Wednesday, April 11, 2018

"SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER" (2002): SELF-DETERMINATION (AND CALLING OUT THE BULLSH*T!) YEARS BEFORE #MeTOO - by CEJ



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SEARCHING FOR 
DEBRA WINGER (2002)

Written & Directed by - Rosanna Arquette
Produced by - Rosanna Arquette, Kristina Birkmayer, David Codikow, Mark Cuban, Patty Long, Todd Wagner, Happy Walters
Music Super. - Jojo Villenueva
Cinematographers - Jean-Marc Barr, Olivier Boucreux, Cort Fey, Joey Forsyte, Nathan Hope, Micheal Wojciechowski
Editor - Gail Yasunaga 
Set Decor. - Carisa Rosenthal, Joanna M. Wright
Running Time: 98 mins.
Release: May 2002 (Cannes) 
July 2002 (U.S. theatrical)
Dist: Lions Gate Films

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     Searching for a poetic reference I've got to go with the biblical one about "a prophet without honor in his own country" - with the definition of "prophet" being the strictest one as in an oracle who divined something which most others at the time did not, could not, or just plain refused to see as that which inevitably very soon would be. In such light it's hard to believe that a film featuring Frances McDormand, Charlotte Rampling, Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, Selma Hayek, Kelly Lynch, Alfre Woodard, Venessa Redgrave, Diana Lane, Tracy Ullman, Sharon Stone, Ally Sheedy, Theresa Russell, Holly Hunter, Laura Dern, Patricia & Rosanna Arquette, and Debra Winger among others (and hell, that's only half the list!) could be considered "obscure" or "relatively unknown" for so long. But such is the case with Rosanna Arquette's feature length documentary SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER.


     While it debuted "Out of Competition" at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, then later enjoyed a limited theatrical run through Lions Gate Entertainment, I became familiar with this compressed cinematic gem via Leonard Maltin's now defunct weekly TV series SECRET'S OUT back when the show ran on the (old version) of Reelz Channel in the early 2000s. A couple of years later I'd stumble across a $3.00 DVD copy in a supermarket cheapie bin (the modern day "Well of the Souls" of cinematic treasure troves!), and snatch it up. But watching it now in the slipstream of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, it's nothing short of jaw-dropping to look back 15 years and see how, not unlike life in general (and hey, with women ... and Debra Winger in particular), Arquette's film has only improved with age. Now, that's not just because it concerned itself with addressing certain facets of #MeToo and #TimesUp long before those hashtags became front page news, but more because SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER even now manages to supersede them as a rallying cry for action over talk. Stick with me a few minutes and I think you'll understand and agree. Watch this pearl of a film for yourself, and I promise you'll agree even more.


     Upon release there were a few critics who felt Arquette's compilation of one-on-ones with various actresses was, yeah, insightful and in spots even intriguing, but that her cinematic and interview style were "choppy" and at times even "sappy" and unprofessional. I heartily disagree, ... though I can understand why some could misinterpret things as such.


     First off, what's the film about? Well, that's one of those questions wherein on the surface you have one answer as to "Why did the filmmaker set out to make this thing in the first place?", but on another level you have the more bonafied "Okay, I get that, but in the end what's really going on here?" aspect. And those aren't always the same thing. Y'know, as "about" and the "meaning" and / or "truth" of something is often found "in between the lines" of the obvious. And how sometimes that which is between those lines will be subtext written (for all intents and purposes) in invisible ink only later made see-able on the parchment pages via the greatest of reagents - the simple passage of time. In fact often it can be only through said passage of time that even those who are the subjects of / within a documentary (and in some cases even the film makers) can clearly come to see and understand those previously invisible / "between the line" layers themselves. The context of time can often (intentionally or not) change the meaning.


     SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER is the working definition of a famous quote by Orson Welles wherein he stated "In a fictional film the director is God, but in a documentary God is the director" - meaning that a good documentarian will allow the film to take her/ him where it decides it wants to go, ... which may not necessarily be to the final thematic location of the filmmaker's originally mapped-out intent.

     This trip begins with Rosanna Arquette having just crossed the 40 year mark. And, while at said particular life point she's never felt more comfortable within her own skin, she at the same time surprisingly finds herself not as fulfilled in her creative career existence. She wonders, as do many at that life bridge, if it's because she's unable to find a balance between career and motherhood. Or maybe it's that the film industry itself is unfulfilling. Maybe it's always been a b.s. of a sham, ... a two dimensional mirrored construct that she didn't realize or allow herself to see as such in her younger years. Perhaps it's all just in her head as the not atypical musings of a mind approaching midlife. Or could it likely be a combination of elements of all of the above?

     Always wondering why actress Debra Winger (of URBAN COWBOY, AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT fame) chose to essentially retire from the business five years prior - when she was around the same age Arquette was approaching at the time she decided to make this film - our director sets out to interview over 40 actresses on two continents over the course of a year, beginning each sit-down by asking each woman why they feel Winger may have left the biz; then ultimately by film's end having a chat with Winger herself in order to ask the same.


     It's not too difficult to see why a few critics jumped the gun in using the word "sappy", because during the first 20 or so mins. of its 98 min. running time, the film does at first appear as though it's going to be little more than an hour and a half of actresses feeling guilty about not spending enough quality time with their children. Now, granted, that's not an unimportant subject to those within the families of those actresses, but (no disrespect intended) it's not necessarily a gripping topic to the average viewer. However, shortly thereafter the Orson Welles adage thematically kicks in, and things take off (or "evolve" might be more accurate) into a stream of (stream of consciousness?) subjects of discussion which have since proven to have major ramifications within the film industry of 2018.


     In this light perhaps one of the most fascinating and admirable things about the film is in what it doesn't do - in that it doesn't turn into a screed about how all men in the film industry are evil. Which is not to say there aren't more than a few horror stories along those lines to make one's toes curl and flat out enrage the hell out of you.

     Because Arquette opts here to use much of (what other film makers might consider) "B roll" footage ... . Y'know, the more unplanned and off-the-cuff material; ... that which was recorded as the interviewer and interviewees were grabbing a smoke and prepping for their official sit-down talks ... . Because she uses that with other footage captured in restaurants and bars after a meal and a few drinks or bottles of wine have been summarily consumed, and everyone is loose, open and honest as hell ... . Well, this is where, how and why the topics of discussion become "no bullsh*t within these borders" extremely frank and honest, and at times brutally so.

     The film is rated "R", and it's not only because of the plethora of F-bombs dropped like V2s in a re-enactment of the London Blitz, but more so because of unexpurgated discussions about studio execs approving or disapproving of an actress in a role because of her "audience fu*kability quotient", or Patricia Arquette recalling expressing her open disgust on a film set when a producer (who in retrospect sounds a helluva lot like Harvey Weinstein) attempted to fondle a crewmember's vagina, then asked an actress to smell his fingers.


