REVIEW: “Justice League”

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Going back to the start of the 2017 movie year “Justice League” gave us two of the easiest things to predict. First, “Justice League” would (one way or another) get a lot of attention for Warner Brothers. Second, the majority of film critics wouldn’t like “Justice League”. Okay, perhaps the second prediction was a bit cynical, but lets just say with one prominent exception (this year’s “Wonder Woman”) critics haven’t responded well with the DCEU’s approach.

DC films have a much different flavor than their rival, Disney-owned Marvel. Marvel movies tend to be lighter and often poke fun at themselves for their overall absurdity, so much so that several of their films could be called all-out comedies. DC movies are darker and considerably more serious. In many ways they are more like their comic book inspirations in how they tonally treat their stories. Therefore critics who have a hard time taking comic books seriously equally struggle with DC’s movies.

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Contrary to some, I’ve enjoyed the DC formula (minus “Suicide Squad”) and for the most part “Justice League” sticks to it. Yet this movie is far from humorless and there’s no denying that the creative heads have made it a point to inject some laughs. But the serious tone and dire threat is still there, just to a slightly lesser degree. Personally I think that is a good thing.

The story begins with the world still mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). In his absence an increase of crime can be seen from city to city. Fear sets in which attracts the attention of an interdimensional conqueror Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of parademons. Recognizing the weakened earth’s vulnerability, Steppenwolf sets out to resume his centuries-old hunt for three powerful energy sources called Mother Boxes.

Batman (Ben Affleck) is the first to get a whiff of the impending invasion. Superman’s death and the reality that he can’t handle it alone drives Bats to contact Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to help him form a team. Enter Arthur Curry a.k.a. Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) also known as The Flash, and Ray Fisher who is called Cyborg. Each have their own demons that keep them on their own, but each are faced with personal trials that eventually bring them together.

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Returning director Zack Snyder once again plays with a lot of moving parts but manages to keep them all within a cohesive working universe. Several smaller characters with connections to past films return – Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Diane Lane as Ma Kent, Jeremy Irons as Alfred, Connie Nielsen as Hyppolyta, J.K. Simmons as James Gordon. They never feel wedged in and each have their moments that serve the story well.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (who worked with Affleck on “Argo”) wrote the screenplay based on a story he developed with Snyder. But Snyder left the project in post-production following the heart-breaking loss of his daughter. Joss Whedon came aboard to finish up and received a screenplay credit. The trio work hard to balance the fantastical with the human element and for the most part get it right. Some personal stories are better and more fleshed out than others. Perhaps the most surprising is Cyborg – a failed experiment whose story pulsates with a Frankenstein’s monster vibe. Fisher is excellent at juggling the proper amounts of sorrow and anger. Ezra Miller is the wide-eyed comic relief who dances close to the line of overkill but never crosses it.

As for the big guns, Affleck has the dark brooding side of Bruce Wayne down and (for better or worse) he’s not asked to do much beyond that. While I’m ready for the character to show a tad more life, I do like how he is written here. He’s older, tired, and unsure of himself. He knows he can’t lead a team and we get a good sense of that internal struggle. Gadot’s Diana hits nearly every note that has made her the star of the DCEU. She’s strong, courageous, and upright yet she too sports her own personal scars. Then there is Cavill’s Superman, long accused of being dry and lifeless (I’ve never fully agreed with that take). We see him in the trailer and I won’t go further than that, but I’ll say this is a strong depiction of what makes Superman great.

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“Justice League” isn’t without a few minor issues. It has been difficult for comic book movies of all sorts to truly nail their villain and it’s no different here. There is actually a cool otherworldly background alluded to but ultimately Steppenwolf comes off as a little thin. You’ll easily recognize him as the familiar cosmic threat here to take over our planet. There is more just under the surface but we never get a good enough taste. There are also instances where the CGI and green-screen backgrounds are far too obvious. The bulk of the action is fun, but those instances do stick out.

It was no surprise that “Justice League” was met with the same consternation as “Batman vs. Superman”. And even though it addresses many of the complaints hurled at its predecessor, “Justice League” and its audacity to take itself and its story seriously is sure to set the film up as a fashionable punching bag. It’s unfortunate because this is a solid DCEU installment that expands the established characters, introduces compelling new ones and does some nifty world building. It will do nothing to win over those uninterested in the DCEU or the superhero genre as a whole. But for fans, especially those who want something that doesn’t strictly adhere to the Marvel formula, “Justice League” is a fun ride.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

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REVIEW: “Jane Got A Gun”

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Aside from its patently awkward title, Gavin O’Connor’s “Jane Got a Gun” still had a draw, namely its two stars Natalie Portman and Joel Edgerton and its tight-knit story in a Western setting. Unfortunately it became better known for the carousel of people joining and then leaving the film as well as the distribution turmoil. The Weinstein Company eventually dropped the film into the January wasteland of releases. Predictably it bombed.

