by Alan Yudman
I don’t ask for much in my superhero movies. Action, humor, the heroes spending time as those heroes. And a plot that makes sense. The problem with DC movies (except for Wonder Woman) is they lacked humor. And don’t get me started on the stories. The plots went off the rails and made little sense even in their own universe. Maybe DC has turned a corner because JUSTICE LEAGUE is immensely satisfying entertainment.
Here’s the basics. Batman comes upon a historic evil that is bent on taking the world and destroying it. He has to stop it and he enlists the help of a few friends. At the same time the Amazons on Themyscira engage the bringer of evil, Steppenwolf in a battle to keep him from getting a piece of the puzzle that will give him the power of destruction. He takes it and the Amazons send Diana Prince a signal that doomsday is coming. Bruce Wayne enlists Diana to help him recruit Arthur Curry (Aquaman), Victor Stone (Cyborg) and Barry Allen (The Flash) to defeat this evil. They also get help from an old friend who appeared to be out of the picture (major hint) after BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.
So after a bit of backstory for the new guys, we dive into the action. That’s a very good thing. We get just enough set up to make us care about Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash. No long handwringing exposition. Let’s just go kick some bad guy booty. And it totally worked for me. Here’s the dicey part. Maybe it worked because although Zack Snyder is listed as the director he had to leave production of the film midway because of the death of his daughter. Joss Whedon took over and maybe his hand made it better. He is also credited as a writer on the film. Whedon directed THE AVENGERS which was hugely successful critically and at the box office. So he brought the group dynamic experience and maybe guided this to be a better film. It is still unmistakably a Snyder film, but toned down a bit. Plus, the action sequences are easy to follow. If you saw MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN V. SUPERMAN you know the set pieces were exceedingly difficult to watch because they camera’s perspective was too close. You couldn’t get a sense of the action. At times it was nauseating. But there’s none of that here.
Ben Affleck is ok as Batman, but better as Bruce Wayne. Henry Cavill is back as “you know who”. But the real treat is watching Gal Gadot play Wonder Woman again. It is like this is the role she was born to play. She lights up the screen in the same way she did in WONDER WOMAN. How long before we see her again in the role? Too long for my taste.
The additions of Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg) and Ezra Miller (The Flash) all fit in just fine. There’s also a little Diane Lane, Amy Adams and J.K. Simmons (Jim Gordon) just for good measure.
Is this a perfect movie? Not at all. Some of the “here’s how the bad stuff works” explanations are over my head and might be for casual fans of the DC universe. It still has that weird Snyder coloring in every scene. None of that really matters or will take away from your enjoyment. Here’s hoping DC has finally figured it out, because there is another JUSTICE LEAGUE movie coming (plus Aquaman next year). If they have, Marvel should be worried. Because other than Spider-Man, the big names in superheroes are Batman and Superman. And those belong to DC. JUSTICE LEAGUE, like Superman, can be a beacon of hope. Now they just have to follow through.
Oh, post review, review here. The post-credits scene is awesome!
by Alan Yudman
SIXTEEN CANDLES is kind of the gold standard in “teenaged girl from the wrong side of the tracks tries to fit in with the popular crowd” movies. Until now.
LADY BIRD is the story of a high school senior who is literally from the wrong side of the tracks. Saorise Ronan is that teenager. She’s a bit of an outsider at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento. Her parents are barely scraping by, but they wanted her to go to this private school. The title comes from her self-given name “Lady Bird”. She doesn’t want to be called by her given name, Christine. It is her way of rebelling against her mother who is demanding and passive aggressive at the same time. It seems Lady Bird can do nothing to please her and she is overly critical of her daughter. She is wonderfully played by Laurie Metcalf.
Lady Bird also wants to get out of Sacramento, or as she calls it the Midwest of California. Sorry, I don’t mean to give away all the jokes in this movie but there are a ton of funny moments. Laugh out loud funny moments. Theater erupting with laughter moments. But those are also quickly followed by moments where you are touched by the sensitivity of the characters. There is love, frustration and passion. Exactly like a real family.
Lady Bird abandons her best friend to try to get in with a popular girl who is friends with a hot guy who attends the partner boys Catholic school. The results of all this are pretty predictable in a John Hughes movie kind of way. But this is all about the execution of the story.
For her first solo flight at director and screenwriter, Greta Gerwig nails both. She co-wrote FRANCES HA and MISTRESS AMERICA with her now boyfriend Noah Baumbach. So some of his DNA is in this as far as style and character. But the characters are less annoyingly outside the norm. They are flawed and quirky, but real and likable.
Gerwig gets great performances from Ronan and Metcalf. Ronan is achingly innocent and wise at the same time. Metcalf is just stellar. The real surprise was the performance of Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister if that matters). Her wide-eyed innocence and arc of growth and maturity are wonderfully portrayed. More Beanie please!
