Justice League, or, Has Anyone Made a “League of Their Own” Joke Yet? There’s No Crime in Bat’s Hall? Something Like That? I Don’t Know.

justiceleague

Batman v. All Kinds of Folks: Noon of Justice

“You’re not brave. Men are brave,” Batfleck told the Man of Steel in director Zack Snyder’s cumbersome Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hated that line. To me it had seemed the epitome of the over-the-top, macho bullshit Batman is always in danger of succumbing to in the wrong hands.

“You’re not brave. You’re a little boy. I’m a big strong man, because I’m tough and grim and that’s what a man is, and by the way I just discovered the work of Frank Miller.”
I walked out of Batman v. Superman angry. Not disappointed. Angry. But it stuck with me. It stuck with me and despite myself my mind would return time and time again to various moments throughout the film. I found myself considering it. Digesting it.

“You’re not brave. Men are brave.”

Macho bullshit, or theological outrage?

“You’re not brave. You’re a god. You don’t know fear and you don’t know bravery because you don’t know what it is to be human. You don’t know what it is to be fragile living in a world that can kill you by accident. You cannot save us from ourselves because you will never know what it is to be us. You’re doomed to frustration and failure. And what then?”

Zack Snyder’s superhero films have no interest in being the Marvelous “world outside your window.” They’re more attempts at reflecting Joseph Campbell’s monomyth against a battle of minds and souls and ideologies. Hefty stuff. A reach that neither Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice were able to close fingers around. But they were each a helluva reach.
Justice League doesn’t feel that way. Very much an empty bath tub, Justice League feels like a panicked response to the backlash against Dawn of Justice in which all of the tropes of a Snyder film were numbed, rather than just the problematic ones.

I often found myself frustrated with Snyder’s previous films because of the contrast between their best and worst moments, between their potential and their actuality, between the leap taken and the distance traveled. But Justice League feels like less of a leap than a hop, like Zack Snyder’s ambitions have finally started to bear the weight of critical reception.

A lot has been made of the possibility that Justice League would feel like a battle between two voices, Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in to complete the film when Snyder dropped out for personal reasons. But the only tug of war I felt in the film was between the lofty, operatic vision of Snyder and a very corporate, frugal sense of uncertainty holding that vision back.

There’s the slimmest thread of Snyder’s ambitious storytelling here, a messianic thread that casts the five marketed Justice Leaguers as sort of apostles, with Ben Affleck’s Batman playing the role of a repentant betrayer trying to make good. At times the film very much feels like Man of Steel 3, a third act following that familiar but fascinating template of life, death and rebirth. But the scope of that narrative, which reigned unshackled in the two previous acts, is downplayed in Justice League.

There are also hints of Snyder’s more problematic tendencies. The film opens with a laughably bleak montage of a world without Superman, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Snyder’s camera has less respect for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman than Patty Jenkins’ did. But even these more irritating quirks are toned down. Peaks and valleys alike are buffered and filled in so that unchecked ambition is replaced by a sense of noncommittal, corporate safety.

Writing about Justice League I feel myself warming up to it, coming to terms with what it is rather than mourning what is isn’t. But I can’t shake the feeling (and it is just that, a feeling) that Snyder was reined in on this film because of the lackluster response to Dawn of Justice, and because of that it’s follow-up is, if not outright worse, at least exponentially less interesting.

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Saved by the Bell: The Sakaar Years, or, Thor: Ragnarok

ragnarok

Someone’s rocking their spiffiest duds for freshman orientation.

By the end of Thor: Ragnarok the God of Thunder’s third solo adventure reveals itself to be something of the finale to a first semester of college, a young mind’s valiant return home from winter break after having been blown and expanded over the fall months. Thor: Ragnarok is a process of revealing and undercutting the status quo both for the titular character and the audience.

For the Thor franchise that status quo has been the giant golden pipe organ castle of Asgard, a Mario Kart level that debuted in 2011 as a spectacular departure from the earthbound adventures of Iron Man and Incredible Hulk but has since become increasingly less interesting compared to the exploits of Thor’s other coworkers. In Ragnarok, that tired, shallow, golden city becomes the world of half-truths and easy answers built up around a child, a straw house destined to be blown down when confronted with even the slightest shift in perspective.
Enter Hela.

