Film Review: Malignant

Directed by: James Wan; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C

Regardless of how one might feel about the likes of Saw and The Conjuring, it’s hard to dispute that director James Wan has played a crucial role in shaping the modern landscape of horror cinema. One of the reasons why his films have been successful up to this point can be seen in the personal angles found within each: the embittered villain Jigsaw who teaches moral lessons about the value of life; the harrowing scenario of a child’s coma and demonic possession in Insidious; the historical “truths” behind married paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Instead of diving back into the sequel well, James Wan has conjured a new vision of stylized terror with Malignant, which again possesses a deeper undercurrent involving pregnancy struggles and repressed memories. This is also Wan’s most audacious creation to date, and while pushing those boundaries may result in outrageously fun gore and haunted house trappings, Malignant cartwheels into a realm of absurdity that its emotive intents can’t back up.

Not unlike Saw, much of the strength behind watching Malignant lies in the bizarre twists and turn that essentially start with the first scene, so I’m going to evade as many revelatory spoilers as possible while offering some idea about what’s going on. Shortly after pregnant medical worker Madison (Annabelle Wallis) returns to her spooky, shadowy multi-story home after a long shift, she and her abusive boyfriend are assaulted by a blur of an invader, putting her in the hospital. While the police are investigating the murder of another local medical professional, they find evidence suggesting that the victim – and, by extension, the killer -- may have some connection to Madison. In turn, Madison begins to have nightmarish visions that tie to this murder … and murders that either haven’t happened yet or just haven’t been discovered. As more details emerge in the investigations, further info is revealed about Madison’s dark past and how it relates to the eerie, deformed dressed-in-black killer wreaking havoc in the area.

James Wan has frequently injected an elevated tone into the reality of his horror films, yet in his previous works they were anchored by enough grimness in their visual language and rhythm of the dialogue that they could still be processed at face value. From the start, there’s something suspiciously overstated about Malignant that, despite equally grim circumstances at the beginning of the film, make it tough to buy into the cinematic illusion. From the gloomy lighting and eerie angles amplifying the extravagant appearance of Madison’s home to the overdramatic dialogue, performances, and soundtrack – complete with a repetitious cover of “Where is My Mind?” that sounds like warning alarms -- the stylization never stops feeling like the trappings of a haunted house with something unnatural hiding behind every corner. Unfortunately, this undermines the emotive drama built around Madison’s post-trauma stress and history of difficulty having children, let alone that Malignant may not even be supernatural in nature.

As soon as the antagonist brandishes a gnarly golden short sword alongside an enigmatic black trench coat, it becomes clear that director Wan and co-screenwriters Ingrid Bisu and Akela Cooper really want the villain to become a thing, not just a one-and-done villain. Malignant furthers that impression with a handful of vicious kill scenes that merge ‘80s-level bloody lavishness with convincing modern execution, making up for some of the clashing aesthetics with outrageous scenes of brutality once the killer begins to execute their list of victims. It’s here that the flashy midnight-movie vibe works best, cloaking the identity of the killer with heavy shadows, loud radio distortion noises and fizzling lightbulbs, and during those moments it doesn’t really matter whether they’re some Freddy or Jason-like monster or a human whose identity is being concealed with movie magic. Malignant has its most undistracted fun when the killer’s allowed to unleash hell and escape without a care for the story going on around it.

Crafting an iconic villain is great and all, but there’s a horror movie trying to exist around them as well, and it’s a maddeningly ridiculous one that’s treading water until Malignant can pull the curtain back on their identity. It’s the kind of horror movie where a young woman will drive far out to an abandoned hospital alone, pull up to the dilapidated building at night on the edge of a steep cliff, and be completely fine with going in despite there being a murderer on the loose killing people involved with the reason she’s out there. The kind of movie -- not unlike Sucker Punch or The Final Girls -- where ups and downs in genuine character behaviors or outlandish locations could theoretically be clues pointing toward a false reality or cheeky horror homages, or directorial shortcomings and misguided flourishes of style … or both. While a plot twist can sort some of this out by explaining why aspects of this character or the atmosphere of that location seemed off at first glance, it isn’t a universal solvent for all strangeness, and the silly aspects of Malignant end up preventing it from thriving as a competent slice of horror.