It’s amazing that the film was ever completed. Michael Fassbender, Jude Law, and Bradley Cooper were all cast in important roles but left the project. Director Lynn Ramsay left and was replaced by O’Connor. Cinematographer Darius Khondji left and was replaced by Mandy Walker. Brian Duffield’s script received substantial rewrites by Joel Edgerton and Anthony Tambakis. That the film manages the cohesion it does is impressive.

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But I think all of those production woes put up some insurmountable hurdles. While there is a simple but interesting premise, “Jane Got a Gun”struggles to sustain any level of energy. It putters along towards its obvious conclusion giving us a few good character moments but not enough to save the film from its mediocrity.

Portman plays Jane Hammond who has settled down on a patch of land with her daughter and husband Bill (Noah Emmerich). But Bill can’t shed his outlaw ways. After wrangling with a gang called the Bishop Boys and their leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor), he returns home full of bullets and with the gang hot on his heels. What a great guy.

With Bill incapacitated Jane asks her ex-fiancé Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton) to help her protect her husband and house. The two must navigate several emotional mine fields include their past relationship and Dan’s glaringly obvious (and reasonable) disdain for Bill. The movie plants itself here for a bit exploring the history of these two through a number of pointed conversations and flashbacks. It doesn’t add much to the film and only pushes back the inevitable conclusion.

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I certainly can’t fault the performances although there are moments where Portman struggles mightily with her Old West accent. Edgerton is good even though his character isn’t nearly as layered as he could have been. Ewan McGregor is fun in a cheesy, evil, mustache-twirling way. The problem is I’m not convinced the movie is intentionally playing him that way.

In the end “Jane Got a Gun” is the definition of bland. Its faults aren’t egregious or due to creative incompetence. It simply lacks that pivotal spark in the relationships, in the dialogue, and even in the action. The frustration comes in knowing it isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a flavorless western that can’t seem to capitalize on its decent ideas.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars

 

 

REVIEW: “The Jungle Book” (2016)

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As a moviegoer one of the best experiences you can have is unexpectedly discovering a wonderful film. It may be a movie you flippantly dismissed. Maybe one you had absolutely no expectations for. But then you see it and you’re blindsided by how good it truly is. Everything I just described defines my experience with Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book”.

This semi-live action remake of Disney’s 1967 animated classic may be my biggest surprise of the year. On the surface remaking this story through live action and a ton of CGI seems unnecessary. But while it has been years since I’ve seen the original, Favreau’s freshened up version pulls just as much from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 stories as the animated feature. And it actually leaves a much stronger and more satisfying impression. Again, something I never expected.

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Debuting young actor Neel Seethi plays a “man-cub” named Mowgli. Orphaned as a child and raised by a wolf named Raksha (Lupita Nyong’o), Mowgli lives among the pack trying to fit in but knowing he is unlike the other wolves. A black panther named Bagheera (Ben Kingsley), who first discovered Mowgli as a baby, now trains him to live like the wolves while avoiding his ‘man tricks’ as a means to survive. Despite the good intentions, this only accentuates Mowgli’s human-born inferiority.

When the dry season arrives a vicious human-hating Bengal tiger named Shere Khan (Idris Elba) breaks a longstanding water truce and states he will kill Mowgli once the rains come. Fearing for his wolf family’s safety, Mowgli leaves his pack and ventures into the jungle, but he quickly realizes the dangers of Shere Kahn’s violent and dogged determination.

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The Justin Marks screenplay bounces back and forth between perilous thrills and lighthearted comedy and that’s no complaint. It works because he always keeps the focus on Mowgli and his venture to find and understand where he fits in. It’s a simple but heartwarming story that never flatlines and never insults its audience by dumbing itself down. It’s one of those rare family treats that easily speaks to every age group.

The story is also written in a way that allows Favreau and his animation team to flex their computer-generated muscles. Let me be clear, this film looks amazing. The effects are nothing short of extraordinary. Shot entirely on Los Angeles sound stages and employing the latest innovations in motion capture, photorealistic rendering, and CGI, Favreau’s undertaking was incredibly ambitious and could have easily failed. Instead he creates a gorgeous and sublimely realistic world that shows off one incredible location after another and that makes talking animals as believable as possible.

