Best Movies of 2021

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Here’s a look at my TOP 10 LIST of BEST MOVIES from 2021.

As I did last year, I’d like to put an asterisk next to this list due to the pandemic. One of the drawbacks of not seeing movies at the theater, is that we don’t all get to see the same movies, as lots of smaller, obscure releases don’t always make it to the various streaming services. So, as much as I enjoyed watching movies once again this year on Netflix, Prime Video, HBO Max, and Disney +, to name a few, I didn’t get to see many of the movies that didn’t make it to these streaming services.

Hence, I know there are a lot of films from 2021 that I did not see, that I would have seen had I been able to go to the movie theaters like I used to before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

So, with that being said, here are my TOP 10 movies… all watched at home on streaming services…. from 2021:

10. THE TOMORROW WAR

One of the things I miss most watching movies at home, is that movie theater feeling. THE TOMORROW WAR, a science fiction action movie from Amazon Prime starring Chris Pratt, was one of the few movies I saw this year that by itself captured that movie theater feeling. This action-packed tale of humans travelling into the future to help battle invading aliens didn’t always make sense, but it was a fun ride, so much so that I could almost smell the buttery popcorn wafting through the air!

9. FEAR STREET: PART THREE – 1666

My take on this Netflix horror trilogy was completely opposite most folks, who found the third installment to be the weakest. For me, it was the best, mostly because the trilogy’s wraparound story about a witch’s curse I thought was pretty lame until this final installment where we find out its origins, and the writers flipped the story on its head, giving new insight into what really cursed the town. I really liked this revelation. The entire trilogy is uneven at best, but it finishes strong, so much so that it’s the only horror movie from 2021 to make it into my Top 10 List.

8. NO SUDDEN MOVE

Atmospheric crime thriller by director Steven Soderbergh, starring Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, and Brendan Fraser, makes for a compelling flick.

7. MOXIE (2021)

I really enjoyed this comedy drama directed by Amy Poehler about an awkward teen played by Hadley Robinson who draws inspiration from her mom’s activist past to take on sexism at her high school. Very satisfying, strong screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, based on the novel by Jennifer Mathieu, well-directed by Poehler, who also plays the mom.

6. THE UNFORGIVABLE

Sandra Bullock delivers a transformative performance in this Netflix drama about a woman, played by Bullock, who after serving a twenty-year prison sentence for shooting a sheriff, tries to reunite with her younger sister who has lived with a foster family the past two decades and has no memory of her older sister, while fending off threats from both those who hate her in general because of her crime, and from the adult sons of the man she killed. Dark, depressing stuff, but fiercely acted by Bullock.

5. GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE

One of my favorite action movies of the year. I loved this movie! It’s basically nothing more than female assassins kick ass, but the action is all so stylized and expertly choreographed. It contains some of the best action sequences I saw all year. Wonderfully directed by Navot Papushado, who charges this one with energy and pizzazz.

4. THE DIG

Wonderful period piece from Netflix, this one is much better than it sounds. Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes co-star in this tale of the historic archeological dig in the English countryside at Sutton Hoo at the outset of World War II. Awe-inspiring, awesome movie.

And now, drum roll please, for my TOP 3 MOVIES from 2021:

3. THE COURIER

Another period piece, THE COURIER was actually filmed in 2020 but wasn’t released until 2021. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a British salesman who because of his dealings in the Soviet Union becomes an unlikely spy for Britain just before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Another topnotch performance by Cumberbatch, who seems to be able to play these dramatic biographical roles in his sleep.

2. THE SUICIDE SQUAD

Hands down, both my favorite action movie and superhero film of the year. Hailing from the DC Universe (sorry, Marvel, they bested you this year!) this “sequel” to 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD is far superior to the first film. While Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, it’s Idris Elba as Bloodsport and John Cena as Peacemaker who steal the show. The real star however is writer/director James Gunn, who works the same magic he wielded with Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movies, creating an energetic, innovative, and nonstop laugh-out-loud actioner that never quits. This tale of supervillains turned superheroes is a must see for all superhero movie fans, although it is rated R for some pretty intense violence and language. A helluva fun ride.

And now, drum roll please: my Number One movie from 2021:

1. DON’T LOOK UP

Adam McKay’s sharp satire is so on-point that it is far more disturbing than funny. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as scientists who discover a large meteor on a collision course with Earth that will wipe out all life when it strikes in six months, but the President, played by Meryl Streep, won’t have any of it and plays fast and loose with their science, while the media simply isn’t interested in a negative story. Try as they might, they simply can’t get their message out. Eventually, when the meteor becomes visible to the naked eye, the president’s political party and followers adopt the ideology that those who want people to look up are doing so for political reasons, and their rallying cry becomes, “don’t look up!” A sad commentary on where we are as a nation in 2021 after suffering from four years of a presidential administration that also played fast and loose with the facts during a world crisis.