While James Wan’s latest creation essentially overwhelms the audience with twist after twist, there’s ultimately one seismic revelation at the core of Malignant, and the effectiveness of it will likely depend on who’s watching it: someone who needs twists to obey the rules previously established by the film, or someone who enjoys being shocked by outlandishness regardless of whether it makes sense. I’ll be honest, the way the antagonist “transforms” after this reveal – and the visuals that Wan twists into existence in response to it – almost had me feeling like the second type for a minute, relishing the inventive grotesquery despite what caused it. That said, Malignant tears open too many holes in the story and breaks too many rules of the world it established for the ultimate reveal of the killer’s identity to be taken with any kind of seriousness, where even those with fondness for the likes of David Cronenberg and Dario Argento will find it all a bit of a stretch.

Photos: Warner Bros.

Film Review: Zack Snyder's Justice League

Directed by: Zack Snyder; Runtime: 242 minutes
Grade: C+

The story behind the original theatrical release of Justice League almost overpowered the execution of the film itself, yet that’s arguably even more of the case with this long-awaited, almost mythical unveiling of the “Snyder Cut”. Confirmed to exist by the likes of Jason Momoa, it quickly gained a reputation for being a much-longer and tonally different iteration than Joss Whedon’s serviceably lukewarm reshoots, rewrites, and recuts, and by default was assumed to be the superior version by fans of the movie universe. As a direct result of an aggressive internet campaign and with the introduction of HBO’s new streaming service, HBO Max, the suits at the top and original director Zack Snyder -- who, for those in the dark, also directed Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice -- came to an agreement that would bring him back to salvage his original vision of Justice League for the new streaming service. Well, after tons of money dumped into it and a long wait, it’s finally here … and? Again, while it certainly does improve upon what came before it in ways, a good 4-hour movie that doesn’t make.

If you’re after a rough synopsis of this story’s founding of the Justice League, the presence of the main villain Steppenwolf, and the need for Superman after his death, check out previous reviews of the theatrical cut -- like mine! -- for that. With that out of the way, the comments that Zack Snyder’s Justice League is literally the same movie as the one from 2017, only longer, should be put to rest: this is not quite the same thing as a slightly tweaked “extended edition”. Motivations have been adjusted. Characters have more substance. Some unpopular quirks from the previous cut have been removed. The visual effects have been extensively reworked, from the design of the main villain to the landscape. To cap it off, this new cut places a stronger emphasis on one of DC’s most significant villains, Darkseid, as the primary impetus for not-so-big bad Steppenwolf coming to Earth. There are noteworthy alterations, and Snyder should be commended for having the bravado to go back into this project with a dark history and realizing his vision.

In another sense, this Snyder Cut of Justice League is absolutely “the same movie”. Some things simply cannot be altered without rewriting the script, chiefly that it’s all about chasing down the trio of magic supercomputer “Mother Boxes” that restructure and annihilate life when they’re synced because the script says they do. This new Snyder Cut offers a modified explanation as to why the boxes were abandoned on Earth in the first place, and the answer isn’t convincing, pushing the narrative even more into the shallow, logic-deficient spectrum than it already was. There’s also a clash of ideas in Justice League, in which Batman / Bruce Wayne scrambles to gather together these superheroes to combat a powerful other-worldly villain all on the backbone of them being able to overcome anything if they’re united … yet completely acknowledges that they’re screwed without bringing Superman back from the dead. The Justice League can do it, so long as the near-impervious and overpowered Man of Steel is around.

