BULLET TRAIN (2022) – Stylized Action Sequences and Silly Banter the New Norm in Hollywood

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Stylized action and banter.

That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.

BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!

BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.

Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.

But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.

As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.

BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.

Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.

Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.

Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.

The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.

This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.

Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.

The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.

Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.

BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.

Sort of.

At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.

BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.

A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.

But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.

BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.

Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.

—END—

THE GRAY MAN (2022) – Emphasis on Action over Story Hinders Netflix Pairing of Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans

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Too much action. Not enough story.

That’s how I felt after watching THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new action thriller from Netflix, which is also playing in theaters. In spite of an impressive cast and a pair of talented directors, at the end of the day, this one was all about the action, which admittedly was very good, but in terms of story, sadly, there simply wasn’t much there.

In THE GRAY MAN, a shadowy CIA assassin known as Six (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a plot by his superiors Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) to assassinate a fellow agent who had learned of their illegal activities, and once Six learns this information, he also becomes a target. To take down Six, Carmichael hires their most ruthless and unpredictable assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who immediately abducts Six’s former handler FItzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage.

Six ends up teaming with fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) who is also targeted by Carmichael and Lloyd, who seem to want to take out every other CIA assassin on the planet. And that’s it for plot, as the rest of the movie is simply a set up for one action scene after another as Lloyd and Six go after each other. And it’s not a very original plot either, as it’s right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

THE GRAY MAN was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the guys who directed AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVL WAR (2016). They know how to make blockbuster action movies. The action sequences in THE GRAY MAN are excellent, and I’m not going to lie, I had fun watching them, but without an exciting story or fun characters, the action scenes on their own weren’t enough for me to really enjoy this movie.

There’s an exciting sequence on a plane, which hearkens back to two old James Bond movies, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) when Six is tangling with assassins on the plane which has a big hole in it, and MOONRAKER (1979) when Six falls out of the plane without a parachute and then fights a bad guy in midair, two sequences which were both done better in those aforementioned James Bond movies. There are slick car chases, lots of loud shoot-outs and explosions, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat scenes, all professionally executed, but without a story or memorable characters, none of them truly resonate.

Joe Russo wrote the screenplay, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and all three of these guys have lots of screenwriting credits, but it didn’t really help them here. The plot, as I said, is right out of a Jason Bourne movie, and the characters are cardboard and dull, with the exception of Chris Evans’ character, Lloyd.

I’m a fan of the work of Ryan Gosling, and he’s enjoyable here as Six, and he’s also believable in the role of super assassin. But, Six is kind of a one note character, and ultimately, he doesn’t really give Gosling a lot to do other than to look unstoppable and heroic. And he is heroic. Unlike Jason Bourne, who in spite of always wanting to clear his name, still operated with a sense of uncertainty and explosiveness about him, Six is a good guy to his core, which kinda makes him boring.

Chris Evans has more fun and more success playing against type as the over-the-top villain, Lloyd Hansen. This guy is not Captain America! He’s the complete opposite of Six in that he is all villain. Strangely, at the end of the day, he’s also on the boring side. And that’s because even though this movie is called THE GRAY MAN, neither main character has gray areas, and that’s just not that interesting. Characters with more balance in general are more captivating. So, it’s kinda sorta fun watching Evans ham it up as a bad guy, but it’s not completely satisfying because it turns out Lloyd is nothing more than a glorified assh*le.

I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ana de Armas, and her performance as super tough assassin Dani was probably my favorite of the movie. She just starred in the latest James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021), a film I enjoyed much more than THE GRAY MAN, but it was a very small role, and basically, she just got to strut her stuff in one brief sequence. She’s in THE GRAY MAN a whole lot more, and the movie is that much better for it. She’s believable in her action scenes, and unlike Gosling or Evans, she holds back on letting us know who Dani is exactly, and if there’s one character in the movie with a gray area, it’s Dani.

THE GRAY MAN reunites Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling, as the two co-starred in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and they work well together, as in both movies they generated some decent on-screen chemistry.

Rege-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick are okay as the main villains in the movie who are constantly pulling strings behind the scenes, but neither of them is terribly exciting. Neither is Billy Bob Thornton as Six’s former handler Fitzroy. It’s a rather thankless role without any depth.

