Justice League

Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons

Director: Zack Snyder

Writers: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon


The DCEU does not have the best track record. Between the four movies that have been released so far they have all suffered from some combination of messy storytelling, overreliance on darkness as a substitute for drama, conflated self-importance, unfocused and clashing tones, lack of humanity, and fundamentally misguided acting choices made by a couple of certain castmembers in villainous roles. Even the inspiring, colourful, focused, refreshingly superb Wonder Woman wasn’t able to avoid all of these trappings as a couple of them seeped their way into the third act. Thus we come to Justice League, the movie it’s all been building up to. It’s been a long and turbulent journey getting here and through all the highs and lows, after all the disorder, disappointment and division, Warner Bros. has beaten the odds and created a superhero team up movie that turned out miraculously okay.

As the world mourns the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) learns that a global threat is imminent and executes his plan to form a team of extraordinary people. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) joins his cause after receiving a warning from her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) about an attack on Themyscria by the ancient villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds). While Wayne sets off in search of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), an aquatic being from Atlantis, and Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), a young man with superhuman speed, Diana tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), whose body is more machine than man. They learn that Steppenwolf is searching for the three Mother Boxes, prehistoric devices of immense energy hidden all over the world. As Batman attempts to bring what will become the Justice League together however, he finds that he isn’t able to inspire them in the way that only Superman could have done and fears that they will not be able to save the world unless he can find a way to unite them.

‘Okay’ is not the word I want to use to describe a Justice League movie but, after the example set by the prior DC movies, I’ll take okay where I can get it. There are issues with the story as there have been with every other instalment (to varying degrees), but there are also two saving graces: the characters and the tone. The film does struggle to find the right balance between focusing on those characters we’ve already met, namely Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (it’s not a spoiler to say that Superman returns (Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster) it’s only a spoiler to say how and when), and focusing on those we’re meeting for the first time, namely Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg. It works though because the characters are all likeable and enjoyable to watch. Affleck continues to shine as a Batman whose cold-heartedness in Batman vs. Superman has been tempered, humbled even, by his awe over Superman’s sacrifice and his guilt for the role he played. Gadot is also once again stellar as Diana as she provides the league with its moral centre and a bit of a motherly presence as the combative and often childish acts of the guys often forces her to be the level-headed one (but thankfully not in a way that does a disservice to the character).

Meanwhile the new guys on the block do their best with what they’re given. The Flash is essentially there to provide comic relief through one-liners, bewildered reactions, and just general eccentricity. It’s hit and miss, but when it hits it really does hit. Aquaman has a couple of cool moments and brings enough appeal and attitude to the role that when he butts heads with Batman it doesn’t feel like conflict for its own sake, it feels authentic. The triumph of Miller and Momoa is making their respective characters interesting and entertaining enough that I actually want to see them carry their own movies. The downside is that Cyborg is mostly sidelined to make room for these characters despite being key to the film’s climax. As for Superman, Cavill is finally allowed to use his charm and charisma to play the Man of Steel the way he was meant to be played. I still think the decision to kill off Superman was a fundamentally stupid one, but Cavill’s performance was so good that I now find myself excited about the character’s future.

With the divisive reception of the previous non-Wonder-Woman DC films, the DCEU has put itself through a lot of self-correcting and, while I can’t say that Justice League was a fantastic movie, it did feel like a definite step in the right direction. A major part of this self-correction has been with the tone and with Justice League, Warner Bros. is ever closer to capturing that tone where it can be serious and funny without coming across as pretentious or childish. There are some scenes that hold real emotional weight, as when Batman shares his private fears and anxieties with Wonder Woman or when Superman is briefly reunited with Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Then there are some genuinely funny moments as we witness the banter and conflicts that ensue between this unlikely collection of unlikely characters (Aquaman’s accidental use of the lasso of truth is a highlight). More than that, there were even a couple of moments that I found truly awesome and exciting (my favourite is one that I cannot go into because of spoilers but basically it involves Superman turning his eyes in slow-motion).

