Category Archives: Reviews

Justice League

It’s hard to pin blame on any single person for a film that seems so overly created by committee. In a recent interview, David Fincher spoke honestly about making movies in today’s content over substance moviemaking reality: “The reality of moviemaking, y’know, it’s a rat fuck. Every day is a skirmish”. While Justice League is no Fincher film, it does feels like the wrong side won most, if not all, of the skirmishes, and audiences, whether they like it or not, are the ultimate losers in this face off.

Warner Brothers’ Justice League is the second film this year set within the DCEU, and the continuation of the long-form narrative setup previously in Man Of Steel and Batman VS Superman… (what? No I don’t want to say the whole… OK FINE!) DAWN OF JUSTICE. Luckily for them Wonder Woman has become an overwhelming success (rightfully so) otherwise Warner Brothers and the filmmakers who have been entrusted with overseeing this universe over the past several films may have found themselves in quite the dilemma: Box Office success aside, how does a series continue when the content is just so…uninteresting.

The film begins in the wake of a world grappling with the loss of Superman, its hero and savior, who, in Batman VS Superman…UGH!…Dawn of Justice!, was being vilified for the mass destruction depicted in Man Of Steel. There is a global sense of fear at the loss of this otherworldly christ-figure that reawakens an ancient alien destroyer named Steppenwolf, who makes his return, searching for amorphous cubes that were once used to create a literal hell on earth. Once upon a time, however, the forces of good; The Amazonians (as depicted in Wonder Woman), The Atlanteans (sea people) and the First Men (vikings? wildlings? I don’t know) fought off this evil villain, splitting the cubes up and dividing them up, vowing to protect them from falling into the hands of this evil force. Until now. But times have changed, protecting this stuff has wained, making it easier for Steppenwolf to return, decimating the strongholds and making his dream of turning Earth into his own private hell on earth. What could possibly stop him?! Only supreme-superman-fan Bruce Wayne knows enough to search the worlds end for a new united front of heroes, and when the richest vigilante wants to assemble a team, he’ll stop at nothing to bring it together. CUE WHITE STRIPES MONTAGE!!!

What follows, unfortunately, is a slapdash mess of a film that, despite being one of the better of the previous DCEU films, can’t escape the bipolarity of having two directorial visions forced into one. Justice League was to be Zack Snyder’s third complete film in this newly revamped DC movie series, but was forced to take a leave midway due to a family tragedy. WB brought in Joss Whedon to oversee reshoots and he shares co-screenwriter credit on the film. The result is a film filled with so many breakneck pivots from humorous buddy antics to end-of-the-world melodrama that left this viewer sore from whiplash.

And while Batman’s assembled league of justice, which includes a mostly CGI Cyborg, The Flash, and Aquaman in all his bro-ed out glory, can hold their ground against Steppenwolf, they find themselves severely lacking in the sheer, brute optimism department. Thus a plan is hatched to resurrect the savior they’ve pined after all this time; Superman. Cue one of the oddest grave-digging scenes of a perfectly intact kryptonian corpses ever caught on film immediately followed by an absurdly unnecessary showdown (AGAIN!) between Kal-El and the rest of the League before finally Lois Lane, because of course her only purpose in this film is to be the one thing that can calm Superman, seeing as how in his previous two films Superman has been depicted as nothing more than a hot-tempered, mama’s boy who only cares about his intrepid girlfriend. Eventually Superman rallies back to help save the world. Or at least some stock, vaguely Russian (or are they Ukrainian?) family that’s in the line of sight of Steppenwolf.

The world within these films, much like DC Films itself, can’t quite seem to figure out how it wants to treat its heroes, most of all Superman. Is he hero, villain, or both? The film wastes no time in getting to the “assembly” without giving the audience any time to get its bearings with the events of both Yawn of Justice, Man Of Steel or Wonder Woman. Say what you will about Marvel’s long-form serial storytelling that comes across as more episodic than cinematic, but I rarely find myself desperate for a recap when viewing the latest entry they offer, It says something about a sequel when I can’t even recall anything from previous films that were important to the plot. Not to mention Steppenwolf, a villain completely void of any presence because it isn’t some alien world he’s from, but rather conjured up from ones and zeros and a multitude of polygons.  When the primary villain of the centerpiece film in this “universe” is introduced, two films ago, in a frickin’ deleted scene, online no less, you’re not setting your cinematic universe up for a very successful start. It also doesn’t speak well of the guidance of these characters and this “universe” that your film is already so bloated and overstuffed with action and CGI set-pieces that you don’t have the time to give said super-villain any kind of gravity or depth. The old fogey in me was left longing for the days when we’d see a real life classically trained actor chewing up the scenery under pounds of prosthetics.

