The Time Machine is one of the most famous works of fiction in history. It was writen long long ago by the great H.G. Wells. It presents a fantasy glimpse into our future, but in it Wells also gave readers the opportunity to ponder what would happen if they could go back and change their own lives. People have used the story as a cautionary allegory to our own times, like the 1960 film version of The Time Machine. Now, a bigger budget Hollywood remake attempts to put another spin on the Wells classic.
Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) is an absent-minded professor interested in cracking down the physics of time. He’s chided by some of his peers for crackpot theories and his fascination with any new gadget. He’s supposed to meet Emma (Sienna Guillory) at Central Park and tonight’s the big night he plans to propose to her. He eventually catches up to Emma and the two go strolling off into the park. Shortly after popping the question the two become victims of a mugging and in the fray Emma is left dead. The death drives Alex to create his fanciful time machine, which only happens to take four years time.
Alex gives his big brass LA-Z-Boy looking machine a try and travels back to that fateful night to avoid Emma’s death. Alex avoids the mugger all right, but while purchasing flowers his fiancé gets plowed over by a runaway carriage instead. It seems that one cannot change the past. Alex decides to give the future a chance and travels to a very Back to the Future 2 looking 2037. Someone astutely asks Alex if his time traveling machine makes a good cappuccino.
When Alex hops a little further into the future the moon is breaking up because of ill-fated lunar construction. Moon rocks are hurtling toward the surface and disrupting everyone’s day. (It was in this moment that a scene of rocks smashing into the World Trade Center was cut for taste) Alex jumps back into his machine but is konked out by some lunar cheese and falls asleep at the wheel. The next thing you know Alex is in a mysterious future world.
The place where The Time Machine really bogs down is once Alex arrives in 80,000 something or other. The child-like thrills and adventure of Alex zipping between the past and near future are buried underneath the standard post-apocalyptic movie world. The people dress in loin cloths and rags (though some of the female natives wear revealing tops that look like see-through chain mail) but still have perfect teeth. When Alex doesn’t understand the linguistics of 80,000 AD the next words that he hears are English from Mara (pop star Samantha Mumba). It’s amazing that English survived 81,000 years when Latin didn’t last a mere 2,000 and change.
It turns out these people who live in huts resembling hot air balloons along the faces of cliffs are called Eloi. The Eloi don’t have anyone looking old enough to carry an AARP membership and are apprehensive to speak of why. Perhaps it’s because creatures resembling something that would belong in The Mummy Returns pop up from the sand to capture whatever slow moving prey they can and return to for an underground feast.
The creatures, called Morlocks, are the offshoots of evolution. Seems after the whole moon destruction thing (whoops!) those who took refuge below the surface have evolved into dusty hunchbacked cannibals. Their rowdy ranks are controlled by Uber-Morlock (I’m not making up that name) who resembles an albino bassist for Poison or Skid Row. It’s actually acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons under all that pancake makeup and fleshy spine-showing prosthetic. The less said about Irons the better.
It’s during this part that The Time Machine reverts into a half-baked Stargate. Alex encourages the Eloi race to stand up to their oppressors and fight for their freedom. He becomes part of the Eloi community, rallies the troops into rebellion, and also has to save the damsel in distress.
The Time Machine remake isn’t the political statement the 1960 film was on man’s folly with technology, particularly nuclear weapons. What this suped-up version is all about is special effects and plenty of them. The effects are for the most part dazzling, especially the scene where Alex travels to 2037 and we see the development of New York City with skyscrapers assembling themselves.
Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt) directed this remake and is actually the great-grandson of the famous adventure’s author, H. G. Wells. Trivial Pursuit fans everywhere rejoice. Wells had to sit out the last 18 days of shooting due to “exhaustion” and Gore Verbinsky came off the bench to finish the directorial duties. The film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes but there are definite moments of drag.
Pearce (Memento) is a hunky hero and for the most part is admirably gung-ho with the role. Samantha Mumba’s motivation must have been to stand and look pretty the entire film. To think that Mumba might be the most talented of the recent singers-come-actors (Mandy Moore and Britney Spears) is a distressing thought all its own.
As The Time Machine kept dragging into its Mumba-filled period, I began day dreaming of an alternate, darkly comic version. In my head, Pearce’s character keeps traveling back again and again to save his beloved only to lose her a different way each time. I could picture a humorous montage of his girlfriend dying an assortment of colorful deaths and Pearce just getting more frustrated and jaded. I could picture them skating only to have her plunge below the ice. I could picture the couple dining at a fine restaurant only to have her choke and Pearce just throw his napkin onto the table and sigh loudly. I was enjoying my alternate take on The Time Machine so much that I didn’t want to return to the one that was playing.