     Not shy about dropping names, Winger herself relates how, while enjoying working with a consumate filmmaker like Taylor Hackford on AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN, she also had the experience of former Paramount Studios co-head Don Simpson knocking on her hotel door one night during the shoot to offer her pills which could help her "loose some of the water retention" he felt was making her look too heavy in front of the camera. At that moment Winger decided - for better or for worse - that she wouldn't ever play the game by Hollywood's rules. So, yeah, some of the talk in the film ain't pretty. But in spite of this however the conversations ultimately lead towards, while yeah, being pissed at that kind of sh*t, and not wanting to put up with it, the more proactive "out flanking" maneuver of battling that kind of behavior and mindset by (and this is a huge topic for those who know me) seizing control of one's own destiny.


     Whoopi Goldberg and Frances McDormand (and McDormand's interview is candidly conducted in a ladies room at Cannes) talk about the need to outlast the executive a**holes who will eventually fall from power - as the film biz is one wherein a studio mogul at the top of the food chain one week can be (and often is) out on their ass the very next when new corporate interests take over the lot. And for those paying attention, and for others scratching their heads, this very much throws into context McDormand's words just a couple of months ago when she accepted her Oscar for THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI.

     Hayek talks of the need for women to become the producers of their own material rather than sitting around to be "rated" as attractive or not, and waiting for someone else to give you a role of which you can be proud. At a dinner table Martha Plimpton and Ally Sheedy effectively remind those in attendance of the importance of sometimes saying (and I'm paraphrasing) "Screw characters who are so-called 'role models' and 'strong representations', because once a certain age threshold is reached by an actress those roles fall out of favor and out the reach". They say instead "Lets create roles / characters with whom the average person of any given age or social level can identify". Y'know, real normal people like the kind you and I bump into on the street, at work and in the supermarket every day.


     In fact the only one here who has any (what could be considered) uber negative things to say about men in the industry is actually the only man interviewed in the film - late cinema critic & historian Roger Ebert, who effectively (and accurately) rails against those action franchise roles which, while enjoyable, and while they have their place and even importance, are ultimately often little more than "substitute male" fantasy fodder for pubescent boys. And he happens to express this opinion while at Cannes standing before a promo display of Angelina Jolie's first TOMB RAIDER film.


     It might be a bit of a stretch to say that the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews became a "galvanizing agent", or that they "led to" a desire for a new generation of women in Hollywood to want to seize more control of their professional (and yes, personal) destinies as did that earlier Stanwyck / Davis / Hayworth generation of the 1940s. But I do believe it's more than coincidental that around the same time as this docu's filming and release a number of women had just recently founded (or were in the process of founding) their own production companies for the very same reasons. Among those companies were Salma Hayek's "Ventanarosa" - which would go on to produce 2002's multi-award winning FRIDA and TV's UGLY BETTY; Drew Barrymore's "Flower Films" - responsible for NEVER BEEN KISSED, DONNIE DARKO and CHARLIE'S ANGELS; and Sandra Bullock's "Fortis Films" - the entity behind PRACTICAL MAGIC, HOPE FLOATS, MISS GONGENIALITY, TV's THE GEORGE LOPEZ SHOW and others.


     Shortly thereafter, as other actresses also neared their own 40-year thresholds, and wanted to see more realistic roles for women of all ages, they too became the masters of their own destinies in creating those roles. And the results of their desires would be the establishment of Reese Witherspoon's "Pacific Standard Company" (GONE GIRL, WILD, BIG LITTLE LIES), Queen Latifa's "Flavor Unit Entertainment" (THE COOKOUT, BEAUTY SHOP, and TV's SCREAM), and Nicole Kidman's "Blossom Films" (RABBIT HOLE, THE FAMILY FANG, and BIG LITTLE LIES - this in conjunction with Witherspoon's company).

FRIDA (2002), CHARLIE'S ANGELS (2000), HOPE FLOATS (1998) 

     Yet another generation / wave of women-owned production houses would follow in the wake of the previous - among these newer ones those owned by Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Banks, Taraji P. Hensen and Natalie Portman - and which would be responsible for even more recent fare such as I, TONYA, the PITCH PERFECT series, PROUD MARY, JANE GOT A GUN and more. And sure as hell as I type these final paragraphs, yet even another wave or two of companies are in the process of sprouting to life to fill the ever-increasing product demand void brought about by the implementation, global growth and popularity of streaming services such as Neflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others - all of these women-owned production houses following similar suit in an insistence to both create more wide-ranging roles for women as well as to help eradicate incidents of sexual harassment and other forms of gender and age-centric abuses within the industry.


     Oh, it's also noticeable (and again, I believe more than coincidental) that shortly after the SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER interviews, actresses such as Jane Fonda and Debra Winger herself decided to end their self-imposed retirements in order to take on some of these more diverse, newly created roles in both film and television - the kind of which didn't really exist until after the WINGER interviews and release of the film. So, while I don't necessarily think Rosanna Arquette's 2002 documentary was the catalyst behind the (as Melanie Griffith dubbed it during a dinner chat) soon-to-be "Evolution Revolution", I genuinely believe Arquette managed to here capture as "lightning in a bottle" the overwhelming zeitgeist during a time in which a great deal of frustration,  personal and career self-reflection, and even anger was coalescing for many women in the industry, and being packed like gunpowder into the barrel of a newer era where the old rules of the game would eventually become no longer acceptable.

Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger in Jonathan Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008),
written by Jenny Lumet

     Watching SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER in 2018 is like watching the glowing hot coals onto which recent incidents such as the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the successes of female driven projects such as WONDER WOMAN and BIG LITTLE LIES, would be the gasoline tossed onto them. And, as with the future visions of any "Prophet without honor in their own country", those visions and opinions passionately expressed in this rarefied brand of documentary in retrospect now seem obvious and inevitable, though a relatively short time ago this was hardly the case.


     As such a great deal of high praise is due to Rosanna Arquette as director for "following her gut" in allowing this gritty, low budget and at times raw-but-stunningly-realized film to evolve and assert its own broader themed (and ultimately more globally encompassing) self, rather than to settle for being a more tunnel-visioned examination of her own personal journey and angst in search of creative fulfillment. The best documentaries are those wherein the film maker is brave enough to let themselves get out of the god*amn way, and let the film speak for itself. And in being confident enough to do so Arquette's SEARCHING FOR DEBRA WINGER has also (perhaps ironically) become the very answer of / to her own said personal journey / quest - this while simultaneously serving as a thematic lamp post for others hacking their way along the same pathway. It is without a doubt Arquette's bravest and most lasting filmic achievement to date. For me it's a filmic achievement which instantly raised her artistic "street cred" to new levels. And ...

     ... one of which I think deserves yet another rewatch tonight.


