REVIEW: “Justice League: War” (2014)


In 2013, “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” ended with the revelation (sorta) of a new alternative DC timeline. This cracked the door to the DC Animated Movie Universe, a shared-world series of feature-length films taking place within the new timeline. The first to fully explore this new space was “Justice League: War”, an action-fueled animated movie that essentially tells the story of the formation of this world’s Justice League.

“Justice League: War” is an adaptation of the 2011 “Justice League: Origin” comic book storyline from writer Geoff John’s and penciller Jim Lee. It told the rebooted origin story of the Justice League of America following the events of “Flashpoint” which reset the entire DC Universe. In the same way, “War” sets out to define this new world while also introducing the major players in DC’s superhero catalogue. Much like “The Flashpoint Paradox”, this is a tall order that proves to be a little more than an under 80-minute movie can cover. But “War” manages the wealth of material in a surprisingly fun and agile way.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

The story begins with Batman (Jason O’Mara) looking into a series of abductions around Gotham City. During his investigation he crosses paths with a wisecracking Hal Jordan aka Green Lantern (Justin Kirk). The two don’t necessarily hit it off but join up to fight a Parademon who leads them into into the sewer where the creature activates a mysterious device called a Mother Box. Unsure of what they’re dealing with, Batman and Green Lantern head to Metropolis to seek the help of a powerful meta-human named (you guessed it) Superman (Alan Tudyk). After a not-so-friendly first encounter, the three join forces to fight the waves of Parademons overtaking the city.

Elsewhere another Mother Box is being studied at S.T.A.R. Labs in Central City by scientist Silas Stone (Rocky Stone). This introduces both Cyborg (Shemar Moore) and Flash (Christopher Gorham) into the story. In Washington DC, Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), serving as a political envoy, arrives to meet with the President of the United States but is greeted by a sea of protesters. Meanwhile a young delinquent foster child Billy Batson (Zach Callison) witnesses a Parademon and transforms into the mythical powerhouse Shazam (Sean Astin). These burgeoning superheroes from dramatically different backgrounds will have to come together once the threat behind the Parademons, Darkseid (Steve Blum) reveals himself.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Director Jay Oliva and screenwriter Heath Corson zip through the story with an action-packed pacing that can be both exhilarating and a bit numbing. The big set pieces are well choreographed and nicely animated but eat up so much of the running time, especially in the last 20 minutes or so. And as with many of these films, the action ends up taking precedent over any emotional stakes. The character models are top-notch – a nice combination of classic style and the newer look inspired by Jim Lee’s “Origin” design. The voice work is mostly good especially from O’Mara, Moore, and Gorham (not so good from Astin). But the biggest surprise is the humor. Corson’s script has some unexpectedly well-timed jabs and witty one-liners that land well and aren’t overpowering.

But not everything lands as well. Wonder Woman shines in the action sequences but her cringe-worthy introduction is tough to watch. The movie goes for some wacky fish-out-of-water vibe that makes her more oafish that heroic. Thankfully Oliva and Corson steer away from that in the later scenes. And I can’t help but wish the story took a more intimate look at its characters. As it is, only Cyborg’s story is given a personal touch; Batson/Shazam to a degree. Still, “Justice League: War” is a fun early entry into the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as a pretty interesting introduction to a world with lots of potential. It’s available to stream on HBO Max.



REVIEW: “Jolt” (2021)

You can make a convincing case that Kate Beckinsale is an underrated actress who too often flies under audience’s radars. She also has a remarkable range. One minute she’s starring in a period comedy based on a 1794 Jane Austen novel and the next she’s leading a vampire coven as they shoot through packs of ravenous enemy werewolves. She brings her sharp wit and knack for action to her new film “Jolt”, a kinetic jaunt from Amazon Studios with some clear franchise ambitions.

The film is directed by Tanya Wexler (“Buffaloed”) from a script written by Scott Wascha. Both approach the story from just the right angle and never try to make “Jolt” more than what it’s meant to be – a crazy and at times deliciously over-the-top action flick with attitude and humor to spare. And while this first film doesn’t exactly scream “franchise”, I had a good enough time with “Jolt” that I would happily jump back into this world again.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Beckinsale is in cracking form playing Lindy, a woman with serious anger management issues. A brief narrated prologue gives us a little backstory. From an early age she had a “condition” that would hurl her into a violent uncontrollable rage whenever people do bad things. Over the years it grew harder to control these impulses, and the lack of love at home made her angrier and more volatile. Lindy was eventually diagnosed with Intermittent Explosive Disorder (IED). Her teen years were spent as a lab rat until she was old enough for the military, but that too proved to be a disaster. So just when she thought she would end up in a cell for the rest of her life, a harsh but surprisingly successful treatment came her way.

