Justice League

Released: November 2017

Director: Zack Snyder

Run Time: 121 Minutes

Rated PG-13

Distributor: Warner Bros./DC Comics

Genre: Action/Science Fiction

Cast:
Ben Affleck: Bruce Wayne/Batman
Henry Cavill: Clark Kent/Superman
Gal Gadot: Diana Prince/Wonder Woman
Ezra Miller: Barry Allen/The Flash
Jason Momoa: Arthur Curry/Aquaman
Ray Fisher: Victor Stone/Cyborg
Amy Adams: Lois Lane
Jeremy Irons: Alfred
Diane Lane: Martha Kent
J.K. Simmons: Commissioner Gordon
Ciaran Hinds: Steppenwolf(Voice)
Amber Heard: Mera
Joe Morton: Silas Stone

When Iron Man was released back in 2008, it was the first step in bringing about The Avengers.  After a few movies, we finally got the Marvel Dream Team that everybody was hoping for in 2012.  It was and is still one of the coolest superhero movies ever made.  So, now that Marvel had The Avengers, what did Warner Bros. and DC have to offer?  In 2013, the Superman reboot, Man of Steel was released to mostly positive reviews and gave the superhero a grittier and darker edge than we were used to seeing from the Big Blue Boy Scout.  You want to know something?  It worked.  After the success of Man of Steel, Warner Bros. began working on a follow-up film that would essentially kick-off the DC Expanded Universe.  Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice began early pre-production and would finally see release in 2016 to mixed reviews.  Wonder Woman was also in production and would be released in the summer of 2017.  It was going to be the film that led up to the Justice League film that they’ve been planning for a while.  After years of waiting and hoping, we finally get to see the first live-action Justice League movie.  So….was it worth the wait?

By the end of Dawn of Justice, we saw Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman finally team up to take on the threat known as Doomsday, brought forth by the maniacal Lex Luthor.  During the battle, Superman was killed and the world was left to question what would happen in Superman’s absence.  As it turns out, his death had a very negative impact on the world.  Chaos began to spread across the world and the appearance of three mysterious boxes began to worry certain people.  One of these “Mother Boxes” was guarded by the Amazons on the island of Themyscera.  When Superman died, these boxes began to shake and glow.  A monstrous being known as Steppenwolf arrives through a portal to reclaim these boxes and claim dominion over the earth.  Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince, as a result, began searching the world for beings who would have the ability to fight Steppenwolf and possibly save the planet.  Their search brings them to Arthur Curry, also known as the Aquaman, Barry Allen a.k.a The Flash, and Victor Stone a.k.a Cyborg.  However, the five of them may not be enough to fight the storm that is coming.  As a follow-up film to Batman V. SupermanJustice League’s story is far less complicated and more stream-lined.  It wastes no time with multiple sub-plots and gets right to the point.  Honestly, that is probably the best direction that Zack Snyder could have gone in.  Dawn of Jusice got a little too complicated for its own good, so it’s awesome to see a follow-up that’s easy to…well…follow.  It’s also a far more light-hearted affair than the previous film.  People had complained that Dawn of Justice got too serious.  Well, I have good news, Justice League adds much-needed humor to the goings-on, and you know what?  The jokes and humor are mostly on-point.  There were more than a few times that I laughed out loud.  It’s not a comedy, but it’s nowhere near as dire as Dawn.

I enjoyed the story, but how’s the rest of the film?  Acting-wise, it’s pretty solid.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck return as Wonder Woman and Batman, respectively.  These two really knock it out of the park, I enjoyed their performances quite a bit.  The fact that they are allowed more levity and humor makes the film a lot better.  Now, we have new characters like The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg.  I have to tell you, Jason Momoa just nails it as Aquaman.  He’s clearly physically built for the role, but his talents as an actor really elevate what could have been a fairly standard character.  Ezra Miller is essentially the comic relief as The Flash.  You know what?  He’s actually pretty damned funny.  Ray Fisher is pretty good as Cyborg, but his character has a few problems that I’ll discuss later.  For those wanting to see Henry Cavill return as Superman, it’s worth the wait.  That’s all I will say about him.  Steppenwolf as a villain isn’t the strongest character here.  We’re not really given a lot of motivation for why he does what he does and when he’s not on the screen, we forget about him.  In the comics, Steppenwolf is the uncle and second-in-command of the supervillain/god, Darkseid.  So, we know where the next film is most likely going to go.  However, Steppenwolf is not the most compelling villain in Superman’s Rogue’s Gallery.  J.K. Simmons would have been great as Gordon, had he been given more screen time.