                                                                                                               CEJ


Sunday, April 1, 2018

"DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST" (1991): ONE OF THE MOST STUNNING FILMS EVER MADE FINALLY GETS ITS DUE - by CEJ



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DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST 

Dir. - Julie Dash
Cast: Cora Lee Day, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Barbara O, Trula Hoosier, Adisa Anderson, Alva Rogers, Umar Abdurrahamn, Kaycee Moore, Bahni Turpin, Tommy Redman Hicks, Tony King, Cornell Royal, Vertamae Grosvenor, Sherry Jackson
Written by  - Julie Dash
Produced by - Lindsay Law, Julie Dash, Arthur Jafa
Music - John Barnes
Dir. of Photog. - Arthur Jafa
Editors - Joseph Burton, 
Amy Carey
Running Time: 112 mins.
Release: Jan. '91 (Sundance), Sept. 10, '91 (Toronto Fest)
Dec. 27, '91 (U.S. theatrical)
Sept. 11, '16 (rest: Toronto)
Dist: Kino / Cohen Media

GullCottage rating
(***** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     We love extremely visual movie making! And it's no exaggeration to say Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991) is one of cinema history's most stunningly gorgeous films ever. Now, "visual movie making" isn't automatically a redundant phrase as (to us at least) it doesn't just mean moving frames (the definition of film) or "nice pretty images". Nowadays you can get that anywhere, from your average music video to technically well executed and witty Super Bowl ad spots. But no, by our definition truly "visual movie making" is when the images and characters and other elements of a film - be they in a feature, short, TV episode or whatever - are so inexorably ... psychologically ... spiritually (if you will) linked that the whole becomes infinitely more than the sum of its parts. It ends up being a delicate house of cards of light and sound where no one of those elements can independently exist apart from the other without each losing their artistic potency.


     Remember in the original BLADE RUNNER when replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) finally catches up with his creator Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), and while seeking a way to lengthen his life span via altering his own genetic coding he and his maker launch into a high tech debate which in the end winds up only explaining how any attempt to change Batty's established DNA sequence will result in his entire biology crashing? Well, in the best sense, truly visual film making - where the DNA strands of character, narrative and cinematography are so closely knotted together - is the exact same thing. 


     Omar Sharif was originally concerned that his titular character in David Lean's epic love story DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) would come off as inert because he (and if you genuinely take the time to notice, it's true) didn't really have a lot of dialog in a movie with a running time clocking in excess of three hours. But after viewing early edits, and realizing what Lean was doing, Sharif was stunned to see how the entire film was almost literally seen through that character's eyes. Watching DOCTOR ZHIVAGO today, after having heard Sharif's words, it all now in retrospect seems obvious. The film itself as photographed / shot, ... in it's very style and execution is an extension of the character's psychology, ... of his very soul - the dichotomous (at times conflicting) eyes and soul of a man who is both scientist and poet. And as such Freddie Young's "conflicting" cinematography features love scenes shot in an often gritty and color de-saturated state, while scenes of war and violence and poverty are often lensed in a gorgeously filtered manner. In fact a huge disagreement over this kind of visual irony which Lean wanted caused original cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and the director to part ways not long into the production.

The eyes have it: DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)

     Another inspiring example is in Walter Hill's 1993 historical drama GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND. Shot by Lloyd Ahern in Utah, Arizona and California - and in some of the same locations sage brush auteur John Ford was known to call home - Hill's political western from the very beginning features audience-encompassing widescreen vistas. But it's not just because "It looks great to shoot westerns this way".

     In a 1993 interview Ahern spilled the beans on how the film's entire visual aesthetic was designed to ultimately funnel down to a single scene near the film's midway point where Gene Hackman as U.S. Army Gen. George Crook and Wes Studi as Geronimo sit in a small canyon alcove to discuss possible peace. In the sequence Studi asks, "With all of this land why is there no room for the Apache? Why must the white-eye have all land?". And in that moment the camera does not do the expected thing - which would be a pullback or other transition to a sprawling Monument Valley-like vista out of the John Ford playbook. Uh, uh!. Instead there's a very quiet but pronounced closeup on Hackman's face as his eyes glance to the horizon behind Studi, and he struggles for an answer ... but can't come up with one. The cinematographic scheme of the entire film was designed for that one f**king awesome closeup which spoke millions, and spoke it with no words. That's what we mean by "truly visual" film making. For the last 27 years Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST has remained at the top of our "Most Visually Stunning Films Ever Made" list for that very reason.

The eyes have it: GERONIMO: AN AMERICAN LEGEND (1993)

     Taking place in 1902 on St. Simons Island (just off the coast of Georgia), DAUGHTERS is centered around the Peazants - a family of Gullah islanders. For those unaware, the Gullah (aka "Geechee") are African-Americans who live in various regions of the southeastern U.S., and who maintain many of the traditions of their pre-slave-era African ancestors. This includes speaking their own "creole"-like language which primarily stems from Twi, Kikongo and other Bantu and Ghana dialects. In 1902 many still resided on St. Simons, and as such for a visitor stepping onto / into the island community, it was culture shock in not just being greeted with remnants of traditional African language, but in many ways it was stepping from a time machine into a past of perfectly preserved African tribal cultural mores and customs.

The loving, wise and matriarchal Nana (Cora Lee Day)

     As with any family, however, in DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST there are ideological differences -  here between younger members who wish to leave for a modern life on the mainland where better opportunities are promised in the northern states, and the older family and community members concerned that if this happens, their culture - that which has kept them alive and strong and proud for years - will be forever lost: diluted into non-existence within the American melting pot at a time when many blacks were seeking to distance themselves as far as possible from any vestigial memories of their enslaved past.

     One of the many wonderful things about Dash's film though is in it's ability, in the most human, relatable and realistic of ways, to express how - while neither viewpoint is wrong - they can and do cause a complicated-as-hell family dynamic.


     Told in at times non-liner fashion (we'll explain in a sec) the story of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST pivots primarily around the quadrangle of elderly and matriarchal Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day) - who practices traditional African religious customs, and who vows to never leave the island; Nana's granddaughter Viola (Cheryl Lynn Bruce) - returning for the family reunion dinner from Philadelphia, where she's become a fervent Christian; Viola's cousin Yellow Mary (Barbara O) - who also returns from the mainland with her same sex lover Trula (Trula Hoosier); and young Eli (Adisa Anderson) - Nana's grandson, who is torn down the middle as to whether he wishes to stay or leave.


      Because traditional culture, examined in DAUGHTERS' conundrum of "to be or not to be" / "to leave or not to leave", is writer / director Dash's touchstone thematic here, and as it is exemplified in the characters' clothing, lifestyle, food, religious traditions and more, that culture becomes a living and breathing character itself within the film. And as such David Lean's ZHIVAGO-esque notion of the world seen through a single character's eyes is done perhaps one better in Dash's outing than in Lean's own as DAUGHTERS employs the clever conceit of being narrated by Nana's yet-to-be born grandchild who is looking back on her family history. As you can imagine, this surreal POV allows for some stunningly realized imagery (courtesy of cinematographer Arthur Jafa - who'd go on to shoot Spike Lee's visually arresting CROOKLYN) as well as an at times non-liner narrative chronology.