This is also kind of a love letter to Sacramento (even though some of it was shot in the San Gabriel Valley). The cinematography show’s California’s capital in the best possible light. I’ve been to Sacramento, it’s never looked this good. It’s also a love letter to home. You may want to travel the world, or in Lady Bird’s case go to school in New York City but home is always the place you feel safe.
LADY BIRD is a fantastic film that is nearly perfect.. like Oscar-level perfect. I could point out some plot holes, but they aren’t worth mentioning as they didn’t make me love it less. I’ve always appreciated Gerwig as an actress. Now I can’t wait to see what she does next as a writer and director.
by Alan Yudman
As soon as I saw the first trailer for DARKEST HOUR, I thought, “reserve a spot on the Oscar nominations list for Gary Oldman”. Nothing I saw in the film changes that initial impression. Matter of fact, I believe at this point he has got to be a favorite.
This is the story of Churchill’s ascension to Prime Minister and the days leading up to the evacuation of Dunkirk. So in a way Joe Wright’s film is a companion piece to Christoper Nolan’s DUNKIRK. Nolan’s film told the story of the evacuation (Operation Dynamo), while Wright’s film explains what was going on back in London.
There are not spoilers in a historical drama, but there were elements of the story I wasn’t aware of so I will skip by those. But as history has recorded, no one from his own party wanted Churchill to be Prime Minister. Neither did King George V. So the film tells the story of how the legend was made. How Churchill convinced, cajoled and bullied the British government into actually challenging Hitler’s plans for the conquest of Europe. It portrays politicians as sniveling cowards and fatalists. That doesn’t mean Churchill is flawless. He is unsure of himself at times, angry, demanding and pig-headed. It is a version of the great man I had never seen before.
Oldman transforms himself into Winston Churchill through make-up and mannerism. He also makes him very human. That’s hard to do when you see him as a legend. I saw a screening which was followed by a Q & A session with Oldman and Ben Mendelsohn who plays King George. Oldman talked about how that was part of his goal, to go deeper into his personality. The make-up and prosthetic’s by Kazuhiro Tsuji got him half way there. The rest is all Oldman. He is a chameleon-like actor who can completely inhabit a character. That serves him well in this role.
The rest of the cast is pretty good. Llly James plays his secretary Elizabeth Layton. Kristin Scott Thomas inhabits the role of his wife Clementine. Stephen Dillane (Stannis Baratheon from Game of Thrones) is his chief rival in the Conservative party, Viscount Halifax. All are solid performances, but are frames that adorn Oldman’s note perfect performance.
The film overall is fairly successful, mostly due to Oldman. Wright is in love with overhead shots in the film. There are a ton of them and I cannot figure out why most were necessary. He also uses graphics to mark the passage to significant dates, but he chooses to assault the eyes with enormous words covering the screen along with the accompanying dramatic sound effect. Some of it gets in the way. But overall, the script by Anthony McCarten is fine, I just wish Wright had toned down his “creativity”.
DARKEST HOUR is a vehicle for a great actor and students of history will find it interesting. Oldman elevates what could have been a mediocre movie to fine entertainment.
by Alan Yudman
It is going to be a challenge for the dude engraving the statues at the Oscars this year. How will he ever fit THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI on one of those tiny gold plates? He better start practicing, because this could be the best movie of 2017.
This tale of a mother’s search for justice is dark and funny. That doesn’t mean it cannot be poignant and moving too. It is the story of a mother played by Frances McDormand who deals with the grief over the rape, torture and murder of her teenaged daughter. We join the story seven months after the crime and there have been no arrests. McDormand’s Mildred decides the best way to motivate Ebbing’s police chief (Woody Harrelson) is to shame him with three enormous billboards that question why he isn’t doing anything to catch the killer.
The billboards polarize the town and what is left of Mildred’s family. But she is undaunted by any criticism or threats. And there are threats. Her chief protagonist isn’t the Chief, but one of his officers perfectly played by Sam Rockwell. He is paunchy, dumb, insensitive and brutal. There are references to his mistreatment of blacks in Ebbing, which a skillfully quick way to let the audience know what kind of man and cop he really is. Rockwell’s Dixon is quick tempered and achingly stupid. He’s the kind of cop that punches first and asks questions later. But of all the characters in the film, he is the one that has a defined arc that sees him grow behind himself. It’s a fabulous performance that should get Rockwell a much deserved Oscar nomination.
While McDormand’s Mildred doesn’t especially grow, but her achingly tortured performance is the heart of the film. She seems confident, but you also can see the confusion and grief just under the surface. It’s a part that seems to have been written with her in mind.
All of this wonderful acting would not be possible without a great script and perfect direction by Martin McDonagh (IN BRUGES, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, etc). I cannot find any holes in the story. There isn’t a hole to be found. And since he wrote it, McDonagh knew exactly how to put this perfect story on film.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI sticks with you long after you leave the theater. And that is the highest compliment I can pay any piece of art. Because that is what art is supposed to do.. make you think and feel long after you’ve experienced it.
by Alan Yudman
So I spent $9 to see THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED). I didn’t realize it was available streaming on Netflix. Ok, in some ways I am still a technological dunce. But, I do not regret spending my hard earned dollars on the latest Noah Baumbach creation.