Since Justice League IS an action movie, how’s the action?  Pretty damned solid to be honest.  Yeah, there’s a lot of CGI, but that’s to be expected in a film of this magnitude.  You’re dealing with otherworldly monsters and characters that live underwater.  It’s nowhere near as brutal as Dawn of Justice, but it’s got a lot of “holy shit” moments.  This feels more like a superhero movie than Dawn did.  It keeps the action flowing too.  There are a few moments where it slows down a bit, but then it really kicks it up a notch.  I loved the sequence where the Amazons were taking on Steppenwolf.  That was pretty awesome.  There’s a battle underneath Gotham’s river that’s pretty cool too.  Everyone here gets their chance to shine as a superhero.  Batman and Wonder Woman are pretty obvious, but Aquaman is freaking amazing once he gets his trident.  The Flash is extraordinary as he basically moves really fast, but it’s done in such a way that’s really cool.

Now let’s talk about what the film didn’t get right.  First of all, the film feels a little too short for what’s going on and with the amount of new characters that were introduced.  This could have used an extra 10-15 minutes to really get to know the new superheroes.  Some of the characters feel like they got the short end of the stick.  Cyborg is probably my least favorite of the bunch.  It’s not because Fisher’s a bad actor, he isn’t, but the character is mostly CGI, and sometimes the CG isn’t that good.  Steppenwolf is ALL CGI.  I like the design, I just don’t like how the character doesn’t feel real.  Some of the humor doesn’t quite land, especially in the face of some pretty dark moments.  The 121 minute run-time mandated by Warner Bros. was a really bad idea as the film feels a little rushed.  While the negatives really don’t impact one’s enjoyment of the film, they are noticeable and could have been dealt with.  Hopefully, with the DVD/Blu-Ray, we’ll get an extended cut that will flesh things out a little bit more.  It wasn’t cut all to hell the way that Dawn of Justice was, but there are certain moments that just….end.

So…was Justice League worth the wait?  Yes.  Yes it was.  Is it the greatest comic-book movie ever made?  Not remotely.  Is it the best DC movie ever made?  Again, no, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.  It gives me hope that they are changing course for the better and making the effort to make sure these DC movies are better than what they have been.  I wouldn’t put Justice League up there with Wonder Woman or Logan, but it is a pretty damned good time.  It does what it sets out to do and nothing more.  It’s exciting, intense and funny all at the same time.  It even has a few moments of genuine humanity peppered throughout the picture.  The chemistry between the characters is what elevates this film above obscurity.  They mostly work very well together and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next film.  For those of you hoping that this film would be better than Dawn of Justice, you may rest easy.  It is.  I gave the extended cut of Dawn an 8.5/10 because it improved upon the messy theatrical release.  So, for those of you just looking for a good time, Justice League has it in spades.  It’s worth checking out.

My Final Recommendation: Yes.  Yes, you may enjoy this one.  8.5/10

Universal’s “Dark Universe” In Trouble?

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading up on reports from various sources saying that Universal Studios’ Dark Universe property is in danger of collapsing.  What is the Dark Universe?  It’s supposed to be Universal’s cinematic universe that was to bring back all of Universal’s classic monsters into the modern era.  It’s an interesting concept, but there’s a huge problem:  It stumbled.  Let me explain.  About a year and a half back, it was announced that a new Mummy movie was in the works starring Tom Cruise.  Okay, that’s….interesting.  But it was also announced that The Mummy would be part of a larger universe called the Dark Universe.  Right then and there, I knew this was going to be trouble.  For one:  You don’t announce a cinematic universe until you are absolutely certain that the first film in the franchise is a success.  That was Marvel’s approach with Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  By announcing a universe before the first film is even released undermines any expectations that the audiences may have regarding the direction of these movies.  That was the first nail in the proverbial coffin.  The second nail was the first movie in the Dark Universe: The Mummy.  This was not the movie they should have started with.  The addition of Tom Cruise to the film was the least of its problems.  This movie was created with the direct intent of kick-starting the Dark Universe.  It featured some interesting “cameos” from all the other monster movies including Creature from the Black Lagoon.  The addition of Jekyll and Hyde also worked against the film.  There’s also the fact that the film brought nothing new to the genre and was overly serious.  I didn’t hate the film.  I think it got some things right, especially with the villain, but there was nothing here that hasn’t been done before and done better.

