(On Cable TV, July 2018) Let me put it this way: If this was 2010 and we’d never seen The Avengers—let alone every single MCU film since then—then Justice League would be exceptional. But it’s not 2010 and we’ve seen nearly everything that it has to offer already. I’m not necessarily saying that the film is terrible—just mediocre. I actually like quite a lot of it: I think the actors are generally good, with special mention of Ben Affleck as a grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot in a third outing as Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa as an imposing Aquaman and quite a few known names in supporting roles. I’m particularly happy that directing duties on Justice League were transferred midway through from Zach Snyder to Joss Whedon—while the reasons for the transfer were tragic, the result is a film that moves away from the dour atmosphere of the DCU-so-far and closer to the Marvel-brand of lighter, more entertaining fare. As a result, the film does have more rewatachability value than previous film. Still, let’s not overstate the “lighter and funnier” angle: Justice League is still too heavy for its own material. It’s also flawed by the nature of its story and Superman’s godlike status: much of the film is spent waiting for Jesus/Aslan/Supes to show up and resolve the problem through sheer brute force because that’s the kind of superhero power fantasy that it is, and the supporting characters may be colourful but they don’t get to save the day. It’s only one of the many things that do limit Justice League’s appeal eight years after The Avengers: It’s boldly catching up to what’s been done well already, and the déjà vu is significant.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Now that the modern superhero film genre is nearly old enough to vote (not-so-arbitrarily ignoring 1997’s Blade and anointing 2001’s X-Men as the first of its subgenre), there is a real risk of superhero fatigue—in particular, the tendency for lead superheroes to be white men is getting particularly annoying—where are the alternatives, the diverse voices, the ways to use the superhero genre to poke at other kinds of issues beyond power fantasies? Then there is the dismal results of the so-called “DC Cinematic Universe” movies, deadened by disappointing films in the wake of Man of Steel. Expectations were mixed about Wonder Woman, hoping that the film would take advantage of the heroine’s gender (especially given director Patty Jenkins as a rare female director taking on the reigns of a blockbuster production) but not expecting much from the DCU track record. The result, fortunately, is quite a bit better than expectations. While Wonder Woman ultimately does not deviate all that much from the usual super-heroic template all the way to the final apocalyptic battle, it does have a few nice moments of doubt and confusion along the way, augmented by wonderful character moments and great period detail along the way. Gal Gadot truly stars as Wonder Woman, bringing looks, humour, action proficiency and quite a bit of charm to a role that requires some deftness in bringing it all together. Good writing makes the middle London-set “fish out of water” sequence curiously enjoyable. Chris Pine is quite good as the love interest, with noteworthy appearances by Danny Huston, Robin Wright, David Thewes and Lucy Davis along the way. It’s hard to underestimate the difference made by not having a male gaze on the entire film—thanks to director Jenkins, we get a female heroine (and supporting cast of amazon) that is credibly fierce on its own terms, and not necessarily presented as a male fantasy—although it can also work as such. Serious but entertaining, as earnest and non-cynical as a modern superhero movie can be, Wonder Woman is the best film so far in the DCU by a significant margin (it helps that it doesn’t tie itself too tightly to a mega-continuity), and a definitive affirmation of why we need more diverse voices in mainstream blockbuster filmmaking.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) I can be a surprisingly good audience for middle-of-the-road comedies, which may explain why I had a generally good time watching Keeping up with the Joneses even though it doesn’t really revolution anything. Much of it has to do with the movie giving good roles to three actors I like, and minimizing the irritation from an actor that I generally find annoying. Beginning not too far away from The ’burbs, this film begins as a comfortably married couple having shipped their kids to summer camp reacts to the arrival of a sexy new couple in their cul-de-sac: As hints of improper behavior pile up, the wife becomes convinced that the new neighbours are spies, while the husband excuses away the incidents and tries to make friends with the new guy. Complications piles up, leading to a second half that’s far more action-heavy than the comedic first half. Much of it feels familiar, to the point of missing comic opportunities by lack of daring. But who cares about originality when you’ve got Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot and Isla Fisher co-starring? All