JUSTICE LEAGUE

DC and Warner Brothers’ Justice League enters the movie-sphere lugging a fair amount of baggage. Wonder Woman — 2017’s previous installment in DC’s extended universe — was a success but the two prior outings — Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — did little to flesh out the world beyond a couple of ill-shaped, somewhat moody, superheroes not quite sure of their place in the world.

While Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), struggled with his powers of supreme deliverance, questioning every ramification of his actions along the way; Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), sought to bring about a fascist-like hold on the criminal justice system and the savior of Metropolis. As the title of the second film suggested, the two tangled, Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), showed up after a century hiding in museums and Lex Luthor’s creation, Doomsday, a.k.a. Poopasaurus Rex, was bested by the three but at the cost of Superman — a cost that weighed heavily on Wayne’s conscience.

Now, and with more light-hearted jokes, Batman continues to battle evil from the Gotham’s shadows while Wonder Woman protects Paris from terrorists. Director Zack Snyder’s running commentary from Bat v. Supes continues to question a world worth saving, even opening this installment with an awkward camera video of Superman failing to answer why the world is worth a damn. A few scenes later, a group of non-descript religious terrorists try to blow themselves and several hostages up in front of TV cameras, hoping to spark a greater reckoning. It’s a cheap ploy by the filmmakers, one they later lean on when their comic book bad guy, Steppenwolf (an unconvincing mass of digital effects voiced by Ciarán Hinds), plans to do the exact same, but with three power cubes in lieu of C-4.

Though this thematic echo helps connect Justice League’s glaring divisions between the first and second hour, the movie is a mess; albeit an entertaining one. Here, the problem isn’t the material, but the sheer volume of it. In addition to continuing the themes laid down in the previous installments, Justice League has to work fast to explain the barebones backstory of its other main characters: The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller, the best of the bunch); Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, decent); and Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher, fine), while simultaneously setting up Steppenwolf’s plan to wipe out human existence.

Writers Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon, and Snyder chew through the three’s origins quickly, almost comic book like — cutting between characters like readers turning the page of a comic book as if each transition stood in for that all-encompassing word: “Meanwhile…” While this favors brevity, it lacks emotional connection. That lack is felt strongest during the movie’s climactic battle: the limits and capabilities of each character lack definition and no one ever seems to be in any real danger.

But whatever, we’re not here for any of that nonsense. We want popcorn entertainment, Batman fighting alongside Wonder Woman and Superman, and another movie that set up unfathomable sequels and spin-offs no matter how little emotion they stir up inside. And no matter how bad they are, the audience returns for more, hoping this one will be just slightly better than the last. Much like James Thurber’s aphorism about martinis, comic book movies rely on a simple addictive formula: One is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.

EZRA MILLER as Barry Allen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “JUSTICE LEAGUE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics

Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Wheadon
Story by Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder
Based on characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel
Produced by Jon Berg, Geoff Johns, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder
Starring: Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Amber Heard, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, J.K. Simmons, Jeremy Irons
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 120 minutes, Opens November 17, 2017
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BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)

Love can spring up in the most unlikely of places. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) probably didn’t have romance on the brain when he started attending Act Up-Paris meetings in the early 1990s but he found Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) all the same. Love is all around.

But romance isn’t without its share of hurdles: Sean is living with an HIV-positive diagnosis and a low T cell count. Time is running short but Sean plans to breathe every breath and live every heartbeat.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) from writer/director Robin Campillo partly tells Sean and Nathan’s tender love story and partly tells the docudrama story of Act Up-Paris, a non-partisan group comprised of gay, straight, and bi individuals who are sick and tired of dying in the shadows.

Campillo, working with co-writer Philippe Mangeot, takes his time setting up the world of Act Up-Paris and laying out the political battles facing these activists before he narrows his focus to Sean and Nathan. Little is wasted in either section and despite a lengthy running time of 140 minutes, BPM moves with energetic and clear eyes. Maybe because so much of BPM is concerned with the loss of innocent lives and maybe because Sean, like most characters in BPM, is raging against the dying of the light even though he knows, deep down, nothing is forever. “There are times when I see the world differently,” Sean tells Nathan in a moment of melancholic reflection. “Morning mainly.”

