Tag Archives: B-

JUSTICE LEAGUE

Producer: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg and Geoff Johns
Director: Zach Snyder
Writer: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciaran Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Robin Wright, Amber Heard, Jesse Eisenberg and Joe Manganiello
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B-

After some early missteps in its attempt to challenge the Marvel Comics cinematic juggernaut, the so-called DC Universe finally scored big with its last entry “Wonder Woman,” and with “Justice League,” its answer to Marvel’s “Avengers” series, it can boast another modest success. The picture is still visually too dark, and it’s hobbled by a villain who’s a crashing bore, but it adds a welcome dose of humor to what had been pervasive grimness, and some promising new characters as well. Whether responsibility for the lightening of tone should primarily go to Zach Snyder, who’s overseeing the DC franchise and is credited as director, or to Joss Whedon, who is listed as co-writer and supposedly did reshoots after Snyder left to deal with a domestic tragedy, will probably be a matter of continuing debate. But the important thing is that the result is surprisingly enjoyable, and as edited to under two hours by David Brenner, Richard Pearson and Martin Walsh, mercifully short as far as superhero movies go, too.

In the aftermath of the disappointing “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the Man of Steel is dead, and his demise has cast a pall on humanity that invites the return of an ancient enemy of earth, gruesome destroyer Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, as unrecognizable as the equally heavily made-up Oscar Isaac was as Apocalypse in the last “X-Men” movie). He’s a figure from DC mythology about the realm of the evil Darkseid, and returns to terra not-so-firma seeking three all-powerful boxes that apparently can gobble up planets when linked together. He lost them on his first invasion many millions of years ago, when mankind, the Amazons and the inhabitants of watery Atlantis banded together to defeat him. Each group took one of the boxes to guard.

Now Steppenwolf is coming back with an army of flying parademons that feed on fear, and Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) senses an impending invasion. To deal with it, he recruits a league of people with special powers. The first is, of course, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose number he has from “Dawn of Justice.” He is, on the other hand, initially rebuffed by Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who prefers remaining a gruff loner, and Diana also gets the cold shoulder at first from Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), an injured young athlete whom his scientist father (Joe Morton) has saved by turning him into surly Cyborg—using, it turns out, the human-held box that Star Labs, where he works, has somehow gotten hold of. By contrast young Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) gleefully accepts the offer to enlist; he’s a guy who longs for cool friends.

A good deal of the movie is devoted to these recruitment efforts, which are amusingly depicted in the cases of Aquaman and Flash. (The Cyborg thread, at least in the early stages, is presented rather glumly, in the fashion of the pre-“Wonder Woman” installments in this DC series.) But eventually all five unite after the boxes held by the Amazons and the Atlanteans are taken by Steppenwolf, though not without occasional bursts of dissension among them. Unfortunately their first encounter with Steppenwolf does not go well, and they find themselves in need of additional power if they are to have any chance of saving earth. That’s why they decide to put the human-held box to use in order to…well, we shall leave that for you to discover for yourself. (Just check the cast credits for a clue.)

One of the particular pleasures of “Justice League” is that when the final confrontation comes, it’s in a nearly deserted area of Russia, a place left desolate by a nuclear accident obviously modeled on Chernobyl. That means that we don’t have to put up with the tired cliché of collapsing buildings and bridges as cities are reduced to rubble in an overly-familiar climax. To be sure, there is still plenty of CGI work on display here, and the culminating battle between heroes and villains is done in typically dank style (cinematographer Fabian Wagner and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos really lay on the gloom). But the number of potential human victims that require saving is relatively small (basically a few families that have been squatting in some condemned buildings), and the smaller scale in that respect acts to, rather than detracting from, the sense of human involvement.

As to the cast, even Affleck and Gadot crack occasional smiles this time around, and Jeremy Irons makes a reliable Alfred, with Amy Adams reprising her Lois Lane and Diane Ladd her Ma Kent. In his scenes as Superman, Cavill seems to be mellowing as well. But one has to feel for Hinds, stuck in some of the most unattractive costuming this side of gargoyles and barking out lines that would be absurdly overwrought even in a fifties comic.

On the other hand, Fisher, after opening scenes in which he tries to outdo Affleck for dourness, opens up nicely in the picture’s latter stages despite his heavy makeup and costuming. And Momoa and Miller are both winners. The big fellow portrays Aquaman as a lumbering, slightly dim guy in the manner of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, with a scene involving Wonder Woman’s lasso that’s a great bit. Miller uses his comic chops to the hilt, not only delivering his quippy dialogue with cheerful new-kid-on-the-block enthusiasm but putting some welcome goofiness into his action scenes as well—including one of the extras inserted into the final credits (an addition that fanboys will especially appreciate as a salute to a frequently recycled DC topos). You can compare his Flash to the similarly upbeat take that Tom Holland gave Spider-Man in the last “Avengers” flick, as well as look forward to the solo movies promised for both Aquaman and Flash.

“Justice League” closes with nice summing-up moments for its various characters, as well as a closing blurb pointing to what’s planned for a JL follow-up. If this movie is any indication, one can anticipate that continuation with a lot more hopefulness than you possibly have for a second helping of something like “Suicide Squad.”