Call it too many cooks, call it film-making by rote but there is nary a moment where these characters are given anytime to be human. Movies provide us that opportunity to humanize these (literally) one dimensional characters and yet, there is more pathos and emotion within the slick pages of any DC comic on stands currently than in the entirety of this film’s nearly 2 hour runtime. Even subplots related to Lois Lane or Aquaman, which if given so much as two or three minutes to breath would’ve brought pathos to these one-dimensional characters. Instead we’re assaulted repeatedly with more grimy, CGI chaos at the expense of character development. That’s not to say the film has it’s breakout moments. Much of Ezra Miller’s performance as The Flash brings some much needed lightheartedness to the film, and Jason Mamoa has some enjoyable quips, even if his character’s backstory sinks more than swims. Even if the film wants you to think it’s having a good time, it oftentimes feels like uptight Bruce Wayne sulking from room to room at a party pouting “Hey, I’m having a good time alright”.

That Wonder Woman, in hindsight, can be viewed as the strongest of entries, with so much potential within that film, the emotion, the optimism that Patty Jenkins and team imbued into that film, makes Justice League all the frustrating. And Man Of steel, while not perfect, set up a very well executed re-imagining of the Superman mythos, a reluctant hero thrust into the role of savior, it felt lived in, weathered, scuffed. Justice league squanders what little goodwill Man Of Steel had by reducing its characters to broadly drawn cartoons worthy of a Hannah Barbera cartoon, only not as enjoyable.

Justice League – C-

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by Joss Whedon & Chris Terrio

Mother! Review

 

Mother!

Starring Jennifer Lawrence & Javier Bardem

Written and Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Darren Aronofsky wants you to know the world is in pretty bad shape, and it’s mostly our fault.

Since the surprise announcement that Aronofsky shot the film in secret with Jennifer Lawrence, Mother! has occupied an auspicious space in the 2017 movie landscape. The marketing of the film has been wildly evocative, with its beautiful poster down to the staccato rhythm of its trailer, while at the same time any word on the actual plot details have been all but scarce. And for good reason it seems. The film is quite the challenge to distill, and that’s probably what Aronofsky wanted all along.

Aronofsky is no stranger to unpacking his judaic upbringing. With his debut film PI, he interweaving the tale of a paranoid schizophrenic’s descent into madness with an mystical form of judaism that involves mathematics. In his most recent film, he frequently interweaves figurative and literal interpretation of the old testament Story of Noah and the flood. contrast that with his more humanist films, like The Wrestler and Black Swan, which seem to be void of any of the theological underpinnings of Aronofsky’s more fantastical works, though the latter does have its share of psychic horror rooted in the misery of perfecting one’s art.

With Mother! Aronofsky presents a seemingly humanist story of Him and Mother, Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence respectively, living in their idyllic dream home; a spacious, victorian style home nestled in the woods of some lush hidden wilderness or…paradise? Bardem’s Him, or The Poet as he’s often referred to, finds himself at a creative impasse. Having found success in his earlier writing, but in the throes of a particularly moody bout of writers block. Meanwhile Lawrence’s Mother dutifully fulfills her roles as supportive wife and helpmeet, encouraging him even when he feels her words are mere hollow praise. It’s when they’re visited by a stranger, and soon after, his wife that their bliss is soon interrupted. And things get really strange and intense from there.

With swirling, often drawn out, hand-held cinematography by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky and editor Andrew Weisblum cut the film with a rhythm that with every moment of seeming calm, we, and Mother, are met with an equally frequent and escalating series of anxiety-inducing confrontations and visits by random strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer, notably) that continuously escalate at every turn. Soon the small group of strangers turn into throngs of devotees of the Poet, seeking his guidance, love and affection, exacerbating Lawrence’s unhinged performance to a frenzied climax that finds the Poet and his nine months pregnant wife finding their house being overran by fanatical devotees, both looking for guidance and looking for a piece for themselves.

At first blush Mother! feels steeped in religion. Filled with allusions and biblical highlights that, in Aronofsky’s hands, have been interpreted to their worst, most wretched human degree. But faith aside, Aronofsky is a filmmaker whose body of work frequently explores the notion of obsession, creative ambition, and the ultimate price his characters pay in pursuit of that ambition. In Mother! Aronofsky thrives in mythologizing the Artist as a tortured god-like figure while also taking some very pointed jabs at religion and man’s often petulant devotion to it. Not one to stop there, he throw in a healthy dollop of all-too-topical (and sometimes too on-the-nose) symbolic imagery, and a mob of flesh hungry followers who overstay their (un)-welcome – a sort of Wes Craven’s Discreet Charm of the Religious Bourgeois – it’s enough to make your skin crawl at the thought of your next dinner party.

If there’s anything to complain about Mother!, and I admit this is a stretch, it’s that Aronofsky stuffs the film with an overabundance of themes. An allegorical portrait of a toxic, cancerous religion, a romanticized metaphor of artist-as-martyr and creator, the sacrifice of love and bond with your wife/partner/whatever for the hope that your art finds love and acceptance, and that it too gives love in return. Only to see it taken for granted, abandoned and then destroyed and repeated the process. Aronofsky would argue that art, and existence, is a futile exercise, careening toward a tragic end. It feels exhausting at times, but ultimately Aronofsky delivers a very satisfying, albeit sometimes shocking, experience. Certainly one that this viewer welcomes from an iconoclastic director like Mr. Aronofsky.

****/****
Mother! is now showing at Circle Cinema

-Charles Elmore

deadCENTER 2015 – Calls to Okies

By Joe O’Shansky

Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story

Discovering the legacy of Park Grubbs (“G-r-u-double-b-s.”) is kind of like finding out that Death or Pure Hell were black punk bands that existed before anyone had heard of Bad Brains. Even if you were a Jerky Boys fan, a Roy D. Mercer acolyte, or a regular Crank Yanker, this group of disaffected, prank-calling kids who lived in Bartlesville during the early ‘80s probably never crossed your radar.

The story is an age old one: smart misfits and weirdos finding each other in a boring football town, because they’re not jocks, religious, or even particularly socially acceptable.

Judging by the opening scenes of Call to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story, Bartlesville hasn’t changed much. But during the socially arid, pre-internet ‘80s, intelligent outcasts had to disappear into nerdy, specialized pursuits—to the general indifference of their mainstream peers.

Park Grubbs, collectively, were the geeks who decided to fuck with people.

Under their de facto leader, a Larry the Cable Guy meets Roy D. Mercer alter ego called Park Grubbs (Steve Rapacz), and fueled by no shortage of boredom, friends Rapacz, Jim Blanchard and Kenwick Cook (along with a fellow named Brother Love) scoured newspaper classifieds, prank calling unsuspecting “victims” and recording the results in a series of cassettes that squeeze awkward laughs out of Rapacz’s Mid-Western absurdist improvisation.

Their underground, bootleg exclusivity and subversive nature tangentially aligned the existence of Park Grubbs with the punk movement. A bauble passed between like-minded friends because it’s cool and no one really knows about it, since “it” never had the chance to be appropriated. The infamous tapes were copied far and wide, finding fans in author Daniel Clowes and The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne (who doesn’t really remember them, but hey, there’s a camera).

Calls to Okies occupies a pleasing place between mockumentary (the “reclusive” Grubbs appears early on to disavow his part in the proceedings) and affectionate documentary, even revisiting some of the pranked 30 years later—who are as amiable to talking about their experience as they are baffled that any one remembers or cares.

Directors Bradley Beesley and Ben Steinbauer, with editor Matt Leach, squeeze a hell of a lot of story into 17-minutes while never letting the object of their affection feel truncated. They utilize their time amazingly well, between the interviews with the original members and the more famous fans (including Coyne), and the curated snippets from the original tapes—which feature bravura performances from a then 17-year old Rapacz. If you weren’t a fan, you will be. It’s hard to overstate how well Rapacz captured that character. Comedians twice his age would be envious.

Calls to Okies boasts the look of an attractive and well-made Behind the Music retrospective (meant in the best way possible), complete with songs from The Flaming Lips and Mudhoney. But its true success lies in capturing a slice of life that would otherwise be lost. One that reminds us that creating our own entertainment used to be the norm, and that caller ID sucks.

—Joe O’Shansky

Calls to Okies will screen at Circle Cinema Thursday, August 13 along with The Verdigris: In Search Of Will Rogers, directed by Beau Jennings. Both filmmakers will be present and participate in a Q&A after the screening. You can purchase tickets here.