The next film in the franchise would have been Bride of Frankenstein, but that seems to have stalled as Angelina Jolie opted to go for a second Maleficent film instead.  That’s another road bump.  Most recently, we’ve learned that the two top producers of the Dark Universe have jumped ship: Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan.  The offices that were set up specifically for this particular franchise are empty, by all accounts.  Things are not looking good for the Dark Universe.  This whole thing was sabotaged from the beginning with really stupid decision-making.  Again, it’s not a terrible concept by bringing the old monsters into the modern film era, but it has to be done in such a way that respects the source material.  So far, that hasn’t happened.  The Invisible Man is supposed to be the next film to be released next year.  Is there a possibility for the Dark Universe to be salvaged at this point?  It’s possible, but The Invisible Man would have to be absolutely amazing in order for that to happen.  Another possibility is to release smaller movies under the same logo but not connected to each other.  That was The Mummy’s biggest failing:  Wanting to bring all the other monsters into the same universe.  However, and this is speculation on my part, if The Invisible Man flops at the box-office, the Dark Universe will die with it.  I don’t want to see the Dark Universe fail, but the decisions that were made early on, kind of made it nearly a foregone conclusion.  Can they turn it around?  I hope so.

Thor: Ragnarok

Released: November 2017

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated PG-13

Run Time: 130 Minutes

Distributor: Marvel/Disney

Genre: Action/Fantasy/Science Fiction

Cast:
Chris Hemsworth: Thor
Tom Hiddleston: Loki
Cate Blanchett: Hela
Idris Elba: Heimdall
Jeff Goldblum: The Grandmaster
Tessa Thompson: Valkyrie
Karl Urban: Skurge
Mark Ruffalo: Bruce Banner/Hulk
Anthony Hopkins: Odin
Benedict Cumberbatch: Doctor Strange

Over the past few years, Marvel’s movies have been fairly hit-or-miss with audiences.  When Age of Ultron hit theaters, a lot of people, myself included, were less than impressed with what Joss Whedon had put on screen.  It was bizarre, the first Avengers film was amazing, so what happened?  Creative differences between Marvel and Joss Whedon, that’s what happened.  Age of Ultron suffered from the “way-too-much” approach that tends to sink films like that.  But for the most part, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been entertaining, even at its worst.  You have all these movies that interconnect with each other and it can get confusing at times.  But the MCU is really at its best when it’s just being silly.  Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Thor were movies that I really loved, because Marvel decided to say, “Fuck it, we’re going to have fun.”  The movies in the MCU that go absolutely bonkers are the best ones.  Thor: Ragnarok is probably the best example of this approach thus far.

Ragnarok begins as Thor, the God of Thunder, has been captured by the mysterious and gigantic Surtur.  An ancient Asgardian prophecy says that Surtur will unleash the apocalypse known as Ragnarok, in which all of Asgard is completely destroyed.  Thor doesn’t like this, so he defeats Surtur and steals his crown.  Afterwards, Thor is contacted by Doctor Strange, telling him where Odin is.  Taking Loki with him, Thor goes to speak with his father and then his long-lost sister, Hela appears, destroying his Hammer.  Fleeing the evil goddess, Thor and Loki try to return to Asgard only to end up on a distant planet.  With Hela consolidating her power and continuing her quest for universal domination, Thor has to find a way to defeat her and save his people in the process.  I will fully admit that I really loved the first two films.  Did they have their problems?  Sure, but they were a lot of fun.  Thor: Ragnarok takes Earth and throws it out the window in favor of a more fantastic and intergalactic adventure much like Guardians of the Galaxy.  This approach not only allows  for an incredibly visual and compelling story, but it also allows for some real humor, and this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen all year.  Yet, for all its humor, there is a number of scenes which are appropriately dramatic and it comes across as genuine.  This is not a movie that’s trying to pretend to be anything more than it is.  It takes the fact that it’s a bit of a goofball journey and just runs with it.  That’s why it works so well.

The foundation for any good story is its characters.  The MCU has had some of the most memorable characters in cinema.  You have Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and the Hulk.  The weakest aspects of the MCU as far as characters go has always been its villains.  DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the best villains in their repertoire, but the MCU really didn’t have villains that actually stood out, with the exception of Red Skull and Loki.  Enter Hela, the Goddess of Death.  Aside from Loki, Hela is probably the coolest villain that the MCU has ever produced.  As the older sister of Thor, Hela is Odin’s first-born.  Her backstory, in MCU terms, is quite interesting.  It’s a definite change from actual Norse mythology, but it works here.  She is the film’s primary villain and she is a serious threat to Thor as she gets her powers from Asgard itself.  She destroys Thor’s hammer.  That’s how powerful she is.  The other villain is Grandmaster, who runs an intergalactic Colosseum-style tournament.  He’s surprisingly hilarious and vile at the same time.  While the villains are fantastic, everybody else is just as good.  Loki is as mischievous as ever, even though he has a more heroic angle this time around.  Thor is…well…Thor.  One of the biggest surprises of the film is The Hulk.  The filmmakers gave the Hulk his own voice aside from Banner.  It certainly provides some very interesting moments.  None of these characters would work as well as they do, if the actors weren’t up for it.

