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Big, Big Movies This Week

George Wolf George Wolf Big, Big Movies This WeekZack Snyder's Justice League - Photo via IMDb
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Chalk one up to fan service this week, but if four hours of improved storytelling and mustache removal is not up your alley, fear not. There’s a lot opening on big screens and small that’s worth a look. Here’s the skinny.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

On HBO Max

by George Wolf

No matter what you thought of Justice League 1.0, the mere arrival of this “Snyder Cut” is fascinating on multiple levels.

It’s more than the Everest of fan service. There just isn’t any way Snyder’s DCEU epic – this version of it anyway – would exist without the Snyder/Whedon mashup mess of 2017.

It’s four freaking hours, people! You think Snyder’s gonna get that (and the extra millions for reshoots) without the whole hashtag campaign? But while the extended time and money giveth, they also taketh away, meaning that first JL debacle can take some ironic credit for all that’s better – and worse – about round two.

But it is indeed better.

More than anything, it’s a singular vision. The first was nothing if not a super-sized compromise, but this is Snyder unbound, no compromises. The 4:3 format is enriched with greatly improved CGI, specifically the “armor of scales” appearance of Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), the underwater depths of Atlantis and the complete absence of Superman’s (Henry Cavill, again a perfect Clark Kent) distractingly altered upper lip.

The character development – as you would hope with this run time – is much more satisfying, especially with the two justice leaguers we know the least: Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

And while truly important moments (Superman’s death and rebirth, for example) get the extra time they need to resonate, Snyder can still linger too long (those mini music videos, ugh) when he could be moving on.

Ben Affleck reminds you he’s a fine grizzled Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets more badass moments and fewer leering camera angels, and at its core, the basic plot remains the same. Steppenwolf is seeking to unite the three “mother boxes” that will conquer another world for his master Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter). But with the nurturing of return characters and the welcome appearance of new ones (like Darkseid), the chaptered storytelling feels more natural and complete.

Yes, it is dark and brooding, and this League may hold the mother lode of daddy issues, but it never becomes tedious. And while you can’t quite call it fun, it is super, and heroic, and sometimes thrilling.

The stinger (actually an epilogue)? It’s a humdinger (nothing rhymes with epilogue), one that will more than satisfy the die hards while setting a major hook for more justice, darkly served.

Grade: B-

City of Lies

In theaters

by George Wolf

After nearly three years of lawsuits, allegations, finger-pointing and false starts, City of Lies lands in theaters as an engrossing attempt to untangle a web of conspiracy.

Based on LAbyrinth, Randall Sullivan’s non-fiction best-seller about the investigations into the murders of Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (aka Biggie Smalls/Notorious B.I.G), the film leans on stellar performances and solid construction to advance its very clear agenda.

Johnny Depp stars as Russell Poole, the LAPD detective who collaborated on the book, with Forest Whitaker as journalist “Jack” Jackson, a fictional character modeled after Sullivan.

It was Poole’s belief that members of the LAPD conspired with Death Row Records mogul “Suge” Knight to murder both iconic rappers. Poole’s case is not a simple one, but director Brad Furman and first-time screenwriter Christian Contreras are able to deconstruct it and then reassemble the parts with a satisfying amount of thriller intrigue.

Employing shifting timelines and a touch of voiceover narration from Depp, Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer, The Infiltrator) and Contreras find numerous avenues to inform us organically. As the case does come to resemble “a riddle inside an enigma,” our own sense of discovery in consistently nurtured, which naturally increases our investment in what Poole is selling.

Depp and Whitaker make their characters’ gradually increased trust authentic and well-earned, though some of the film’s period detail (especially in the wig and makeup dept.) isn’t exactly on point.

More curious is Furman’s late game decision – just when similarities to JFK are impossible to ignore – to roll out some grainy, slow motion footage that feels wildly misplaced.

And, much like Oliver Stone’s playbook in 1991, there is little interest in leaving equal time for rebutting Poole’s conclusions. Armed with strong accusations that hardly seem like a stretch anymore, this is a film with a complicated story it wants you to hear – and hopefully believe.

But believe it or don’t, City of Lies tells that story in a compelling fashion that doesn’t waste your time.