So no, the Snyder Cut is neither a pointless extension of the theatrical version of Justice League nor a transformation into the hidden masterpiece that the project’s most stalwart supporters hoped it would be. What Zack Snyder’s Justice League ends up being, however, is an improvement with drawbacks: a project that takes fewer steps back than it takes forward, and a project that makes one understand why parts might’ve been restructured in the first place. Perhaps the most high-profile aspect of this whole thing would be the character of the mechanized super hacker Cyborg, the center of controversy regarding Joss Whedon and how he streamlined Ray Fisher’s role in the narrative. The breadth of his character has been restored, and it’s pretty easy to chalk it up as one of the noteworthy successes in this experiment with rejuvenating the original content. Cyborg does harness more of the “heart and soul” of Justice League here through a bleaker, more affective story; Ray Fisher has some justification behind being disappointed, though I believe the magnitude of his content being reinstated has been oversold.

The antagonist Steppenwolf remains a mess, though, and he isn’t helped by the added larger role for the presumed future DCEU supervillain, his boss and relative Darkseid. Plenty of digital work went into transforming how he looks, and the outcome tends to be a mixed bag of eye candy and dull continuity. The theatrical cut’s design may’ve been bland, but it still captured some of the original character’s vaguely humanoid appearance, whereas this restored “original design” looks like the craggy defeated villain from Batman vs. Superman -- an awkward realization of Doomsday -- glued a bunch of knives all over his body and came back for Round 2. Coupled with the presence of Darkseid, it starts to seem like the rest of the DC villains worth putting onscreen are stony-skinned, broad-faced goons with endless swaths of winged faceless underlings at their disposal. While it’s understandable that Steppenwolf might’ve been remolded to look more like he’s from the same bloodline as Darkseid, this also reveals a lack of inspiration behind the antagonist forces up against the League, regardless of whether they're drawn from the source material.

Perhaps the most noteworthy and substantive change to Zack Snyder’s Justice League might be both its most reverential to the comics and, oddly enough, its most detrimental to the film as its own entity. Fans will get a charge out of it, but the restoration of supervillain Darkseid's heavier presence in the story also makes the film itself more cluttered, also introducing a secondary method of widely eliminating planets and lifeforms. Look, I understand the jolt of excitement that’ll come over fans when hearing certain things being name-dropped in a Justice League movie, but the inclusion of a more interesting “side plan” or “Plan B” that the real villain will execute later diminishes the impact of what’s going on here and now with Steppenwolf, which already struggles with 3 awkwardly volatile MacGuffin-like boxes being hunted down by a second-rate lackey (that still requires Superman to beat). This is one of the instances where any changes in the theatrical cut make some sense: in a movie already filled with a slew of new characters and hokey plot devices, it’d be best to leave the actual reveal of Darkseid and his bigger ambitions for a later date, if it comes.

Even though it was a rushed two hours, the original version of Justice League still does a fine enough job of giving the characters breathing room to be introduced and develop as beings, from the penniless and sarcastic youngster Flash to the gristly, boozy cynicism of Aquaman. Goes without saying at this point, but Affleck's Batman and Gadot's Wonder Woman are standouts regardless of the version. The Snyder Cut may add to certain aspects of their characters -- and, by undoing some of Whedon’s modifications, subdues them -- but for the most part, they feel roughly the same and not overhauled like Cyborg. Something else about this film as a whole remains true: there are too many new character concepts packed into too tight of a window, in which Snyder tries to force into existence something akin to the Marvel cinematic universe in a fraction of the time. An extra hour doesn’t help this, especially when it’s these additional character moments where the movie also indulges in more of Snyder’s slow-motion music video level of content. Pacing is certainly an issue with this lengthy cut of Justice League, and these elongated stretches feel like where the tightening or removal of content would be most justified.