AMERICAN MADE

Producer: Doug Davison, Brian Grazer, Brian Oliver, Ty;er Thompson, Kim Roth and Ray Angelic
Director: Doug Liman
Writer: Gary Spinelli
Stars: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright Olsen, Alejandro Edda, Caleb Landry Jones, Mauricio Mejia, Jesse Plemons, Jayma Mays, Lola Kirke, William Mark McCullough, E. Roger Mitchell, Robert Farrior and Cuyle Carvin
Studio: Universal Pictures

B-

You have to wonder whether Tom Cruise intends ever to grow up and embrace roles that will force him to set aside the youthful bravado that earned him stardom in “Risky Business” and “Top Gun” and that he’s maintained as his essential character trait ever since, even in a debacle like “The Mummy.” He might actually be an actor able to suppress the toothy grin and boyish charm and deliver a real performance in a serious drama, but his Jack Reacher potboilers haven’t proven that, and “American Made” doesn’t either. Doug Liman’s film aims to be a satire on the folly of American policy in Latin America during the seventies and eighties, but though done up with lots of visual razzmatazz, it’s much less cutting than it ought to be, coming off as just another Cruise vehicle and dependant largely on his persona top carry the day. He manages to do so, but the picture could have been much more than it is.

It’s based on the checkered career of Barry Seal, a pilot who got involved with both the Medellin drug cartel, transporting their product to the United States, and with the American intelligence community, which used him in its clandestine program to overthrow the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua by arming and training the so-called contras. The double game eventually got him killed. (Seal was a minor figure in Brad Furman’s “The Infiltrator” last year, meeting his end in a different fashion than he actually did, as shown here.)

A great many allegations have been concocted about Seal’s earlier activities by conspiracy theorists, but Gary Spinelli’s script, based on several book about the guy, ignores them, beginning only in 1978 when he is a TWA pilot bored with the routine of his job. Caught smuggling Cuban cigars, he’s recruited by a CIA agent calling himself Schaefer (Domhnall Gleeson) to fly risky missions over various Latin American countries in a super-fast spy plane to photograph rebel groups in their camps, though he conceals the fact from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen), who keeps the home fires burning.

His CIA-sponsored flights bring him—unbeknownst to his handler—to the attention of Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), up-and-coming drug lords who insist that he add a lucrative sideline to his operations by taking bales of their cocaine to the U.S. Though he has doubts about the short runway they insist on his using and refuses to fly the coke to Miami as they wish, he devises a workable plan to drop it off in Louisiana and relies on his guts to make it into the air. The deliveries become a regular part of his itinerary, making him a rich man without Schaefer being any the wiser.

Both sides of Seal’s operation grow exponentially, and though setbacks involving the DEA necessitate his moving with his family to a small town in Arkansas, before long he owns a large tract of land as well as an airport, hosts a contra training camp run by the CIA, hires a squadron of oddball fliers, and is so flush with cash that he literally runs out of room to put it all. Unfortunately, the arrival of his careless, greedy brother-in-law J.B. (Caleb Landry Jones) throws a monkey wrench into things, and leads to his being dragged into the Reagan White House’s efforts to tie the Sandinista regime to the drug trade as an informant against the cartel—which ultimately not only brings about his downfall but seals his fate.

One could never accuse Cruise of holding back here—he invests Seal with every bit of energy he can muster, rushing about almost maniacally as he flashes that trademark cocky smile and rattles off reams of smooth talk, even under the worst pressure. The truth is that in his hands Seal comes across as little more than an older version of Pete Mitchell, but that’s precisely why a great many viewers will take to him.

Nor does Liman hold back: he and cinematographer Cesar Charlone (“City of God”) serve up a dazzling array of images, shot in a hyperkinetic hand-held style that’s further accentuated by the furious editing of Andrew Mondshein. To tie the escalating complications of the plot together in a way the audience can understand, Liman resorts to various devices—crudely-drawn animated inserts, montages of archival news footage, and excerpts from a video “confession” prepared by Cruise’s Seal over his last days, which also allows Cruise’s flyboy to impress upon us how increasingly wild and crazy the whole chain of events became.

The approach gives the convoluted plot some shape while preserving the messiness essential to Seal’s habit of escaping trouble by coming up with some outlandish excuse or absurd seat-of-the-pants decision. The most outrageous example comes when he’s seemingly trapped in mid-flight by a couple of DEA planes, only to choose to make a sudden landing in a suburban neighborhood; it would be an understatement to say that the episode defies credibility.

That points to the fundamental weakness of “American Made”: as satire it seems shallow, even juvenile, more buffoonish clown show than edgy dissection of real events. It’s not simply that the characters are all caricatures—that’s part of the natural process of satire, after all. It’s that they’re not sharply-drawn caricatures; compare Gleeson’s dull Schaefer to George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson, for instance, and the contrast is obvious. The targets in the Reagan Administration offered far more scope for skewering than they receive here. Moreover, there’s too much easy condescension to the way Lucy, J.B. and other southerners are portrayed; redneck humor is like shooting fish in a barrel. One could, of course, also grumble that giving a semi-heroic cast to a guy who made hay ferrying cocaine into the country isn’t such a good idea. But that would undo a long history of cinema’s glorifying the antihero.

Though this over-the-top Cruise-Liman combination is sporadically amusing, its raucousness often comes across as desperately frantic rather than satirically telling. Frankly, the machinations surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal deserve something more than a jokey send-up. For what it is, though, it earns a marginal pass.