Grade: B+

The Courier

In theaters

by Hope Madden

Your regular Joe Schmo can do anything. He can save the world. He can even learn to love ballet.

Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) was a garden variety salesman in England in 1960, right about the time a highly decorated Soviet leader and member of Khruschev’s inner circle found a clever way to announce to the right people in the West that he wanted to share intel.

Think of The Courier as England’s version of Bridge of Spies, sort of. There’s even some cast in common.

Essentially it is a solidly-made if tight-lipped political thriller about an unlikely duo racing against time to save humanity.

A bit like The Imitation Game. (Again, cast in common.)

Director Dominic Cooke has had remarkable success directing the British stage. His first foray into features, 2017’s On Chesil Beach, suffered from a choice to keep the protagonists at arm’s length. The same problem hampers the effectiveness of The Courier.

Merab Ninidze does what he can to come closer. As Oleg Penkovsky, or Alex, as his friend Greville calls him, Ninidze finds opportunities for the character to surrender to his own warm nature. He gives the Russian “traitor” a tenderness and heart that brightens even the greyest scenes.

Cumberbatch is characteristically solid, his demeanor just the right mixture of vanity, insecurity and good-natured humility to make him the perfect salesman. Likewise, Jessie Buckley (Oscar-worthy in last year’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) provide spot-on support as Greville’s wife and CIA contact, respectively.

The true story itself is tragic, astonishing and in need of public airing. We should know that these men existed and what we owe them. But regardless of a slew of sharp performances, Cooke plays it too safe, leaving us with little to remember.

There is nothing wrong with The Courier. It’s well made and informative. Which is to say, it’s kind of a waste of a great cast and an even better story.

Grade: B-

Martha: A Picture Story

Streaming

by Phil Garrett

We have certain expectations when it comes to documentaries. Maybe we expect to be informed, enlightened, sometimes moved, and when we’re really lucky, taken on a journey that both surprises and delights us. That’s the case with Selina Miles’ Martha: A Picture Story.

In Martha, Miles has crafted a multi-layered film that paints a vivid portrait of photographer Martha “Marty” Cooper as an artist who is, above all else, true to herself. We also see Cooper as a pioneer from 1963 when at the age of 20 she joined the Peace Corps to be able to “take pictures in foreign places,” followed by her solo motorcycle ride from Thailand to England, her role as the first female intern at National Geographic, and her position as the first female staff photographer at the New York Post in the 1970s.

The heart of the film is Cooper’s personal history of her work in photographing the graffiti scene in New York City of the 70s and 80s, which took it from a national phenomenon to a global phenomenon. Miles goes further in shining a light on the origins of hip-hop culture, the casitas and community gardens that sprouted in vacant lots of a city trying to rebuild itself, and Sowebo, Southwest Baltimore as an impoverished neighborhood on the cusp of gentrification. Cooper photographed it all and we learn that her work is virtually the only meaningful documentation of some cultures.

As Steve Zeitlin, Founder of City Lore at the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture puts it in the film, “She’s photographing these corners of life which are often forgotten about. Having that record of how people lived is important. That’s the only way that we have of transcending time. And the only thing we’ll have to go back to is the record that Marty left.”

In the early 80s, Cooper teamed up with photographer Henry Chalfant. Both were attracted to the vibrant graffiti scene and as Cooper puts it, “He was very interested in the art and I was interested in the culture.” Their combined efforts in capturing the art form gave rise to the book, Subway Art, released in 1984 by a German publisher. While the book was a financial loss in its time, it inspired generations of new artists over the following decades and changed visual culture all over the world. Many street artists refer to it as their Bible.

Miles’ filmmaking style parallels and complements Cooper’s story: it’s kinetic and holds our interest. Tight and artful editing keeps the story moving. The music score supports and elevates Miles’ telling of the story of Cooper’s work and her global impact on generations of people and artists worldwide. The contemporary footage, much of which was shot by Miles herself, grounds the film and shows Cooper at the age of 75, still shooting pictures on the street, meeting fans, and even accompanying German graffiti artists on illegal, clandestine hits, racing along with them as they tag subway tunnels and train yards.