     There's nothing unreal at all in the visuals and narrative, mind you. Just that everything is kind of "slowed down" to the point where we, from the perspective of the unborn child (and children are fascinated by everything they see), notice every single gorgeous detail in nearly ever single frame of film, right down to the detailed stitching of Arline Gant's multi-layered costumes, the slightly heightened sound of the waves licking the shore, the gentle breezes and rustle of leaves, and the near musical squawking of the island bird life.

     Also, probably not since Sergio Leone has anyone ever cast a company of stunningly individual real life faces to populate a film as does Dash. Every furrowed line running down the countenance of every elder has a bottomless well of history between those crevices. And you want to know more of that history though the film's running time doesn't allow it. In this regard take particular notice of the expressiveness of the older men in the cast - lead by actor Umar Abdurrahman who portrays Bilal Muhammad, a practicing Muslim on the island.


     It's also no coincidence that the main group of women who serve as our "narrative tour guides" through the film are of varying skin complexions - as this allows not only all African-Americans in particular to see themselves represented, but allows the same for most families of any ethnic group in general, as every culture in America deals with the same familial issues on display here - issues of tradition, one's roots, gender roles, ethnic self loathing, and how often skin complexion can factor into the sometimes blurred line between racial integration and culturally "selling out". While certainly every African-American watching DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST can relate to these issues and more, they are certainly not unique to blacks in America. And the microcosm of the Peazant family cleverly comes to represent ethnic culture in American society at large over multiple generations. All of this is done however in an extremely non preachy but rather entertaining and (as stated earlier) visually arresting manner.


     Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 1991, DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released theatrically by Kino International, and was the first feature film from an African-American woman director to see national distribution. There was a growing wave of African-American film makers making serious inroads into mainstream cinema at the time. In fact John Singleton's BOYZ N THE HOOD, Bill Duke's A RAGE IN HARLEM, and Spike Lee's JUNGLE FEVER all opened within months of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST back in '91. But we felt then (and still do today) that Dash, while perhaps unfairly still not as well known to the general public as are her male director counterparts, certainly taught the master class with this stunning work. Let's face it, it's quite likely that, had this exact same film been made in the 1960s by a foreign male film maker, it would today be considered a "major trend setter" - it's style and thematics of which movies would have been imitating for the next fifty years.


     Proof of it's artistic status can be found in the fact that in 2004 DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant" to American film - right up there with other selections over the years such as ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 12 ANGRY MEN, 2001, APOCALYPSE NOW and more. Way to go, Julie!


     Believe it or not, in spite of all of this however, and in spite of Kino International's present day status as a home video label on par with the Criterion Collection, DAUGHTERS saw no legitimate home video release until a 1999 Kino VHS, followed by a 2000 Kino DVD. And even those quickly went out of print with the DVD then becoming a hard-to-find and high priced collectible, ... unless you were fortunate enough to burn a copy from one of  the film's occasional airings on Sundance Channel or IFC, which is what we actually did at the time. And while we're not usually fans of later day music videos blatantly appropriating / swiping the style of a relatively unknown film, it's no secret that Beyonce's visual album "Lemonade" - which patterned much of it's look on imagery from DAUGHTERS - ignited new interest in Dash's classic. In fact it generated so much interest among music and film critics, and curiosity from a new generation of film makers, the Cohen Media Group footed the bill to do a 25th Anniversary restoration and theatrical re-release of the film in 2016.

(Top) DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST - 1991 / (bottom) LEMONADE - 2016

     The restored DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST was released by Sony in a Blu-ray edition in April 2017. And as of this writing (April 2018) it is currently streaming on Netflix.

     If you've never seen this one-of-a-kind gem of a film, do yourself a favor and check it out on as large an HD screen (or theatrically if you can catch a revival showing) as possible. We're fairly certain you'll be as spirited away by its timeless themes, imagery, characters and dream-like quality as we were, and as we remain to this day.

     It's been far too long in coming. But it's high time (and damn nice!) to see Dash's DAUGHTERS finally receiving its due.


                                                                                                                       CEJ

Sunday, March 25, 2018

ON THE CONTRARY: "JUSTICE LEAGUE" (2017) IS REALLY A DAMN GOOD FILM! HERE'S WHY ... - by CEJ



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JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Dir. - Zack Snyder 
(Joss Whedon - uncredited)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons
Screenplay - Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon  / Story - Chris Terrio, Zack Snyder / Based on Characters from D.C. Comics
Music - Danny Elfman
Dir. of Photography - 
Fabian Wagner
Editors - David Brenner, Richard Pearson, Martin Walsh
Running Time: 120 mins.
Release: 11/17/17 (U.S.)
Dist: Warner Bros. Pictures

GullCottage rating
(**** on a scale of 1-5)


VAULTED TREASURES: MOVIES YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT, YOU FORGOT, 
... OR YOU SIMPLY JUST FORGOT TO LOVE MORE THE FIRST TIME AROUND!

     Grandmom always used the phrase "Being contrary" to politely describe one of her numerous grandkids (then eventually great grandkids) who for no discernible reason seemed to have the proverbial "bug up their ass" in wanting to do the exact opposite of what everyone else was doing ...  and wanting to do it just because it was the opposite, and not necessarily because they themselves enjoyed it more than that in which the "rest of the family pack" was engaged. Well, just to be clear, that's not our modus operandi in regards to these "On The Contrary" entries - wherein we kinda stick up for, and point out the attributes of, films which by and large have accrued a great deal of ... well, no sense in dancing around the verbiage, ... where we stick up for, and point out the positive attributes of, films which most of the general public just f**king despises.


     Our last entry about THE DARK TOWER set off a couple'a one or two "Hatfields vs. McCoys"-like online skirmishes. And that's okay, because for whatever reason nowadays to disagree about politics or organized religion is understandable and even encouraged. But to disagree and break ranks on the general consensus of a film! is somehow intolerable. So, if we can fly in the face of that sort of movement, then hey, more power, brother! We've even ("Oh, tragedy!") had people unfriend us on social media because they lost respect for our opinion and "couldn't take us seriously" when we expressed a gleeful enjoyment in a film most deemed as "summer movie trash". Well, it was either that or the semi-smart-ass response on our part in which we made it clear that "We don't take ourselves all that seriously either, so it would be kind of hypocritical to expect others to do so". At any rate, no, we're not just being contrary, but we rather like to think we're being more in line with a quote by 'ol Steven Spielberg which we just love as it makes so damn much common sense ...

     "I even get inspired by movies that aren't very good, because there's always something good in movies that are collectively thought of as a failure".