So, there you have it. My top 10 movies from 2021.

Coming soon, my Worst 10 Movie List from 2021.

Until then, as always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

DON’T LOOK UP (2021) -Adam McKay’s On Point Satire Is One of the Best Movies of the Year

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If the human race survives long enough, and we’re able to look back years from now at DON’T LOOK UP (2021), the new movie by director/writer Adam McKay, a satire which asks the question what if an extinction-event asteroid were on a collision course with Earth, and nobody cared because they were told it wasn’t really happening, we might say, “What was that all about? I don’t get it.

And if not for the times we now live in, and the absurd shenanigans of the prior Trump administration, I wouldn’t get it either. I certainly wouldn’t believe it. But the events depicted in DON’T LOOK UP while supposedly meant to be satiric and funny are in reality terrifying because of what happened during the years of 2016-2020.

Some people have complained that DON’T LOOK UP isn’t as funny as it should be. I disagree. The humor is definitely there, but more importantly, so is the truth, and the truth is, as ridiculous as this movie plot sounds on paper, it’s not any more ludicrous than what has happened in real life. I found this story frightening.

And that’s why I loved this movie. It scared the sh*t out of me and made me laugh while doing it. I hope we survive long enough to be able to look back and laugh at this one, at these insane times. I imagine it’s how audiences felt after first viewing Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant satire DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964), a film which poked fun at a possible nuclear holocaust.

In DON’T LOOK UP, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D. doctoral candidate assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make the shocking discovery of an asteroid that is on a collision course with Earth and that upon impact will destroy all life on the planet. Their findings are corroborated by NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). Because this is an obviously dire situation, they are granted an audience with the President, President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but their meeting doesn’t go as expected. They are met with doubts and skepticism and are told to sit tight and wait for the president to get her own people to check into the situation, even though they know with near absolute certainty that the cataclysmic event will indeed happen in six months.

Try as they might, Mindy, Dibiasky, and Oglethorpe just can’t get their message out, and eventually, when the asteroid does get close enough to become visible, the political lines become drawn, and the president’s party’s rallying becomes “don’t look up!” which people at her rallies continually chant, the argument being, the opposition party “just wants to scare you. You are free not to look up.” Sound familiar?

DON’T LOOK UP is sharp satire with a lot to say about where we are right now as a society, and Adam McKay is able to make his points successfully because he shakes things up just enough to prevent any obvious political lines being drawn. The fact-avoiding president is a woman, and so while many of the criticisms are aimed at the prior Trump administration, the president in this movie is not a white conservative male. Political parties are never named or mentioned. Even traditional conservative/liberal divisions aren’t identified. Streep’s President Orlean has a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton on her desk, for example. What McKay aims for with DON’T LOOK UP is what happens when you play fast and loose with the truth, and he mostly hits his mark with a satire which doesn’t quit.

McKay has done this before, with films like THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018), where he mixes humor with sharp hard-hitting points.

DON’T LOOK UP is full of so many on-point moments, from little ones like the news host on an unnamed news network who even as the asteroid is hitting the earth refuses to give the event any airtime, instead talking about “the big news event of the day, topless urgent care workers.” Again, years from now people might raise an eyebrow and wonder WTF? But you only have to watch news coverage today to see that the same things happens every day.

There are larger moments. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy finally loses it near the end, and on a national news magazine TV show goes off on a “mad as hell” rant that is obviously reminiscent and inspired by the classic Peter Finch scene in NETWORK (1976). It’s no less upsetting.

The cast is spectacular.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays a role he doesn’t often play, a neurotic nervous type who can barely get a cognizant word out when first on the national stage. It was fun to watch DiCaprio play someone who wasn’t cooler than cool. It was also eye-opening to see him playing someone his own age or older, with adult sons. DiCaprio is a terrific actor, and I’ve been a fan for a long while. He nails this role, which comes as no surprise.

It was good to see Jennifer Lawrence back on screen again. While she’s a bit more subdued here than we’ve seen her in the past, her Kate Dibiasky is still a fiery character and fun to watch. Because she is outspoken, she gets considerable pushback from people in power and also from viewers at home, and she gets pummeled in real time on social media, which is another target of McKay’s satire. What he depicts happening on social media is absolutely insane. It’s also true. Dibiasky also has to endure her boyfriend breaking up with her on a social media platform.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and she nails President Orlean, keeping her from being just a caricature. Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park as TV news host Brie Evantee, who finds Dr. Mindy attractive and initiates an affair between them. She is so on point she makes her character almost nauseating to watch.