I did enjoy the work of Dhanush, who plays yet another super assassin Avik San who’s called in late in the game to take down Six. Avik, in his brief time on screen, benefits from some gray areas in his personality. If only the two leads had benefitted from the same.

Also in the cast are Alfre Woodard as another CIA handler, an unrecognizable Wagner Moura as a shady character who provides new identities, and in a blink-if-you miss him cameo, Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father in a flashback. This is the third movie in as many weeks in which the plot involved an abusive dad, following WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) and THE BLACK PHONE (2022). It’s also the third time that Wagner Moura has co-starred with Ana de Armas, as they previously starred together in SERGIO (2020) and WASP NETWORK (2019).

THE GRAY MAN was okay. With its talented cast, directors, and writers, it should have been better. And while I enjoyed its action scenes, even those weren’t fantastic. Another recent Netflix actioner EXTRACTION (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth had superior action sequences. But what ultimately drags THE GRAY MAN down is its unoriginal blah story, and characters who in spite of the film’s title, just don’t possess many gray areas.

All action and no plot make THE GRAY MAN a dull man.

—END—

KNIVES OUT (2019) – Whodunit Mystery More Like Clue than Christie

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I suspect foul play!

So says Daniel Craig’s Detective Benoit Blanc in his sometimes effective Southern drawl in the new whodunit mystery KNIVES OUT (2019).

Actually it’s not much of a pronouncement. Nearly everyone in this movie has a motive for murder.

KNIVES OUT is a lively comedic whodunit that is receiving high praise from critics and fans alike. Sure, it’s energetic and punchy, throwing its audience nonstop curves, keeping everyone guessing, and it pays homage to the classic murder mysteries of yesteryear. But I found its tale of murder and family intrigue contrived from the get-go, and as such, I had much less fun with this one than a lot of other folks.

Acclaimed author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found slain in the opening moments of the movie, and soon after, famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is on the case, which is at first ruled a suicide, but as Blanc says, he suspects foul play. And of course he should, because the night before Thrombey’s death, he celebrated his 85th birthday at a lavish party at his home with his family, who all had contentious moments with him, some even ending in shouting matches.

It seems that many in his family had reasons for doing him in. There’s his oldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), her husband Richard (Don Johnson), his daughter Joni (Toni Collette), his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon), and his grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). There are more suspects as well, including his young personal nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) who Blanc takes particular interest in, mostly because of her peculiar trait of vomiting whenever she tells a lie.

And that’s the plot, as Blanc questions the suspects , and the audience sees past events shown in flashback, as we all try to figure out just who murdered Harlan Thrombey. As mysteries go, it’s a good one, as there are so many possibilities, the answer is not easy to decipher. Then again, and this is the main problem I had with this film, it’s all so convoluted and contrived. It’s confusing on purpose, the goal of writer/director Rian Johnson being to construct a story that’s nearly impossible to figure out because that’s what whodunits are all about, the thinking being that it’s fun not to know who committed the crime. That’s the intention, but the result is less fun as it’s all very forced and simply not believable. At the end of the day, it’s all very cartoonish and comical. So, for me it played less like an Agatha Christie tale and more like an homage to the old CLUE (1985) movie.

The best part of KNIVES OUT is its all-star cast. Yet, while everyone in this film is very good, nobody steals the show or has moments which lift the material to higher levels.

Chris Evans gets the best lines in the movie as the unpredictable and fiery grandson Ransom Drysdale, the relative who seems to miff everyone in the family on a day-to-day basis.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, and Michael Shannon all have their moments, but none of these folks get scene-stealing bits. As much as I did not like the reimagining of HALLOWEEN (2018), Curtis’ performance in that film was more notable than what she’s given to do here. Likewise, Michael Shannon has certainly enjoyed meatier roles. For example, his performance as George Westinghouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), which was just released in 2019, was much more impressive. Of these folks, I probably enjoyed Don Johnson the best.

Daniel Craig is OK as Detective Benoit Blanc, but he certainly didn’t wow me. I enjoyed his previous take on a Southern character better, as the explosive Joe Bang in the comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017).

The majority of the movie centers around the character of Marta, and Ana de Armas is more than up to the task of handling the bulk of the screen time. Interestingly enough, de Armas and Daniel Craig will be reunited in the upcoming Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE, due out in April of 2020.

Writer/director Rian Johnson, known for such films as STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII- THE LAST JEDI (2018) and LOOPER (2012), infuses KNIVES OUT with nonstop quirkiness and oomph, but the result is mixed. It’s a case I think of trying to be too clever and cute. The entire film plays as if everyone in front of the camera and behind it is winking at the audience, inviting them into their playful whodunit world of mystery and murder, and the audience for the most part knows it’s in on the joke, that this story is played for fun and laughs. The trouble is this strategy only goes so far. The general mood of the entire film is gamesome, but the specific moments where the characters and the script should be drawing the audience in really aren’t there. The contrivances rule the day. The connections to the audience do not.

I saw KNIVES OUT in a packed theater. yet the audience was largely quiet. While folks seemed amused, it certainly wasn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

KNIVES OUT was enjoyable for me in a silly way that was never anything more than fluff and contrivances, the way I would feel after playing the game of Clue, not after reading an Agatha Christie novel.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

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While I enjoyed AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) well enough, I liked the previous installment of the Marvel Avengers’ saga, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) much better.

For me, INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of action-adventure, well-placed humor, and raw emotion. It also didn’t hurt that it had one heck of an ending, one that left audience members gasping in shock at the bold decision made by the filmmakers.

Thanos won.

Those two words still make me groan.

Speaking of words, let’s get back to the point of this column, and lighten things up a bit. A huge reason why INFINITY WAR was so enjoyable was its script. Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenplay did a remarkable job giving each and every character in the film key moments and quality screen time. As such, there were a lot of memorable lines in this one, most of which need very little explanation or setting up.

Let’s have a listen:

One of the main reasons the script in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR was so lively was because of the interactions of all the different characters, many of which were meeting each other for the first time, like here when Tony Stark first runs into the Guardians of the Galaxy:

PETER QUILL: Everybody stay where you are. Chill the eff out. I’m gonna ask you this one time. Where is Gamora?

TONY STARK: Yeah. I’ll do you one better. Who’s Gamora?

DRAX: I’ll do you one better. Why is Gamora?

 

And this exchange between Doctor Strange and Peter Quill:

DOCTOR STRANGE: Ok, let me ask you this one time: What master do you serve?

PETER QUILL: Oh, what master do I serve? What am I supposed to say, Jesus?

 

The Guardians get some of the funniest lines in the film, like this sequence with Thor:

THOR: There are six stones out there. Thanos already has the Power Stone because he stole it last week when he decimated Xandar. He stole the Space Stone from me when he destroyed my ship and slaughtered half my people. The Time and Mind Stones are safe on Earth, they’re with the Avengers.

PETER QUILL: The Avengers?

THOR: The Earth’s mightiest heroes.

MANTIS: Like Kevin Bacon?

THOR: He may be on the team. I don’t know, I haven’t been there in a while.

 

And here with Tony Stark and Peter Parker:

TONY STARK: We gotta coalesce. Because if all we come out is with a plucky attitude—.

PETER QUILL: Dude, don’t call us plucky. We don’t know what it means. We’re more optimistic, yes. I like your plan. Except, it sucks. So let me do the plan and that way it might be really good.

DRAX: Tell him about the dance-off to save the Universe.

TONY STARK: What dance-off?

PETER QUILL: It’s not a thing.

PETER PARKER: Like in Footloose, the movie?

PETER QUILL: Exactly like Footloose. Is it still the greatest movie in history?

PETER PARKER: It never was.

TONY STARK: Don’t encourage Flash Gordon.

PETER QUILL: Flash Gordon? That’s a compliment. Don’t forget, I’m half human. So that 50% of me that’s stupid. That’s 100% you.

 

Another reason AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR works so well is because Thanos is one of the best Marvel movie villains of all time, and the movie gives him depth and plenty of key scenes. One could make the argument that INFINITY WAR is really Thanos’ story, as it follows his quest to obtain the Infinity Stones and make good on his promise to wipe out half the population of the universe all in the interest of saving it. Thanos gets a lot of memorable lines, like in this dramatic exchange with his daughter and current Guardian of the Galaxy, Gamora:

GAMORA: I was a child when you took me.

THANOS: I saved you.

GAMORA; No. We were happy on my home planet.

THANOS: You were going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps. Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I’m the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.

GAMORA: Because you murdered half the planet.

THANOS: A small price to pay for salvation.

GAMORA: You’re insane.

THANOS: Little one, it’s a simple calculus. This universe is finite, its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.

GAMORA: You don’t know that!

THANOS: I’m the only one who knows that. At least, I’m the only one with the will to act on it.

And in one of the more dramatic sequences in the film, here with Gamora again, and Red Skull, when Thanos realizes that in order to secure this particular Stone he has to sacrifice someone he loves.

GAMORA: All my life I dreamed of a day, a moment, when you got what you deserved. And I was always so disappointed. But now, you kill and torture and you call it mercy. The universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize and it told you no. You failed. And do you wanna know why? Because you love nothing. No one.

(Thanos sheds tears.)

GAMORA: Really? Tears?

RED SKULL: They are not for him.

And at the moment, the audience realizes what’s going to happen next, what Thanos is about to do. I can still feel the shivers. Heck, nearly every time Thanos speaks I feel shivers. Just listen:

THANOS: I know what it’s like to lose. To feel so desperately that you’re right, yet to fail nonetheless. It’s frightening, turns the legs to jelly. I ask you to what end? Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here. Or should I say, I am.

I just have to say, in addition to the screenplay, Josh Brolin’s performance as Thanos really deserves a shout out.  Brolin nailed it as Thanos throughout.

Okay, time to lighten things up again.

Two other characters who met for the first time in INFINITY WAR, Thor and Rocket Raccoon, enjoyed a lot of lively exchanges:

ROCKET: You speak Groot?

THOR: Yes, they taught it on Asgard. It was an elective.

 

ROCKET: This is Thanos we’re talking about. He’s the toughest there is.

THOR:  Well, he’s never fought me.

ROCKET: Yeah, he has.

THOR: He’s never fought me twice.

 

Then there’s this humorous exchange between Tony Stark and Doctor Strange:

TONY STARK: If Thanos needs all six, why don’t we just stick this one down a garbage disposal?

DOCTOR STRANGE: No can do.

WONG: We swore an oath to protect the Time Stone with our lives.

TONY STARK: And I swore off dairy… but then Ben & Jerry’s named a flavor after me, so…

DOCTOR STRANGE: Stark Raving Hazelnuts.

TONY STARK: Not bad.

DOCTOR STRANGE: A bit chalky.

WONG: A Hunk of Hulk of Burning Fudge is our favorite.

 

INFINITY WAR also featured old friends reuniting after being separated for a long time. Here, Captain American and Thor meet up for the final battle and comment on each other’s appearances:

CAPTAIN AMERICA: New haircut?

THOR: Noticed you’ve copied my beard.

 

And this exchange between Tony Stark and Peter Parker:

PETER PARKER: Let me just say, if aliens wind up implanting eggs in my chest or something and I eat one of you, I’m sorry.

TONY STARK: I don’t want another single pop culture reference out of you for the rest of the trip. You understand?

And on and on we could go, but we’ll finish here, with, fittingly enough, the final line in the movie. It’s Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury:

NICK FURY: Oh, no… Motherf…!

And on that note, we’ll call it a column. Hope you enjoyed this look at memorable quotes from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and join me again next time for another Memorable Movie Quotes column.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

MOVIE LISTS: SCARLETT JOHANSSON – 2019

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MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

One of my favorite parts of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) was Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow and the character’s story arc. So, with that in mind, I thought I would bring this column (originally from 2014) up to date.

Here’s the updated partial list of Johansson’s movie credits through April 2019:

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – sexy alien who has the bad habit of killing those she seduces. Offbeat and weird, definitely worth a look.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.

ISLE OF THE DOGS (2018) – lends her voice to this Oscar-nominated animated film which also features voice work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – back as Black Widow again in what for my money is the best AVENGERS film yet. Nonstop entertaining, and a gut-wrenching emotional finale, thanks to the unstoppable cosmic villain Thanos who will not be denied.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – while I liked INFINITY WAR better than ENDGAME, Johansson enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series as Black Widow right here in this movie. Indeed, Black Widow’s story and Johansson’s performance are some of the best parts of this film, which wraps up the AVENGERS saga as the Avengers go after Thanos and attempt to undo what he did in the previous film.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies, updated for 2019.  Previously, I had written about looking forward to the rumored standalone movie for Black Widow, and supposedly, that film even though it’s been rumored for years, is in pre-production, which is interesting, considering what ultimately happened to Black Widow in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Anyway, I would still be incredibly excited to see that standalone movie for Black Widow, and I do hope it still happens.

Okay, that’s it for now.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – Final Chapter in Current Marvel Saga A Good One

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The best of the AVENGERS movies was the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). In that film, the Avengers had their tails handed to them by the cosmic supervillian Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half the population of the Universe, including many of our favorite Marvel superheroes. INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of rousing action-adventure, lighthearted comical quips, and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, especially its now infamous ending.

Marvel fans have waited a whole year to find out what happens next, and now we know, as the final chapter of Marvel’s Avengers saga has arrived, AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And that’s exactly what AVENGERS: ENDGAME is, a final chapter. Sure, there will still be other Marvel superhero movies going forward, but the current saga, which began with IRON MAN (2008) and continued with films for Captain America and Thor and eventually the Avengers comes to a close with AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, not only is this movie dealing with the aftermath of Thanos but also the legacy of the Avengers themselves. Yup, it has a lot on its plate. How, then, does it perform?

Well, let’s just say I don’t think there will be too many people who will leave the theater disappointed. That being said, my favorite AVENGERS movie remains the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME begins with a chilling scene as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), absent from the previous movie, experiences firsthand the horror of Thanos, as his family is wiped out by the infamous cosmic cleansing. The remaining Avengers, still reeling from both their overwhelming defeat and its aftermath, decide they have no choice but to pursue and track down Thanos, but then what? They can’t undo what Thanos has done.

Or can they?

I’m going to stop right there, because the less known about the plot the better.

I liked AVENGERS: ENDGAME well enough. Heck, I’m a huge Marvel fan, and so there was going to be very little chance I wouldn’t like this one.  The cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission, and as always in a Marvel movie, the cast of actors is second to none. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But there were some things I didn’t like. Take that cast of characters. One of the things I thought the previous movie AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR did extraordinarily well was giving all its characters equal screen time. While this may not have translated into equal minutes, it certainly meant nearly every character in the film enjoyed key moments and scenes.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME wasn’t as successful in that department this time around. Some of the Marvel characters get short-changed here. There were also far fewer key moments for the major characters. So, whereas directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a perfectly seamless and well-paced story in the previous entry, they weren’t as successful doing so in this movie. In terms of giving characters their due, things were a bit uneven.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not as sharp, tight, or as comical as the one they wrote for INFINITY WAR. Things simply didn’t flow as well here.

There’s also a somber tone throughout, understandably, since Thanos has wiped out half the universe, but the film doesn’t shed this tone till its final reel, and even then, it’s not really gone.

I also didn’t completely enjoy the method of the Avengers’ endgame. While it was fun to watch what they were doing, it didn’t always make the most sense, and the film really didn’t go out of its way to try to have it make sense. I wanted more from the story in this department.

The story arcs for Iron Man and Captain America really are the two main ones in this movie, and neither one disappoints.

Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise as Tony Stark/Iron Man since his first Iron Man movie in 2008, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME provides a fitting conclusion for the character. Once again, Downey Jr. delivers a top-notch performance.

Some of the most satisfying scenes in the film are between Tony Stark and Captain America. They had spent the majority of the past few movies arguing and fighting with each other, and now they have finally put their differences aside.

Captain America also gets a fitting conclusion in the film, and Chris Evans once again does an admirable job as the Captain. While I’ve liked Robert Downey Jr. from the get-go, Chris Evans has only gotten better with each successive film. He has made Captain America one of the best parts of these movies.

Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and he’s largely reduced to comic relief here, although he does get one moving scene with his mother back on Asgard.

While I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, I was disappointed with the interpretation of the Hulk this time around. We didn’t see much of the Hulk in the previous film either, as strangely, he retreated into the deepest parts of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, refusing to re-emerge after getting his butt kicked by Thanos. That doesn’t sound like the Hulk. This time, he’s a Hulk/Bruce Banner hybrid— “Professor Hulk”— which pretty much means he’s Hulk-lite. I think Hulk fans have been cheated in these past two films.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series. The same can be said for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. In fact, the two share one of the best scenes in the film, certainly the most emotionally riveting.

But no one else really has any key moments. Even Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who has a lot of screen time doesn’t have his usual comical presence. It’s not for a lack of trying. I just think the screenplay wasn’t as sharp.

When Josh Brolin played Thanos in the previous film, he was easily one of the best Marvel movie villains ever. You can’t say the same thing about him in this film. His screen time is drastically reduced, as is his impact.

The film really relies on the emotions from the previous movie, and it probably does this a little too much. I wanted more out of ENDGAME that was new.

And while I was glad to see the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) here, she doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot either.

But the cast you can’t beat. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast of AVENGERS: ENDGAME also includes Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Rene Russo, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Angela Basset, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Chris Pratt, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wow.

As I said, just the cast itself is worth the price of a ticket.

The action scenes are well-done and the build-up to the second confrontation with Thanos is a good one. The conclusion does what it sets out to do, wrapping things up neat and tidy and restoring order to the universe.

Again, I believe fans will be pleased.

That being said, while I enjoyed ENDGAME a lot, I liked INFINITY WAR more. Maybe it’s because I prefer darker stories. Or maybe it’s just the better movie.

And perhaps to reinforce the notion that ENDGAME is a final chapter in this part of the Marvel saga, there is no after credit scene here. Say what? Yup, it’s true. No comical lunch gathering for the Avengers. No teaser for what’s coming next. Nothing.

Fitting for a movie called ENDGAME.

—-END—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

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Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

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My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) – Epic Superhero Adventure One of Year’s Best

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For nearly a decade, starting with IRON MAN (2008), Marvel has been churning out quality superhero movies year after year, and their latest installment, CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016) continues this trend.

It’s the best superhero movie of the year so far.

Yeah, I know, I loved DEADPOOL (2016), and I still do, but by the length of Ant-Man’s pinky fingernail, I prefer CIVIL WAR.  There are just so many good things about this movie that lift it to the top of the class.

And yes, I realize the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies and the X-MEN films pre-date IRON MAN, but for me, Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN was the movie that jettisoned the recent explosion of high quality Marvel superhero films.

The only thing problematic at this point in these Marvel movies is there have been so many films in the series, it’s often a challenge to keep track of the multiple storylines and characters.  The writers need to keep this in mind and do a better job explaining plot points from previous films.  For example, I don’t want to spend precious minutes in the theater trying to remember just how it was that Vision got hold of Loki’s technology.  When I do that, I miss what’s going on in the movie.  Other than this, these films are clicking on all cylinders.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is about the rift that occurs between Captain America and Iron Man over the future of the Avengers, a rift that leads to an all out war between the two factions. The governments of the world have grown tired of the destructive collateral damage inflicted by the Avengers every time they go about saving the world.  They’re weary of all the death and destruction, and so they want the Avengers to sign an agreement saying they will no longer act unilaterally, that they will only act when instructed by the United Nations to do so.

Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has been riding an emotional roller coaster lately.  His girlfriend Pepper Pots has left him, and he’s recently been feeling extremely guilty over the deaths he has inadvertently caused in the line of duty.  In his mind, the Avengers are a bunch of loose cannons, and some restrictions would be a good thing.  Put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, for once.

Captain America (Chris Evans) has the exact opposite reaction to the agreement.  His best friend Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is blamed for an international assassination and terrorist attack. Since Captain America believes Bucky was framed, he wants to investigate on his own without the sanction of the United Nations, which wants Bucky arrested.  In Captain America’s mind, if the Avengers give up their freedoms now, it will only get worse later.

And thus the battle lines are drawn.  The Avengers are suddenly divided.  It’s Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and these two sides do more than just verbally spat.  They engage in an all out war, in a battle sequence that is as good as any other in the entire Marvel movie series.

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There’s a lot to like about CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.

Let’s start with the cast.  A lot of these folks have been playing these characters for a while now, and so they have really grown into these roles.  Chris Evans has always played the all-American superhero Captain America to near-perfection, in both the previous CAPTAIN AMERICA movies and in THE AVENGERS series.  He’s even a tad better here as his all-American image takes a hit— up to a point.  When he goes rogue, on the surface it seems like something Captain America wouldn’t do, but then again, there are certainly those who embody American patriotism who would shudder at the thought of reporting to the United Nations.  Sure, in this movie the Captain is also rebelling against the U.S. government, but in the current political climate even that decision doesn’t seem far-fetched.

And while technically this is a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, it does play more like THE AVENGERS 2 1/2.  As such, Iron Man plays just as big a role in this one as Captain America does.  Robert Downey Jr. has been phenomenal as Tony Stark/Iron Man ever since he first played the role in IRON MAN (2008).  This marks the sixth time Downey Jr. has played the character, following the three IRON MAN movies and the two AVENGERS films.  I, for one, have not grown tired watching Downey Jr. play the role.

His Tony Stark is a wise-cracking playboy badass who is actually more interesting and fun to watch than when he wears his Iron Man suit.  That being said, Downey Jr.’s Stark, like Chris Evans’ Captain America, goes through some changes here.  He has developed a conscience in his “old age,” as he is feeling increasingly guilty over the innocent deaths he has caused in the line of duty.  Since he’s usually such a rebel, the fact that he’s the one who wants to side with the government, goes against type.  Combined with Captain America’s similar unexpected reaction, it makes for some fresh and compelling storytelling.

Scarlett Johansson returns as Black Widow, and she is every bit as good as she’s been the previous four times she’s played the role.  Likewise, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, all return to reprise their roles.

Ant-Man is an incredibly entetaining character, and Rudd takes advantage of nearly every moment he’s in the movie.  Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen even more here as Scarlet Witch than the previous two times she played the role.  She has a lot more to do in this movie, and for the first time you really get to know her character.

If all these actors and characters weren’t enough, there are also two impressive debuts in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  Chadwick Boseman is impressive as Black Panther.  Boseman, you might remember, played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013).

But even better than Boseman is young Tom Holland as Spider-Man.  Holland is so impressive as the smart-alecky Spidey that he just might have nailed the best performance in the entire movie.  He’s that good.  And in an interesting bit of casting, Marisa Tomei plays Peter Parker’s Aunt May, a considerable younger version of the character.  But I really liked Tomei in the role, and with with Holland’s Peter Parker really looking like a high school student, the younger Aunt May made perfect sense here.

One character I’m not nuts about is the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).  While Stan is fine in the role, the character does little for me.  Thankfully, even though the plot revolves around Captain American’s buddy, he’s really not in the film all that much.

The Marvel superhero movies always seem to struggle with their villains.  The bad guy in this one, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is meh, but it’s less of an issue in this movie since the Avengers are fighting each other.  You might even argue that this film has the best conflict in the Marvel series since they are indeed fighting one another.

Speaking of that fight, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely got the conflict right, something that the writers of the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed to do.  In that flick, the rift between Batman and Superman seemed forced and contrived.  In this movie, I bought the divide between Captain America and Iron Man hook, line, and sinker.  Plus, the movie takes the time to develop the supporting characters’ beliefs, and so when they choose sides, it also makes perfect sense.

CIVIL WAR clocks in at 146 minutes, and as a testament to the terrific job done by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, those 146 minutes flew by.  I did not feel as if I were sitting in the theater for a long time at all.  The film caught my interest early on and held it to the very end.

In the tradition of the Marvel supehero movies, there are two post credit scenes in CIVIL WAR, one in the middle of the end credits and one at the very end, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll want to stay till the last credit rolls.  I always stay.  Why not, right?

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo also handle the action sequences with ease.  The chase scene involving Captain America, the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and Black Panther is a keeper, and as I said earlier, the sequence where Team Captain America takes on Team Iron Man is among the most exciting and entertaining sequences of the entire Marvel supehero series.

CIVIL WAR is also a nice balance of light and dark.  As always with these Marvel movies, the humor is spot-on.  There are several laugh-out loud sequences, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, which caused the theater to erupt with laughter.

It’s also quite dark, as the film truly captures the angst both Iron Man and Captain America, as well as the rest of the Avengers, feel at the prospect of going up against each other and really going all out to hurt each other.   This authenticity of emotion is something I never felt in the recent BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is one movie you do not want to miss, especially if you’re a Marvel supehero fan.  With apologies to DEADPOOL which I liked almost as much, it’s the best superhero film of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

mad max fury road poster

6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael