REVIEW: JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

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JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Justice League is a movie fans have been waiting a long time for and while it’s not the movie we’d hoped we’d get, it is still a lot of fun. Story finds Earth under attack from an ancient being called Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds) who needs three powerful ‘mother boxes’ to come to his full strength and conquer the planet. Bruce Wayne aka Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are trying to put together a team of meta humans to join in the fight. They need to convince Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Victor Stone aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Barry Allen aka The Flash (a hilarious Ezra Miller) to unite with them to stop Steppenwolf in his tracks. But even with the heroes united, their only hope of defeating the titan and his army of pandemons, may lie six feet under in a grave in Smallville.

DC’s classic comic is brought to the screen by Zack Snyder from a story by he and Chris Terrio and a script by Terrio and Joss Whedon. Avengers director/writer Whedon was called in to finish post-production and handle re-shoots when a family tragedy forced Snyder off the project. The result is a film that is far from perfect, but is still a lot of fun. The film feels a bit incomplete despite a competent director taking over the project and it also feels edited down to the quick to get to the action faster. Ironically Batman v Superman was improved when material was added on blu-ray, but here they chose to go in the opposite direction and the film feels like it’s missing something. The first act seems particularly rushed and we really don’t get to feel the resonance of the search for the meta humans or Steppenwolf’s arrival. It all happens so quickly and it’s a bit choppy. Once the team is assembled and goes on the offensive, the movie is a lot of fun with the banter between our Justice League members being a highlight, especially from the wisecracking Flash. Their first battle brings the team up short and thus begins the quest to raise the dead, or at least one of them. Then it’s off to a fun conclusion that follows this series’ propensity for big CGI filled spectacle, but doesn’t quite seem as messy as the bloated, overlong Batman v Superman climax, in fact, it actually felt a bit short. The whole film does leave one wanting more, to be honest, but the camaraderie between the characters really goes a long way and there are some really fun dialogue and action scenes to make this an entertaining night at the movies, nonetheless. It’s not the classic hoped for, but DC is starting find it’s footing, at least in terms of tone. It kept that DC look and feel, but isn’t as gloomy or takes itself too seriously like some of the previous DCU flicks. Fabian Wagner’s cinematography helps the film appear consistent with previous entries and Danny Elfman provides the atmospheric score with some fun nods to previous hero themes.

The cast really help make up for some of the film’s shortcomings. Affleck is once again solid as Batman/Bruce Wayne. He’s a bit more upbeat here and he has some nice banter with his costars as the reluctant founder of the League. Gal Gadot once again proves she was born to play Wonder Woman and she has some nice moments, including some good chemistry with Affleck’s billionaire hero. Ezra Miller steals the flick as the sarcastic, slacker hero The Flash. He gets some of the best lines and his dorky charm fits the character perfectly. He also has solid chemistry with his co-stars. Ray Fisher is effective as the tragic, yet powerful Cyborg. He’s still learning how to use his powers and still conflicted over being Frankenstein-ed by his father and we sympathize. Jason Mamoa is good as Aquaman, but it seems his surfer-dude hero never really gets his moment in this flick. Maybe WB is holding back as James Wan’s Aquaman is the next DC flick due out. J.K. Simmons is good as Commissioner Gordon, but only has two or three scenes and Ciarán Hinds voices a somewhat imposing Steppenwolf, though he seems like just another CGI monster…but at least one with far more personality than Doomsday in BvS. As for other returning cast members, Amy Adams and Diane Lane ease back into their roles as Lois Lane and Martha Kent respectively, Irons is again perfect as the cynical Alfred and it’s no surprise that at some point Henry Cavill is going to show up…but the when and hows will be left for viewers to find out. A good cast that help get over some of the bumps in Justice League’s road.

In conclusion, Justice League still shows that DC has work to do, but at least has a fun time with it’s missteps. It does get a lot right, including some entertaining interaction between our heroes and some fun action scenes. It’s not as good a film overall as Wonder Woman, but in ways is more fun and takes itself far less seriously than MoS and BvS. The film could have used a little more time for us to appreciate the hunt for the heroes by Wayne and Diana and needed to give more weight to the appearance of it’s moderately effective villain. In all fairness, who knows what effects losing it’s director had on the final product. With Snyder away, did the studio play? Regardless of it’s issues, it’s still a fun romp that brings together some of the most famous comic book heroes of all time and even serves up, not one but two, additional scenes, one mid-credits and one post-credits…and the post-credits scene will have comic book fans talking. Go in with moderate expectations and you can have a real good time.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 heroes.

 

 

 

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BARE BONES: ARRIVAL

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ARRIVAL (2016)

When twelve ships of possible extraterrestrial origin park themselves over twelve random earth locations, the nations of the world become united in curiosity and concern. Linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is called upon to head the U.S. team responsible for finding a way to communicate with our visitors. But as tensions rise and world powers start to consider a military response, Louise races desperately to find a way to convince the world what she already knows, that the visitors mean no harm.

Arrival is an interesting and involving science fiction film from director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) from a script by Eric Heisserer based on Ted Chiang’s short story, Story Of Your Life. It’s refreshing to have a flick that views our first contact with an alien race as exactly that…a first contact, not as yet another alien invasion. The film is suspense-fully directed by Villeneuve who also gives it a bit of a sense of wonder, as we learn along with Louise how to talk to these octopus-like creatures and what their intentions are. He builds the tension very well as the nations of the world grow fearful, based on what could be initial miscommunication and then keeps us riveted as Louise figures things out and now races to keep world powers from starting an intergalactic conflict. The director gets really good performances out of his cast, primarily Adams, Jeremy Renner as a physicist and Forest Whitaker as an army officer in charge of the contact group. Sure things may get a little sappy in the last few minutes, but overall it is an intelligent and entertaining science fiction epic with no lasers and scant few explosions for once.

-MonsterZero NJ

three and one half stars rating

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REVIEW: BATMAN v. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

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BATMAN v. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

The much anticipated match-up between the two greatest comic book characters of all-time is a mess, no doubt about it, but there is a lot to like here, too. The story picks up 18 months after the battle in Metropolis between Superman and Zod and the world is starting to sour over the notion of a man with god-like powers running around of his own volition. Two men particularly being unhappy about it are billionaire Lex Luthor (a completely miscast Jesse Eisenberg) and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). I guess rich people hate Superman. The Dark Knight saw many Wayne Enterprises employees die in Metropolis and starts to wonder if Superman (Henry Cavill) can be trusted and Lex Luthor is more than happy to give both men a push in the confrontational direction. Will The Bat of Gotham and The Man Of Steel go head to head…and will the world survive it?

The script by Chris Terrio and David Goyer is simply all over the place and a lot of it doesn’t gel. The reasons for Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent to suddenly become so concerned with the activities of The Batman in Gotham is never really clear, as it also doesn’t really completely work that Wayne would develop such an intense hatred for Superman, since he has done a lot of good. The first hour of the film bounces back and forth between a bunch of story-lines, including one about a possible conspiracy to frame Superman for death’s he’s not responsible for and a mysterious woman (Gal Gadot) that keeps popping up in Bruce Wayne’s life. It’s very fractured and takes over an hour to settle into a grove. Zack Snyder is a brilliant visual director, but I never felt he was a strong storyteller and with a very weak and fractured story, it is all the more obvious. The film wanders back and forth without much purpose in the first act when Snyder has little going on that he can turn into spectacle. There is some solid action within the film, though and some nice personal moments, too, but it all comes crashing down when Snyder delivers an even more overblown finale than with Man Of Steel. At that point the overlong film is already getting tiresome, we get an apocalyptic battle with Doomsday and then the film goes on for another 15 minutes, or so, for a very morose conclusion. The battle between Bats and Supes was starting to turn the film around somewhat, then Snyder throws in Doomsday and the film collapses under the weight of more bombastic destruction with a generic CGI monster that generates no menace, whatsoever. Throw in a somber and mopey Superman, some pointless dream sequences and the totally miscalculated portrayal of a creepy Lex Luthor by Eisenberg and it basically is a mess with a few shining moments.

So, what was there to like about it…and surprisingly there is a lot to like. First off, Ben Affleck makes an awesome Bruce Wayne and Batman. While story-wise I wasn’t really sold on his intense hatred for Superman, the character itself was different than we have seen previously, yet really nailed the darkness and the whole Bat persona. His action scenes also really rock and capture the ferocity of a man working out his own inner turmoil. Another very pleasant surprise is Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot isn’t the strongest actress, but when she wades into battle during the climax, she steals the show. Another character the film nails and she was a lot of fun to watch and really lays into Doomsday like a badass. As for the battle between Superman and Batman, it was the highlight of the film and here Snyder showed some surprising restraint. Also we get to really see Batman’s ingenuity and preparedness come to bare as he battles someone who could squash him easily. It’s a shame they had to sully the moment by going into extra innings with Doomsday…though they did need a reason for the World’s Finest to unite. It’s just too bad it’s back to over-the-top and out of control. Obviously the FX are top notch, the film looks great and there is another solid score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL.

The cast are a solid except for you-know-who. Cavill is good as Superman, but the script has him pouting and grimacing in anger most of the time and it’s disappointing that we see so little of the hope Superman is supposed to bring. Affleck is great as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. He portrays a man starting to show the effects of aging, who has his own demons and bitterness to deal with and which also motivates him. As Batman, he is truly intimidating and his fight scenes are really nasty and intense like they should be. As his loyal butler Alfred, Jeremy Irons is impeccable and gives us a man who we believe can actually take care of and assist both Bruce Wayne and The Dark Knight. He has a subtle smart-ass quality that really worked. Gal Gadot is a little wooden in her dialog sequences as Diana Prince, but when Wonder Woman joins the fun, she gives her the fire and spirit of a true amazon warrior. She really does steal the scenes she’s in, once she is in battle. Now the big question…Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, what were they thinking? Not everything he does is bad and his part is badly written, but he was more Renfield or Gollum than super villain and his Luthor seems too unhinged to be in control of a multi-billion dollar empire. He comes across as that weird uncle that makes everyone uncomfortable, not a formidable opponent for our heroes. Amy Adams is good again as Lois Lane, but isn’t given much to do but be a damsel in distress. The same goes for Diane Lane. A waste of both their talents as is the same for the barely seen Lawrence Fishburn as Perry White.

So, the eagerly awaited meeting and mash-up of the World’s Finest is a bit of a mess and a mixed bag. On one hand, it delivers a great new Batman, a scene stealing Wonder Woman and a well-done battle between The Dark Knight and The Last Son Of Krypton. On the other hand it’s way too long, gives us a creepy and far too eccentric Lex Luthor, has a really muddled first act and follows up the Bats/Supes battle royal with a ridiculously overblown orgy of destruction featuring a generic CGI monster. There is a lot to like here, but, overall, this dream match is more of a dream mess.

-MonsterZero NJ

2 and 1/2 World’s Finest.

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REVIEW: HER (2013)

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HER (2013)

Finally caught up with this interesting, involving and slightly whimsical Spike Jonze flick and found it a very enjoyable, offbeat and heartfelt movie. The story takes place in a not too distant future and focuses on Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who writes letters for others for a living and has just suffered a heartbreaking separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore, in his loneliness, buys a computer operating system with an artificial intelligence made to learn and adapt to their owner’s wants and needs. Theodore chooses a female voice and the OS chooses the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). But, the more time Theodore spends with Samantha, the more their relationship grows and the more Theodore thinks she’s all he needs and starts to fall in love with her. And Samantha feels likewise but, as Samantha grows and evolves and begins to experience new emotions and desires, will Theodore be all she needs?

Writer/director Spike Jonze delivers a rarity, an intriguing and very original romantic-comedy, a sub-genre that is one of the least adventurous genres and one that rarely steps outside the stale formula. He presents the idea of a computerized operating system that becomes such a perfect fit for it’s owner that it creates an emotional attachment, becoming a friend and a lover. Especially poignant, as it does so at a time where Theodore is wounded and afraid to connect with others of flesh and blood including his cute best friend Amy (Amy Adams) who has also recently gotten a divorce. Of course Jonze is making a comment on the increasing reliability on personal computers and cellphones, which almost seem to be a more important part of our lives then our friends and loved ones. We seem to spend more time communicating with and through our computerized devices and less and less actual time socially interacting with those around us. Why commit to the emotional investment of talking to someone face to face when we can text or E-mail and be done with it. Jonze gives his cautionary tale of loving our gadgets too much a very subtle and sly sense of humor and filmed his romance in the city of Shanghai to give it that futuristic look. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema accents Jonze’s colorful but slightly sterile future and there is a very effecting score by the band Arcade Fire that really embellishes the atmosphere and mood set by Jonze’s deft direction and clever story.

The cast is wonderful with Phoenix creating a very strong character in his Theodore, a man with his own intimacy issues who is wounded by the collapse of his marriage and afraid to start looking again and thus finding the perfect mate for his current emotional condition in the artificial intelligence that grows to suit his every need, Samantha. As the voice of Samantha, Scarlett Johansson gives a wonderful performance as an intelligence that is learning new emotions and experiences and who falls in love with the man who teaches them to her. She has only her voice to convey her feelings and does a simply amazing job of portraying the wonder of discovering new emotions and the joy of love for the first time. She and Phoenix make this work. If either of their performances were off, the film would simply have not come together and so well. We also get another strong performance by Amy Adams as the nerdy Amy, Theodore’s best friend and a person he cares for more then he wants to admit. The actress has become quite the chameleon. Rooney Mara is fine as the estranged wife who still haunts Theodore in his thoughts and has a really nice scene with Phoenix as they hesitate when the moment to finally sign the divorce papers comes. A very effecting and real sequence as they both must face the fact that it is indeed over. There are also some eccentric supporting performances by Chris Pratt as the quirky receptionist at Theodore’s job, Olivia Wilde as a pretty blind date that Theodore wasn’t quite ready for and Portia Doubleday as Isabella, a beautiful young woman who wants to act as the surrogate for the bodiless Samantha. A very eclectic and strong cast that really make Jonze’s vision work very well.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed this film very much. It’s a heartfelt romantic comedy as it is an original one. It is also a cautionary tale about becoming too close to our computerized gadgets and letting our flesh and blood relationships fall to the side. It is well directed, intelligently written and has some wonderful and understated performances by all the cast. A very unique indie film and a real treat. Highly recommended! Also features vocal cameos by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.

MonsterZero NJ extra trivia: Pretty actress Portia Doubleday who plays the surrogate Isabella is the daughter of actor Frank Doubleday who played the creepy Romero in John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York!

3 and 1/2 Scarlett’s.

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REVIEW: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

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AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

American Hustle is the new film from Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell that he co-wrote along with Eric Warren Singer based on Singer’s original screenplay. It uses the infamous ABSCAM sting operation of the late 70s as a basis for the fictional story of con-man extraordinaire Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and his lover/partner Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) who have a fake loan operation set up where they charge customers, who are too risky for the banks, an un-refundable $5,000 fee to get them approved for loans that they never actually get approved for. Despite Irving’s unease, Sydney accepts a fee from Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who turns out to be an ambitious FBI agent. But, Dimaso is out for far larger prey and forces Irving and Sydney to set up a con to catch bigger criminals in order to earn Sydney’s freedom. The deal is to catch 4 criminals and they are free but, Irving cooks up a scheme to catch all 4 crooks at once and soon they are on the trail of the mayor of Camden, N.J. Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and a bunch of US Congressman in a scam involving funding the rebuilding of Atlantic City as a gambling mecca with money from a fictional Arab Sheik (Michael Peña) and the bribes these men give/accept to set it in motion. But, Irving may have gotten himself in over his head as the more corrupt officials and criminals DiMaso thinks he can catch, the bigger the con gets and the more people it involves, such as Rosenfeld’s emotionally troubled wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and dangerous mob boss Victor Tellegio (a cameo I won’t spoil here). And the more people that get involved, the more relationships get entangled and the more complicated things get till the whole thing threatens to come down on Irving’s head. Like Silver Linings, Russell takes a serious toned story and fills it with a lot of sly humor and a large cast of eccentric, multi-layered characters… and despite the clever story, it is the characters that really charge this enormously entertaining and smart flick. He creates a large group of very real people who all have various reasons and motivations for doing what they do. Each character is manipulating others for their own purposes and Russell gives his great cast some really complex, colorful and yet very human characters for his actors to bring to life. And it is the life these actors bring under Russell’s guidance that elevates a really good movie to near brilliance. Christian Bale has given some simply great performances in his career ever since getting everyone’s attention at the age of 12 in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun and he simply takes it to another level with his brilliant… and I don’t use that word often… performance as the con man who’s gotten involved in a con even he might not be able to pull off. Amy Adams is equally brilliant as Sydney, Irving’s lover and a woman who might even be better then he at the con game as she too gets caught up in the increasing size of the sting in order to keep herself out of prison. Jennifer Lawrence gives another Oscar worthy performance as Irving’s unbalanced and unpredictable wife who gets drawn into the con but, with her own agenda. Cooper once again shows some amazing growth as an actor and creates a portrait of a man ironically getting greedy when it comes with catching the greedy. His FBI agent is ambitious and relentless and his disregard for playing by the rules seems to increasingly blur the line between himself and those he’s trying to catch. Jeremy Renner finally gets a role worthy of the acting ability he showed in The Hurt Locker and The Town as Camden Mayor Polito, a man who truly believes he’s doing what’s best for the people even if it includes backdoor deals and payoffs. His sincere belief that he is doing what’s right and his genuine likability causes a confusion in Irving that could sabotage everything. And that’s another thing that elevates this film from being a routine thriller… and this flick is far from routine… is the complications that arise from the relationships that form between various members of the scenario such as Irving and Carmine, Richard and Sydney and Rosalyn and a mob enforcer. The game becomes so real and people get so involved in their roles that emotions flow and relationships form… or do they?… this is a con game after all. And that’s what makes this such an entertaining movie as you believe in the character relationships portrayed by the top notch cast and yet, you’re not completely sure if it’s not part of the game. And that is part of the fun. All I will tell you is that it’s a real treat to watch this great cast pull the wool over each other’s eyes, manipulate each other and you, the audience as well. And if all that doesn’t convince you, all the great 70s nostalgia and music, ads perfect atmosphere to the whole film. The music in particular is like another character and the songs placed perfectly. I can never hear Wings’ Live And Let Die again without thinking of Jennifer Lawrence. Altogether this is a wildly entertaining and intelligently written flick with a tour de force performance from it’s entire cast. Sure there are a few slow spots but, everything else is such a delight, one can forgive a few moments to catch their breath. A real treat especially if you are worn out by superheroes, Hobbits and over abundant CGI and are looking for some more substantial to enjoy with your popcorn. A blast from David O. Russell!

4 stars… doing some of their best work!

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