Justice League (2017) – Movie Review

justiceleague

I went into Justice League, DC’S most recent grab at Marvel’s success, with trepidation. Other than Wonder Woman, each DCEU film has left me somewhere between “meh” and “ugh”. Even when Joss Whedon (Avengers) came in to help a grieving Snyder finish the movie, their exponentially different styles worried me, and that worry was mostly justified. Yes, Whedon’s wit does bring a welcome shine to the gloomy proceedings and, unlike Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, keeps this movie from being an all-out slog. Still, it’s an awkward epic that can’t overcome the franchise’s dark doldrums. Just like every other superhero movie ever made, a charisma-less and bland villain with limitless power appears, bent on destroying Earth because of “reasons”. Superman still dead, the world must depend on lesser heroes to save them. Affleck is still a pretty good Batman, Flash is light-hearted fun, Aquaman is kinda cool, Cyborg is dull and dour, and Wonder Woman is still the standout. There are still certainly some interesting moments between the characters, but they’re mostly overshadowed by superhero-ethic clichés, stupid drama, bad CGI, and nonsensical logic (why are these guys such quick allies?) There really is just so much that doesn’t work: specific jokes, bad visuals, interpersonal relationships, muddy action, plot predictability. The main problem, though, is that DC and Warner Bros. think, through their previous films, they’ve given us enough reasons to care about this universe, and they haven’t. The positives here, mainly just seeing these heroes together on-screen, have left me mildly curious about the future of the franchise, but only barely. Otherwise, Justice League is easily the worst superhero movie of the year.

 

2 out of 5 stars

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Spider-Man 3 (2007) – Movie Review

spider-man 2007

This is a good film, but it is not on the same level as the first two. There are many good ideas to be found in the script by Sam Raimi, his elder brother Ivan and Alvin Sargent and it is quite well written but it is overstuffed. The film is surprisingly well paced considering its somewhat sprawling storyline and the fact that it is the longest of the trilogy. It is well directed by Sam Raimi but the action scenes are generally not the equal of the second film’s.

Tobey Maguire is again very strong as Peter Parker, who seems to have finally achieved the balance in his life that eluded him for most of the second film. In spite of J. Jonah Jameson’s best efforts over the years, the people of New York City have embraced Spider-Man as their hero. When it comes to his personal life, Peter is living the dream as he has been dating Mary Jane Watson for some time and he is planning to propose to her as soon as possible. Kirsten Dunst is good in the role but the material lets her down a bit. Mary Jane is having less success given that her career as a Broadway star died a quick death when she was fired. She thinks that Peter does not understand how she feels and that he tries to make everything about him as he often turns the conversation to his career as Spider-Man. The situation is not helped by the fact that Mary Jane is jealous of him re-enacting their upside down kiss with Gwen Stacy, a young woman whom he recently rescued as Spidey who just so happens to his lab partner as Peter. After a meteorite crashes to Earth, an alien symbiote bonds itself to Peter, amplifying his negative attributes. As the newly black suited Spider-Man, he goes from being a public hero to a public menace. He becomes callous and manipulative and is prone to outbursts of anger and violence. He also changes his image and begins to strut around the streets of New York trying to impress the ladies. These scenes were not really necessary but it was for the best that they were played for laughs. I am far less certain that this was the case when it came to his dancing in the jazz bar, one of the silliest scenes that I have seen in a film of this kind. Whether or not I was supposed to laugh, I did.

In the case of the three villains, the one in which I had the most vested interest was Harry Osborn, who discovered his late father Norman’s cache of Green Goblin weapons and gadgets and has taken on the mantle of the New Goblin. Much like Dunst, James Franco is good but would have benefited from stronger material. Armed with the knowledge that Peter is Spider-Man, Harry vows to destroy his erstwhile best friend in revenge for the supposed murder of his father. To that end, he attacks Peter in the skies above New York using his glider but falls from a great height and suffers a convenient loss of memory. In the process, he forgets all about Peter’s secret life and they resume their friendship, after a fashion. Things go a bit pear-shaped, however, when his memories reassert themselves and he forces Mary Jane to break up with Peter in order to save her boyfriend’s life.