Jonah Hill, while once again playing a role that is within his comfort zone, nonetheless enjoys many fine moments as Orlean’s son Jason, who’s also Chief of Staff. His “prayer” near the end of the movie for “all the stuff we’re going to lose” is priceless.

Mark Rylance delivers the most inspired and disturbing performance in the film, as Peter Isherwell, one of the richest men on the planet who is also something of a feel-good digital age techno guru. It’s Isherwell who convinces President Orlean to ignore Mindy’s science and follow his own, which of course has not been verified by other world scientists.

Rob Morgan is solid as Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perlman is hilarious as Benedict Drask, the foul-mouthed astronaut of “another generation” who is chosen to lead the mission to destroy the asteroid. The cast also includes Tyler Perry, Timothee Chalamet, and Ariana Grande.

Director McKay wrote the screenplay, based on a story by David Sirota. It’s a fabulous screenplay, as nearly everything about it works.

I loved DON’T LOOK UP, and while it’s showing up here late in the year, it just might be my favorite movie of the year. It’s a Netflix movie, and right now is showing both at theaters and on Netflix.

Check it out. This is one you definitely do not want to miss.

And unless you’ve had your head in the sand the past several years, you’ll get exactly what McKay is talking about. He’s giving us DON’T LOOK UP as both a frightening look at where we are and a wake-up call. The asteroid hurtling towards Earth is a perfect metaphor for any major problem we face in the world today and what happens when those in charge decide not to tell the people the truth but instead feed them lies.

DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy’s final few lines are chilling and come after he and his family are enjoying a last dinner together, reminiscing about their happy memories and what they’re thankful for. He says, in effect, we really had everything, didn’t we?

We too have everything. And that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

There’s an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. You can see it if you just look up. Or you can listen to those who tell you that looking up is a sign of weakness, that it’s politically motivated, and that you need to stand up for your rights and not look up, and that the threat isn’t as dire as others say.

But it is, and to see for yourself, all you have to do is look up.

Do you?

—END—

DARK PHOENIX (2019) – More Superficial Than Superhero

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There’s more superficial than superhero in DARK PHOENIX (2019), the latest Marvel X-Men movie to hit the theaters.

When 20th Century Fox rebooted its X-MEN franchise with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) that film not only instantly became one of my favorite X-MEN movies but also one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies, period. A major reason for this was the casting of James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. These two actors shared some strong chemistry together and lifted FIRST CLASS to its status as a superior superhero movie.

With apologies to Jennifer Lawrence, who has also appeared in these movies as Raven/Mystique, McAvoy and Fassbender have continued to be the best part of these X-Men reboots, and so even though DARK PHOENIX opened to dreadful reviews, knowing that McAvoy and Fassbender were back, I still trekked to the theater to catch this one.

And while I can certainly understand why this one opened to such negative reviews, it wasn’t all bad. It’s just not very good.

DARK PHOENIX tells a story that fans of the X-Men comics know very well, the story of Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix. This story was also told in the previous X-Men series, in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Fans didn’t like how the Phoenix story was handled in that movie, and I doubt they’re going to like how it’s handled here.

In DARK PHOENIX, it’s 1992, and the X-Men are enjoying happy times as they are universally perceived as heroes, and a jubilant Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) spends his time giving speeches and has access to a personal phone line to the President of the United States. Life is good.

But during a daunting space rescue, where a crew of X-Men attempt to extract the endangered crew of a space shuttle, a strange space phenomenon, a beastly looking cloud of light, which is threatening the shuttle descends upon the scene, and it’s up to Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to stop it. She does, but it nearly kills her, and when she returns alive and well, she is given the nickname “Phoenix” as she seemingly has risen from the dead.

But all is not well, as Jean begins to exhibit some weird behaviors and unleash powers she doesn’t seem able to control. She’s suddenly out there doing things that are giving the X-Men a bad name. Further complicating matters, a group of space aliens who we know virtually nothing about led by Vux (Jessica Chastain) want the power which Jean possesses.

With the X-Men reeling, as there is lots of in-fighting over what is perceived as Charles Xavier’s mishandling of Jean Grey, the glory days for these mutant heroes comes to an end. Looking for help, Jean seeks out Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who’s living in the desert with his own band of mutant rebels. And once Magneto learns the truth about Jean and what she has done, he’s not interested in helping her but in killing her.

It’s up to Charles Xavier, who refuses to give up on Jean, to save her, but he’ll have to contend with Magneto, the space aliens, the military, and his own renegade mutants to do it.

This plot actually sounds better than it is, and that’s because the story as told in the movie is kind of all over the place. There were parts that I liked, but taken as a whole this one never becomes a unified story that works.

The screenplay by writer/director Simon Kinberg was far too superficial to be successful. Plot points are glossed over, conversations are banal, the dialogue trite, and the characterizations are without depth.