Played by Cate Blanchett, the Goddess of Death is that change in perspective, that freshman seminar with a charismatic professor who antagonizes the way you think the world works so that returning home becomes more than a matter of geographic distance. Hela is Asgard’s past, the receipt for that lavish golden pipe organ than Thor never thought to look at.

Thor vs. Hela is not so much a beat ‘em up as it is a young suburban white kid’s first encounter with the film Twelve Years a Slave.

After his initial confrontation with Hela, Thor is removed from his own status quo and tossed into a different patriarchy, one in which he is not the favored son but the disregarded other. His perspective is challenged intellectually and then literally as he finds himself thrown below the heel of someone else’s lavish kingdom. Like that suburban freshman tasked for the first time with checking their privilege, Thor lashes out fists first, confused, agitated and uncertain, but before long he finds himself hanging out in a dorm room with a roommate, intellectually and emotionally grappling with Hela and all she represents.

Along for the grappling is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, the ideal companion for Thor’s journey through the first semester of freshman year. Where the events of Ragnarok change and rewrite everything Thor has ever known about himself and his history, they only reinforce Valkyrie’s understanding of the world. Thor is trying to wrap his head around Memento and Valkyrie shows up deftly dissecting Orson Welles’ F For Fake. Valkyrie doesn’t have to come to terms with Hela the way Thor does because for Valkyrie the Goddess of Death isn’t an idea or a concept but memory and experience.

Nothing is safe from being upended. Just as Hela disrupts Thor’s perception of the status quo, Ragnarok’s relentless, virtuoso pratfalls undermine the film itself and often Marvel Studios’ past films as well. Even Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, for my money the best of any of Marvel’s 17 films, presented at first with the noble orchestral flair one would expend from a grand superhero odyssey, morphs into what can only be described as aggressive synthesizer.

Every facet of Thor: Ragnarok is concerned with highlighting and then undermining the status quo, be it by speaking truth to authority through humor and smartassery or by subverting the cool of its own protagonists.

Director Taika Waititi has unlocked Thor in a way no previous director has, be it in the characters solo outings or with the rest of the Avengers. He ties Thor’s powers, arguably his most alienating characteristic, to an institution, Asgard, than rips that institution away. Presented with uncertainty, challenged with the revelation of his own privilege and that privilege’s cost, Thor has never been more compelling.

Did I mention this is also a straight-up comedy? And that Jeff Goldblum gives the performance by which all performances will be judged for the rest of time?
Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s best movies and easily the best Thor movie. It’s got action, humor, heart and an intelligence that doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. It’s all the fun of watching a college freshman get woke without having to sit through a pretentious holiday dinner with an actual college freshman.

When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong, or, Blade Runner 2049

blade runner 2049

That flea collar though.

Look, I get Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation of the Philip K. Dick Novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” is cool, but I’ll be the first to offer an exaggerated eye roll every time I see it at the top of a list of the Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time. So when it came to the prospect of a sequel thirty-five years in the making, I wasn’t sure what I wanted as an audience member.

Was Blade Runner 2049 going to be a hip and modernized blockbuster take on the world of Rick Deckard and the Replicants, with bombastic effects for the kids and winking allusions to the original film for the fans? Was it going to be a kitschy pair of nostalgia goggles dogmatically adhering to the minutia of a cult classic, unable to see the forest for the trees? Was it going to be a collection of nifty set pieces and action sequences cobbled together with just enough ambiance to justify the name?

Given my lukewarm opinion of the original I wasn’t even sure what I wanted the film to be.

Ultimately, director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 is defined by the aspects of Blade Runner it holds dear, for better or worse. For my money, it is almost without exception for the better.

Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel that is a true spiritual successor to its predecessor. It doesn’t concern itself with recapturing the glory of Blade Runner’s most iconic scenes and lines. It’s too disciplined a film to get caught in the weeds of nostalgia. Blade Runner 2049 isn’t a film desperate to recreate “Tears in Rain” it’s a stylish film on the vanguard of visual effects that meanders through a neon-noir narrative, refusing to indulge the full blockbuster scope of its own implications.

Blade Runner was no blockbuster, fiscally or narratively, and though it has gained a rabid following in the decades since its release, 2049 is careful to remain a sequel to the film that came out in 1982, rather than a response to the sprawling, aggrandized reputation said film has since garnered. It stays true to the noir roots of the original, presenting a science fiction story that hints at infinite scope but never gets too far off of the street. It recreates the lauded aesthetic and art direction established in the original without smothering itself in green screens. Hans Zimmer conjures a convincing enough facsimile of the contemplative, stylish melancholy of Vangelis’ score for the original without just dripping a heaping portion of synthesizers all over the proceedings.

Blade Runner 2049’s reverence for its source material runs far deeper than its most marketable characteristics.

It’s telling then, that where Blade Runner 2049 fell short for me was in its most marketable, bankable facet: Harrison Ford.

Blade Runner 2049 does not get made without Harrison Ford attached. This I understand. And Ford turns in a solid performance. But, where the film’s reverence for its Blade Runner’s sense of style and storytelling is admirable and disciplined, its reverence for its progenitor’s protagonist feels misplaced.

Rick Deckard is not Han Solo. Rick Deckard is not Indiana Jones. Though the character’s introduction in 2049 is given the sense of gravity afforded Han Solo’s “Chewie, we’re home,” the character has never generated that sort of fanfare. Several times the film feels as though it is trying to conjure a sense of “classic Rick” that isn’t really there because Deckard’s place in pop culture is at most concerned with his humanity or artificiality rather than any given character trait.

Blade Runner 2049 is at its best following Ryan Gosling’s K down a meandering existential rabbit hole, and while it’s awesome to see Harrison Ford reprise Rick Deckard, the script allows his character to hijack a film that was doing just fine on its own, rather than enriching it. But of course, an abundance of Harrison Ford isn’t exactly the most compelling complaint in the world.

2049 not only has a respect for its predecessor that is far from a given in sequels, it has the intellect and self-control to elaborate and explore characteristics that run deeper than a marketing campaign can touch. I didn’t expect Blade Runner 2049 to be the film it turned out to be, but I suspected I would like it more than the original and I at least predicted that much accurately.

Unfortunately, much as the the movie-going public of 1982 didn’t real give a shit about Blade Runner. the movie-going public of 2017 didn’t really give a shit about Blade Runner 2049’s disciplined reverence for Blade Runner.

Having been released over a month ago (look I got a lot on my plate), in hindsight Blade Runner 2049’s less-than-stellar commercial reception was perhaps inevitable given that aforementioned adherence to the heart and soul of a film that suffered the same fate, but I suspect that same adherence makes it likely to retain a strong, steadily growing fan base in the years to come.

I for one will be eagerly awaiting Blade Runner 2084.

 

That’s Terrible, or, IT

IT

Getting the gang together to watch the 11PM news.

There are people you can count on to relay the most upsetting news of the day.

“Did you hear about death, famine and murder?” they’ll say, apropos of nothing.

“That’s terrible,” you’ll reply.

“Terrible,” they’ll affirm, ending the transaction and leaving you just the littlest bit worse for wear because now you know a little bit more about death, famine and murder. You’re left to stew in it, to wish you didn’t know, to curse the messenger.

It’s a curious exchange, the intent of which has always eluded me, left me wondering time and time again “why are you telling me this?”

IT (stylized in capital letters here to delineate it from literally anything and everything else), the cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s “clown lures children into the sewers to murder them” romp, gave me a new perspective on the matter.

The film’s iconic clown Pennywise, the visage you’ll no doubt recognize from all kinds of unsettling marketing, is IT’s nominal horror, the villain in the same sense in which Queen Elizabeth II is a ruler. The true force of antagonism in IT is a one-two punch of a town with a history of the most heinous evening news stories and an utter lack of coworkers intent on making sure everyone in earshot knows about said heinous stories whether they like it or not. That baffling exchange (“death, famine, murder” / “terrible” / “terrible”) never happens in Derry, Maine. One gets the sense that long, long ago someone turned to the person next to them and managed to get out “did you hear about-” before being cut off by barking and the plugging of ears, setting a precedent that grew to haunt seven charming preteen misfits in 1988.

These misfits possess an inherent strength, the strength required to actively participate in the aforementioned exchange, the strength required to look death, famine and murder in its yellow cackling eyes and really, truly see it. It’s the strength to grapple with the worst of humanity because for each of these seven kids the worst of humanity is than the television screen.

Rather than begrudging the ritualistic transmission of distressing information, the protagonists of IT forge friendships out of it, coming together to look at everything wrong with the world and acknowledging it.

Yes.

Death, famine and murder.

These things are frightening.

These things happen.

These things exist.

Next.

Watching IT, it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, trading reactions to the most upsetting happenings in our world is could be more than just a sick sort of gossip, it could be an exchange of empathy, humanity, strength and mercy.

IT is creepy and hilarious and fun, it’s a horror blockbuster that swaps out exciting fisticuffs for aggressively unsettling ambiance. What’s more, it’s a demonstration of the power that can be gained not only by staring down the terrors of the world, but by doing so as a community, a demonstration of the mercy of friendship and the upstanding willingness to share one another’s burdens.

I still don’t know what to say when served an anecdote of the previous day’s most despicable instances of death, famine and murder, but after seeing IT I’ll at least agree “that’s terrible” with a bit less spite.

A Fine Find, or, Logan Lucky

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Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?

When I was, I don’t know, eight, I was flipping though channels in a hotel room and found myself watching the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. It didn’t have sharks or dinosaurs in it, but neither did anything else on television, so I watched Cocktail. And it was fine. I didn’t leave Logan Lucky, director Steven Soderbergh’s return from retirement, with any particularly harsh words in mind, but I left it feeling like I did watching Cocktail, adequately entertained despite a lack of sharks or dinosaurs.

Logan Lucky is held back from greatness by a nebulous sense of self. Following NASCAR heist perpetrated by the unlucky Logan siblings , Logan Lucky is essentially Ocean’s Eleven imposed onto a facsimile of Appalachia. Imposed is a key word here, as the twisting, turning caper narrative often feels like it imposes on the best interest of the film, which itself feels like a strange imposition onto the culture it is either trying to pander or condescend to.

I walked into Logan Lucky with Stanley Kubrick’s horse track heist flick The Killing on my mind, but Logan Lucky lacks the elegance of that 85-minute classic. For all the discipline Soderbergh displays in refraining from unnecessary directorial flourishes, the script, written by suspected-pseudonym Rebecca Blunt time and time again indulges vestigial narrative threads that feel like they’re there because conventions dictate they be. The film regularly wanders off the path of what could be a concise, engaging heist, so much so that the entirety of the final act feels like it is standing on ceremony.

But even if the film were trimmed down and streamlined, what really holds Logan Lucky back is its perplexing attitude towards the subsection of America it portrays. The film’s depiction of rural America feels like The Big Bang Theory’s depiction of nerds. The Logans and their lot are the unappreciated backbone of the American workforce when the story needs your sympathy and they’re backward goofballs when it needs your laughter. As fantastic as the likes of Daniel Craig and Adam Driver are in the film, the cast of characters in Logan Lucky never feel as though they were written with a sense of authenticity in mind. Winter’s Bone this is not.

There’s never a feeling of spite or disdain on the part of the film for its subjects, but one gets the impression that Logan Lucky is more concerned with it’s expression of genre tropes than it’s depiction of the culture it imposes those tropes upon.

Despite all that, Logan Lucky is a fun, entertaining movie, but it’s perhaps one that is best discovered in a hotel room flipping by TNT on a rainy Saturday, or while Netflix and chilling or whatever you hooligans are calling it these days.

When You and That Camera Just Don’t Get Along, or, Good Time

goodtime

DY-NO-MITE!

Good Time, directed by the Safdie brothers, is the grittiest movie I’ve ever seen. Like, really gritty. Not like stubble and liquor bottles and shadows gritty. Like, while I was watching it I felt a facsimile of the groggy, sticky sensation you get after having spent too much time in a hospital or a convention center or a subway car. There were times at which I could almost smell the musk of the movie, a low-stakes crime thriller starring Robert Pattinson as a scrappy bank robber trying to free his special needs brother from the system. But Good Time doesn’t introduce itself grit first.

The film opens on a sweeping helicopter shot of a towering building, light glinting off of its multitude of windows. It’s filmed with the kind of reverence for architecture that wouldn’t be out of place in a Christopher Nolan film. The building is establishment, it is authority, it is rule. Nothing in Good Time is treated with that same cinematic veneration again.

Almost perpetually drowned in the harsh lighting of fluorescent bulbs or neon or television static or sirens, the denizens of Good Time are consistently crammed uncomfortably into the frame with intrusive close-ups. It’s as if the camera boasts a thinly-veiled disdain for its subjects, as if it is begrudgingly focused on a two-bit criminal when it pines to display lavish architecture, as if the film itself is an ally to, or an extension of the same system Pattinson’s Connie is railing so rabidly against.

And yet for all it’s cold derision for Connie, the camera and he have a lot in common in regards to their attitude toward those around them.

Connie has zero interest in the people he interacts with. They aren’t flesh and blood to him so much as means to an increasingly imprecise end. He’s brilliant in his own way, moving the film forward with his spastic schemes like he’s jumping up rubble in a futile attempt to scale a crashing avalanche, but he is hardly worth the audiences sympathies. We’ve seen his enemy. We meet it before we meet him. That massive building, everything that built it and everything it stands for. It’s not a matter of victory so much as a matter of prolonging defeat.

Good Time is a filthy, grimy and uncomfortable movie that doesn’t exactly aim to live up to its title, but the social interactions and the antagonistic report between character and camera make it a compelling confrontation between individual and institution.

Are You Ready to be Jimmy Caan?, or, Detroit (The Movie)

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Hey, how would one go about writing a blog post in such a way as to appear woke without seeming like they’re trying to appear woke and without betraying there casual ignorance of American History? I’m asking for a friend.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one. It’s immersive and effective and stacked with excellent performances, but man, Detroit is an absolutely miserable movie.

Director Katheryn Bigelow’s latest film depicts events that took place in the Algiers Motel on a night in 1967 during the 12th Street Riot. A majority of the film focuses on the unsettling, claustrophobic proceedings, eventually proving to be an empathic endurance test.

Detroit lacks the narrative thrust of Bigelow’s previous based-on-true-events film, Zero Dark Thirty. Where that film’s focus on the proceedings of a global manhunt lent it an inherent momentum, Detroit largely abandons any sort of momentum when it arrives at the events in question. The film’s most compelling threads, concerning musician Larry Reed (Algee Smith) and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), are left to stew and stagnate and are only picked up again near the end of the film, making them feel like prologues and epilogues bookending the seemingly endless canvas of abuse and injustice that is the film’s lengthy second act.

It’s a bold move, the pacing equivalent of walking along the sidewalk for a few minutes, falling into a horrible, sprawling rancid puddle in which you become entrapped for like three hours, then finally getting out and walking home smelly, wet and miserable. The various narratives of the film are stopped cold and when they’re picked up again they are forever altered, certainly not unlike the lives of the victims of the incident in question.

Again, not a bad film, just an utterly miserable one.

Two decisions in particular really enable that misery, helplessness and injustice to permeate the film to its core.

The first, Barry Ackroyd’s handheld, documentarian cinematography, leaves the viewer feeling embedded in the unfolding events. Detroit is not a film looking for one perfect shot. It’s framing never feels planned and the images on the screen never feel composed so much as they feel captured.

The second, a sort of staggered, choosy contextualization, leaves the viewer with nothing to grasp but the abject abuse on screen. A brief animated sequence opens the film, providing a primer on the status quo of race relations in Detroit leading up to the 12th Street Riot and we’re shown a depiction of the onset of hostilities between police and the citizenry of the city, but I went into Detroit knowing nothing about the 12th Street Riot and I went out of Detroit knowing next to nothing about the 12th Street Riot. The backdrop to the events depicted in the film are taken as a given, treated like 9/11 is treated in Zero Dark Thirty, as an event that ubiquitous with the public consciousness  and thus requires no explanation. The macrocosm of the film is given no heft and the microcosm it concerns itself with suffers for it. Additionally, there’s a nuance afforded to the police force in the film that is not extended to the citizens of Detroit, which only furthers the uncertainty in regards to the world and the circumstances outside of the hellish motel the audience is held up in.

Without any sort of broader canvas to help contextualize the events at the Algiers Motel and with it’s utterly immersive camerawork, Detroit often feels like being forced into a front row seat watching the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful simply for the sake of it.

And that may be exactly what it is.

I left Detroit wondering what it wanted from me, what it’s intent was. It didn’t feel educational as it doesn’t take particular interest in any single individual or in the 12th Street Riot. Its attempts at keeping a journalistic distance from the events keep it from feeling like an earnest call to action against the injustice it depicts. Ultimately, Detroit just feels like a very, very effective reproduction of a horrible incident. It feels like a film that wants nothing more than to have its audience bare witness to an unforgivable abuse of authority.

I would never say Detroit is a bad film and I would never say that it is an enjoyable one, but if its purpose is indeed to have its audience bare witness to cold, hard injustice and institutionalized racism, it achieves those aims with remarkable success.