The acting is phenomenal here.  Chris Hemsworth has clearly gotten very comfortable with the character, so there’s a greater allowance of humor.  Chris has natural comedic timing and it really shows.  Tom Hiddleston as Loki?  What else can I say?  He was born to play the God of Mischief.  Idris Elba is still excellent as the stoic Heimdall, with Karl Urban making for an awesome mercenary in Skurge.  Jeff Goldblum as Grandmaster is an absolute revelation.  Goldblum is one of the most underrated actors of his generation.  He infuses the character with his own mannerisms and bizarre personality making for an incredibly memorable villain.  It’s really hilarious when he refers to Thor as the Lord of Thunder, clearly a reference to the KISS song of the same name.  Cate Blanchett is absolutely incredible as Hela.  She chews the scenery like it’s nobody’s business.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous.  Because of that, the character of Hela is as beautiful and alluring as she is vicious.  Too often we see villains that refuse to do their own dirty work.  Hela swims in it.  She takes out an entire roomful of Asgard soldiers with her bare hands and she relishes every single minute of it.  Even the side characters are given their moments to shine.  We have a new female character, Valkyrie, with a tragic backstory.  Everybody here steals the show.  It’s that well-written.

The film clearly has elements taken from the Planet Hulk story-line and they wove perfectly within Thor: Ragnarok.  As a result, we have visually spectacular film.  You look at all the space elements as well as Asgard itself and we have one of the most beautiful movies ever made.  The cinematography is something else.  Everything from the costumes to the set designs is sublime.  I love the way the characters look.  Hela’s outfit is fantastic, not only complimenting her form but also functioning as battle armor.  The action sequences are simply fantastic up to and including the climactic battle between Hela and Thor.  It’s absolutely bonkers at how the filmmakers managed to not only make a movie that is not only compelling and funny, but exciting as well.  It really shakes up the MCU formula quite a bit.  This is a movie that has everything in it, and it just flows almost perfectly.

With the amount of big budget movies that flopped during the summer this year, I was truly hoping that November would start delivering really good big budget movies again.  Yeah, we had LoganWonder Woman, and Guardians 2, but the other movies were a massive disappointment, and they flopped at the box-office.  It is really awesome to see a movie like this come out with guns blazing and just having a blast.  This is the reason why we go to the movies:  To have a great time, and Thor: Ragnarok is nothing short of a great time.  In the pantheon of MCU movies, Ragnarok is easily one of the best.  I would even go so far as to put it above the first Avengers film.  It’s that damned good.  When movies like this leave allegories of real-world politics out of the picture, is when they are at their best.  Is Thor: Ragnarok the best comic-book movie of the year?  I would put it up with Logan and Wonder Woman, yes.  The movie isn’t without its flaws, but those flaws are so minor and nit-picky at best, they’re not even worth mentioning.  Ultimately, I have to say this:  Thor: Ragnarok is awesome.  I really like the direction they took with this film, and throwing in 80s-style music doesn’t hurt at all.  A little bit of Led Zeppelin here and there makes for an interesting experience.  If you enjoyed the previous Thor films, or any of the other MCU movies like Doctor Strange, you owe it to yourself to go see this one.  It is worth it.

My Final Recommendation: Don’t try to out-Jeff Goldblum Jeff Goldblum. 9.5/10

 

The Ghost and The Darkness

Released: October 1996

Director: Stephen Hopkins

Run Time: 110 Minutes

Rated R

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Cast:
Michael Douglas: Remington
Val Kilmer: Col. John Henry Patterson
Tom Wilkinson: Robert Beaumont
John Kani: Samuel
Bernard Hill: Dr. David Hawthorne
Brian McCardie: Angus Starling

The term “based on a true story” is often been misused as a marketing gimmick to get people to come to theaters.  It generally works, until people actually start doing research into the stories that these films are based on, only to find out that the marketing people are full of shit.  Movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used the marketing term to get people to pay attention, even though, the film was loosely based on an American serial killer, and actually had no basis in fact.  There’s a difference between “based on” and “inspired by.”  “Inspired by” generally admits that while the story in the film is fiction, there are elements that were based on actual events.  This is a far more honest form of marketing in my opinion.  Every so often, though, you do get a film that is directly inspired by a particular story.  One of the best examples of this was Apollo 13, which dramatized certain elements of the film, but managed to remain faithful to the actual events.  The other one is The Ghost and The Darkness.