We learn little about the villainous aliens, and their scenes in this one are sporadic and dull. Speaking of dull, that’s how the X-men come off in this movie. Jean Grey/Phoenix really isn’t all that interesting, and her story isn’t given much depth at all. Jennifer Lawrence does very little as Raven/Mystique. Her role isn’t much more than an extended cameo, and she gets some of the worst lines in the movie.

I like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but his dialogue here isn’t any better. Michael Fassbender doesn’t show up as Magneto until halfway through the movie, and James McAvoy seems to be stuck saying the same things as Charles Xavier throughout. He sounds like a broken record.

Jessica Chastain is wasted as alien Vuk, a villain with no characterization, back story, or screen presence.

And while Tye Sheridan plays Cyclops, Alexandra Ship plays Storm, Evan Peters plays Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Nightcrawler, none of these folks make much of an impact.

Director Simon Kinberg also struggles to make this one cinematic. There’s hardly a memorable scene here, visually or otherwise.

There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of attention to detail. There’s an entire plot of in-fighting with the X-Men, reminiscent of what the Avengers went through in CAPTAIN AMERICA; CIVIL WAR (2016) but the two films aren’t even on the same page when it comes to quality. CIVIL WAR got down and dirty, got right into its characters’ faces, and as a result the audience knew exactly where each character stood and felt their pain.

Not so here with DARK PHOENIX. We know where the characters stand because they say so, but we never feel it. That’s a big difference. Very little of what happens in DARK PHOENIX resonates.

So, what did I like about DARK PHOENIX? Well, it still stars James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, and so even with the weak dialogue, the two actors are enjoyable to watch, and I did enjoy their performances here, although hands down DARK PHOENIX is the weakest of their X-MEN collaborations.

I also like Nicholas Hoult as Beast, but unfortunately, the women don’t fare as well. I didn’t really enjoy Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, as unlike McAvoy and Fassbender, she was  unable to overcome the bad dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through her brief stint as Raven/Mystique, and Jessica Chastain is reduced to being robotic as villain Vuk.

While the initial space shuttle rescue was blah, the climactic battle aboard a speeding train at least had some pop.

But nothing in DARK PHOENIX really sticks. Things happen, but moments later they’re forgotten.

This may be the end of this class of X-Men. Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, has bought 20th Century Fox, and rumor has it they will once more reboot the X-Men series and incorporate it into the MCU.

And while this isn’t the best ending of the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender led series, I’ve enjoyed the ride. It’s too bad that their final film wasn’t better.

Unless of course, they, like the Phoenix, survive the buyout and rise once again as Professor X and Magneto.

I for one wouldn’t mind that at all.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worst Movies of 2018

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 Least Favorite movies from 2018:

10. OCEAN’S 8 – I’ve never been a fan of the OCEAN’S movies starring George Clooney and company, and this new all-female version starring Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett didn’t do anything to change my opinion. Forced and contrived, this one just never won me over.

9. ADRIFT- Shailene Woodley and Sam Claflin play two free spirits who meet, fall in love, and decide to sail across the ocean together, but their plans are thwarted by a massive hurricane which threatens their lives. Sounds better than it is.

8. BAD SAMARITAN – David Tennant plays an ultra evil baddie who likes to keep women chained in his home. When his house is broken into, the thieves discover his secret, but they can’t go to the police because they’re thieves, so they decide to save the day on their own, but he doesn’t like that very much.  A completely over-the-top thriller that strains credibility.

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7. RED SPARROW -Ridiculolus thriller wastes the talents of Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Lawrence plays a Russian spy, Edgerton a CIA agent, in a tale that is muddled from start to finish.

6. UNSANE – Steven Soderbergh shot the entire film using an IPhone 7 Plus, which ultimately, doesn’t really add much to this lamebrained thriller. Claire Foye is enjoyable in the lead role, but ultimately a bad script does this one in.

5. INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – Enough with the INSIDIOUS prequels already! True, Lin Shaye is enjoyable to watch as Elise Rainer, but since the character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, these continuous looks into her back story just aren’t all that compelling.

1517 to Paris poster

4. THE 15:17 TO PARIS – Clint Eastwood made the fateful decision to film this re-telling of the true story of three Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack on a train in Paris by hiring the three young men to play themselves rather than use actors. It’s a decision that didn’t really work, as these three guys on screen are dull and boring. There’s a reason movies employ professional actors.

3. THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – An R-rated raunchy comedy starring Muppets and Melissa McCarthy sounds like a funny idea, but unfortunately, this film directed by Brian Henson doesn’t deliver. It does start off pretty darn funny, but it all goes downhill from there. My least favorite comedy of the year.

