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“Justice League” Just a Disappointment

Where is the DCEU going? Is it the gritty, god-obsessed mythology of Zach Snyder? Is it a copy of the MCU? Is it something else? No one seems to know. “Justice League” is the latest example of how no one at Warner Bros. seems to know what they’re doing with the DC Universe. In the race to make a counter to Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Justice League has been given the short stick.

When a new threat to the world emerges after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Bruce Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must recruit a team of other superheroes such as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). Together, they need to defeat the villainous Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) before he destroys the world.

That is pretty much the whole plot right there. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? Whereas “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) were failed films with high concepts, “Justice League” is a failed film with no concept. It is the laziest excuse for a superhero ensemble. No deeper morals, no themes about gods and superpowers, no character arcs beyond the most absolute basic. It is a totally paint-by-numbers movie devoid of any creative spark. There is nothing memorable about it.

It really is hard to criticize specific scenes or characters because the film is so hollow. You just don’t care about the story. It’s a series of action sequences followed by mandatory “character” moments. Flash is the funny one. Aquaman is dashingly reckless. Batman is brooding. Cyborg is angry.  The villain wants to destroy the world for… reasons. He’s a baddie. The team must learn to work together as a team. Fill in the blank.

This is not the film the Justice League deserves. The audience should be on the edge of their seats as the different members of the League are assembled by Batman and Wonder Woman, broken souls who have never been heroes before. Guided by the memory of Superman, the team must put aside their egos and pasts to band together as a team (in a way that’s different than the MCU). Superman’s absence has allowed a new supervillain to emerge out of the shadows, a multi-faceted villain who has a personal beef with Batman/Wonder Woman/Aquaman/etc.

People often complain that the DCEU movies are too dark and that they’re being rushed too fast, but that’s ignoring the big problems at their heart. Being dark is not an inherent problem. Indeed, it’s a good way to distinguish themselves from the MCU. The DCEU can be dark and moody, but we have to care. Superman and Batman should be shining beacons of light in a hostile world, people we connect with and aspire to become. That has never happened in any of these films, both Affleck and Cavill flat and uninteresting cardboard cutouts. And you don’t need to follow the MCU and build up all the characters in individual films before putting them together in a team movie. It’s a disservice to the audience to think they need to be led by the hand and explained every little thing. You can introduce a bunch of characters in one film and give them fully fleshed out arcs that don’t cheat them. It’s hard, but it’s doable.

But you have to do it well. That’s what the DCEU has never done (“Wonder Woman” (2017) excluded). Tell a story with engaging characters that the audience can empathize with. The idea of the DCEU (other than to make money) was to be the “mature” superhero franchise, with high ideas of mythology, religion, idolism and violence. It has never struggled for ideas and reach, it has struggled in execution.

“Justice League” is the first film that never even tries. At least the previous films tried. But the MCU has apparently taken permanent residence in Warner Bros. psyche. They need to be different and the same, light and dark, popular and edgy. And with the trailers for “Shazam” and “Aquaman” lacking the same sort of coherent guidance needed to create a DC world, it looks like more of the same is in store. The best move would be to start over from scratch, wipe the slate clean and let the series evolve naturally, with committed filmmakers taking their time and putting together a refined product.

But that can’t happen today, when movies are planned years in advance, an assembly-line production that stifles creativity. It’s a shame.



“Crazy Rich Asians” is crazy good

What ever happened to rom-coms? Much maligned, seldom appreciated, the rom-com was a staple of modern cinemas from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Sure, they’re cheesy, overly optimistic, formula-reliant. But they’re pleasant to watch. Not everything needs to be the-movie-to-end-all-movies. Movies can be light, entertaining and still matter.

Around the early 2000s, the rom-com disappeared. Movie schedules became inundated with tentpole blockbusters or Oscar bait films. Really, it seemed that after “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, the rom-com went extinct.

So it’s nice to not only see a rom-com, but a good rom-com and one that is doing well at the box office. It seems it was missed.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan. New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is in love with the dashing Nick Young (Henry Golding). He invites her as his date to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Little does Rachel know that Nick comes from an incredibly wealthy family, with sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan), brother Eddie (Ronny Chieng), cousin Alistair Cheng (Remy Hii) and demanding mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Each of them has their own issues tied to the upkeep of family and the power that money entails. Astrid’s husband, Michael (Pierre Png), feels inferior to his wife’s wealth. Alistair is making movies with a slutty actress. And Nick’s mother hates Rachel, believing her unworthy for her son. Rachel confides in her friend, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) as Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta’s (Sonoya Mizuno) wedding approaches.

The three main points of conflict are right in the film’s title: crazy (love), rich (wealth) and Asian (culture). Rachel may have love for Nick, but she is doubted for being a gold digger and not Asian enough. The film then is a test for her to prove her worth against the family and economic situations working against her. It’s a traditional but classic story structure.

The film is a modern Cinderella of sorts and a celebration of Singapore culture with plenty of ethnic music, food, architecture and people. It’s also beautifully shot, setting it apart from the usual rom-com, with wide shots of the city, extravagant buildings and the elaborate wedding itself.

Now, the film is not especially new. Many characters are classic tropes (the crazy best friend, the pushy mom, the wise grandmother, the perfect male love interest, the backstabbing old flame). The plot is a classic fish-out-of-water narrative. And the relationship between Rachel and Eleanor as protagonist and antagonist could have been highlighted more. Perhaps Eleanor tests Rachel, pushing her to her limits, such as during the dumpling scene. Perhaps Rachel has to make the family recipe dumplings over and over again. Her hands feel like giving up, but she perseveres to prove herself. Scenes like this would have really put the battle over culture and love into perspective.

But the story is told well, which is the most important aspect of any film. And it fills you with a warm and funny feeling at the end. That’s a strange sensation for modern films.

“Miss Sloane” not as smart as it thinks it is

Written by Jonathan Perera and directed by John Madden, “Miss Sloane” is the story of Madeline Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a political power broker who takes on the gun lobby and tries to press a gun-restrictions bill through Congress. As her enemies mount, including Senator Ronald Sperling (John Lithgow), her old boss George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and personal nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg), Sloane is pushed her to ethical and legal limits.

The film does a good job of upping the stakes. At first, it’s just another case for Sloane and her colleagues. Then she takes the opposite position. Then friendships are splitered. Then things become personal. The deeper stakes raise the tension.

Chastain does a good job as Sloane in a role that could have been beefed up more. We know very little about her background and her internal motivations other than to win. What is her relationship with her parents? What led her down this path? Is she compromising her morals? Such details would help us identify with her.

The film is not as smart as it thinks it is. The audience can see the twist ending coming, and the quick dialogue is trying too hard to be Aaron Sorkin and not succeeding. It seems to be trying so hard to be a hot political drama with an urgent message about current times, but its story is just not interesting enough to warrant that consideration.

“Passengers” lost in space

“Passengers” should have been a slam dunk. John Spaihts, the writer of “Dr. Strange” (2016). Morten Tyldum, the director of “The Imitation Game” (2014). Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, two of the biggest, if not the biggest, stars in the world. But “Passengers” is a flop on pretty much every level.

The film follows Jim Preston (Pratt), a passenger on a spaceship accidentally woken up from cryosleep 90 years too early. Unable to go back to sleep, Preston grows lonely on the giant ship all by himself, his only confidant a bartender robot named Arthur (Michael Sheen). He is doomed to die before reaching the new world. In a fit of despair, he wakes up another passenger, Aurora Lane (Lawrence), and lies to her, telling her that an accident has woken both of them up. Stranded together, they fall in love, but will Jim’s deception cost them everything?

Jim’s decision to wake up Aurora immediately sets the audience against him. How could someone do that to another person without their permission? For our protagonist, we lose empathy. Such a loss is irredeemable.

Perhaps if they knew each other beforehand, it would alleviate some of the problem. But the best move would have been if Jim’s decision were just taken out of the film. Two random people awaken on a spaceship and face a lifetime together with no hope of reaching their destination. Now what? Such a premise has such promise and could have delved into deep themes of life’s purpose, isolation and romance.

Or, what if the entire ship had woken up? You would have different responses to the situation spread over a socioeconomic situation. How do people cope as a society trapped on a spaceship? Some may decide to kill themselves, others learn how adapt to this new life. You would have real social dynamics.

Instead, we get a horrible man taking away the life of a random woman. And (spoiler alert) she somehow takes him back at the film’s conclusion, an idiotic, anti-feminist finale. She should have kicked his lonely ass into Venus the moment she found out what he did.

The film is trying to be a “Titanic” romance in space. Instead, it’s just an unfeeling iceberg. The protagonist is unsympathetic, Lawrence and Pratt are miscast and have no chemistry together and the space set ending is unoriginal and contrived.

Danger. Danger Will Robinson.

Oops, Will Robinson is dead on arrival.