Quick admission: I’m not much of a fan of Superman, but the charm and poise of Henry Cavill makes it very difficult not to embrace his rendition of the character on at least some level. To that end, the quest to resurrect Superman -- regardless of how exasperating the character’s endless powers may be -- remains an effective aspect of Justice League, amplified in Zack Snyder’s cut by delivering pure, unadulterated fan service. The most mocked aspect of Whedon’s Justice League, the awkward Superman intro where his mustache has been digitally replaced with an entirely new lower part of his face, has obviously been removed entirely. In its place, Snyder returns to the more successfully emotional aspects of Man of Steel in how he revives the Son of Krypton, both physically and emotionally, and yeah, there’s a black and silver suit involved. Whether this expanded glimpse into his comeback is any good or not, whether this and that make enough sense, becomes less relevant when Kal-El reemerges in those threads ... albeit, much, much later in the film. Between Cavill, the music and the spike in cinematic energy, it’s worth it.

Zack Snyder’s grand finale still has the same rough framework as the theatrical cut, but it feels very different in both tone and visual design. A frequent complaint with Snyder’s films have always been how dark and grim they are, and it’s pretty clear that creative decisions were made to “brighten up” the ending for theaters, from lighting up the sky with an apocalyptic orange hue to making dialogue quippier and emphasizing that the superheroes cared for civilians in the surrounding area of the final battle. For better and for worse, Snyder reverses these adjustments to craft a final act more aligned with his insistently gloomy sensibilities, shrouding everything in near-grayscale darkness and making it so the heroes are concerned with nothing else but their primary mission. It’s also more violent, leaning into its R-rated possibilities with the caliber of bloodshed. Those who were adamant about the theatrical cut’s inferiority will automatically see these changes in a positive light, but those changes also result in a leaden, nonsensical conclusion that misperceives decapitations and time travel as quality.

Opinions and attitudes about the Snyder Cut have run hot over the past year, with one side fully on the bandwagon with championing the continued potential of the Snyderverse and the other side arguing that his Justice League would follow suit with the rest of his subpar-reviewed superhero work. Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, either side or in the middle, there should be at least one takeaway after finally seeing Zack Snyder’s Justice League: this is the cut that matters. There’s talk about which version will be the “canonical” choice for DC’s cinematic universe, but it’s a discussion that really doesn’t carry much weight, as they both essentially reach the same destination once it’s all said and done. One just takes the longer, preferred route with more interesting things to look at and has an ending that hits differently; either way, if they’re ready for Justice League 2, it’ll be easy to write a follow-up that essentially branches off from both. Thing is, even with a bizarre 4x3 aspect ratio, nobody’s going to want to go on Joss Whedon’s bumpy ride anymore after seeing this Snyder Cut.

Photos: WB/HBO

Film Review: Tom and Jerry (2021)

Directed by: Tim Story; Runtime: 101 minutes
Grade: D

Despite a rich history that includes the likes of Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, there’s always the urge to remind Hollywood that combining real-life actors with hand-drawn animated characters from the past rarely turns out well in the modern era. Yet, for every Garfield or Smurfs or most recently Woody Woodpecker, all tonally jumbled and awkwardly unfunny pieces of work, there’s a Sonic the Hedgehog that comes along to prove that, sure, it’s possible to get the balance between realities and styles of humor right. Which brings us to Tom and Jerry, the latest of these hybrid endeavors from Barbershop and Fantastic Four director Tim Story, a project that had been kicked around in development for over a decade prior to it finally being filmed shortly before the pandemic brought Hollywood to a standstill. It’s a decade-long tale that comes to a thud of a conclusion, resulting in yet another outrageously unamusing live-action cartoon that loses its grip on a relative sense of reality.

Perhaps even less than other classic cartoons, there isn’t a lot to the story of Tom and Jerry, just a string of other recurring characters who complicate the endless chase between the titular house cat and a mouse that's just a step or two ahead of him. For the most part, the cartoons take place in a run-of-the-mill American home, filled with obstacles and makeshift weapons -- matches, fireplace pokers, drills, clothes irons, you name it -- that provide the two adversaries plenty of ways to thwart one another. Sometimes they go on boats and to train stations, but these were unique excursions. This live-action film can be seen as one of those excursions, sort of: both Tom and Jerry are trying to find a way to live inside of a high-profile hotel, during the period where a ritzy wedding will be taking place. A newly-hired employee at the hotel, Kayla (Chloe Grace Moretz), has been tasked with managing their presence in the building and keeping the mouse specifically away from the wedding proceedings. Jerry, and to a lesser extent Tom, have other plans.