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is currently in limited release.

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BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL

A samurai watches his younger sister cut down in front of him and he proceeds to exacts his revenge. But they are legion and he is one. No matter, death is a small price to pay when vengeance is on the table. Except that death is not in the cards for this samurai, not today and not ever.

Based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal tells the tale of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a roaming samurai who has been cursed by a witch to forever walk between the winds. No matter what happens to Manji, no matter what injuries he sustains in battle, bloodworms will heal him. Heal his wounds but never his pain. Immortality doesn’t exactly make Manji a better fencer, just one willing to sacrifice his body in the process.

That makes Blade of the Immortal one of the bloodiest samurai movies around and the fights ultimately inconsequential. Playing by manga logic, Blade offers stylized heroes and villains, each one looking as cool as the one-liners they spit. The battles are bloody, the weapons nonsensical, and the carnage is total — it’s a wonder there’s even a samurai or two left in all of Japan following a few of these battles. But each character is defined, their motivations are clear, and they have an individual spark that manages to move the movie’s 140-minute runtime along nicely.

It also helps to have the energy and style of director Takashi Miike. Miike, who has been directing movies since 1991, chalks up Blade of the Immortal as his 100th work; a feat for any director, but at the young age of 57, the Japanese master shows no sign of slowing.

Nor does he show signs of laziness. Starting out in a black and white before moving to color, Miike’s direction is energetic and engaging, using a gliding camera to cover the action, long lenses to crowd the frame with warriors, and plenty of pauses to allow our heroes and villains a chance to pose. There’s nothing like a little flair to punch up a period piece and make a standard action movie feel fresh.

Blade of the Immortal is in limited release.

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THOR: RAGNAROK

The God of Thunder returns and he’s bringing the pyrotechnics to Marvel’s latest installment of sound and fury. Thor: Ragnorak, the 17th installment in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, continues the latest trend of Marvel movies: irreverent humor, ironic heroes, and plenty of neon razzle-dazzle. And while these tricks entertain — and Thor is generally a good time — none of the frosting helps Marvel’s ongoing issues with bloated storylines, uncompelling villains, and bland third act battles.

Picking up sometime after the events in Doctor Strange and opening in a Norse underworld, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battles a hoard of demons led by Sutur, a massive being of fire and horns who threatens to initiate Ragnorak and destroy Thor’s home, Asgard. Naturally, Thor bests Sutur and heads home with his trophy only to find Asgard weakened by peace and ruled by Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in disguise.

None of this takes up a whole lot of screen time, nor does a quick trip to Earth to meet Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), chat with Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and meet Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death and Odin’s former ally. Sporting a whole lot of horns and channeling a little bit of Maleficent, Hela shows up and makes quick work of Thor, sending him to Sakaar, a planet of garbage and ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, who doesn’t try very hard).

While on Sakaar, Thor meets a Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), finds himself on the wrong side of a Hulk Smash (Mark Ruffalo), recruits Loki to his side, builds an army of alien gladiators, and returns to Asgard to battle Hela and take back the throne. If that sounds like a lot, it is. And most of it is forgettable a week or so later.

As it is with most Marvel movies, the story is secondary to the characters, who are positively lovable. Thor: Ragnorak is no exception and, in some regards, even better than previous installments. Gladiator Korg (director Taika Waititi in a motion capture suit) and Hela’s lackey, Skurge (Karl Urban), try their best to steal the scene and most of the time they do. But it’s Thor’s movie and if anyone is going to get the best lines, it’s the God of Thunder.

Those lines waffle back and forth between comedy and something verging on SNL parody. There is no doubt that Marvel hired Waititi — a New Zealander known for his comedies — to inject humor and energy into their Thor franchise, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the lesser films in the MCU. They certainly got a whole lot of comedy from Waititi, but they also got a heck of a lot of mugging and a plethora of meta-moments. Toss in neon galore and a soundtrack from Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh that sounds a little like rejects from the Freedom of Choice sessions and Thor: Ragnorak certainly has a vibrant taste. Too bad it dissipates quickly.