The Time Machine has its moments of thrills and excitement but they are mostly condensed to the opening third. This remake doesn’t have the political edge or wow-factor the original did. It plays more to the rules of conventional Hollywood than the wide open possibilities Wells wrote about. Pearce tries valiantly and the special effects are really something, but more often than not The Time Machine is not worth your time.
Nate’s Grade: C
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
The 2002 Time Machine is fanciful schlock on the verge of being populist spectacle. It’s not just another adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells sci-fi novel, it’s also emerging from the shadow of the 1960 movie that broke ground in the realm of special effects. Storytellers will often find new relevant meaning to be mined from the resources of old, and literature with classic stories can still be compelling decades and centuries hence as long as they are served with care and empathy. In theory, another Time Machine movie could be a worthy venture especially in a realm of modern special effects marvels and a more socially conscious viewpoint. If the 1960 film was a cautionary tale about mankind’s impending doom from nuclear arms and technological hubris, you would think a movie born from the ashes of the Cold War would follow a different approach, perhaps something more in line with the colonialism critiques from Wells. It’s surprising then that the 2002 movie also follows the “be careful with your machines, mankind” thematic warning of the earlier version. It made me think of Tim Burton’s maligned 2001 Planet of the Apes remake where they could have gone with ANY ending possible except one, the original’s famous twist ending, one of the most famous endings ever, and what did the new movie do? The same ending. Re-watching the 2002 Time Machine, it’s more fun than it has any right to be and there are aspects worth celebrating, but much like its hero, it’s a victim of unmet potential.
Firstly, this is a pretty entertaining studio movie that blows by quickly at only 96 minutes. The screenplay is by John Logan, the same writer with credits like Gladiator, The Aviator, Rango, Hugo, Skyfall, and other quite successful, quite large studio hits. And yet this movie doesn’t just feel like another paycheck for the man. The opening half of this relatively brief movie definitely feels like the favorite half. It’s here where the movie introduces the protagonist’s personal loss being the motivating force that drives him to make a time machine, something absent from the 1960 original and an exciting and emotional way to separate itself. Watching Alexander (Guy Pearce) go back to save his love has an immediate appeal, and watching him fail again brings forth the idea of being unable to change the past. Even twenty years later, I still think about the darkly comic version of this story, just as I did in my initial review in 2002, where Alexander tries again and again to save his beloved only to lose her to some new calamity. It would have a lighter approach even while dealing with darker humor, and it would certainly contribute to the film’s central thesis that man is unable to change the miscues of the past.
You would think The Time Machine would follow a theme about correcting the mistakes of the past to prevent future danger; many time travel tales follow a hero trying to thwart a terrible future, although sometimes they inadvertently cause that same terrible future in grand ironic tradition. This movie doesn’t really dwell on fixing the past but more so upon learning from it. During its post-apocalyptic second half, the focus isn’t on preventing it or going back to warn mankind of the folly of its ways. It’s about adapting to change, which can be viewed as defeatist or pragmatic. The future world of 800,000 years ahead is messed up because of the actions of mankind’s past, namely the lunar collision thanks to bad condo construction (thanks, capitalism!). It’s none too difficult to place a general ecological/climate change message in place, the exploitation of the present spoiling the future for generations yet to come. However, the movie isn’t about Alexander going back to teach mankind how to avoid its own mistakes. Unlike the 1960 original, he stays put in this uncertain future world with his new Eloi family and Eloi girlfriend (Samantha Mumba). He’s content to remain in this new time and live his life, ignoring the foresight of a time machine. There’s a message there about looking ahead in one’s life, not dwelling on the past at the expense of the future, but it’s also unexpected for a time travel action adventure. It’s usually about preventing the horrible future, not learning to live with it and make a better tomorrow. This also could be read as the present giving up on avoiding the mistakes of contemporary excess.
You can probably tell what kind of person that you are depending upon which half of The Time Machine you prefer. For me, the first half has all the surprises and time jumping and fun, and the second half settles into standard post-apocalyptic rally-the-masses formula. It’s not bad but it honestly feels like an entire second act is missing from the development of the plot. In quick succession, Alexander learns he’s in a far-flung future, the customs of the Eloi, the danger of the Morlocks, their hunting practices, their cannibalistic impulses, what caused them, and then who their leader is, and how there are multiple Eloi-Morlock colonies throughout the world. It’s a lot of absurdly fast exposition that just unfolds to the convenience of our hero, and so little of it occurs from the virtual A.I. figure (Orlando Jones) that seems entirely designed to be an exposition device. It’s during the second half that the playfulness and ideas give way to a grungy future with efficient if unspectacular chase scenes from monsters. I am convinced that the Morlock leader played by Jeremy Irons was originally intended to be the older, more evolved, and more callous ends-justify-the-means version of Alexander. That kind of twist would have brought things back to the personal realm of those first minutes traveling through time. Alas, he’s just another monster with bad hair. It seems like wasted potential for the last twenty minutes of this movie to just be another climax involving blowing up the monsters and rescuing the damsel.