Look, I’m not really interested in getting into the debate about violence in older cartoons, but it’s worth noting that the personalities of Tom and Jerry are particularly at the mercy of the zany whack-a-mouse antics between ‘em. Even though they live in a weirdly crossbred world where animals can at the very least talk amongst themselves, the two of them never speak, which forces their brutal chasing after one another to be the extent of their characters; Tom’s reasonably smart but reckless, Jerry’s a smarter troublemaker, and that’s about it. This live-action movie shoulders the challenge of being truthful to this lineage while also being careful with modern family-friendly sensibilities, so we’ve got a cat and mouse that never speak despite other dogs, cats, birds, elephants, etc. around them being chatty, and where the slapstick comedy carefully tiptoes around point-blank violence with obvious weapons. Amid mixed signals about what sort of reality we’re working with, one where a hotel apparently built in a mouse hole at one time that slides along a wall, there’s a void here in the shape of why it’s worth suspending this much disbelief.

Those who wrote Tom and Jerry understand the conundrum, and that’s where the rest of the film’s hotel setup comes from, providing a place where the homeless (?) cat and mouse desperately want to stay. Enter Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays a seemingly sharp hustler of a millennial and serves as a way for the audience to, in some form, connect with the animated characters as she tries to keep them out. Moretz seems to be at her best when portraying a character with a somber backstory or a heavy sarcastic streak, and she’s working with half of that equation with the vivacious yet deceptive Kayla, a fairly typical yet annoyingly featureless twentysomething who laments her lack of experience and qualifying skills. How she finds herself in a position of authority at a prestigious hotel is the stuff of, well, cartoons: the flippant rhythm of Chloe Grace Moretz’s delivery ensures that little will be taken seriously as she “fakes it until she makes it”, or in how she interacts with the overly stiff hotel managers played by wasted comic-relief potentials Rob Delaney and Michael Pena.

There’s this massive, important wedding at the center of Tom and Jerry that’s filled with the extravagance of elephants, drone cameras, and the fawning adoration of social-media “influencers”, and, frankly, it seems like it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. Don’t ask any questions about why Kayla’s hired to help oversee this event or why her resume isn’t looked at with suspicion, because that’s a dead end; however, the growing rom-com sappiness at the heart it all can’t help but make one question why it needs to be there in the first place. Sure, it’s there because the event itself creates more of a collision course with the film’s animated stars, but it also presents a glaring and unnecessary reason why Kayla wouldn’t be hired on the spot and why the hotel wouldn’t take any chances with not hiring pros to get rid of freeloading critters. While, yes, this could be viewed as nitpicking at what’s essentially a cartoon in motion, it’s also the aspect responsible for holding the focus of slightly more adult-minded audiences, and there's little care for any sort of internal logic.

Brief moments are still there when Tom and Jerry captures the live-action cartoon goals of the production, specifically a scene where the two characters completely ransack a hotel room chasing after one another, marrying clever flowing camerawork with their whirlwind movements. Stuff breaks everywhere, debris flies in every which direction, and the animation and production design come rather close to selling the illusion not unlike how Who Frame Roger Rabbit? does at its most energetic points. These exists in bursts, shorter than cartoons but about the same length as the “action” bits in an episode, which should appease both the youngest of audiences and the nostalgic for however fleeting those moments end up being. Even if there’s some enjoyment to be had in those slapstick antics in Tom and Jerry, there’s over an hour and a half of ineffectual rom-com and soul-searching workplace dramedy padding it all out, time that’d be better spent revisiting the beautifully-drawn classic cartoons of a bygone era.

Photos: Warner Bros.