Chris Hemsworth in Thor: Ragnarok from Walt Disney Pictures

Directed by Taika Waititi
Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Based on the comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 130 minutes, Opens November 3, 2017
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Weekly Round-Up (9.28.17 – 10.26.17)

My tour of Boulder County breweries began on August 4, 2016, at Boulder Beer’s Wilderness Place taphouse. A little over a year later, the tour concluded at Boulder Beer’s latest taphouse on Walnut.

And with the tour under my belt, the weekly drink column has expanded to cover more ground. Like this interview with author Philip Jett, whose latest book, The Death of an Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder that Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty, covers the somewhat unknown story about the kidnapping and murder of Ad Coors in 1960.

But the October beer news always revolves around the Great American Beer Fest. My recap from the awards ceremony discusses how the spirit of craft beer still has the flavor of a dream come true.

That flavor is something the Brewers Association is working hard to maintain. I spoke with Julia Herz of the Brewers Association, Eric Wallace of Left Hand Brewing, and Ryan Scott of Odd 13 Brewing Inc. about the BA’s new Certified Independent Craft designation and how brewers can survive in an increasingly difficult marketplace.

Part One

Part Two

Update: Wallace mentioned that the Craft Seal was only the first step in the battle for beer independence. On October 16, 2017, the BA announced their new, somewhat irreverent, campaign against the deep pockets of Big Beer: Take Craft Back. The chances that it will work are slim to none but humor will certainly garner attention.

Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato in SWEPT AWAY. Image courtesy of Kino Lorber

Over at Film: a preview of IFS’s Lina Wertmüller Retrospective, some thoughts on the Flatirons Food Film Festival, a review of the disappointing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, some praise for Thank You For Your Service, and a whole lot of love for Columbus.

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus Photo credit Elisha Christian Courtesy of Superlative Films/Depth of Field

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GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

The story of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh does not begin in the Hundred Acre Woods with a bear of very little brain living under the name of Sanders, but in the French trenches of World War I. Here, there are no Poohsticks, no blue balloons, no honey trees with bees buzzing about, just maggot-ridden corpses, flies, carnage, and death.

In the middle of this carnage survives Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), or as his family and friends call him: Blue. Like most British soldiers, Milne returns from The War To End All Wars — nicknames are important here — shaken, disgusted, and terrified that this global tragedy may once again rear its ugly head.

Milne returns to civilian life and picks up where he left off, as a successful East End playwright. But sudden noises and unexpected lighting trigger posttraumatic stress. Milne’s solution: solace at a quiet country cottage where he can write something that will persuade the world to ban war altogether.

A life in the country doesn’t exactly sit well with his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), but she is willing to try anything to restore her husband’s once gregarious self, and the Milnes — with son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), and his nurse, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), in tow — move to a cottage in Sussex so bucolic and enchanting that any writer living there would have written a sentimental tale whether they wanted to or not.

Days pass; Milne writes little and Daphne grows restless. She unexpectedly leaves for town while Olive is away caring for her sick mother. For the first time in both their lives, Father and Son find themselves on their own. It doesn’t go well off the bat but once Milne betrays a sense of humor to his son they do more than fall in sync, they fall into story.

Directed by Simon Curtis with vim, vigor, and bittersweet understanding, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the relatively unknown story — at least on this side of the pond — of how a father, a son, and a stuffed bear named Edward became the iconic tales of Winnie-the-Pooh. Though Gleeson plays Milne as a glowering stiff-upper-lip Brit, Curtis does not restrain the film in the same manner; employing close-ups generously and using a rambunctious editing style that prances around the room like an energetic child. Partly to visualize Milne’s fractured sense of self post-combat, and partly to keep the image lively.

