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Justice League: A (Spoiler Free) Movie Review

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Batman smiles!

But more on that later…

If one were to peruse my prior reviews of DC movies, one would find that I have been far more generous in my appraisal of their quality than widespread opinion has been. I have also enjoyed them more, it seems, than much of the movie-going public (though, for the negative reputations these movies have, someone is seeing them – they make a lot of dough!). It should come as no surprise, then, that I very much enjoyed Justice League. There is a Seven Samurai, bring the heroes together quality to the film that is intentional and that works very, very well. Each of the five (six?) heroes of the Justice League are spotlighted quite nicely as they determine whether or not to band together against, you know, ultimate evil.

Let us begin with that self-same ultimate evil. The glaring disappointment in the movie is Steppenwolf, the antagonist whose actions bring together the League. Like many (most?) superhero movies, Justice League has a difficult time establishing Steppenwolf as more than a powerful force bent on destroying the world. He is powerful. He might destroy the world. His motivation beyond that is murky as is the CGI that realizes him on screen. There are some breathtaking CGI scenes in Justice League – very cool, very fun visualizations. Steppenwolf, unfortunately, is not one of them. He is just another generic, superhero movie villain with very little, visually or otherwise, to distinguish him.

The members of the League itself, however? Not generic. At all.

Justice League has a tonally different feel from the prior movies of the DC universe. Where those movies, in my opinion, delved surprisingly deeply into the implications of heroes living in the “real world” and the ramifications of their presence, Justice League end-runs any significant thematic rumblings in favor of save-the-world dynamics. And the dynamics are engaging, exciting and fun.

Batman (Ben Affleck having much fun in the cowl) knows something is coming for the Earth. He learned this at the end of Batman v Superman and he is aware that his actions have left the earth vulnerable, aware that Superman’s death is, at least partially, his responsibility. He and Wonder Woman (the again terrific Gal Gadot) embark on a quest to bring together other meta-humans to face the coming crisis. These are the meta-humans Batman and Wonder Woman learned of from Lex Luthor’s jump drive in Batman v Superman and the fun kicks into high gear when the team starts to come together.

Say what you wish about Zack Snyder as a director. I believe it is difficult to fault his casting choices. Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ezra Miller (the Flash) and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) are all terrific and bring much to the party. Miller’s Barry Allen is a particular delight and he had a challenging task to differentiate himself from Grant Gustin’s popular turn as the Flash on television. His performance more than does that. He is hilarious and endearing. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the surprising heart of the movie and the depths that could be mined with the character point to great potential. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman has a bit more going on than the tough-guy images shared in the previews might suggest. Individually they are good.

Together, they are great.

The fun of Justice League is found in the well drawn interplay among the leaguers. Director Zack Snyder, writer Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, who came into the movie very late in the process (and it is very difficult to tell where Whedon picked up from where Snyder left off) know that their stars will carry the day, so much so that the plot of the movie, which is more than serviceable, is less important than the players. It is difficult to single out any combination of the Leaguers as the best combination and that is a credit to cast and director.

If the DC movies (save the almost universally well received Wonder Woman) have been bleak, humorless, gray and meandering, Justice League set out to and succeeded in rising above those critiques. The movie begins briskly and does not take its foot off the gas until the final stinger scene (at the far end of the credits… stick around, people). It is rumored that Warner Bros. mandated a running time of no more than two hours. While I would have loved to have seen a bit more (and a long run time may have addressed some of the Steppenwolf issues), I understand the choice. And it works.

Justice League is a big, fun, superhero team origin story. It is a story of redemption for Batman who lightens up in this one, who cracks jokes and smiles and, through whom, perhaps the upcoming DC movie slate is changed. Future DC movies are well positioned following Justice League.

And, hey, let’s get Justice League II on the schedule.

Now, that the team is in place, I want to see what happens next.



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Murder on the Orient Express – A Movie Review

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Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is one lavish movie. Each set piece, from the opening scene at the Wailing Wall to the final shot in the uninviting cold of a wintry train station, Branagh has directed a lovely looking movie unlike most films audiences currently experience. Branagh is underrated as a director and what he does in this movie is special: he blends amazing shots and set pieces with a massive cast while remaking a Hollywood classic and keeping the material feeling fresh. While not perfect, Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging and engrossing … dare I write… ride.

The movie presents a terrific “locked-room” mystery: a murder has been committed on a trained and the train and passengers are icebound. Someone among them is a killer. Conveniently, someone among them happens also to be “perhaps the greatest detective in the world.”

Branagh directs himself as Agatha Christie’s most famous creation: Hercule Poirot and he gives himself the same loving treatment the scenery receives but he does not only allow himself to shine. Branagh has a massive (and immensely talented) cast to balance here. Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Deep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad to name just a few. While the constraints of the film do not allow for full character development, Branagh allows each of the cast a moment in the spotlight over the course of the movie.

Depp gives a surprisingly complex performance in very limited screen time. It is some of his best work in a long time, frankly, and much has to do with the restraint he allies to the role. Ridley receives the most exposure out of the supporting cast but her works suffers from the fact that there is very little for her to actually do except match wits with Branagh’s Poirot. Gad is terrific and brings energy to each scene and Jacobi and Dench are clearly having fun working with Branagh, their long-time collaborator.

But it is Pfeiffer who vies most compellingly for the spotlight. The actress is having something of a re-emergence and it is most welcome. Not only is she wonderful in the film, but she also sings the Branagh co-penned song over the closing credits. She is given a nice emotional range to portray over the course of the movie and she handles in brilliantly.

The movie suffers, a bit, from an abundance of acting riches. Beyond the cast mentioned, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom jr. and Tom Bateman as also wonderful but all of the actors feel a bit jammed into the proceedings. On the one hand, this is a problem because the audience would like to know more about them. On the other, this is just fine for, after Poirot, the star of the story should be the mystery at hand and the ability of the audience to follow the twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion.

Here the movie looks a little better than it plays out.

In order for the plot to make sense and the killer to be revealed, the audience endures an awful lot of flashbacks and, while these are handled well from a technical aspect (in black and white, shot at oblique angles) they are less integrated into the overall flow of the narrative. Branagh works hard to let the audience connect most of the dots but, at the end of the day, his Poirot must explain all.

While the explanation is faithful to the source material, it does not hold together quite well enough to yield a completely satisfying experience.

Murder on the Orient Express is a wonderful looking movie to watch and it is entertaining to see actors of this magnitude share the screen. And the mystery at the heart of the movie almost pays off.


The film ends with a promise of another installment.

I would see it… just for Branagh’s mustache.


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LBJ – A Movie Review

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Playing out more like a tv movie of the week than a major motion picture, LBJ is simply too small to tell give audiences any kind of sense of the larger-than-life figure that Lyndon Johnson was. There is nothing offensive about the movie and it is well shot and well made. It just lacks any ambition and does not justify its existence in any way, shape or form. The film suffers from any kind of comparison to the far superior All the Way in which director Jay Roach makes the good decision to center in on one point of LBJ’s amazing story, thereby illuminating a critical moment in American history and providing Bryan Cranston, who played Johnson in that film, a tour-de-force opportunity.

LBJ eschews this approach and tries, rather, to set up a comparison LBJ and JFK as the backdrop of film whose intentions are to explore what made a lion of the senate and, seemingly, a president who knew how to get things done. The problem here is that the Kennedy parts of the story seem far more intriguing than the title subject. And, when the moment of truth arrives in the third act – when Johnson decides that he must support Kennedy’s full agenda – he seems more weak than strong, more functionary than leader.

I do not think that is what the movie had in mind.

The film does do a good job portraying LBJ as a foul-mouthed Svengali of American politics and the dynamics of his senate dealings and his more than complex relationship with the Kennedys (specifically with Bobby) are involving and well drawn. Woody Harrelson (who looks jarringly little like the man he is portraying) is up to every challenge the movie asks of him. The movie simply does not ask that much.

The rest of the cast has even less to do. Richard Jenkins, normally a fascinating actor to watch, is reduced to something of a two-dimensional, mustache twirler. Jennifer Jason Leigh fades into the background as Lady Bird Johnson. The rest of the ensemble is adequate and up to the meager tasks they are asked to perform.

What could have been an involving film about a complex man is reduced in size, theme and scope to something too pat, too easy and too simplistic. There are no high points. There are few low points. There is a steady proficiency that is empty and disappointing.

LBJ is fine.

Woody Harrelson as the eponymous Lyndon Johnson is fine.

Direction by the former brilliant and now serviceable Rob Reiner is fine, too.

The entire affair is fine.

It is no better than that.


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Thor | Ragnarok – A Movie Review (Spoiler Free)

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RagnarokThor | Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi’s imagination seems to have been given free reign by the higher ups at Marvel Studios and the resultant movie, wisely, breaks with much of the formulas of previous Marvel films. The Marvel movies are typically very good and certainly make money hand-over-fist, but their patterns were beginning to calcify. The stories were beginning to be all too predictable. The plots repetitive.

Giving creative people freedom to explore what these characters may become and allowing these creators to make changes to them is a bold and good impulse. While trying to be too bold with Marvel characters may have cost Edgar Wright, the original  director of Ant-Man his job might have, seen through the lens of James Gunn’s unpredicatble success with The Guardians of the Galaxy led to Waititi’s Thor | Ragnarok. Choosing talented people and letting them make the movies they envision may be the new Marvel method.

If so, bravo Marvel. Keep movies like this one coming. 

Thor | Ragnarok is one of the zaniest, craziest, over-the-top movies I have seen in quite a while. Evoking for me memories of the off-the-wall insanity of The Lego Movie and the first Despicable Me (the writers/directors of those had to be altered in some fashion, right?), Thor | Ragnarok plays like some kind of  joyous, Technicolor LSD trip, juiced up on steroids.

The basic plot of the titular hero attempting to stop”the end of everything” on his home world Asgard is not stunningly original. The execution, however, is anything but boring and the over 2 hour running time of the movie flies by before one can catch one’s breath from laughter.

There is a lot of fun being had in Thor | Ragnarok. The returning assemble is clearly having a lot more fun than the did in the relatively deary last entry Thor: The Dark World (possibly the low-water mark for Marvel Studios) and the additions to the cast are winning and delightfully entertaining.

Tessa Thompson, as Valkyrie, is a wonderful creation. As removed from her comic book origins as any character in a Marvel Studios movie has been, Thompson captures the audience with a Han Solo like bravado and a strength of performance so natural that the question of whether she can stand toe-to-toe with the ever lovable Chris Hemsworth never arises in the audience’s mind. Her Valkyrie may be the first original lead character in a Marvel Studios film and, if she is any indication of where these movies can go if they jettison the source material with a little more freedom, more power to them.

Cate Blanchett gives a delicious performance as Hela, the primary antagonist of the movie. Rumor has it that she took the movie on the urging of her young son who wanted to see his mom in a Marvel movie and she should thank him if that is true. She has more fun destroying things and people throughout the movie and is more fun to watch doing it than the majority of Marvel villains. Though her motivation and plot is no more complex than most of the other evils Marvel heroes have faced in this vast movie mythology, her performance forgives that failure utterly.

And Jeff Goldblum is all anyone could want him to be and more. There is no “top” he will not soar over and each scene he is in seems more ridiculous and terrific than the last. Though few will be clamoring for a Grandmaster movie, I imagine we will see much more of Goldblum in Marvel Studios movies to come. I eagerly await that.

Outside of the strong and winning performance by Hemsworth, the rest of the returning Thor Players seem to know they are in something special, too. Tom Hiddleston remains the best of the Marvel antagonists and his Loki continues to engage and surprise. The Warriors Three are here and more than adequate with the little they are allowed to do. It was said that Anthony Hopkins turned down reprising his role as Odin until he read and loved the script. Though his part is small, it is great to see him here having fun and providing the gravitas that only he can. Idris Elba’s Heimdhal might be the most heroic character in the movie and I would loved to have seen more of him. He and Hemsworth have an easy chemistry and they are great to watch together.

Cameos (and extended cameos) abound here. The Hulk is featured and Mark Ruffalo is just what we want him to be. And the Hulk is more than we could have hoped for. Marvel has finally figured this character out and while he might never headline a movie, if they can continue to hew closely to this arc, fans should be happy. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as Doctor Strange and, while it was nice to see him, his scenes actually do very little to advance the plot of the movie. They might, in fact, be the only place where Thor | Ragnarok slips into fan service. As a fan, I was okay with this… The other cameos are so spoiler-y they cannot be mentioned but an audiences will be delighted by them.

Taika Waititi makes very few missteps here. His choices are bold, bright and fun. However, the movie is not perfect. Karl Urban’s Skurge is, unfortunately, never fully realized. And, while the antics of the movie are fun and amusing and the stakes seem high enough for a superhero movie like this one, I fear there is not a lot of heart at the center of Thor | Ragnarok. Perhaps there does not have to be. After all, this is a big budget, big action entertainment. Maybe it does not need to be more than that. The movie delivers everywhere it should. There may have been the potential to deliver just a little more. May have.

Thor | Ragnarok plays something like a mix of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers and that is a great tone to strike. It is grand. It is a Jack “King” Kirby comic book played out before one’s eyes. It is a terrific two hours at the movies.

It is, as the Hulk might say, a smash.

THOR | RAGNAROK receives FOUR and a HALF AIR CRAZY CAMEOS out of a possible FIVE.

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Only the Brave – A Movie Review

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ONLY THE BRAVE (2017) Movie Poster CR: Columbia PicturesOnly the Brave tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a group of fire fighters whose heroism is as laudable as it is hard to believe. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the movie is something of a visual spectacle – a seamless mix of practical and computer generated effects that puts the audience in the center of the fires these men fight and in the midst of the action they confront.

The Granite Mountain Hot Shots are led by a well tuned Josh Brolin whose Eric Marsh holds the team together through a winning mixture of passionate commitment and tough love. Brolin, who seems ever on the verge of breaking big, is playing at the type of role in Marsh that he wears well: the grizzled, plain-spoken sage hiding more beneath his typically placid surface than meets the eye. Brolin’s Marsh is the glue that holds both the Hot Shots and the human element of the movie together and, refreshingly, his relationship with his wife Amanda (played by the excellent Jennifer Connelly) is important to the story and more central the to proceedings than it typically would be in a film of this nature.

This is a good thing. The interaction with Amanda humanizes Marsh in a way nothing else in the movie does and these fire fighters are best served when they appear to be humans doing amazing things.

That is the theme at the core of the film: bravery begets bravery and as this group of men expands (the inevitable outsider Brendan Mcdonough who becomes beloved by the group role is ably played by Miles Teller) and comes together as a unit, they become stronger by clearing each hurdle put in their paths, those natural and those constructed by humanity.

On hand to keep things light is Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, acting for all the world as if he is making his role up as he goes along. He is charming and winning. Terrific, too, is the underrated Taylor Kitsch as Christopher MacKenzie, a fire fighter whose depth is well handled in the movie. Less developed is James Badge Dale’s Jesse Steed, a fairly standard, “I am a hero” role for an actor who has shown he can do a lot more than what is asked of him here.

The action scenes are breathtakingly imagined and the movie itself is earnestly told.

If there is a weakness here, it is found in the fact that film plays out by-the-numbers. Though the story is certainly affecting, there are not many surprises in Only the Brave. It is a solid, well-directed story of heroism and self-sacrifice, well worth a couple hours in the theater.


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American Made – A Movie Review

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american-made-final-poster-401x600While he is not everyone’s cup of tea, Tom Cruise is a movie star of a type that we do not see on screen with much regularity anymore. One can argue about the films he chooses to make (but I liked The Mummy) and one can, correctly, critique his religious choices, but it is hard to argue that Cruise is not movie star. He may not be able to open movies on the strength of his name alone anymore, but, once you come to a Tom Cruise movie, you are more likely to be entertained than not.

Cruise’s star talents are on full display in American Made which tells the (almost) true story of Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who made a personal fortune spying for the CIA, running drugs for the Medellin Cartel and supplying weapons and a training location for the Contras. Only someone with ridiculous self confidence and a massive ego could pull of the schemes that Seal kept afloat a Cruise, in his best performance in years, does a wonderful job of conveying a kinetic recklessness in Seal. He carries the film, is in almost every scene of it, and makes the character more appealing than he likely was in real life.

Cruise relies on very few of his tropes here. Seal has no father issues, is not a superhuman action star and does not seem to do much well except flying. It is the flying that first catches the eye of the CIA when Seal is recruited for a series of spy missions taking photos of Central American hot spots from the air. It was a simply step, made completely palatable in Cruise’s performance, to segue from these missions to picking up and dropping off cocaine for the Cartel.

How Seal became a part of training and arming the Contras is another crazy matter entirely.

Cruise, as is his wont right now, carries the film and it suffers when he is not on screen. He is surrounded by capable actors, the only two of whom who make much of an impression are Sarah Wright and Dohmnall Gleeson. Wright wrings some humor and joy out of a fairly narrowly written role as Lucy Seal, Barry’s all too trusting wife. She is able to hold her own with Cruise and the ample chemistry they show might owe to the fact that they are a couple in real life. Gleeson is also very good in a one-note role as Schafer, Seal’s CIA contact. What is amazing about Gleeson is how different he is in each-and-every film in which he appears. It is truly hard to recognize him from one film to the next and he is always worth watching.

Other characters populate the film, but I found myself wishing more had been done with them, especially the pilots Seal recruits to help him juggle his schemes.

But it is Cruise’s movie and he really does deliver a fine performance here. He is engaging and funny, but smart enough to know his character has a dark side or at least a broken moral compass. Though Seal is often smiling, there is something empty behind that smile, something sad. Cruise’s Seal is no one’s hero. He is not even much of Robin Hood like anti-hero. He was a guy in the right place at a series of wrong times and is barely keeping all the balls in the air. Cruise masterfully plays the confusion that Seal felt when he realized the money was not enough to make him happy.

The movie, as enjoyable as it was, does not do enough to indicate just how high the stakes are, right up until the conclusion. People live and people die. Lives are changed. Many are hurt but director Doug Liman is more than happy to let his star carry the action without suffering many consequences of his choices. This is a good decision for the movie – because Cruise is the best thing in it – but it hurts what might have been a more powerful exploration of the time in which it takes place. Name dropping Bill Clinton, including George W. Bush and Oliver North as characters and wrapping the whole thing up with real news footage of the time illustrates what might have been. Cruise is very much worth the price of admission, but American Made could have been an even better movie.

AMERICAN MADE receives FOUR KILOS OF COCAINE out of a possible FIVE.

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Battle of the Sexes – A Movie Review

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The-Battle-of-the-Sexes-poster-345-600x894There is very little I did not like in Battle of the Sexes.

Okay. There was nothing I did not like about Battle of the Sexes. Boasting superior, multi-faceted performances, deft and subtle direction, a lovely score and a 1970’s production design that kicks off from the promotional materials (take a look at the poster on the left – the folds are part of its design) and does not let go until the closing credit sequence (which itself features a terrific and moving song If I Dare by Sara Bareilles), Battle of the Sexes immediately moves towards the top of the class for Academy Award consideration. It is important. It is compelling. And it is eerily timely.

Smart, touching, funny and complex, the story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ so-called “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, pitting the mid-50’s Riggs against the late 20’s King, is so accomplished at involving the audience in the lives and motivations of its two main characters, the actual match feels like something of an anti-climax. Emma Stone, perhaps the most chameleon-like actor of her generation, disappears into the part of Billie Jean King, the sometimes reluctant poster woman for the 1970’s women’s rights movement. Stone’s performance is garnering Oscar talk for good reason. She is powerful and sympathetic in the role, simultaneously balancing the confidence of a superior athlete with the confusion of someone confronting questions of sexual identity. The tension between these personas is powerfully played and Stone makes King a poignant protagonist, someone for whom to cheer but for whom Stone generates enormous sympathy.

This is primarily accomplished without lengthy monologues or preachy dialogue. Rather Stone’s performance – her body language or the expressions on her face – tell the story. While Kine may have known what she was getting into when she took on the powerful, male- dominated apparatus of the professional tennis world, she did not seem to understand where she was headed (and what trail she was blazing) when she first acknowledged her sexual orientation.

There are prescient themes at play in Battle of the Sexes and, while the movie was in production before the political events that have driven the cultural conversation of the last 18 months, it is likely that the filmmakers shaped the film to have immediate relevance today as the pulled it together in editing. The story of Battle of the Sexes feels all too important in our current climate.

One of the reasons the film plays out as well as it does owes much to the performance of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Carell is a talented guy (and his physical resemblance to Riggs is nothing short of uncanny) and is the perfect person to nuance a role which, in the hands of someone else, might push into parody. Never willing to let his Riggs become a buffoon or an out-and-out villain, Carell’s portrayal provides enough shading for the audience to connect with a man who is on the wrong side of progress and is incapable of understanding that fact.

Battle of the Sexes is an excellent movie with a tremendous supporting cast (Alan Cumming deserves a special call-out). The material, in lesser hands with a lesser group of actors, may have been handled in a much more formulaic fashion. Battle of the Sexes rises above this trap by focusing less on the actual battle on the court and more on the battles going on in the character’s hearts and the film is all the better for the choice.


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