     Which is not to say that we think 2017's JUSTICE LEAGUE - from everyone's favorite cinematic three-legged dog to kick, Zack Snyder (cue the Harry Dean Stanton song from KELLY'S HEROES) - isn't very good. On the contrary (there's that phrase again!), we think it is while so much of the rest of the world disagrees. We just wanna lay out a few cinematic reasons as to why we dig it as much as we do though - reasons we think tend to get overlooked in today's length-of-a-news-bite rush to "love" or "hate" a film 100% upon first viewing, and in some cases even before it's released - y'know, based upon leaked footage, an earlier script draft which ended up making the rounds, or "buzz" via rumor and more. And oh, for those whose criteria of a film's worth is it's domination of the box office, or it's lack thereof, here's a little somethin', somethin' to consider  ...

Classics which were originally box office failures include
(L to R) BRINGING UP BABY (1938), FANTASIA (1940) and THE THING (1982)

     Keep in mind that some of what are now considered the most popular and acclaimed films in history where originally box office failures: among them BRINGING UP BABY, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (many were appalled at how "dark" it was at the time), Kubrick's 2001 (many attending it's premiere screening walked out), Disney's 1940 masterpiece FANTASIA (which after numerous theatrical re-releases wouldn't see a profit until the late 1960s), and BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter's THE THING - both of which opened on the same day back in the summer of 1982, and crashed and burned so badly they were relegated to the second run and "Dollar Theaters" and drive-ins within three weeks.


     Now, with a budget just north of $300 million (entirely too much, we agree on that!), JUSTICE LEAGUE needs to make at least twice it's budget to break even. And with a global box office take of near $660 million combined with Blu-ray, DVD, streaming and other home video ancillaries, when all is said and done Warner / D.C.'s magnum opus should break even with a little bit to spare. Just putting that one out there for those who can't get let go of the concept that a film's box office determines it's ultimate worth. But that's a discussion for another day.

     As for general attitude / intent with "On The Contrary" here's a quick little excerpt from that previous THE DARK TOWER intro where we expressed how the position of "I don't care" regarding another's like or dislike of a film (or certain things in life in general) can sometimes be the most healthy outlook one can have:


     "I don't care" simply means one's opinion concerning what one likes and dislikes is based upon one's own decision making process and / or (for whatever random reasons in that infinitesimal universe) one's predilections, tastes and what fires / triggers one's own imagination regardless of the tastes, predilections et al of everyone else out there, ... or even Rotten Tomatoes' (they themselves admit) unscientific aggregate scoring process. That kind of positive "I don't care" mentality (as opposed to the negative and often self destructive kind) is not only "okay", I've always thought it downright necessary. 

     What many just can't seem to fathom however is that this doesn't mean my take is "right" while someone else's is "wrong", ... or vice versa. It just means (for whatever reason) my take is MY take, and I enjoy that take just as another should enjoy THEIRS without caring what I think or feel about it, or why. That said, this isn't any kind of "review" or "apology" or "debate bait" concerning summer 2017's film adaptation of THE DARK TOWER as directed by Nikolaj Arcel and based upon the series of novels by Stephen King. As I said, I really don't care whether you liked it or not, ... which isn't the same as "I don't care that you have an opinion". It's important and necessary that you do. Now, as long as we're all clear and cool on that ...".

     So, fast fowarding to the present, are we all cool with that?

     Alright then!



     By the way, for those familiar with how we do things here, you know we tend to believe the scientific principle that nothing happens in a vacuum. And as such not only do we explain what our observations, dissections, opinions and such are concerning a film, but why and how those viewpoints have (as with any POV on any art form) been shaped both internally via one's own past experiences as well as externally by the context of the time in which the film was made and released. For those however who wish to "opt out" of what some may consider that "psycho-babble bullsh*t", feel free to scroll down to the JUSTICE LEAGUE review proper which comes just after the white line page separator not far below the pic of Jason Mamoa standing in the wind, and just above Gal Gadot brandishing the sword. We won't be offended in the slightest.

     Scroll away. We'll give you a moment ... 

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

     For those who hung around for this part (or came back to it later) - speaking of Stephen King, in one of those many wonderful forwards to his short story and other collections (and NIGHT SHIFT still rules as the greatest of 'em all, though THE BACHMAN BOOKS comes in a really close second) he delves into the wonderful (albeit murky) psychology of how and why something will appeal to one person while not being worth a hoot in hell to another. And he does so with the analogy of the screen-like mesh. According to King (and that sounds like the beginning of some GAME OF THRONES type yarn, doesn't it?) everyone's mind is a screen / mesh, and the size of the spaces between the strands comprising that screen / mesh vary from person to person.


     Daily life, with it's generally considered unimportant or random experiences and such, is the wind or water which continually passes through the mesh. And various bits of "junk", "artifacts", "leaves" and more will pass through or get caught up in said meshes depending upon the size of the spaces between the strands. So, what may just simply pass through the mesh of one person will get caught up in that of another. And Padow! - that's King's "Reader's Digest" version (if you will) of why one person's favorite color will be green while another's is blue, or why one will swear by the jazz of Thelonious Monk, and can't stand Kenny G., while for another the exact opposite will be so.

     As such our take / conception of JUSTICE LEAGUE, and why we feel it works, is part based upon the mesh of how in our childhood years comic books in particular became the gateway into the world of the arts in general, and partly how later down the line we'd come to integrate a love of other artforms into that mental mesh-palooza. For others it may have been an English Lit class or piano lessons or other kind of artistic / creative entree, but for us the "Stargate" of entry and highly subjective opinion was the Marvel and D.C. comics of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, then various novels and films.



     Some have taken notice that on our personal social media pages we've made numerous postings of late about those "big and loud" types of genre films, and not in a negative way. But don't assume too much. (Forgive us for sounding a tad arrogant here - we all succumb to it at one time or another, but) we're fairly certain there are more beloved obscure, classic, independent, foreign and even "whacked-the-f**k-out" experimental films on our shelves and stacked on the floor in the hall over there than many folks have ever seen or maybe even heard of. So, yeah, we love those too. The last couple'a months however have seen us involved with a few projects which quite simply have been kicking our asses pretty good. Which is not to say we aren't enjoying those projects. Uh, uh! A couple of 'em are just tough, that's all. And we call that the "pick & shovel" / non sexy aspect of the creative process.


     One story in particular is a challenging juggling act of a real life contemporary group of people doing a job of which many in the general public have never heard. So, there's the flipping plates and frisbees in the air aspect of making people aware of that job, explaining why these people do it, and remaining faithful and accurate to the true-ness of things (y'know, getting the facts correct) while also remaining faithful to the needs of drama, characterization in the way of arcs and such, a narrative surprise or two, and even instilling a little humor to keep things from getting too tonally burdensome. And you want to do all of that without dropping any of those plates or frisbees. So, it's a process which is longer and harder than anticipated - and isn't that always the way? But every day we get up from the desk and say, "Damn, that came out pretty good". During those at times "non-sexy" moments of artistry we all have our means of "escape", ... our way of "releasing the valve" or "loosening the 'ol fiddle strings" for a few hours. In this respect our's has always been to remind ourselves why we wanted to do the script writing thing in the first place as a child. And as said, for us the entree was comic books, which lead to novels and music and more.

