Reel Opinions

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Zack Snyder's Justice League

By all accounts, Zack Snyder's Justice League sounds like an impossibility.  It's a four hour long director's cut of a film that back in 2017 rolled over and died with critics and at the box office  When reviewing the version that played in theaters four years ago (which I have not watched since then), I called it a "big, dumb lumbering dinosaur of a movie that is as soulless as a blockbuster can get", and further described it as "a lifeless, dreary experience designed to trick bored teenagers into thinking they're watching something worthwhile".  I stand by these comments.  I also now stand by my belief that this new take on the material is a superior film in every way imaginable.  

By now, the backstory behind this movie is as famous as the origin stories of the individual superheroes who appear in it.  While filming Justice League, director Zack Snyder found himself frequently butting heads with the higher ups at Warner Bros.  The studio heads had been disappointed by the overall box office take that Snyder's Batman v. Superman had brought in, as well as by the largely muted response by the fans.  Snyder wanted to complete his complex cinematic vision that he had set up in previous films, while the studio wanted something lighter and more marketable.  When Snyder's daughter tragically died in early 2017, he left the production, and filmmaker Joss Whedon (who was responsible for the first two Avengers movies) was brought in to not only finish the film, but take it in the completely different direction that the studio wanted.  

The film that wound up playing on screens was a literal Frankenstein's Monster of two conflicting visions.  Only a small portion of Snyder's original film was in the final cut.  The rest were the results of massive reshoots under Whedon's studio-mandated watch, which included a lot more action, a lot of out of place and inappropriate humor, and rushed special effects that led to the dreary, ugly and downright incoherent experience that audiences rejected.  After the disappointment of the theatrical cut, word quickly began to spread on the Internet that a rough cut of Snyder's true vision did exist.  Passionate fans, and even some of the stars of the film who were disappointed with the end theatrical result, started a massive campaign to finish the original film and release it.  Like I said, going back to finish and put together a director's cut of a 300 million dollar box office bomb sounds like absolute insanity.  And yet, thanks to the HBOMax streaming service, here it is at last.  A 4-hour vision of the movie we were originally supposed to get. 

Zack Snyder's Justice League tells basically the same story that the theatrical version did, only much better.  The narrative has been tightened with much better character development.  These famous heroes like Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Superman (Henry Cavill), The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) are now given room to breathe and be memorable characters, instead of engaging in non-stop and uninteresting CG battles, while exchanging weak one-liners with each other like they did before.  It's especially notable in the case of Cyborg, whose tragic storyline was but a mere afterthought in the original cut, but here is greatly expanded on to the point that he is now one of the more memorable characters of the film.  The scope of the film has also been expanded, giving us a much better glimpse at just what Snyder was trying to do not just with this film, but with his Cinematic Universe based on the D.C. Comics.  

Even the villain, an alien by the name of Steppenwolf (voice by Ciaran Hinds), is better used here, as his plot and motivations for searching out the three Mother Boxes have been greatly expanded on and make much more sense.  What once came across as a generic "I will rule the world" villain is now fleshed out, as we finally get to learn more about his intentions and backstory.  It's not anything deep or powerful, mind you, but it makes a world of difference when you actually see where the villain is coming from.  He still hangs around with those ParaDemons, who like before, are CG bug people who look and act like targets in a video game.  It's true, this director's cut does not correct all of the original film's problems.  But this is such a more tightly focused, cleanly edited, and better told story that any imperfections seem small in comparison.  It also helps that the film is better to look at, as the special effects artists had adequate time to bring their vision to life, unlike the theatrical version where they were under a gun to get the newly shot Whedon footage done in just a few months.

It's not just the plot that has been cleared up and changed.  Many of the hokey jokes that were demanded to be added by the studio are now gone.  Batman no longer cracks wise, and the embarrassing scene where The Flash wound up face-planting into Wonder Woman's breasts is gone too.  There still is time for the occasional joke here, but the movie takes itself much more seriously than before, and carries an overall somber and heavy tone that seems fitting for the stakes that are being placed on these heroes.  The film is also now R-rated, and while it includes more violence and a couple scattered F-Bombs work their way into the dialogue, this is nowhere near the level of say Deadpool, and it probably could have squeaked on by with a PG-13 if the filmmakers wanted to.  Regardless, it really is impressive just how this version fixes most of the problems, while still telling essentially the same story.  It's basically an example of it's not the story, but rather who is telling it.

Given the troubled history behind the film, and the recent allegations being raised about Joss Whedon reportedly being abusive on the set, it's especially amazing just how well this four hour director's cut has come together.  Like I said, it's still not without its problems, as most of the fight scenes still feature way too much CG to be believable.  But still, the way that Zack Snyder's Justice League has gone back and fixed many of the narrative problems and plot holes that plagued the original deserves praise.  It also leaves fans with a lot of questions as to just where this Cinematic Universe was supposed to go next, as the film's epilogue hints at a lot of possibilities.  Who knows, maybe the studio will be inspired to go back and finish what was supposed to be.  People used to think it was crazy to dream we would ever see this movie the way it was intended finished after all.