2.THE NUN – And here’s my least favorite horror movie of the year.  With its on-location filming in Romania, the film looks great! But the story and dialogue are dreadful. Part of the CONJURING universe. A lot of people liked this one, but I thought it was bottom-of-the-barrel horror.

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1.PEPPERMINT –  And my pick for the Worst Film of 2018 goes to PEPPERMINT, an abysmal thriller starring Jennifer Garner. Garner plays a vigilante going after the people who killed her family. Plays like a female version of the DEATH WISH movies. Things are so bad here that even the vengeance scenes fall flat. By far, the most boring movie I saw this year.

And there you have it, my list of the Top 10 Worst Films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up

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RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.

—END—

 

MOTHER! (2017) – Metaphor For Our Narcissistic Times

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MOTHER! (2017), the latest movie by writer/director Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that serves as a metaphor for our ever-increasing narcissistic culture that not only breeds and encourages narcissists but the radical zealots who follow them.

There’s a lot going on here, most of it not that easy to digest or decipher, and since the trailer for this movie makes it look like a modern-day ROSEMARY’S BABY, which it is not, I’m guessing there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointed moviegoers out there who decide to see this movie.  It’s not really a horror movie, in the traditional sense.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this one.  Any time a movie makes you think and think hard, and goes about its storytelling in a way that is creative and out of the ordinary, that’s a good thing.  MOTHER! is a good thing.  It’s just not going to appeal to a wide audience.

MOTHER! tells a straightforward story.  A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in her quiet dreamhouse with her author husband (Javier Bardem) who’s stuck in a writer’s funk and has been struggling to produce new material.  One night, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, and to the woman’s surprise, her husband invites the man to stay the night.  It turns out that the man is a huge fan, and this pleases the author to no end.  Soon, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, and naturally, she’s invited to stay, too.

Things happen that result in more people showing up, people who make the woman uncomfortable, because this isn’t what she expects.  She wants her life in her house with her husband, but yet her husband is fine with opening up their house to these guests. She grows more distressed as more people arrive.  And later, when a lot of people come in, all hell breaks loose.

In terms of plot, the story is constructed very well, or at least the first half is, anyway. When Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, their arrival makes perfect sense. Likewise, when many of their family members join them, that also makes perfect sense. So, it’s not as if the audience is sitting there scratching their heads wondering why these people are there.  It strikes Jennifer Lawrence’s character as strange, but when Javier Bardem’s character explains things to her, we in the audience understand.

Later, in the second half of the movie, the film deviates from a straightforward plot and enters into the realm of pure metaphor.  And it’s here where the film will no doubt lose most of its audience.

But through it all, it remains truthful and has a lot to say.

First of all, this is not a good movie for authors who want to get married, because if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s what it’s like to be married to an author.  Now, this isn’t the point of the movie, but it’s certainly one of the parts I liked, because there’s truth behind it.

Javier Bardem captures what it’s like to be a writer.  You can see it in his face when he can’t produce, and alternatively, you can see him light up when the ideas come to him and when his fans tell him how much they like his work. The bottom line is for this character,  life is always about him and his work.  His wife, though he says he loves her and indeed acts like he loves her, is always secondary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a great line when she says that he never really loved her, and that he only loved the fact that she loved him.  A telling and truthful moment.

But MOTHER! is much more than a story about an author.  Javier Bardem’s husband character is a narcissist.  He’s driven by the attention he receives from his adoring fans. In the movie, it begins with the simple conversation between his character and the Ed Harris character, who admits to being a fan and who says “your words changed my life.” From there it grows, slowly at first, until during the second half of the movie it becomes full-blown insanity.

In the second half of the movie, people come to the house because they are fans, and it’s here that the plot becomes secondary and the metaphoric elements of the film take over. We see varying degrees of fandom, but most are radical followers.  The film then serves us images which are religious, militant, violent, and flat-out horrific.

In a nutshell, the film shows what life is like living with a narcissist.  But, more than that, the images at the end  of the movie, of violence, hatred, of opposing sides clashing, easily brought to my mind images that we have seen on the news of events here in the U.S. in 2017, which for me, lifted this movie to another level, because what I took from it by the end, was that it’s a metaphor for what life is like when you elect a narcissist.

But not all of the movie works.  I had an issue with the pacing.  It runs at about two hours long, and there were times midway through where it felt longer than that.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the young mother here, in a role where she spends most of the film barefoot and pregnant.  And since this movie is called MOTHER! after all, her character is the one audiences will identify with the most. The story is seen through her eyes, and so when she is upset about the things that are going on, the audience is right there with her. And by the time you get to the end, with all the different sides going at each other, she’s the one who’s hurt the most. She becomes the victim of both her husband’s actions and inactions.

