-rated movie and if any parent takes their child to this flick because it has men in capes, then that parent should have their child removed. Snyder has ramped up the book’s adult elements, which were originally a commentary on how comics flirt with sex and violence but never get their hands too dirty. Snyder has gotten his hands dirty all right. Instead of zapping others into poofs of smoke, Dr. Manhattan turns them into explosions of human goo that stick to the ceiling. Instead of the Comedian being thrown from the window, we see an extended fight sequence that seems to indicate that the Comedian’s apartment is full of nothing but breakable glass tables. When Dan and Laurie get into a street brawl where bones pop through skin. The sex scenes now involve an almost-agonizing level of thrusting. This is an adult tale in a very simple sense: there are boobs and blood. But the movie is also adult in the fact that it trades in complex political, psychological, and philosophic ideologies, asking hard questions that do not come with easy answers. Do the ends ever justify the means or is mankind destined to always destroy itself? Is humanity worth saving and at what cost? This is probably the most subversive studio-backed movie to come out of Hollywood since 1997’s pro-fascism melodrama, Starship Troopers.
The three best performances in the movie all come from the three weirdest and most messed up characters. Haley (Little Children) fully inhabits the grisly character of Rorschach and growls his way through the movie. You can tell just by the man’s face how much he has weathered. Crudup (Big Fish) and his gentle voice make Dr. Manhattan an intriguing yet beleaguered super being. Morgan (TV’s Grey’s Anatomy) makes the Comedian one consummate bastard but a bastard that you cannot stop watching, nonetheless. The rest of the cast does suitable jobs and I don’t feel that Goode (The Lookout) or Akerman (27 Dresses) deserve the drubbings they’re getting through the critical community. I actually liked Goode’s portrayal of Ozmanydias, though he fails to express the heavy crown the smartest man in the world must bear. Gugino (Sin City) is terrific when she’s the young, spunky Silk Specter and the opposite of terrific when she’s the troubled, alcoholic older version on screen.
Snyder has served up the Watchmen that fans have been demanding for years, but is this really what everyone truly wanted? Snyder made an adaptation for the fans but what do the fans know except for lavish loyalty? The book utilized the medium of comic books to accentuated its story while commenting on the history of comics and superheroes, and when translated to the big screen as is Watchmen can feel like an artistic stillborn. I’m now more curious than ever to read the previous drafts out there, the ones that directors like Darren Aronofsky and Greengrass were going to film until the financing got pulled. One of the drafts transplants the world of Watchmen to modern day and replaces the nuclear brinksmanship with the Russians to the ongoing War on Terror. It may not be faithful to the fabulous source material, and it quite possibly would have made a terrible movie, but it would have been more interesting as a film project because it would have been an adaptation. Snyder’s Watchmen is reverent to a fault but I cannot complain too much. This is likely the most faithful recreation of a complex book that fans could hope for. I feel satisfied and yet unsatisfied with the finished product. It was everything I was looking for in a Watchmen movie and maybe, in the end, that was the problem. I think instead of buying the DVD I may just read the book again.
Editor’s Note: I have warmed up to this film much, much more on Blu-Ray, especially the 3-hour director’s cut. It’s Snyder’s best work to date.
Nate’s Grade: B
Few celebrities have had the intense flame-out Tom Cruise has experienced in a little over a year’s time. First there was the PDA-heavy relationship with Katie Holmes, never a wet tongue-kiss away from a camera. Then there was the couch aerobics on Oprah Winfrey’s set, bleating his over-the-top declarations of love like Roger Rabbit. This was followed by a series of testy interviews about his war of words on psychiatry and prescription drugs. Entertainment Weekly just ran a cover story asking, “Is Tom Cruise worth his paycheck?” He’s gone from Hollywood’s most bankable actor to a national punch line. To bring new life to Cruise’s spy series, he tapped TV mastermind J.J. Abrams to make his feature debut after Cruise churned through two seasons of spy series Alias DVDs. Abrams is a gifted franchise starter, first with Alias and then with Lost, and with Mission: Impossible III he does the best he can to erase the memory of Tom Cruise, daredevil of furniture.
Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is out of field work at the Impossible Mission Force, training recruits for the big time. He’s settled into a comfortable home life with Julia (Michelle Monaghan), a woman he’s blissfully engaged to be wed. Ethan’s happy home is disrupted when IMF needs his services. It seems one of his trainees (Keri Russell, Felicity goes badass) has been captured by an arms middleman Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man that will get any deadly force to the right bidder. Hunt reluctantly goes back into the field, assembling a team that includes Luther (Ving Rhames), Zhen (Maggie Q, quite fetching), and pilot Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Their mission goes badly and Hunt is reprimanded for his cavalier actions. He’s determined to snag Owen and get justice. This leads to an incredibly stuffed game of cat-and-mouse, each jockeying for leverage. There’s some super powerful device called the “rabbit’s foot” that everyone wants but it’s not really important. What is important is that Owen is eager to strike back at Ethan’s most vulnerable point — harming Julia.
This movie is quite possibly one of the greatest TV adaptations of all time. No, not the Mission: Impossible series but Alias. Just like J.J. Abrams’ TV brainchild, this slick, propulsive caper puts a smart spin on familiar ground. We’ve got the flash-forward narrative trickery, the super gadgets, the undercover teamwork, the world-trotting sprawling vistas, and anchoring the whole thing with an emotional counterpoint, trying to lead a double, “normal” life and keeping your loved ones equally safe and in the dark. There’s a great scene in the middle of a mission where Ethan and Luther casually discuss the impossibilities of living a normal life given what they do. Luther warns that those close to you will only end up getting hurt, and by this point thanks to a startling, right-to-the-point opener with a gun to sweet Julia’s head, we know he’s right. That’s what makes the third go-round different: Abrams has injected some emotion into the darn thing. Ethan is pressed back into service and then becomes something of a knight in shining Kevlar, trying to save his beloved in the crossfire of international espionage. There are a handful of scenes between Cruise and Monaghan and they sell the emotional drama in tender quiet looks. As a result, the audience and Ethan are rooted to their seats beyond just the assembly line of pyrotechnics. Just like Alias (at least up until Season 3 when it jumped the shark with the long-lost sister). It’s like if True Lies was played straight and Tom Arnold was mercifully forgotten.
Ah, but what pyrotechnics they are. Things get heated with a trip to the Vatican and they literally do not let up, all the while raising the stakes by pulling Ethan’s home life closer to the danger of his job. You’ll be left breathless absorbing all the exhilarating action sequences, which to my best estimate are more than the first two flicks combined. The stunts are superbly death-defying. What makes action sequences so enjoyable, pay attention you Hollywood rubes, is when the stage is set and then we watch organic complications. Abrams has a tremendous feel for action and playfully extends virtuoso sequences of awesome carnage. An attack on a bridge is simply outstanding and gave me an overload of geeky joy. We’re given the tight, controlled setting, and then Abrams introduces the outside conflict and keeps developing it masterfully step by step. There’s air attacks, there’s running back and forth amongst the wreckage, there’s searching for guns while escaping attack, and then there’s flying leaps over gaping concrete holes. I was jumping in my seat with boyish glee. The slow-mo gun toss between Cruise and Russell? Awesome. The swing-shot jump off a gigantic skyscraper in Shanghai? Awesome. The use of Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) as gadget guru? Awesome. Mission: Impossible III is, if nothing else, an incredible adrenaline rush orchestrated by a man with a finger directly on the pulse of his audience. By summer popcorn standards, Mission: Impossible III is everything you could hope for. Sure it’s highly implausible but it’s just so damn fun.
Abrams has created quite a breakthrough for himself. Long regarded as a TV visionary for his tangled, engrossing pop-pulp like Alias and Lost, Abrams shows what he can do with a bazillion dollars and one of the world’s most recognized stars. Abrams intelligent, deft handling of his material, elevating tired genre devices with flash and reverence, reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg. This is a man that respects his material and respects his audience, but still knows how to bring home an entertaining movie. I’ve followed Abrams’ career since getting hooked on Alias in 2001, and I’m confident he will become the best friend a movie geek could ever have (Star Trek fans should be clicking their heels about Abrams’ rumored involvement). Even though Mission: Impossible III is Abrams’ film debut (and on record the most expensive ever for a first time film director) he already shows more command, more wit, and more hipness than most of Hollywood’s graying old guard.
Finally, this is the first Mission: Impossible film to utilize the team aspect of the TV show. Granted, Cruise still does most of the running, jumping, climbing trees, but thankfully this movie is more than the Tom Cruise Kicks Everyone in the Face Show a.k.a Mission: Impossible II. The supporting cast all have their one great moment and part of the fun is their interaction, seeing the pieces fit into place. Just like last summer’s Batman Begins I would like to see another movie immediately with everyone involved. Make it happen. This is the Mission: Impossible world I want to explore in greater detail.
Mission: Impossible III is not bulletproof. The movie seriously needed more time for its villain. Hoffman does a great job of bringing his bad man to grumpy life. He goes about business with a detached nonchalance, like a plumber fixing his 10,000th clog. It may sound silly but it works because Hoffman gives his character a lizardy, unscrupulous sense of ethics. He really will put a bullet between the eyes of anyone, possibly while reheating some food in his microwave. That’s the greatness of Hoffman’s villain, how ordinary he sees his line of work and what it calls him to do. Now, with such a terrific villain it would behoove Mission: Impossible III to give him plenty of screen time. Sadly, Hoffman has about three real scenes, and his end is anticlimactic and so is the film as a whole. And what does IMF have to do to curb moles? There’s been one in all three Mission: Impossible movies. Maybe they should offer better vacation plans.
Tom Cruise may have done a lot to wear out his welcome with the public but he knows to surround himself with good people. The decision to let J.J. Abrams helm Mission: Impossible III has finally given this franchise vision and sustained excitement. This movie is far more emotionally based than any other in the series and there’s a genuine emotional reason for all the fireworks this time. The team aspect is finally addressed and Hoffman makes a truly lecherous, scary villain. But the bread and butter of this flick are its breathless action sequences, brilliantly choreographed by Abrams, a name destined for even greater things. Abrams knows how to spin genre clichés into clever, loose, twisty, funny, thrilling, emotionally centered gold. I don’t care if Cruise abused a couch and the public’s good will; Mission: Impossible III is an extravagant popcorn movie and a great way to start the summer. If only they were all like this.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Premise: Estranged son Will (Billy Crudup) travels back home in an effort to know his ailing father Edward Bloom (Albert Finney; Ewan McGregor as the younger version). Will hopes to learn the truth behind a man who spent a lifetime spinning extravagant tall tales.
Results: Despite a shaky first half, Big Fish becomes a surprisingly elegant romance matched by director Tim Burtion’s visual whimsy. McGregor’s shining big-grinned optimism is charming. Not to be confused with the similar but too mawkish Forrest Gump, Burton’s father-son meditation will have you quite choked up at its moving climax. Fair warning to those with father issues, you may want to steer clear from Big Fish. You know who you are.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.
Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15 year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.
The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.
The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.
Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.
Nate’s Grade: A