Review – The Florida Project

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From director-writer Sean Baker comes another unique film from A24 studios in the form of The Florida Project.  Set during an Orlando summer, the story centers on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), and their adventures with their friends and each other as they struggle through day-to-day life living in a low-rent Florida motel.  The motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) attempts to guide them along but it’s not an easy task as he has his own hands full with other tenants and tourists.

I almost missed seeing this one, as today was the last day it’s scheduled to play in the only theater within reasonable driving distance.  So, whew!  I’m trying, folks! I’m glad I was able to catch it, though, because it did what I love films to do: surprise me. In fact, it surprised me in more ways than one.

I like to know as little about these lower-budget films as possible before I see them. I was under the assumption that the term “project” in The Florida Project was referring to an undertaking of some sort. Instead, it was referring to a housing project – the motel in this case. So, the film was not as high-spirited as I was expecting.

Generally speaking, the characters in this film in no way have their lives together. Some of them are at least trying. Others are not. We meet Mooney first and within a couple of minutes, without having any larger context, my thoughts turned to, “This is exactly the kind of little girl I hope my nieces don’t turn into.” She’s rude. She’s foul-mouthed. She’s a troublemaker. And she’s a bad influence on the other kids around her. Right away, I knew this was a different film than I thought it was going to be.

A much clearer picture begins to form once we meet Halley, Mooney’s young mother. While others around her are doing their best to work for a living and make ends meet, Halley doesn’t subscribe to that way of life. Technically, she’s applying for work. But there’s an adage you’ve likely heard that says to dress for the job you want. Whether one interprets that literally or metaphorically, Halley does just that. And it’s clear that she has no real interest in nailing down solid employment, instead turning to less respectable (and legal) methods of bringing in money.

However, in the face of all of this, it’s clear that Halley loves her daughter. The problem, however, is that – as with many parents – she’s more interested in being Mooney’s friend than her mother. There is no discipline involved in Halley’s parenting style. Halley loves Mooney but that does not make Halley a good mother. She encourages debauchery from Mooney and never enacts any consequences when Mooney obliges. With the rare exception, here and there, children are a direct result of their upbringing. Seeing this play out on screen is at once both saddening and jolting.

Of the characters with which the audience spends significant time, only Willem Dafoe’s Bobby is truly likable. He’s a good, hard-working man who genuinely cares about the people under his watch, even when they don’t particularly deserve it. Bobby serves as the much-needed audience anchor, providing the viewer someone to relate to and lean on in order to get through the difficult subject matter playing out around them. When Bobby is angry, the viewer is angry. When Bobby is sad, the viewer is sad. When Bobby is heartbroken, the viewer is heartbroken. His inclusion by Baker is a wise move by an inexperienced writer and director.

The three principal cast members – Dafoe, Prince, and Vinaite – are all extraordinary. The characters are each complex and a challenge to play. Dafoe bounces between various emotional highs and lows with ease and dexterity, often displaying a mix of various feelings at the same time. This is Vinaite’s first film, but one would never know it. She’s at once loathsome and endearing. She impresses and will hopefully be making more film appearances in the future.

And young Brooklynn Prince is an absurdly brilliant actor, providing the most moving performance in the entire film. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some award nominations coming her way for this role. If not, then it’s only a matter of time, should she continue on this career path. With so many talented child actors in the world (Prince, the casts of It and Stranger Things, etc.), I can’t help but wonder – knowing that, statistically speaking, the percentage of strong child actors should remain consistent over the years – how George Lucas ended up casting Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker.

All of these elements combine to build towards a powerful climax. The film, as a whole, doesn’t contain a traditional narrative. There is no hook – no obvious final looming conflict resolution to be sought. Instead, The Florida Project is a deep character study and an inspection of an oft-overlooked segment of the American population. It’s also an exercise in providing insight into how things can go wrong for someone so early in their life, at no fault of their own, that there is virtually nothing they can do to overcome the resulting Butterfly Effect without some help from the outside. This movie is not fun. It’s not “enjoyable” from most people’s perspective. But it’s a poignant reminder that change comes from all of us. And it starts with protecting the children.

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Review – The Florida Project

Review – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

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My catch-up weekend concludes (though there is more catching up to be done at a later date) with Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Written and directed by Michael McDonagh, Three Billboards tells the story of heartbroken mother Mildred (Frances McDormand) as she makes a very public challenge to local authorities to catch her daughter’s rapist/murderer after seven months go by without an arrest. Joining McDormand in the principal cast are Woody Harrelson as Sheriff Willoughby, Sam Rockwell as Deputy Dixon, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red.

I had heard much praise regarding Three Billboards, but sometimes a film can take one by surprise, no matter what or how much has been previously heard. This is one of those films. Obviously, just based on the brief premise that I outlined above, the film tackles some heavy topics, and while it does so with unabashed frankness and honesty, it also blankets the issues in much respect. The story is told as McDonagh wishes to tell it, warts and all, but it’s never exceedingly graphic or inconsiderate of the audience or, perhaps more importantly, its characters.

And those characters are irrepressibly memorable. McDormand’s Mildred is not a perfect person and she is not a perfect mother. Her bad habits and foul mouth are hallmarks of her personality. They rub off on her children. It’s possible she’s never smiled a smile of joy, amusement, or happiness in her entire life. But it’s all a charade. She cares deeply for people. She feels. She hurts. And she’s never hurt more than she is hurting when we meet her.

As she lights a metaphorical fire under the butts of the entire town of Ebbing, Missouri, her power and influence begin to manifest and spread. Discovering exactly how is the fun of the film, but Willoughby, Dixon, Red, and the rest are all there to rise to the challenge, just as the actors who portray them seem to be motivated by McDormand’s energy.

Harrelson plays within his comfort zone, but that doesn’t negate his unusually tender performance. Perhaps no one is better at playing a grade-A a-hole than Sam Rockwell, and he gets another opportunity to do that, here. Yet, there’s more going on with Dixon than is readily apparent on the surface. And this film is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones in anything, ever. When I saw his name on the cast list, I groaned. From my perspective, he tends to overact. In Three Billboards, however, he’s natural, relaxed, and even likable. I’ll take it.

Everyone shines because everyone – even those in smaller parts who I haven’t mentioned – are fortunate enough to be gifted with meaty roles. Each character is extraordinarily complex and, therefore, entirely believable. In the real world, we’re accustomed to thinking of good people as doing good things and bad people as doing bad things. But, sometimes (maybe more often than one would believe), good people do bad things and bad people do good things. There are greater consequences to that notion that the film addresses. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it that way. But the cast is game and more than carries their weight.

Having established that, complex characters are wasted if the rest of the film is pedestrian. Not to worry; Three Billboards is perhaps the most excruciatingly thought-out and developed film of 2017, so far. It’s also extremely topical, perhaps even more so than McDonagh and the rest of his crew could have imagined. Police brutality and the sexual harassment and assault of women are key topics that are addressed by the film, with the former being approached more directly than the latter.

And then there’s the ever-present issue of people peaceably taking a stand for what they believe in despite massive, high-ranking opposition. This is never an easy thing for one to do. The one (or ones) doing it never benefit personally. They sacrifice themselves for others – for the greater good. Mildred’s method for handling her problem in no way makes her life easier or better. But she has to try. How often do we hear self-made soothsayers proclaim, “Why try that? It won’t make a difference!” The answer: because if we don’t try – if we don’t even attempt to make things better – we lose our humanity. Mildred clings to her humanity in the face of overwhelming pressure to let it go for someone else’s benefit.

Yet amidst all of this, McDonagh never comes across as preachy, as though he’s attempting to make a statement. He simply presents small town America as it often is in many circles and allows the viewer to make a judgement call for themselves. And then, once that happens, he tosses a curve ball at the unsuspecting audience and asks them to think again.

There are actually a lot of curve balls in Three Billboards. Some are narrative. Some are character-based. Others are thematic. And then some are content-oriented. This may be surprising but Three Billboards is easily one of the funniest movies of the year. I laughed out loud multiple times throughout the duration of the film and I wasn’t alone as the others in the theater with me were joining in.

But that’s life. Life is complex. We laugh one moment and cry the next. And Three Billboards exuberantly represents the complexity of life. It also represents the beauty and power of filmmaking. Gripping from the beginning, Three Billboards forces the audience to look at life and at people from all angles and it does so in relentlessly entertaining fashion. This is the film I’ve been waiting for. The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down. I can’t wait to see who steps up.

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Review – Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Review – Lady Bird

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Two A24 films in one day?!  And it’s not even a weekend?!  That’s right, I decided to treat myself on this Thursday, and catch up on a couple of smaller Oscar bait films, and Lady Bird is the second of the day.  Earlier this week, the film became the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes history, so if it wasn’t on my radar before that (it was), it would’ve been after.  Before I looked into the movie a bit, I actually thought it was a historical biography about Lady Bird Johnson.  As reasonable an assumption as that was (and I know I’m not the only one who has made it), it couldn’t have been more incorrect, as, in actuality, the film is a coming of age tale by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

In 2002, 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Ronan) – who has dubbed herself “Lady Bird” – faces the pressures of looming adulthood.  As she struggles to not only determine who she currently is but who she wishes to be in the future, life is made more difficult by her overbearing and unsympathetic mother Marion (Metcalf).  As Lady Bird comes to terms with the meaning and significance of the other primary figures in her life – most notably her loving and supportive father Larry (Tracy Letts), brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and her two potential love interests Danny and Kyle (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) – she must continuously navigate the landmine that is the relationship with her mother.

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Coming of age stories are not remotely uncommon, making it exceedingly more difficult for new ones to stand out amongst a very crowded and beloved mass of others both past and present.  What primarily makes Lady Bird different from the rest is that the primary relationship in the film is that of mother and daughter.  Typically, these films follow a young adult as they find their way into a place of comfort with their peers while we occasionally get a glimpse of how those efforts are affecting their home life.  In Lady Bird, the title character’s entire foundation is shaped and molded by a mother by whom Lady Bird feels she has never been accepted.  So, flipping the script, the viewer sees how this single relationship creates a butterfly effect upon all of the others in Lady Bird’s life.

On one hand, Marion’s parenting style can be chalked up to fear.  For instance, it’s been less than a year since the attacks of September 11 and her daughter wants to leave Sacramento and go to college in New York City.  But on the other hand, the ways in which Marion channels and expresses these fears are simultaneously selfish, childish, and hurtful to Lady Bird, putting the emotional well-being of her own daughter second to that of her own.

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Ironically, that means Marion potentially has a lot to learn from her own daughter, Lady Bird, who feels torn between being true to herself and being who her mother wants her to be, just to get a taste of the acceptance she has always desperately wanted.  Essentially – and sadly – Lady Bird feels that any love for her that is felt by her mother comes from a place of obligation rather than one of sincerity.

That’s something I can to relate to, not regarding my mother, but with other members of my family.  And I know I’m not the only one.  So, anyone who has felt like the odd one out in their own family will have plenty to latch onto in Lady Bird.  It’s an oft-overlooked component of life, but one that is extremely impactful and formative, especially – but certainly not exclusively – in the years of early adulthood.

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This dynamic leads to a pair of memorable performances from both Ronan and Metcalf.  As Lady Bird, Ronan feels the need to maintain a tough exterior, but there are subtleties underneath the surface of Ronan’s performance that leak through with flawless timing and seasoned delivery.  Metcalf’s Marion is similarly tough on the outside, but also much more expressive and emotional.  At times, Metcalf is permitted to provide some rather moving moments that should touch any viewers capable of the slightest bit of empathy.

For me, this film doesn’t approach 2016’s coming-of-age classic The Edge of Seventeen, but that’s more due to the fact that Seventeen is an exceptional film that excels in every single way – a truly special movie – than because of any shortcomings in Lady Bird.  Simply put, even if I wasn’t quite as drawn in by Lady Bird as I was by SeventeenLady Bird still does everything right and puts a new spin on the coming-of-age subgenre.  It reminds me of the truth that film reflects society and the more we watch, the more viewpoints we come to see, and therefore the better we understand the world around us (I wrote an entire column about that here, though I focused on event films in that particular piece).  Through Lady Bird, Gerwig has something new to say, and she does so in a funny, entertaining, poignant, and resonant way.  Expect plenty of award nominations to be racking up for this one, soon.  Catch it before there’s a bandwagon.

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Review – Lady Bird

Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

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I have had one heck of a time getting to a theater to catch The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  I featured it in my Ten Fourth-Quarter 2017 Films to be Excited About! column, but it took a while before it finally arrived within driving distance of my house.  And then I was out of town or otherwise predisposed during the weekends and couldn’t get to the nearest theater (an hour away) to catch it.  But I finally managed to do it, taking advantage of a rare Thursday off.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is another film from A24 Studios, one of the two most consistent and reliable movie studios in the business today (along with Marvel Studios.  Pixar has fallen to a clear third, even taking the brilliant Coco into account.). This is the second film for A24 that has been written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, after 2016’s The Lobster. After seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it is becoming clear that Lanthimos has a distinct and recognizable style all his own. What I’m not yet sure about is whether or not it’s deliberate.

Like The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a quirky science-fiction drama starting Colin Farrell. This is one of those films that’s rather difficult to discuss without spoilers, so I’ll sum it up by saying that Farrell plays cardiologist Steven Murphy, who makes a critical mistake for which he is forced to either atone or face dire consequences. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes longer than it should to get to the hook, but it’s a gripping, fascinating hook, once it arrives. Hang in there.

Consequences and atonement are unquestionably the themes of the film. In addition to working side by side with the always-great Nicole Kidman, Farrell plays opposite Barry Keoghan, who plays Martin, Murphy’s young protege. Keoghan gives a chilling performance as Martin morphs and shifts throughout the course of the narrative and more is revealed about his history and motivations. Farrell does well as he plays off of Keoghan and, in turn, Kidman performs admirably, as well, as her character of Anna reacts to her husband’s choice of actions. But, ultimately, everyone except for Keoghan is hampered by Lanthimos’s stubborn insistence upon leaving his own style in place, rather than allowing the film to grow naturally.

I say that because there are more similarities between this film and The Lobster than what I mentioned above. Like that film, the dialogue is stilted and often downright bizarre, with characters saying unimaginable things to each other given the natures of their relationships and/or the circumstances under which a given conversation is occurring. This is not the mistake of an inexperienced writer, either. It’s an artistic choice seemingly designed to unsettle the audience from the beginning of the film and set the tone (which the long, steady opening shot also accomplishes. I’ll allow you to discover that on your own.). To compound matters, when any particular character utters something too forward or unusual or even a total non-sequitur, the opposing character just rolls with it, as if it’s a typical conversation on the porch swing at Grandma’s house.

It doesn’t end there. Throughout the majority of the film, Lanthimos directs his cast to perform with as little emotion as possible. It’s not just in the dialogue that characters are unfazed by the disquieting behavior of the others, but in the performances, as well. In the back half of the movie, Farrell and Kidman get to emote to a degree, but it’s still far too restrained considering what is playing out on-screen. Keoghan is fortunate in the sense that this approach is logical for Martin, but the others in the cast aren’t so lucky.

So, if all of this was also the case in The Lobster, why didn’t it bother me it that film? Simple: it made sense for The Lobster. The Lobster was about a bunch of people who spent their lives having difficulty forming connections with other people. If they’re awkward, unsociable, or just don’t understand how to properly interact with others, those traits gel with their current spot in life. In Sacred Deer, we’re looking at a fully-formed, longstanding family unit with two very successful (on all fronts) adults at the helm. Those same traits just don’t work for these people.

If this is Lanthimos’s attempt to craft a cinematic image for himself, it will end up being a misguided one. His ideas for film premises are already distinctive enough. Sabotaging his own films by making all of his characters feel robotic and inhuman will do no favors for his own future. I was interested in this story from a broader perspective of caring about people in general but I felt no personal connection to it, at all.

I’m reminded of Wes Anderson. I have a hard time with his films because of the way he handles his characters and dialogue, presenting them in a distinctly non-realistic way. I tend to tune out quickly because I don’t believe a thing I see or hear. I know a lot of people love him (he’s my best friend’s favorite), but I just can’t connect. Lanthimos will be the same way if he’s not careful, with the difference being that, while his weird stories are good for me, unlike Anderson’s, they’re probably too over the top for many general audiences. And that will cause a problem if he can’t connect with them through narrative or character and dialogue. If he wants a long, successful career, he should focus on the work and not his own reputation.

I don’t love or hate The Killing of a Sacred Deer. I love the concept and the story. I’m mixed (at best) on the execution. This isn’t a film that will appeal to the typical moviegoer, but those who like strange and quirky storytelling may still want to give it a look, depending on how much my own personal issues with the film would bother them. Still, A24 has put out another film that’s an easy conversation piece and certainly unforgettable. As long as they keep doing that, I’ll keep showing up.

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Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Review – Coco

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For the second time in 2017, Pixar is back with a new animated feature, this time in the form of Coco.  Earlier this summer, Cars 3 underperformed, at best, likely resulting in a rare financial loss for the studio.  Pixar’s reputation has seemingly been tarnished a bit in the eyes of audiences, as 2015’s The Good Dinosaur (a film with a very troubled production) also failed to earn a profit, making this two back-to-back disappointments for the once unstoppable juggernaut.  Pixar and Disney hope to turn things around with their newest release, Coco.

To my recollection, this is the first Pixar film to not be theatrically preceded by a Pixar animated short.  Instead, playing before the film is the Disney animated short film “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”.  The film is good – and genuinely funny – but not exactly short, by most people’s definition of the word.  Running a full 21 minutes, the presentation confused several uninformed members of my audience, today.  One family got up and left, with one of them loudly and eloquently espousing, “I ain’t watchin’ no FROZEN!”.  They came back in a few moments later, obviously having been educated by a member of the staff.  Another lady sitting a couple of rows in front of me got up in the middle of it.  She came back a few minutes later and muttered to her family, “It’s on next,” obviously referring to Coco.  So, try to just enjoy it and not be somehow angry that you’re getting something extra for the same price you would have paid, anyway.

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Moving on to Coco, it’s nice to see Pixar doing something original, again, rather than a continuation of another of their previous franchises.  It hasn’t truly been all that long since their last non-sequel films, with both Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur being released in 2015, but it feels longer than that – especially since The Good Dinosaur was not a particularly enthralling endeavor (though Inside Out was pure gold).  Coco is thankfully a return to artistic form for Pixar.

When young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) goes against his family’s wishes in an effort to pursue his dream of becoming a musician, his journey leads him on a search for his great-great grandfather in the Land of the Dead, who he believes will bless him with the support he has always desired from the family that stills surrounds him in the world of the living.  That journey leads him to many new discoveries about both himself and the rest of his family.

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There’s a lot going on in Coco, so it’s a little tough to decide where to start.  Narratively speaking, in the early going, I was reminded of the brilliant Kubo and the Two Strings.  The two films share a few cultural (despite existing in Japanese vs. Mexican cultures), cosmetic, and thematic similarities, but fork into different paths pretty quickly.  Coco not only addresses the difficulty one often faces in the quest to live for oneself and not for others, but also the role that family can play in that quest – both positively and negatively.  When the film opens, Miguel feels like a black sheep – unappreciated and unloved by those who are supposed to appreciate and love him the most.  That is all too common in life (and I understand it more than I wish I did, myself) and will be relatable to many members of the viewing audience – mostly the older ones.

But that leads directly to his search for the one member of his family whom he believes will accept him for who he is.  Obviously, I’m not going to get into what happens from there, but the message of the film is ultimately one about the importance of family, not one of rebellion.  It’s a common theme in Pixar’s films but an effective one, nonetheless.  I was far more moved by the film than I expected to be and put the film near Wonder Woman in terms of emotional resonance – high praise if you’re familiar with my stance on that particular film.  The audience I shared the theater with clearly felt the same way, as they actually applauded when the film ended – a rarity in my neck of the woods.

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Another important note to make is that the film centers entirely around Mexican folklore with Mexican characters and a Mexican cast but is accessible and easy to relate to for anyone, regardless of heritage and ethnicity.  That’s an important and laudable achievement in today’s cultural climate.  As xenophobia (at best) and outright racism (at worst) continue make themselves felt throughout the world, a (hopefully) blockbuster animated film that successfully makes the point that we are all more alike than we are different can actually do a lot of good.  Children pay attention to their entertainment and can take good messages to heart, even if their parents stubbornly insist on keeping their own heads firmly buried in the sand.

Pixar has crafted a film that is not only visually stunning and entertaining, but emotionally and socially relevant.  There are even more levels to the film that are very much tied to a current hot-button topic that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers.  The specific story element I’m thinking of was an accident  because the timing and how long it takes to make a film like this wouldn’t allow it to be deliberate) but still poignant.  The movie isn’t as laugh-out-loud funny as some of their others, but Coco is an unqualified success on all other levels and stands tall as a win for a studio who is desperately in need of a big one.

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Review – Coco

Review – Justice League

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It’s taken a very long time to get here, but we finally have a live-action Justice League movie.  The road to the film hasn’t been the smoothest, but DC and Warner Brothers got the job done, one way or another, and now it’s time to sit back and take it in.  The marketing has felt a little incomplete to me, however, without the presence of Superman, whose absence is explained by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman are the holy trinity of the Justice League as well as of DC Comics, in general, so seeing all of these advertisements for a Justice League film without the signature red and blue suit being featured has made the film feel like a watered down version to me, personally.  But, marketing aside, how does the actual film come off?

Right off the bat, I’m going to say that this is going to be a tough review to write.  I’m not sure how to talk about it without mentioning specifics – many of which would be spoilers.  I’m not going to do that, but have fun as you watch me dance around them.  That’s something else to be said for the marketing: unlike most major tentpole films, the trailers and television spots gave virtually nothing away.  That’s a great thing and I hope more studios go that route in the future.

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So . . . what can I say?  The narrative picks up as Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are picking up the pieces after the fallout from their encounter with Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Dawn of Justice.  Bruce has evidence that the unknown and significant threat he has been nervous about has arrived on Earth, and he enlists Diana to help him recruit the other superpowered beings of which he is aware: Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

I don’t feel like I should comment on any more specifics outside of that.  Even the villain was shrouded in mystery until just recently, so I won’t reveal them in case you have managed to remain pure and would rather not know.  I’ll say that – though this particular character was created by one of the biggest legends in comic book history – I found them to be a bit underwhelming as the choice for the first movie to formally feature the Justice League.  Or, perhaps, it’s just the presentation of the protagonist that falls flat.  Justice League isn’t entirely unlike The Avengers in terms of structure and action set pieces, in the sense that there is one primary villain in control of an army of otherworldly creatures as they deign to conquer the planet.  But, in The Avengers, the villainous figurehead was Tom Hiddleston’s Loki – a complex, charismatic, compelling character whose motivations were rooted in deeply personal issues involving the heroes.  Justice League‘s villain is a powerful enough physical threat, but that’s all this particular character has to offer.

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The heroes, on the other hand, are rather well-handled.  Wonder Woman is still the coolest part of the entire DC Extended Universe and Gal Gadot continues to command the screen anytime she appears upon it.  Batman is much closer to the Batman we know from the original comic book source material, if slightly cheekier.  I staunchly loathed Ezra Miller’s cameo as the Flash in Dawn of Justice, but I take it all back.  He shines in the role as the comedic relief and I was completely wrong about him.  He’s my second-favorite member of this Justice League five.  Aquaman – taking on the appearance established during the Peter David-helmed run on his comic in the mid-nineties – is presented in a way that helps the character make strides towards dispelling the perception that he’s a minor-leaguer who only “talks to fish”.  And Cyborg makes up for his lack of a personality (by design) by proving himself an invaluable asset to the team.

The film is funnier than most previous DCEU films (with the exception of Wonder Woman) which will anger Marvel fans who will claim that WB is only aping Marvel and will also anger DC fans who hate fun things.  Can’t please everyone, I guess.  Or, ofttimes . . . can’t please seemingly anyone for those in the business of making major studio films.  But I enjoyed the humor.  It’s done at appropriate times and works pretty well.  Most of the humor comes from the Flash and it’s not really “hilarious” in the way that Guardians of the GalaxySpider-Man: Homecoming, or Thor: Ragnarok is, but more highly amusing.  That’s not a criticism; that appears to have been the goal, and it’s met with solid results.

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There is plenty of action throughout the film.  As Bruce and Diana are assembling (Uh oh.  Can I say that?) the League, the pace slows a bit, hurt somewhat by the fact that we all know where this portion of the story is heading.  But the film has enough to offer beyond that to keep it fun.  Said action didn’t leave me quite as breathless as that in director Zack Snyder’s two previous DCEU outings (Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice), though there’s one particular battle around the middle of the movie that came pretty darn close.  Snyder famously departed Justice League when it was near completion after a horrific family tragedy and Joss Whedon stepped in to finish it.  Despite what that 13-year-old kid on Twitter you know with 35 followers thinks, it’s impossible to know exactly what Snyder and Whedon were each responsible for without having been a part of the film, itself, so maybe the switch had something to do with the slight downturn in spectacle.  Or . . . maybe it didn’t.  Still, even if the excitement isn’t quite up to the standards of those two earlier films, it’s still plenty worthy of the Justice League.