(Clockwise): THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #101 (Oct. '71), JUNGLE ACTION #19 (Jan. '76),
THE HOT ROCK film (1972), THE HOT ROCK novel (1970) 

     Back then we'd see a movie at the drive in with mom and dad and our brothers, then we'd spend the weekend drawing a 25 page comic book version of it. And that made us want to learn all we could about those movies, so we began perching at the local library like a hawk on the look-out for neighborhood pigeons - waiting for and devouring every new issue of Time, Newsweek, The New York Times and more for their movie reviews (and even ripping a few pages out from one or two of those publications to take home - and yes, today we feel guilty as hell about that!). Eventually, having gotten into the habit of scouring the New York Times Book Review, we struck upon the idea of, if a movie was to air on TV on a Saturday or Sunday night, and they had in the library the book upon which it was based, we'd often sign out the novel and spend the day reading the entire thing so we could compare it with the movie version the next day.


     We particularly remember one Saturday at age 12 where we read Donald E. Westlake's THE HOT ROCK, then watched Peter Yates' and William Goldman's film version into the wee hours of Sunday. That was an early education in film and writing one couldn't get in a semester of film class, ... at least not at age 12.

     From Donald Westlake and Michael Crichton (introduced to us via 1973's WESTWORLD and Robert Wise's 1971 film version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN), we then branched into both the literary and cinematic worlds of Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie and Edgar Rice Burroughs, which in time lead to "mainlining" the classics by Twain, Hemingway, Bradbury and Asimov, and we even managed to find our way into Elmore Leonard, Stephen King and freakin' Voltaire and Giraudoux no less!

     Around this same time those movies (and their scores and soundtracks) lead us into a budding life long love affair with all kinds of music - from classical to jazz, R&B and funk to rock, to folk and (having developed a taste for it via film) various indigenous syles from around the globe.


    The "writing and illustrating our own comic books" part of the equation lead us for a time (before realizing we were more interested in the writing, and less in the illustrating, aspects) to the Art Institute of Philadelphia where we became close friends with photographers and fashion designers; and their worlds lead us to a greater appreciation of movie cinematographers and costume and production designers, etc. So, in a very real way ALL OF THAT was born from a love of "those damned (what some would call) dumb-assed comic books" as a child. Oh yeah, and as so many of those "dumb assed" comics back in the 1960s - 80s were also uber political, some of them became our first introduction into social awareness and the concept of social responsibility, and when necessary, the need for social protests and action. All of this to say that to this day we'll have words with those who dismiss comic books (and their filmic adaptations) as "crap", "empty headed" and "juvenile". Well, ... some of them certainly are.


     We mean, c'mon, we're not gonna pretend Pam Anderson's BARB WIRE (1996) has the same sub-strata social-political significance of Bryan Singer's X-MEN or Ryan Coogler's BLACK PANTHER, right? But you're not going to find any different kind of "popcorn movie" vs. "classic movie" or "gem of a film" vs. "sh*t of a film" ratio within the comic book film adaptation arena than that you'll find with westerns, love stories, dramas, religious movies and more all based on various other kinds of source material. So, whew!, with all the "mesh" perception / perspective stuff outta the way ...

__________________________________________________



     We truly dig JUSTICE LEAGUE. We dug it more than we thought we would upon first viewing on that IMAX screen. And after watching it at home earlier this week we find ourselves liking it even more. We'll even cite very "film craft" reasons here as to why we feel it works like gangbusters. Many have made note of how it's a little lighter in tone (as well as in it's look) than the earlier films in Warner / D.C.'s expanded cinematic universe - MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN. But we really love those two films as well, especially BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, which ("No, horsesh*t, Jack") shakes the pillars of our personal Little China to make our list as one of the ten best comic book movies ever made, right up there with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DICK TRACY and ROAD TO PERDITION - which everyone forgets (or didn't realize) was based on a comic book. Oh, sorry, ... we mean based upon a "graphic novel".

     But that's our point. We don't hold with the foolish but widely accepted notion that all comic book movies should be "light" and "fun". They should be enjoyable and engaging, absolutely! But JAWS and THE EXORCIST are enjoyable and engaging too, but no one would really classify them as "light", would they?


     You wouldn't demand that all movies based upon stage plays be the same in tone and feel just because THE KING AND I or RENT had a certain tone or feel, would you? And one wouldn't have the narrow-minded bias and hubris to say DEATH OF A SALESMAN or THE ICEMAN COMETH sucked because it was darker than OKLAHOMA, right? Well, it's the same with any source material and / or genre of film sprung from that source. Some westerns are light, and some are dark as hell. Some are character studies, actioners, or more comedic, or are social treatises. Some are even combos - like say Richard Brooks' THE PROFESSIONALS (1966) or Sydney Pollack's THE SCALPHUNTERS (1968), both of which are rollicking mash-ups of action and comedy.

     While many genuinely seem to have a hard time wrapping their noggins around the fact, it's the exact same thing / the exact same way with comics. For proof keep in mind that not only are the usual suspects - IRON MAN, THOR, BATMAN, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, WONDER WOMAN, SUPERMAN, BLACK PANTHER et al based upon comic books, but so is THE WALKING DEAD, MEN IN BLACK and the aforementioned ROAD TO PERDITION, along with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, GHOST WORLD, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, THIRTY DAYS OF NIGHT, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and others. The source material "Well Of The Souls" of comic books is as vast and eclectic and deep a well as any other. So, let's stop pretending otherwise just because we personally may not want to acknowledge that "those" kinds of films and film sources deserve to sit in the front of the bus every bit as much as other more traditionally respected ones.


     Even within the superhero sphere of the comic book world so many of the most culturally iconic and popular heroes - among them SUPERMAN, WONDER WOMAN and BATMAN - have been rebooted and retrofitted so many times (darker during the Depression years, inspirational during WW2, lighter in the 1950s, downright spoofish and cartoony in the 1960s and 70s, more violent and serious in the 1980s and 90s, then more globally reflective in the post 9/11 era) that when accusing a new film or series of films of breaking canon one has to realistically ask, "Well, to which canon are you referring?". All of this to say, we very much like the darker more serious, post 9/11 tone of MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.


     Oh, and one more thing about Snyder's much maligned first two D.C. entries - for those who accuse those films (especially in their depiction of Superman) of being dark and non-heroic, please re-watch them while setting aside preconceived notions, and note how the characters of Batman and Superman are very much the same as they ever were. While Henry Cavill's "Clark Kent" is certainly a more realistic, middle America far cry from Christopher Reeve's endearingly bumbling depiction, his Superman is absolutely not! It's the world around him which has drastically changed since Richard Donner's 1978 film. And that is the thematic crux of MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN - whether or not the idealism and / or life mission of those characters back in the 1940s through the 1970s still applies today (or is even possible) in a western society where most outsiders in general are viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and often greeted with violence.


