The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.
Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”
Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.
Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.
Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.
There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.
It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.
Nate’s Grade: C
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
Their Finest (not to be confused with Their Finest Hours, even though this is based on a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half) is a disarmingly sweet and poignant true story that resonates with empowerment and the power of creativity. Set at the start of WWII, the British film industry is trying to make ends meet as well as provide morale boosts to the public. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, her best performance yet) goes in for a copywriting job and walks out a hired screenwriter, pegged to write the “women’s parts.” Thanks to the depleted workforce, Catrin has an opportunity she never would have otherwise and she blossoms under the crucible of creative collaboration. This was one aspect of the movie that I was very taken with, as a writer and screenwriter myself, the natural progression of creativity, solving a problem, finding a solution, and the elation that follows. The complications keep coming, first from the British film office who need the movie to be inspirational, then from the divergences from the true story of a pair of French girls who stole their uncle’s boat to rescue soldiers at Dunkirk, then from working with American producers who insist on an American hero who can’t act, and then from natural calamities of scheduling, casting, and oh yeah, the bombing and blitzes that could obliterate everyone. The movie is alive with conflict and feeling and the sweet story of a woman finding her sense of empowerment in the arts. The movie-within-the-movie is filmed to period appropriate techniques, and Bill Nighy is effortlessly amusing as an aging actor still fighting for some scrap of respect in an industry ready to forget him. The insights into the different stages of film production were fun and illuminating. I appreciated that the war isn’t just something in the background but a constant. It upsets the order, takes lives, and is a striking reminder why these people are doing what they’re doing. The film also rhapsodizes the power of the arts, and in particular cinema, in a way that feels reverent without being overly sentimental or self-congratulatory. A great collection of characters is assembled as a ramshackle sort of family with a mission, and the movie drives right into one payoff after another, lifting your spirits and warming your heart. There is a sudden plot turn that will likely disappoint many in the audience eager for a simple happy ending, but I almost view it as industry satire on the difference between American and European cinema tastes. Their Finest is a small gem with sympathetic characters trying their finest and achieving something great. It’s a rich story that deserves its moment in the spotlight and I’d advise seeking it out if possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Watching High-Rise left me in an agitated state of bafflement. I was desperately trying to fumble for some kind of larger meaning, or at least some kind of narrative foothold from this indie movie about a high-rise apartment complex where the rich reside at the top and the lower classes below. I was holding onto hope that what came across as messy, incoherent, and juvenile would magically coalesce into some sort of work of satiric value. This hope was lost. Director Ben Wheately’s (Kill List) movie is disdainful to audience demands, disdainful to narrative, disdainful to characters that should be more than vague metaphorical figures against the British class system. The social class commentary is so stupidly simple. At one point, the upper floor rich talk about how they have to throw a better party than the lower floor plebs (slobs versus snobs!). The movie lacks any sort of foundation but just keeps going; I would check how much time was left every fifteen minutes and exclaim, “How is there still more left?!” This is a chore to sit through because it’s so resoundingly repetitive and arbitrary. You could rearrange any ten minutes of the movie and make nary a dent in narrative coherence. There are some striking visuals and weird choices that keep things unpredictable; it’s just that I stopped caring far too early for anything to have mattered. Tom Hiddelston plays a doctor in the building and becomes the intermediary between the oblivious rich and the rabble rousing and vengeful poor. I can’t tell you why anything happens in this movie. I can’t say why the characters do what they do, why the events happen, why anything. It’s all just weightless materials for Wheatley’s empty impressionistic canvas. As society breaks down, things get violent and yet the movie is still boring. I was hoping for something along the lines of Snowpiercer but I got more of a pulpy Terence Mallick spiral of self-indulgent nothingness. High-Rise is a highly irritating and exasperating movie and I know it’s destined to be a future favorite of the pretentious. If anyone says it’s one of his or her favorite movies of all time, please kindly walk in the other direction as fast as you are able and then tell an adult.
Nate’s Grade: D
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.
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
In 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.
It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.
The character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.
Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.
The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.
Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Set during the first twenty-four hours of the 2008 economic meltdown, Margin Call feels like David Mamet’s classic play Glengarry Glen Ross just set fifty floors higher. It’s a tense stew of ego and hubris and cunning and manipulation and self-preservation, peppered with some salty language. The corporate bigwigs of a fictional financial firm scramble to get out the door first before everyone else catches on to the looming market crash. “There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat,” says the CEO (Jeremy Irons). Debut writer/director J.C. Chandor brilliantly captures the rationalization of sociopathic greed; the CEO waxes about the historical inevitability of our own self-destructive influences, glibly recounting other market crashes and saying he will survive because the nation’s class systems are fixed. The behind-the-scenes scheming has a sick appeal, witnessing how Wall Street wriggled free of responsibility. This isn’t a far-reaching look into the financial meltdown; it’s more of an insular, thoughtful, occasionally meditative play about the moral questions at play. The prosaic pacing caused quite a slew of yawns in my audience. There does seem to be a never-ending cascade of scenes where two characters will just sit and talk. However, when the writing is this sharp and the actors are all at the top of their game (Kevin Spacey is emotionally spent in a test of loyalties; Irons is charmingly sleazy), then you can forgive some stagnate pacing. Margin Call has a few heavy-handed metaphors (Spacey putting his dog down = the economy!), but overall it’s astute, insightful, sophisticated, and compelling enough to forgive its overreaches.
Nate’s Grade: B+