davidmvining

IMDb member since November 2019
    Lifetime Total
    250+
    Lifetime Trivia
    1+
    IMDb Member
    1 year

Reviews

Who Framed Roger Rabbit
(1988)

Richard Williams and Robert Zemeckis, together
This movie is a joy. It's a technical achievement, a wonderful callback to a lost era in Hollywood, and a great example of a genre that had fallen out of favor all while being thoroughly entertaining with enough broad appeal to be a big box office hit. This is Robert Zemeckis using his accumulated craft and knowledge of the medium and applying it to someone else's work with energy and intelligence without ever losing a sense of fun. A movie about humans and cartoons feels like it should be fluff, but the sheer entertainment value makes it something truly special.

In a world where cartoons walk amongst us, it is post-war Los Angeles and private detective Eddie Valiant has been called into R.K. Maroon's office in Hollywood to take a job. Their star, Roger Rabbit, is having trouble with his performance, and the problem may be his wife, Jessica, cheating on him. Eddie is sent to take whatever pictures he can to prove the charge. As with most of Zemeckis' early work, one of the joys is the little details that get peppered throughout the beginning of the film that end up paying off later. Eddie's brother and their shared background as clowns and circus performers, conveyed through a single tracking shot that evokes not only Zemeckis' own Back to the Future but also Hitchcock's Rear Window and contains an imperceptible time jump, all comes back later, especially in the final moments of the movie. As Eddie takes the job, finds a camera to use, and goes to the exclusive nightclub, we get all of these little details, and they provide depth to the world and to Eddie's character at the same time.

Well, Eddie finds Jessica in a compromising situation (literally playing patty-cake with Mr. Acme, the owner of the gag company just this side of Toon Town), and Roger goes missing. Acme ends up dead, and the mystery begins to unfold. Another great thing about this film is how the mystery evokes some of the great noir mysteries, especially Chinatown. It's a plot to eventually tear down Toon Town and replace it with a freeway. The clues are dropped throughout (pulled from real life in a certain way), and it ends up working as a noir mystery on its own. Replace Toon Town with the slums of LA or a section of town for a minority, and you could move the story wholesale into a more realistic setting without cartoon characters.

The thing about the cartoon characters is that they work really well both as characters and as feeling like they exist in the same physical space as the human actors. They are largely defined by easily identifiable traits, like Roger being zany with little thought and Jessica being sexy but devoted to her husband, but they are not really the center of the film. That's Bob Hoskin's Eddie Valiant. Broken after the death of his brother at the hands of a toon as they chased down a lead on a bank robbery, he refuses to work for toons and has grown into a fair bit of a bigot against them. He has an arc that keeps him a hard-boiled detective but allows him the ability to empathize with these cartoon characters. Up against him is Judge Doom, played wonderfully by Christopher Lloyd, who is all menace and turns into quite the unique monster by the end.

The success of the physicalness of the cartoon characters is mainly due to two people. The first is Zemeckis himself who brought all the technical innovations together in front of the camera to begin with. The second is Richard Williams, the director of the animation. Williams was an animator based in England who had mainly worked on commercials, but he got the job on Roger Rabbit because of his unfinished feature film The Thief and the Cobbler.

Now, a quick second to talk about The Thief and the Cobbler. It has one of the longest production schedules in film history. Williams tried for literally decades to get it done, eventually getting $25 million to make it in the early 90s based on his work on Roger Rabbit. It was never completed by him, the bond company eventually taking away from him and finishing it with the title Arabian Knights. A fan put together the Re-Cobbled edition a few years ago, and while unfinished it's the work of a master who is in complete love of his art. The visuals are so beautiful that its simplistic story can get overlooked. His is a sad story because he never really recovered from the collapse of his production of his masterwork.

Anyway, what Williams brought to Roger Rabbit was amazing ability from him and his team, but also an incredible ability to adapt to a new way of making animation. You see, Zemeckis didn't leave his camera stationary all that much. He loved to pan around in a space, and he wasn't going to stop just because it was going to be easier for the animators. So, using motion controlled cameras, he was able to film everything he wanted and Williams was able to find a way to keep the animated characters seemed fixed in a stationary location while the camera moved. On top of that, characters interact with the environment around them through animatronics that the animations hid, and it all looks so incredibly seamless.

There's such multi-faceted fun to be had with Who Framed Roger Rabbit. From the technical performances to the narrative, this film is a joy to watch. Zemeckis took on a difficult job and made it seem almost effortless. Terry Gilliam actually turned down the offer to direct this simply because if felt like too much work. I'd be curious to see what Gilliam would have made of it, but what Zemeckis made was wonderful.

Cast Away
(2000)

A Remarkable Adventure
This is the ultimate Robert Zemeckis film. A man, alone with a problem that he needs to solve, a handful of tools at his disposal, all of which he uses, and long takes. This is the movie that he was born to make, and it's the movie he had been building up to with decades of experience. Young Zemeckis could not have pulled off the quiet of Tom Hanks' life on a deserted island like this.

Chuck is a FedEx employee who helps set up and fix foreign branches of the company. He starts in Moscow, establishing an office and talking endlessly about how Time is the ultimate enemy. He lives his life by the clock. The clock on the wall in the Moscow office is what that office is to operate by. He's constantly referencing the time and how long it will take to do things. He has a fiancée, Kelly, in Memphis, Tennessee that he loves and tries to see as much as possible, but his work just keeps pulling him away. On Christmas Eve, Chuck gets a message that something needs fixing in Asia, so he jumps on a plane after a nice goodbye with Kelly that includes a potential engagement ring in a wrapped package, and the cast away begins.

Robert Zemeckis is an incredibly talented and technical minded director, so the idea that the crash sequence would be good is kind of baked into the cake of Cast Away. However, this crash sequence is amazing and might be the single best sequence Zemeckis ever put together. The build up around the jostle that wakes Chuck up, the storm outside, the quick look at a screen showing them off course, the increased turbulence, the sudden explosion, the loss of cabin pressure, the crash, the sinking fuselage, the raft finding its way to the surface with Chuck desperately clinging on, and then the camera pulling back slowly as Chuck, a small figure on the big ocean only lit by lightning strikes, gets steadily smaller and smaller. It's a bravura sequence that uses image and sound perfectly, planting the audience at the center of the chaos without ever losing sight of Chuck or the overall movement around him, keeping the evolving action clear while providing us our emotional groundwork in Chuck.

Once on that island, the movie markedly changes on purpose. The first section of the film was loud and busy with Chuck dominating conversations constantly as he lived by a clock. Suddenly, there's no one to talk to and time doesn't matter. That change is what makes the life on the island so stark. Opening the movie with this would be one thing, dropping us into it after thirty minutes of completely different modes of storytelling is something else. The audience can feel as isolated and alone as Chuck as he calls out impotently to no one while quietly picking up a handful of floating packages on the shore (and sorting them by destination, of course) and figures out how to survive. The grounded nature of Chuck's search for a way to survive is compelling even as it covers small ground. Fire, of course, is something that we can completely take for granted, but when the only food Chuck can manage to eat is the meat of coconuts because crab legs are goop without being cooked we can understand the quiet determination and loud outbursts of frustration that grip Chuck as he tries to make fire for the first time.

This is the introduction of the other main character in the film, Wilson the volleyball. There's a basic narrative need to give Chuck someone to talk to without him just talking to himself, and the creation of Wilson is a good place to direct that energy. Born from his own blood after an accident with the fire sticks, Wilson provides a face that Chuck can speak to, sort out his thoughts, and let the audience know what Chuck ends up planning to do. That there is an emotional connection to Wilson at all is really derived from Chuck's very understandable need to simply have someone else in his life other than the sand and trees around him. His sole companion for four years means something to him, and because we can understand the depth of Chuck's plight we can understand that emotional connection to a smear of blood on a white volleyball. Maybe we can or cannot share in it, but we can certainly understand it.

There's a time jump of four years, and the physical transformation of Hanks from one side of that jump to the other is rather stark. The production famously shut down for an entire year (when Zemeckis made What Lies Beneath with the same crew) so that the pudgy Tom Hanks could slim down to his far thinner frame for the second half of the film, but that's only part of the transformation. Hanks was nominated for an Oscar in this role, and he deserved that nomination. The boisterous and gregarious fixer becomes incredibly different through those four years. He's quieter and more manic on the island, and when he gets off the island, suddenly surrounded by the world he had so easily fit into before, he's so quiet and small in comparison to who he was. The man who was so comfortable in the middle of a crowded conversation now looks like he would rather sink through the floor than bear another minute of it, but he's just too meek to do anything about it. That personal transformation is far more impressive than the physical transformation.

The effort to get off the island is the sort of goal based narrative that Zemeckis was so familiar with. This is really the core of the idea that this is the ultimate Zemeckis film, the goal is the only thing for such a long stretch. Chuck decides that he can use the half of a port-a-potty that washes up on his shore as a sail, but he only has a few months to form the necessary rope, build the raft, stock it, and launch it before the weather turns against him until the next year. The effort to make all of that happens is surprisingly compelling because we have a clear goal, clear stakes, and a likeable protagonist that we can root for all wrapped up together and focused on with clear-eyed purpose. It helps that the combination of on location filming and special effects are so seamless that everything about the production feels completely real.

The advertising famously gave away the ending of the film in the trailer and made it clear that it was giving away the ending. Occasionally trailers will show you shots from late in the film, but in the context of the trailer you don't realize it (the trailer for Eastern Promises has the final shot of the entire film in the trailer, for example), but it was obvious that the trailer was giving everything away. Zemeckis called it a marketing decision based on research that showed that people liked to know exactly what they were getting before they walked in, using McDonald's food as an example (he could have potentially used popular police procedurals like CSI as another). This really irritated some reviewers like Roger Ebert who couldn't get past the film's marketing to judge the movie and its ending on their own.

So, let me talk about the ending and why it's great.

Chuck gets off the island and he's a different man. He no longer cares about time, but he does still love Kelly. And yet, it's been more than four years since he left. She may have been a constant for him in a place without time, but time continued on without him. Kelly grieved and moved on, marrying and having a daughter. At the beginning of the movie, Chuck was so concerned with the time around his job that he never made the time for Kelly, the two needing to negotiate schedule books to discover when they would next see each other when Chuck gets called away for his fateful flight to Asia. Now, returned to Memphis, he understands how to appreciate time, and he can no longer have the one thing he wants most in the world. He could have had her had he prioritized her, staying home on Christmas instead of going to Asia, but after he made that decision there's no turning back. He has to move on, just like she did. It's a wonderful embrace of the central idea that runs through the whole film.

Cast Away is a great technical achievement, which is no surprise from Zemeckis, but it's also incredibly intelligent thematically and mature cinematically. Zemeckis has grown into an incredibly assured filmmaker. I hope he doesn't fall in love with weird computer animation, though. That would be weird.

What Lies Beneath
(2000)

Zemeckis Channels Hitchcock
Famously made in the year long production break on Cast Away designed to give Tom Hanks enough time to slim down for the second half of that film, What Lies Beneath is a trifle in Robert Zemeckis' filmography. It's an homage to Hitchcock that ends up feeling surprisingly generic as it continues, but the whole thing is buoyed by Zemeckis' sheer talent as he imbues every big scene with enough style and suspense that it's almost enough to make up for the movie's generic nature. Almost.

Claire is a housewife to an academic geneticist and they send their daughter off to college leaving an empty nest. With little to do but putz around the newly renovated house that Norman inherited from his father and spy on the new neighbors, it's obvious that Claire is going to go a bit stir crazy. She starts seeing things, the most present of which deals with those new neighbors. They haven't met, but the wife frantically begs Claire for help through the fence before she disappears. Convinced of murder, Claire shares her theory with Norman who dismisses her completely. It becomes a short Rear Window homage as Claire watches the husband through binoculars, convinced of his guilt.

At the same time, she sees things that are even less tangible, like a dead girl in her bathroom. In the mirror, in the water of the tub that fills mysteriously, amidst the steam of the hot water, the blond girl that resembles Claire a fair amount just keeps popping up. That's crazy, right? She's convinced that it's the wife next door, so convinced that when she sees the husband coming out of a public venue one night, she barges up to him and demands to know how he killed his wife before he pulls his living wife into the conversation. Embarrassed, Norman leads Claire away.

And yet, the ghost is still there, so, given a clue from the ghost herself, her initials, Claire finds a matching name on Vermont's list of missing persons and visits the girl's mother. Madison was a student, a partier, and a good girl, but she just disappeared one day. It turns out that Madison and Norman had a connection, and the trailers gave it away completely. So, I'm not going to worry about giving it away here.

Norman had an affair with Madison and may have had something to do with her disappearance. Up to this point, the movie is a fine little supernatural thriller. It's well built with very good moments of tension, but the movie strings us along on a lie that I'm not sure any in the audience believes, that Norman didn't kill Madison. The second he backtracks on something he had said before, it's obvious that he did it. You don't write characters who lie and then lie about a lie to have them stop one step shy of being a killer in a movie about a dead girl. No, he's the killer. He's going to lie about it, and the movie tries to make the most of the idea that he didn't kill her after we've figured it out for about a half hour. It's a frustrating section of the film, and it really drags it down, killing a lot of the tension that should be there.

When the movie finally moves past that lie and lets us know that what we've known for half an hour is actually true, that Norman is a liar, then the movie picks back up again. Oh, that's not to say that there isn't good stuff in that half hour. When Claire uses a book given to her by a friend and a lock of hair she stole from Madison's house to allow Madison's ghost to possess her, it's a titillating moment for sure, but the underlying tension isn't there. But the movie feels a bit deflated until Norman reveals himself to Claire, and it's a solid twenty minutes of building tension that works incredibly well because of the intelligent approach Zemeckis brings.

The height of it really is when Claire is catatonic in the bathtub as the water slowly rises up to her mouth, eventually over her nose, and she needs to use her limited physical movement as her body slowly wakes up to try and save herself with the plug in the drain. It's done without music, just the sound of the water rising, and it's the kind of sequence that Hitchcock did in his sleep. The rest of the movie's climax is a series of really inventive visual effects shots, the sorts of things you wouldn't expect from a movie like this but would from Robert Zemeckis, and it all culminates in a solid denouement. It's not great, but the ending does end up working pretty well.

I just mostly wish that the central mystery was actually, you know, a mystery. That half hour where we know what's going to happen but the movie thinks we don't feel like such a drag on everything else around it, and everything else around it is solidly fine, not great. As I said in the beginning, it's kind of a generic Hitchcock throwback film. It makes sense as a smaller project that Zemeckis could throw together in the hole in his schedule that was the middle of Cast Away's production, but it makes less sense as a project that held a lot that attracted Zemeckis to the project. The Hitchcock homage angle makes sense as well, but there's a problem in the script that feels like might have gotten addressed if Zemeckis had had more time to work on it.

Still, it's not really a bad film at all. It's opening hour and final twenty minutes work quite well, but there's that section that just drags it all down too much. I also feel like the empty nest stuff in the beginning just gets largely forgotten by the end, leaving a healthy thematic avenue unexplored. Oh well. It could have been worse.

Contact
(1997)

Zemeckis' best movie
This is one of those movies where I know from the opening shot that I'm watching something incredibly special. The opening is so unique, confident, clear, and effective that I know I'm in the exact right hands to tell this story. Robert Zemeckis took over the pre-production efforts after the studio fired George Miller, was granted full artistic control including final cut, and built off of what Miller had established to tell the filmed version of Carl Sagan's novel about alien contact. I'd love to see what Miller would have done, but it's hard to imagine a better combination of director and material than Zemeckis and Contact. Zemeckis is inventive technically on par with Spielberg, has the same kind of gentle humanism throughout his work, but he also is firmer in his commitments to where stories should go.

Since I made so much of how this movie starts so well, let me talk about that for a moment. It's an extravagant special effects shot that tracks back from earth, picking up speed and going further and further into deep space, passing out of our planetary system, our galaxy, and even further until we get a sense of how small our world is in the scope of the universe. This is matched by the sound of radio waves, dominated close to earth by contemporary radio and television signals, and going backwards in time until we can hear the first television signal powerful enough to be sent into space some ways away for a half second (that becomes important later). After that, it's silence as we get a stronger sense of just how much space is out there. It's a perfect start to this film.

Ellie Arroway is a scientist who works for SETI, using time on large radio telescopes to search the stars for signs of alien life. She's brilliant and eagerly directing her career down a dead end according to David Drumlin, the president's science advisor who has control over funding and satellite time. Eventually fired, Ellie and a small team of like-minded scientists find funding from a large corporation's funding arm, Hadden Industries. Using this money, they listen to the stars until the stars start speaking.

There are a couple of personal stories going on at the same time as the plot. The first deals with Ellie's father who died when she was nine. Using flashbacks, we see how her widow father lovingly guided her first steps into searching for answers in the stars with a telescope and a HAM radio. He dies of a heart attack one night when they're supposed to stargaze, and she rejects the local priest's explanation of God's will, but she still misses her father. She still needs answers, so she runs to her radio and calls out to her dad. The other personal story deals with Palmer Joss, a man who left the seminary because he couldn't give up the sins of the flesh, who is writing a book about the lack of meaning in a world dominated by science. He looks and sounds like Matthew McConaughey, so her immediate sensual desire seems to be understandable, but she can't commit. Ellie looks to the stars for meaning, not to the Earth. Science is her God, to put it another way, and she feels like she needs nothing else.

Now, to talk about a Robert Zemeckis movie without highlighting at least one great individual sequence feels empty, so I shall tackle that now. The first appearance of the signal from space is great, just so great. It comes as a series of pulses announcing the signal's presence to the world that's listening. Ellie's efforts to speed into the command center from an isolated spot among the 27 radio telescopes, shouting commands over her radio while her fellow scientists try to catch up with her orders, the building music around it, and the frantic early steps and simply trying to capture and verify what they're hearing is an amazing combination of visually effective storytelling, editing, and sound design that stands as one of Zemeckis' finest single sequences. And this movie is only about a third done. There's a lot more greatness to come.

The signal from space, that demonstrated intelligence through the use of prime numbers, recalls the attentions of the world, and the US government suddenly descends on Ellie's quiet little stargazing spot. Drumlin arrives alongside the National Security Advisor Michael Kitz. From the moment Drumlin shows up, he's wresting control and the credit away from Ellie, and Ellie barely seems to realize how bad it is. She can see it, but she doesn't realize how hard she needs to fight it. It doesn't help when the first signal has its visual aspects revealed to show Hitler's introduction to the 1936 Olympic Games.

Now, one thing this movie does with surprising intelligence is how it handles a variety of reactions from the world to the news. The cults that rise up both in support and in rejection outside the radio telescope farm feel like the sort of mix of crazy humanity would cook up, but they're mostly a sideshow. The central reaction is Ellie's, and she's counterbalanced by Joss. Ellie looks out at these people with a mix of pity, confusion, and a little bit of fear. The irony is that both she and the sideshow carnival are looking towards Vega, the source of the message, as a source of meaning and truth, the exact sort of thing that Joss was saying was absent in our modern science-driven world. Ellie's journey ends up being one of humility and faith as she realizes the limits of her own experience. It ends up recalling Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So, the message has plans for a giant machine hidden inside it. S.R. Hadden, the reclusive billionaire who resembles Howard Hughes (and would be modeled after Elon Musk if made today) figures out the primer to decode the language, and the world is off to spend almost half a trillion dollars to build it. The machine has a capsule that carries one person, and Ellie and Drumlin are both up for the seat. Drumlin, once again, steps on Ellie's toes and she takes it. That's not really a criticism of her character, mind you. Ellie is a professional working in a tough bureaucratic setting. She acts like a professional when she gets outmaneuvered by Drumlin, eventually losing the prized seat to him. It would be out of character for her to, while still working on the project, to break down into tears and recriminations against him. She can do that when her funding gets pulled near the beginning of the film, but not when she's spent time learning to be a team player with a desire to see the project through to the end.

When a religious extremist sneaks into the completed site and blows it and Drumlin up, the world thinks it has wasted a gob of money on a project that went nowhere until Hadden shows up with another machine built in Japan. Two machines for the price of two. Ellie ends up the pilot and gets sent through.

Now, the movie as a whole gets a lot of praise, but that tends to end when Ellie reaches her destination. The trip out is tense and beautiful in equal measure. The sequence that sends the pod through the machine is another great suspense sequence, but it's when Ellie gets to that beach built off of her memory of a drawing she made of Pensacola as a child and the alien visiting her in the form of her father that people lose faith with the film. They wanted to see an alien, and they see a great alien design, not just David Morse. However, I think that Zemeckis leaned towards the lesson that Kubrick learned while making 2001: A Space Odyssey. No alien will ever life up to the audience's imagination. The design will always be too terrestrial in nature. So, instead of going to spectacle, which he gave in the trip there to the beach, Zemeckis relies heavily on Ellie's emotional journey, and I think it works. Ellie started her love of space mixed with the tragedy of her father's death. Some part of her had mixed the idea of science and the soul into an idea that if she could hear far enough, she could see her dad again, and suddenly there, millions and millions of light years away from Earth, she sees him again. There's an emotional release from her as she fulfills what she had dreamed of as a girl, something relatable to the audience. At the same time, she sees her journey from a cosmic point of view as the first step out of many (there are echoes of Clarke's assertion that we are a child race here).

When Ellie comes back, she has no proof over her journey, just her lived experience. She cannot prove that what she saw was real, but she must still try and convince the world that they did not waste their time and money on the project. Her desire to be believed becomes an echo of Joss's earlier arguments in favor of faith in God, a fascinating parallel. She can prove that this machine really did as much as she asserts as well as Joss can prove the existence of God. I imagine it costs a fortune to simply run the machine a single time, so I can understand why people wouldn't be jumping at the prospect of funding another trip just to see if what she said was right.

It's a wonderfully intelligent film that embraces complexity in several forms. Acting is really good across the board, especially from Jodie Foster as Ellie. It reaches for a real sense of awe and nearly accomplishes it, which is a hard thing to do in general, all while telling its story well. This is a great film, and it may be the best Zemeckis ever made.

Forrest Gump
(1994)

Nostalgia Trip
Gosh, some people really love this movie, and there's no way to convince me that a lot of that isn't due to nostalgia on the part of the audience. The main character's journey functions as a survey of the 60s, prime material for Baby Boomers to relive their early days in heartwarming package. I...did not live through the 60s. I do not share this love for the period, so I think that explains some of my more muted reaction. It's a fine little movie with a strong central character and very good technical merits (not that I would expect anything less from Robert Zemeckis), but the survey elements of the history end up feeling shallow to me.

So, Forrest Gump is sitting on a park bench in Savannah, waiting for the bus, and he begins to tell his life story to the quiet nurse sitting next to him. He's a man of less than average intelligence who has lived a more than average life. He influenced Elvis's dancing when he came to stay at Forrest's mother's bed and breakfast house in Alabama once. He played for Bear Bryant on the University of Alabama's football team. He interacted with the first black students at the University of Alabama right after the National Guard forced George Wallace to allow them in. He shook hands with JFK. He went to Vietnam. He got shot. He played ping pong in China. He shook hands with LBJ and showed him his butt when he came back. He participated in the large protest around the Reflecting Pool. He shook hands with Nixon. He called security on the Watergate perpetrators. And he did it all while staying his normal, optimistic, and simple self, changing those around him rather than himself.

As played by Tom Hanks, Forrest is just the perennial innocent. He walks into every situation convinced of the good graces of those around him, and, like Pollyanna, he tends to just make those around him happier.

In some ways, this movie reminds me of Doctor Zhivago where Yuri Zhivago got shoved from one major historical event to another, but where Yuri Zhivago never felt like he had any agency, Forrest always feels like he's proactively doing things after he gets shoved somewhere new. The best case of this may be the peace protest in DC. Forrest is wandering around after having shown the bullet wound on his butt to the President of the United States, just sightseeing, when he gets literally shoved into a line of veterans who are protesting the war. Forrest, being the best dressed of the bunch, gets shoved to the front of the line and asked to deliver a speech. The speech gets cut off so that even the audience in the movie can't hear it, but the reaction from the guy who introduced him and stood next to him tells the whole story. Forrest said something that touched the hearts of those around him. I imagine the speech was intentionally not heard because it could have split the audience of the movie, and that's not what Zemeckis wanted from a heart-warming trip through the 60s, so keeping it unheard prevents any kind of audience blowback. So, while I do feel that it works as a scene and accomplishes what it intends to accomplish, I also feel like it takes an easy way out to make it as broadly appealing as possible.

The issue with the thinness of the telling of the 60s really became evident to me once Forrest reached Vietnam, though. His introduction to the country is a very largely set small scene of an introduction with Lieutenant Dan. Outside, on the coast, with 60s music blaring and a bunch of helicopters flying around. This is Zemeckis channeling Coppola's Apocalypse Now, providing nothing new about Vietnam cinematically in the process. What Gump does is good in this section of the film, the introduction of Lieutenant Dan and the death of Bubba are very well handled, but Vietnam as a whole feels shallow here. It became the same with every major event that Gump came across. What Gump did was entertaining, but the underlying history was just so thin that it becomes kind of frustrating. As a dose of nostalgia, I can understand the appeal, but since I don't share in the nostalgia I don't share in the appreciation.

I've spent too much time complaining.

The point of Gump's journey is that he makes the world a better place in little contributions. That's most evident through the character Jenny, the girl he grew up with. She was abused by her father and went down the rabbit hole of the counterculture (providing a surprisingly negative view of the counterculture in a Hollywood movie along the way) while Forrest keeps popping up and offering to be the rock she needs. Built up by his mother's simple lessons from Nowhere, Alabama, Forrest is the good person that Jenny can eventually fall back on for support. In a way, Jenny and Forrest having a child represents two halves of America coming together after the 60s to raise the next generation.

The other major character that Gump helps is Lieutenant Dan. Raised in a military family with a long history of dying for America from the Revolution onward through the Second World War (the montage skips a few conflicts along the way), Dan gets robbed of his chance to die by Gump who saves him. Dan, robbed of his destiny, descends into drink becoming a carbon-copy visually of Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. It's through Gump's positivity about moving forward with his plan on buying the shrimping boat in honor of Bubba and working it to success that brings Dan out of his funk.

A note about the special effects. Many of the visual effects are very good and still hold up, especially the crowd scene around the Reflecting Pool and everything about Lieutenant Dan's missing legs, but the stuff that combines Gump into existing historical footage has not held up. In the mid-90s, seeing Gump in the same visual space with some level of conviction as JFK, LBJ, and John Lennon was remarkable, but the effects have aged really badly. Heads float on shoulder unnaturally while the mouths are awful and move incredibly artificially, often having trouble even matching up with the words being said. Mouths are hard to replicate with computer effects, visual effects houses still have trouble with it, but it just looks terrible here. This is largely the same technology that made Meryl Streep's head backwards in Death Becomes Her, but it's far more ambitious with not enough advancements in the technology, which is unfortunate. All it really does it take one out of the moment that should be funny, but it shouldn't happen at all.

Overall Forrest Gump is a nice movie that takes the audience through a survey of 60s America with a likeable main character who always tries to make everyone around him better. It's an appealing journey that's easy to sit through and often quite funny, but it also seems to ride heavily on nostalgia that I don't share, limiting its impact on me and potentially anyone else who doesn't share in the same outlook on the 60s.

Back to the Future Part III
(1990)

A return to more assured storytelling
After the pained opening and inventing re-imagining that was the second movie in the franchise, Marty and Doc return for their final outing with a more straightforward time travel adventure in line with the first one. From beginning to end, this is much more confident and assured storytelling on the part of Robert Zemeckis, standing on its own far better than the previous film while also giving Doc a surprisingly effective little love story.

Writing the second and third movie together, and filming them back to back, greatly advantaged the third film over the second. The second was saddled with a jokey ending from the first that was never meant to be followed up, but the second movie was designed to actually lead into a specific adventure in the third. In addition, the two Bobs treated the second movie as the opening act to the third movie, introducing character elements and plot points that would resurface and resolve in that final film. Some of that ended up feeling out of place in Part II (like the "chicken" character trait that went unresolved there and the clip from A Fistful of Dollars that seemed completely gratuitous), but they end up working far better in Part III.

So, Marty watched Doc erupt into nothing and disappear in the skies before finding out that he had been sent back in time from 1955 to 1885. Using a seventy year old note written by Doc as a guide, Marty recruits the 1955 version of Doc to help him find the DeLorean that 1885 Doc hid in a mine shaft, get the time machine back up and running, and then goes straight back to 1885 to save Doc from his fate of dying less than a week after he sent the letter.

One of the joys of the franchise is how self-aware the films are about their formula and structure. There are several very specific things that happen in every film, and seeing them repeated in different contexts and variations is amusing. A Tanner saying, "McFly!" in a drinking establishment to Marty, confusing him with another member of his family, the chase through the streets of Hill Valley, the reappearance of characters and their antecedents like Strickland, and the central location of the clocktower provide a familiar base through all three films. Beyond that, in particular the first and third movies tell very similar stories where Marty goes back in time and needs to get help from Doc in order to go back forward in time, and here's where the variations become interesting.

In the first movie, Doc was the crazy scientist with dreams of grandeur, worries of his own failure, and concern for the space-time continuum. In the third movie, Doc gets lovestruck, and it's amazing how well it works. Clara Clayton, the new schoolteacher in Hill Valley, arrives in the week that Marty and Doc are organizing their return home, and Doc is immediately smitten. Attractive, a bit older, and in love with both science and Jules Verne, Clara is the one woman in all of space and time, it seems, who could bring out more from Doc than rationality. They're endearing together, and they provide the emotional bedrock on which the movie's final half really operates. Marty remains the character with little more than a goal while Doc gains an emotional attachment and arc that moves him into becoming a different person by the end. That's not to say that Marty doesn't actually grow in this film, because he does. The "chicken" bit that was leaned on heavily in the future segment of the second movie finally moves beyond a random character trait suddenly inserted into Marty, it actually becomes a place where Marty will examine himself and grow over the film, and it's handled surprisingly well especially in his interactions with Seamus (both played by Michael J. Fox in a series of increasingly complex composites that must have been a devil to work through in the late 80s and early 90s).

Marty does what he always does in these movies and becomes the focus of ire on the contemporary Tannen, in this case Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen. Marty shows up into town wearing a pink and blue cowboy getup that sticks him out like a sore thumb. Attracting Tannen's attention because of the outfit and his resemblance to Marty's great-great-grandfather Seamus with whom Tannen has issues, Marty gets shot at, lassoed, and nearly hung until Doc comes to the rescue with a tricked-out rifle. Together, Marty and Doc get to work finding a way to get the DeLorean to get to the necessary eighty-eight miles per hour after Marty accidentally cut the car's fuel line when he first arrived over rough terrain and in a chase with a local tribe. Eventually, they settle on robbing a train, getting the boiler up to an explosively hot degree, and riding out the extreme speeds until the car can get up to the necessary speed and appear on a bridge that will be built eighteen months after they leave but ninety-nine years before they arrive.

Another of the movies' joys is how well plotted they are, in particular the first and third. The rules of time travel, the method, and the means are very clearly laid out, but it never feels like a boring exposition dump (part of that is Christopher Lloyd's constantly manic performance as Doc Brown where even when he's explaining things, he always seems like he's about to explode providing a surprising amount of tension). At the same time, the stakes of the effort are really clear. In this case, if the two don't make it to the train on time, then Mad Dog will kill one or the other. If they don't get the train up to eighty-eight miles per hour, then the time machine will just fall over into the gorge below. With these very clear practical stakes, it combines especially well with Doc's emotional stakes. The final movements of his story with Clara feel earned and satisfying.

It seems to be that the general consensus is that the movies descend slightly in quality from one to the next with the first being the best, the second film as second best, and the third dead last. I just can't agree. The first has a purity of action and narrative that neither of the two quite meet, but the second is, well, as I wrote, the second is a mess. The third, though, is a wonderful adventure that provides a new dimension to Doc and a rather firm close on the franchise at the same time. Reading Roger Ebert's two and a half star review, he complains that the film decides to take a more romanticized view of the Old West than something like McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Altman, and I just don't quite get it. The point isn't to find a new way to tell a story in the Old West, it's to find a new way to tell a Back to the Future movie. It's a celebration of the Western genre up to and including visual cues from Once Upon a Time in the West, the presence of Harry Carey Jr, Pat Buttram, and Dub Taylor, and the use of Clint Eastwood as Marty's moniker. This is Back to the Future in the Old West, and it works as that but also as vehicles for our two central characters.

It's amusing to think that the entire trilogy takes place over about two weeks of Marty's life, squeezed into about a day of real time from the start of the first film to the end of the third. Marty sees a lot, experiences a lot, and does actually end up growing and changing, and I think that Part III represents a wonderful way for Marty to complete his time travel adventures. I agree with Bob Gale that there shouldn't be any more of these movies. I do dread the moment that both he and Zemeckis die because their estates are going to sell the rights as fast as possible and we're gonna another hit of 80s nostalgia with a Back to the Future remake where the main character teenage has to go back to 1985. Until then, we have the original trilogy that is chockful of high-energy fun.

Back to the Future Part II
(1989)

Hobbled by trying to fulfill the joke ending from the first movie
The two Bobs painted themselves into a narrative corner with their jokey ending to the first Back to the Future movie. They had no intention of ever making another one, so the tag at the end was just for giggles. But, the first movie was hugely successful and Universal threw money at the two Bobs until they relented and made another pair of movies. So, saddled with a throwaway line about Marty's kids and taking his girlfriend along, the two Bobs realized that they were in a jam. Dealing with Marty's kids kind of went against everything Doc had been about up to that point and Jennifer was pretty much dead weight considering the dynamic between Marty and Doc. They were trapped, and they decided to deal with it head on.

And I think that's where this movie's problems lay. The opening forty minutes of the movie is spent justifying the final jokey stinger at the end of the first movie, and it's a laborious set up for the actual plot of the movie. Other than Marty buying a future almanac, very little of what happens has any bearing on the events of the rest of the movie. More time is actually spent setting up things for the third movie, which ends up making the first third of Back to the Future Part II feel like the opening act of another movie. Other than the sports almanac, almost nothing of what happens in the first third of the film has any bearing on the rest of the film.

So, Doc brings Marty and Jennifer to 2015 and immediately regrets bringing Jennifer. So, he knocks her out with a futuristic thing, and moves to get Marty to replace his son who is going to agree to a robbery with Griff, Biff's grandson, and go to jail which will tear the family apart in the further future. So, using time travel to make Marty's life better, which he promptly chastises Marty for when he wants to bring a sports almanac back and make some money in the past to make his life better. After Marty goes through a repeat of his skateboarding scene from the first movie, this time with hover boards, the elderly Biff figures out that Doc has invented a time machine and picks up the almanac that Marty bought and Doc forced him to throw away. After a quick detour because Jennifer got picked up by the cops and taken to her future home, Biff steals the DeLorean, goes back and time, and returns the time machines (why?) to this version of 2015 (despite what Doc later says about traveling forward from an alternate timeline) before falling out of frame in apparent pain.

This first act is a mess. It makes little logical sense and it just doesn't fit the final two acts. There are certainly joys to it, though. The vision of the future is interesting with wonderful touches like the Jaws 19 movie stuff, but that feels like a missed opportunity. I don't know if the two Bobs bandied around the idea of skipping forward for the start of the story, maybe covering some of the action with some quick dialogue instead, but as it stands the first forty minutes of this movie is kind of a chore.

Once the plot of the movie clears up and solidifies, though, the movie is far more entertaining. The movie gains a new goal (again, about forty minutes in) and it charges ahead. With Biff having become a millionaire through betting from the 50s on, 1985 has changed dramatically. Biff has taken over Hill Valley, the sleepy little town, and turned it into a gambling centric hellhole with his tower at the center. George is dead, and Loraine has married Biff. Marty, who's supposed to be in Switzerland, shows up and gets a rude awakening at this new reality. Doc figures out what went wrong based on some clues left in the DeLorean and decides that the only course of action to fix everything is to go back to 1955.

Revisiting the 1955 story from another perspective was never the two Bobs' first choice. They originally wanted to go back to 1965 and see the flower children version of Marty's parents. I suppose the decision to not rehire Crispin Glover to play George (because Crispin Glover is a crazy person) played into that narrative change of course. So, we get a rather amusing look at time travel with a heavier emphasis on potential paradoxes.

Once again, the goal is clear. Marty needs to get the almanac back but he can't let his past self or his parents see him (why he can't wait for Biff to fall asleep and steal it from his room is less clear, the time limitations don't really exist in this movie). So, he navigates the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, intersecting with the previous film's actions in entertaining ways. He has to sneak by his past self in the car with his mother. He gets to watch his father's grand moment in a way that he didn't before, just as he steals the almanac from Biff's pocket. He has to save his past self from Biff's goon friends just off stage of past Marty playing "Johnny Be Good". It's solid, entertaining stuff, though it often feels easier than the first film (like the three goons happening to stand under some easily released sandbags).

The film ends triumphantly and then tragically and then with a cliffhanger (and then a tease of the third film that I'm honestly very happy Universal keeps including on home releases) all in quick order, and the movie's overall light tone lets it bounce from one emotion to another without much trouble. These movies are meant to be fun, not deeply felt, so it allows for these jumps more easily. Sure we can feel sad at the sudden disappearance of Doc and the DeLorean after it gets struck by lightning, but the movie was never going for tears at any point so it functions more as shock than tragedy.

Back to the Future Part II stumbles in the beginning and then lightly recovers by the end. It's an amusing continuation of the series has some fun visuals along the way (this seems to be the first real instance of Zemeckis falling in love with the technology, even more so than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit). It's a near miss for me overall, though. The first act just feels way too disassociated from the rest of the film, feeling more like a precursor to Part III rather than the final two-thirds of Part II, for me to ignore. There's definitely fun to be had, for sure, but I just hoped for more.

Back to the Future
(1985)

The perfect blockbuster
This movie is just plain fun, and it manages that because of how Zemeckis approaches a plot heavy film. It's been obvious from the beginning of his career with I Wanna Hold Your Hand that the two Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) loved to put characters with clearly defined characteristics through a puzzle of a plot with clearly defined goals to pull them through. The likeable characters are the grease that keeps the plot running smoothly, providing a key to the film's success. When the two Bobs were in film school, they were surrounded by others who loved the French New Wave, and they just wanted to make Hollywood films of fun. With Back to the Future, they succeeded just so completely.

The interesting thing about Marty McFly is that he doesn't have an arc in this film. At all. He doesn't grow. He learns a bit about his parents but the knowledge doesn't change him. At the end of the film, he's exactly the same person as he was in the beginning. This seems to fly in the face of everything screenwriters usually want to put into a movie, but it works really well because of the kind of adventure Marty gets sent on. He is presented with a problem (being sent back in time to 1955 from 1985), and he needs to solve it. In order to get there he is presented with a series of obstacles that he must overcome, including his mucking up of his own parents' uninspiring and flawed relationship. That's where we get character growth, in secondary characters that have a direct relationship to Marty himself and his journey back.

So, Marty and his older crazy scientist friend, Doc Brown, get attacked by Libyans at Doc's first successful test of his time machine made out of a DeLorean. The choice to make the time machine out of a futuristic looking car is a great one on the part of the movie. It allows for the time travel dynamic with exciting visceral thrill at the same time. It also allows for an exciting climax, of course. Doc gets killed and Marty barely gets away, accidentally getting sent back in time without any extra fuel (some plutonium), and needing to find a way home to 1985. Before he ever gets to managing the beginning of a plan, he ends up bumping into both of his parents as he explores this new, brighter, cheerier nightmare world that he must escape.

The mix of his exploration of the new world and his discovery of his parents as young people is expertly intertwined so that we never feel like we're coasting without momentum. His break of the history that brought his parents together is handled quickly, allowing Marty personal stake in getting involved in his parents' relationship at the very beginning. The 1955 Doc Brown encourages this because of vague concerns about the end of the universe and some concern for Marty himself who's due to disappear if things don't get set right. The stakes are clear and make sense to Marty's character. It allows the audience to happily go along with Marty on this journey through time. It doesn't matter that he doesn't change. It matters that the audience likes him and roots for him as he faces obstacle after obstacle on his clearly defined journey that just happens to be fun at the same time.

The clear line of action ends up forming and Marty has to balance preparing for the historical lightning strike that he and Doc will use to send him back to the future while, at the same time, trying to repair the relationship he tore apart before it formed. The normal expectation of character change happens around Marty's father, George, who can no longer just fall into a romantic relationship with the pretty Loraine, but he must earn her affection. That earning, at the ironic guidance of his own far more confident son, turns George into a better, more confident man.

The puzzle-like nature of the plot, reminiscent of and superior to what Zemeckis and Gale pulled off in their earlier pictures, all falls into place marvelously through the movie's climax. The clock tower, established in the opening minutes, the bad starter on the DeLorean, the tree falling on the cable, the visual call back to both the famous image of Harold Lloyd from Safety Last! and a clock at the beginning of the film, and more all come together in perfect harmony to give us the cathartic release as we watch Marty and Doc overcome all of the challenges to complete their goal.

The film has all of the hallmarks of a Zemeckis and Gale production at their most enjoyable. The long opening shot that introduces Doc's workshop is evocative of Hitchcock's opening shot of Rear Window, revealing key pieces of character and plot information elegantly. It's paced quickly, never slogging down in unnecessary details, always successfully pushing the story forward. It's energetic, fun, and expertly crafted. This is Zemeckis and Gale have a ball and inviting the audience along for the fun.

Romancing the Stone
(1984)

The movie that saved Zemeckis' career
This is the movie that saved Robert Zemeckis' career. His first two films I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars are fun little movies, but they were not exactly the financial successes that the studios were hoping from the new whiz kid they wanted to be another Steven Spielberg. It almost looked like Zemeckis' directing days were done until Michael Douglas picked him out to direct his next producing and starring film, an original screenplay of a romance novelist finding herself in the kind of adventure she wrote about despite having live a life enclosed inside her small New York apartment. This feels the least like a Zemeckis film out of anything he made in his first twenty years or so, and that's because he really was just a director for hire. The studio wasn't terribly pleased with his work before the film's release, firing him from Cocoon as director before this even opened. Well, it went on to do well and allowed him the clout to make a little movie about a teenager who goes back in time to the 50s. Before that, though, Kathleen Turner went to Columbia to find her sister.

Joan is a romance novelist who lives an incredibly sheltered life. When word reaches her that she must return a map sent to her by her sister's husband right before he died to her sister's kidnappers in Columbia, she does what she must as a good sibling and leaps out of her comfort zone to help her family. On her trail, though, is Zolo, a Columbian bureaucrat and big honcho in their secret police who wants the map for himself. He follows her, misdirecting her from Cartagena to the middle of nowhere where he tries to kill her. Just as he is about to do the deed walks in Jack T. Colton, an American staying in Columbia until he can save up enough money selling exotic birds. The accident that stranded Joan and Zolo destroyed Jack's bird collection, and when he gets Joan away form Zolo he agrees to lead her to Cartagena for three hundred seventy-five dollars.

Hence begins the meet cute adventure that sends Joan into the heart of an adventure that she could have written alongside the personification of her idealized man (named Jesse in her novels) but not quite as she expected. Jack is rougher and less suave than Joan might have wanted, and their initial relationship is not one of love, but as this is a romantic adventure, they do fall in love by the end. And therein lies the movie. It's a cheerfully predictable adventure movie greenlit to give Michael Douglas a starring vehicle in the then-popular genre of Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs.

It feels distinctly different from most of Zemeckis' work of the period because he had nothing to do with the movie's script, and neither did Bob Gale. It's a much more traditional narrative with a cleaner three act structure and a pair of characters that grow in predictable ways. It's almost a proving ground for Zemeckis to show that he could make movies other than high energy madcap adventures. Not to say that this doesn't have some of those qualities, but as a much more traditional Hollywood adventure, Romancing the Stone is Zemeckis saying, "Of course I can make this kind of movie."

What he brings to the adventure really is the sense of energy. Action sequences are lively filmed, for instance. The sequence that takes them through a small hamlet in the four by four of the local drug kingpin who happily takes them around to show them the sights (such as where he was born) while Zolo is in hot pursuit behind them is delightful. The final sequence that pits Joan and Jack against the American kidnappers and Zolo in a Cartegena fort is alternatively funny and exciting. In the middle of it all are Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas as the central pair. Their banter is solid, their chemistry strong, and delivery never less than amusing, especially from Turner who never quite stops being terrified of the strange surroundings and events she finds herself in.

Romancing the Stone is far from a challenging work, but it's both of its time and works as a fun little adventure movie outside of it. It's a good thing that audiences appreciated it in enough numbers, because if they hadn't the rest of Zemeckis' career might have never happened.

Used Cars
(1980)

Early Zemeckis and Gale, distilled
Early Robert Zemeckis movies tell me that Robert Zemeckis should never have worked from a large budget. His small movies have all of his charms and none of his major issues. He builds clockwork like plots, fills them with fun characters, and tells the stories with an infectious energy. He's like Nolan with less pretention and a greater sense of fun. Used Cars is a very fun early example of how Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale could put their heads together to put on this kind of show.

The movie begins with one of Zemeckis's wonderful long tracking shot, starting from a car suspended in the air over a dusty road, panning down to another car on the ground with someone tinkering under the dashboard on his back, and finally to the odometer that suddenly jumps back several hundred thousand miles. Out pops Rudolph Russo, played by a young Kurt Russell. He's a used car salesman with big dreams of buying his way into the local political machine. He's sold everything he has, but he just needs another $10,000 to get to the required $60,000 donation that will get him in. The problem is that the car lot he works on is the run down sibling of the successful used car lot across the street. The two lots are owned by brothers as well. Luke is the kindly owner the lot where Rudolph works, and Roy is the owner of the lot across the street. Both are played wonderfully differently by Jack Warden. Roy wants Luke's lot, and has been willing to use underhanded means to get his hands on it, unsuccessfully so far.

Luke, though, suddenly dies of a heart attack, and Rudolph is suddenly faced with an out of reach goal. He'll never get that $10,000 if Roy inherits the lot and demolishes it, so Rudolph hides Luke's body and starts running the lot the way he wants. His methods tend to involve ethically risky things, and this is where the movie gets a lot of its humor. It's all outrageous stuff, starting with hijacking the television feed of a local football game where they interject an ad hoc commercial that accidentally results in female nudity. It boosts sales. He hires strippers to dance on top of the cars the same night that Roy puts on a family friendly carnival as a promotion across the street. It boosts sales.

In the midst of this appears Luke's long-lost daughter, Barbara. She wants to finally reconnect with her father, but Rudolph has buried her father in a hole in the lot in order to earn $10,000 for his nascent political career. It doesn't help that he ends up falling for her. When she figures it out, despite the rather outrageous ploy to dig up Luke, pretend he's coming back from vacation in Miami, and get his corpse to drive, covered in gasoline, into a power line so that his car explodes. She kicks him off the lot, tries to take over, and films a commercial that Roy is able to use his connections to manipulate into her making a false statement. Roy uses that to get her shut down, but Rudolph comes to the rescue. The assertion inserted into her commercial was that she had miles of cars, but she only had a couple dozen on her lot. Roy has used his connections to the governmental power centers to go after her far more than the law would require with the prospect of shutting the lot down completely.

Well, Rudolph tells Barbara to simply say that she has miles of cars. How will Rudolph bridge the gap between the reality and the assertion? Well, this is where the Bobs' clockwork like plotting comes into play. Several little things were established very early in the film, in particular that there's a car lot a ways away that has a couple hundred junkers that Rudolph could have bought but decided not to. There's also a driving education teacher from the local high school with a couple hundred students in need of practice. All of this comes together in a madcap chase as Rudolph and Barbara get the gaggle of students to the cars and then back to the lot. It's high energy and really fun and funny along the way.

Of course it all comes down to the wire, and everything gets resolves satisfactorily. There's nothing particularly challenging about the film, but that helps it along with its light touch. Rudolph's move away from his dreams of politics could have been sorted out better. It makes sense as he watches the machine grind his newfound love down into dust, but it seems mostly forgotten by that point. The opening act is also kind of slow and drags a bit, but everything ends up paying off anyway. Still, I really did enjoy this early Zemeckis film.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
(1978)

Manic and energetic fun
Ensemble pieces are hard, and Robert Zemeckis lands one pretty well with his very first movie. The newest wunderkind and protégé of Steven Spielberg got his first movie with Universal on the promise that Spielberg would finish the film if Zemeckis didn't work out. Well, work out Zemeckis did, going on to a long film career that includes several classics. Working with his friend and writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis started his career with this feature film that pointed to a lot of things he become rather well-known for and what made him such an enduring voice in popular American film.

It's 1964 and The Beatles are coming to America to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. A group of teenagers in New Jersey has made it their mission to get to New York just to get close to the new rock group whose music is sweeping the nation. Among them are Pam (Nancy Allen) who is due to elope and become a married woman the very next day, Janis (Susan Newman) hates the Beatles and wants the world to realize it along with her, Rosie (Wendie Jo Sperber) who is a Beatlemaniac and knows everything about them, and Grace (Theresa Saldana) who wants to get an exclusive picture of the Beatles to sell to the local paper and get her started as a photographer. Each character has very clear desires and motives for getting them to New York and eventually into the audience of the show, a hallmark of Zemeckis' later characters. They are all clearly defined with well-established desires all revolving around a single MacGuffin. It's a roller coaster ride, and it works quite well.

So, they convince Larry, the son of the local funeral director, to borrow his dad's limousine so they can get close to the hotel and inside, one step closer to the Beatles. As soon as they're in New York, though, the group begins to splinter, and that ends up being where a lot of the fun is to be had. One of the joys of Robert Zemeckis' filmography is the clockwork method he plots everything. Introducing a lot of small things early that end up playing out later, the movie is a jigsaw puzzle that throws everything up in the air and then assembles it intricately in order on the fly. Pam accidentally hides in a cart that goes into the Beatles' room while they're out and, alone with their instruments and things, she lets out her Beatlemaniac, eventually getting caught and gifted a ticket to the show. Janis takes Larry around trying to get a kid a hair cut so his father will give him the three tickets he has for the show in return. Rosie meets up with a male Beatlemaniac and they bond over their mutual love but fight because the other isn't as big a Beatlemaniac as the other, coming together in the end because Rosie wins a pair of tickets on the radio. Grace ends up pretending to be a prostitute to get the $50 she needs in order to pay off the stage hand who's going to let her in the stage door, but she hides in the closet instead and jumps out with her camera while the John is with the real prostitute, getting her $50 through extortion rather than prostitution.

As this varied group of stories all come together, the movie really picks up steam. One complaint about the film is that the first hour feels surprisingly calm for what seems to be a madcap adventure, but that goes out the window as soon as the wheels really start moving to bring everyone back together. The movement of characters through the plot up to that point is consistently entertaining, just lacking the madcap energy one might expect. The group of friends all end up coalescing at that theater, seeing each other as they charge in for that seminal performance, it really feels like the audience is in very sure and even practiced hands.

None of these characters are particularly deep, largely defined by individual character traits and goals, but that sort of approach to character building can work quite well for an ensemble piece. Everyone is gathered around a single thing and they all want to get it for their different reasons. The differences provide new flavors while the single thing provides cohesiveness to the entire exercise. It's a balancing act that is rather amazingly achieved by first time director Robert Zemeckis.

It's a fun film that uses body doubles amusingly to recreate the Beatles' prime time performance. Energetically acted and with a really entertaining third act, it represents Zemeckis' confident first step into feature filmmaking.

Twilight Zone: The Movie
(1983)

Marred
This is one of those movies that has conversations dominated by something outside of it, the deaths of Vic Morrow, Renee Shin Chen, and Myca Dinh Le. You have to talk about it in conjunction with this movie not just because it happened while filming but, less importantly, because it negatively affected two of the segments in the film. If you want to just talk about the film itself without bringing anything else into it, you end up without real explanations for why the first two segments feel oddly incomplete.

So, John Landis directed the prologue and the first segment titled "Out of Time". In that segment, Vic Morrow plays Bill Connor, a bigot who blames people not like himself for all of his setbacks. He then gets transported through time to Nazi Germany, the Jim Crow South, and Vietnam where he steps into the shoes of the persecuted class. In the Vietnam section, he was supposed to save two young Vietnamese children from a helicopter attack, but the attack went wrong and all three died horribly. In order to salvage what they had, Landis cut out a third of the segment. Steven Spielberg, producer and director of the second segment, was disgusted by the whole thing, considered cancelling everything, and then just did the bare minimum to finish the film, including spending a grand 6 days on his own segment. So, why do the first two segments feel oddly incomplete? Because the first one is outright incomplete and the second one didn't get the kind of attention from Spielberg that could have addressed its issues. The other two segments, directed by younger, hungrier directors Joe Dante and George Miller, maintain the kind of craft that was probably supposed to go into the whole project.

So, I think Ebert's approach to this was rational: grade each segment individually. So, I'm gonna do that.

The prologue and "Out of Time" were directed by Landis. "Out of Time" is one of those morality tales, but this one feels off. It's not just the missing third but the disconnect between Bill Connor's sins and his punishment. He's a bigot, but all he does is grouse about it. He's a pathetic little man who can't get ahead in the world and blames it on the Jews, the Blacks, and the Asians. He doesn't actually, you know, do anything before he gets swept up in his little adventure in the Twilight Zone. He doesn't lead a makeshift posse against the Jewish man who got the promotion over him. He just complains about it in a bar within earshot of people who don't appreciate it. This could all be fine if the segment ended with Connor learning his lesson and just accepting that his missed promotion had nothing to do with race, but no, he gets literally carted away in a train car bound for Auschwitz. That seems, you know, really disproportionate for what essentially amounts to badthink thought crime. This one rubs me the wrong way.

The second segment, "Kick the Can", is a bit better, but this is lazy Spielberg. As I wrote before, Spielberg just wanted out of this commitment, so he changed what story he was going to do to this very simple, two set piece about being a child again. This is stock Spielberg. At an old folk's home, Mr. Bloom talks about having the outlook of a child by maintaining play. He's apparently magic and turns all but one of the people in the home into children for a night. Most of them learn to appreciate their time and choose to become old people again (their reasoning seems thin), and one, a Douglas Fairbanks wannabe, chooses to stay young. It's rote and not really helped by the fact that it is both too short and has too many characters. They're visually distinctive but they still end up just meshing together. There's nothing particularly bad about the piece, but there's nothing particularly good about it either. Scatman Crothers has a wonderful smile, though.

The third segment, "It's a Good Life" is where it finally gets good. Joe Dante, fresh off of his successful The Howling but far from an established talent, imbues his segment with real atmosphere and has the time to let things play out well. It's the story of Anthony, a boy who can wish anything into existence, and Helen, a school teacher passing through that gets caught in Anthony's trap, a trap that he's caught several other people in. Anthony has built a nightmare world of cartoon logic that keeps his prisoners perpetual terror, never knowing when he'll decide to punish them like his real sister whom he crippled and muted by taking away her mouth leaving just a fleshy spot behind. The build up around all of this is really good as we use Helen as our point of view character, steadily finding out more and more until Anthony uses his powers to the utmost. It's a very solid and well built story.

Finally, the fourth segment, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", directed by George Miller fresh off the original Mad Max, is a fantastic piece of genre filmmaking. John Valentine is a rational man who writes textbooks on microchips and has an incredible fear of flying. The lightning storm they're flying through doesn't help. He has trouble calming down, but once he does he sees a creature on the wing of the plane, tearing at the engine. He can't get anyone to believe him, eventually stealing a gun from an FAA marshal, shooting through the window, and delaying the creature's work long enough for the plane to safely land. What makes the story work here is the strong character work that goes into Valentine, John Lithgow's amazingly manic performance, and the frenetic filmmaking that helps sell the emotions that Valentine is going through to the audience. It's largely handheld in a small space, but the movement calms down when he does and ramps up along with him. It's a thrill ride that works from beginning to end, and it is the best segment in the film.

Overall, the anthology of Twilight Zone remakes and pseudo-remake is a real mixed bag. Part of that is definitely a direct result of the tragedy that claimed three lives on set, and it's just part of the package now. It's impossible to dismiss. Still, the second half does allow to emerging talents some space to play with familiar material, producing quality short films. They stand alone as entertaining updates to old episodes. Perhaps the movie could have been more special with only new material instead of remakes, but that's not the homage that they wanted.

Ratings:

"Out of Time": 1/4

"Kick the Can": 2/4

"It's a Good Life": 3.5/4

"Nightmare at 20,000 Feet": 4/4

Cats
(2019)

Just so much catnip
I don't like to use the word flawed when talking about movies, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Cats is deeply, deeply flawed. It's the sort of flawed that makes the movie's mere existence a flabbergasting paradox, leaving one with questions about the layers and layers Tom Hooper had to work through to get the $95 million to produce and release such a broken, ill-conceived piece of cinema. He convinced studio executives, producers, production designers, and visual effects supervisors that his idea was a good one, and it was bad from the start.

Musical theater is, let's face it, a niche medium. The biggest show last year, The Great White Way, was attended by 350,000 people total throughout the year. By comparison, roughly 100,000,000 people saw Avengers Endgame in theaters in 2019. On top of that, musical theater is a vastly different medium from cinema. What can work as spectacle in a closed theater won't necessarily work as spectacle on a movie screen. I can imagine the effect a live performance of Cats would have on the musical theater lovers of the world. The sights and sounds of people dressed up as cats running up and down the aisle and swinging around in front of them is probably rather enticing. I don't really think it would work on me personally, but I sort of get it.

That doesn't mean that it will translate to cinema where we've been inundated with spectacular sights for decades. People looking like cats and singing showtunes is mundane when compared to the worlds of Pandora or Middle-Earth. There's no spectacle here in comparison to what we're used to. That's really just looking at the idea generically, though. In practical reality, Tom Hooper took the exact wrong approach to the movie's visual effects.

The stories of the visual artists working 90 hour weeks and sleeping under their desks to finish the complete film's special effects in just four months are on the IMDb trivia page, and the quick work is exceedingly evident on screen. There's almost never a single shot where the movement of the cats doesn't look janky in some way. Arms move wrong. Whenever the cats dance, they seem to jump between frames. There are even copious moments where heads seem disconnected from bodies. Even the musical numbers, in particular the dancing, feels too smooth and then too jerky at the same time, invalidating what must have been very good work by the performers with a bad layer of digital paint that's impossible to unsee. Every character on screen for the entire one-hundred minute runtime falls firmly in the Uncanny Valley and never escapes it. Every minute of this movie feels wrong just looking at it, and that's the biggest source of audiences' problems with the film. Someone, at some point, should have made Hooper use practical costumes and makeup.

Here's the thing, though, the story underneath, even if they had fixed the special effects, is pretty much non-existent. It's spectacle designed for musical theater, and all it is amounts to a series of songs of different cats singing about themselves in a row. There's no real story, and the enjoyment factor of the audience entirely hinges on their desire to hear music. It reminded me of Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club where the point was the recreation of the physical space and the music that went with it. There was a story, but it was unconvincing and unimportant. Coppola was only interested in the music. Cats is similar, except that's the source material. It's a revue. There's no real story to be had. It's almost just a series of music videos.

The little story that is there amounts to a cat being dumped in an alley in London and meeting a weird society of cats on the Jelical night where one gets chosen to be sent into the sky and reborn into a new life. The main character, Victoria, wanders through the society, listening to each one sing about themselves before moving on to the next. In the midst of this is Macavity, a bad cat that is trying to cheat his way into being chosen (why? I dunno...these aren't characters in any real sense of the word). Eventually, he kidnaps Deuteronomy, the one who makes the choice, and Victoria has to convince the magical cat to make Deuteronomy reappear before introducing Grizabella and getting her chosen...It's nonsense. Grizabella has the number "Memory" that everyone remembers, but because Grizabella isn't really a character, instead just a single character trait that requires a soulful singing of a single song. I can fully see a certain segment of the population weeping bitterly at the soulful rendition, but narratively Grizabella is a non-entity, so her emotional impact is limited.

This movie should never have been made. I could imagine it working as a fully animated film with cats that look like, you know, cats (like Spielberg originally tried to do when he had a hand drawn animated division decades ago, hence Amblin being a production company on the film). The story is theatrical and bare, so having it exist in this weird middle space between CGI spectacle, theatrical reproduction, and cinema disaster does it no favors. It takes an idea that should have never made it to the big screen and completely undermines it even more. This is "Springtime for Hitler" made for real. A movie so bad that the tax man won't look too closely at the books. I will say, though, that Jennifer Hudson does give a soulful performance as Grizabella.

Brainstorm
(1983)

So much to love caught in the middle of so much dullness
I don't think I've ever wanted to love a movie more and not been able to. The second of only two movies Douglas Trumbull ever directed (the first was Silent Running), Brainstorm has some marvelously wonderful moments. Moments of genuine emotional tenderness and awe that recall the visions and effect of the Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite section of 2001: A Space Odyssey (that Trumbull famously lead most of the special effects work on). And yet, the whole thing gets weighed down by a generic plot that end up making little sense that dominates a large section of the run time. This movie has very enthusiastic fans, and I get it. I just wish I could share in it.

The basic plot is that a research team has developed a device that records the entire physical experience of one person and can play it back for another. More than just sight and sound, it replicates the entire physical sensation of the experience. From roller coasters to horseback riding to gliding, we see people sitting in rooms reliving experiences that someone else had. The military is a silent partner and tries to take the project away. Cue basic running around trying to get stuff from a secure location plot. It's really generic and not terribly interesting.

However, if that's all there was, this would a dreary little film and a completely generic piece of nothing best forgotten, and yet Trumbull offers so much more.

Firstly, as you might expect from an expert visual effects artist, the movie has some wonderful visuals and visual ideas. Most of the film is showing in a 1.7:1 frame. Everything that happens in the "real world", so to speak, is presented in this narrow looking image, but when we see anything from the machine, the frame opens up to 2.2:1. On my large TV, this was an effective transition, and I have to imagine it was even greater in theaters. It's an intelligent technical choice that's tied directly into the thematic point of the story.

Secondly, while a lot of the character work is muddily presented, there's a fifteen minute segment of the film right in the middle where it works marvelously. Michael and Karen are divorced, work for the same large company, and have been assigned to work together on the project after it moves beyond the testing phase. Michael and Karen have both moved on, Michael having, apparently, started seeing Lillian (who seems to have done most of the research), and Karen started seeing some guy we see in a couple of shots with virtually no introduction. This is murky, but when Michael suddenly decides that he's going to record Karen's thoughts when she walks into his office, he plays it back for himself and becomes enraged. As an apology, he records his own thoughts, remembering their happiest times, and convinces her to watch it. The connection that they suddenly renew is wonderful and marvelously presented. In addition it connects with the central science fiction conceit really well. This is followed up by Hal, a fellow worker on the project, using the machine to tap into a sexual encounter and the tape going wrong, almost putting him in a coma. He gets rescued and the quiet way he reflects on where he is in his life based on what went wrong is just as wonderful.

Later in the film Lillian dies of a heart attack, and as she dies she records the experience. The latter half of the film is dominated by this recording. The project goes under control of people from outside the project, pushing Michael out completely. This push is poorly explained, especially the effort to keep Michael from the final tape that Lillian made. It's one of those generic plot mechanics that infest the movie. However, the tape itself is kind of wonderful. After a few scenes from Lillian's life as she dies, the images continue to evolve, showing a vision of a fleshy Hellscape before moving outward, entering space and traveling across space to a vision of possibly Heaven. It's evocative of the final major segment of 2001, but it manages to stand on its own because it is visually distinct from the earlier visuals but it also serves a different purpose. The way Michael falls back in joy at the vision he sees sells it really well.

These two major sections are absolutely wonderful, but they're trapped in a generic movie with unclear characters. There was real talent on display on the part of Trumbull as a director, but the experience of making the film, including the death of Natalie Wood near the end of production, turned him off of feature film directing forever. He could have really developed into a very special director had he been combined with the right script. He understood how to turn image and sound into an emotional experience, but he didn't seem to understand how to construct a story as a director. That's unfortunate, because, in the end, his legacy as a director is one of potential. In some way, it reminds me of Wally Pfister, a longtime cinematographer, directing Transcendence and demonstrating no real talent for telling the stories or even presenting things interestingly. Trumbull could have made something truly special with Brainstorm, instead it's just a middling movie with some truly special things in it.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
(2020)

Intentionally poorly told is still poorly told
This movie has a single objective: to hate men. There's literally no other reason this movie exists. No male character is remotely good in the end, they're all backstabbing rapists and psychopaths while even the criminal women are all sympathetic to the extreme. So, fine. That's its ultimate theme, but what about how the movie tells its story? Well, let's judge it purely on that, never mind its rampant misandry. It's, um, it's terrible.

So, the movie is sort of told from Harley Quinn's perspective. We regularly see things that she never sees or could know about, commenting on it like she is seeing it. I suppose it's supposed to be like a Deadpool fourth wall breaking central character running commentary, but Deadpool was, you know, funny. Quinn really isn't, but that's not the biggest problem with how the movie is built. The biggest problem is that the first half or so is intentionally poorly built. Quinn is telling the story like she's drunk and can't remember things in the right order. It reminds me of the Treehouse of Horror from The Simpsons where Homer was telling a ghost story out of order, undercutting every scare he was trying to pull off. There's a reason structure is important in storytelling, and it's not because it's the rules. It's because structure provides the base on which audiences stand and understand the characters, plot, and theme of the film. Screwing with structure like this, where Harley constantly backtracks to cover information we should already have, preventing the story from flowing forward, ends up creating a frustrating, at best, experience.

So, digging through the back and forth that prevents any solid grounding, Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and she's struggling. She goes to Black Mask's club and wreaks havoc, letting them all think she's still Joker's girl. When she decides, in a drunken moment, to blow up Ace Chemical, where both she and the Joker got their palish hue, everyone in the world instantly recognizes it as Joker having dumped Harley, because of course? I mean, the second the police character, Renee Montoya, shows up at the scene, she instantly says that this obviously means that they broke up based on the necklace with a J on it found near the scene. Okay, whatever.

This action gets all of Gotham to go after Harley, having made so many enemies over the years, and here's where the movie's problems with structure are most acute. You see, we've seen some of what Harley has done to anger the underbelly of Gotham against her, mostly her jumping on Black Mask's driver's legs and breaking them, but the driver wasn't terribly distinctive and then none of the other people who show up have ever been seen before. The way they appear feel like they're supposed to be comedic appearances, "OH! That guy!" sort of responses, but the movie has to completely stop to explain who the person is and why they're angry. The kind of introduction the movie does for all of them with a freeze frame and quick text with some quick flashback (which they did in Suicide Squad to terrible effect, by the way) is what you do when you start piling up the grievances as a joke, not how you introduce them all from the beginning. The kicker is that the guy we do know, the driver, is not even the first introduced or even that recognizable.

So, alongside this is the actual plot which is that Black Mask is looking for a diamond with bank information laser etched into it that had belonged to a Mafia don who had died a dozen years ago in a hit. How this diamond is eventually found is unclear, but Black Mask sends his new driver, Black Canary the former lounge singer at his club that he elevated to his driver for not terribly good reasons (she beat up some customers that were trying to steal Harley Quinn which would make her a good driver because...?) and Victor Zsasz to recover it from an importer. As Zsasz waits for Canary to return with the car, a young pickpocket, Cassandra, easily takes it from him and gets immediately arrested for having stolen other stuff (with a squad car instantly in support because...?). Black Mask needs that diamond that Cassandra swallows. At the same time, Black Mask's men pick up Harley Quinn, and Black Mask is gonna relieve some stress by cutting of her face. However, she...manages to talk him into letting her find the diamond because...she has no actual skills in finding things other than some weird story about a picture of naked Eleanor Roosevelt that had belonged to the Joker? And then he immediately just puts out a $500,000 bounty on Cassandra for anyone to collect anyway? What? This is dumb. This is really dumb.

So, Harley gets to the police station and gets through with a powerful confetti gun in an action scene that exemplifies everything wrong with this movie's action scenes. They make literally no sense. There's having thin women defeat waves of larger men that make sense, like with the enhanced River Tam in Firefly and Serenity, but Birds of Prey makes no such kind of effort. She's attacking a police station with a weapon, and the only time anyone pulls a ranged weapon on her is when they're within striking distance of her own arms. This extends for about fifteen minutes as the action scene evolves to include prisoners and then the, ugh, other mercenaries. No one tries to fire a ranged weapon unless she can reach them with her arms. Also, no one will approach this woman more than one at a time. Now, it's really hard to make convincing action scenes of one against many, but Birds of Prey simply highlights the fact that no one will approach Harley more than one at a time. Especially in the row of prison cells, with the sprinklers on to try and create a distinctive visual motif, the burly prisoners who...immediately attack the person who just released them from their cells (ugh) all go after her one at a time so that she can do gymnastics to defeat them.

They get away, hide away, and get betrayed by a man who gives their location away to...people. It's unclear who. Anyway, while all of this is going on, the Crossbow Killer is going around killing people, supposedly bad people but it's never quite clear. Now, the movie does have a handful of laughs, and the biggest one is probably about how the Crossbow Killer wants to be called the Huntress. Her exasperation at no one knowing what she wants to call herself is genuinely funny. It's also short lived as the movie just goes back to being a confusing mess of nonsense.

So, everyone ends up coming together for a couple of action scenes in an abandoned circus attraction on the wharf that looks completely dilapidated on the outside but works perfectly on the inside (the Joker, I guess). The action scenes are...weak, designed to look cool but feel loose and poorly executed. It doesn't help that Harley's large hammer is supposed to be hard and we see it hit people pretty softly with regularity. The five women end up defeating hundreds of guys with nary a scratch, Black Mask blows up with a grenade, and the girls end up at a taco place where Cassandra finally poops out the diamond. Yay, I guess.

This movie has no center. It's supposedly Harley Quinn herself, but she's telling the story incredibly poorly, is incredibly unsympathetic, and would work far better as a supporting character. She was barely tolerable in Suicide Squad as a supporting player, and pushed to the fore here she's grating. The movie has a handful of entertaining moments, but they're really far and few between. This movie was poorly written, poorly shot, and poorly edited. It has the ambition of an aggrieved Tumblr account.

Shazam!
(2019)

Amusing and cleanly told, but with a lot of missed opportunity
I actually watched the DCEU movies a bit out of order. Immediately preceding my viewing of David F. Sandberg's Shazam! I watched Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey. Starting up this I was relieved to see the simply building blocks of story presented in an order that made narrative sense, and I almost cheered. Sandberg's adventure into newfound superhero abilities has some issues along the way that drag it down a bit, but it's nice to see that Warner Brothers can still hire a director who understands storytelling at the most basic of levels.

So, magic. The DCEU embraces straight up magic for the first time. I can dig it. So, Billy Batson is a foster kid moving from home to home as he puts on a one-man search for his mother whom he lost when he was about four. At fourteen, he's run through dozens of names and still can't find her. At the same time, an ancient wizard loses control of the Seven Deadly Sins to Doctor Sivana. Desperate, the wizard magically delivers Billy to his temple and gifts Billy his powers in order to fight in his stead, turning Billy into Shazam, a superhero who looks like an adult, and this is the source of a lot of the movie's light humor.

Shazam is a kid at heart, so seeing him act like a kid, all buffed up and with superpowers, is amusing. It's also a complete retread, so it's nice to see the movie give a direct reference to Penny Marshall's Big. And I think it ends up being how the movie flags in its second act. There's no real direction to Billy after he gets his powers. He's happy to show them off, discover what they are, and take out some petty revenge here and there, but he doesn't seem to have any drive. It's weird because he has a central goal, which is to find his mother, but once he has these powers he not only doesn't use them to help him accomplish his central goal, he completely forgets about the goal. There's a certain understanding since he's a fourteen year old who gained superpowers, but he has them for days and doesn't even think about his mother until someone else hands him an address.

There's a thematic connection between Billy's search and the rest of the movie, that of family and finding it where you can. Billy finds his mother who, it turns out, just abandoned him. Instead, he has the group home of foster kids to fall back on. Contrasted to that is Doctor Sivana who rejected his own family and any sense of community with anyone else including the ancient wizard, spending his years searching out for that hidden temple and the seven deadly sins, which he eventually finds and takes for his own. He won't be at full power until he beats the wizard's champion, Billy. Hence, the conflict. I wish there was something connecting Sivana to Billy's mom directly. Something like Sivana kidnapping Billy's mom thinking that there's a special connection, but Billy is reticent about doing anything because he found out she rejected him. However, he uses the power of family from his group home siblings to help her or something. Instead Sivana does kidnap his adopted family, which is in the same wheelhouse but too easy in the other direction.

That aimless act drags the film down, but once it's over, the movie gains some focus again. While it doesn't take advantage enough of the family angle, it does focus in on it, giving Billy an avenue to accepting his new group home as the new family he needs without clinging to the past and a woman who doesn't want him.

The other major problem I have with the film is Doctor Sivana and his Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana is thin and uninteresting. As played by Mark Strong you might expect more, but he's just a generic bad guy with daddy issues. And the Seven Deadly Sins all run together. If you really focus on them, you can tell the differences in design, though they're all colored the same which seems like a missed opportunity. However, it takes a surprising amount of attention to delineate one from another, and they all just kind of run together, ending up feeling rather generic as well. Another miss.

In the end, though, the movie's an unchallenging little superhero movie that aims primarily towards children. It's amusing and cleanly told. For some that will be a more than welcome change to the franchise that they've considered to be off the rails from the beginning. For me, it's nice, but I look back at the cinematic ambition of the first two DCEU films and sigh, happy to have something better than okay but much less than the aims of where the franchise started.

Justice League
(2017)

You can't do this story in two hours
The biggest mistake Warner Brothers seems to have made about their big team up picture isn't that they forced it too early, it's that they forced it to be two hours long. I have to imagine that part of the reason Zack Snyder left the project in the middle of post-production was that Warner Brothers was demanding a two-hour film and he knew he couldn't tell the story he had made well in less than three hours. After the loss of his daughter to suicide, he probably wasn't up for that kind of fight and simply tossed in the towel, allowing Warner Brothers to bring in Joss Whedon who ended up retooling the movie to such a degree that it feels like a lesser cousin to his own The Avengers rather than the next movie in the DCEU.

The movie has six main characters, only three of whom have any previous screentime more than a couple of minutes in the franchise up to that point. Superman had two movies. Batman and Wonder Woman each had one. But Cyborg, the Flash, and Aquaman had nothing other than brief cameos in Batman V Superman, so the movie needed to really focus on these three, giving them time to grow within the film itself to help them carry their weight. The problem with the two hour runtime is that so much needs to be dedicated to the bringing together of this new group, setting up the plot, setting, and overall conflict, that there's very little time left for character building. According to Zack Snyder, Cyborg was (and will be in his cut) the emotional heart of the film, and that seems like the right place. He's the most "outside" of the group, dealing with his own problems of belonging because of his unnatural existence built from one of the Motherboxes hidden on Earth for thousands of years. Whedon seems to have moved the focus to the Flash, though, because Ezra Miller is quippy in a way that fits well with the way Whedon writes dialogue, but the Flash himself isn't that interesting as he is in the final cut.

So, Superman is dead and Batman has a bad feeling that bad stuff's coming. He needs a team of super people, so he tracks down the three other people listed in the hard drive he stole from Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman. The first fifty minutes or so of this movie feels like it could be arranged in almost any order as it's all made up of the kind of set up scenes that don't really need direct connection to the events immediately proceeding and succeeding it to make sense. It's fine to have for a time, but when almost the first half of the film is built this way, that ends up making a rather tiring first half to sit through. Anyway, Batman tracks down Aquaman, gets rejected, the Flash who quickly accepts because he needs friends, and Diana tracks down Cyborg who seems willing to help but not join.

The villain of the film, Steppenwolf, shows up in Themyscira and absolutely wrecks the greatest warriors on Earth, the Amazons (the second such beating they've gotten in this series) before stealing one of the three Motherboxes on Earth. The other two were hidden by the Atlantians under the ocean and by man, which man had rediscovered and used on Victor Stone to make him Cyborg after a near fatal car crash in a desperate move by his father who had access to it. Steppenwolf gets the second box from Atlantis just as Aquaman is swimming by which allows for a dull information dump about who Aquaman is and how he's important in the middle of a movie with an actual plot to get to. This somehow convinces him to get involved (really, this movie needed another hour at least of storytelling). Steppenwolf then follows a set of clues to Victor's father in his effort to find the third of the boxes, which leads to the first team up of the five living members of the nascent Justice League that leaves them with little to show for it.

In the face of such an imposing threat, they decide to use the last of the three Motherboxes on Superman's corpse to try and revive him, which obviously works, leading to the single best sequence in the film (and, it seems, the only Superman scene preserved from Snyder's original cut without major reshoots from Whedon). Superman doesn't know who he is, and he's angry, especially when he sees Batman, his burgeoning memories pointing to him as an enemy. The five against Superman is a good little action sequence where the highlight is the Flash realizing that Superman is as fast as he is. It's quality stuff.

And it's over too soon, but the movie suddenly does have a direction after Steppenwolf steals the last of the Motherboxes. He goes to an abandoned nuclear power plant in Russia where he will combine the three into one, a process that will ignite a terraforming process and turn Earth into a facsimile of Steppenwolf's planet. Sound familiar? So, the five go to Russia with an objective to stop Steppenwolf, get Cyborg to the Motherboxes so he can separate them (further evidence that he should have been the central character in this ensemble piece), and defeat Steppenwolf once and for all.

The big action scene is big and well done (considering the size and scale, it's probably also primarily Snyder's work) with a Russian family thrown in to give the heroes a moment where they save people, most likely in direct reaction to people's thoughts on the first two Superman movies in the DCEU where the little people were largely forgotten. It's big and destructive and look good, so there's that, but it's ultimately kind of unengaging because the character work is so incredibly thin, all because a story that should never have been squeezed into two hours got squeezed into two hours.

There are also tonal things with the movie. Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder are not similar directors. Snyder is kind of ponderous and self-importantly bombastic while Whedon is light and comic. Whedon as a choice to replace Snyder was an obvious attempt by Warner Brothers to distance the franchise from the stepping stones that Snyder had established. The break in tone would be less of an issue if Whedon had made Justice League from the beginning, but the material isn't really built to support non-stop quips from the characters. A lot of the fun dialogue (which I do find fun, by the way) seems to break from scenes to have a quip rather than be a rational extension of the scene in any way. It's a weird, Frankenstein's monster of a film that way.

I'm prepared for Snyder's cut, to be released next year, to be a superior film, mostly because I expect the expanded four hour runtime will be used to fill in the character holes created by whittling the film down so much. I don't really expect it to be a masterpiece, but for the new cut to be in line with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, ie, big, earnest, ambitious, and flawed. Whedon's cynicism doesn't really seem to fit in this universe.

Still, the movie has its charms. Its second half works pretty basically after the flagging first half. It looks good, and there are winning performances all around. It's mildly entertaining, but nothing exactly special.

Wonder Woman
(2017)

A very nice central character, but surrounded by a mess of a story
I know that the general consensus is that Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman righted the DCEU ship, but for the faults of the previous film, I don't think that was really a way to make it better. It's brighter, more colorful, with a more upbeat central character, for sure, several things I have no problem with whatsoever, but there are sections of this film that I find poorly done and even thematically confused. It's really a mixed bag of a solo adventure for the Amazon.

My problems with the film really start at the very beginning. You see, I kind of hate everything about Themyscira, the hidden island of the Amazons. The production design, in particular the costumes, are too monotonous. The awkward accents everyone has to adopt because Gal Gadot couldn't completely rid herself of her own are a bane on every line of dialogue. The biggest problem ends up being the action sequence that introduces Steve Trevor. The American pilot/spy working for British intelligence is fleeing the Germans after he stole the notebook of Dr. Poison that details her newest deadly gas weapon. Diana gets Steve to shore, and the Germans attack.

Now, the Amazons have been established as the best fighters who train hard endlessly without any actual opponents for thousands of years. The second the Germans show up with guns, they wreck the Amazons, but this being a movie, logic doesn't follow through and the warriors on horseback with spears and bows end up beating the organized soldiers with rifles. Fine, I can deal with it. I would normally just call it a nitpick, but the problems compound with later events. Skipping ahead, Steve gets Diana to the front line trenches in France. As they get closer, Diana is looking at the dead and wounded and wanting to do everything she can to stop the group's progress to help them like this is the first time she's seen the actual effects of war, except she's already seen them and they involved her friends and family. Her mentor died in her arms, for Pete's sake. Ultimately, everything on Themyscira feels wrong, and that's a solid thirty minute start to the film.

Once Steve gets Diana off Themyscira, things pick up. The early banter between the two feels a bit forced but gets progressively better as the movie develops. The fish out of water stuff with Diana in 1916 London is silly and entertaining on a thin level. Diana's textbook and almost childlike understanding of the practical realities of war gives her a do-goodism that feels refreshing in the World War I aesthetic. The group of soldiers that Steve finds to go to the continent are distinctive individually and entertaining. It's solid stuff. Diana standing up from the trenches to charge across No Man's Land is a wonderful visual moment, but my problems start picking up again.

This would be another nitpick, but after the collapse of the beach battle at Themyscira, it builds up. The stakes and objective of the action across No Man's Land become fuzzy at best. It ends up that Diana is going to reach a small town on the other side of the German lines, but the geography from the German line to the town is unclear, especially when you throw in the poor French woman begging for help compounded with Steve's assertion that the trenches haven't moved in a year. Then once they get to the town, the actual objective of this fight is, well, fuzzy. Where are the troops they're fighting? Where's their command center? What are the grounds for victory? The movie never really answers these and the fight kind of just stops after Diana gets the last guy who happens to be a sniper in a church steeple. The action itself is well filmed (much better than the cut up nonsense that was the beach battle), but the objectives are just really unclear so that when the battle ends it's unclear that it's actually the end.

Now, to talk about the antagonists. There are three, and I hate two of them. There's General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) who is just the most generic scenery chewing villain. There's Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) with a cool three piece facemask who is dedicated to her research and feels unappreciated (I really like her). And then there's Ares (David Thewlis) who turns into a CGI scenery chewing villain. Both Ludendorff and Ares are awful antagonists. Thin and more about playing to the rafters than anything else, though Ares should have been the kind of interesting antagonist who could potentially tempt Diana onto his side, but he just devolves into nonsense by the end.

So, Diana herself has the makings of having a great and emotionally mature arc, but the movie screws with it so completely that it ultimately devolves into nonsense, mostly because of Ares. The idea seems to be that Diana has no understanding of war and men, gets a lesson in the brutality of war and men, and ultimately turns away from the world because of it. That seems purposefully piggybacked on the plot mechanics of Diana going into the Great War with the objective of finding Ares in human form and killing him, ending the evil in men's hearts and stopping the war. She's convinced that Ludendorff is Ares and ultimately kills him only to find that the war didn't just stop. It kept going.

That would have been, well, that would have been an absolutely fantastic place to end Diana. She walks away, convinced that man isn't worth saving or something. But that's not the kind ending you can have in your big budget comic book movie, so they turn around and make Ares real, manifesting right after next to Diana in the form of a physically weak British diplomat who had been working towards armistice. His efforts at an armistice are brushed away unconvincingly in a single line of dialogue and then he becomes CGI monster man who yells a lot. This is disappointing but what makes the ending confused is what Diana goes through. She ends up defending mankind as worthwhile anyway despite Ares' proof that they made the war themselves, she defeats him in borderline incomprehensible CGI, and then she decides to turn her back on humanity because Steve sacrificed himself to end the poison gas threat. I'm sorry, but this is nonsense. None of it makes a lick of sense. Diana shouldn't suddenly defend humanity after she realizes that they made the war themselves after a lifetime of thinking that Ares was the source of all man's cruelty. She shouldn't see the selfless act of Steve as a reason to turn her back on humanity. It's a mishmash of nonsense to end the film, and I kind of hate it.

I don't hate the movie as a whole, for sure. It's lightly entertaining for long stretches. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine develop really good chemistry to the point where Steve's goodbye to Diana ends up feeling quite genuine and affecting. It often looks very good, embracing speed ramping and slow motion far more than Zack Snyder ever did for his Superman movies despite having popularized the technique in 300. What this movie is not is particularly intelligent thematically, nor does it know how to create and effectively use any antagonists (its best, Doctor Poison, gets sidelined for most of the runtime). I sort of understand the affection people have for it, but I definitely don't share it.

Suicide Squad
(2016)

One of the worst superhero movies
Failure has a thousand fathers, but I don't think you could ever excuse David Ayer from the dumpster fire that is Suicide Squad. Yes, the stories of Warner Brothers getting different editing houses to compete over the edit and a commercial editing firm won to help make the movie a near completely incomprehensible mess, but I don't think that the editing mess can really hide the fact that this is a movie that tried too much in too short a time. Would a longer, cleaner cut improve things? Probably, but there's still the fact that the central idea never rises above really dumb.

So, Superman has arrived and died. The world knows that metahumans exist and Amanda Waller has a plan. She's going to take several of the worst people in prison, some with special abilities some without, and put them into a group to go after bad weird things. Sort of. She's confident she can do it because she knows how to get people to act outside of their self-interest, though she never really demonstrates that beyond planting bombs in people's necks ala Escape from New York. She never really seems to be in control of anything.

So, the squad is made up of Deadshot who never misses when he uses a gun, El Diablo who can make fire with his hands, Killer Croc who is a big reptilian guy, the Enchantress who is a malevolent spirit that has possessed a young doctor lady, Captain Boomerang who, um..., throws a boomerang, and Harley Quinn who is, um..., pretty and psychotic. The group doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but whatever. They're bad, and I guess that's all that matters, though they all have soft spots designed to make them appealing to the audience which makes them much less bad.

The first half or so of the movie is cut up terribly. We get a couple of minute scenes, all set to different styles of music, trying to cutely introduce each character including on screen text to supply extra information. It never settles into any kind of narrative groove, choosing to instead jump from one character to another inelegantly at best. This is all doled out as Waller explains her plan to some kind of superior over dinner. Eventually, the whole stupidity of the situation becomes evident with the malevolent spirit Enchantress easily escapes her bonds, frees her brother's spirit, and they join together to try and destroy the world. I mean, if Waller had never had her stupid plan, none of this would have happened. The lax security around the Enchantress's brother's little statue that held his soul is just icing on the cake, I guess. None of this gets fixed with another cut. The stupidity is at the core of the story.

So, with the Enchantress and her brother going all blue beam in the sky in the middle of Midway City, the Suicide Squad is called up to go in and rescue a VIP. The stakes and very point of this mission are super unclear for a while, and kind of confusing. We have our super villain team up and they're...not going to the blue beam in the sky? They're...walking to a building for an operation that ends...in a helicopter pickup? See, this is really, really stupid. A new cut will not fix this.

So, they get to the VIP, and it's Waller who's just so bad that she kills a bunch of her aides after she's rescued. See?! There's little difference between good and bad! Plus Deadshot has a cute daughter! It's dumb. It's really dumb. So, the Suicide Squad then decides that they're going to save the world, and we get some big special effects scenes and the movie finally comes to a merciful end.

This movie is broken fundamentally, and it's kind of sad to see. David Ayer started out well with End of Watch and Fury, but he's proven himself to be creatively bankrupt ever since. Between this and Bright, he's got little of the spark that seemed to make him a promising director from the beginning. There's no denying that Warner Brothers messed with this, taking it from Ayers' hands in post-production. Maybe another cut could help save the first half, but the second half is still defined by nearly impossible to discern action sequences because they're filmed so darkly, an incredibly stupid plot driven by incredibly stupid characters, and a shockingly aimless narrative drive. Oh, and the Joker is a complete waste of space with Jared Leto being allowed to go off the deep end to little actual effect.

This is one of the worst superhero movies ever made. And, I repeat an alternate cut would only fix so much of it. This movie is a disaster that Warner Brothers just made worse. They started meddling with Batman V Superman and wouldn't stop until after Justice League. I swear, if you're going to hire a guy to write and direct a $150-$200 million movie, make sure you're happy with your choice before he starts filming. If he's in the editing bay, don't try to rework everything. It never comes out well.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
(2016)

Big, earnest, and over-complicated
The sequel to Man of Steel feels both of the previous film and decidedly apart. Where the first one had a rough visual aesthetic with a lot of hand held camera work, the sequel largely sidesteps that. Where the first explored character in a solid block before giving way to a relatively straightforward plot in the second half, the sequel is mired in an overcomplicated plot from the first scene. The ambition is still there, though, to tell a story of epic scope, and while I definitely don't think of this as a masterpiece, I do find so much to enjoy.

My favorite part of this whole this is probably Ben Affleck as Batman and Bruce Wayne. He could be the older version of Michael Keaton's Batman. He's grizzled and has been doing his dark knighting for a very long time. The destruction at the appearance of the Superman broke him, though. He watched a flying god fight another flying god and level Metropolis. He knew people who died because of it. As a man who's been fighting freaks in clown makeup for twenty years, he's suddenly faced with an existential threat in the form of a superman who, if he decided he wanted to for whatever reason, enslave and destroy the entire planet (something he dreams of at one point). His monomaniacal focus on fighting Superman is the best part of the movie, and Affleck plays that rage really well.

In order to get there, the movie has a very, very involved plot that goes from an African tribal warlord and terrorist, independent security contractors, mystery bullets, Congressional hearings, a Senator blocking an import license, a former Wayne Enterprises employee and his checks that never got to him from his injury, and a few other things along the way. Cutting through it all late in the movie, it all boils down to: Lex Luthor, billionaire, is manipulating Superman, Batman, and the media to drive a wedge between everyone in an effort to get Batman to kill Superman or to get Superman to kill Batman. The former rids the world of the threat of Superman. The latter shows the world that Superman is not worthy of praise or worship and turns the world against him.

A quick note in the middle: I've only ever seen the Ultimate Cut of this movie. I've never seen the Theatrical Cut. The Ultimate Cut's plot is a challenge to assemble, but it's ultimately doable. I've read that it's impossible in the Theatrical Cut. For that alone, I'd recommend the Ultimate Cut if you're interested in checking it out. I've owned the Theatrical Cut since I bought the Blu-ray, and I've never even bothered to start it.

Now, this plot is a lot. It's too much, and it really needed to be pared back a little bit at the least. Cutting the African warlord would have been a good first step, but it needed to be addressed at the script level, and not in editing. The African warlord does end up paying off, but it's about two hours after he'd disappeared from the film, leaving a lot of little things for the audience to keep track of that all end up being distractions.

Outside of that, though, I think this movie is really smart. It's an exploration of the messianic and apocalyptic implications of Superman revealing himself to the planet. He gets worshiped, and he gets feared, and the public are easily swayed in each direction. That manifests most in how Luthor is able to manipulate Bruce Wayne into homicidal rage against Superman. That Bruce Wayne starts from a point of anger makes the manipulation work dramatically. It should also be said that at no point does the audience feel ahead of the characters in unraveling the plot because the plot is so complicated, so there's never a point where, no matter what the audience's consideration of Batman's motives or actions, the audience will wonder how Wayne could be so stupid to fall for such a easy to figure out scheme because it's kind of impossible to figure out. So there's a positive for the pretty much incomprehensible plot as it plays out.

Superman is in a tough place as this all works. He just wants to do good, what's in his nature, but even his mother is saying that he doesn't need to put up with all this nonsense, that he owes the world nothing. There are pressures for him to simply stop trying to help, but he refuses. That refusal is key to Luthor's plan. He needs to be good so that Luthor can prove him to be bad, to put him in an impossible position and force him to choose wrong. Superman, in a fallen world, finds it impossible to stay as good as his ideals demand of him.

I find this approach to the two main characters really interesting and a great way to get through the adventure. Outside of it, the movie has a lot going for it as well. Expensively produced, the movie embraces a dark visual palate that fits the darker thematic approach to the comic book material. Within that, the brooding nature of Batman and Gotham City fit like a glove, and the more somber approach to Superman's place in the world fits as well. Whether you like that approach to a super hero more generally viewed as a bright and shining beacon seems to amount to personal taste and attachment to the source material, but I've never been that attached to Superman as an ideal, so I'm good with it.

As I said before, Ben Affleck is probably my favorite Batman, and Henry Cavil plays the conflicted nature of this Superman well. Amy Adams is a quality Lois Lane, and I kind of love the manic, twitchy performance of Jesse Eisenberg as Luthor.

Now, I want to address the Martha moment. Just for the record, my wife watched this with me on this most recent viewing, and she hadn't seen it before. She did not laugh hysterically like I thought she would at the Martha moment, so there's that. The Martha moment doesn't come out of nowhere, the clues are there that Superman knows his mother and Bruce's mother have the same name, that Bruce is still doing what he's doing out of a need to make up for his parents' death, and that reason hasn't gotten through to him. He needs to get Batman to think differently, and an emotional punch should do. I think the moment could be set up better to help, but it ultimately still doesn't completely work. What is it about Martha Kent having the same first name as Martha Wayne that gets Batman to stop trying to kill Superman? I'm unclear. What does Bruce Wayne suddenly see in him? It's, well, it's unclear. This is a first draft idea rushed into production. It needed to be better ironed out because I think the idea has merit in general, but in execution it leaves a good bit to be desired.

All in all, though, the Ultimate Cut of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a ride through a complex plot with some interesting stuff on its mind at the same time. There's great spectacle along the way as well. It could have used more time as a script to hammer some stuff out and clear some stuff up, but as it is, I find it an entertaining three hours.

Man of Steel
(2013)

Epic, Ambitious, and Earnest
There's something big and ambitious and earnest about Zach Snyder's take on Superman that I find really admirable. Not everything in this movie works, but the mythic scope and embrace of the idea of gods coming to fight it out on Earth is handled with such weight and energy that I get swept up in the spectacle every time.

Snyder took the well-worn story of Superman's origins and recast it rather dramatically in a couple of different directions. The first is aesthetics. Krypton looks browner and weirder than we'd seen it in film before. There are giant monsters and an embrace of weird science fiction visuals in how Krypton's technology works. There's also an embrace of a handheld camera that evokes independent filmmaking, especially in smaller moments. I remember when the first trailer dropped and people were saying that it almost looked like a Terrence Malick movie. Sort of (there's too much of an embrace of lens flares), but it certainly provides an interesting contrast with the epic visuals, giving it an inherently grounded feel while dealing with a rather zany story of supermen and terraforming machines.

The second different direction largely focuses on John Kent, Superman's adoptive father from Kansas. The movie decides that it wants to explain Clark Kent's hiding of his power out of fear and a question of trust. The closest this movie comes to a strong theme is this idea of building trust in the face of something new. It pops up from time to time and gets mildly explored, but the film is much more of a character driven exercise in its first half and a plot driven one in its second. The first half is about Clark Kent's lifelong quest to find a way to belong while having incredible powers no one else has and protecting himself from what he imagines to be a paranoid and violent reaction to his presence should it become widely known. Still, he can't help but try and make the world better around him, so he saves kids from a bus crash despite his father's insistence that it might have been better to let them die rather than risk revealing himself, and he rescues some oil rig workers despite coming away with nothing and needing to move on to another life again.

The irony is, of course, that he's so strong that mankind could probably never hurt him, so the fear is less about his personal safety and more about the unpredictable results of his reveal. What happens after he finally figures out who he is and where he's from when he finds a long lost Kryptonian ship? It's his announcement to the universe that he is there, and Zod shows up. Zod, Krypton's general who tried to lead a coup in the planet's final decadent and collapsing moments and was punished in the Phantom Zone, comes back with the objective of rebuilding Krypton. Superman's actions on Earth bring Zod there. Driven to insanity, he wants to terraform Earth into a new Krypton, no matter the living denizens, and exact his revenge on Superman's father at the same time (with some extra stuff about a genetic codex imbued in Superman's genetics put there by his father). This plot doesn't really develop until the second half of the film, which I have no problem with.

The problem is really with Zod himself. I like the idea of Zod more than the execution. Michael Shannon is stilted as the dedicated antagonist, and his dialogue is often the most unnatural sounding of any of the principals. This is probably be design, giving him a different cadence from the rest of the characters to imply a different culture, but it comes off as stilted rather than elegantly natural. Part of that is the dialogue as written, and part of that is Shannon himself who haltingly moves through every line. Still, I love his plan and the epic fight that breaks out.

The terraforming of Earth as a threat provides room for some incredible destruction. I know some people have problems with the scale of destruction throughout the movie, but I love it. This is a fight between gods. On the one side are a group of malevolent warriors who think of nothing of the lives they endanger. On the other is a greenhorn hero who is suddenly faced with a fight he can't handle on his own.

The fight that erupts in Smallville is a favorite. It starts with Superman attacking Zod directly after they threaten his mother in order to find the craft that Superman came to Earth in. It turns into a two on one beat down as Superman tries to fight off two Kryptonians. The US military gets involved and starts firing at both sides, and Superman ends up gaining the first trust from the official governing bodies on the planet through his actions. It's the fight over the terraforming machines that really stands out, though. The leveling of Metropolis has a scale and terrifying feel to it that I love. The gravity field that pushes down on the buildings, leveling them to dust, while Zod crashes the Kryptonian ship into buildings, toppling them over, is quite a sight. The fist fight that breaks out between Zod and Superman in the sky is less impressive, and the final moment where Zod is going to kill a random little family is poorly set up, though the idea of Superman having to take the solution to an extreme to ensure Earth's safety is an interesting one in general.

I love the ambition of the film. It's desire to reach beyond mere spectacle and enter into something of mythic scale is quite well handled. I also like Superman's challenge in finding how to make himself known to the world, and it ultimately comes out of necessity and to make up for his own contribution to the violence being visited upon Earth. It's rough, though. Zod is poorly written and delivered. I think the stuff from Clark Kent's childhood in Smallville might have worked better as a sustained sequence instead of snippets going back and forth. Overall, the movie feels like the product from a promising first draft screenplay that needed another couple of passes, but I still really like what I got.

Gemini Man
(2019)

Blinded by the Tech
It's really unfortunate when you see quality directors go down holes they really shouldn't have gone down in the first place. Ang Lee decided that 120 frames per second was the wave of the future a while back, and he's not letting go. So, while he made it happen in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, to a muted response, he decided to repackage the technique using the newest in digital cloning, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and one of the lamest scripts that had been languishing around Hollywood for twenty years. Instead of seeing a dull, cliched script, Lee seemed to see it as a vehicle for his technological games. Everything that James Cameron has done wrong in the last couple of decades Ang Lee ended up doing worse, and it's unfortunate.

Will Smith plays Henry, an assassin nearing the end of his useful time in the trade, and the movie introduces him in a rather unexciting action scene that opens the film. Starting a film with an action sequence is always a dicey move because the audience starts the action beats without any real investment in the action. So, when the movie decides that we need witty repartee between characters and a tense moment where things could go wrong, it tends to fall flat because we don't really know the characters and the stakes are ill-defined at best.

