AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

watch the trailer:

 

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BLACK MASS (2015)

September 19, 2015

black mass Greetings again from the darkness. Movie goers tend to fall into one of two groups when it comes to Johnny Depp – big fans or denigrators. Whichever side of the line you fall, there are few actors who can claim such a diverse career of on screen characters ranging from Edward Scissorhands to Gilbert Grape; from Donnie Brasco to Captain Jack Sparrow; from Willy Wonka to Sweeney Todd; and from John Dillinger to Tonto. Depp now turns his talents towards one of the most unsympathetic real life characters imaginable … South Boston’s infamous crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger.

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) proves yet again that he is an actor’s director, rather than a visual technician or story addict. In this adaptation of the book from “Boston Globe” reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, Cooper has Depp and Joel Edgerton as his two leads, and an incredibly deep supporting cast that provide the look and feel for this period piece dramatizing the crime and corruption during Bulger’s reign.

When one thinks of the memorable kingpins of crime/gangster movies, those that come to mind include Michael Corleone (The Godfather movies), Tony Montana (Scarface), Jimmy Conway (Goodfellas), and Frank Costello (The Departed). The Costello character was supposedly partially inspired by Bulger. What made each of these characters fascinating to watch was the insight we were given into the psychological make-up of each and the inner-workings of their organization.  And that’s the disappointment of Cooper’s film.

For the Whitey Bulger story, there are two distinct directions to explore: the building of Bulger’s criminal empire, or the motivation of the FBI Agent John Connolly (Edgerton) as he juggled his job and relationship with Bulger. Unfortunately, the approach here is to show a hand full of cold-blooded murders to prove Bulger’s management style, and a few FBI meetings that show the obvious uncertainty within the agency. Rather than a muddled mash-up, a more interesting movie would have chosen a path and dug in deeply.

Despite the story issues, it is fun to watch how Depp and Edgerton tackle their roles. Under heavy make-up (wrinkles, receding hairline, hillbilly teeth, and crazy contact lenses), Depp becomes the intimidating force of Whitey Bulger. Just as impressive is Edgerton as Agent Connolly, as we witness the Southie neighborhood boys all grown up, but still playing cops and robbers … and it remains difficult to tell who the good guys from the bad. Edgerton’s cockiness and strutting capture the ego and ambition necessary for a federal agent to bend so many rules. In fact, despite the vastly different approaches, it’s not entirely clear which of these two fellows possesses the greatest ambition.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Whitey’s younger brother who became a State Senator. We get very few scenes featuring the brothers, and in fact, Cumberbath’s best scenes are instead shared with Edgerton. It’s difficult not to chuckle at their first meeting in a restaurant as we watch a Brit and Aussie talk it out with south Boston accents. Kevin Bacon, David Harbour and Adam Scott play Edgerton’s fellow FBI agents, while Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (especially good) and W Earl Brown make terrific Bulger crew members. Peter Sarsgaard leaves quite the impression as a doped-up associate, while Julianne Nicholson, Dakota Johnson and Juno Temple provide the film’s minimal female presence. Corey Stoll storms onto the screen as a Federal Prosecutor who is not amused by the relationship between Connolly and Bulger, but this movie belongs to Depp and Edgerton.

The concern is that any viewer not already familiar with the Whitey Bulger story may find the story not overly interesting, despite the terrific performances. Fortunately, this viewer was mesmerized by last year’s exceptional documentary entitled Whitey: United States of America v James J Bulger … a must see for anyone who wants full details into the Bulger reign of crime and terror, as well as his 20 years on the lam.

watch the trailer:

 


THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

December 26, 2014

Imitation Game Greetings again from the darkness. This year’s holiday movie season has presented us with three very different war-based films – each a potential Oscar contender, and each with its own life lesson.  Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (the excellent Headhunters, 2011) brings Andrew Hodges’ biographical book  to the screen in the form of the remarkable and true story of Alan Turing, the man credited by many (including Winston Churchill) for helping win WWII.

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptoanalyst. He was also homosexual. Celebrated for his work in helping Great Britain crack the German’s “Enigma” messages, he was also persecuted (through chemical castration) for his homosexuality. His suicide at age 41 (1954) was the likely result of his “treatment” during an era when such “unacceptable” behavior overshadowed any and all mental genius.

The film utilizes Turing’s 1951 police interrogation by a sympathetic and curious detective (Rory Kinnear) as a framing device for the three significant time periods of his life. We see Turing as a bullied schoolboy (played by Alex Lawther) discovering the early signs of his own brilliance, as well as his first love. Most significantly, we witness Turing’s work with the Hut 8 team at Bletchley Park as they worked on complex code-breaking; and finally we see the remnants of a broken man, bathed in solitude and work, who has no real place in society.

Benedict Cumberbatch gives an astounding performance as Alan Turing. We cannot take our eyes off of him, despite his Asperger’s-type social awkwardness. Cumberbatch manages to expertly capture each extreme emotion that befalls Turing, not the least of which is the frustration of the genius, when lesser minds are unable to follow his vision. Some of the best scenes are of Turing’s confrontations with a Royal Navy Commander (perfectly played by Charles Dance), and of course, the critical moments with the other members of his code-breaking team (including Matthew Goode and Keira Knightley).

There are so many aspects to Turing’s story: his impact on ending the war, how society treats true genius, his isolated childhood and final years, the extreme lack of civil rights for homosexuals of the time, and how his work on “Christopher” led to the development of computers. The second half of the film certainly presents the moral quandary, and the performance of Cumberbatch as a tortured genius overpowers any clichés that might creep in. Alexandre Desplat’s piano and strings score is a nice compliment without ever becoming overbearing, and the use of actual war newsreels adds just enough reminder of what the mission was for this group of geeks (today’s terminology).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are interested in how brains, not just brawn, can impact a war OR you want to see one of the best performances of the year by an actor in a lead role

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting WWII battlefield reenactments

Watch the trailer:

 

 


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 27, 2013

slave1 Greetings again from the darkness. Should this be labeled a historical drama? Is it one man’s extraordinary tale of strength and survival? Does this fall into the “art film” category that so divides the movie-going public? The answer to all is YES, and I would add that it’s a masterfully crafted film with exquisite story telling, stunning photography and top notch acting throughout.

The movie is based on the real life and writings of Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery from 1841-53. Northrup’s story provides us a look inside the despicable institution of slavery. Needless to say, it’s a painful and sad process made even more emotional by the work of director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). McQueen takes a very direct approach. Not much is left to the imagination. Torture, abuse, cruelty and misery take up the slave2full screen. The only subtlety comes from the terrific work of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup. His facial expressions and eyes are more powerful and telling than any lines of dialogue could be.

You will not find many details from the movie here. This is one to experience for yourself. It lacks the typical Hollywood agenda when it comes to American history. Instead this era is presented through the eyes of a single wronged man and his quest to return to his wife and kids, no matter the inhumane obstacles. We see Paul Giamatti as an emotionless, all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is a plantation owner who has a heart, but lacks business savvy. And finally we enter the world of cotton farmer Michael Fassbender, who twists Bible scripture into threats directed at the slaves – his “property”.

slave3 Fassbender dives deep into evil to find his character, and along with Ejiofor, Sarah Paulsen (who plays Fassbender’s icy wife), and Lupita Nyong’o (who plays slave Patsey, the center of the two most incredible scenes in the film), provide more Oscar worthy performances than any one movie can expect. You will also note Quvenzhane Wallis (as Northrup’s daughter) and Dwight Henry (as a slave) in their first appearances since Beasts of the Southern Wild. Other strong support comes from Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam (SNL), Michael K Williams, Alfre Woodward, a nasty Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and Adepero Oduye.

Steven Spielberg gave us a taste of the holocaust with Schindler’s List, but not since the TV mini-series “Roots” has any project come so close to examining the realities of slavery. Northrup’s story seems to be from a different universe than the slave4charming slaves of Gone with the Wind. I would argue that what makes this watchable (though very difficult) is the focus on Northrup’s story. While tragic, his ending actually deflects from the ongoing plight of those not so fortunate. It’s a story of a man who states he doesn’t wish to merely survive, he wants to live a life worth living.

McQueen’s direction will certainly be front and center come awards season, as will many of the actors, John Ridley (the screenwriter), Sean Bobbitt (cinematographer) and Hans Zimmer (score). The only question is whether the subject matter is too tough for Oscar voters, who traditionally lean towards projects a bit more mainstream.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see filmmaking and story-telling at the highest level and based on the true path of one man during one of America’s most despicable periods.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: slavery, complete with explicit scenes of turture and cruelty, is something you would rather read about than see depicted onscreen.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUQNjfhlREk


STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

May 31, 2013

star trek1 Greetings again from the darkness. There is always a bit of uncertainty when discussing or reviewing anything Star Trek related. So many rabid fans are more knowledgeable and keyed in to all the details. I am not. While I enjoyed the Gene Rodenberry TV series, and the subsequent movie versions, obsession never hit me. Because of this, my views will vary from those Trekkies and sci-fi experts.

Director JJ Abrams re-invented the franchise in 2009 with stunning results. That “new” Enterprise crew returns here: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scotty. The new addition is Alice Eve as Carol, daughter of Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCop Peter Weller). Abrams is wise enough to know that this story needed a great star trek2villain so he revisits Khan and casts a spectacular Benedict Cumberbatch (the sleazy dude from Atonement).

This movie works because of the crew’s chemistry. We believe they like and respect each other … even while breaking orders. The film works even better thanks to a villain that establishes a believable threat. Cumberbatch plays a super-human force with a mixture of Shakespeare and Hannibal Lecter. He delivers lines in a way that you have no cause to doubt his intent. This is a nice contrast to the warm fuzzies coming from the crew members.

star trek3 It can’t go without mention that there is a shocking display of crystal blue eyes on display. Chris Pine, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all flash baby blues that jump off the screen in 3D. The only reason the sea blue peepers weren’t more distracting is because of what I refer to as FXOD … a special effects overdose. It seems as though each summer blockbuster feels the obligation to go bigger on the visual effects to get noticed. As often happens, the effects are just too much. Luckily, the characters and story are strong enough that it stayed on track.

If you are a casual Star Trek fan, this is one that will entertain you. If you are a Trekkie, you have no doubt already seen it twice and have blogged about all the errors. Next up: 2016 for the third entry in the Abrams franchise.

**NOTE: It’s a pleasure to see the great Leonard Nimoy make another appearance as Spock, but it’s a shame that Abrams and William Shatner haven’t been able to come to terms.

**NOTE: While gratuitous sex in movies often draws much attention, it should be noted that a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her skivvies seems to be the main reason her character exists.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw

 


WAR HORSE

December 28, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, director Steven Spielberg provided us with one of the most horrific and terrifyingly realistic and violent examples of war ever shown on screen. Here, he takes a much different approach. Though the bulk of the movie takes place during World War I, Spielberg manages to withhold the brutal atrocities, while never once losing the impact and fear experienced by the soldiers. And while it’s uncertain whether this approach makes for a better film, it is obviously a more accessible and uplifting story because of it.

 Based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, and of course on the hugely successful stage runs in both London and New York, this movie is really the story of an unbreakable bond between a sincere farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and a majestic horse named Joey. We witness the early bonding and training sessions between the two, which allows us to swallow some of the more improbable coincidences that occur later in the story. When the war breaks out, Albert’s dad (Peter Mullan) sells the horse to the cavalry so that he can save the farm by paying the landlord (David Thewlis). Fortunately, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) agrees to keep Joey as his personal horse and return him to Albert after the war.

 War is unpredictable, and Joey gets passed from the British to the Germans to a French farmer’s daughter, back to the Germans and back to the British. Along the way, we witness what a remarkable creature the horse is. Were he a man, he would be a most decorated officer. Instead, we witness how little value the military places on animals … even the beautiful ones. There are numerous scenes that make will make you uncomfortable with the cruelty shown, but just as many that will make you smile with joy. The already famous scene that features Joey’s unfortunate conflict with barbed wire and fence posts will have you squirming in your seat, while also scratching your head in wonderment.

 Though many of the events and sequences are a bit of a stretch to believe (the time-out in No Man’s Land), the one thing you will never doubt is the beauty of the film. It’s epic nature recalls Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia (though not at the overall level of either of those films), and the photography reminds me of John Ford‘s best work. Off the top of my head, I would say it is the most beautifully photographed movie since Terrence Malick‘s Days of Heaven in 1978. Spielberg’s long time DP Janusz Kaminski is at his best here and will surely be recognized by the Academy for his cinematography.

 Many of the British actors are recognizable (Emily Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Toby Kebbell, Eddie Marsan, David Kross), but it’s key that Spielberg cast no “movie stars”, only quality actors. The stars of the film and the story are the horse and the visuals. It should also be noted that the great John Williams delivers another perfect score … one that would run away with the Oscar in many years.

No need to be frightened off because the story is based during World War I. It’s not for the youngest of kids, but this is an uplifting, sentimental and emotional movie for most everyone. It is peak Spielberg working with sentiments and subject matter with which he so excels.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy being swept away by the emotions and grand scale of an epic film OR you would like a primer to war films that goes a bit easy on the gore.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting similar war reality to Saving Private Ryan OR you have a hard time suspending disbelief for some rather remarkable coincidences

watch the trailer: