Justice League (12A) **
Good Time (15) ****
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (15) ****
Ingrid Goes West (15) ****
Mudbound (15) ****
There’s no getting round the fact that DC can’t seem to get it together when it comes to expanding its iconic roster of superheroes into a coherent cinematic universe. The little-loved Batman v Superman proved too nihilistic and ponderous for audiences primed on Marvel. Suicide Squad was just garbage, and Wonder Woman succeeded partly by ditching Bruce Wayne and co. in the opening minutes and concentrating instead on being a satisfying comic book movie in its own right. Justice League, though, marks another slow-motion leap backwards after the Amazonian’s adventures in no man’s land earlier this year. In narrative terms, it might give Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman/Diana Prince parity with Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, but it’s hard to maintain interest in a film that requires both to chew over cloth-eared dialogue, adopt endlessly ridiculous poses amidst fiery CGI set pieces and contend with a world-ending plot involving a horned alien known as Steppenwolf as he unleashes an army of fear-sensing superbugs while traversing the globe search of – try to contain your excitement – a trio of energy boxes.
Directed once again by Zack Snyder (the architect of DC’s extended universe) and co-written by Joss Whedon (who successfully marshalled Marvel’s disparate heroes into The Avengers before nullifying his own efforts with its bigger-not-better sequel), it’s a film constructed of epic moments that have no real lasting or cumulative dramatic effect. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing that raises a smile. Whedon’s influence is arguably most detectable in the Flash, a nicely judged turn from Ezra Miller, whose nervy performance provides some welcome levity. He’s the most entertaining member of the eponymous crew, which includes Aquaman (Jason Momoa – not quite transcending the character’s inherent silliness) and Cyborg (newcomer Ray Fisher), a character that, at the risk of bloating the film’s uncharacteristically contained 120-minute running time, really could have benefited from some fleshing out. Likewise, it’s frustrating to see actors like JK Simmons (taking over as Commissioner Gordon) and Amy Adams (returning as Lois Lane) sidelined to cameos. Then again, given the corny dialogue (Adams’s one big scene even takes place in a cornfield) that’s maybe for the best. A post-credit stinger promises yet more of these films, but with the tag-team approach functioning like cinematic kryptonite, maybe DC would be better served concentrating on standalone movies for its A-list characters instead. A Wonder Woman sequel is certainly more appealing at this point.
The strange, true story of faded Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame’s late-in-life romance with a young Scouse stage actor is the subject of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Starring Annette Bening as Grahame and Jamie Bell as Peter Turner (upon whose memoir the film is based), it’s a defiantly unsentimental yet heartfelt portrait of their incongruous relationship. The incongruity has less to do with the age difference (about which the film remains admirably non-judgmental) and more to do with the culture clash between working class Britain and an idea of Hollywood that’s so ephemeral it can elude the grasp of even those who had a hand in creating it. Glaswegian director Paul McGuigan understands that dynamic well and gets great performances from his leads, making a virtue of their chemistry together, particularly in the early joyous stages of their relationship when Peter, charmingly, has no idea who Grahame is.
Like his former Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson continues to eschew blockbuster work in favour of more interesting arthouse fare. Good Time, the fierce new feature from New York directing siblings Josh and Bennie Safdie, casts him as Connie Nikas, an ex-con who enlists his learning-disabled brother Nick (played by Bennie Safdie) to rob a bank. What follows as Nick is arrested and Connie tries desperately to spring him from custody plays like a comedy of errors minus the comedy. Instead, the Safdies’ raw documentary aesthetic transforms the film into a tense, uncomfortable exposé of desperate, damaged people unsuccessfully trying to bend the world to their own will.
Ingrid Goes West offers Parks and Recreation star Aubrey Plaza her best film role to date as a mentally unstable woman obsessed with a social media celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen) whose aspirational lifestyle she wants for herself. Riffing on the likes of Single White Female and The King of Comedy, it’s both a sly satire and a skin-crawling exploration of narcissism in the age of Instagram, with Plaza expertly negotiating a tricky role.
Simultaneously debuting on Netflix and in cinemas, Mudbound sees writer/director Dee Rees transform a story about a struggling white farming family and their uneasy relationship with their neighbouring black tenants into a complex exploration of race in Second World War-era America. Unflinching in its treatment of a difficult subject, yet boasting the craftsmanship and narrative drive of a sweeping historical epic, it’s a film that’s very much in dialogue with US politics today, examining both the economic injustice that binds the marginalised together and the systemic inequality that foments divisions along racial lines.
Accordingly, Rees splits the narrative point of view between six main characters (played by Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J Blige, Garrett Hedlund, Rob Morgan and Jason Mitchell) and shifts back and forth in perspective via stream-of-consciousness narration – a technique that at times makes this feel like a rougher-hewn Days of Heaven, albeit pointedly free of nostalgia for a time in which the hypocrisy of a country fighting for freedom abroad while denying it to so many at home should have been self-evident. ■