Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

Movie Review ~ Zack Snyder’s Justice League

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Ray Porter, Jesse Eisenberg

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 242 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Has there ever been a more bizarre and divisive situation of nerdom than the one surrounding the twisted tale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League?  By his own request, the director was replaced during the final weeks of production on the 2017 release (including editing and reshoots) so he could deal with the emotional recovery of the death of his daughter.  It was the right choice for Snyder but it left the film in the hands of Joss Whedon, the Marvel marvel who couldn’t find the same tone Snyder was going for and leaned into a more studio and populous theater friendly piece that didn’t serve the darker storyline that was imagined.  Not unexpectedly, though the film was ultimately credited to Snyder it bore little resemblance to his original vision and was hampered by many of Whedon’s trademarks, down to cringy bits of humor that didn’t work and a stupefying amount of bad special effects.

With Warner Brothers and the DC Universe riding high off the phenomenal success of Wonder Woman released earlier that year, the dismal failure (and tepid reception) of Justice League put a nail in the coffin for Henry Cavill’s Superman and encouraged Ben Affleck to exit a solo Batman project that was in the works.  It also derailed a planned film for The Flash and bumped the Wonder Woman sequel out, not to mention leading to some troubling accusations from co-star Ray Fisher on how the studio treated him after voicing concerns about unprofessionalism on set.  All in all…a big mess.  While a subsequent Aquaman film performed well and looked encouraging for Jason Momoa’s future as a box office star, Wonder Woman 1984s bow in late 2020 was met with true vitriol (all very unfair in my eyes) so the shaky ground remained.

While all of this was going on, though, a strange groundswell was starting that began almost as a joke but started to catch on before turning into a full-blown movement by comic book and franchise fans.  This was of course the birth of the # phenomenon and it was hard to avoid the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pandemonium that took over Twitter.  Everyone knew that Snyder had expressed some displeasure that his vision wasn’t seen through to the end and that so much of what he shot wasn’t included or scenes he had wanted to shoot weren’t shot at all.  What people were clamoring for was to see Warner Brothers to hand the movie back to Snyder and let him re-edit the movie into the “Snyder Cut”… which is not exactly unheard of.  They’ve done it before with 1980’s Superman II, replacing director Richard Donner before filming was over but releasing his (not as good) version decades later.  Director’s cuts are fairly standard for releases now but there was something about this particular movie that kept both sides tight-lipped, with Warner Brothers even claiming at one point that there would definitely be no Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

Here we are, though, and HBOMax is releasing a four-hour cut of Snyder’s reassembled film that aligns with his original plan.  Running a full two hours longer than the 2017 release, Snyder used material that Whedon chose not to go with and also shot quite a lot (a lot!) of new footage – so much so that this feels almost like a remake of the film everyone thumbs down-ed four years ago.  We all know that longer doesn’t equal better but in the case of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it most certainly does.  My original review of Justice League pointed out that the film’s introductions to the new characters felt rushed and not a lot of the movie felt cohesive due to the streamlined runtime.  With four hours to work with, Snyder is able to give each character their due and then some, providing more than enough character building to have the head spinning finale actually mean something this time around.

By and large, the story is mostly the same.  After burying Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, Live by Night) begins to assemble a team of other individuals with superpowers while Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, Ralph Breaks the Internet) returns to her civilian life with the occasional crime fighting break now and again.  Batman has a sense that a darkness is coming and the need for a team of united strength is important and it’s only after Wonder Woman gets a desperate sign from her homeland with the key to a hidden message that she joins him in the recruitment process.  Together, they seek out Aquaman (Momoa, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) who has remained a mystery man in the waters off Iceland, The Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) a kind-hearted social outcast that can run faster than the speed of light, and Cyborg (Fisher) a former high school football player saved from death by his scientist father (Joe Morton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) now struggling to adjust to his altered appearance and overwhelming technological access.

Their combined powers will be needed to defeat Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Closed Circuit) a ghastly beast that has arrived on earth searching for three boxes that, when united, will call forth a dangerous entity that will destroy Earth.  As he travels around the globe gathering the pieces of the puzzle from clans that have an impact on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the group realizes that the box possesses multiple powers.  (Yes, you’re correct in thinking this is all hokey pokey stuff and it’s just as absurd as it was the first time around…but with more time to add in context and backstory, it goes down just a little easier.) In addition to vanquishing all life, the “unity” can also restore it and bring the dead back to existence.  A fairly good tool to have when you’re down one superhero and know where he’s buried…

Like I said before, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just…more.  There’s more story, more action, more blood (when people get thrown against walls, their heads tend to explode quite messily), and more gritty language than what you’ve come to expect.  It isn’t anything gratuitous and only adds to the all-encompassing feeling that Snyder has returned to the film.  I couldn’t shake off the feeling while watching it that it was the kind of event entertainment that back in the day networks would have shown once a year and the entire family would watch as a group.  Could the film have been trimmed down a bit – absolutely – but I was fairly enraptured with it all from the moment it started until it ended.  It may run 240ish minutes but it definitely doesn’t feel that long.

Not to say there weren’t some clunkier moments along the way.  At times, when the action dips you start to try to pick out which scenes were new and which ones were previously shot and it’s fairly obvious by tracking Affleck’s face which switched between expertly chiseled and comfortably fuller throughout.  Several scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage that doesn’t match the rich detail of the other production design so one moment you’re with Diana as she’s traveling through a cave, Indiana Jones-style, and the next you’re watching a random actress silently acting out an overly cliché scene that’s there to show Cyborg’s softer side.  There’s more than a handful of effects which come off like a video game or Saturday morning animation than the polished inspired moments they could be.

Speaking of the effects and visuals, aside from the occasional sketchy etching a great effort has clearly been made to right some terrible wrongs seen in the original, namely the horrible job done on Cavill’s (Enola Holmes) face to digitally remove a mustache he had while filming reshoots.  Either those scenes were jettisoned completely, or the hundreds of digital techs credited at the end had their work cut out for them because by and large the movie looks sharp and excellent.  A number of action sequences have been restored and they haven’t been carelessly re-inserted – they’ve all been smoothly incorporated into the rest of the movie.  An early sequence of Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery/bombing has been elongated and made it far more intense, visceral, and displays more of Wonder Woman’s abilities.  I went back and watched the same scene from the original and its so watered down and brief that it barely registers as a bout of action for the heroine.  Now it’s suspenseful and doesn’t feel like it minimizes the superhero or the plot.

Divided into six parts and an epilogue (which has about three or four endings within and several whopper surprises), Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is big big BIG and doesn’t quit until it’s good and ready to.  Its release renders the previous version totally obsolete in my book and this will be the only Justice League that I’ll recognize for future rewatches because it appears to tell a full story with a better overall picture of where these characters are headed.  Or were headed.  Last time I checked Cavill and Affleck were out and a new Batman movie is due out soon with Robert Pattinson in what looks to be the darkest take on the Caped Crusader yet.  Who knows what will come of this group for future outings but we do know that another Aquaman is swimming into production and due in 2022, the same year as The Flash movie which is rumored to have Affleck in it as well.  Despite those off-the-mark reviews for the recent sequel, a third Wonder Woman film has thankfully been greenlit.  Perhaps we’ll get a Cavill appearance in one of those films…or maybe Snyder will benefit from another Twitter grassroots campaign and a Justice League II will come to pass.  No matter what, Snyder’s vision is finally out there and whether you were a strong supporter of this cut being released or think the studio caving to fan demand is the most terrible thing ever (um, why?) this a film that demands some attention and a little admiration as well.  It’s goes for the brass ring with bold gusto.

Films in the DC Extended Universe

Man of Steel (2013)

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Suicide Squad (2016)

Wonder Woman (2017)

Justice League (2017)

Aquaman (2018)

Shazam! (2019)

Birds of Prey (2020)

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Future films

The Suicide Squad (2021)

The Flash (2022)

Aquaman 2 (2022)

Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023)

Movie Review ~ Hillbilly Elegy

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Yale law student drawn back to his hometown grapples with family history, Appalachian values and the American dream.

Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso, Haley Bennett, Freida Pinto, Bo Hopkins, Owen Asztalos

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There’s a strange feeling that overtakes you when you realize you’re watching a bad movie.  Not a bad movie like most of us would think of it.  You know, like, the cheap-o films with bargain basement production values and actors that can barely convince you they’re from this planet.  No, there is another kind of bad movie and it’s the deadliest of them all…the prestige picture that goes south right under the otherwise hyper-sensitive noses of everyone involved.  Maybe they all knew it was imploding and couldn’t get out of the wreckage or maybe, apparently like everyone involved in the 2019 big-screen version of the Broadway musical CATS, they didn’t realize it until the release date was pending.

I’d heard the tiniest sliver of buzz around Hillbilly Elegy as it was getting ready to roll out, mostly due to the involvement of two long-overdue Oscar never-winners in supposedly meaty parts.  This adaptation of J.D. Vance’s popular, but controversial, 2016 memoir of his life growing up in Ohio had a load of baggage attached to it, not the least of which was its partisan political issues that festered at its core.  Would the film be able to rise above these red state/blue state dividers especially during an election year where half the country supported a leader that’s morally and ethically bankrupt and still be able to maintain the heart of what Vance had to say about a poverty-laced upbringing that eventually led him to a criticized choice regarding his own survival?

Honestly?  I don’t know what to report back to you on what screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) has found at the center of Vance’s story because Hillbilly Elegy is a mess on a number of levels that it’s difficult to know what to target first.  It’s an old-fashioned, paint-by-numbers take on a timeless story of rising above one’s own circumstance given no nuance by Taylor, nor provided any assistance from director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who is absolutely the wrong director for this type of tale.   Through a series of scenes that hop between J.D. as a boy (Owen Asztalos, with a face always in a perpetual state of surprise) and as a Yale law student (Gabriel Basso, who actually looks like an older version of Asztalos) Taylor and Howard walk us through Vance’s often harrowing account of life with his drug-addicted mother (Amy Adams, Vice) and tough-love grandmother (Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs).

I could go on about the vignettes that take up the lion’s share of Hillbilly Elegy but they are executed so haphazardly and with maximum focus on the extreme edges of the actors performance that they start to resemble cartoons as the movie progresses.  The opening scene, at the good-byes of a large family reunion in Appalachia, sparked some interest for me but once we get back to the city living of JD it goes right into one turbulent event after another.  Running down a checklist of required scenes in these types of films like the middle of the street ruckus that all the neighbors come to gawk at, the uncomfortable moment where some city folk get educated on not looking down on “hill people”, clothes being thrown over balconies onto yellowed lawns…they’re all here.  Yet even with all that, you’d be hard pressed to remember any characteristic of these people other than their bad traits…even their names fade from memory.  In fact, it would be a miracle if you could name any of the supporting characters by the time the film concludes.

Two people you will remember from the movie are Adams and Close but not necessarily for the reasons they’d want you to.  Nominated for the Oscar six times now, Adams can’t quite find that role that’s going to get her across the finish line and I fear we’re getting into that arena where it’s not happening or if it does happen it will be a cumulative reward instead of it being deserving for the actual role she’s nominated for.  There’s no chance of that happening here, though.  While I like Adams for the most part, she grabs for too much and comes back with fistfuls of air, at times to our own wincing embarrassment.  It’s a strange swing and a miss for Adams and I wonder if the role would have been better suited for an actress less well known without all of that awards-hopeful dreams attached to it.

Strangely, though you’d think her part would be the more problematic what with the wig, glasses, mottled skin, and endless supply of 6XLT t-shirts and carpenter jeans she wears, Close gets better the more we get used to her.  She also does what every true A-list star does best…make everyone else look as good or better in shared scenes while still performing the ever-loving heck out of her own part.  Close may get poked fun at for her seven Oscar losses but she stands the best chance out of anyone to get a nomination and might just deserve it.  The performance is Close through and through, played straight to the back of the theater and making you feel like you’re the only one in the room with her. (Side note, I saw Close recreate her Tony-winning role in Sunset Boulevard a few seasons back and can confirm this phenomenon is true.  I was in the balcony but often felt like I was sitting next to her…she’s that good at bringing you in).  Close wants that Oscar so bad she’s practically gnawing on it and while I’d much rather see her get it for the long in the works movie of Sunset Boulevard, I wouldn’t cry my eyes out if this is the one that sealed the deal.

I wish that the two JDs were as strong as their alpha females.  Basso is a bit of a black hole when it comes to being a scene partner, he’s not bad but merely serviceable and this should be a star-making role.  Six or seven years ago this would have been Chris Pratt’s role and he might have had a better take on this character.  Credit to Asztalos for having several rough scenes to get through but, again, there’s no nuance to anything he’s doing.  The dial seems to have three settings (all breathing through the mouth) and nothing much more than that goes on in his performance.  For what little she has, Haley Bennett (The Magnificent Seven) gets a few good moments but disappears for long stretches where we wind up forgetting to miss her.  Speaking of disappearing, as JD’s law-student girlfriend poor Freida Pinto (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) wins the Laura Linney in Sully Supporting Partner Who Just Talks On The Phone award because all she seems to be there for is to chat with JD and offer words of encouragement from miles away.

Arriving just as a bitter election cycle has ended (or has it?), the timing for further discourse on the merits of Hillbilly Elegy seems wrong.  I’m not sure Taylor or Howard even registered there were deeper issues to discuss that bubbled below the simple story of JD pulling himself away from a family troubled by drug use and not being able to make ends meet.  It’s there, though, and I can see why the book became a bit of a lightning rod for those that live in that area Vance high-tailed it away from.  Surprisingly, Howard has been making some good documentaries lately like this year’s Rebuilding Paradise. That film about the California wildfires focused on how communities work together to solve problems.  Funny, then, that in directing Hillbilly Elegy he seems to take no interest in another community also working on solving issues from within.

Movie Review ~ Vice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Alison Pill

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, writer-director Adam McKay made the rare successful transition from helming absurd comedies to becoming an Oscar winner for his work on The Big Short.  Whereas he was previously known for college dorm room friendly movies like Anchorman and it’s sequel, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers he was now responsible for a movie that the parents of his fans were buzzing about.  The movie that resulted from The Big Short was a fairly remarkable achievement given how complex the novel by Michael Lewis was and McKay justifiably shouldered much of the plaudits.  With that kind of clout, not to mention the big box office his comedies had already made, McKay was given a wide berth for his next movie and the super-charged political Vice is the result of an artist that has tried to use all of his bag of tricks to much less success.

Charting the rise to power of Dick Cheney from college dropout all the way to the Vice Presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Vice is a peculiar film that suffers under McKay’s employment of a similar set of structural devices he used in his previous films.  There’s a lot of jumping around in time, numerous lines delivered directly to the audience, and multiple times where the action stops so a familiar face can break down to viewers what exactly is going on or give a greater description to a political term that may be foreign to audiences.  With The Big Short and it’s heavy use of Wall Street lingo, these asides proved helpful but in Vice they feel like a hindrance to the narrative thrust of the piece.  I feel like Americans are much more savvy to politics so it has the effect of being talked down to rather than it being explanatory.

Vice has a lot of ground to cover and even in 132 minutes it rarely dives below the surface to give us a view into the lives of the former VP.  We simply go through the motions seeing Cheney (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises) as a younger (thinner, less bald) man, a bit of a loser until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, Her) threatens to leave him unless he changes his act.  Entering Washington politics as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) under Nixon and Ford before being ousted by a regime change when Carter was elected President, Cheney had his hand in multiple power plays along the way where he skillfully positioned himself while playing the long game.

The first hour of the film focuses on these early years while the last half is all about the Bush years when Cheney agreed to serve as the Vice President for the son of the former president.  Recognizing him as unqualified and easily manipulated, Cheney seized this opportunity to request more power and responsibility, which Bush handed over to Cheney and his cronies without much incident.  Essentially, Cheney was running the show with Bush the real figurehead that was controlled by his second in command.  With the attacks on 9/11, Cheney saw an opportunity to strike back at enemies and helped set into motion a war many of the issues we still face today generated from.  For anyone that has read a book about this political age in our country, these won’t be revelatory facts but it’s not any less frustrating to see how many of our current problems could have been avoided had the election that put Bush/Cheney into office been criminally investigated as many now agree it should have been.

Much of the hype surrounding Vice has been Bale’s performance as Cheney and I have to say the actor looks and sounds remarkably like the man.  Bale is known to be an actor that dives headfirst into his roles, both mentally and physically and the transformation here is commendable.  Still, this felt like an impression not a performance and nothing I saw on screen revealed to me anything about Cheney from an emotional perspective only from Bale’s impression of the man.  That could easily be a choice since Cheney is notoriously a hard person to pin down but I think there’s something more that could be done apart from the physical alteration he made for the role.

I’m not sure if I had an issue with Adams and her performance as Lynne Cheney or if I just didn’t like Lynne Cheney and that made me respond in kind to what Adams was doing.  In McKay’s eyes, Lynne was a Lady Macbeth for the 20th century, pushing her husband into this life and often encouraging him into his most trying periods of power.  The parallels are further drawn in an admittedly amusing scene where McKay has Lynne and Dick speaking in Shakespearan verse when discussing Dick’s consideration of taking the Vice Presidential nomination.  Adams is always a reliable presence and she and Bale have a good chemistry, perhaps they just were too believable as evil people.

McKay clearly knows how to attract a name cast.  Aside from Carell’s hammy take on Rumsfeld and Rockwell’s good ole boy ease as the younger Bush, there are nice cameos from Jesse Plemons (Game Night) as a fictional character that serves as a narrator who becomes an important piece later in the film and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as a morally conflicted Colin Powell.  Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) and Lily Rabe (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have some nice scenes as the Cheney daughters, and a special shout-out to LisaGay Hamilton (Beautiful Boy) for her spot-on Condoleezza Rice.

What’s missing from the movie are the moments between these big political benchmarks.  Skipping around in time (and over the Clinton administration all together) feels like McKay is cherry picking the passages he wants to highlight and that doesn’t feel fair enough in presenting an accurate picture of what was happening in the world that could have influenced Cheney in his later years.  I could easily have seen this being a Netflix series that stretched eight hours and being perfectly content to spend that extra time with these rather morally bankrupt people.  What’s not missing from the movie?  Symbolism.  McKay is a fan of making everything Symbolic with a capital S with many fishing/lures interstitials cut into scenes when Cheney is trying to hook another unsuspecting simp into his power plays.  At first it’s creative, then it becomes cloying.  Let’s also not speak of a dreadful mid-credit scene that Annapurna Pictures should immediately remove from all prints — totally unnecessary and weakens McKay’s argument up until that point.

There was little doubt before the release of Vice that former Vice President Dick Cheney was already considered one of the greatest villains our country but under McKay’s watchful eye he’s now become one of the screen’s most diabolical forces.  Vice is one of the most outwardly liberal movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio and in a way that’s refreshing because there’s no hidden agenda.  I just wish McKay’s message was delivered in a better envelope.

Movie Review ~ Justice League

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Earth’s greatest heroes are assembled to form the Justice League, to combat a threat beyond each member’s capabilities.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you?  After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track.   Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.

The problems are evident from the beginning.  It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots.  Huge mistake.  Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy.  His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.

Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache.  After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it.  So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly.  Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper.  He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.

The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before.  We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released.  We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them.  Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).

What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe.  From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents.  The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come.  This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart.  Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth.  Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.

Poor Wonder Woman.  That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League.  Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman.  Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined.  Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen  pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.

The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes.  There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps.  It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this.  You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form.  It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.

There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress.  Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint.   At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working.  Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.

The Silver Bullet ~ Justice League

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.

Release Date: November 17, 2017

Thoughts: With Wonder Woman becoming the top-earning movie at the summer box office, the producers behind the DC Comics franchise are riding a wave of positivity right now.  Let’s hope they can keep that goodwill going strong as the November release of Justice League draws near.  I didn’t mind Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice nearly as much as my colleagues did but the unrelenting darkness of this franchise has kept it from truly taking off. Wonder Woman was a nice reminder of what these films could be while director Zac Snyder deals with a family tragedy, Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was brought in to oversee postproduction so I’m hoping Whedon can bring a little Marvel spark to the DC Universe.  This extended look at Justice League gives a few more clues for audiences to decipher and one cliffhanger that already has the internet abuzz.