I was more impressed with Javier Bardem as the author/husband, who always seemed to make sense when he spoke to his wife, yet at the same time it was maddening to watch him pretty much ignore his wife’s needs.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer add fine support in their roles as the annoying intrusive couple, especially Pfeiffer who exudes a coldness that really fits with the movie.  But Harris is just as good, as the more emotional half of this couple.

The rest of the cast is secondary.

The main guy here is writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who’s mostly known for the movie BLACK SWAN (2010), a dark movie that was well received and that I liked well enough.  Previous to MOTHER!, he wrote and directed NOAH  (2014), a re-telling of the Noah and the Ark story, starring Russell Crowe as Noah which tried to turn Noah into an action hero.  It was a misfire, but I actually enjoyed it.

MOTHER! is a film that most folks are simply not going to enjoy.  It’s not your standard horror movie or drama, and it becomes highly symbolic during its second half which is bound to turn off lots of viewers.

But I liked it.  It has a lot to say about narcissism in our culture, both about those who desire and command attention, and about those who relentlessly become their “followers.”

Better yet, it tells the truth, even when that truth is ugly and repugnant.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

batman_v_superman

7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

deadpool-movie-poster

2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, 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.  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.  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.  

 

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

rogue-one-poster

4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

PASSENGERS (2016) – Odd Love Story Set in Space

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passengers

When watching PASSENGERS (2016), the new science fiction movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, I was reminded of a line from an old James Bond movie.

In THUNDERBALL (1965), after racing along at high speeds with an uncomfortable James Bond in the passenger seat, Fiona (Luciana Paluzzi) tells Bond (Sean Connery), “Some men just don’t like to be driven.”  To which Bond replies, “No, some men don’t like to be taken for a ride.”

On the long space voyage which makes up the story of PASSENGERS, I  felt I had been taken for a ride.

First and foremost, there’s not a lot to PASSENGERS.  It’s basically a love story— and a strange one at that— set on a spaceship in the future, and the setting is about as deep as the science fiction gets in this movie.  There’s not much beyond that.

In the future, the spaceship Avalon is enroute to a distant planet called rhe Homestead Colony which promises a brand new start for its occupants and crew.  It’s a 120 year voyage, and so everyone on board is in sleep stasis.  When the 120 years are up, they’ll awake and their new life will begin.

That’s the plan anyway, but as we all know, the best laid plans—.  Anyway, the Avalon unfortunately collides with some meteors, and one humongous meteor in particular, and as a result some of the ship’s systems are damaged.  This damage causes one of the sleep pods to malfunction, and its occupant Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) awakens 90 years too early.  Preston realizes that this is a death sentence.  He’ll be dead before they reach the Homestead Colony.

Preston, a mechanic by trade, uses this time to study up on the ship to try to find a way to either get himself back to sleep or to awake the crew so he can get some help.  He fails at both.  His only contact is a robot bartender Arthur (Michael Sheen) who at least provides him with a daily dose of conversation, and of course, alcohol.

But this isn’t enough.  After nearly a year on the ship, Jim reaches his low point and contemplates suicide, but he loses his nerve, and at that moment he happens to set eyes on a beautiful woman Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) sleeping in her cryogenic chamber.  He reads up on her and learns that she is an author, and basically he falls in love with her.

Around this time, Jim also discovers a way of opening her sleep chamber, and so he now faces a dilemma:  he desperately wants companionship, but he knows if he wakes her up, he’s also delivering a death sentence to her as well.  But, in what is supposed to be the big plot twist in the movie— although it’s a deeply flawed twist because every single trailer shows the two characters awake on board the ship so the audience knows exactly what Jim is going to do— Jim wakes her up.

Which then sets up this bizarre love story between these two characters, with the tension being, will she find out that he woke her up, and if she does, how will she react?

Excuse me.  But you’re also on board a malfunctioning spaceship.  Perhaps that should be something else you should be concerned with?

PASSENGERS is a rather bizarre movie in terms of its plot, and ultimately I did not find this movie all that satisfying.

First, its love story just doesn’t work.  From the get-go, as we watch these two characters get to know each other, we know that Jim has manipulated the situation.  He woke her up from cryogenic sleep.  He basically stole her life away.  Now, for such a story to work, and it can work, the writing and acting have to be so strong that in spite of this awful and very selfish decision on Jim’s part, we still want to see him and Aurora get together.  But, alas, neither the writing nor the acting reaches this level.  Nothing that happens between Jim and Aurora made me forget what Jim did or made me believe that Aurora could forgive him and move on.

The writing here is simply not very good.  The screenplay by Jon Spaihts, constructs an odd story and never takes it to places where it overcomes its oddities.    Had Jim and Aurora both awoken naturally, then the film could have concentrated solely on their efforts to learn what happened and to survive, and if they fell in love along the way, that would have seemed perfectly natural and been accepted.  The plot point of Jim waking Aurora on his own never really works and only serves to be a distraction from what otherwise could be a riveting tale.