At its heart, MEYEROWITZ is about family… a very dysfunctional family lead by a father who thinks he is a good parent, but in reality is so self-involved he cannot see how he has misshapen his children. Dustin Hoffman is that patriarch. He’s thrice divorced and married for the fourth time, now to Emma Thompson. Adam Sandler and Elizabeth Marvel are children from his second wife (Candice Bergen in a great small role). Ben Stiller is the youngest child from his third wife. Hoffman’s Harold was a fine art professor and sculptor. He thought he had more talent that he did in reality. He thought his lack of success was always someone else’s fault. Sandler is an aspiring songwriter who never got the support he needed, then gave up his career to be a stay at home Dad to Grace Van Patten. Marvel didn’t follow the arts, she’s some kind of office supervisor for Xerox. And Stiller broke front he family dynamic to become a hugely successful financial manager for actors and musicians.
As with all Baumbach characters, everyone is socially awkward and slightly odd. All except for Stiller who seems to have risen from the ashes of this family. A live-threatening health problem for Hoffman drives the second half of the movie. It brings the three kids together like they never have been in their lives. They must rely on each other and figure out how to make the family work.
MEYEROWITZ is funny and touching. With all the moronic, low effort comedies Sandler churns out it is easy to forget that he can actually act (see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE). His Danny is sensitive and tortured, but he hides it under a cloak of responsibility and lightening quick anger. But it is easy to see how clueless about life and his own family he really is. Marvel is solid as the shy, awkward Jean and Stiller turns in a great performance as Matthew. Hoffman is Hoffman and he makes all the right choices as the self-involved shambling mess of a father.
Baumbach always makes interesting, entertaining films. He features characters that have good intentions and high aspirations but are just on the outside of the norm. THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (NEW AND SELECTED) follows his formula and delivers a winning, fantastic film.
by Alan Yudman
If you are sick and tired of ponderous, dark and bloated superhero movies, don’t give up hope. First there was GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (both 1 and 2). In between those was the fantastic DEADPOOL. Now comes the third Thor movie and surprisingly enough, THOR: RAGNAROK follows those successful templates. It is more comedy action than “end of the world” bleak. THOR and THOR: THE DARK WORLD portrayed the God of Thunder as a ponderous, self-important hero with some self confidence issues. He didn’t want the responsibility he was destined to have, ruling over Asgard.
But RAGNAROK takes that conceit and turns it on its head. Taika Waititi is the perfect director to bring audiences this version of Thor. Everyone pokes fun at him. He is not invincible. Most important, the movie is just fun. That doesn’t mean it dismisses the importance of what Thor is doing. He is trying to prevent Ragnarok, the legend about the end of the world and the destruction of Asgard. The sister he never knew he had returns from exile and declares that she is the rightful heir to Odin. Cate Blanchett’s Hela is fantastic. I couldn’t put my finger on a comparison for her performance, but I heard a pop culture podcast refer to it as the embodiment of a drag queen. YES! That is the perfect comparison. She has the headdress, the swagger the over-the-top flamboyance. It is masterfully evil.
But even her great performance is overshadowed by Jeff Goldblum, who has never been more Goldblum. He is The Grandmaster, the head of a garbage planet who runs it like some kind of space-aged Studio 54.
There are so many good performances. Tessa Thompson (CREED and WESTWORLD) is another outcast Asgardian, the warrior Valkyrie. She doesn’t let Thor get away with anything. It is a very pleasant comeuppance for the hero. Then we get more Hulk than we have ever gotten before and it is wonderful. One quibble I have with Marvel movies is they give us so little of these superheroes being the characters we want to see. This was an awesome change of pace. Karl Urban is Hela’s reluctant executioner. Idris Elba is back as Heimdall. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is one of the MCU’s least appreciated characters. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up briefly as Doctor Strange to help Thor and Loki find Odin, who has been hidden on earth by Loki. Then there is one scene where we get out of this world cameos from Matt Damon, Liam Hemsworth and Sam Neill. Plus, Waititi voices an alien who is completely made of stone and just about steals every scene. Remember the phrase “New Doug”. You’ll appreciate it when it shows up.
I’ve gotten this far and haven’t mentioned Chris Hemsworth at all. Saving the best for last I suppose. He has underrated comedic chops. Some may go to see his biceps. But they’ll remember his fantastic performance. He hits every note perfectly. Hemsworth plays the comedic moments perfectly, but when it’s time to kick ass, he is perfectly capable of that tool.
Here’s hoping this is a sign of good things to come. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is coming next year. If Marvel makes that as self-serious as AGE OF ULTRON, it would be a huge disappointment. THOR: RAGNAROK is the formula fans want and is the superhero movie we all need.