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And speaking of those talking animals, the voice work is another huge plus. Kingsley, Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson as a sultry serpent, Christopher Walken as a gigantopithecus mob boss – they’re all excellent. But the standouts are Bill Murray as a big brown sloth bear and Elba’s terrorizing Shere Kahn. Murray’s Baloo allows him the vocal space to be exactly what you would want from him – Bill Murray playing a bear. On the other end Elba brings such danger and menace to the film’s tiger antagonist.

But it all comes back to Seethi and his wonderful debut performance. The lone human character of any significance, Seethi is asked to carry a pretty big load. He manages wonderfully. His performance is one of many things that make Favreau’s project so satisfying. Toss in its great characters, good story, perfect pacing, and mind-blowing special effects. There are two songs which feel wedged in and a little jarring and the plot does rely on a couple of ‘conveniences’, but in no way do those minor gripes ruin what may have been the most pleasant surprise of 2016.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “John Wick: Chapter 2”

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“John Wick” was a fun, fresh 2014 action thriller that added its own little twist to the “boy and his dog” story. Okay, perhaps that’s a tad misleading. Instead let’s say it was a stylized shoot-em-up heavily influenced by Hong Kong cinema and the 1980s action genre. Personally speaking that is a tantalizing recipe and “John Wick” used it to violent bloody near perfection.

The surprising success of the film and eventual cult status lead to a sequel simply titled “John Wick: Chapter 2”. Former stuntman Chad Stahelski returns to direct and Derek Kolstad is back as screenwriter. Most importantly 52 year-old Keanu Reeves (yes, I said 52 years-old) reprises his role as the hard-boiled and well-dressed hitman John Wick. If you weren’t fully convinced of his tough guy status after the first film wait till you see him here.

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“John Wick 2” ties up a few loose ends before launching into its own bullet-riddled story. Wick once again finds himself trying to get out of the hitman business, but an old blood oath comes back to haunt him. Weaselly crime boss Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) violently rejects Wick’s unwillingness to honor their pact which catapults John right back into the life he desperately wants to leave.

One of the real treats of “John Wick 2” is how it expands on its wild global underworld network of assassins which lies just under the crust of the world’s biggest cities (in this case New York City, Rome, and then back to the Big Apple). It’s an interconnected outfit with its own rules and codes many of which are shared by the delightfully droll Ian McShane. He returns as Winston, the “manager” of the Continental Hotel which is actually the network’s New York City kill-free headquarters. Other fun characters return including Lance Reddick as the hotel’s concierge and John Leguizamo as Wick’s chop-shop buddy.

There are some lively new faces as well. Lawrence Fishbourne is introduced as an underground crime lord hilariously called The Bowery King. Common plays a quiet yet lethal fellow assassin who shares some fantastic scenes with Reeves. There is also Ruby Rose (“Orange is the New Black”) as D’Antonio’s cartoonish but perfectly fitting mute enforcer.

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In addition to the cool mythology and world-building is the energetic gun-fu action which sports a hypnotic choreography as elegantly composed as some of the best musicals. Here killing takes the place of dance and you have Keanu Reeves with a Glock instead of Gene Kelly with an umbrella. As silly as that sounds it’s actually pretty accurate. Stahelski’s stunt coordinator muscle never subverts his storytelling, but it does give us some spectacular set pieces. He also know Reeves well, having served as his stunt double on the “Matrix” trilogy. To make the action as authentic as possible Stahelski put Reeves through an extensive boot camp featuring martial arts, gun training, and driving. The payoff is a hoot.

I’ll be the first to admit that the “John Wick” movies have surprised me. They could have easily been your standard throw-away dreck. Instead they are films that meld a fresh new style with and old-school action nostalgia. “Chapter 2” has a fun time expanding on the first movie and being completely comfortable in the world it has created. There is a beautiful rhythm to the violence and the film never loses its self-awareness or tongue-in-cheek wit. All of that said “John Wick: Chapter 2” isn’t some groundbreaking piece of cinema, but it’s remarkably unique and it operates by its own rules at every turn. I really like that about it.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jackie”

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There are a number of traps and obstacles filmmakers face when making a biopic. It grows even more challenging when the film’s focus is a beloved historical and cultural figure. “Jackie”, director Pablo Larraín’s portrait of Jackie Kennedy, would seem to be a prime example. But this film avoids many of these routine complications by setting itself up as something strikingly unique right out of the gate.

Writer Noah Oppenheim first conceived “Jackie” as an HBO miniseries but the project evolved into a compact, tightly-wound 98 minute feature. It tells the story of Jackie Kennedy but not in the traditional sense. Instead it restricts its focus to the four days between the assassination of her husband President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 to the state funeral on November 25th. It’s told almost entirely from her perspective yet it’s much more than a detailed historical account. The film’s interest is in exploring Jackie’s state of mind during those impossibly traumatic few days. It does so with equal amounts of fact and speculation.