Thomas Haden Church is a perfect fit for the Marko / Sandman role but the character is fairly uninteresting, particularly the clichéd sob story concerning his critically ill daughter. I thought that it was a serious mistake and ultimately rather pointless to retcon Uncle Ben’s death so that Marko and not his carjacker accomplice was the culprit. To a certain extent, it detracted from the first film’s storyline in a way that a sequel never should. Topher Grace is likewise fine but he does not have much to do as the obnoxious, sleazy and dishonest freelance photographer Eddie Brock who bonds with the symbiote after Peter frees himself from it, becoming Venom. I was pretty disappointed that Venom only had a few major scenes as he was always my favourite villain from the 1990s animated series. I would have been perfectly happy if they had saved Venom for a later installment and jettisoned Sandman altogether so that that the film would have involved a one- on-one confrontation between Peter and Harry, which the end of the second film seemed to be hinting at. I liked the redemption story arc towards the end but more of it would have been nice.

As in the previous films, I was very impressed by J.K. Simmons as Jameson and Rosemary Harris as Aunt May. Although his appearance as Uncle Ben is disappointingly brief, the film is notable as being Cliff Robertson’s final acting role before his death in 2011. Willem Dafoe’s cameo as Norman Osborn was even more evocative of “Hamlet” than in the second film, considering that he uses the phrase “Remember me” as did the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father. Had “Spider-Man 4” been produced, I assume that Bryce Dallas Howard would have reprised her role as Gwen Stacy and the character would have been killed off, in line with the comics. James Cromwell was wasted in his brief appearances as her father Captain George Stacy but they probably had plans for him too. As the maître d’, Bruce Campbell actually got to be a nice guy to Peter Parker for the only film in the series.

Overall, this is an enjoyable film in spite of its flaws but it could have been so much better

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Spider-Man 2 (2004) – Movie Review

spider-man 2004

This is why they invented movies. It’s a dazzling story of love, loss, adventure, courage, heartbreak, tough choices, and tender feelings with a rescue from a burning building, a runaway train, a world-class villain, and a really great kiss. It is smart and funny and touching and exhilaratingly entertaining. Spider-Man 2 has sensational special effects integrated with a first-rate script and outstanding performances to illuminate the characters and tell the story — and to show us something about ourselves. But most of all, this is why they invented movies because director Sam Raimi knows how to make things MOVE.

Few movies have so mastered motion. Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) swoops through the skyscrapers. A train hurtles across a track that just abruptly stops. A car flies through the air. Raimi is all but re-inventing cinematic story-telling before our delighted eyes.

In the first movie, we saw Peter Parker’s joy in the powers he developed after being bitten by a radio-active spider. When his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) was killed because he failed to stop a thief, he resolved to devote his life to help people. And that meant no close attachments because anyone he cared about would be vulnerable to attack by bad guys who wanted to pressure him.

As this movie opens, things are not going well for Peter. Even his Spidey powers can’t get those pizzas delivered by the 30-minute deadline when there are people to save along the way. Aunt May’s application for a loan to save her mortgage from being foreclosed has been turned down. He is having trouble in school because he doesn’t have time to do the work. His best friend Harry (James Franco) is still angry because Peter won’t tell him what really happened the night Spider-Man killed his father. Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), the girl he loves, is giving up on him because he can’t tell her who he really is or how he really feels. He can’t even do a load of laundry without making things worse. That Spider-man suit chafes. Spidey can’t even sling those webs the way he used to. The last hors d’oeuvre at the party is always snatched away just as he reaches for it. Maybe it’s time to quit.

Harry introduces Peter to the brilliant scientist, Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), whose devotions to his wife and his work are inspiring. Harry is financing the doctor’s experiments with fusion energy, so complex and dangerous that they must be conducted with tentacle-like mechanical arms that are controlled by artificial intelligence. But in the grand hubris tradition of myths and comic books, the experiment goes terribly, tragically wrong and the doctor’s wife is killed. The four artificial arms are fused to Octavius’ spine. Devastated by the loss and overtaken by the arms which move like serpents in the garden of Eden, he becomes a villain known as Doc Ock, stealing what he needs to resume his experiments.

But Harry controls one of those ingredients, and he says he will give it to Doc Ock in exchange for Spider-Man. Molina is brilliant in both incarnations. His kind Doctor Octavius has a glimmer of benign madness. And his Doc Ock shows us the tortured soul that cannot help being thrilled by power. The weakest part of the first movie was the villain, with his dopey mask and over-the-top monologue. But Molina’s Doc Ock is a villain for the ages, a man who shows us his real face so we can feel the struggle for his soul.

The comic book elements are all here, with spectacular fight scenes and teen-friendly existential themes. Peter has to struggle with feelings of isolation and not being understood or appreciated. He is aware of the irony of his working for justice for others when his own life is filled with people who judge him unfairly.

One of the screenwriters was Michael Chabon, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about comic book creators called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and his rich appreciation for the mythic appeal of the comic book tradition brings depth to the story. Spider-Man and Doc Ock have many parallels. Both were granted extraordinary powers through mutations caused by accidents in scientific experiments. Both struggle with their alternate identities, represented in visual terms by frequent use of reflections. Both struggle with devastating losses. In a nice moment that gently underlines and broadens what is going on with the characters, Peter watches Mary Jane perform in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in a scene where Cecily talks to Algernon about his pretending to be someone he is not. And a street musician sings the Spider-Man song, at first a little tentatively and off-key but then, as Spidey re-discovers who he is, with more assurance, hitting the right notes.

This is a sumptuous summer treat that succeeds on many levels. It is that rarest of treats, a popcorn pleasure with heart, soul, and insight.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Spider-Man (2002) – Movie Review

spider-man 2002

By default, Comic Books are the perfect Pre-Viz for movies based on them. And as a long-time Spidey fan, I was able to see the panels of this comic book come to striking life, sometimes reproduced with magnificent exactness in comparison to the way the books have been drawn and colored.

As far as this initial offering goes, the choices of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe and James Franco allowed for an almost precise match to how the characters they each portray looked in the books. The casting of Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt Mae, and J.K. Simmons as J Jonah Jameson: But it was not just the casting of actors who very closely resemble the characters of the Spider-man Universe, it was clearly Sam Raimi’s direction in concert with the script by David Koepp based very closely on Stan Lee’s “Spidey” Origin Story, which made these people come alive and pop out of the comic book frames, almost into real life.

Compared to some of the other comic book adaptations, this one was done with the most amount of care and respect for the series. Just to reproduce the postures of the flying web-slinger, using some of the most famous frames from the comics, was an astounding accomplishment.

From his humble beginnings in “Evil Dead” Sam Raimi has been a clever filmmaker, especially in his ability to make splendid visual effects. Combine that with a huge budget along with Visual Effects god John Dykstra, who designed effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the original Star Wars. Connect the dots with a fantastic Production Designer and Costume Designer, and it all just worked.

One of the tests of how well Digital Effects have been done are in the viewing of these films on lower-resolution mediums, like smart phone screens and Old Cathode-Ray Tube TV’s. I’ve viewed this film in each of those, and when Spidey is crawling up a wall in an obvious CGI shot, it makes you wonder if it really was CGI: In films like Daredevil, it is easy to spot the transition frames; here, it is impossible to find it.

Comparatively, the work on Captain America showing Steve Rogers as a skinny kid is very clever. Here, the same tech is used in a smaller degree to show Parker as a wimpy, skinny nerd. This is highly effective so that when Parker sees himself buffed out with his shirt off, you believe a change has occurred.

Where this film excels is in the rapidity of which it gets into the Spider-Man story, which is within the first ten minutes. As much as I do like the new Marc Webb “Amazing Spider Man” (2012) – It takes much too long to get into it, although the character development in that film is very good.

In this film however, the character development continues through the film and is incorporated even into action sequences, Continuing up to the very last frame of the film.

Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Dan Hicks (Of Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks) are all inserted as cameo properly as with any Raimi film. It is Campbell himself who “names” Spider-man – Saying “The Human Spider? That Sucks!”

My few complaints revolve around the character of Peter Parker, who is fairly unlucky in the books, here he is a walking disaster area. He is the antithesis of “The Competent Man” and even when given extraordinary ability, he is still a wimp in his personality, especially in his dealing with Mary Jane Watson. Also, Peter Parker’s first Love interest was Gwen Stacy, and it was she, not MJ who The Green Goblin captured and gave Spidey the choice: Save these kids in the Cable-Car, or Save Gwen. It was a choice, and one or the other only could have been saved. Here, Gwen is completely absent, and he saves MJ with a feat even impossible for the comic- book rendition of Spidey.

But I suppose adding Gwen to the mix would have muddied up the water too much. And even though I did not like the distortion of that original classic story, they did reproduce it visually with astounding correctness, as they did with the images of Spider-Man flying through NYC. Animating several classic Steve Ditko Spidey Postures, and at the end of the film we get to see many of these animated fantastically.

But the main message: ‘With Great power, comes Great Responsibility” – As told by Uncle Ben to Peter right before his death, survives, and when coupled with Danny Elfman’s fantastic score, makes this a powerful, meaningful film.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Terminator Genisys (2015) – Movie Review

terminator genisys

Three sequels and thirty-one years after James Cameron’s seminal man-versus-machine science-fiction, ‘Terminator Genisys’ attempts to make the franchise relevant for a whole new generation by re-setting the clock. So this is as much advice as warning to fans – you’ll do well not to cling too stubbornly to what you already know if you are going to appreciate the liberties with which the filmmakers have taken in order to invigorate this aging series.

Notwithstanding the initial fan uproar, we have to say that the screen writing duo of Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier have concocted an impressive scenario that balances a deep respect for the first two Cameron films and the need for new creative possibilities beyond the original Connor genealogy. How much is kept from its predecessors is laid out in the prologue, which tells of the death of three billion people on Judgement Day itself and the resistance led by John Connor some thirty years thereafter. It is at that same fateful moment that Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) steps into the time machine to go back in time to protect Sarah, another Terminator from the future (played by Doctor Who’s Matt Smith) attacks John, establishing a whole new chain of events while leaving Kyle with fractured memories from both parallel timelines.

Indeed, though this Kyle arrives stark naked in the same dark and grungy alley of Cameron’s first movie, the 1984 which he finds himself in is vastly different. For one, the T-100 which Skynet had sent to kill Sarah is upon its arrival is greeted and terminated by a T-800, which has been Sarah’s guardian. For another, Sarah is no longer hapless and confused, but a tough warrior who has been resisting the Terminators since her childhood days. And instead of Robert Patrick’s T-1000, Kyle is welcomed by Lee Byung- hun’s sleek, mercury-like killing machine, the choice to cast an Asian no doubt informed by modern-day blockbuster sensibilities.

To its credit, the film does reflect the inevitable bewilderment of its fans in Kyle’s struggle to reconcile the past he knows with flashbacks that he gained from the time jump – and for those who are wondering what the science behind it may be, Sarah’s T-800 does offer some intellectual mumbo-jumbo in the form of a “nexus point”. That same logic is also used to justify the new date for Judgment Day, which is now scheduled to take place in 2017 via an omnipresent operating system known as Genisys. Just as the original tapped into the zeitgeist’s fears of technology, this reboot retains the same paranoia but updates it for the smartphone era of interconnected devices.

As we are soon told, Genisys is no more than a cover for Skynet to unleash global annihilation with the help of none other than John Connor himself, who has undergone a “machine phase matter” evolution to become a Terminator. If there is one conceit on which this new premise rests on, it is the complete reinvention of John Connor’s character, and Jason Clarke does an excellent job of making the character fearsome and formidable. His John Connor makes a perfect foil to Courtney’s Kyle Reese, whose fresh-faced earnestness makes him an endearingly empathetic hero. Somewhat less convincing is Emilia Clarke’s portrayal of a hardened Sarah Connor, especially when one recalls how compelling Cameron’s ex-wife Linda Hamilton was in the role. In contrast, the Sarah here lacks Hamilton’s combination of grit and vulnerability, which also in turn weakens the connection that she is supposed to develop with Kyle notwithstanding that we are told they are meant to fall in love and “mate” with each other.

The franchise’s most iconic star Arnold Schwarzenegger gets a pleasantly surprising breath of ‘Terminator’ roles with the parallel timelines – not only as the T-100 and T-800 we’ve seen him as, but also a much more visibly aged T-800 and a spiffy new upgrade right at the end. Schwarzenegger is still having fun turning his character’s utter humourlessness into deadpan comedy – and besides trying to add new catchphrases like “bite me” and “I’m old… not obsolete” into the lexicon, also has a field day trying to look friendlier by putting on a robotic smile.

Though he isn’t quite Cameron, Alan Taylor does a good job of keeping all the moving pieces together. As he did with ‘Thor: The Dark World’, Taylor demonstrates a workmanlike proficiency in summer blockbuster-making, alternating between deafening action sequences and exposition while interspersing the proceedings with cheeky self-aware humour and moments of poignancy. Unlike ‘Terminator Salvation’, Taylor pretty much keeps to the tone of the first two Cameron movies, so much so that his rendition feels familiar and fresh at the same time. Except for a massive vehicular smash-up on the Golden Gate Bridge that culminates in a school bus dangling over its edge, there are no standout sequences here, but Taylor maintains a brisk pace throughout so you’ll never get bored.

At this point in the franchise, it is perhaps too tall an order for any filmmaker to reclaim the aura of Cameron’s ground breaking originals, but of the three sequels since, ‘Terminator Genisys’ comes the closest. Even if it isn’t outstanding, it is a fine piece of popcorn entertainment that is a good introduction to the franchise as much as it will be nostalgia for fans, provided they can accept that the timeline they knew will be no more. And at thirty- one years (or sixty-seven for Schwarzenegger), one could certainly say that the Terminator is old, but as this sequel cum reboot shows, age does not necessarily make one obsolete.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Whiplash (2014) – Movie Review

This erosion of innocent ideas, like The American Dream, is becoming more and more prominent, especially amongst young people. The success of Damien Chazelle’s, Whiplash, is a testament to this. Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, an obsessive drummer who is hell- bent on becoming a great musician. J.K. Simmons stars as Terence Fletcher, the muscled up old teacher who incessantly yells at Andrew and perpetuates his inferiority complex. A large number of High School and University students found this movie to be scarily relatable. Whether it was the memory of an intimating teacher/mentor, or the shared belief that socializing, relationships and ‘fun’, will impede on one’s ability to achieve some kind of success – audiences clearly empathize with this film, and that may not be a good thing.

In the final scene of Whiplash, Andrew and Terence have seemingly buried the hatchet on their old and troubled student/teacher relationship. Andrew agrees to perform at a Jazz concert, under Terence’s conducting. When the concert commences, however, the first song that is cued to be played is unknown to Andrew. He realizes that Terence has sabotaged him, and he ultimately leaves the stage. After embracing with his father, who walks over to console him, Andrew returns to the stage. To Terence’s bewilderment, Andrew begins playing the drums solo. The scene runs for a while, and as time moves on, Andrew’s solo becomes more impressive. Terence eventually accepts Andrew’s rebellious action and begins conducting him. In the final seconds of Andrew’s solo, Terence looks at him. Although the frame cuts off just below Terence’s nose, the film’s prior exposition suggests that he either smiled at Andrew, or said, ‘good job’. Terence then cues the rest of the band, and the film closes on a loud jazz cadence – cue: credits.

This final scene has been a hot-topic of debate in the YouTube and Twitter-sphere. The debate rests on whether or not Whiplash had a ‘happily ever after’ ending or not. Should the audience be happy that Andrew made his mentor proud, and that he became a great musician? Or should the audience feel melancholic because of what Andrew sacrificed to reach his level of excellence? Has Andrew’s story given the American Dream hope? Or has he demonstrated that it will doom you to live a life without happiness?

Film critics almost unanimously agree that it was a bitter-sweet ending; Andrew became great, but at the cost of his youth, and possibly his moral compass. Amongst the University student demographic, however, there seems to be a disproportionate number of people who interpreted the ending more so as a triumph of ambition and perseverance. For a story about a young man who pushes himself to the brink of implosion, this kind of interpretation should leave older generations wondering what kind of principles of ethics and work life balance their younger counter-parts are embracing.

Do not get me wrong, I think Whiplash is brilliant – too brilliant. If I am criticizing the film, then that is my criticism. I loved Whiplash. Many other people loved Whiplash too, but I am beginning to feel that this may be indicative of a warped understanding of success.

Films can be much more than weekend entertainment; they are a helpful way to gauge the psyche of a particular target audience. It is a shame that there have not been many social science studies that have attributed film preferences to specific human characteristics; it would be a very helpful variable. For example, if American Psycho has a large cult following, and millions of people still watch and love the film, would it not be fair to say that there are characteristics that the murderous protagonist, Patrick Bateman, has that most viewers within this demographic empathize with? I am not suggesting that these people are all secretly serial killers – however hyperbolic the connection, there must be something about a character or concept that people empathize with that makes the film so enjoyable for them. Similarly, Whiplash’s Andrew Neiman must clearly have some element to his character’s psyche that most viewers identify with.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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