Now an adult, Lindy gets by thanks to Dr. Ivan Munchin (Stanley Tucci), a psychiatrist whose “cutting-edge avant-garde treatment” helps her keep her condition under control (sorta). She wears a vest of sorts that jolts her body with electricity whenever she pushes a button that she keeps in her hand. Whenever she feels that fiery impulse…bzzzz…impulse gone. But as her body grows more tolerant, Dr. Munchin remains nervous about upping the voltage. He’s certain that the only real way to overcome her condition is by mentally facing her demons. And finally engaging in some normal social functions would hurt.

Lindy decides to give social interaction a try by going on a blind date with a genteel accountant named Justin (Jai Courtney). She tries to run away at first but is ultimately taken in by his nerdy charm. He seems like the perfect guy and a chance for Lindy to get a taste of a normal life. But remember, this isn’t a romcom or a Hallmark Channel original. Lindy’s dream of normalcy is shattered when she learns that Justin has been murdered. Understandably fearing the worse, Dr. Munchin tells her to let it go, but she’ll have none of that. So against her doctor’s recommendations, Lindy sets out to find who killed Justin and make them pay. “I hurt people. Might as well put it to good use.”

As Lindy sets out on her quest for revenge she crosses paths with a number of baddies and one particularly powerful businessman/crime boss played by a surly David Bradley. She also has the police hot on her trail led by a sympathetic and slightly smitten Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and his cranky yet dogged partner Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox). Through it all Wexler shows off her eye for action, letting loose with several high-energy fight scenes and one especially cool car chase. And while the movie gets a little action-heavy in the second half, it never loses its self-awareness and sharp sense of humor.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

There are so many ways that “Jolt” could have flown off the rails, but Wexler’s smart and confident direction keeps it on track. It turns out to be a delightfully weird and consistently entertaining romp. That’s not to say there aren’t a few hiccups. While Bradley has the cold smugness of a good villain, his character doesn’t have much depth. I never had a good grasp of who he was or the outfit he ran. And there are parts of the story just don’t click. Take when Lindy enters a police department full of detectives, hidden only by a pair of sunglasses, and marches right into the evidence room without an ounce of resistance. And there’s a final act twist that leads to a fun moment yet isn’t the least bit plausible.

But you can’t really get caught up in plausibility with a movie about a woman running around in an electrified vest shocking herself to keep her anger in check. You just go with it and have a good time. There’s just so much here to like starting with Beckinsale’s magnetic presence. Full of attitude, snark, and a snappy comedic timing, the 47-year-old actress gives the movie a charge and carries it through. I’m not sure where the series goes from here, but I’m certainly onboard for another ride. “Jolt” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.


REVIEW: “Jungle Cruise” (2021)

When it comes to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the only thing bigger than his beefy biceps may be his larger-than-life personality. The convivial main event wrestler turned box office movie star has an enormous presence and an infectious charm that has made him the highest paid actor in Hollywood. It just so happens that one of the few people who can match those qualities on screen is also his co-star in the upcoming big-budget blockbuster “Jungle Cruise”.

Emily Blunt doesn’t self-promote quite like Johnson (few do), but she has the same sparkling charisma and effervescent allure as her brawny screenmate. And while she’s easily the better dramatic actor of the two, Blunt also has a sharp wit and a playful energy that easily matches the high-profile Johnson. That’s part of what makes “Jungle Cruise” such an exciting summer movie experience. It features two inherently lovable talents bouncing off each other like an old-school screwball duo. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to have Disney bankrolling it to the tune of $200 million.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

I doubt this will be the only place you read this, but this newest theme park ride inspired movie from the House of Mouse plays very much like “Pirates of the Caribbean” meets “The African Queen”. And if you look closer you can even see traces of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Romancing the Stone” and “Tomb Raider”. From the very start it’s clear what “Jungle Cruise” aspires to be and a ton of money has been poured into the big action set pieces and digital effects. But what keeps it alive is the cracking chemistry between its two wonderful leads.

Blunt plays the adventurous and slightly neurotic Dr. Lily Houghton, a botanist and all-around go-getter. In the film’s frisky opening few minutes we get a good dose of her resourcefulness and resolve as she butts heads with the backwards patriarchy of 1916 England. Lily believes she has discovered the location of the mystical Tree of Life, a find that could potentially revolutionize modern medicine. But it’s dismissed as nothing more than myth and superstition by the stuffy all-male science society in London who refuse to back her expedition. Undeterred, Lily ‘borrows’ a certain artifact from the society’s archives and heads to South America with her cowardly but ever-loyal brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).

