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Movie Review: ‘Justice League’ Plays Its Superheroes Silly and Safe

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The coming of the Justice League isn’t quite the grand superhero ensemble event of the year, but it didn’t come with the same dreadful disappointment of Batman v. Superman. This is more like a Thanksgiving dinner of an awkward family struggling to make the gathering work. They quip, quibble, babble in cliches and never entirely gel as well as they should. Still, they make the best of a familiar formula, albeit speeding past the grunt work Marvel put into defining their characters for a grand team-up.

Justice League ArticleNot long after Superman’s untimely demise, the Earth is already facing a new threat that drops on the world’s heroes as abruptly as it does the audience. Batman (Ben Affleck) has found that strange, bug-like creatures are searching for alien boxes that emit energy, dubbed Motherboxes. He doesn’t fully understand what they do but is smart enough to know that an evil scheme is afoot and that he needs a team. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is already onboard, having aided Batman once before and biding her time in Europe, working in art galleries and fighting crime every time a terrorist appears. We know enough about these characters to appreciate their candor. The heroes they hire, however, don’t have that kind of time.

Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is quick to join the team as The Flash, living as a loner with the powers of super speed. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) still needs a bit of time to adjust to his new robotic body to become the high-tech hero Cyborg. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the bearded prince of the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, is more of a reluctant frat guy, not so keen to join a team unless there’s some beer, babes or noble action involved. Even though the film loads each of them up with supporting characters, the script wastes little time detailing their origins, skating by most of them with brief explanations. Barry Allen got his powers from lightning; great. Victor Stone absorbed the powers of a Motherbox; got it. Arthur Curry talks to fish; sure, although he suggests the water does most of the talking.

The big bad for this hero gathering is surprisingly underwhelming, despite his whole destructive conquering of the world bit. Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is a familiar villain to Wonder Woman’s people, though I’m surprised they instantly recognized him with his thorny helmet and flaming weapon, looking as though he shopped at the same store as Aries. His goals are nothing special, nor are they all that coherent. According to Wonder Woman’s jumbled account, he needs to collect three Motherboxes that will combine to turn the Earth into an apocalyptic wasteland. He keeps babbling on about the New Gods and the evil force known as Darkseid, terms that’ll breed goosebumps in DC Comics fans and head-scratching among the uninitiated.

Zack Snyder initially wrote justice League, but Joss Whedon was brought onboard to lighten up the script. You can certainly see the two contrasting forces at play here. The premise of these characters sounds dark; Barry has a dad in prison, Victor is ashamed of being a technological monster and Arthur has some issues with the lineage of Atlantis. Whedon’s writing adds some Prozac to the mixture, medicating Snyder’s dower elements into something wittier and light. I use the pharmaceutical reference because the charisma and comedy come artificial, built more to extract quick laughs than building ones.

This is most evident with the underdeveloped Aquaman, speaking more in action punctuations of “my man!” and “yeah!” than of his kingdom or his identity in the world above water. Take a look at the contrast in the film; we first see him as a stoic and silent provider for a small village, only for him to end up in the final scene as the chipper surfer dude of the League. I suppose Aquaman is now cool to the masses, even if it’s mostly because of nothing quips and a hot body. At least nobody in the audience burst out laughing when he zips through the seas.

Despite the film’s numerous attempts of falling flat on its face with jokes that are not as funny and speeches that are a tad too corny, there’s an admirable effort present for Snyder jumping gung-ho into DC’s more profound lore. About halfway through the film, the team realizes they can’t defeat Steppenwolf without Superman. How they bring him back to life is one of the weirdest plans of any superhero film, so strange that even the heroes think this might be in poor taste. Oddly enough, however, it makes sense for DC Comics. For as overly-eager as Snyder is to throw everything into Justice League, it’s a bit refreshing that he foregoes most of the time-wasting explanations of Atlantis, the Speed Force, Parademons, New Gods and Darkseid. There’s even a Green Lantern briefly mentioned in a backstory, proving that seemingly nothing is off limits for this universe.

Though Justice League stumbles and never quite finds its groove until the end of the picture, there’s better promise for this franchise’s future. Many of Snyder’s mistakes have been better resolved, graduating from letting civilians die, to excusing civilians from demolished cities, to finally saving citizens from harm’s way. There are bits and pieces of a great hero team present that start to come further and further together as the film continues. And there’s just something so satisfying about a movie where The Flash whisks civilians to safety, Wonder Woman can use her truth-telling lasso for pranks, and Superman can use his freeze-breath on his enemies. The expanded universe of DC Comics hasn’t quite reached that pique level of superhero charm, but it has at least found its way out of the incoherent darkness.

P.S.: While I’ve grown to despise post-credit Easter Eggs, I was delighted to stay for what made me all the more hopeful for the next Justice League outing.

[author title=”About the Author” image=”http://popstermedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/mark_mcpherson-300×221-150×150.jpg”]Movie Reviewer Mark McPherson has been all about movies since working at a video store in his youth. His talents range from video editing to animation to web development, but movies have always been his passion to write about.[/author]


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Review: “First Moon” is an Emotional and Exciting Race to Space

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Damien Chazelle’s take on Neil Armstrong’s tough road to making it to the moon may not be the most accurate but it is certainly entertaining. Similar to how he directed intense jazz players in Whiplash, he lets us feel everything in Neil’s missions, from the rickety and nightmarish howling of straining spacecraft to the deepest fears of death always one error away. While the accuracy and motivation are debatable, there’s no denying that Chazelle locks us in as tight as Armstrong was to that rocket and never lets us go.

Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong as a pilot of few words, so focused on the next mission he pushes aside the death of his young daughter to get back to work. He doesn’t let it affect him but Chazelle’s direction suggests it does in a pocket of his mind. To keep his mind off such a traumatic event for his family, he pursues and is accepted into the Gemini program for the ambitious mission of traveling to the moon. His tone doesn’t sit well with his wife Janet (Claire Foy). She’s willing to stick with him, raise his son, and have another child, but she can’t stand the toll. Her husband is so distant and plainspoken, hiding all emotion that it drives her nuts to see his comrades bite the dust in the dangerous testing leading up to the ultimate launch. There’s a good man in there but he’s committed when it comes to the business of reaching the stars.

Armstrong’s journey always keeps us in the cockpit where he is, witnessing with his limited scope of what the glass and gauges allow. It’s intense to listen to the alarms go off, the metal straining, and the static-laced radio voices calmly state firm instructions and warnings. Few times do we cut away from the chaos when things spin wildly out of control, sometimes literally when a test of docking procedures sends his craft hurtling through the darkness of space as the grinding speed never seems to stop. He faces many fearful challenges, including a test of the lunar lander that goes up in flames. Yet he shakes off the dirt and keeps going. One person heading the team asks if all this will be worth the cost. “It’s a little late to ask that question,” Armstrong responds.

The few times we do cut away from Armstrong focuses on his wife trying to keep it together, expertly played by Claire Foy. Janet strains and stresses, sure, but she realizes that if she doesn’t try to snap Neil out of his tunnel vision that she’ll lose him before she knows it. One of her best scenes features her finally confronting Neil before heading off to the grand launch, shouting at him to say something to his children instead of treating it like one long business trip. But as they sit the kids down and Neil tries to explain where he’s going, he treats it more like a press conference than a family meeting and Janet coldly realizes this is her husband.

Where the film unfortunately plateaus is in its finale of when Neil Armstrong and the cocky Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) finally make the landing on the moon surface. Chazelle keeps this section quiet and contemplative, letting the original transmission audio fill in some of the gaps. It’s perhaps too contemplative the way the imagery and soft soundtrack tries to bring Neil’s grips with death to a realization. It’s a scene that perhaps comes off melodramatic but Chazelle’s direction keeps us more in the moment than rolling our eyes at the emotional bells and whistles of a realized character. The exceptional cinematography becomes astounding to be lost within, from the great use of lighting and shadows everywhere from the cramped quarters of the capsule to the hallway of the Armstrong household.

First Man is definitely an intriguing and gorgeous film, one that should certainly be seen in IMAX for the full effect of its well-shot sequences, but it still feels lacking as Chazelle’s lesser film. This fault mostly lies in how Armstrong’s aim shuts out most of the other elements of the film, including his co-pilots who have arcs that peter out as the mission takes on greater importance. While the film succeeds at making us stare directly into Armstrong’s psyche, there are too many distractions that I sometimes wish the story veered off course from its obvious target.


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Review: David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” Revives The Fear and Terror

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After numerous sequels, remakes, reboots, and even a failed divergence of trying to weave the saga into an anthology, it is ultimately David Gordon Green’s take on Halloween that is the worthy successor. It may have taken forty years to find that perfect follow-up but, as we’ve seen from the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max: Fury Road, several decades can make a world of difference for a sequel. And though we had to suffer through a long road to get here, we’ve finally arrived at the true Halloween film I’ve been pining for. And it feels so good to have a slasher picture so grim, beautiful, straightforward, and intense.

Despite being titled as Halloween, like another dreary retread, this new film acts as the true sequel forty years later, ignoring previous entries. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the role of Laurie Strode and she’s been waiting for her attacker Michael Myers, preparing for his return. He’s been locked up in solitary confinement for decades but Laurie is no fool when it comes to horror movie logic. She’s had plenty of prep time and nightmares that never cease to keep her pumped for Michael’s next rampage. And it’s coming up quickly when Michael is transferred to a high-security prison and makes his escape during transport.

It’s back to basics for the classic killer, slowly slipping back into his groove of intimidation and murder. He gets back his old attire by swiping a mechanic’s uniform to fit his massive frame and acquiring his old iconic Halloween mask that looks as though it hasn’t been washed since the 1970s. He’s a ways off from Laurie’s home but works his way over by attacking the neighborhood of Laurie’s family that includes her daughter Karen Strode (Judy Greer), her teenage granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak), and Karen’s husband Ray (Toby Huss). Taking a stroll on Halloween night, he breaks into homes, finds some weapons, and begins his night of many stabbings with his following piano theme.

What makes this film so effective is that it never feels the need to delve deeper into Michael’s past, keeping his motivations a silent enigma hidden behind his mask and heavy breathing. There are many attempts to understand him, as with nosey podcasts journalists hoping to land a story and a curious psychologist who wants to know Michael’s secret of evil. Michael won’t spill the beans; he’d rather spill guts. Even Laurie, with her rocky history of not being trusted by her family, obsessed with keeping her home safe, and driven mad by Michael’s existence, has a tone that feels more natural than expositional. She’ll never slow down to explain herself when it comes to the dangers of Michael or how her odd house of tricks functions for trapping the killer she knows will come. She, too, will be interviewed by the podcasters and she won’t give them much, as though her wish to survive the night and kill Michael won’t come true if you tell.

David Gordon Green’s direction is superbly on track for matching the style of the original. The atmosphere always carries a creepy and intimidating feel, that familiar and simple John Carpenter style score piercing the tension almost as sharply as Michael’s knife. Michael’s kills are kept clever, bloody, and chilling; sometimes he’ll go as simple as choking someone to death with his giant hands and sometimes he’ll bring his boot down to splatter brains into the pavement. For as elaborate as it seems, I dug how Laurie’s secluded home comes with a slasher security system, including multiple door locks, an underground bunker of supplies, and special locks she can use to secure rooms she’s already explored. It turns Laurie into more of the screaming warrior than the scream queen she was originally known for. And there’s something oh-so-satisfying about transforming her into the gritty grandma with an arsenal of guns.

I doubt most jaded modern horror audiences would be as spooked into terror at the almost quaint killing spree of Michael Myers with his classic tactics but Halloween keeps a focus by maintaining its style and tone with grace. It’s a brilliantly shot film, from the checkerboard floors of a mental institution to the darkly lit interiors of Laurie’s stronghold, including some subtle callbacks and an alternate take on familiar shots. It’s viciously violent, slowly establishing that nobody is safe from the massacre via Myers, including kids. There are even a few twists thrown in to keep the story more interesting. Ultimately, it’s a wickedly faithful throwback to what made Halloween so gripping and infatuating before the saga descended into Stonehenge mysticism, a reality show, and dreams of white horses.


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“First Man” Fumbles In Crowded Weekend, “Venom” Drops and Tops

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October is proving to be a crowded month for genre pictures and Oscar-worthy films. As such, it’s astounding that a superhero film has managed to set records for the month. Venom, Sony’s Marvel movie about the anti-hero, continues to be at #1 in its second weekend with a weekend gross of $35 million. This brings its domestic total to a towering $142.8 million, covering its $100 million budget. Once again, not far behind it is A Star is Born, the musical drama with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, ends up at #2 with a weekend gross of $28 million, the domestic total sitting at $94 million, still great for a $36 million budget.

There were a host of new releases this weekend but weren’t as successful as they trailed behind the top two. First Man, the Neil Armstrong movie starring Ryan Gosling, only made $16.5 million, a major disappointment for the $59 million film. Just beneath it was Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween, a sequel to the 2015 family horror film based on the books by R.L. Stine, coming in close with $16.2 million. Further down was Bad Times At The El Royale, the all-star ensemble campy thriller, making $7.2 million. Expanding for the weekend was The Hate U Give, the racially charged drama, but the expansion to over 200 more theaters did little to push it up the chart, making $1.7 million.

Though Venom took the big dip for the weekend with a 55% drop, it still ended up being the biggest money-maker of the weekend. It’s no surprise that the other big drop was for The House With A Clock In Its Walls falling 45% because there’s not exactly enough room for two Jack Black scary family comedies. Both Smallfoot, the animated comedy with the voice of Channing Tatum, and Night School, the education comedy starring Kevin Hart, each had only 35% drops. But it was ultimately the comedy A Simple Favor that took the biggest hit of dropping 59% to #10 in the box office.

View the full top 10 of the weekend box office below:
Venom ($35,700,000)
A Star Is Born ($28,000,000)
First Man ($16,500,000)
Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween ($16,225,000)
Smallfoot ($9,300,000)
Night School ($8,035,000)
Bad Times At The El Royale ($7,225,000)
The House With A Clock In Its Walls ($3,975,000)
The Hate U Give ($1,765,000)
A Simple Favor ($1,380,000)

Next weekend will be far less crowded with a heavy-hitter horror film aiming for the top spot. While The Hate U Give will be expanding even more into 2,300 theaters, the new Halloween, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, will be hitting 3,700 theaters, presenting the biggest threat to Venom’s quickly draining box office.


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