Justice League is not the gamechanger that The Avengers was and is by no means a great film. The villain is as bland and forgettable as the MCU’s were at its most unremarkable, the movie relies on clichés and routine dialogue to get things moving, and the third act is about what you would expect. There are also a bunch of big ideas and themes, something that the DCEU has always been much more interested in pursuing than Marvel, that don’t quite get the development they need. The idea of Superman’s death leading the world to a place of despair where the people feel like all hope is lost and where the darker side of humanity is able to roam free without the presence of this benevolent, god-like symbol of truth, liberty and justice to keep it in check is one I would’ve liked to see more of. Still, I’m glad that I saw this film. Even though Wonder Woman is far and away the stronger film, it was so divorced from the other DCEU movies that it could pretty much be regarded as a standalone. This movie had to build something on top of the mess that the other films had left and that, along with a tempestuous production that saw Whedon take over directorial duties when a personal tragedy forced Snyder to drop out, was no easy task. Justice League is a studio movie through and through, where each and every detail has been calculated according to charts and demographics, but a part of me feels like Warner Bros needed to make this movie as a way of decisively bringing this chapter of the DCEU to an end and allowing themselves to start a new one on a new, blank page. Now, much like the people of Earth at the end of this film, I finally feel hopeful about the franchise’s future going forward.

★★★

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The Accountant

Cast: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Writer: Bill Dubuque


Autism is both a tricky and sensitive subject to portray in cinema and it can lead to much umbrage when done badly. Even Rain Man, a movie that was praised for opening the door to serious and thoughtful depictions of ASD, is problematic in its misleading suggestion that those who fall on the autistic spectrum are likely to be savants. Efforts have been made over the last few decades to represent autism as the complex, multifaceted condition that it is (X+Y is one recent movie that was audacious and touching in its portrayal) but there are still movies today that fall victim to the stereotypes associated with ASD. As someone who neither is nor knows anybody on the spectrum my take on The Accountant cannot help but be limited. I do however know when a film provides a problematic depiction of its subject and when it defeats its own message and can verify that this film struggles on both counts.

As a child Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) was diagnosed with a high-functioning form of autism, a condition that has allowed him to become a highly capable accountant whose practice is actually a front for several criminal enterprises.. He is hired by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), the CEO of a cutting edge robotics company, to inspect their finances when a discrepancy is discovered by their accounting clerk Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). Meanwhile Raymond King (J.K. Simmons), the head of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, is investigating Wolff’s accounts and blackmails data analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into helping him. When Wolff’s investigation uncovers evidence of foul play, he and Dana suddenly become the targets of a hitman (Jon Bernthal), forcing them to go on the run. As the body count continues to rise Wolff must use the military skills he learned from his father to keep Dana safe and learn the truth behind this conspiracy.

The movie’s problem is that it wants to advocate the cause for autism, that being the idea that different abilities can come in different forms and that we need to reconsider what we deem to be “normal”, but doesn’t know how. I’m sure the gestures and expressions Affleck provides are accurate given the research he conducted but the story he’s in doesn’t know how to treat his character. Autism is used in this film as a plot device, making Wolff a savant so that he can be the great accountant the movie wants him to be, and it’s used as comic relief, as in the awkward interactions with love interest Dana Cummings. That the movie wants to try and normalise autism is all well and good, except that it goes so far out of its way to remind us of how abnormal Wolff is and laughs at his expense. What’s even more problematic is the movie’s message about victimhood being a choice. Wolff’s condition, so his father believes, makes him a victim but only if he lets it. Instead Wolff exposes himself to deafening heavy metal music and bright flashing lights while rolling a dowel along his calves every day or so, a painful experience for him, to keep his nervous system in check. As far as this movie is concerned autism is not a condition to be managed but one to be beaten into submission.

It seemed to me that the movie thought of Wolff’s autism as more of a concept than a subject. That is, the film wanted an action hero with a mental disability because it wanted an action hero with a mental disability. By giving ASD to a character of Jason Bourne-like skills (or Batman if you prefer), it almost seems like the movie is giving itself a licence to depict Wolff as an inhuman killing machine. Using what can only be described as a “superpower” Wolff can quickly aim a gun with mathematical precision, fight as if impervious to pain, and shoot a man in the face with cold indifference. Although we do get some pretty intense action scenes out of it, they come at the expense of a meaningful, substantive exploration of a real condition that millions of people all over the world live with.

Without the autism, The Accountant would just be a standard action movie with a convoluted plot and underwritten characters. The film underuses the talent at its disposal, most notably John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. The FBI subplot has, in the grand scheme of things, nothing to do with the main story. There is a plot twist in the third act that is beautifully underscored in its absurdity by Lithgow’s dumbfounded expression. Affleck does give a technically good performance, but does so for a character that the movie doesn’t respect. The action scenes are very good indeed and they might have been enough to make this movie had they not enabled the disrespectful (or maybe misguided is the word) treatment of this character and his condition. There is a positive to be taken away which is that this film is, I think, sincere in its attempt to become a part of the conversation taking place. It fails, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it means that Hollywood is trying. This failure could end up being the motivation that inspires other filmmakers (perhaps even those who actually are on the spectrum) to do better.

