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Justice League (2017)

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

Months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Argo (2012)

The reinvention of Ben Affleck as movie director took a big step forward with the critical and commercial success of the 2010 Boston cops-and-robbers thriller, The Town. While I’d argue Affleck’s first outing as a director, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, is still his best, The Town won over plenty of doubters. Here was an actor-turned-director who could deliver smart drama, intense suspense, and coax Oscar-caliber performances from his brilliantly assembled casts. Have you seen Blake Lively half as good in anything as she was as a tragic junkie single mom in The Town? She’ll be able to get work for years just from the demo reels of that performance. But with two sturdy, complex, taut genre movies under his belt, Affleck still had doubters. The political thriller Argo takes Affleck far out of his Bostonian comfort zone. The creative stretching proves fruitful because Argo is a stirring, fascinating, and engrossing true-life story that should at last silence the remainng doubters concerning Affleck’s talents behind the camera.

In 1979, The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overtaken by a storm of Iranian protestors. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for an exasperating 444 days. During the takeover, six Americans escapes through a back alley and found asylum with the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). There they waited for months, trying to work out a plan to escape. If caught by the mob, it’s very likely they would be deemed spies and executed. Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) and his scheme. His idea is to pretend the six American hostages are part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for their sci-fi movie. His superiors seem dubious but Mendez gets the green light. He heads to Hollywood and puts together his team, a veteran makeup artist (John Goodman) and an established producer (Alan Arkin) on the outs with the industry. They settle on the screenplay “Argo” and have to build a credible cover story. From there, Mendez travels into Iran to meet with the hidden hostages to sell them his scheme. They were all coming out together or nobody was getting back home.

Argo is a fascinating story that seems like it could only exist in the movies, and yet it’s a true story and one hell of a story. It’s a mission movie, so we know the familiar flow of the film even as the details seem fresh (unless you’re Canadian). The very idea is one of those “so crazy it might work” plans; one State department official asks, “You don’t have any better bad ideas than this?” Even though we know it was a success, that doesn’t stop the movie from being engrossing. Argo flies by like a caper film as the CIA gathers the resources and experts to try and put together a ramshackle rescue mission. There’s feeling out the Hollywood angle, gathering the pieces to create the illusion of an actual film production, and the urgency of the façade. Even though it’s a bit outlandish, the fake movie plot seems worlds better than the other possible plans being pitched by the government agencies (smuggling in bicycles and maps?). I thought it was genuinely interesting just to be granted access to a room where people where debating rescue options and picking them apart. The film is consistently intriguing watching smart people come up with smart solutions to challenging problems.

Argo really is three movies expertly rolled together into one; a Middle East thriller, a Hollywood satire, and a D.C. procedural. It’s a bonus that every one of these segments works but it’s even more surprising, and rewarding, that the different segments all snap together without breaking tone. Credit Affleck the director for making sure his movie parts don’t overpower one another. We can go from a tense Middle East sequence where the hostages might have just risked exposure, and then we’ll cut to Hollywood and laugh at the cantankerous Lester. It’s a delicate balancing act that Affleck superbly handles. The humor of Hollywood doesn’t detract or minimize the seriousness of the Middle East chapters; it allows room to breathe, to let off steam. The D.C. segments are the biggest expository moments but they give scope and meaning to the danger. Each of these segments is compelling and each one could have been a captivating movie all its own. We’re fortunate that Argo gives us all three.

Audience ignorance aside, we may know how this story ends but that doesn’t stop the film from being completely nerve-wracking. Affleck showed remarkable skill in The Town when it came to building exciting sequences that felt like they would explode with tension. When it came to Argo, there were moments that literally kept me on the edge of my seat, a rarity with action films. The beginning sequence of the American embassy is rapt with suspense, as the security system deteriorates and the people inside realize the inevitable. They start destroying classified state evidence but really they just have to sit and wait, hearing the footsteps, knowing what is near. The sharp screenplay from Chris Terrio (Heights) does a tremendous job of developing clear suspense sequences. There’s the tension of the precarious subterfuge, of the hostages hiding behind enemy lines, so to speak. If one wrong person were to discover their identity, it could quickly unravel. There’s a whole team of children being paid to piece together shredded documents and photos like they were jigsaw puzzles. Knowing this, it makes the scenes where the group ventures out of the embassy thrilling. The group has to visit a marketplace as part of their cover and it’s terrifying.  We know the steps of escape, and each one could easily blow up and get everyone killed. Just when you think you can breathe a sigh of relief we’ve moved onto the next challenge and the tension washes over you again. The climax is so tense that your audience will likely erupt in applause when the hostages eventually escape, relieved and proud of the accomplishment.