Together, Miles and Cooper explore themes such as accepting when something has run its course, the sidelining of marginalized cultures, and the ongoing battle over what is valued as art. At one point, Cooper tells us, “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or icon.”

It’s clear from Miles’ film that she’s both.

Grade: A+

Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker

Streaming in Gateway Film Center’s Virtual Screening Room

by Hope Madden

Maybe you don’t know who David Wojnarowicz is. Maybe you have no idea how to pronounce his name. It might be safer to butcher the provocative late artist’s last name (voy-nah-ROYH-vitch) than to read the title of director Chris McKim’s documentary aloud—Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker.

It doesn’t really matter what you call it as long as you see it.

The film primarily uses Wojnarowicz’s own recordings, photos and paintings to let him tell his story. A profound influence on New York’s art scene in the 1980s and into the ‘90s, the multimedia artist’s work delivered among the earliest and most startling images of queer art in the city.

McKim had a lot to work with. Wojnarowicz made hundreds of audio cassettes, recording his thoughts in a sometimes wounded monotone. The stream of conscious monologues often dip into the outright poetic and create a poignant soundtrack for the life and work on display.

The documentarian does enlist some additional voices, including friend Fran Lebowitz and frequent collaborator Marion Schemama, but relies mainly on Wojnarowicz’s own visuals to create the sense of isolation, alienation and anger that fueled much of his work.

Wojnarowicz and his work, as well as his death, became a focal point of the mishandled AIDS epidemic that scars the politics and history of the 1980s.

In much the way Wojnarowicz’s work reflected his hellish upbringing and time on the streets, McKim’s film contextualizes the artist among that which he influenced: a city, a movement, a scene, politics, and other artists.

As is crucial in a doc about a visual artist, the screen is routinely filled to the brim with Wojnarowicz’s creations. Powerful, inflammatory, sexually explicit and unmistakably challenging, the work itself looms large in the documentary as if to ensure that it reaches out to as many as possible who forgot, never knew, or may have been kept from it.

Grade: A

The Tangle

Streaming

by Brandon Thomas

The Tangle introduces us to a future world controlled by AI where people spend their time jacked into an Eden-esque reality. Information is widely available just by thinking it or asking aloud, and acts of violence are impossible to commit.

When a government agent turns up dead in a locked safe room, her fellow agents (writer/director Christopher Soren Kelly and Jessica Graham) must find out how and why the first murder in years was committed right under their noses. 

We now live in a cinematic world where science fiction is more than just large-scale films. Star Trek, The Matrix, 2001 – all of these films have left a lasting impact on the genre. However, small, en vogue movies like Primer and Coherence have wowed audiences with their big ideas despite having budgets that would have only covered catering on Interstellar. The Tangle strives to be one of the latter films with its budget-friendly thinking and world building.

The sci-fi of The Tangle isn’t overtly flashy, nor is it original. Driverless cars roam the streets, and avatars are a common use for those plugged into the Tangle itself. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before. The minimalism works to the film’s advantage as the audience is given more time to focus on theme and character. Sure, it’s fun to “ooh” and “aah” at spectacle, but this isn’t the kind of story Soren Kelly is telling. 

The Tangle comes alive as it leans into its more noir-ish elements. Despite the sci-fi window dressing, the film is a mystery through and through.

The classic noir trappings are apparent in nearly every scene. A sizable chunk of the movie takes place in a dimly lit room as the agents interrogate a suspect. The costume design has nods to the noir classics of the 1940s and ’50s, and the dialogue is snappy and cool. You could almost imagine a trenchcoat-clad Robert Mitchum delivering a few of these monologues. 

In a film this exposition-heavy, it’s important to have a cast that’s up to the challenge. While the leads in The Tangle aren’t household names, they more than hold their own with this tricky, tech-laden script. The cast might be the film’s secret weapon, bringing a sincerity that makes the movie work. There’s not an ounce of camp in any of their performances and that’s exactly what this material is asking for.

While not a groundbreaking entry into the sci-fi genre, The Tangle manages to impress with clever execution, a committed cast, and a fun noir twist.