Lily’s map points to the heart of the Amazon jungle as the location of the Tree of Life. But there’s one pretty big problem – she doesn’t have a boat. Enter Johnson who plays Frank Wolff, the captain of a beat-up riverboat he affectionately calls La Quila. Frank’s gig of taking gullible tourists on shoddy jungle cruises isn’t enough to pay off his debt to a crotchety port manager played by Paul Giamatti. So he jumps at the chance to take Lily and MacGregor up the river for a handsome fee.

As you can probably guess, their journey is filled with plenty of danger – wild animals, violent rapids, unwelcoming natives. What you probably wouldn’t guess is that the biggest danger they face is a hilariously deranged German blu-blood in a submarine named Prince Joachim (a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons). He too believes in the Tree of Life and will do anything to find it before Lily, even if it means resurrecting a pack of creepy cursed conquistadors led by the always enjoyable but woefully underused Édgar Ramírez.

Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

“Jungle Cruise” is directed by frequent Liam Neeson collaborator Jaume Collet-Serra who sets out to create a fun old-fashioned adventure with an equal amount of swashbuckling and slapstick. The script (from the trio of Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa) is silly and light-hearted, reminiscent of the late-1960’s pulp you would find at a Saturday afternoon matinee. You see it most in the film’s first (and best) half, and that throwback vibe kept a smile on my face. In the second half the story commits to unpacking its mythology which frankly isn’t all that interesting. And there are a couple of weirdly out-of-tune scenes that feel like they belong in an entirely different movie. But those things turn out to be small issues because the filmmakers never lose sight of their biggest strengths – Johnson and Blunt.

Of course this is a major Disney blockbuster meaning that we also get action and visual effects aplenty. There is a ton of CGI; a bit too much in a few scenes. But the bulk of the film looks tremendous and the jungle settings are both beautiful and foreboding. But regardless of the high-dollar paint and polish, it always comes back to Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Of course they nail the comedy just as you would expect (I laughed a lot). But the surprise comes in the amount of warmth and sincerity they generate between them. They somehow manage to make this boisterous over-the-top adventure feel unexpectedly intimate. “Jungle Cruise opens this Friday (July 30th) in theaters and streaming on Disney+ Premier Access.


REVIEW: “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” (2013)


The DC Animated Movie Universe kicked of with “Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox”, a precursor of sorts to the sixteen-film shared world series that ran from 2013 to 2020. The movie is an adaptation of the 2011 comic book crossover event “Flashpoint” from writer Geoff Johns and artist Andy Kubert. “Flashpoint” dramatically altered the DC Comics landscape leading to an aggressive reboot of the entire DC Universe. This film (directed by Jay Oliva) doesn’t feel as weighty as Johns and Kubert’s work, but it is faithful to the source material which is both a strength and a weakness.

“Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox” is refreshing in the sense that it isn’t another Superman or Batman story. Don’t get me wrong, I love those superheroes and both have roles to play in this film (more so with Batman). But as the title suggests, Barry Allen aka The Flash (voiced by Justin Chambers) takes center stage. I’ve always liked The flash and I remember how much I enjoyed reading the 2011 “Flashpoint” event with him as the central character. Similarly it’s nice see Barry Allen leading a DC animated film, especially one this ambitious.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“The Flashpoint Paradox” opens with a fairly inconsequential prologue. Barry Allen is at the Central City Cemetery visiting his mother’s grave when he is alerted to a break-in at the Flash Museum. He arrives to find a host of familiar rogues led by none other than his archenemy Eobard Thawne aka Professor Zoom aka Reverse-Flash (he’s voiced by C. Thomas Howell). With the help of his fellow Justice Leaguers, Flash intervenes and thwarts their plan to blow up the city.

The next day Barry wakes up at his work desk to find the entire world has been turned upside down. It starts with the discovery that his mother is alive and his wife is married to someone else. There is no Justice League and a bloody feud between the Atlanteans led by Aquaman (Cary Elwes) and the Amazons led by Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) has the world teetering on the brink of war. To find out what has happened Barry seeks out Batman. But in this world young Bruce Wayne died in Crime Alley and a boozing grief-stricken Thomas Wayne (Kevin McKidd) dons the cape and the cowl.