Apparently there was significant contention behind the scenes over the look of the Morlocks. The creatures were designed by the famous Stan Winston studios and then director Simon Wells and the producers wanted to change their look, making them more humanoid and recognizable. This infuriated the effects team who strongly disapproved of this creative direction. I appreciate that the production went to the trouble of expensive prosthetics and costumes rather than just making all of the Morlocks ugly CGI monstrosities. I was worried that twenty-year-old humanoid CGI would not age well, but thankfully I didn’t have to bother with that fear.
This was the first live-action movie for Wells as director. He spent over a decade in the world of animation and helmed An American Tale: Fievel Goes West, Balto, and The Prince of Egypt. After the mediocre reception to The Time Machine, Wells didn’t direct another movie until almost ten years later, 2011’s Mars Needs Moms, a film that reportedly cost the studio over $200 million in losses. It was one of the biggest box-office bombs ever. It’s not much of a surprise then that Wells hasn’t been able to direct another studio movie until just this year, and even that is a small-scale adaptation of a children’s TV show, to the best of my knowledge. The man has directed two movies in the last two decades. On a more fortunate note, Wells has had steady work in his old field of animation as a consultant and storyboard artist for just about every Dreamworks cartoon (Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, The Croods, etc).
Re-reading my old review, there’s not much more to extrapolate. I agree with just about every word I wrote back in 2002. It’s fun for me when I watch these films twenty years later and have the same remarks in my head only to discover my younger self had the exact same response.
While not breaking new ground or even attaining its own creative potential, the 2002 Time Machine is a perfectly reasonable genre movie that you could put on and kill 90 minutes. It’s relatively fun, has some bigger ideas, and some surprising moments where it appears on the verge of poignancy. One of those is when the A.I., who has survived 800,000 years of isolation, talks about the misery of remembering every face he ever interacted with, cataloging every detail, and how this is tearing him apart and how valued having a lone friend was for him. It’s such a thoughtful and empathetic moment that seems to come out of nowhere and leave just as fast before you can really dig into it for genuine pathos. The Time Machine feels this way, like whenever it presents something intriguing, intelligent, or emotive, it then it has to veer sharply back to the bigger, dumber lane of blockbuster filmmaking for the masses.
Re-View Grade: C+
The octogenarian filmmaker Ridley Scott has been a prolific and influential director for decades, but rarely has his high-powered work ethic been as obvious as within a 30-day window. Scott directed two movies, both aimed at adults and potential awards consideration, and both co-starring Adam Driver in a supporting role, and both as subtle as the outlandish fashions of the 1980s. Scott is not a subtle filmmaker by trade. He favors rousing excess and bold characters making bold decisions. This is not the first time Scott has managed to release two movies in a single calendar year (2017: Alien Covenant and All the Money in the World; 2001: Black Hawk Down and Hannibal) but for both movies to be released within a month, and share thematic similarities, is worth noting. The films also share many of the same artists (editor, composer, director of photography) as House of Gucci was filmed a mere four months after wrapping The Last Duel, which was delayed because of the pandemic. Both movies are based on true stories but go in different directions for artistic impact. House of Gucci veers into tragi-comic camp to its entertainment benefit, and The Last Duel spares subtlety for blunt political points.
The Gucci family has enjoyed nearly a century as fashion royalty. They’re known for their classic look, the care that’s put into their leather, and the long-standing resistance to change. Enter Patrizia (Lady Gaga), an ambitious young woman who doesn’t want to work for her father’s truck-driving company forever. She sets her sights on Maurizio (Driver), the mild-mannered son of Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons) and nephew to Aldo (Al Pacino), the co-heads of the Gucci empire. Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage and Patrizia insisting that her beloved take more control of the family business and make his mark as a Gucci.
The real reason you should go to the theaters for all 150 minutes of gargantuan Gucci drama is because of the monumentally captivating performance by Gaga. I will suffer no fools on this subject: Gaga is flat-out wonderful. As the kids on the social media say, she clearly understood the assignment. Gaga is knowingly broad and hamming it up but she is having the time of her life. I was impressed with her acting in 2018’s A Star is Born and how natural she was onscreen. Now she’s playing a distinctly drawn character and she dissolves into the role, smirking it up and purring with every line. You won’t exactly trust this woman, who is proven to be conniving and ambitious but also effective at manipulating others and earning her position of prominence, but you’ll love watching her onscreen whether alone or dancing circles around her cohorts. Gaga understands completely that this sordid tale plays better intentionally dipping into camp, making bold and outrageous what otherwise could have been underplayed. It’s an outrageous story with outrageous wealth and privilege, and it deserves to be told in an outrageous manner. That doesn’t mean dismiss the drama as minimal, but it recognizes the tone that will best bring out the entertainment value of the soapy plot elements. No one needs this kind of story played miserably strait-laced and absent any light; nobody needs another astoundingly awful The Counselor (sorry, Ridley). Take the sex scene between Gaga and Driver. It is so loud, so obnoxious, so over-the-top, and it stays at that level for a thrust-heavy protracted period, that the movie, and Gaga especially, is inviting you to laugh along. Gaga is the one who fully understands the edict or more-more-more the most and demonstrates it with her charmingly over-the-top performance. She is fully deserving of Academy recognition and to be memorialized as a thousand memes and GIFs.
