Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Movie Reaction: Justice League

I'll be honest. I'm kind of sick of this post. It's the one I write several times a year about a superhero movie and where it fits in the larger discussion of superhero movies. I could probably pull exact lines from my Batman vs. Superman reaction and post them here without anyone noticing. There's only so many ways that I can say that Marvel is being rewarded for its patience and DC is leveraging a lot of their iconography to play catch up. I'm trying to resist going on too long about all this. However, it's difficult, because the comparisons are so damn obvious. Justice League is the DC Avengers. It's the same basic concept (team of superheroes assembles to fight an alien threatening Earth) only with DC heroes and villains this time. Like The Avengers, Justice League took four movies to get here and has many of the same story beats. Hell, Joss Whedon is even tied to both movies. So, let's make a deal. If you indulge my many Marvel references and series overviews later, I promise I'll spend some time talking about this movie on its own.

I feel silly discussing the plot of this movie, because, really, who is that for? No one is getting convinced to see this movie because the story sounds interesting. You either want to see Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and others team up or you don't. The story though is that with Superman dead, some godlike being called Steppenwolf (no, "Magic Carpet Ride" doesn't play once) returns to Earth to gather three MacGuffins boxes that will destroy the planet. His motivations are a little hazy (or maybe I just didn't care much, like how I didn't care why Loki was doing his thing in The Avengers). Regardless, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) find and recruit Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) for assistance. It's hardly a spoiler to say that Superman (Henry Cavill) finds a way to come back too. The exact mechanics of this don't matter too much. It happens. Aquaman has been hiding in a remote seaside village. The Flash has been slumming it, never getting over his dad being sent to prison for allegedly killing his mother. Cyborg has been in hiding ever since his father brought him back to life using alien technology after an accident.

The real fun of the movie is once the team is assembled. Overall, it's a good balance. The team all has different levels of experience. The Flash is just starting out. Batman is closer to the end of his career and has been the only one on the team not in hiding. Momoa is a lot of fun as Aquaman. Remember the movie Hancock? He's kind of like that, except not an alcoholic. Ezra Miller is a little less sarcastic than I expected. He clearly took some inspiration from Evan Peters' Quicksilver from X-Men, except with more of a nervous energy. Fisher is saddled with a drip of a character. Cyborg is mostly just brooding and robotic. He loosens up some toward the end, but it's not enough to make me excited for more. Gadot continues to be the best thing about any of the movies she's appeared in as Wonder Woman. Affleck even allows his Batman to crack a joke or two. Cavill doesn't get a lot of time to reinsert himself into the narrative. I can see him working well with the rest of the team in the future. The rest of the cast (Amy Adams, JK Simmons, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, Connie Neilsen) is understandably underused, so I won't harp too much on the fact that any movie could use more Amy Adams in it.

If all you want to know is if Justice League is an entertaining superhero team up movie, then you can stop here. It is. It's entertaining. The story moves at a good pace. The stakes justify the need for the team up. The action is big and exciting. Even the things I had issues with weren't as maddening as in previous movies -- cough -- Dawn of Justice -- cough.

I suppose this is the point when I should give some spoiler alert warnings.

But, I did have my issues. Two big ones. This first I saw coming. I've made it no secret that I don't care for DC's approach to building this cinematic universe. It all felt too fast. They keep pushing team ups too quickly, which really hampers the movie. I keep thinking of it in TV terms. Ideally, Justice League is a crossover. It's The Flintstones meet The Jetsons. It's taking a bunch of established characters and seeing how they bounce off one another. A crossover is supposed to be all payoff. The previous installments should do all the heavy lifting so that the crossover can play. That's exactly why The Avengers worked so well. However, Justice League is more like watching a backdoor pilot*. Justice League is Mork showing up at the Cunningham house on Happy Days. A backdoor pilot normally ignores whether or not the actual episode is good. The success of a backdoor pilot is measured by how excited it makes the audience to see this other series they are introducing. Justice League is stuck doing a lot of backdoor pilot work. A lot of time is spent establishing back stories for Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg, which takes away from the really thrilling part about the Justice League idea: seeing established characters bounce off one another. It's a lot easier to build a character as a lead then have them step back for a supporting role than to build a character as a supporting character then turn them into a lead. That's the exact reason why spinoffs rarely succeeds. Well, Justice League attempts something even more difficult. It tries to build multiple characters as pieces of an ensemble in this movie who can also be leads in their own movie. That is incredibly difficult to do with even a single character, let alone two or three. It's probably not a coincidence that no character who has been introduced in an Avengers movie has received a standalone movie of their own. To be fair, this is more the fault of the DC movie architects than this specific movie. It does as well as it can, but something is off about it nonetheless.

*A backdoor pilot is when an episode of a show that's already on the air is used to introduce the characters and/or setting for a new series that is being developed.

The other big issue I had is also not really the movie's fault: Did Superman die in Dawn of Justice just so they had an excuse to assemble the Justice League? Had Superman been alive from the beginning of this movie, I'm not sure anyone else would've been needed to stop this threat. There's a massive power imbalance inherent to these heroes/characters. Batman is essentially there for moral support. I'm not sure if The Flash is supposed to have any superpowers beyond his speed. He takes some hits like a champ though. Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Aquaman are decently powerful but struggle against Steppenwolf. Superman shows up though and pummels Steppenwolf with ease. Clark Kent is basically deus ex Superman, which kind of neuters the team up angle. It's kind of like when someone points out that Indiana Jones is superfluous to the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Technically, it doesn't ruin the movie, but it does sort of nag at me.

At this point, I'm starting to wonder if DC really needs to be in the universe building game. Superman, Batman, and recently Wonder Woman have all worked best on their own. While Justice League was fun, it felt more like they were writing a term paper and had to cite 6 sources to receive full credit, like they were required to have this team up. They've been trying to use Marvel's playbook for a while, and it's not working as well. Perhaps they need a Kevin Feige to oversee all this or Zack Snyder is not the best creative voice to build around. I'm not sure. I just don't look forward to the DC movies the way I did in the Nolan days or the way I look forward to even the lesser Marvel movies now. Based on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, I'm not alone.

Verdict (?): Weakly Recommend

Monday, November 20, 2017

Movie Reaction: Lady Bird

There are few more reliable archetypes for me than a high school coming of age story. I fall in love with a movie of that ilk nearly every year. Last year, The Edge of Seventeen was one of the most unshakable movies I saw. The year before that, Me & Earl & The Dying Girl hit me like a sledgehammer. Back in 2013, I remember The Way Way Back single-handedly put me in a great mood. I'm a sucker for the genre even though the films rarely have something new to say. It's almost always some mix of feeling alone and rejected, discovering the person who you are going to be, and realizing the world is a lot bigger than you. The quality of the movie is almost all in the strength of the performances and specificity of the writing. That, just happens to be Lady Bird's two greatest strengths.

Lady Bird tells the story of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's (Saoirse Ronan) senior year of high school in Sacramento. She wants desperately to get out of that city, which she looks at as a drag, and move to the east coast for college. Part of this is because of her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalfe) who she constantly feuds with. The rest of the time, Lady Bird (she opts to go by that self-appointed nickname over her birth name in an act of benign defiance) goes through all the typical high school things. She has crushes, tries to hang with the cool clique, and joins the drama club. She has an extra-layer of awkwardness to contend with, because she goes to a  rich private Catholic school despite not being Catholic and coming from a markedly not rich family, which she tries to conceal from her classmates.

The cast is large and deep with talent, from Tracy Letts as Lady Bird's recently unemployed father, to Lucas Hedges as a theater boy Lady Bird falls for, to Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird's put upon best friend, but there's a reason why I specifically pointed out Ronan and Metcalfe in the last paragraph: they make the movie. I'd like to say things like "Ronan is a revelation" or "Metcalfe is giving a carer-defining performance", but let's remember that Ronan is a 23 year old with two Oscar nominations already and Metcalfe is an Emmy powerhouse with 10 nominations including 3 wins. Instead, I'll say that it should be no surprise that they are awesome. They move impressively between bickering and getting along, sometimes in an instant. There's love in that relationship, but they also know exactly how to press each other's buttons. It's all very natural and very believable. If both of them aren't in the Oscar discussion in the coming months, then something is very wrong.

If I didn't mention Greta Gerwig, I'd be a fool. She wrote and directed this film and it's a very strong debut. I was kind of shocked that she didn't even appear in a small role. Her presence was felt regardless. I've heard people suggest that the movie is semi-autobiographical. I can believe that, but Ronan isn't just playing a young[er] Greta Gerwig. I can see some Gerwig in the Lady Bird character, but Ronan brings enough to the role to make it her own. I love Gerwig's script because it feels very lived in. There's a lot going on in the movie around Lady Bird's story. Sometimes, the side-story is told in only a couple scenes or moments, but that's all the audience needs. Something like Lady Bird's brother being adopted isn't explained until it naturally comes up, and even then, it's only touched on. I feel like if I asked Gerwig for more information about any of these peripheral stories, she'd have a thorough answer, and I like when a script feels that thought out. You know, the iceberg approach to storytelling.

Lady Bird is a familiar movie. I've probably seen every beat covered in another movie before. Lady Bird and the lead from The Edge of Seventeen are certainly cut from the same cloth. I really enjoyed it though. It has a script that knows when to take itself seriously and when to laugh at it. The film creates a distinct time and place. The great performances do the rest of the work. My only reservation is that Gerwig does such a good job behind the camera that I might not see her in front of it as often. Wasn't losing Ron Howard and Fred Savage enough?

Verdict (?): Strongly Recommend