three of them get a chance to show their comic skills, with Gadot and Hamm in particular getting a further opportunity to play action heroes along the way. Gadot in particular gets a role that balances toughness, seduction and comedy—it’s not a great movie, but it’s the kind of film that encapsulates her range at this point. Meanwhile, Zach Galifianakis, often unbearably annoying in his usual screen persona, is here reined in and almost tolerable as a mild-mannered HR officer targeted for counterintelligence operations. (He’s far more sympathetic than in his almost-contemporary Masterminds, for instance.) It makes up for a likable quartet of comedians, and Keeping Up with the Joneses coasts a long time on their inherent likability … and having Gadot and Fisher both show up in decent lingerie. Otherwise, the action scenes are generic, elements of the conclusion are arbitrary and the epilogue is a disappointment. Still, it’s a relatively entertaining film, somewhat unobjectionable and yet likable in its own way. I’ve seen far worse this week alone, starting with the aforementioned Masterminds.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) Hmm. As much as I’d like to be the well-meaning optimist who thinks that there shouldn’t be a Marvel-vs-DC movie rivalry and that great movies are good for everyone, I must confess that lately, DC’s artistic choices (i.e.; handing over the series to Zack Snyder, going for angst-and-gloom, kick-starting a shared universe without building the groundwork) have led me to see them as the incompetent villains to Marvel’s generally competent spectacle factory. As much as I would have liked Batman v Superman to prove me wrong, it ends up confirming what a lot of reviewers are saying to DC: “Gaaah, what are you thinking?” The thing is, I like some of what they’re doing. The idea of building upon Man of Steel’s ruins (literally) and presenting a glum vision of how Superman would be received in a more realistic context is not bad. Snyder is often a gifted visual stylist with an eye for arresting images. Introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character before her big film is pretty good. Ben Affleck is great as a grizzled Batman, Jesse Eisenberg has a promising take on Lex Luthor, Gal Gadot makes us look forward to Wonder-Woman, while Henry Cavill is picture-perfect as Superman. But the blend of those elements together proves to be weaker than expected, harmed by bad editing, a lack of flow and ponderous pacing. By the time in the opening credits it takes five (or ten?) seconds for the slow-motion gun to tear through Martha Wayne’s pearls, it’s obvious that Batman v. Superman is going to have severe pacing issues, spending forever on trivial details, while fast-forwarding through the plot. The grimness of the tone is unrelenting, and the confusion between subplots makes the extended dream/prophecy/time-travel sequence looks far weaker than expected. It all amounts to an operatic carnival of sound a fury, signifying not much besides setting up another instalment in the series: By now, we’ve come so accustomed to those calculations that the death of a major character seems more like perfunctory fake drama than anything worth taking seriously. So it goes in the DC superhero movie mould: “Just wait for the next movies (or the director’s cut)! We’ll swear it’ll be better!” Yeah, sure, whatever. I’ll see it anyway when it hits cable TV. I just won’t look forward to it.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) There’s something unintentionally amusing in seeing Ryan Reynolds in Criminal as a man whose personality gets transferred into a new body … given that’s pretty much what happened to his characters in Self/Less, RIPD and The Change-Up as well. There are a few crucial differences, though, and the first being that actor Reynolds is sent home early in Criminal after a short thrilling sequence that concludes with his death. The film’s real lead is Kevin Costner, as an unredeemable psychopath who ends up being an ideal memory transfer subject. Much of the movie is a standard terrorist chase through London, but there are enough wrinkles here to keep anyone interested: In particular, the dramatic tension between Reynolds’s do-good protagonist and Costner’s morally empty anti-hero is surprisingly compelling. There’s an impressive roster of known actors in small roles, from Tommy Lee Jones as a reluctant scientist to Gary Oldman as a CIA manager intent on cracking the case, with Gal Gadot as a non-super-heroic turn as the wife of Reynold’s character. As a blend of thrills and SF ideas, Criminal is competent. Less fortunately, director Ariel Vromen seem content in doing things conventionally, and it wouldn’t have been difficult to imagine the film playing out more grandiosely, taking fuller advantage of its set-pieces. The action scenes are fine, but they could have been done better. Still, wasted potential is more interesting than no potential, and if Criminal didn’t do blockbuster business during its brief theatrical run, it’s got enough of a budget, stars and ideas to make it a more than decent cable-TV choice.