House of Gucci feels very much like a Ryan Murphy show condensed to a feature-length over-extended special. For those unfamiliar with Murphy’s genre-bending TV work on FX (American Horror Story, American Crime Story) and now Netflix (Ratchet, Hollywood), the provocateur never met a juicy twist or outlandish plot element he didn’t love to use, abuse, and inundate the viewer. He’s like a creative prankster freely celebrating the ridiculousness of the prime-time soaps of old while also providing ironic counterpoints to them. It can be a riveting experience when it all works together and an unmitigated yet often fascinating hot mess when it doesn’t. Subtlety also rarely factors into a Murphy show. He also loves opening up the fabulous lives of the fabulously wealthy, including the heralded Versace family, and the fabulous lives of Hollywood stars in tremendous acrimony, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for our envious guilty pleasure consumption. The House of Gucci feels comfortably pitched in that Ryan Murphy sweet spot, especially if you’re a fan of the populist high-gloss escapism of Murphy’s campy forays.
Because of this tragi-comic tone, House of Gucci keeps things rolling with eye-rolling excess and consistent laughter. It’s essentially watching Patrizia climb the ladder of power within the Gucci family, eliminating her enemies and neutralizing her opposition. She’s so strong-willed, ruthless, and successful, that it’s fun to watch this outsider, who was seen as a gold-digging harlot by some within the cloistered family, systematically tear apart the tut-tutting elites. It’s structured in many ways like a gangster movie with its rise-and-fall narrative and, in its final half hour, it becomes a full-fledged crime story, one whose outcome I had no idea about. If you’re unfamiliar with the Gucci family story and scheming, like me, the movie will play even better with its level of surprise and colorful characters. This is Scott’s most light-footed work since 2015’s The Martian.
Another shocking surprise is how enjoyable Jared Leto (The Little Things) is as clownish cousin, Paolo Gucci. The actor is buried under pounds of prosthetic makeup and is performing on the same tonal wavelength as Gaga; these two know best what kind of movie they’re starring in. Leto is so deliciously, amazingly over-the-top that all of his Method affectations are part of the appeal rather than being a distraction. This character is a riotous naïve hack, a Gucci with the worst ideas in fashion but the inability to recognize his creative shortcomings. He would be set up for tragedy in a different kind of movie, like a Falstaff if you want to go all Shakespearean, but in this version of this story, he’s a buffoon with no self-awareness. Every time he appears onscreen, it’s deserving of a live studio audience applauding like a TV sitcom character that has stumbled into a prestige drama by mistake. This performance is so hugely Italian is practically exhaling mozzarella cheese. He could be the missing Mario triplet. Watching Leto and Pacino go back and forth is like watching a competition over who can chew the most scenery with the most overblown Italian accent, and I gave in and loved every second of it.
The overall length of House of Gucci starts to grate and the indulgence of the lavish lifestyles of the famous family gets repetitive. We don’t need five montages of wealth and luxury when one will do. Once Patrizia and Maurizio rise to control Gucci, the movie seems to coast, so much so that the eventual divide between the two seems arbitrary and undeveloped. When the movie transitioned to this point, I was left wondering what had exactly been their relationship breaking point. Maybe that’s the point and the absence is meant to convey how Maurizio has changed, given into the fast cars and fancy suits of a lifestyle he previously seemed indifferent to. The movie feels long and overly extended for a feature. The content could have worked as one of those glossy Ryan Murphy miniseries, but as a movie it could have used some judicious accounting.
House of Gucci is going to be the most entertaining for people seeking a less realistic, brooding, and contemplative drama about power and corruption and more seeking a delightfully baffling and campy mess of a movie. Lady Gaga and Jared Leto are playing their respective roles to the hilt, and it’s a hoot to watch them have as much fun with such broadly comic characters. Perhaps the tragi-comic tone will feel in poor taste for some (designer Tom Ford, a player in the Gucci resurgence in the 1990s, has said so), but I found House of Gucci to be a ridiculous movie that knew where it should go big and where it should go small, and it favored big early and often.
In contrast, The Last Duel is based upon a true story of the last time France used judicial trial by combat. It’s the 1300s, and Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a soldier for King Charles VI and looking to repay his mounting debts. He enters a marriage with Marguerite (Jodie Comer) for her dowry and promised land. However, Sir Jean finds his former squire and friend Jacques Le Gris (Driver) the recipient of the land, having been gifted it as thanks from the local lord, the carousing Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck). Sir Jean is outraged by the offense. Then the bombshell hits: Marguerite accuses Le Gris of raping her. Le Gris denies it to his core. Sir Jean challenges his former friend to a trial by combat whereupon only one man will walk away alive.
The Last Duel could have also just as easily been titled, Sucks to Be a Woman: The 14th Century Edition. It’s a blunt assessment of systemic misogyny and the cruelty that was so casual that Church officials were blaming women for tempting men into raping them. This is an upsetting movie by design, and it’s filled with head-shaking arguments like a “real rape” cannot cause a pregnancy (“That’s science,” the court prosecutor says, in a nod to a future Todd Akin), that pregnancy is facilitated if the woman experiences an orgasm, so ipso facto how could the accused rape be in fact a rape if the lady is pregnant because that means she must have enjoyed herself. It hurts me to even type this diseased thinking, and I don’t consider it a spoiler to list some of the absurd arguments that will be unleashed in the name of institutional sexism. You could just as likely come up with your own ridiculous arguments playing a game of sexist Mad Libs and it will likely be featured at some point throughout The Last Duel. This is not a condemnation of the movie but a realization that its main journey is going to be a bleak grind, one that consistently makes you sigh deeply and feel uncomfortable for all the countless millions of women.
I fully believe that there are important lessons to be had in empathy and shattering ignorance when it comes to uncovering history as it is and not history as it is written. For some, the events of The Last Duel will hardly be eye-opening, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot engender greater consideration and thought to not just the historical context of the Medieval period but on the classic tales of chivalry and masculinity that have been passed down verbatim through centuries. The division of character perspectives is almost like uncovering the historical perspective through layers of obfuscation and legend. We see the movie three times, each from the point of view of another. We start with Sir Jean who views his life as abused loyalty, a dutiful soldier who fights for God and country and is constantly attacked by scheming upstarts. This beginning perspective is the most basic one, lacking dimension and keeping to a rigid right/wrong dichotomy. This is the kind of boilerplate that goes into legends. The second perspective, and seemingly longest, presents the villain’s perspective but where he clearly views himself as a dutiful soldier whose loyalty is also abused. He becomes obsessed with Marguerite and dreams of her and is convinced that her evinced kindness is really flirtation. He completely views the rape as a consensual outing. This perspective is more reflective than the first and insightful insofar as it’s meant to convey how men of this society can fool themselves into thinking their abuse is requested and obliged. This perspective is meant to convey the, for lack of a better word, common thinking and confirmation bias of centuries of entrenched systemic misogyny.
Despite its grim subject matter, The Last Duel is assuredly a feminist film and does not condone or dismiss the actions of its sexual predators. In trying to showcase differing perspectives, the movie is not asking us to question whether the rape was real or not, it’s asking us to understand, not excuse, the perspective of the perpetrator to better understand, not excuse, the landscape that produced so many more perpetrators. It’s historical context that some will argue is exploitative. Do we need to have the brutality shoved in our faces to better understand the plight of women? The screenplay is written by Damon and Affleck, their first collaboration since 1997’s Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, and they made the decision to have Nicole Holofcener (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) to write the feminine perspective from their story.
The third and final perspective is the one more aligned with the truth, and it’s here that we can begin to compare the points of difference between the prior two male perspectives. Early on, Marguerite’s marriage is de-romanticized. She is expected to bear a son at all costs. As time passes without a child, her husband begins to have his doubts about her worth. He didn’t have this problem with his first wife, he adds, to let her know where the problem is coming from. Yet Marguerite is also a natural problem-solver and manager, and when left alone to tend to her husband’s estate, she enacts policies that are clear improvements. Again, it’s another symbolic example of how many capable and intelligent women were intimidated into being primarily child-bearing mares. When she tells her husband she has been raped, Sir Jean takes it as an offense against him first and foremost. He also undresses and insists that Le Gris will not be the last man to “know [his] wife.” When Sir Jean boldly challenges Le Gris to a trial by combat, he fails to mention to his wife that if he were to lose, and thus found unfavorable in God’s eyes, then she will be burned alive as punishment for a false accusation. She asked for the justice of the courts, but that wasn’t good enough for her husband’s pride (to be fair, the courts were also stacked with bias to the liege lord). If the first perspective is the one most likely to be recorded, and the second most likely to be held by the men of this time, then it’s the final perspective that is reality, and one that has been ignored.
This all leads up to a climactic duel that had me rooting for both men to kill each other, unless that forfeited the life of Marguerite somehow through its arcane rules. I felt genuine tension because I was dreading the bloody outcome. I was suspecting the worst, with Le Gris to persevere and the movie to basically say, “Well, that’s what it was like, folks.” It’s a brutal sequence. The extended confrontation is thrilling exactly because the movie has done its work to establish genuine emotional stakes. I feared for the life of Marguerite, trapped in this ridiculous system of narcissistic men hitting each other for God’s favor rather than trusting the voice of the victim. It’s absurd in the same vein as drowning a woman to prove whether she was a witch is absurd. I won’t spoil the ending results, but I think it pays off the grind of the preceding two hours while staying true to the characters and their perspectives until the bitter end.
The Last Duel is not exactly a subtle film, but when the political message is intended to be blunt and alarming, is it better to use the dross of artistic subterfuge or be blunt? The characters are more archetypes than multidimensional figures, and even the extra time with them produces more of the same but at least offers a reflection of their respective reality distortion fields. The symbols are rather obvious throughout, like Marguerite breeding horses (look, that mare is like you!) and the cultural lessons are not exactly revolutionary. But when people need to be shaken, to dramatically rethink their cozy relationship with historical assumptions, then I say you bring a rhetorical sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. One can almost hear a certain political figure of recent prominence flatly echoing, “But he strongly denies it,” as proof of innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence otherwise (“locker room talk” and the like). But this story of toxic masculinity and systemic victimization doesn’t deserve to be told subtle and with brave faces in the wake of quiet indignities. It’s trying to re-contextualize heroes and villains of chivalric legend without losing sight on the human viewpoint. Whether viewers think they need a 150-minute lesson in how awful it was to be a woman is going to be a personal decision, and the reason I think many adults stayed away (sorry Ridley, it’s not we Millennials that this movie was marketed toward). This could have been trimmed down, especially with all the overworked palace intrigue in the middle. It’s an uncomfortable movie by nature, but one with relevant power and empathy and grueling suspense. The Last Duel is an uncompromising movie that asks the audience to think most of the unseen perspective too often overlooked.
House of Gucci is meant for titillation and diversion. The Last Duel is meant for conversations and denied catharsis. Even when the movie ends, you’re left with the underlined impression that this one woman’s plight is the same as so many others who will never know the spotlight. Both movies take clear aim at distinctly different tones and achieve their aims through their devotion and execution. Scott is a brilliantly visual tactician who simultaneously makes the outdoors look their driest and wettest. I cannot say either movie is elevated to another level it would have been unable to achieve thanks to Scott’s able direction, but he feels more committed and invested in both stories, and in particular the performances, than in his most recent output. I’m happy that Hollywood is still making mature moves for grown-ups, even if The Last Duel looks like a costly box-office dud. Both of these Scott ventures are worth watching. It all depends on your desired mood. Do you want to lounge in luxury and laugh it up, or do you want to feel miserable but more educated? Either way, these movies will mostly deliver what they promise for your 150 minutes of attention.
House of Gucci: B
The Last Duel: B+
Zack Snyder had a unique situation that many filmmakers would never get close to fulfilling. He departed the 2017 Justice League movie in the wake of a family tragedy, Joss Whedon was hired to direct and rewrite extensive reshoots that totaled an estimated additional $30 million dollars, and the world was given the strange amalgamation of two different filmmakers, along with the nightmare-inducing CGI baby lip to replace actor Henry Cavill’s mustache. The 2017 theatrical release of Justice League was meant to be a significant milestone for the DCU, launching an all-star assembly of superheroes and setting up future solo adventures and franchises. It was meant to be a major kickoff and it was simply a major shrug. The general public was indifferent to the 2017 League, and it seems like the DC brass is positioning for a cinematic universe do-over, retaining the elements they liked (Jason Momoa, Gal Gadot) and jettisoning the other pieces to start anew. In the ensuing years, fans have been petitioning for the fabled “Snyder Cut,” a theoretical version of Justice League that was closer to Snyder’s original artistic vision before the studio intervention and interloping of Whedon. It became a joke on social media and then one day it became real. Warner executives, seeing opportunity with the rabid fanbase, decided to give Snyder an additional $70 million to finish his version of Justice League. It would be an exclusive to their new streaming platform, HBO MAX, and Snyder could complete his version without artistic compromise. The resulting four-hour version, titled Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is less a movie than a mini-series, and a rare chance for a director to complete the story they wanted to tell without artistic compromise. After having watched the full four hours, along with re-watching the 2017 version again for comparison, The Snyder Cut just feels like the original version only longer. I would actually advise people that if they haven’t watched either Justice League to simply catch the 2017 version. At least its mediocrity is half your time investment.