The story behind The Ghost and the Darkness is so strange and bizarre, that you wouldn’t think it was true.  Yet, for those exact same reasons, it is.  The story involves an Irish engineer, Col. John Patterson as he was commissioned to build a bridge crossing the river of Tsavo in Africa, however, things go to hell in a hand-basket when two lions start killing the workers.  It is up to Patterson and big-game hunter Remington to put an end to the slaughter.  When you hear the term, “truth is stranger than fiction,” most people tend to not believe it.  Yet, in 1898, people were being massacred by these two lions, dubbed by the locals: the Ghost and the Darkness.  What makes the story in this film so extraordinary is not just that it’s based on true events, but the fact that is nearly completely faithful to the story that Patterson had told about the Tsavo lions.  These particular man-eaters were extraordinary because they didn’t kill just to feed, but for the sheer enjoyment of the slaughter.  No other lions in recorded history had done anything like this, and nothing like this has happened since.  The locals had claimed that these lions were not lions at all, but demons.  You read about the behavior of these creatures, and it is NOT typical lion behavior.  It really isn’t.  Man-eaters operate alone, not in pairs, and they certainly don’t attack worker camps in broad daylight.  These lions were very different, and nobody is certain as to why they started doing this, although, history points to the slave trade as being somewhat responsible.  The story is captivating, engaging and thrilling all at once.

One of the first things that you will notice about The Ghost and The Darkness is the stunning cinematography.  We get some absolutely incredible shots of the African landscape and wildlife, making for one of the most epic film experiences that you will ever see.  It is a gorgeous film to look at.  I like the fact that the camera allows us to see what’s going on.  The wide-shots of the camps and the bridge being built are some of the most spectacular visuals you will ever see.  And these are done without the use of CGI.  The cinematography also allows for some really intense and spine-tingling moments.  Not only that, the music provided by Jerry Goldsmith is unlike anything that he had ever done before.  It has a very distinctive and epic African feel about it.  It complements everything you see on the screen.  It also helps give you that sense of emotion and adventure.

The pacing of the film is damn near perfect.  The moment the lions strike, the film really takes off.  You have no idea when the lions attack and when they do, it is incredibly brutal.  The film is rated R for a reason.  It’s gory and violent.  Unlike most other movies where animals attack people, this comes across more as a monster movie than anything else.  However, the monsters were actual animals, and that makes the film all the more intense and scary.  One of the coolest things about the film, is that they used actual lions.  While there were a couple of instances where a puppet was used, the majority of shots with the lions, were with actual lions, which really adds to the authenticity of the film.  Although, if you do some research, the actual Tsavo lions had no manes, but that’s really a minor detail that can easily be forgiven.

The acting in the film isn’t particularly awful, but it’s not Oscar-worthy either.  Val Kilmer plays Col John Patterson.  I have to say, that Kilmer’s Irish accent isn’t particularly convincing, but Val gives the role his all and it’s still one of his better films.  Michael Douglas plays the fictional character of Remington.  Historically speaking, it was Patterson who killed both lions.  But that’s not to say that Remington was an awful character.  He’s not, and he’s given a decent enough background that we can root for him.  Michael Douglas is clearly having a hell of a time with the character, and is one of the most memorable aspects of the film.  Tom Wilkinson plays the scummy industrialist Robert Beaumont.  John Kani plays Samuel.  He’s easily one of the best parts of the film.  He’s got a sense of humor and is really likable.  Overall, the acting, while not the best, is more than passable.

There have been folks who have doubted Patterson’s account of what happened at Tsavo.  Mostly in the numbers of the people killed.  The confirmed number of people eaten was closer to 35, but that doesn’t account for the number of people who were killed just for kicks.  Tsavo lions were notoriously aggressive, so that may have lent some credence as to why these particular lions did what they did.  The lions were stuffed and put on permanent display in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.  Their skulls are also on display.  The story is absolutely incredible and the intensity of the film is astounding.  The Ghost and The Darkness is one of the best and most underrated historical films of all time.  It works on multiple levels: As an adventure, a thriller and a horror movie all rolled into one.  This is an absolute must-see.

My Final Recommendation: This is no time to be lion around.  9.5/10.  See it and believe it.