Friday, November 17, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE Continues DC’s Struggle To Catch Up With Marvel

Now bombing at a multiplex near everyone:

JUSTICE LEAGUE (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2017)


The good news is that DC’s latest entry in their ongoing attempt to catch up with Marvel is a lot better than the fiasco that was BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (it has a snappier title too), but the bad news is that it’s still far from a great, or even good movie.

Zach Snyder, with help from Joss Whedon, who handled lengthy re-shoots, teams up Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Henry Cavill’s Superman (it can’t be a spoiler since everyone knew that the character was going to resurrected after his death in BVS, right?) to save the world from the clutches of the supervillain Steppenwolf (an all CGI-ed up Ciarán Hinds, but the result is a colossally anti-climatic mess.

However, perhaps due to Whedon’s involvement, there are flashes of wit – largely from The Flash, who comes off as the Spider-Man of this gang as he’s a wise-cracking kid who has the film’s best lines (I loved his quip, “Pet Semetary!” when Superman returns from the dead and is initially evil).

JUSTICE LEAGUE falls short in many departments, but one that stood out was that it has no third act. The first act is all set-up as it follows Affleck’s Bruce Wayne as he assembles the group, having walk and talks with Gadot’s Diana Prince and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (Wonder Woman and Aquaman’s alter egos), and roping in Miller’s Barry Allen, and Fisher’s Victor Stone (The Flash and Cyborg’s alter egos) into the fold.

The second act is the big battle between the Superfriends and Steppenwolf and his army of flying creatures called Parademons. This bloated sequence goes on and on with precious little excitement before it concludes with a wrap-up that reaks of lazy afterthought.

Trailers and TV spots were smart to play up the Wonder Woman angle as that’s the only character these DC movies has had any critical success with, and Gadot does have her moments here, but she’s overshadowed by Affleck and Cavill’s charmless and unconvincing takes on their iconic roles. Affleck gets a lot of flack for his acting, but I maintain that he’s not really a horrible actor; just an uninteresting one.

And after the lame likes of MAN OF STEEL, BVS, and now this, I’m still not buying Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman. The British actor still feels miscast to me as the most famous superhero, as he never comes close to matching the power of Christopher Reeve, or even George Reeves’ corny version of the caped crusader from the old ‘50s Superman TV series (incidentally Affleck played Reeves in Allen Coulter’s 2006 drama HOLLYWOODLAND).

Of the other League members, Momoa and Fisher, as Aquaman and Cyborg (the character I know the least) didnt make much of an impression on me, but, as I mentioned before, Miller’s Flash steals the show. Then there are the supporting turns by Amy Adams, J.K. Simmons, Diane Lane, and Jeremy Irons as Batman's tech saavy butler Alfred, which are serviceable but don't really add anything to the whole shebang.

With its 300 million dollar budget, one would expect better special effects, but the movie is marred by a lot of crummy CGI, which really dims the impact of much of the action. There have reports that the movie is underperforming, and may not recoup its production costs, which I hope will make DC reconsider letting Snyder direct its follow-up (or any other project for the brand for that matter).

Despite some signs of improvement, Snyder appears to be unable to make a decent superhero movie (or any other movie for that matter), even with the copious assistance from Whedon here. Marvel’s business model of inter-connecting story-lines, Easter eggs, and strategically placed cameos is obviously a lot harder to copy than they thought.

WONDER WOMAN showed that it is possible to make an effective stand-alone movie, so there may be salvation for the franchise yet, but it’s a safe bet that Marvel will have racked up a bunch more crowd-pleasers by the time DC really gets their shit together, that is, if they ever do.

More later...

Monday, November 13, 2017

Branagh's Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names - spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) - the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel - Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)


We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

Friday, October 20, 2017

Deep Throat Is Back! (No, Not The Porno)

Now playing in the Triangle area:

MARK FELT: THE MAN WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE WHITE HOUSE (Dir. Peter Landesman, 2017)



For over thirty years, the identity of Deep Throat - the nickname (yes, inspired by the porno) of the informant that gave vital information about the Watergate burglary to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1972 - was one of the biggest political mysteries in history.

In 2005, former FBI agent Mark Felt revealed that he was the confidential source, Woodward confirmed it, and decades of speculation in which folks suspected White House counsel John Dean, chief of staff Alexander Haig, speechwriter Pat Buchanan, and even White House press aide/later broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer to be possible candidates were over.

Now Felt’s story is told in this film based on the books, 
A G-Man's Life: The FBI, Being 'Deep Throat, and the Struggle for Honor in Washington by Felt and John OConnor, that’s can be seen as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN told from the point of view of, well, one of the President’s men although one that doesnt work for the President directly. A grim, stoic Liam Neeson plays Felt, who more than once is referred to as a G-Man’s G-Man.

The film opens on April 11, 1972, 203 days before the election for Richard M. Nixon’s second term, with Felt meeting with Dean (Michael C. Hall) and letting him know that his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, has files full of damaging secrets on everyone in power. “We’re the FBI, Felt says chillingly. “All your secrets are safe with us.”

However, after Hoover dies, Felt is passed over by Nixon for the job of FBI director, with one of the President’s shady yes-men, L. Patrick Gray portrayed by Martin Csokas, getting the prime position.

Gray attempts to squash Felt’s investigation of the Watergate break-in in June of ‘72, which if you don’t know your history, involved five men getting arrested for breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate, an office/apartment/hotel complex in Washington, D.C. The burglars were found to have ties to the CIA and later the White House, which led to the toppling of Nixon’s Presidency.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s hard not to do as MARK FELT takes its time getting to the juicy stuff such as the famous parking garage meetings with Woodward (Julian Morris), because Landesman’s screenplay wants us to see what a solid, uncompromised government official Felt is. We learn that he and his wife, Audrey (an underused Diane Lane), are worried sick about their missing daughter who’s run off to join the counterculture or something (it was the ‘70s), but Felt is so by the book that he won’t use the power of the FBI to find her.

Neeson’s nuanced, grim performance as Felt is among his finest work, but the movie keeps trying to build up dramatic heft but never quite gets there. Daniel Pemberton’s overly pulsating score doesn’t help as it dominates too many scenes, and tries too hard to make everything more ominous. They should’ve learned from the minimalist soundtrack for ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN to use those edgy strains sparingly.

There’s also too many House of Cards-ish aerial shots of D.C. framed to make the town look evil, and the whole interior look of the film is dark blues and greys with Oliver Stone-style mood lighting. We get it – the Nixon era was dark and gloomy. Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (sorry, I can’t help bringing that movie up over and over), Nixon is only seen in archival footage on background TVs, but dammit if his sinister presence isn’t all over this tense, but sadly not too thrilling thriller.


As there are striking similarities with the situations surrounding our current President whose name I hate typing with the leaks, the cover-ups, the dishonesty etc. this tale couldn’t be more relevant, but this dry run through the facts doesn’t have enough narrative drive to make it essential viewing.

Felt is described in the film’s postscript as “one of the most impactful whistleblowers in American History,” but his portrait here lacks impact. The story of the Watergate scandal was, of course, so much better told in that 1976 movie I keep referring to because this film could never shake it out of my mind.

In other words, Neeson is fine as Felt, and, sure I'd rather see him in something like this instead of another TAKEN movie, but Deep Throat will always be Hal Holbrook to me.


More later...