Sunday, March 07, 2021

Raya and the Last Dragon

Raya and the Last Dragon
gives us some beautiful animation, wonderfully realized action sequences, and a lavish fantasy world called Kumandra, which is inspired by and largely steeped in Southeast Asian influences.  I'm always intrigued when movies create an entirely new world that I haven't seen before in films, and this one certainly grabbed my attention.  If the plot and the characters seem to sway a bit too closely to the familiar Disney formula, at least there is still plenty new here in terms of visuals to hold the audience's attention.

Disney's newest heroine is Raya (voice by Kelly Marie Tran), a girl who can disable temple booby traps like Indiana Jones, is skilled with a sword and in martial arts, and is a self-described "dragon nerd".  Her world of Kumandra was once united and peaceful, and the people lived among powerful dragons who watched over them.  But one day, an evil force known as the Druun appeared.  The Druun are dark, rolling cloud-like forms of matter that turn anyone they touch into stone instantly, and have slowly transformed Kumandra into a dying wasteland over time.  The united nations of the world have now separated, and eye each other suspiciously.  The dragons have also disappeared over time.  All that remains of the dragons is an ancient gem that sits in Raya's kingdom, and is guarded over by her father, Benja (Daniel Dae Kim).  Said gem is the only thing that can seemingly hold back the Druun, and all the other kingdoms wish to possess it.

However, Benja believes that the time has come for the divided kingdoms to unite once again and take the world back to what it was before.  He invites his warring neighbors into his palace, hoping to bring about a new era.  Raya goes along with her father's plan for peace, and even befriends the daughter of one rival ruler, Namaari (Gemma Chan).  However, it turns out that Namaari's friendship is all a ruse in order to get access to the powerful dragon stone.  Her actions, and the events that follow, cause the mystical gem to be separated into multiple pieces, and for Raya to lose both her kingdom and her father to the Druun on the same day.  Flash forward six years later, and Raya is now a hardened warrior princess with trust issues, who rides across the wastelands of her world on top of her giant animal friend Tuk Tuk (Alan Tudyk), who resembles a cross between a pill-bug and an armadillo.  She is searching for the location of the last remaining dragon, who she believes is sealed away in a cave somewhere, and to get its help in restoring the shattered gem in order to save her world.

Raya and the Last Dragon is filled with sights we have never seen before.  The world of Kumandra itself is consistently fascinating, and I especially love how each of the separate kingdoms seem to have their own motif and theme.  There's a marketplace city, there's one that was once populated by battle-hardened soldiers before the Druun turned it into an abandoned husk of its former glory, and their are kingdoms that are praised for their beauty and culture.  It helps with the overall theme of a divided world how each of the separate nations seem to have their own culture and beliefs.  As I already mentioned, the movie's world and structure is heavily based on Southeast Asian culture, which has never really been represented in a mainstream Hollywood film before, let alone a Disney animated one.  This not only gives us some awe-inspiring settings like forest shrines and snow-topped mountains with visible fog, but it allows audiences to experience an entirely new culture.

For all of its wondrous settings and imaginative spin on Asian folklore, the story sticks a bit too close to Disney traditions.  It's a bit disappointing, but probably not surprising.  During her quest, Raya does meet the legendary and titular last surviving dragon, Sisu (Awkawfina), and it is a comic relief sidekick in the style of Mushu from Mulan, or the Genie in Aladdin.  It's not that the character or Awkawfina's voice over performance are bad, as she actually does get off some good one-liners.  It's just you can instantly see the familiar Disney influence being plugged into what was up to now a fairly daring animated adventure film.  Raya also gathers a small band of followers who join her in her quest, who don't seem quite as developed as they should be.  They seem to join up with her mere minutes after she encounters them, and with not much motivation.  With the movie's world-hopping narrative in search for pieces of a shattered gem, and a plucky group of comical ragtag characters coming along for the ride, it doesn't take long for the movie to feel a bit overly familiar, despite the amazing sights.

Please don't see this as me brushing off the film, as I do think it's worth watching simply for the visuals alone.  And Raya herself makes for a strong, likable heroine who has to overcome her issues with trusting others if she wants to fulfill her father's wishes for a united and peaceful world.  These elements are enough to lift the film above any disappointment that the familiarity of the Disney formula brings.  There are also no musical numbers here, the film instead deciding to take the tone of a straightforward fantasy-adventure film.  Rather than elaborate music sequences like in the Frozen films, the emphasis here is on involving action sequences and sword fights, all of which are choreographed beautifully.  There's a lot to get excited about here, just expect some familiar elements that come with the Disney territory to go along with it.

The ultimate question surrounding Raya and the Last Dragon is if it is worth the extra charge to watch.  While it is playing in what few theaters are currently open, most will have to settle for the Disney+ streaming service, which is hiding the film behind a "Premiere Access" fee of an extra $30, even if you are a subscriber.  It will eventually become free to all subscribers in a few months, and I say wait if you can.  It's a fine film, but nowhere near great enough to warrant the extra price to the viewer.


Saturday, March 06, 2021

Coming 2 America

There are sequels that exist to continue a film's story, and there are also sequels that exist to repeat the same successful formula as before.  And then there are sequels like Coming 2 America, which largely play on the nostalgia audiences hold for the original, and repeat the same ideas and gags, only in a different setting.  I'm sure these kind of movies are fun for the actors to make.  They get to reunite with their characters and co-stars after a long time has passed (in this case, 33 years), and the set probably has the vibe of a reunion.  Too bad all the audience gets to do is watched the diminished returns of the movie itself.

You know a movie is lazy when it feels like roughly 40% of the jokes are taken directly from the original script, and they seem fresher than the new jokes that it attempts.  You know a movie is really lazy when it resorts to showing you clips from the first movie in different scenes.  And you know a movie has completely given up when you give two characters an entire conversation about Hollywood sequels, and how lame it is that they just repeat a successful formula from years ago.  Just like 1988's Coming to America, this film combines a fish out of water story with a sweet, old fashioned romantic comedy.  At the time, it marked Eddie Murphy's first attempt at a romantic lead, and it genuinely worked.  This time, the romantic plot is centered on a young couple new to this sequel, and the sparks are just not there.  The original couple of Murphy and Shari Headley are here too, but are mostly relegated to forgettable subplots, and don't get to share the chemistry that we remember.

As the film opens, we are reunited with Prince Akeem (Murphy) of Zamunda, who is about to become the ruler of his African Kingdom, as his father King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) is on his deathbed.  The King is not hopeful about his son's chances at being a ruler, and believes that Akeem will be assassinated within a week after taking his throne.  After a lavish and celebrity cameo-filled funeral for the former King, Akeem finds himself facing a dire situation for his kingdom.  The neighboring nation of Nextdooria (ho, ho) is threatening to invade Zamunda, and its insane war lord ruler General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) says the only way to prevent the attack is if the two countries are united by an arranged marriage.  Izzi has a daughter who is ready to wed someone from the Zamunda Royal Family, but the only problem is that Akeem only has three daughters, and it is law that a male heir must sit on the throne.  

Luckily, there might be a solution.  When Akeem visited Queens, New York in order to find his true love some 30 years ago in the original film, we learn that he encountered two women during a night of bar-hopping, and that one of them drugged him and forced herself on him.  Yes, that's right, the screenwriters have decided to dilute the memories fans have of the original by adding an element of date rape that was conveniently never mentioned before.  If that's not a horrific way to add a plot element, I don't know what is.  Turns out the woman from long ago, Mary (Leslie Jones), has a son named Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), and that he is Akeem's long-lost son.  Now King Akeem and his faithful friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) must return to America in order to track down Lavelle, and convince him to marry the General's daughter in order to save Zamunda.  

Even though Murphy is the top-billed star in Coming 2 America, the real story revolves around Lavelle and him learning that he is of a Royal bloodline.  We follow him as he learns about Zamunda and its culture, as well as how he slowly begins to fall in love with his groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha), rather than with the woman that he is being arranged to marry.  Not only is the whole "follow your heart" storyline recycled from the original, but the character of Lavelle and the performance by Fowler just simply are not able to hold the attention of the audience.  He lacks the innocent comedic charm that Murphy had in spades back in 88, and his relationship with the lovely Mirembe has no real passion.  They fall in love simply as a plot convenience, not because they share any real chemistry or personality.  Lavelle and his crude, obnoxious family (who often act like they stepped out of a Tyler Perry comedy) are the main focus here, while Murphy and his returning co-stars mainly get to react to their antics.  Something tells me that's not what fans were expecting from this sequel.

To combat this, we get a lot of throwbacks and repeats of the same jokes from the first movie.  The old men at the barber shop (who are once again all portrayed by Murphy and Hall) are still arguing about boxing, there's a return performance from the band Sexual Chocolate, we learn that McDowell's restaurant is still around and just barely avoiding lawsuits from a more famous fast food chain, and when all else fails, the movie will simply resort to clips from the original movie in order to stir up memories.  All of this simply rams two points home.  1:) The writers were grasping at straws to play up on any nostalgia whatsoever, and 2:) The original probably didn't need a follow up in the first place.  It was a perfectly self-sustained movie that left no lingering questions unanswered.  This is a sequel that never bothers to answer why it needed to be made in the first place, outside of corporate greed.

The only reason to watch Coming 2 America is for the costumes, which are admittedly beautiful, and this is also a lovely film to look at most of the time.  It's been beautifully helmed by director Craig Brewer, who worked with Murphy on his last film, Dolemite is My Name.  Maybe the studio thought reteaming the two would cause lightning to strike twice.  The difference is that previous movie had a real script that had been carefully thought out.  This script is simply soulless, shameless, and unnecessary. 


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