★★

Whiplash

Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle


Pursuing a dream is often difficult. One could argue that everyone would do it if it were easy. It requires patience, determination and passion. Even then a dream can often prove to be unattainable. Other times it can consume you and turn into an obsession. Some people can chase their dreams so fervently that they lose sight of all else and end up destroying themselves. This is the central theme of Whiplash, a film about a young man’s compulsive quest for perfection and greatness and the sufferings, inflicted both by himself and by his teacher, he undergoes in order to achieve his dream.

The film opens with Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer enrolled at one of the best music schools in the country, practising on the drums. Andrew is an ambitious young man who emulates the big names of jazz music, including Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and aspires to one day join their ranks as one of the greats. He stops playing when he notices that one of the school’s music maestros, the jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is listening in. Fletcher puts Andrew on the spot, asking him confrontational questions and giving him a complex drum beat to play, before leaving in the middle without another word. After a second audition, which takes place when Fletcher spontaneously walks into his class and asks each student in turn to play him a couple of bars, he makes Andrew the new alternate drummer in his band.

Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Fletcher, a musical genius with psychopathic methods who demands perfection and nothing less. He proves to be a teacher with a sadistic temperament who verbally abuses his students for the slightest offences. It is startling to see him casually talking to Andrew with a calm and kindly demeanour when only a few minutes ago we saw him reduce one of his musicians to tears and kick him out of the band for playing out of tune. When he asks Andrew about his parents, one wonders if he is genuinely trying to be friendly or if he is simply looking for ammunition that he can use against him. He assures Andrew not to be too worried about getting the music right only to fling a chair at him moments later for not keeping tempo. He goes further to strike Andrew repeatedly and brutally insults him using his recently acquired knowledge of Andrew’s family as the rest of the class watches in grave silence.

Following this first session Andrew becomes utterly determined to improve his technique and to prove himself to Fletcher. He furiously practices on the drums for hours on end until his hands bleed. Wanting to save himself from any distraction or future difficulties, he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend so that she won’t divert any of his time or attention from becoming a great drummer. Yet in session after session he continuously fails to impress Fletcher who unrelentingly berates him for not being good enough. During a jazz competition when Andrew loses the drummer’s notations he rises to the challenge by performing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ from memory, earning himself the post of the main drummer. Believing that he has finally proven himself to Fletcher, his pride is short-lived as Fletcher brings another drummer into the band. Fletcher then maliciously pits his drummers against each other in an intense sequence where all three drummers play themselves through blood, toil, sweat, and tears as they try to earn the right to perform the double-time swing in the song ‘Caravan’.

The conflict between Andrew and Fletcher throughout this film is harrowing to behold as Andrew undergoes a disturbing transformation. He goes from being a quiet, mild-mannered boy, frequently spending his afternoons with his father and too shy to ask out the pretty girl who works at the cinema, to an aggressive, wrathful man who scorns his family for failing to appreciate how talented he is and who pushes himself to extreme lengths in order to be the best. He pursues a path of desolation and self-destruction, all the while with Fletcher’s merciless attacks provoking him even further.

Fletcher might have easily turned out to be a caricature of a character (not unlike J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films) if not for the depth he is given. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Fletcher comes to a session with a mournful look on his face. He asks his band to listen to a piece of music and after a moment reveals that the musician they are listening to is a former student of his who recently died in an accident. He praises his late-student as a “beautiful player” before bursting into tears. It is astonishing to see a man who has performed such heinous acts over the course of the film show such sensitivity. Knowing what we know about him, one starts to wonder whether his outburst is motivated by grief or by guilt.

As Andrew pursues his destructive ambitions, the film raises the question of how far one should go when pursuing their dreams and whether there’s even such a thing as going too far. A recurring story that Fletcher tells to justify his actions recalls an incident where Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for failing to keep the tempo during a concert, an incident that motivated Parker to practice obsessively until he delivered the iconic performance that made him the jazz legend that he is today. This story is used as an incentive for Andrew to endure all the trials and tribulations that are thrown at him because they are what it takes for someone like him to be a great musician. Yet as Andrew pushes himself further and further and becomes more volatile, we the audience are unsure whether or not he will even survive this ordeal. The result is a truly astonishing film with an explosive finale that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat.

★★★★★