The Silver Bullet ~ Arrival

arrival_ver10

Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Thoughts: At first glance, Arrival looks like any other of the hundreds of like-themed films detailing alien invasion and a race against time to figure out how to communicate with them.  Dating back to the campy films of the 1950s all the way up to modern turns like Contact in 1997, this theme seems so played out…so why do I get the feeling that Arrival is going to be different?  Maybe because it’s helmed by Denis Villeneuve who, in movie after movie like Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, impresses?  Or maybe because it’s headlined by a strong cast including Amy Adams (American Hustle), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), and Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw).  This one has apparently crept up under the radar for it’s fall, um, arrival, and now that we have our first look it’s ascending high on my anticipated list for this autumn.

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Comic-Con Trailer)

batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver2

Synopsis: Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’ most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs

Release Date: March 25, 2016

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the first teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I wasn’t a huge fan of Man of Steel and was pretty reticent that we needed another Batman entry so soon after Christopher Nolan’s quite satisfying trilogy wrapped up. Well, an extended trailer released at the 2015 Comic-Con convention in San Diego has got my attention and while I’m still iffy on this sequel to a sub-par Superman reboot there’s a growing kernel of anticipation for this one that I can’t totally ignore. Like the recent preview for Suicide Squad, I was a little taken aback that the trailer was so long but while it shows audiences what they can expect from the March 2016 release, thankfully not every plot development has been laid out for us. Give it a look…I think, like me, you’ll like what you see.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

MV5BMTUyMTIxNzE1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU0ODQ4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_

Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.

Release Date:  March 25, 2016

Thoughts:  I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance.  After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader.  Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?).  Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well?  I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.

Movie Review ~ Big Eyes

big_eyes_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When I was young I was always frightened of these two paintings in my grandmother’s house.  They were tall, slim paintings each of a ballerina with large eyes and I made it a point to skirt by them without making eye contact with their black orbs.  Now, I’m not sure if these were paintings by Margaret Keane or entries from the numerous knock-offs that came about after the phenomenal success of the Keane Big Eyes movement; but seeing Tim Burton’s film on the life of the woman behind the eyes brought back these memories in full force.

It’s nice to see Tim Burton (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie) make a film featuring not one actor he’s worked with before (thanks for sitting this one out, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter) based on a subject that has some curio cultural significance.  However, the film feels de-Burton-ized so much that it’s hard to pick out much of anything that indicates the man behind Batman, Beetlejuice, or his much better biopic Ed Wood was running the show here.

Early buzz indicated that Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her) would land another Oscar nomination and win for her role as painter Margaret Keane and she just may have stood a fighting chance had the script from Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski not presented Keane as such a wet noodle.  As the picture opens she’s leaving her husband and taking her young daughter hundreds of miles away to San Francisco with no real prospects.  In that time that would have been considered a fairly gutsy move so it’s odd that no sooner has she set up a home, a job, and a weekend painting gig in a local park that she’d succumb to the charms of the first man that comes calling.  Adams is a bright presence on screen but comes off rather dull here.

Margaret’s relationship with Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained…more on him later) may have been a saving grace for the young mother but when he starts to indicate to the outside world that he is responsible for the big eyed waif paintings she’s created it’s an amazement that it takes her over a decade to break free of his slimy grip and even longer to lay claim to her work.  Keane herself acknowledges that she was fairly complicit in the charade but the film always makes it seem like she was under duress (literally being locked in an attic with a paintbrush and easel) and helpless.

If anything really puts a pin in the underwhelming nature of it all it’s Waltz’s bizarre performance as the duplicitous Walter.  The usually reliable Waltz is totally on a raft out to sea here, barely hiding his German accent (Walter was born in Nebraska) and devouring every bit of scenery and several of Colleen Atwood’s (Into the Woods) striking costumes.  By the time we get to a courtroom denouement Waltz is in full Joan Crawford mode, acting the hell out of a cross-examination of himself as he’s acting as his own attorney.

Burton’s penchant for CGI effects is thankfully kept on a tight leash here and the picture is lovely to look at, but it’s an overall shallow affair that finds Adams gamely treading water through a Waltz storm of melodramatic acting.