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Justice League (2017, Zack Snyder)

Justice League exists, whether intentionally or not, outside a certain kind of critical examination. Director Snyder didn’t finish post-production. Or, at least, when the studio demanded lots of reshoots, Snyder wasn’t involved in a creative capacity. The job went to Joss Whedon, who gets a co-writer credit. Are the terrible scenes Whedon’s fault or Snyder’s fault? The generic, impersonal Danny Elfman score? Seems like Whedon’s fault. The terrible part for top-billed Ben Affleck? Probably Snyder’s fault. The crappy CGI?

Well, crappy CGI in DC Comics adaptations is definitely Warner Bros.’s fault. And it gets bad in Justice League. The lack of detail on the giant, personality-free adversary (boringly voiced by Ciarán Hinds) is stunning. Again, it’s not clear if Snyder supervising post would’ve led to better action scenes. The ones in Justice League are all pretty awful. Fabian Wagner’s photography is bland, David Brenner, Richard Pearson, and Martin Walsh’s editing is at best bland. It’s much often much worse. The action sequences lack imagination on every level, whether scale or just the idea of the superheroes working together.

Justice League has no scale. Someone–Snyder, Whedon, the producers, the studio, the twenty-third test audience–decided there shouldn’t be any establishing shots if they don’t have exposition. Justice League cuts from expository scene to expository scene, except Whedon and Chris Terrio’s Frankenstein script doesn’t have any texture to it. Not when it’s the main cast, not when it’s the supporting cast. Especially not when it’s poor Diane Lane and Amy Adams. Jeremy Irons gets terribly mistreated, but it’s nothing compared to Lane and Adams.

Adams is literally reduced to broken woman. While the whole world is ceasing to function because of what happened with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, instead of being a strong character who perceivers in the aftermath, she just breaks down. Not on screen, she just tells everyone about it. Well, she tells Lane and Henry Cavill about it because she has nothing else going on.

But Lane. Poor Lane. It appears Lane’s scenes are entirely, with one exception, Whedon’s. Cavill had a mustache while doing reshoots and there’s some bad (though apparently exceptionally expensive–read rushed) CG to mask out the mustache. The result is his mouth not moving right and his teeth being scrunched. So you can kind of tell. You can kind of tell who to blame.

And it’s Whedon who reduces Lane and Adams to broken women. At least Terrio and Snyder–apparently–made Affleck a broken man. He just can’t get on after what he’s done. Except he’s not haunted about it. He’s just bad, actually. He’s really, really bad. He’s supposed to be the straight man to a team of misfit superheroes, only they’re not misfit superheroes.

Misfits need personality and the Justice League has none. Ezra Miller’s got the most as the Flash and all he does is tell wisecracks. Then there’s Ray Fisher; he gives the film’s best performance in a thankless part. Even though he’s got a lot to do in the script, Fisher gets the least story of anyone. More offensively, it wastes Joe Morton as his dad.

Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. He’s got no personality, doesn’t really do anything in the action sequences except save people occasionally–by people, I mean the other superheroes. Like all DC Comics movies, no regular people are in danger in Justice League. Well, except one family; but they’re actually trapped in a Russian version of Tremors. Otherwise, no one’s in danger. Ever.

Anyway. Momoa. It’s not his fault. More than anyone else, it’s not his fault. His part’s terribly written and the editing on his introduction scenes is atrocious.

Gal Gadot’s supposedly the real straight person on the team, because she can see through Affleck’s guff. Only Affleck wants Gadot to lead the team. Or something. They get some painful scenes together. Again, it’s unclear if it’s Whedon or Snyder, but their scenes are awful. There’s negative chemistry coming from Affleck, even when the script has him mooning over Gadot. Though he does attack her personally when he needs to make a point. Affleck’s writing is so bad. Just. Beyond bad.

Gadot’s fine. She gets the most to do in action scenes, which is either because she’s had the most successful solo movie or just because no one else’s superpowers are good for the fight scenes. Snyder’s direction of the Flash action is terrible, for example.

Amber Heard’s got one scene and makes more impression than practically anyone else.

Cavill’s performance is hard to gauge. Whedon doesn’t write him good scenes. And he’s got a giant unmoving mouth. He and Adams exhibit their usual wondrous chemistry when it’s not a Whedon shot or line. Even still, Elfman’s music ruins even the non-Whedon material. Elfman’s score doesn’t fit. It’s frantic and rushed and usually clashes with the editing.

The only thing saving Justice League from being a disaster is the film disqualifying itself from being serious enough proposition to be a disaster. You open a movie, any movie, with the single worst cover of Everybody Knows–and there have been some terrible Everybody Knows covers–but an offensively bad Everybody Knows cover… well, it’s just too stupid to take seriously enough for it to be a disaster.