The maturation of Affleck as a bonafide directing talent continues. There’s a growing confidence in his direction. The man doesn’t have to rely on flashy visual artifice nor does he seem to be hewing to one notable style. He’s directing each movie as its own beast, be it crime thrillers or true-life suspense story. The man knows where to put his camera in the thick of the action. Affleck also eschews the popular shakycam docu-drama approach that too many filmmakers automatically does all the work of establishing realism. Docu-drama visuals can work when properly utilized, but too often I find it to be self-consciously arty and an annoying distraction. Affleck’s camera remains steady but holds on his actors, giving them space to emote. Three movies into his directing career, Affleck has established himself as one of the best men to direct actors. He’s already lead two actors to Oscar nominations and might just earn a third for Arkin. Plus there’s the fact that Argo, top to bottom, is cast with great character actors. You have people the likes of Michael Parks (Red State) who are there for one line. It also helps Affleck the actor to have Affleck the director.

The only nagging problem with Argo is that it’s rather light when it comes to character development. The caper is the star of the movie and sucks up most of the screen time. The film does an excellent job of recreating the anxiety that the hostages felt. I can’t say we get to know any of them well as people. I can’t say we get to know much about Tony Mendez either, beside the de rigueur parts of being a CIA agent like divorce, child custody, and long nights of loneliness. The best-developed character in the movie is Lester Siegel, and while he’s terrifically entertaining, it’s something of a misstep for the cranky Hollywood producer to win that title. He’s a man who knows his value in the ever-changing currency of Hollywood; bitter, crabby, but hopeful of making a difference. Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is a natural fit for the character and brings more dimensions to the role. I wish the same care were given for the other people in the story, particularly those in harm’s way. The nuanced approach to character with Gone Baby Gone and The Town is just absent. Thankfully, the story is so engrossing that it’s not a mortal wound, but you do wish there was a greater emotional involvement in the film rather than a generic empathy of rescuing those in danger. Also, the Canadian involvement seems curiously downplayed even though their ambassador was the one hiding them for months. His role in the movie plays like he’s Guy #8. I know we tackle the CIA’s involvement but Canada could use more recognition for their integral contributions.

Argo establishes Ben Affleck as a dependable, versatile, actor’s director; someone along the likes of a Sidney Lumet or Sydney Pollack (I swear I don’t have a “Sydney” key lock in my brain). Affleck has proven to be a director who immerses himself into his stories, and his fingerprints are on every frame, every performance. He just nails it. The pacing is tight, the suspense builds to near unsustainable levels, and the tones are expertly juggled to prove complimentary rather than distractions. Best of all, Affleck lets Terrio’s terrific script take center stage. The incredible true-story of Argo is the biggest selling point for the movie, and Affleck doesn’t try to gussy up a whopper of a tale. The film has even more unexpected resonance given the recent spur of violent protests in the Middle East, notably the deadly attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. Argo doesn’t sensationalize the hostage crises for cheap popcorn entertainment. Nor does it glorify or denigrate the Iranian’s outrage over the U.S. giving sanctuary to the deposed Shah. For a very political subject, the movie takes a very muted political stance, relying on the facts of the situation. The movie finds a rare poignancy in its appeal to the power of international cooperation. By the end of the movie, you might even tear up when you hear the actual hostages and government officials recount their struggle and ultimate triumph. Argo is that rare breed of a movie that seems to have everything. While it’s not perfect, it’s clear that Affleck is here to stay as a top-level director.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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