     In those films the exact same Superman who was welcomed with open arms forty or fifty years ago now exists in a xenophobic world where the general "play it safe" philosophy is to "not trust them" but to deal  with outsiders with a "necessary at times?" forceful intergalactic / interdimensional "vetting process". In this regard, and with this view towards Superman, Ben Affleck's Batman of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN becomes the living embodiment of Harvey Dent's warning expressed in Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT - in how "You either die as a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain". Snyder / Affleck's Bruce Wayne / Batman - who has been battling evil for decades - indeed does become the villain in his obsessive attempt to destroy the Man of Steel because he believes his arrival on earth to be potentially dangerous to human kind. We delve into this in detail in our GullCottage "Inherent Power Of Genre" review of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE. Give it a look-see when you get the chance. At any rate …


     In the lighter JUSTICE LEAGUE, Batman, moved by Superman's ultimate act of self sacrifice at the climax of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, has his faith rekindled just in time to unite with a group of "meta beings" whom not long ago he very likely would have sought to do away with every bit as much as he wanted to do away with Superman. This new character arc works incredibly well for Affleck's Bruce Wayne in the current film. So, continued kudos to those first two films for having the balls to not brush those darker post 9/11 xenophobic concepts under the carpet for the sake of "making things lighter and more fun", and to sell more toys.

     Capra didn't kowtow to that sensibility with IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And we believe years from now more will come to appreciate the "torn from the headlines" approach, and (so-called) "darkness", of MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN as more honest and accurate "time capsules" granting necessary insight into life in the early 21st century - that sort of thing which genre films can often do better than their more "serious minded" movieland counterparts. Heroes should be bigger and better than the worlds they inhabit. And maybe years from now when we evolve into a more humane society our superhero comics and films can once again take place against more pastel colored backdrops. But keep in mind that right now it's more our darkness against which Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman's idealism has been struggling the last five years on the big screen, ... not their own.

The Post-9/11 world of BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

     That said, the slightly lighter tone of JUSTICE LEAGUE is a nice tonal change up, and it serves the story well. Kind of how the darker STAR TREK: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK ('84) was followed by the lighter THE VOYAGE HOME ('86), and the intense espionage of FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE ('63) gave way to the more playful adventure of GOLDFINGER ('64), but we can accept and enjoy 'em all. Sorry, MOONRAKER doesn't count! (insert comedic drum and cymbal - Baduum Tissss!) 

     There's perhaps a bit too much CGI in the new film, and that sort of thing always tends to take one out of the immediacy of the proceedings. But that's less a problem with this film in particular, and more a problem with most films today in general. Yes, including those small scale dramatic non-genre ones - y'know, where there's a little too much effort put into making Toronto look like L.A., New York or Pittsburgh, and it becomes noticeable when you should be paying attention to the conversation two people are having on that park bench. What JUSTICE LEAGUE gets and does right however, it gets and does very right.


     We love it's script's structure. Bringing together numerous characters in any kind of crossover endeavor (even something like that Shondaland SCANDAL / HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER ratings slam dunk) is by its very nature "unrealistic" and "forced". The trick is to make the "forced"-ness go down a little easier by smoothing it over with something familiar and identifiable to the audience. We refer to this as the "narrative tour guide". For example, after the release of the film TITANIC many became aware of the whole classism thing of the upper decks being occupied by the rich while the lower class immigrants were crammed into steerage. But before the opening of James Cameron's 1997 film a great percentage of the general film going public had no idea about this interesting historical tidbit.

ROMEO & JULIET as "narrative tour guide" through unfamiliar cinematic worlds:
(L) Lower class "Romeo" and upper class "Juliet" in the historical / romance TITANIC (1997);
(R) Lychan "Romeo" and vampire "Juliet" in the action thriller UNDERWORLD (2003)

     So, Cameron (we feel quite wisely) chose to pour the historical elements of his story into the familiar-to-the-audience "narrative jello mold" of ROMEO & JULIET - this because everyone, even if they've never read Shakespeare's classic tragedy, or even seen any film rendition, knows the gist of that famous story: two lovers from warring families defiantly cross drawn lines in order to be together. So, ROMEO & JULIET becomes the audience tour guide for TITANIC. In a similar manner JUSTICE LEAGUE clevery uses the first book of J.R.R. Tolkein's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, as its "narrative tour guide" to bring together the contemporary "fellowship" of Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash (and later Superman, of course). The film's backstory is even right out of Tolkein.


     JUSTICE LEAGUE opens with arguably the greatest sequence of any comic book movie ever. And the brilliance is in how simple and low budget it is. The world has been reeling for a couple of years since the sacrificial death of Superman. And the new film opens with amateur camera phone video footage taken by a couple of kids who happen to catch Superman in a candid moment after he's completed a herculean act of derring do. They ask him about the "S"-like symbol on his chest, and he informs them that on his home world it's not an "S", but is rather the symbol for hope. He then tells them how his father once said that "Hope can be like your car keys  - easy to lose, but if you fish around you can often find them again". And that becomes the theme of the new film - the world, as well as loner individuals like Bruce Wayne, Diana Prince, Victor Stone, Arthur Curry and Barry Allen, is / are thrust into a dangerous adventure to find its / their lost hope. And the five titular individuals find it in the last place any of them expect -  in league with others, ... in league with each other.

Ciarán Hinds as the D.C. supervillain Steppenwolf

     The Tolkein element? As JUSTICE LEAGUE  progresses we go back in time to a backstory where D.C.'s classic intergalactic villain Steppenwolf (in the film portrayed - with a little makeup and CGI assist - by Ciarán Hinds, best known from films like MUNICH, and as Gaius Julius Caesar in HBO's ROME) attempts to invade earth. And just as in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, where the lords of Elves, Dwarves and Men are each given Rings of Power, then have to band together to repel the invasion of the Dark Lord Sauron, so too (according to JUSTICE LEAGUE) did earth's Amazons (Wonder Woman's ancestors), Atlanteans (Aquaman's people) and humans (oh, and if you look quickly you'll also notice some Olympian gods and members of the Green Lantern Corps in there too) unite to defeat Steppenwolf. Rather than "Rings of Power" however, each of the three races are given one third of what comes to be known as the "mother box" - an all powerful device sought by Steppenwolf, which can fold, bend and manipulate time and physical matter. After Steppenwolf is repelled each race then hides their third of that "mother box" device presumably for all eternity.

Three long hidden pieces to a puzzle propels JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

     Centuries later in the present day, when the existence of Amazons and Atlanteans have to humans become the stuff of myth, ... and where humans themselves are divided and at war with one another, Steppenwolf is revitalized and returns to the only world which ever defeated and drove him and his armies back across the cosmos. He in turn steals the "mother boxes" from the Amazons and Atlanteans, and as he goes after the box hidden eons ago by the race of man, a new "fellowship" must be forged by the representatives of those former allies; this new fellowship in the form of Wonder Woman and Aquaman representing their races, and Batman, Cyborg and the Flash representing humanity.

Director Zack Snyder

     That’s a very nice classic structure to bring the diverse "metas" together. And we also very much enjoy the "finding three parts of a whole" structure which is the narrative engine which moves the film's 2nd Act along.

     Over the years this has personally become one of our favorite 2nd Act "mechanisms" when done right. And two of the best ever examples of “done rights” are surely seen in Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) - with each of the three main characters in possession of one part of the location / map to a Civil War gold box, and in Ray Harryhausen's THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973) - where there is a race between Sinbad and the villainous sorcerer Koura to find three hidden pieces of a golden tablet, which when all are brought together form a map to a long lost "Fountain of Destiny and Untold Riches").

Three long hidden pieces to a puzzle propels THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966)
and THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1973)

     In JUSTICE LEAGUE the “three pieces to one whole” 2nd Act mechanism is impressively realized in Steppenwolf’s efforts to bring the three "boxes" together to form the intergalactic equivalent of a hydrogen bomb which can allow beings from one end of the cosmos to pour, H.P. Lovecrat-like, into another. Very nice indeed! And as a simple exercise in well wrought script structure it's a masterpiece of efficient elegance - the spine / narrative central nervous system from which a great many themes and characters branch.

     Film craft stuff outta the way, in the garden variety level of plain old fashioned enjoyment JUSTICE LEAGUE delivers as well. In spite of that aforementioned little bit of too much CGI, the narrative is fast and contains action set pieces which are slick, memorable and a helluva lotta fun. Danny Elfman’s musical score is a big orchestral welcome return wonder for the ears - he integrating elements of John Williams’ original SUPERMAN motifs, Hans Zimmer & Tom Holkenborg (aka “Junkie XL)’s MAN OF STEEL theme and electro-tribal Wonder Woman rift from BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, along with his own BATMAN theme from the Tim Burton films and a plethora of new material - our personal favorite of which is the magical / other-worldly / pseudo “math based” musical I.D. for The Flash.

Composer Danny Elfman

     Character-wise the script (credited to Zack Snyder, Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon) doesn't skimp on giving the iconic superheroes and superhumans a few very human blemishes. We always loved how Patty Jenkins' WONDER WOMAN painted the title character as sincere, brave and compassionate while far from perfect. In that film Gal Gadot's Diana was also naive, a little too self-assured and even selfish when she comes to realize the corruptibility of mankind. In fact so much that she at first decides to leave mankind to blow itself to hell in war. And it's only the self-sacrifice of Steve Trevor which causes her to rethink things and ultimately act otherwise.

     In JUSTICE LEAGUE she and Bruce Wayne philosophically go head-to-head when debating an action with the potential to be either positive or extremely negative in an AGE OF ULTRON sort of way! During these moments another brittle layer in Diana's emotional armor is exposed just as within Bruce there is exposed a hidden layer of seemingly unforgivable guilt.


Amy Adams as Lois Lane

     Take heart though. Those aspects don't cloak entire portions of the film in any kind of "Oh woe is me; behold mine angst!" neuvo-Morrissey manner. It's pretty much relegated to one powerful scene - the results of which are in time worked out in a couple of later scenes. Just enough dramatic imperfections to make the characters identifiable and a little more interesting, but not enough to bog down the proceedings, take away from the lighter tone, and (thank the Cinema Gods!) not elongate the film's running time - which here comes in at a lean and mean 120 mins.

     We mean, let's face it, as much as we want our money's worth (especially with IMAX prices these days) there's very little reason - outside of perhaps the good one of being a climactic entry in a series, or the bad one of having an inflated opinion of it's own importance - for a genre series entry to stretch into a 2 1/2 hr. (and sometimes near 3 hr.) running time. And yeah, we're talkin' you PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, TRANSFORMERS and even HARRY POTTER here. We love 'ya, but come on!



     Gadot, Affleck and Cavill are good, ... in fact damn good! But the ribbon this time around goes to the new kids on the block. With very little time to be introduced to audiences, and to make an impression worthy of his character standing alongside D.C.'s "big three" heroes, stage actor Ray Fisher gives perhaps the least known D.C. icon here - Victor Stone (aka "Cyborg") - a tragic humanity which is palpable. It's a remarkable (and genuinely subtle) achievement within the context of a 2 hr. film with so much else and so much other techno fire and fury on it's plate. Ezra Miller you may remember from THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER and TRAINWRECK. But here as Barry Allen (aka "The Flash") he hilariously steals every frame of every scene he's in with his own real life wiriness and hyped-to-the-max demeanor which totally befits a character with an extremely accelerated physiology / metabolism.

Ray Fisher as Victor Stone (aka "Cyborg")

    Certainly the most stylistically removed from the original depiction in the comic books is Jason Mamoa as Arthur Curry (aka "Aquaman") - who in JUSTICE LEAGUE is just a straight-up bad-ass. By the way, did you know that Mamoa was a marine biology major in college? Rather fitting, huh? Having recently completed filming late last year, his standalone AQUAMAN film (directed by INSIDIOUS and FURIOUS 7's James Wan) is slated for release in December 2018, and it has already begun generating extremely positive buzz within the industry based upon viewings of its presently-in-the-editing-bay footage.


     All in all JUSTICE LEAGUE is what anyone interested in not just a comic book adaptation, but a damn good night at the movies (or in front of the TV, sound cranked up, with the family) could want. Lots of action, characters with whom you fall in love, a little pathos, some humor, restored hope, ... and a whole lotta kicking of bad guy ass! In an odd way, in spite of its script's structural indeptedness to THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, every time we re-view it now we come away with it reminding us of kinda / sorta more of the same feeling we have after re-watching Aldrich's THE DIRTY DOZEN - y'know, only without having most of the characters killed off at the end! Like we said, JUSTICE LEAGUE is considerably lighter than that. Ultimately though, taking someone's mind and childlike soul back to memories of enjoying THE DIRTY DOZEN, ... we mean, hey, that's not such bad filmic company to be in, is it?

     Why does JUSTICE LEAGUE remind us of that World War II classic?


     Hell if we know. That's just the way things process within our own personal mental mesh. And, while that may not be good enough for some, it's damn well more than enough for us. Because, just as that rag tag group of World War II screw-ups learned, so does a new rag tag group of meta-humans come to discover the greatest truth in all of adventure movie cinema  ...

     You can't save the world alone.

     After such an enjoyable cinematic ride, why would you ever want 'em too?


                                                                                                                     CEJ