Spaihts co-wrote the science fiction movie PROMETHEUS (2012) and this year’s Marvel adventure DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  PASSENGERS is a solo effort, and the script here isn’t as good as those two other movies.

Chris Pratt is OK as Jim, the down to earth mechanic.  Pratt does his usual charming handsome hunk shtick, and it’s somewhat enjoyable here.  His decision to wake Aurora kind of gets in the way of this likable persona, and Pratt never seems to rise to the occasion to take the character to the dark places necessary to give the guy some depth.  Jim is too shallow a character to make such a grave decision and then be supported for it.

I’m a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but I have to be honest here, I was not impressed with her performance in this movie.  I never warmed up to Aurora, and I never really believed in the love story here.  I mean, I can believe that two attractive people, the only two people on a spaceship, would lust after each other, but fall in love?  They didn’t seem to have anything in common.

Furthermore, I didn’t find any chemistry between Lawrence and Pratt. Not what you’re looking for when you’re telling a love story.

Michael Sheen is fairly amusing as the robot bartender Arthur, but ultimately, he’s such a shallow boring character he’s pretty much useless.

Also, for reasons I have yet to figure out, the way these bar scenes are shot, they are clearly reminiscent of the bar scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980).  I kept waiting for some deeper dark connection, especially between Pratt’s Jim and Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, but I never found one.

And Andy Garcia, in spite of 5th billing, does his best STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) Luke Skywalker impersonation as he shows up in the final few seconds and utters no dialogue!  Nice job Andy!

Fourth billing went to Laurence Fishburne, who plays a character who does have dialogue, but ultimately is as useless as bartender Arthur and Andy Garcia.

PASSENGERS was directed by Morten Tyldum, and one thing I’ll say about this movie is it looks good!  I especially liked the ship, the Avalon.  It’s cool-looking, and the scenes where we see it barreling through space are very cinematic.  It’s too bad the story here didn’t rival the visuals.

I saw PASSENGERS in 3D, and while I’m growing tired of saying this nearly every single time I see a 3D movie, it still has to be said, especially for those folks watching what they spend, because, as you know, a ticket for a 3D movie costs more than a ticket for a 2D movie.  So, anyway, here’s my repetitious statement which I make after nearly every 3D movie I see:  it looks good at first, but after a while, you hardly notice, and the 3D certainly does not add anything to the movie.

Tyldum’s previous movie was THE IMITATION GAME (2014), a great movie that is far superior to PASSENGERS.

There’s been a steady stream of high quality science fiction movies hitting theaters in recent years.  PASSENGERS is not one of them.  It’s simply a love story in space, and an odd one at that.

No need to be a passenger on this voyage.  Save your ticket money for another destination instead.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016) – A Knockout of a Movie That No One Is Noticing

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Edgar Ramirez, Robert De Niro, and Ruben Blades in HANDS OF STONE (2016).

 

HANDS OF STONE (2016), the new movie about welterweight boxing champion Roberto Duran, is one of those movies that I probably liked more than I should have.  It’s not really getting great reviews, and it’s receiving zero hype, but I loved it.  For me, everyhing about this movie worked.

Maybe that means I’m just a sucker for boxing movies.  Or perhaps it’s just a really good movie.

HANDS OF STONE is told from the perspective of legendary boxing trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro).  And if there’s one weakness to this movie, it’s that at times there’s a bit too much of Arcel’s voice-over narration, as it shows up in places where it’s not necessary, where standard dialogue and visual narrative would have sufficed.

And so we learn right from the get-go that Roberto Duran changed Ray Arcel’s life, as we hear it directly from Arcel’s mouth.  We meet Duran as a child in poverty-stricken Panama, and we see through his young eyes his disdain for the United States, which he views as an oppressor nation.  Amazingly, he convinces a local boxing trainer to train him, and so he’s boxing pretty much as a child.

We next see Duran (Edgar Ramirez) as a young man wooing the beautiful Felicidad Iglesias (Ana de Armas) who he’ll eventually marry.  Duran is introduced to the wealthiest man in Panama, businessman Carlos Eleta (Ruben Blades), who in turn introduces Duran to trainer Ray Arcel, knowing that Arcel has what it takes to make Duran a champion.

But their union is not an easy one.  Duran wants no part of an American trainer, and while Ray clearly recognizes Duran’s talent, he’s prohibited by the mob from ever making money off boxing again.  Years earlier, Ray tried to convince mobster Frankie Carbo (John Turturro) to loosen his grip on boxing in New York City, so they could branch out into the television market.  Carbo said no, Ray went ahead anyway, and Carbo arranged to have Ray killed.  Ray survived, but he promised never again to make money off boxing, and in return, the mob let him live.

Ray solves his own personal problem by agreeing to train Duran for free, and Duran also changes his mind, setting the stage for a championship run.  Standing in their way is American superstar boxer Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond).  Duran sees beating Leonard as his chance not only to become champion but also to earn Panama the respect of the world and to humiliate the United States in the process.

And the more success Duran achieves, the more he’s swallowed up by big money boxing, falling victim to its lure in ways he never fell in the ring, even as aging Ray Arcel continually fights to protect him.

HANDS OF STONE tells a rousing story, one that I enjoyed a lot since I didn’t know much about Roberto Duran other than the results of his two championship fights with Sugar Ray Leonard.

The cast here is wonderful.  Edgar Ramirez shines in the lead role as Roberto Duran. He makes Duran a volatile force who is as undisciplined and hotheaded as he is talented. Indeed, some of the best parts of HANDS OF STONE aren’t the boxing sequences, which certainly are done very well, but the scenes between Ramirez and De Niro in the corners of the ring.  De Niro’s Ray Arcel is constantly fighting with Ramirez’s Duran trying to get him to follow his wisdom, which Duran often sees as limiting, as he just wants to let loose and pound his opponent.  Some of these verbal spars are more intense than the physical ones in the ring.

Likewise, Ramirez also shares powerful scenes with Ruben Blades’ Carlos Eleta.  And when the three of them are on screen together, watch out.  The verbal punches fly.

Ramirez captures the energy and charm of Duran and makes him watchable throughout.  I really enjoyed Ramirez in last year’s JOY (2015) where he played Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) husband, in a film that also paired him with Robert De Niro.  Ramirez also played the priest in the underwhelming horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  As much as I liked Ramirez in JOY, he’s even better here in HANDS OF STONE.

Robert De Niro is excellent as Ray Arcel.  It’s fun to see De Niro in a role that does not hide his age but actually makes him look older with a receding hairline and whispery white hair.  He also enjoys some of the best scenes in the movie, with riveting dialogue, as he teaches Duran his philosophy of boxing— always have a strategy and stick to it— and as he argues with Carlos Eleta.  Ray Arcel represents the pure side of boxing, the sport, while Eleta represents what Arcel sees as destroying boxing:  big money.

Ruben Blades, who plays Daniel Salazar, one of the best character on TV’s FEAR THE WALKING DEAD, is also very good as Carlos Eleta.  He brings Ray Arcel into Duran’s world not only to make Duran a champion but to give him some discipline, because Eleta is always fending off the youthful Duran who refuses to respect the rich businessman.

Ana de Armas, who we just saw in WAR DOGS (2016), is drop dead gorgeous and sexy as Duran’s wife Felicidad.  De Armas enjoys a more substantial role here in HANDS OF STONE than she had in WAR DOGS, a role that enables her to show more range and depth, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Singer Usher Raymond makes for a dashingly handsome Sugar Ray Leonard, and he displays the fleeting and fancy footwork of the boxing superstar with seeming ease.  John Turturro makes the most of his few scenes as mobster Frankie Carbo who in spite of their differences really respects and likes Ray Arcel and eventually helps him get the shunned Duran his comeback bout.  Reg E. Cathey, a talented character actor with tons of credits, recently seen as Cajun cook Freddy on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS, plays Don King and enjoys some memorable moments in some key scenes as the legendary boxing promoter.

It was also nice to see Ellen Barkin play Ray’s wife Stephanie, in a performance that reminded me of Gena Rowlands back in the day.  And in a neat bit of casting, De Niro’s real life adopted daughter Drena De Niro plays Ray’s drug addicted daughter here.

HANDS OF STONE was written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz.  This is Jakubowicz’s first feature film, and it’s an impressive debut.  For my money, everything in this movie worked.

The fight sequences are well done, riveting and exciting.  The photography is lively and energetic, and the editing is quick and efficient.  The film is nearly two hours long, yet it flies by.

Even better than the fight scenes are the scenes of dialogue between Ramirez, De Niro, and Blades.  Jakubowicz also gives the movie an authentic Latin American feel, as well as capturing perfectly the time period of the 1970s and 1980s.

And Jakubowicz does a nice job with the controversial and perhaps signature moment of Duran’s career, where he infamously declared “No mas!” in the ring and walked away from boxing, words that to this day the real Duran swears he didn’t say, yet it’s what he’s most remembered for.

HANDS OF STONE is getting very little hype and meager critical recognition, which is a shame because it’s a rousing entertaining movie that tells the story of Roberto Duran, one of the most talented boxers ever to step into the boxing ring.

There’s no split decision here.  HANDS OF STONE is a clear knockout.

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