I mostly got what I wanted out of Justice League: iconic characters interacting for the first time in live action, more of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, some barnburning action scenes, snippy dialogue, and some surprises along the way (stay through the credits!).  I would have preferred a different approach towards the villain, but I can get over that.  I suppose the Internet will likely find something minor and innocuous to obsess over and use to define the entire film, like they did with the Martha scene in Dawn of Justice.  But let them refuse to enjoy life.  I had fun with this movie and am ready to see what’s next in the DCEU.  There is plenty of gold left to mine (Supergirl?  Hello?  Anyone listening out there?) and as long as the films stay above the quality of Suicide Squad from here on out (as this one easily does), then I’ll be more than satisfied.

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Review – Justice League

Review – Daddy’s Home Two

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I just saw the original Daddy’s Home for the first time, less than two weeks ago, and I thought it was fun and somewhat charming. The main reason I wanted to see it to begin with is because of how much I loved the trailer for the film that I’m talking about today, Daddy’s Home Two. With a solid cast and genuine laughs, I knew I wanted to see this one, so I caught the first one as part of my homework for this column (I may be doing something similar with another upcoming sequel).

In its basic premise, Daddy’s Home Two is actually coincidentally similar to another recent comedy sequel in A Bad Moms Christmas. For starters, Daddy’s Home Two is actually also a full-on Christmas movie, so they share that thematic backdrop. Secondly, just as the narrative for A Bad Moms Christmas centers around the original mothers from the first film coping with the holiday arrivals of their own mothers, Daddy’s Home Two sees the original fatherly pair of Will Ferrell’s Brad and Mark Wahlberg’s Dusty welcome their own fathers (with Ferrell’s on-screen dad played by John Lithgow and Mel Gibson taking the on-screen role of Wahlberg’s dad) for Christmas. But while the core concept of the films are the same, their executions are strikingly disparate.

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Unlike A Bad Moms Christmas, Daddy’s Home Two remembers what made the first film in its series a success and provides plenty more of it for audiences. The dichotomous relationship between Brad and Dusty still serves as the focal point of the movie and there are copious interactions between them – and they’re always entertaining. Ferrell and Wahlberg have a strong grasp on these characters and play their parts to perfection. Sure, the roles aren’t particularly challenging for them, but that only counts for award shows, not for entertainment value. Ferrell and Wahlberg are gold.

Lithgow and Gibson are every bit as perfectly cast as Ferrell and Wahlberg. This film is the latest stop in Gibson’s apology tour as he continues to rehabilitate his image and career. As Dusty’s father Kurt, Gibson plays the ultimate alpha male who has unrealistic expectations of his own son in a society whose values have long passed him by. He’s an old-school, old-fashioned so-called “man’s man”, but a well-meaning one. Lithgow shines as Brad’s father Don. Don is unapologetically enthusiastic about his love for his son, the holidays, and . . . well . . . everything else. He still believes in protecting his child from the harshness of the world, even if his son is well past the threshold from childhood into adulthood. He is every bit as out of touch with modern society as Kurt is – just on the opposite end of the spectrum. Seeing Lithgow do comedy again is an unquestionable treat.

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The film is certainly funny, if not always in the traditional sense. Without question, there are funny lines. And there’s some pretty good slapstick for those who enjoy that sort of thing. But the majority of the humor is character-based. That’s a smart approach for the film because the characters are all so endearing and memorable, including Linda Cardellini’s Sara, Alessandra Ambrosio’s Karen, and all of the kids. Each character has flaws, and they certainly clash with each other, but none of them are inherently bad people. They all simply want the best for the people who mean the most to them and they clash out of fear that they will let those people down.

So, the humor largely originates from that foundation, which is essentially a multi-layered “funny because it’s true” method of attack. It’s not always the wittiest or the most clever, but it’s funny, anyway, because of the character motivations behind the humor and the delivery from the multifaceted cast.

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On top of all of that, I found the film to be far more heartwarming than I was expecting. Daddy’s Home Two feels much more like a true Christmas movie than most films that are more forcefully marketed as such. Sure, maybe in becoming a holiday film, the moral messages that come along with that have been covered by countless other films. But, honestly, we as a society can use a reminder of those messages, right now. And even if the messages have been done many times before, they haven’t been delivered in such a charming way in quite some time.

I expected to like Daddy’s Home Two, but it won me over in ways I did not expect. The film feels like the kind of Christmas classic of days gone by that end up being played on television every Thanksgiving night. It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s entertaining, and it delivers in surprising ways. I left the theater feeling a little more hopeful about the world and the future of society. Maybe that will only last until the next time I peruse Twitter, but – for now – I’ll take it. You should, too.

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Review – Daddy’s Home Two