Though Milne is the main character through whose eyes we see the story, Curtis, working with writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, gives equal weight to Christopher Robin — or Billy Moon, as he preferred to call himself — Olive, and Daphne. Along for the ride is illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) whose drawings of Pooh and company are as iconic as Milne’s words.

Curtis’s doesn’t make too much of those iconic images and phrases, separating Goodbye Christopher Robin from the usual ham-fisted, dry-as-dust bio-pic. Readers familiar with Milne’s stories and poems will find bits and pieces of them in the family’s everyday vernacular. The same goes for Shepard’s drawings, which Curtis films as if they were glances snatched from the heavens and immortalized on the page.

The beauty of a story is its ability to immortalize a moment as fleeting as a Poohstick floating down a babbling brook. This is twice as true for a film, which stimulates emotion through sound and image. For Goodbye Christopher Robin, that moment comes when Milne and Billy Moon wander off into the woods to create the tales of Pooh. Sure, it’s manipulative, as sweet as it is constructed, but it reminds us that even though this will end, that Christopher Robin will grow up and say goodbye to the Hundred Acre Wood, somewhere “in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

CREDIT: Fox Searchlight

Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce & Simon Vaughan
Produced by Steve Christian and Damian Jones
Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Margot Robbie, Stephen Campbell Moore
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 107 minutes, Opens October 20, 2017
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THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES

There’s an oft-quoted line from a 1982 Frank and Ernest comic strip: when it came to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, as good as Fred was, Ginger could do everything he did, only backward and in heels.

Though both actors found success apart, history will forever pair them, as Astaire and Rodgers; much like how peanut butter and jelly never seem that far apart. The same can be said of tennis pros, Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Separately, they were the best of their eras — she won both the French Open and the Australian Championship once, the U.S. Open four times, and Wimbledon six times; he won one Wimbledon and two U.S. Championship slams as well as three U.S. Pro Slams — but history will forever cement them together as the two who duked it out in ABC’s primetime exhibition match: The Battle of the Sexes.

The Battle of the Sexes, the new film from husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, traces this 1973 moment where King (Emma Stone) and Riggs (Steve Carell) found themselves on a public collision course.

As the title suggests, Battle culminates in the much talked about tennis match between King and Riggs but takes its sweet time getting there. Dayton and Faris seem less interested in the actual match, or tennis for that matter, and more about how this self-styled male chauvinist and a closeted feminist represents similar modern-day struggles. Riggs’s bad behavior is treated with a “boys will be boys shrug, while King repeatedly encounters sexism, most repugnantly from tennis promoter and commentator Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman).

These repeated attacks on a woman’s place in the world carry extra significance for Dayton and Faris, particularly when a side character mentions that a woman couldn’t beat a man in tennis any more than she could hold a political office, dispelling any doubt that Battle of the Sexes isn’t in direct conversation with the 2016 presidential election.

And thought Battle wishes to engage a past story with a present struggle, it ultimately comes off like a strung together series of on the nose moments in a movie full of on the nose dialogue and knowingly looks. When Riggs parades around his home like a buffoon before his much wealthier wife (Elisabeth Shue) she looks at him with comfortable condescension from 2017.

What is lost on Dayton and Faris is not the cultural significance of this moment; it is the excitement of a tennis match and the electricity of King’s play. Dayton and Faris, working with cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Pamela Martin, re-create the famous match from behind King and Riggs, primarily from a high angle, mostly to hide the doubles but also to invoke the aesthetic of a fixed TV camera. But there is no reason to invoke when invention is possible. Oh, how Battle could have benefited from a camera on the court, between King and Riggs, following the ball as it dips and slashes its way over the net and onto the court. Instead, the battle plays out on the faces of those watching the match on TV screens.

For Dayton and Faris, the Battle of the Sexes is not about the battle between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs; it’s about how little we’ve come in 45 years. That’s a fine sentiment; it just turns King and Riggs into supporting players in their own movie.

Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Produced by Danny Boyle, Christian Colson, Robert Graf
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue
Fox Searchlight Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 121 minutes, Opens September 29, 2017

 

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