Once again, months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world and make way for his master, Darkseid. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
I think it’s unfair to judge the 2017 film to the Snyder Cut as a movie simply because this version never would have been released in theaters. No studio would have released a four-hour version. The two edicts that Whedon was given by the studio when coming aboard the project was that it could not be over two hours and to lighten it up. Imagine what the 2021 Snyder Cut would look like if Snyder was then tasked to cut it down to a more manageable two-hour running length. I predict many of the same scenes being eliminated or dramatically trimmed down. That’s the main takeaway from the Snyder Cut, that there is more room for everything, and quite often too much room. I swear a full hour of this movie might be ponderous slow-motion sequences. Plot-wise, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is pretty close to what was released in theaters in 2017. The action sequences are extended longer (Steppenwolf’s attack on the Amazons has increased from six minutes to a whopping twelve minutes) but I don’t know if they’re dramatically improved. Instead of two punches there’s four; instead of one chase, there’s two. It’s that kind of stuff, filling out the sequences but not really elaborating on them in an exciting fashion that reorients the moment. I liked some additions, like the inclusion of blood during the underwater Atlantis fight because it added a neat visual flair, but the added action is often obscured by visual decisions that dis-empower the experience (more on that later). I found myself growing restless with the movie. All that added time allows some sequences and plot beats to breathe better, but it also allows Snyder to meander to his greater indulgence (more on that later as well, notably on the multiple epilogues). The four hours feel like Snyder’s kitchen sink approach, and with the benefit of years of hindsight from the critical and fan reception of the 2017 version, he’s able to spend tens of millions to correct mistakes and improve a flawed film.
I hate how this movie looks for multiple reasons. The most obvious difference is that the aspect ratio has been altered to a 4:3 ratio more reminiscent of pre-widescreen television. Why is this the case? Snyder has said he cropped his movie to this boxy format so that it could be played on IMAX screens. That’s fine, but why crop your movie now months if not possible years before it will ever play on IMAX screens? When it comes time to adjust for the IMAX screen, adjust then. Why must every viewer see this limited version now on their widescreen televisions at home? It’s just so bizarre to me. It would be like if Quentin Tarantino reasoned that his movies will eventually play on airplanes, so he better get ready and cut back his widescreen into a flat, pan-and-scan mode, and he might as well include alternate takes and scenes to cover for those that would be deemed too profane or intense for the all-ages captive audience of an airplane, and then that version was the one he released to all audiences and we were stuck with it. Snyder had millions of dollars to reshoot his epic and he lopped off the edges, meaning you’re getting more movie but also less (at least the footage predating the new reshoots) in every second because of the framing. The grandeur of the superhero saga is also extremely hampered by the drab color palette. Snyder has always preferred muted colors to his movies but his Justice League drains all life and vibrancy. Everything is literal shades of grey. Color is not allowed to exist in this universe. A sunset is almost comical. Apparently, there’s going to be an official black-and-white version but we’re already practically there. Some could argue the oppressive grey is meant to evoke the grief and heaviness of the picture, and I’ll give you some leeway with that, but the drab colors also nullify the visuals. It’s simply harder to see everything that’s happening even during the daytime, and then you tack on the ugly CGI that makes everything look like a fuzzy video game. For a movie that has cost potentially over $350 million dollars combined, Justice League looks so phony. Maybe that’s part of Snyder’s overall stylized look, he’s never really been one to visually ground his operatic action spectacles, but I feel like the aspect ratio and color palate just make it worse. For those four hours, this is often a very visually unappealing movie to watch.
With the added time, there are definite benefits and characters that are lifted by the extra attention. Chief among them is Cyborg, a character that felt like a Swiss army knife in the original who was just there to perform whatever techno jazz the movie required at a moment’s notice. With the Snyder Cut, the character becomes more engaging and given a fuller arc relating to the relationship between father and son. The father’s placement in the story actually matters and Cyborg has more of a personal journey coming to terms with his new abilities. There is a back-story with his frayed relationship with his father, his accident that caused him to become the creature he is, and a reoccurring theme of a son blaming his father and the father trying to reconnect with the son he refused to part with. I still think Cyborg ranks low on the list of superheroes, but the additional scenes give the character more weight, more tragedy, and more intrigue. Another added benefit is that Steppenwolf’s motivation is improved as well as his look. He’s now outfitted with a herring-bone armor that twitches over his body. It’s a more intimidating look than what he had going on in 2017. I also appreciated that he now has more motivation other than “conquer the universe” because now it’s “conquer the universe to get back in the good graces of the boss.” Steppenwolf is trying to repay a debt and make amends, and that makes him slightly more interesting than his generic motivation in the original theatrical cut.