“The Machinist” has promise but the ending leaves you wanting

“The Machinist” fits very succinctly into that genre of film that focuses on the lost and confused protagonist whose reality may not be as it seems and whose past, present and future may be in fact be interchangeable. David Fincher is an expert at this type of plot, where the audience keeps guessing about what is real and what is actually happening. It is the ending, or really the twist, that really define the film, answering all the questions the film has been building up to. “Fight Club” and “Gone Girl” have twists that surprise you and require repeat viewings to fully grasp the intricacies of the story. Not only that, but the twist elevates the themes of the story. Even though repeat viewings may lack the suspense of the viewer’s first time, the twist keep the film theme’s relevant. “The Machinist’s” twist and ending are unfortunately lacking in this regard. What was a clever mystery for 90 minutes reveals itself to be a rather mundane story about regret, a rather one-and-done type of viewing experience. It’s a shame, especially considering the transformative performance by Christian Bale.

Written by Scott Kosar and directed by Brad Anderson, the film follows Trevor Reznik (Christian Bale), an industrial worker who hasn’t slept in a year. His body is withering away. As he writes himself little notes and tries to find some solace, he forms a relationship with a prostitute, Stevie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a single mother who works as a waitress in an airport, Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). As his paranoia ratchets up, events possible and impossible begin to work on his mind and his past and future catch up to him.

The film does a good job of building up the mystery, making little hints at what troubles Trevor’s psyche. The surrealism of the industrial plant, Trevor’s apartment and the carnival attraction ride are great cinematic sequences, creepy and unsettling. As the pressures on Trevor mount, the tension builds and the viewer becomes very invested in the story.

And then the ending ties everything together in a neat bow. It’s too simple, too on the nose for what the plot had been building. Instead of blowing us away, we are somewhat let down and for a film of this style, that is a disappointment.

Christian Bale demonstrates a remarkable commitment to the film and his role as Trevor really stands out, but that is what is most memorable about the movie. It should have been the story.


“Allied” a clumsy spy caper

Spy thrillers are fun. Mystery, intrigue, romance, danger. They’re tailor-made for cinema. The problem is that the genre has become so prevalent and popular that coming up with something new is difficult. “Allied” suffers from the malaise of good intentions and lackluster themes. It’s a whole film of been there, done that, with multiple homages to previous works competing against each other.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Steven Knight, “Allied” is the story of Canadian spy Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) who rendezvous with French resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) in Morocco during World War II. Together, they work to assassinate the Nazi ambassador, Hobar (August Diehl). Posing as a married couple Marianne advances romantically to Max, who replies that spies who sleep together fail. Marianne counters that it’s not the sex that makes spies fail, but falling in love. At the conclusion of their mission, they get married and try to live a normal life, but under the pretenses of deception, can they ever truly trust each other?

Mixing the grandeur of films like “Casablanca” with the sexiness of James Bond and the intrigue of a John le Carré novel, the film doesn’t feel unified. It’s too much going on at once. Brad Pitt is an odd choice for the role of Max. Perhaps a younger spy, just learning the ropes, would have served the story better with an experienced femme fatale as his partner.

The film does have some exciting action sequences, but they are few and far between, the majority of screen time devoted to a love story that we’ve seen before. There’s nothing that really makes the film stand out and the result is a pretty forgettable affair despite some good work from Ms. Cotillard.

“Suburbicon” has elements of quality, but lacks coherence

George Clooney, as a director, has a spotty record. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is a great film. “The Monuments Men” is not. Now with “Suburbicon”, Clooney finds himself with a mixed bag of some interesting elements, some dull ones and a general lack of cohesion.

“Suburbicon” tells the story of a 1950s community in upheaval. When a black family movies into the neighborhood, the dark underbelly of the town begins to reveal itself. Gardner (Matt Damon) is a father who lives next to the new family with his wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law, Margaret (also Julianne Moore). When a home invasion turns the family’s world upside down, Nicky discovers the secrets that his family have been hiding and that all is not well in the happy-go-lucky neighborhood.

Written by the Coen brothers and Clooney’s usual partner, Grant Heslov, the film has some promising setups and payoffs and some memorable plot twists that keep things interesting. Some sequences at the end of the film are exciting, and the acting and directing are fairly well-balanced.

Where the film struggles is its characters, tone and its theming. The characters are more stereotypes, one-dimensional goodies or baddies who don’t have a lot of remorse or second thoughts. For the Coens, one need only look at Anton Chigurh or the pair of kidnappers in Fargo to find examples of nefarious characters who are still interesting. The film is part murder mystery, part dark comedy and part social critique and these tones bump heads against each other. Some clearer direction would have gone a long way. And the theming is nothing original. There’ve been plenty of films about the “evils” of suburbia and their underlying racism. David Lynch has made an entire career out of it. If the film had something new to say about the matter, it would feel weightier, but as a whole, it just feels like it’s retreading old ground.

Nevertheless, “Suburbicon” is a somewhat enjoyable film that utilizes filmmaking (acting, cinematography, camera movement) to tell a familiar if flawed story.