Henry is so good, though, that shooting a man through the neck on a speeding train from two kilometers away is simply not good enough since he was aiming for the man's head. Time to retire. The way this all plays out, with Henry talking to his handler about putting up the gun to fish feels like this is the third or fourth entry in a franchise, not the first. There's so much implied history going back and forth, it really feels like the opening of a new adventure with someone we've known for a while. Think of Kirk in Star Trek II except we've never seen Henry before.

Henry ends up meeting some other former assassin who tells him that the Russian Henry assassinated at the beginning of the movie was not who Henry thought he was, having been lied to by the agency that ran the op. This gets overheard through satellite surveillance, and Varris, Clive Owen, decides that the only recourse is to have Henry killed. But Henry is the best, so only the best can get sent. After Henry kills a few soldiers who sneak up to his coastal house and picks up Danielle, an agency asset sent to monitor Henry who is also on the kill list, Varris gets the green light and sends in the best to kill the best.

This is all very standard double cross spy/assassination stuff told with little flair or energy by Lee. Everything gets telegraphed heavily beforehand, leaving no room for any kind of surprise. It doesn't help that the marketing is full of the only real surprise in the film, that Henry's incoming assassin is his younger clone. If the marketing hadn't given that away in literally every poster, it might have been a neat surprise because the movie, other than calling the secret program that birthed young Henry Gemini, gives no real indication up to that point that there's a Henry clone. It could have been a decent surprise if we didn't know going in and if the movie, well, if it was remotely interesting otherwise.

The characters are so thin, the plot so meaningless, and the reasons behind everything so murky that it's really hard to engage with the material on any level. Having that surprise be an actual surprise would have been a nice jolt that could have introduced something to the proceedings. Instead, it becomes a waiting game for this reveal. Once there, the movie gives us a handful of rather accomplished if slightly plastic looking action scenes. The fist fight between the two Henry's in the catacombs is pretty solid, though. And that's really the extent of the movie's charms. It has some technical things to recommend it like the special effects that create young Henry and some of the action scenes, but nothing else beyond that is terribly fascinating.

Henry's a generic action hero who's just too old for this stuff. Danielle is largely nothing. Henry Junior is barely a character. Varris is generic bad guy. As the plot moves from South America to Europe and back to America, it feels very paint by numbers and never leaps off the page.

Just thinking back to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a wonderful action spectacle that matched pleasing action aesthetics with a tender story, it's depressing to see Lee chasing projects for all the wrong reasons. This is James Cameron obsessed with 3D but worse because at least Avatar was able to deliver epic scope and a great action ending. Gemini Man can never move beyond its lackluster script, and it seems like no one even tried. A photorealistic looking young Will Smith will only get you so far in storytelling, and it's not very far at all.

A Hidden Life
(2019)

A Great Film of Incredible and Quiet Power
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Terrence Malick is a genius. This is the first time since The Tree of Life that Malick approached a project with a completed script that everyone got, and this is the first time since The New World that he tells a story linearly. His experimental phase is over, though it does inform his technique here. In the end, Malick came back from his experimental phase with one of his most affecting and devastating films that is deceptively small but betrays much larger ambitions along the way.

The true story of Franz Jagersttater, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II that the Catholic Church beatified in 2007, A Hidden Life contains many of the hallmarks of Malick's entire filmography. We start in an Eden on Earth that will come apart. We have voiceover. There is twirling, though there are few curtains. At the same time, there are interesting variations on it all. The Eden comes crashing down exclusively from outside forces, not because of an inherent flaw of those within it. The voiceover is heavily derived from the real life letters that Franz and his wife Fani wrote to each other. The twirling is about a family of five, including three daughters, rather than just one or two people exploring each other.

Franz, like all Austrian men, is eligible for conscription into the German army, but he cannot perform the oath to Hitler, seeing him as an evil man. This opinion, one of goodness, is what starts to tear down Eden around him and Fani's little paradise in the beautiful Austrian north country. The people turn on him. Even the church, represented by the local priest and bishop, are too scared to offer any help, even at the spiritual level, for the poor young farmer wrestling with his conscience. When Franz does get called up, he refuses to take the oath and is immediately arrested when he starts a four month process that leads to his death.

Now, I adore this film, but I do think that it's overlong at the same time. If this movie didn't hit me as hard as it did in the final act, I'd think that the overlong first and second hours would be enough of a real problem to knock my rating down a half star. This movie could have preserved the emotional punch of its final half hour by cutting as much as forty-five minutes from the first two hours. However, that emotional punch is still there, and it's the kind of punch that Malick gives me at the end of The New World. So, despite my understanding of the criticism of the film being too long, I both agree and disagree. The overlong sections are mostly derived from the small town's treatment of Franz and Fani after Franz's small act of disobedience becomes public knowledge. There's a good chunk of this footage that could have been cut without sacrificing much.

That being said, the movie's power extends from the contrast of its voiceover and the images. I don't think Malick has used voiceover as well as he does here. The voiceover of the final half of the film is mostly just letters that the real Franz and Fani sent each other at the time, and they're full of tender love and concern for the other. This is contrasted with the images of the small cruelties that both husband and wife are suffering at the same time. He suffers the indignities of prison life under Nazi rule including abuse from his guards. She struggles to keep their farm operating along with her sister and small children. They share their hopeful feelings towards each other in their letters, she telling of little stories of their children, all while we see their lives degrading.

There are three people after Franz is jailed who directly tempt him with just taking the oath and ending his prison sentence. The first is the attorney at the first prison, urging him to take the oath and do his service. The second is the German official played by Bruno Ganz, looking at this little farmer with pity. The third is Franz's own priest, just before Franz's execution. It is only Fani who decides that Franz must follow his conscience, even if she doesn't quite understand it. What ultimately sells that decision on Fani's part to the audience is those letters of such quiet and humble love that she and Franz share through both of their sufferings.

The greatest strength of Malick's production methods is that the individual moments he captures end up feeling so very real on their own. When combined with everything else around them, they help to create a distinct emotional reality for his characters, acting as the prism through which the audience feels the same emotions as his characters. He's gotten really, really good at it, too. The opening is idyllic and beautiful, and we can see and understand the genuine affection that Franz and Fani have for each other as they build their lives together. We see their suffering and feel it the same way. Establishing these characters and having them go through their trials in this improvisational mode with a strong script to carry everything else along adds another dimension to Malick's work not quite present in his previous three films (no matter how much I appreciate and even love them). Malick seems to enter another level of emotional storytelling when he rests his production methods on a script. That may seem like some sort of underhanded compliment, but it's just that I think he's so good even without a script.

The final motions of this film had me in a puddle. Malick took this small, nearly forgotten story of a hidden life (a phrase taken from the ending of Middlemarch by George Eliot) and demonstrates the cumulative power of those little actions that make up the world. For any other director this would be a crowning achievement, but for Malick this is just another remarkably great film in a remarkably great career.

Song to Song
(2017)

Remarkable
In terms of this experimental period of Malick's career, defined by the current era settings, extremely loose productions without scripts, and extended filming schedules, Song to Song is the best of the three. It is more emotionally involving than Knight of Cups and more complete than To the Wonder. I remember this showing up on Amazon Prime a couple of years ago. I was excited because I hadn't seen it yet and apprehensive because Malick's reputation had suffered. I was ready to be disappointed, finally, in a Malick film. And yet, I still got swept away with the story and the characters wondering, once again, what critics seemed to be missing.

It's the story of a handful of people in Austin, Texas, centered around the music scene there. Cook, played by Michael Fassbender, is a music producer, a materialist, and a tempter into this world of carefree wealth. DV, played by Ryan Gosling, is a young musical talent just breaking out into the professional world. Faye, played by Rooney Mara, is Cook's former receptionist who also plays music with dreams of going professional herself. Rhonda, played by Natalie Portman, is a former kindergarten teacher and current waitress that Cook picks up and quickly marries. These four characters weave in and out of each other's lives, but the malignant center is Cook.

Like all Malick films, there's an Eden like space where the characters are at their happiest, and that comes when Cook, DV, and Faye go to Mexico for a few days. It's here that the Eden motif gains a new interesting twist where Cook essentially ends up filling the role of the serpent in the garden. His presence there takes a while to sow the seeds of mistrust between DV and Faye in their burgeoning relationship, but he's still the direct source. What ends up happening is that they all go their separate ways after a time back in Austin. DV finds out that Cook has been cheating him out of rights to his music. DV digs at Faye's past with Cook, uncovering new layers that he can't get over. Faye feels guilty for continuing her sexual liaisons with Cook while seeing Faye. DV and Faye break up. Cook picks up Rhonda and swiftly brings the humble woman into his expensive and hedonistic lifestyle.

They happy trio has been split because of betrayal and corruption. Cook corrupted Faye. Cook betrayed DV. DV allowed his love of Faye to be corrupted by Cook. Cook corrupts Rhonda, though she knows what is happening and it bothers her. The movie isn't really about temptation and corruption though, it's about mercy and forgiveness. These characters need to go through a journey where mercy can come to them and through them. They need to hurt and feel lost, and that's exactly what they go through.

The thing about Malick's style is that he's interested in capturing emotional moments that collect together into a thematic whole. That's why his production approach ends up working for him rather than against him. He walks in with a clear idea of what he wants to say, lets improvisation guide his entire process with that goal in mind, and then collects the material together and whittles it down (the first cut of this film was apparently eight hours long). The production of Song to Song allowed for a lot of that intimate time between actors that led to the quiet moments that really make the movie work.

My wife watched with me for the first twenty minutes and ended up getting confused and walked out. She was expecting a straight forward and linearly told story. When I explained to her that the individual images on their own aren't that important, that the cutting from one image to the next was more about creating an emotional sense than a literal sense, she simply rejected the storytelling aesthetic completely and gave up. I think that's a challenge for a lot of people going into a Malick film, especially this trio of films, because they lean very heavily into the emotional space rather than the literal space. We've been conditioned to accept a certain type of visual storytelling, and Malick is different from that. It's a completely different vocabulary to get used to, and that's the kind of effort a lot of people don't want to go through when sitting down to take in an entertainment. Personally, though, I've just gotten it since the first time I saw The Thin Red Line. It makes sense to me.

The film's resolution was the most emotionally satisfying end to a Malick movie since The Tree of Life. The mercy and forgiveness exhibited by the characters, and the ultimate fall of another, was really touching.

Now, a comment about the actors. Ryan Gosling was himself, awkward and good looking so the girls love him. Rooney Mara is a wonderful mix of soulful and energetic, providing the primary bedrock on which the movie operates. Natalie Portman is quiet and sad. However it's Michael Fassbender that really feels just right. He seems more physically active and able to improvise than any of the others, creating a wild card character, appropriately so, that is just interesting to watch. He's probably the single best male actor Malick hired in this "captured moment" era.

Song to Song is a remarkable film. Tender and sad with wonderful performances and a clear emotional throughline, it's the best Malick movie since The Tree of Life.

Knight of Cups
(2015)

A wayward life
This is often called Malick's movie of ennui, and I sort of agree with that label. I think it's more about the emptiness of materialism, though. It's funny. Malick's been making movies since the early 70s, and he made a single movie in Hollywood, this one, and it's about how life in the modern world is an empty spectacle of carnal delights that leads to nothing because it is a soulless exercise. I have the sneaking suspicion that Malick is not a fan of Hollywood. He probably much prefers Texas.

So, it's obvious to me how Malick built this film. He had access to Christian Bale over the course of a few months a few days at a time, and he had access to a selection of other actors and actresses for a day or two here and there. Using his captured moment approach to filmmaking, he largely improvised a series of scenes with his actors, and then he spent a couple of years editing it all together. With the disconnected pieces he collected (none of the named actresses share a single scene, for instance), Malick assembled a story about a disconnected existence, and I think it works rather well. It's far from his best work, but it's an experiment that ends up having something interesting on its mind.

Rick, Christian Bale, is a Hollywood producer who drifts through his life with little to no attachments. Pulling from Malick's own biography again, Rick is one of three brothers, one of whom committed suicide at 19. His surviving brother is a recovering drug addict while their father wonders how he went so wrong raising two young men so disconnected from him and their past. Rick moves from studio lot, barely participating in contract negotiations, to photo shoots, where he picks up a woman he met at a party, and parties. He collects and discards women without any real concern for who they are or what they might mean to him. Among them are his ex-wife, a young punk rocker chick, a stripper, and an attractive married woman. He never seems to connect with them, sharing moments of frivolity and sex along with the trademarked twirls in curtains that Malick had become so fond of, but they suddenly disappear from his life the second they bring up something serious.

He doesn't want connections, and yet he's still unhappy. He has no material wants being well off, but the material he does collect ends up providing him with no real nourishment. The second he's offered something more, he's off to find another party to drift through and the woman never shows up again. He even ends up in a literal desert towards the end, bereft of any meaning to his life.

All of this is told in Malick's dreamlike, handheld, Steadicam style. The pieces need stitching together with voiceover, another trademark of his, and so it seems to show off its seams to the world. So, I'm of the mind that it becomes an intentional choice to demonstrate the seams, knowing that they are there, by creating a story in editing about a life sewn together from disparate material pieces that can't come together into a cohesive whole because they end up demonstrating emptiness. In other words, I understand the movie's detractors but I simply don't agree with them. This may not be a masterpiece by Malick, but it's definitely intentionally doing something stylistically and thematically at the same time that end up complimentary.

Ultimately, this kind of ends up as the opposite of To the Wonder. In the previous film, the main character, Neil, was largely a cipher and Marina was the main focus. Here, Rick is nearly silent like Neil, but his inner pain is still the focus. He's empty himself with little thoughts, but the women around him are material things to him, not real people. Their lack of development or time to shine on screen (Natalie Portman has what appears to be a heartbreaking moment late in the film that gets largely overlooked) is all because Rick himself is uninterested. He doesn't care about these women as living beings, just another thing for him to have and then toss away. His nearly empty apartment is another manifestation of his emptiness this way. It has classy objects, but no pictures of any kind. It could be a hotel room, and when some robbers break in and find nothing to steal, it highlights how Rick is nothing at his core.

Interestingly, the movie ends with Rick leaving Hollywood and Los Angeles as an escape. Seriously, I think Malick hates the place. It seems rare to have a film made about the empty materialism of Hollywood and the film industry as well as the modern age, but Malick did it. It's a rough work that betrays its fractured production, but it's also intelligently assembled in the end. It certainly lacks a lot of the emotional punch of Malick's other films, but it's not really supposed to, I think.

See all reviews