However, not all the new editions are as smooth or as helpful. The added time with the rest of the Justice League doesn’t seem to have added anything to their characters. Each one’s arc is more or less the same from the 2017 version, except now we have even more scenes of Wonder Woman wondering whether she needs to get off the sidelines and be more involved (the events of WW84 conflict with this timeline) and Aquaman rejecting his call to adventure from the Atlanians. Neither is a richer portrayal and the scenes are redundant. Take Wonder Woman finding out about Steppenwolf’s attack. In the 2017 version, her mother lights an arrow and it sails into Greek ruins, signaling her daughter, who knows what this means. In the Snyder cut, the arrow still lights the Greek ruins, but now Wonder Woman visits the ruins, she gathers a stick, she wraps a cloth around it, she dips it in kerosene, she lights it on fire, she enters a secret room because of the arrow, she jumps down a cliff, she finds a hidden temple with hieroglyphics warning about Steppenwolf and the mother boxes and Darkseid. Even if you really wanted the end where she sees those hieroglyphic warnings, why did we need these many steps to get there? The opening hostage/bank heist scene is given far more attention, with multiple scenes of hostages being terrorized, and then Wonder Woman literally vaporizes the chief terrorist. A little girl looks at her, likely traumatized for life by the whole experience, and says wistfully, “I want to be like you when I grow up.” She wants to be a murderer? In Snyder’s universe, Superman kills people, Batman kills people, so why not Wonder Woman too?
The revised introduction of Barry Allen is also regrettable. He’s applying for a dog walking job and a car accident occurs and he saves the day, but not before slowing down time in a frustrating manner. This is because he seems to be dawdling while the rest of the world is frozen, which makes the event seem less special. His movements seem less urgent than Quicksilver in the X-Men films when he would perform the same memorable slow-mo set pieces. I disliked that the Flash’s big involvement in the final showdown was literally running around in a circle, a repeat of what he had done prior. Also making the slow-mo save introduction less special is the fact that the Flash picks up a hotdog floating in midair for silly reasons. It’s drawn out with interminable slow-motion and the song choice is baffling, a common theme throughout Snyder’s movies. I think he’s been smarting ever since he painfully paired Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with a sex scene in 2009’s Watchmen, and now we must al endure similar awkward auditory pairings. Every song inclusion just feels wrong here. As Aquaman is drinking and walking along a pier, in slow motion, we hear “There is a Kingdom” by Nick Cave, and it just doesn’t pair right, especially in contrast with the hard-rocking guitar riffs from The White Stripes in the 2017 version. For good measure, Snyder even includes another “Hallelujah” cover by the end for good measure, as if he’s still fighting this same battle over musical taste.
And then there’s the barrage of epilogues, each the start of a story never to be continued, and it approaches the realm of self-parody (spoilers to follow). We get three endings, the first an extension of the post-credit scene from the 2017 version where Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) suggests the formation of a Legion of Doom for villains. He even shares with Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Well, that could be an interesting next step, but we know it’s not to be so it becomes just a teasing preview. The next ending cuts forward in time to the dusty, apocalyptic vision that Batman had in Batman vs. Superman, and he’s got a crew including an older Flash, Meera (Amber Heard, why does she have a British accent now?), and even Jared Leto’s Joker. They’re facing off against a villainous Superman who has been driven mad by the death of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), which is pretty much the plot of the Injustice games. The Joker is antagonizing Batman with some references to killing someone close to the Dark Knight, and this whole sequence amounts to Snyder basically saying, “Hey, here’s where I wanted to go with things but you’ll never see it.” Then there’s a third ending, because the second is revealed to be another dream/vision for Batman, where he meets Martian Manhunter, a character that, other than diehard comic aficionados, no one cares about and has been given any reason to care about. The guy just introduces himself and Batman is like, “Oh, cool,” and that’s the ending Snyder decides to close his four hours with. There is a literal half-hour of epilogues and false endings to finish with and I was exhausted. I owe Peter Jackson an apology.
In my original review of the 2017 Justice League, I wrote, “I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance.” Some of those issues are resolved with the four-hour Snyder cut and too many others still remain. At the end of the day, this is still just a longer, bloodier version of a mediocre superhero movie, except now we get stuff like Batman saying the F-word, so I guess that’s cool. I have more of an artistic appreciation for what Whedon had to pull off to even wrangle this beast into two hours. I’m happy Snyder was able to fulfill his complete vision and that HBO MAX offered a platform that would provide such a rare opportunity of expensive art unencumbered by studio meddling. I can’t say it’s worth your four hours, nor can I say it’s dramatically better than the 2017 version because whatever benefits it offers are weighed down by the extraneous, the redundancies, and the length. As it stands, I feel I have no choice but to grade Zack Snyder’s Justice League the same as the 2017 Justice League.
Nate’s Grade: C
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+