Image Courtesy of Warner Home Video

“Flashpoint Paradox” is filled with these types of character variations – Cyborg (voiced by Michael B. Jordan) is a government liaison working directly with the president of the United States, Lois Lane is an embedded reporter turned resistance fighter deep behind the New Themyscira border, and so on. In keeping with the comic series Oliva and writer Jim Krieg pour on the characters, but in the movie’s cramped 80-minute running time there are simply too many to adequately cover. Several amount to nothing more than cameos while others only seem to be there to be killed off in some shocking fashion. Those familiar with the source material know this isn’t the filmmaker’s intent, yet it’s an unfortunate result of the movie’s hurried effort to cover all its ground.

It’s a little unfair to compare “The Flashpoint Paradox” to the comic series considering they’re two completely different forms of media with their owns sets of strengths and limitations. But it’s hard to avoid doing so when the movie sticks this close to its inspiration. The animation is solid and the voice acting is even better. And as someone who read and followed  “Flashpoint”, I can’t help but appreciate the film’s loyalty. It’s the kind of thing that will certainly win over ardent DC fans, but as a standalone movie it feels rushed and it can’t quite capture the significance and importance that made the 2011 event such a game-changer.



SUNDANCE REVIEW: “John and the Hole” (2021)


The unusual and hard-to-categorize “John and the Hole” marks the feature film debut for Spanish director Pascual Sisto. It’s penned by Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) who is adapting his own short story titled “The Well”. Built around a startling premise, the film takes an unconventional look at adolescence versus adulthood. At the same time it often plays like the origin story for soon-to-be psychopath. Is a coming-of-age story, a family drama, a psychological thriller? It’s a little of all three.

The film centers around 13-year-old John (Charlie Shotwell). He has all the markings of a normal kid, a little quiet and shy but normal nonetheless. He has a comfortable life with an affluent family. His parents (Michael C. Hall and Jennifer Ehle) seem to care for him and there’s no sign of abuse or neglect. He butts heads with his older sister Laurie (Taissa Farmiga) but nothing out of the ordinary. He’s on his school’s tennis team and enjoys video games online with his friend and classmate Peter (Ben O’Brien). There are those weird questions he begins asking about adulthood, but other than that he’s a regular kid.

Well, not exactly. A few scattered indicators later and we know something is a little off.

While flying his new drone over a nearby patch of forest John discovers a deep hole in the ground. When he brings it up at dinner his parents tell him it’s an old bunker started by the landowners but abandoned five years ago. Later that night John drugs his family and hauls them out to the hole. In an odd omission we never see how he gets them to the bottom. Does he lower them down? Does he drop them? The fall would be enough to severely hurt or kill them. Instead they all wake up laying side-by-side as if they had been carefully placed. The little details.


Soon he’s living out his warped fantasy of independence – taking his dad’s SUV for a spin, withdrawing hundreds of dollars at the ATM, buying chicken nuggets and a new 4K television. He has his buddy over for pizza and video games, fending off any suspicions by saying his parents are away visiting a sick relative. We do get occasional hints of normalcy, but the chilling emotionless pathology that drives John’s thinking keeps things always uncertain.

Meanwhile his family languishes in the muck of the pit, swinging from panicked to angry to physically and emotionally worn down. John visits just enough to keep them alive, occasionally dropping food and blankets while giving them no explanation for his actions. It’s basically the same for us. Sisto soaks his film in ambiguity much to his film’s benefit and to its detriment. In one sense mining the story’s deeper themes and framing outcomes for ourselves is rewarding. But Sisto leaves some things so murky that it’s hard to come up with a satisfying conclusion. And then there is this seemingly random side-story about a little girl named Lily. Obviously there is some connection with the filmmaker and the story but I never found it.

“John and the Hole” is one of several festival films that went with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Here it contributes in a couple of interesting ways. Most obvious is the sense of confinement it brings to the scenes in the hole. It highlights the tightness of the space making it feel even more claustrophobic and suffocating. In John’s scenes the 4:3 emphasizes the smallness of the world he has created for himself. He thinks it’s freedom – an open and limitation-free existence where he’s the adult. He sets the rules and makes the decisions. Of course we know better.

Despite its hiccups and frustrations “John and the Hole” never loses its suspense and it keeps the audience interested and guessing. But with that comes a certain level of expectation which the ambiguous finish doesn’t quite satisfy. It leaves things too up in the air and the ‘little girl’ arc simply doesn’t land. Still there’s a lot to like about Sisto’s debut and I applaud not only the audacity of his vision but also his willingness to stick to it. I’m anxious to see what he does next, especially with a more fully realized script.



SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021)


Shaka King’s upcoming biographical drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” sets out to tell the story of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. In the late 1960’s Hampton rose to prominence as the chairman of Chicago’s branch of the Black Panthers. Known for his fiery and persuasive speeches, Hampton helped grow the leftist group’s influence and numbers. All of this was being watched and documented by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI along with local officials who deemed Hampton a radical threat to their morally corrupt ideals.

On the night of December 4, 1969 Fred Hampton was murdered in his Chicago apartment by members of a Cook County tactical unit during a pre-dawn raid. He was only 21-years-old. Other Black Panther Party members were killed or wounded in what was a coordinated effort between city, state, and federal organizations. FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal provided detailed layouts of the apartment including where Hampton slept. By the end of the raid law enforcement had fired a total of ninety-nine shots. The lone gunshot from the Panthers was into the ceiling. Hampton was still in his bed, executed at point-blank range.

As the film’s title implies, “Judas and the Black Messiah” focuses on the relationship between Fred Hampton and Bill O’Neal and the betrayal that led to the bloody raid. The film is directed by Shaka King who produces and co-writes the screenplay with Will Berson. Ryan Coogler also gets a producing credit. The film made its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and brings with it quite a bit of awards season buzz.


Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The film stars Daniel Kaluuya who plays Hampton in a way that highlights his strengths as an actor while still showing his limitations. The hushed stoicism Kaluuya brings to his characters has almost become a staple. But it often comes at the cost of emotional warmth and complexity. As Hampton, Kaluuya’s quiet intensity comes in handy. He’s really good in the attention-getting scenes where he gives spirited speeches to hungry and frustrated audiences. But Kaluuya really shines when the movie stills and he speaks as much through his eyes as he does with his voice. That’s when we get the greatest sense of who Fred Hampton was.

Unfortunately there is still a coldness to Kaluuya’s performance that undercuts certain elements of the story, particularly his romantic relationship with a young disciple named Deborah (a sweet, delightful, and moving Dominique Fishback). The two meet after a Chicago rally and her admiration for Fred’s activism blossoms into something more intimate. But so much of their relationship is left on the sidelines, and what we do get is emotionally energized by Fishback far more than Kaluuya.

In fairness, Hampton’s romance with Deborah isn’t the film’s main interest. It adds some extra weight to the story but the movie is mostly focused on Hampton and William O’Neal. ‘Wild Bill‘ as he’s occasionally called is played by Lakeith Stanfield, an actor who may not have the steely super-seriousness of Kaluuya, but who brings a wider emotional range. When we first meet Bill he’s attempting to hustle some gang members by brandishing a fake badge and posing as a federal agent. They get wise pretty quick forcing him to escape in a stolen car. But he’s picked up by police and booked for impersonating an officer and grand theft auto.

Enter Jessie Plemons playing FBI Special Agent Mitchell. With consent from a laughably creepy looking Martin Sheen playing J. Edgar Hoover, Agent Mitchell pressures Bill into becoming an informant in exchange for no jail time. Over the course of the film Bill O’Neal joins the Black Panthers, rises through their ranks, and eventually becomes head of security and Hampton’s personal bodyguard. All while reporting back to Mitchell and getting paid by the government. It all inches towards the combustible finale full of heartbreak and anger.


Image Courtesy of Warner Bros.

It goes without saying King and company have some meaty material to work with. That’s why it’s frustrating to see so much of it slip through the cracks. In the film’s defense there is a lot of ground to cover in a little over two hours, especially when you’re splitting your story and screen time between two main characters. But a few resonating moments aside, we mostly get a surface-level summation of Fred Hampton’s relationship with Bill O’Neal and neither character ends up getting the attention they deserve.

And despite their clear relevance to the story and heavy presence throughout the film, the feds and the police are mostly blank faces – more plot pieces than anything else. Only a dry and predictable Plemons and a wacky Martin Sheen (who mercifully only gets two scenes) give any voice to the animosity and rancor driving their disdain for Hampton and the Black Panthers. And barely a word about how the FBI and Chicago authorities secretly undermined Hampton’s social work and stoked violence between black street gangs. Again, not necessary to the story, but it’s yet another thing that would bring weight and insight.

Though partly true, it would be reductive and overall inaccurate to lump “Judas and the Black Messiah” in with other by-the-books biopics. Shaka King has good intentions and is trying to open eyes not just to history but also to the present day. The performances are generally good and both the cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) and the score (Mark Islam, Craig Harris) capture the right mood and the setting. But sadly the film skirts character depth in order to hit key moments on Hampton’s timeline while at the same time leaving too much out from the textbook version. It leaves the film in a weird place – bold and unflinching yet too broad and missing depth where it needs it most. “Judas and the Black Messiah” opens February 12th in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.