Grade: B+

Koko-di Koko-da

On Shudder

by Matt Weiner

What about Groundhog Day, but with unrelenting psychological dread? That’s the premise of Johannes Nyholm’s horror fable Koko-di, Koko-da, and it’s a testament to writer/director Nyholm that the film’s excruciating time loop manages to go from torturous to therapeutic.

After a family vacation takes a shocking turn, Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) lose themselves in their own private grief, their marriage one submerged argument away from total annihilation. What better time for a camping trip in the foreboding Swedish forests to get that old magic back?

Their unresolved trauma starts to literally stalk the couple in the shape of three carnivalesque figures, with each nightmare encounter ending the same way: some gruesome death, and then Tobias wakes up to repeat the loop all over again.

The horror of Koko-di Koko-da rarely gets gory. Tobias and Elin continually suffer extreme violence and torture, but it’s all (thankfully) implied. Instead, what’s so unnerving about the film is the inescapable dream logic that suffuses their fateful loop: no matter how hard Tobias tries or how fast he runs, it’s only a matter of time before the first strains of the fateful nursery rhyme on which the title is based start up, and the couple’s shared torture begins anew.

The film’s main down side is that we aren’t allowed to see or know much beyond the confines of this inexorable—and unrelenting—loop. And once the metaphor is clear, there’s little else to do besides feel like an eavesdropper in a long overdue couples therapy session. (An unconventional one, sure, with more murder and animal attacks than the APA likely recommends, but who knows what they get up to in Sweden.)

Still, it’s impossible not to feel for the grieving pair. Anyone deserves some kind of catharsis after enduring such tragedy, and both Edlund and Gallon manage to make it feel earned, even with their thinly detailed characters.

Koko-di Koko-da is not a pleasant film to watch, but it is often a beautiful one. And it lays bare the truth that there’s no escaping misery in life—that the only way to break the cycle is to confront it, pain and all.

Grade: B+

Slaxx

On Shudder

by Hope Madden

Does anybody remember those old Shrink to fit only you 501 jeans ads? They are creepier now.

Absurdism meets consumerism in co-writer/director Elza Kephart’s bloody comedy, Slaxx.

Brightly lit and colorful CCC clothing store—offering high priced garments that are sustainably sourced without sweatshops, GMOs, or any other unsightly thing—is on shutdown to prep for the 8 a.m. onslaught as their new line of jeans finally hits the market.

It’s not just any jeans. This denim adjusts to your body and makes you look even more glorious than you already do. And these jeans fit every single figure, from 5 pounds underweight to 5 pounds overweight. It’s a dream come true.

Also, they kill you. Their zipper might bite your hand off, the legs might slip around your neck like a noose, or the waist might just slice you in two.

Kephart is not the first filmmaker to animate bloodthirsty clothing. Peter Strickland’s 2018 treasure In Fabric followed a red dress wantonly slaughtering its wearers, while Yong-gyun Kim gave us murderous shoes in 2005’s The Red Shoes. And who can forget Martin Walz’s 1996 glory Killer Condom? (Well, no, they’re not clothes, but you do wear them.)

CCC is the type of trendy clothier that uses terms like ecosystem to define different sections of the store. Kephart’s message is that this kind of establishment is as dedicated to capitalism as any other form, and therefore it enslaves those working at the store, those working for the store before product makes it to their shelves, and even those who show up in hordes to purchase those wares.

Where Romero mainly pointed fingers at the hordes mindlessly drawn to stores like CCC, Kephart sees the villains as those perpetuating clean corporate hypocrisy. Still, it’s their customers and workers she murders—by the pantload.

Profoundly typical in its structure, Slaxx still has fun with its kills and characters. Romane Denis is likeably earnest as the teen on her first night at work, while Brett Donahue’s broad stroke sycophant boss fits into the general tone of the film.

Sehar Bhojani steals every scene as the cynical Shruti, but the jeans are the real stars here. Kephart finds endlessly entertaining ways to sic them on unsuspecting wearers.

Kephart can’t overcome tonal confusion once she and co-scribe Patricia Gomez uncover the source of the jeans’ power. The filmmakers are unable to balance the serious nature of this curse with the brightly colored bloodbath of the previous 80 minutes.

But it was fun while it lasted.

Grade: B-

Follow George and Hope on twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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