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The narrative framework comes in the form of an interview. Billy Crudup, credited as simply The Journalist (but based on Life magazine journalist Theodore White), arrives at the Kennedy’s Hyannis Port compound to interview the former First Lady. He’s met by a pale, drained Jackie (played with uncanny ferocity by Natalie Portman). Throughout their mercurial and sometimes contentious interview it becomes clear Jackie is the one dictating the terms of what will be written. When she lights a cigarette she emphatically tells the journalist “I don’t smoke.” – a clear signal to him that she controls the message.

Through the interview we revisit those agonizing four days the way Jackie recalls them. All of the iconic imagery is there – the ’61 Lincoln convertible, the pink bloodstained Chanel dress, Jackie and Caroline kneeling at JFK’s casket. Larraín presents these scenes through well detailed recreations and archived historical footage. But this movie is more interested in the time between those well-documented moments. What did Jackie do? Better yet what was she feeling?

Because of this focus “Jackie” maintains a keen psychological edge to it. You see it as she maneuvers through an emotional haze of grief and anxiety. Larraín and Oppenheim want us inside of Jackie’s head as they themselves ponder her internal reactions to such painful and uncertain events. Portman runs with it, diving so deeply into the psyche of her character that we completely forget the two look nothing alike. You buy into her personal struggles and her wranglings with others including her compassionate brother-in-law Bobby (played by Peter Sarsgaard who is so good here) and Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch).

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Surprisingly this isn’t a puff piece aimed at reinforcing Jackie’s venerated cultural image. It doesn’t shy away from her weaknesses or blemishes. At the same time it doesn’t shortchange her strength and fortitude. At no point does the film question her resilience or integrity. If anything it humanizes her and makes her a more sympathetic and relatable person especially considering the overwhelming pressures she faced.

This movie’s unusual approach to the biopic is sure to catch a lot of people off guard. In some of its deeper internal moments it’s almost hallucinogenic, maybe too much so on occasion. Mica Levi’s moody score is a big contributor. It plays prominently from start to finish and blankets the entire film with a steady sense of unease. And then we get back to Portman and her sublime performance. It’s peculiar and off-kilter, perfectly so. That makes it a wonderful fit for this unusual but thoroughly satisfying portrait.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Jake Reacher: Never Go Back”

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Don’t let its deceptive title fool you. You most certainly can go back. Just look at Tom Cruise, the 54 year-old ageless wonder. 2012 was the first time Cruise took on the role of ‘tough as nails’ ex-military cop Jack Reacher. Now four years later he ‘goes back’ for a second round of high energy, low monotone Reacher-style action.

Edward Zwick directs the film and has some history with Cruise. The two previously worked together on the 2003 epic “The Last Samurai”. Needless to say this is a much different picture. It follows the basic blueprint of the first movie – a no-nonsense, tough guy protagonist, some big action, and a military mystery through-line. Think of it as a big screen NCIS with a larger budget and Tom Cruise running the show.

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Cruise’s Reacher is still a drifter who does his own thing but occasionally lends a hand to the military police he left behind. In doing so he develops an over-the-phone friendship with Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) who now runs his old unit. Upon arriving in Washington DC to meet her for the first time, Reacher discovers she has been relieved of her duties and arrested for espionage.

Sensing an obvious set up, Reacher busts out Susan and the two fugitives set out to find out who wants her dead and why. Along the way Reacher learns he may be the father of a teenaged daughter (played by Danika Yarosh), a convenient little story thread that adds some manufactured vulnerability to our unstoppable hero.

That sarcasm you may sense in my tone can be attributed to the fact that I’m still struggling with how I feel about the film. Broadly speaking I do like it and feel many are being overly critical. It is competently made by Zwick and it delivers exactly what audiences will expect. Cruise is never the problem with his movies and he does good here as well. Smulders is even better as a tough, hard-nosed woman who is a far cry from the normal action movie damsel in distress. She is a genuine action heroine and the one true refreshing element.

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But at the same time, it’s hard to see this as anything more than a ‘one-and-done’ viewing. Despite the efforts of Cruise and Smulders, things never rise above predictable and/or formulaic. There is nothing about the story that will catch you by surprise. And aside from more action and a new subtitle, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” doesn’t offer much new for the series as a whole.

Writer Lee Child has written 21 books as part of his Jack Reacher series. “Never Go Back” is based on his 18th novel so there is still plenty of material should they decide to make a third movie. I would go see another Reacher film since I have found entertainment in both of the these installments. But unless they are willing to shake up the formula, Jack Reacher 3 will be more of the same – entertaining enough at first but nothing that will stick with you past that initial viewing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars