Justice League Dark

Released: February 2017

Director: Jay Oliva

Rated R

Run Time: 75 Minutes

Genre: Action/Animated

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Matt Ryan: John Constantine
Jason O’Mara: Batman/Bruce Wayne
Camilla Luddington: Zatanna
JB Blood: Abnegazar/Merlin
Ray Chase: Jason Blood/Etrigan
Roger Cross: Alec Holland/Swamp Thing/John Stewart/Green Lantern
Jeremy Davies: Ritchie Simpson
Rosario Dawson: Wonder Woman
Alfred Molina: Destiny
Jerry O’Connell: Superman

It is no secret that when it comes to comic-book based movies, Marvel Entertainment and Disney clearly have the upper hand with their Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Their live-action films have done serious business and have been mostly well-received by both audiences and critics.  However, the same can’t necessarily be said of their animated films.  Their animated films, with the exception of maybe one or two, aren’t that good.  DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the exact opposite problem right now.  The two live-action movies released last year, Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad were not very well received by anybody.  While I personally enjoyed Dawn of Justice, I can’t necessarily say the same for Suicide Squad.  It was a massive disappointment.  Their animated films though, are absolutely amazing.  Movies like Batman: Under the Red Hood really blew the lid off of the animated superhero genre.  Last year’s Batman: The Killing Joke, had issues with the opening, but was otherwise a really faithful adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name.  DC and Warner Bros. have two live-action films due this year, Wonder Woman and Justice League.  I really hope they get those two movies right.  But right now, I’m going to be looking at DC’s latest animated feature: Justice League Dark.

The film’s dark opening has us witnessing various horrible crimes being committed by law-abiding citizens because they seem to be seeing demons.  While the Justice League, being led by Superman, are investigating these crimes, one of them believes that the origin of these crimes may be magical in nature.  As a result, Batman recruits the talents of demon-hunter John Constantine to help investigate these incidents.  With the aid of magician Zatanna, it is discovered that there is a sinister magical force at work here.  So, they recruit a Dead Man and Swamp Thing to help fight these dark forces that threaten the world.  I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been a very big comic book reader.  I’ve read my fair share here and there, but it wasn’t an obsession.  That being said, I found the story in Justice League Dark, to be very interesting.  This kind of mystical menace isn’t something that’s generally tackled by the normal Justice League.  A new team had to be formed to combat these new threats.  While the main villain’s motivations are still unclear, it’s really cool to see that there is a connection to the Merlin of legend, and the Knights of the Round Table.  It was actually a pretty gripping story and it was paced quite well.  It’s also really refreshing to see a DC movie with a bit of a horror movie slant to it.

While the Justice League proper does appear in this film, they are mostly sidelined for most of the story, with the exception of Batman.  The heroes we get this time are very unique.  John Constantine is a magician who battles demons.  Zatanna is a stage magician who has unique powers of her own.  Deadman is an assassinated acrobat who can possess people while Jason Blood is a former Knight of the Round Table who, with the demon Etrigan, is bound by a curse.  Swamp Thing is obviously a creature of the swamp, who used to be human, but now protects everything green.  Like many people, my exposure to Constantine was in the Keanu Reeves movie of the same name.  That was my introduction to the character.  There was also a TV series about the character that lasted only 13 episodes.  Zatanna I had heard of, but my only experience with that character was in the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us.  Swamp Thing I was more familiar with because of the campy movie from the 80’s.  These are very interesting characters and their relationships with each other are fairly complex.  The villain/s in this film are where this film starts to falter.  We have Felix Faust and Destiny.  While they have very cool superpowers, we aren’t given any kind of motivation other than world domination/destruction.  We don’t even see Destiny for nearly the whole movie.  He’s in a flashback scene, where he’s basically a disciple of Merlin that went insane, and a full-blown demon towards the end of the film.  Not that impressive, I have to say.

The voice cast they got for this movie is impressive, to say the least.  Matt Ryan, who actually played Constantine in the TV series, returns to voice the character in this film, and he’s definitely one of the biggest highlights of the film.  Jason O’Mara has voiced Batman for at least six or seven animated movies so far, and he’s not shabby.  He’s no Kevin Conroy, but he gets the job done.  Camilla Luddington really gives her character that extra pep and feistiness that you would expect from Zatanna.  Alfred Molina is the voice of Destiny, even though you couldn’t tell, but he’s mostly wasted.  It’s a shame, too.  Molina is one of the best actors out there.  Overall, the voice acting is pretty good.

The artwork in this film is rather impressive.  I didn’t see a single 3D image in there whatsoever, so it appears that the whole thing was hand-drawn.  That’s a good thing.  There aren’t many movies out there anymore that employ these kind of visuals.  It’s dark, gritty, and it gets violent from time to time.  It’s definitely action-packed and visually interesting to watch.  The character designs are very unique and the animation is pretty solid.  So, aside from some issues with the villains, Justice League Dark is actually a pretty good time.  It’s got stellar voice-acting and some really outstanding visuals.  I would definitely recommend this one.

Final Score: 8.5/10


RIP Bill Paxton

May 17, 1955-February 25, 2017

As some of you may or may not know, one of my favorite actors died last night.  Bill Paxton, born May 17, 1955 to Mary Lou and John Lane Paxton, passed away last night due to complications from heart surgery.  He was 61.  For those of us who are enormous fans of Mr. Paxton, this comes as a major shock.  I was talking to one of my friends at work about movie stuff, as we usually do, and he told me that Bill Paxton had died.  At first, I refused to believe it, because Bill was not that old, nor did he suffer from any serious cancer.  Sure enough, I get home and to my dismay, it was true.  This is absolutely tragic, because it came out of nowhere.  I don’t to focus on his death, because I want to celebrate his life and the amazing career that he’s had over the past 30+ years.

Bill Paxton was born in Fort Worth, Texas and lived there until he turned 18, when he moved to Los Angeles, California.  He found work as a set dresser for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures company.  While he’s had a few bit parts in a couple of things between 1975 and 1984, Bill got his biggest break when James Cameron cast him as a blue-haired punk in The Terminator.  It wasn’t a huge role and only lasted a few minutes, but it was more than enough, because Cameron would again cast Bill Paxton in another blockbuster movie, Aliens.  It was his portrayal of Pvt. Hudson that put him on the map.  While Bill Paxton has rarely been considered a leading man in movies, the characters that he inhabits are nothing short of spectacular.  Obviously, Hudson is probably his most famous role.  At that point, it didn’t really matter what kind of material you threw at the guy, he would always find a way to make it memorable, even if the movie surrounding him wasn’t as good.  Mr. Paxton has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Kurt Russell, Tom Hanks, James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sigourney Weaver, Donald Glover and Tom Cruise.  Yeah, he doesn’t necessarily get the A-list status that these other folks do, but his body of work is no less impressive.  He’s worked in television and film, both in front of and behind the camera.  His love of the art form and the industry was evident in every single thing he did.  He never half-assed ANYTHING.  To say that the world has lost a great actor and artist is an understatement.  Bill Paxton leaves behind a wife, Louise Newbury and two children.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage

Released: October 2016

Director: Mario Van Peebles

Rated R

Run Time: 128 Minutes

Distributor: Lionsgate Studios

Genre: War/Drama

Nicolas Cage: Captain McVay
Tom Sizemore: McWhorter
Thomas Jane: Lt. Adrian Marks
Matt Lanter: Bama
James Remar: Admiral Parnell
Yutaka Takeuchi: Hashimoto

In my preview of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage last year, I used this clip from the movie Jaws.  It’s one of the most haunting moments in that entire movie, and you can thank Robert Shaw’s performance for that.  It was spine-tingling.  Like many people, my initial knowledge of the USS Indianapolis incident came from that movie.  At that point, I didn’t even think it was real.  Oh, it was real.  It’s considered to be the worst disaster in the US Navy’s history.  But again, I use this clip from Jaws, because it’s been the inspiration for many adaptations of the story, and the Nic Cage movie is no different.  So, does USS Indianapolis respect the source material, the event, and the people who survived this horrific event?  Let’s find out.