Instead, Justice League is intriguingly terrible. Was Snyder’s intention worse? Maybe. I doubt it, because even with all that material’s problems, it doesn’t have Cavill with the silly CG face. But the things Whedon clearly contributed are godawful.

What a mess.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Zack Snyder; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, based on a story by Terrio and Zack Snyder and the comic book by Gardner Fox; director of photography, Fabian Wagner; edited by David Brenner, Richard Pearson, and Martin Walsh; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Patrick Taopoulos; produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, and Geoff Johns; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ben Affleck (Batman / Bruce Wayne), Henry Cavill (Superman / Clark Kent), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman / Diana Prince), Ezra Miller (The Flash / Barry Allen), Jason Momoa (Aquaman / Arthur Curry), Ray Fisher (Cyborg / Victor Stone), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Joe Morton (Silas Stone), J.K. Simmons (Commissioner Gordon), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), Amber Heard (Mera), Connie Nielsen (Queen Hippolyta), and Ciarán Hinds (Steppenwolf).


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The Invention of Lying (2009, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson)

The Invention of Lying is a 100 minute exploration of a gag. In a world without lying–or any fictive creativity whatsoever–co-director, co-writer, and star Ricky Gervais one day spontaneously mutates and lies. He lies for personal gain, only to discover exploiting people doesn’t make him feel good, so he lies to make himself and others feel good, but it gets him into trouble. It doesn’t get him what he wants and it just ends up making him rich, famous, and miserable.

The film opens with Gervais on a low point. He’s about to lose his job and he’s out on a date with his dream girl, Jennifer Garner, only she thinks she’s too good for him. Because, objectively, his genetic material isn’t good enough to mix with hers. So the other thing this world doesn’t have is any relatable version of love. Gervais and co-writer Matthew Robinson aren’t even comfortable getting into the lust questions, because once they start down any problematic avenue, they run away as fast as they can. It’s like they release they can’t make the joke funny and hightail it away. So why do the joke in the first place?

The film takes place in a small New England town where there is, inexplicably, a movie studio. Except movies are just filmed lectures of history lessons because there’s no fiction and there’s no concept of it. Gervais and Robinson entirely ignore how the world would function and how history would have progressed without imagination or creative ambition. For a while, they just keep falling back on the gimmick–what if everyone just says what they’re thinking, no matter how awful. There are a lot of flashy cameos–Ed Norton is the best–but they can only distract so much. Eventually, the film has to reconcile itself, because Gervais is in love with Garner and Garner doesn’t want him because of his genetic material.

There’s this scene where Gervais explains how he imagines peoples lives upon seeing them and Garner just sees them as fat, bald, nerdy, losers. It comes right after Gervais telling Garner she’s the kindest, best person he’s ever met, which makes absolutely no sense, but whatever, she’s supposed to be angelic.

Eventually, Garner’s part contracts and the movie moves ahead an indeterminable time, becoming just Gervais moping with buddies Louis C.K. and Jonah Hill. By this time, Gervais has increased the scale of his lying, making up God. That subplot is the best one in the film; Gervais and Robinson don’t have to be subtle about their jabs yet still manage subtely in said jabs. It operates on two levels, something the film never does otherwise.

Sadly, it’s not about Gervais inadvertently becoming a messiah, it’s about him pining for Garner. Conveniently, Gervais’s first act nemesis (Rob Lowe, one note as a successful bully) also has eyes for Garner so there’s a love triangle thing towards the end.

It’s a yawn, partially because Garner and Lowe are extremely limited in their roles, partially because Invention can only handle so much emotion. If people can’t have creative expectation, their emotions are stunted. And even when they aren’t, Gervais and Robinson are focused entirely on characters on hand, not this world they’ve ostensibly created.

Gervais drops out during the third act way too much too. He’s the only relatable character in the film; everyone else is a caricature to be mocked. He’s a caricature too (maybe the thinest one), but he’s not supposed to be mocked.

Okay photography from Tim Suhrstedt covers for Gervais and Robinson’s lackluster directing. There are a lot of songs and song montages–including a criminally atrocious Elvis Costello cover of Cat Stevens’s Sitting–and they don’t make any sense since there’s no music in Lying’s world.

Gervais’s performance is fine. Garner ranges from inoffensive to miscast. Hill is an overblown cameo, while C.K. is an underdeveloped sidekick. Besides Ed Norton, Martin Starr’s probably the funniest cameo. Others are earnest but with limited material.

The Invention of Lying would’ve made a great six part sitcom or something, but Gervais and Robinson don’t have a full enough narrative for 100 minutes. It’s not funny enough to make up for all the laziness.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson; director of photography, Tim Suhrstedt; edited by Chris Gill; music by Tim Atack; production designer, Alec Hammond; produced by Lynda Obst, Oliver Obst, Dan Lin, and Gervais; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ricky Gervais (Mark Bellison), Jennifer Garner (Anna McDoogles), Rob Lowe (Brad Kessler), Louis C.K. (Greg), Jonah Hill (Frank), Tina Fey (Shelley), Jeffrey Tambor (Anthony), and Fionnula Flanagan (Martha Bellison).


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The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin)

Despite the title, The Exorcist is about pretty much everything except the actual exorcist. When he does appear, kicking off the third act, it’s kind of a stunt. There’s a lot of implied mythology in the film, without much connective tissue–but nothing ruling out connective tissue. Director Friedkin does a balancing act. The reveal moment of the exorcist, complete with foggy streets, is where Friedkin just gives in to the sensationalism.

It’s 1973, there’s a possession so real skeptical priest Jason Miller fights for it to be exorcized, things are about to get intense. There’s fog, isn’t there? And music. Friedkin’s sparing with music. He uses it to great effective earlier, less on the exorcist’s introduction.

The actual exorcism has excellent special effects and good acting. Friedkin’s direction is far more pragmatic than usual; unlike the rest of the film, he and editors Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman don’t make any imaginative, affecting cuts. Cinematographer Owen Roizman is given the mundane task of insuring the frosty breath comes out. Previously, he’d been creating this warm, welcoming, terrifying Georgetown. It’s a step down.

Despite being entirely well-acted, none of The Exorcist’s actors particularly standout. Max von Sydow’s archeologist priest starts the film, digging up demonic relics. von Sydow just has to look scared or sick. It’s not much of a part. But Friedkin and the editors work their magic and make it through.

Then the film moves to Georgetown, where movie star Ellen Burstyn is filming an adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s best-selling novel, The Exorcist–just kidding, she’s in some mainstream hippie movie. She and daughter Linda Blair are living in a rental house, complete with servants and a full-time assistant (Kitty Winn). Everything’s going fine until something starts happening to Blair… and the doctors can’t figure out what.

At the same time, priest Jason Miller is confronting a crisis of faith while trying to care for his aging mother. Miller’s crisis doesn’t get much time, it’s just part of his ground situation.

The film cuts between Burstyn and Miller. They’re in the same neighborhood, their orbits moving closer and closer. Though not in any inevitable way, rather coincidental. Burstyn and Blair’s story, despite a deadbeat dad subplot, is a lot less intense than Miller’s. They have all the fun supporting cast members, including drunk movie director Jack MacGowran.

Friedkin and the editors seem to cut a little faster each time. Actors’ lines don’t finish in their scenes, but carried over to the next shot, the next scene. Simultaneously, Roizman’s photography is completely laid back. It’d be calming if the movie weren’t called The Exorcist and there weren’t occasional scary music and what are those weird noises in the attic?

After getting done with von Sydow and moving on to Blair, Burstyn, and Miller, the film keeps its character focus pretty well balanced. Until Blair gets less and less to do. She has to go to the doctor and we don’t find out until after it’s happened. That absence succeeds in hurrying things along, but not making Burstyn or Blair much more sympathetic. They’re sympathetic because they’re mother and daughter and Blair’s a cute kid, not because they’re particularly likable. Blatty’s script doesn’t do them any favors. He writes scenes for maximum effect, not character development.

Then Burstyn ends up losing time to Lee J. Cobb–as a police inspector–and Miller. Miller’s got a new church subplot, which eventually meets up with Cobb’s murder investigation one. It leads to an excellent scene, beautifully shot, edited, acted, but nothing for the story. During the second act, the film loses its sense of momentum. Cobb and Miller are too stone-faced; the film needs Burstyn’s growing dread, which it mostly skips, even going so far as to switch over to Miller to avoid showing Burstyn and Blair’s side.

Blair’s fine. She handles the part, which is considerable. She’s the film’s de facto subject. Everything revolves around her and she knows it. Mercedes McCambridge does even better, doing some of Blair’s character’s voice work.

Great acting from Cobb, Miller, and Burstyn when she’s got the material. Nice support from everyone else.

The Exorcist is often expertly and sublimely executed. But that strong execution mostly pauses for the third act. The epilogue is better though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by William Friedkin; screenplay by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel; director of photography, Owen Roizman; edited by Norman Gay and Evan A. Lottman; production designer, Bill Malley; produced by Blatty; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ellen Burstyn (Chris MacNeil), Linda Blair (Regan MacNeil), Jason Miller (Father Karras), Max von Sydow (Father Merrin), Kitty Winn (Sharon), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant Kinderman), Jack MacGowran (Dennings), William O’Malley (Father Dyer), Peter Masterson (Dr. Barringer), Robert Symonds (Dr. Taney), and Mercedes McCambridge (The Demon).


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The Voice of the Turtle (1947, Irving Rapper)

The Voice of the Turtle runs an hour and forty minutes. There’s a split about forty minutes in and, in the second hour, leads Eleanor Parker and Ronald Reagan are playing slightly different characters. Screenwriter John Van Druten adapted his play (with additional dialogue from Charles Hoffman) and had to “clean things up.” The play was very controversial on release in 1943, dealing with affairs and sexual desire and the like; the movie’s sanitized. There’s one shockingly direct mention but it goes by so fast, it’s like it never happened. And then there’s a clothing malfunction scene, which seems risque, but isn’t explored. Maybe it was a big moment in the play and they wanted to keep it?

A faithful adaptation of the play is, frankly, unimaginable with the cast and production of the film. Voice of the Turtle plays like a strange attempt at big budget slapstick. The production values are mostly great. The sets, the backlot street scenes. The frequent projection composites, transporting Reagan and Parker to New York City locations, don’t come off. But Sol Polito’s photography is nice regardless. And Rapper isn’t a bad director. He does really well when Turtle isn’t in its “stage setting,” Parker’s apartment. Once they’re in the apartment, Rapper directs everything like its funny, even when it’s not. Nothing when it shouldn’t be, but the script introduces Parker’s eccentric neatness tendencies (way too late) and Rapper seems to think it’s the best physical comedy ever.

It’s not. It’s not even funny. In the context of the narrative, given how upset Parker is during some of the sequences, it’d be insensitive if Rapper weren’t generally oblivious with how to direct the apartment sequences. Reagan and Parker share sad faces, hugs, kisses, and comic setpieces. Everything comes off contrived, which Reagan and Parker help counteract.

Second-billed Parker is the lead. Reagan only gets one real scene to himself–a walk in front of a projection of Central Park–but neither of them gets much to do. Parker gets more because she’s also got this subplot involving getting a role with a lecherous middle-aged actor and being oblivious. It’s diverting, because Parker playing a solvent but unsuccessful actress is interesting, while her being sad over scummy ex-boyfriend Kent Smith dumping her isn’t interesting. For the first forty, Parker nevers get to lead a scene, she’s always playing backup to Smith, Eve Arden, or Reagan. But the first forty minutes are somehow more successful, just due to lack of ambition. It’s a comedy of errors.

Sure, the errors involve Arden dumping visiting soldier Reagan because a better prospect is in town (Wayne Morris) and Parker getting stuck entertaining him, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be risque. Arden gives it the right amount of wink and Parker plays along.

Parker’s good. She never has a particularly great moment. The third act is particularly rough, with Reagan getting better stuff to do. Parker just gets to clean. One can only imagine how good she would’ve been in the play.

Reagan’s likable without ever being particularly appealing. He does slightly better with romantic sincerity than he does with the initially jilted booty call. He has no sense of comic timing, which doesn’t end up hurting the film since Rapper doesn’t have any either.

The supporting cast is either fine or negligible enough not to make a difference. Arden’s fine–she’s good in the first twenty, but the script turns her into a caricature (as far as dialogue, maybe not intention) for the last hour. It’s too bad. Morris is a little too absurd. Smith doesn’t have his full part–in the play, he’s married and Parker’s his mistress; in the movie, he’s just a moustached jerk. Still, if he did have more of a part, Smith probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. He’s doltish.

John Emery has an awesome scene. It probably would’ve been great if he and Parker could have implied premarital sex existed, but instead, it’s just fun.

Max Steiner’s score is way too much. He goes overboard trying to give the romance some melodramatic musical flare, amping it up to the point it comes off inappropriate. It’s too much, given how lightly Rapper and the script approach things.

The Voice of the Turtle is charming thanks to its leads and the nice production values. Knowing about the play explains many incongruities, but doesn’t excuse Rapper, Van Druten, and Hoffman’s failures to fix them. With Parker, Reagan, and Arden, it wouldn’t have been hard to produce a solid, innocuous, slight comedy.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Rapper; screenplay by John Van Druten and Charles Hoffman, based on the play by Van Druten; director of photography, Sol Polito; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Hoffman; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Eleanor Parker (Sally Middleton), Ronald Reagan (Sergeant Bill Page), Eve Arden (Olive Lashbrooke), Kent Smith (Kenneth Bartlett), Wayne Morris (Comm. Ned Burling), John Emery (George Harrington), and John Holland (Henry Atherton).


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