Because this movie is based on actual events, I’m basically just going to cover what happened with this ship.  The USS Indianapolis was commissioned by the President of the United States to deliver top-secret materials to the island of Tinian.  The thing was, the mission to deliver those materials was so top-secret, the Navy refused to send an escort of destroyers with the Indianapolis.  They felt that having destroyers would have drawn attention to the vessel by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  The top-secret materials that were loaded onto McVay’s ship were parts to a top-secret weapon developed during what is now known as The Manhattan Project.  The materials, which included enriched uranium, were to be used in construction of Little Boy, the first atomic bomb which would be dropped on Hiroshima.  After delivering the weapon, the Indianapolis was struck by two Japanese torpedoes.  The ship sank in 12 minutes taking 300 men down with her.  The rest of the crew, including the captain were adrift for several days after the ship sank.  900 men died to exposure, starvation and shark attacks.  317 men survived.  Captain McVay was unfairly court-martialed for hazarding his ship during war.  Ironically, the captain of the Japanese submarine that sank the ship came to his defense.  Captain Hashimoto basically said that zig-zagging would have made no difference, because the submarine was so close.  The story of the USS Indianapolis is one of the most intriguing stories in US history.  It’s an amazing story about survival in one of the worst possible positions to be in.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage is directed by Mario Van Peebles, who, in a bizarre twist of irony, starred in one of the Jaws movies.  I don’t consider Mr. Peebles to be a terrible director or actor, he really isn’t, but his handling of this movie is a bit of a mixed bag.  Let’s start with some of the performances.  Nicolas Cage will always be one of the most spectacular actors in cinema, for both good and bad reasons.  Nicolas Cage plays Captain McVay.  There are moments when Cage’s performance is very emotional and compelling, but there are other times when he’s either stiff as a board or is just hamming it up like it’s nobody’s business.  Tom Sizemore’s the same way, he’s got some scenes that really genuine and introspective, but the rest of the time, he’s so over the top, it’s hard to take him seriously.  These are the two actors that really needed to sell their characters, and they kind of didn’t.  The performances from the other actors are just standard-fare.  Nothing else really stands out.

One of the other major issues I have with the film are the special effects.  I understand that Men of Courage is not exactly a big-budget movie, but more effort could have been made to make the effects more believable.  As it stands, some of the effects are so laughably bad, it looks like they came from a bad 90’s video game.  For a film like this, you really need to portray it with the utmost realism, so the audiences can get involved with the story and the characters.  But you can’t do that, when the sharks and some of the planes are obviously CGI.  That being said, there are moments in this film that are genuinely good.  The sinking of the ship is spectacular and really intense.  While the survivors are adrift, there is some real tension there, because you have no idea who is going to die next.  The court-martial of Captain McVay has some real emotional weight to it, especially when Captain Hashimoto comes in to testify.  This scene really highlights one of greatest travesties that the US Navy ever committed against one of its own.  Of all the ships that were lost during the war, Captain McVay was the only one to be court-martialed.

Captain McVay ended up committing suicide in 1968 due to the all the guilt that was on his shoulders for the incident.  In 1996, a sixth-grade student did some research into the USS Indianapolis, which would lead to United States Congressional investigation.  In October of 2000, Congress passed a resolution which exonerated McVay of any wrong-doing during the Indianapolis incident.  President Bill Clinton signed that resolution and the Secretary of the Navy ordered McVay’s record cleared of any wrong-doing in 2001.  There are lessons to be learned from the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis, but the Nicolas Cage film isn’t really the right movie to tell them.  It doesn’t change history to fit its narrative, thankfully, but there were some serious missteps along the way.  This could have been one of the most powerful films of 2016, if Mario Van Peebles reeled in some of the outlandish performances of the film’s cast, and with better visual effects.  As it stands, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage isn’t a terrible movie.  It really isn’t.  While it definitely suffers on several levels, there’s enough here that can satisfy people who are interested in history and fans of Nicolas Cage.

Final Score: 7.5/10.

Hacksaw Ridge

Released: November 2016

Director: Mel Gibson

Rated R

Run Time: 139 Minutes

Genre: War/Drama

Distributor: Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate Studios

Andrew Garfield: Desmond Doss
Sam Worthington: Captain Glover
Luke Bracey: Smitty Ryker
Hugo Weaving: Tom Doss
Teresa Palmer: Dorothy Schutte
Rachel Griffiths: Bertha Doss
Vince Vaughan: Sgt. Howell

History books often show most major events in human history with a “big picture” mentality.  That means that history books look at events like World War I or II as an entirety.  The thing is, is that these “bigger pictures” are often made up many more “smaller pictures.”  How I define a smaller picture in the grand scheme of a major world war is that there are smaller things that happen during the course of the war or event that are just as important as the final outcome of the battle.  While these “minor” events may not figure heavily into the final outcome, they are nevertheless very important to some people.  Sometimes these smaller events are more important to some people than the bigger picture.  Sometimes it can come down to just one man who can make a difference, not necessarily for the world, but for the people around him or her.  Sometimes, people forget that a handful of soldiers or even just one, can make the difference between victory or defeat.

Hacksaw Ridge begins its story in Virginia where young Desmond Doss sees another young man get pinned underneath a car.  He runs out to help him and gets him to a hospital where Desmond meets a lovely nurse, Dorothy Schutte.  After taking her out on a date, Desmond enlists in the US Army.  However, being a Seventh Day Adventist, he cannot hold a weapon or take another life, so he enlists as a medic, where he believes he will do the most good.  This doesn’t sit well with his superiors and they try to run him out of the army for his religious convictions.  When I first previewed this movie last year, I had to do research on Desmond Doss, as this film is based on Desmond’s experiences in the war.  This is one of those “smaller picture” events that I was alluding to in the paragraph above.  This was not something I was aware of when I was taking history in high school and college.  It’s not one of those things that everybody knew about and yet it was one of the most compelling events during the war.  The story is extraordinary, not just in the battle that takes place in Okinawa, but also the battle between the army and Desmond Doss.  The first hour of the movie is basically introducing Desmond and his conflict with the Army.  Ultimately, he was allowed to serve without using a weapon.  During the course of the battle, Doss saved the lives of 75 soldiers.  As a result, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award that anyone can receive.  For me, the story is compelling because it’s about a man who refuses to comprise his convictions.  The film is not about religion, even though it does play a part.  It’s more about faith.  The man’s personal belief in what was right really drives the story, and it is one of the most interesting stories ever told.

A story like this couldn’t be told unless you have the right actors.  This is one of the film’s greatest strengths.  Andrew Garfield is absolutely incredible as Doss.  He plays the character with a great deal of humility and respect and sells the character as someone who has the courage to stand up for what he believes in.  There’s a reason he was nominated for Best Actor.  Teresa Palmer is not just simply stunning as Dorothy Schutte, but her character is Doss’s anchor.  She’s a little feisty, but the character is very warm and charming.  Hugo Weaving is astonishing as Desmond’s father.  You can tell that the character has been through hell, because he fought in World War I, so he doesn’t want to see his kids make the same mistakes that he and his buddies did.  But because of his experience, the character is a drunk, and not necessarily the most pleasant person to be around.  Hugo makes the character sympathetic at times.  He’s not in the movie for very long, but his presence is very much needed.  Sam Worthington is an actor that I actually like.  Is he the greatest?  No.  But he’s definitely made an impression over the years.  In Hacksaw Ridge, we get to see him really flex his acting muscles, and he’s really damned good.  He plays Captain Glover, who at first doesn’t like Doss, but comes to respect him over the course of the film.  Of all the actors in this film, Vince Vaughan was genuinely surprising.  While he does come across as the usual gruff and loud-mouthed drill instructor, the character is far more complex than you would think.  Vaughan’s performance is very surprising considering the actor’s comic background.  Yeah, the acting in this film is really good.

While Hacksaw Ridge is a character drama at its core, it is definitely a war movie.  The first half of the movie is a philosophical war film, so to speak.  The second half of the film is where the real war takes place and like Saving Private Ryan, it’s ugly and terrifying.  Like Ryan, it’s handled very realistically.  You have the big explosions caused by artillery fire, but the detail on the ground is very striking.  People, both Americans and Japanese alike, are torn to shreds.  Limbs are blown off, and people are blown in half.  It’s gruesome.  I love it when movies portray war as realistically as possible, because it shows the audience that it’s not fun and games.  It’s a very real and ugly situation for everybody involved.  Doss’s actions during this particular sequence is nothing short of amazing, and that’s how it actually happened by all accounts.  Hacksaw Ridge is the first movie that Mel Gibson has directed since Apocalypto in 2006.  This man knows his business.  While there is definitely chaos in the film, it’s all filmed so we can see what’s happening, which makes the experience that much more visceral.

As far as war movies go, I would honestly put Hacksaw Ridge right up there with Saving Private Ryan.  It’s that good.  Obviously, some liberties had to be taken during the film, such as Desmond’s near-lethal confrontation with his father that never actually happened, but it added to the tension and it helped us really understand why he never wanted to hold a gun.  I would honestly have to say that this movie was one of the best movies of 2016.  Mel Gibson is in fine form as a director and he really knows how to tell a story.  Hacksaw Ridge gets a very solid recommendation from me.

Final Score: 9.5/10