FANTASTIC FUNGI (doc, 2019)

October 14, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Why did the mushroom get invited to the party? Because he’s a fun guy (fungi)! That joke works better when spoken rather than read, but it made me laugh as a kid, even though it wasn’t enough to keep me (and half my classmates) awake during those dull science films in junior high. Documentarian Louie Schwartzberg obviously stayed awake in class, and now he’s showing us how those films should be made … interesting, informative and entertaining.

“We brought life to Earth. You can’t see us. We are mushrooms!” Narrator Brie Larson (yes, Captain Marvel herself) introduces fungus, or more accurately, fungi … since we are told there are 1.5 million species – 20,000 of which produce mushrooms. Despite the presence of Ms. Larson, this isn’t a superhero movie. No, it’s much more important. In fact, the real star of the documentary – other than fungi – is an amateur mycologist named Paul Stamets. That’s right, this informative project devotes much of its time to some guy who just likes science (oh my, does he like it); specifically, the study of fungus and mushrooms. He even tells us some of his personal story, allowing us to connect with a guy who is proud to be known as a mushroom nerd.

Director Schwartzberg is an accomplished documentarian, and noted time-lapse photographer and visual artist. He even uses impressive digital animation periodically to guide us along. He’s also smart enough to complement Mr. Stamets’ observations with input from real life scientists, as well as authors and researchers. Admittedly, it’s not really fair to classify Stamets as an amateur. He has written books and his research has been invaluable to some of the world’s foremost experts.

You may wonder why you should care about fungi. Heck, it’s described as something between vegetable and animal. We hear that it’s been around since the beginning, and that it plays a role in rebirth, reincarnation, and regeneration. This is shown via a memorable time-lapse segment, and with the bold proclamation that Mycelium is “the mother of us all.” We learn how fungi is such a vital part of our existence through medical research, penicillin (and chees), antibiotics, bio-terrorism, psychedelics, and now even the treatment of depression and cancer. Fungi can feed you (it’s good on pizza), heal you, and even kill you. The film is quite a fascinating and educational treat … and a lesson in biological resilience. And I never once fell asleep – my junior high teacher wouldn’t believe it.

watch the trailer:


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

April 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled “Avengers: Infinity War Part 2”, we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films … specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

 

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos?

What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play?

Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life?

Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space?

Who will survive this final battle?

 

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it’s colossal/humongous/monumental … whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey … and I don’t offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic’s classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by ‘Infinity War’, we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we’ve come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you’ve never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans’ 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film – as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that’s the closest thing to a negative I have to offer – and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we’ve gotten to know over multiple films … and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It’s quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a ‘women’s movement’ moment that seems to be Marvel’s “we hear you” statement. Much of what we see is “inevitable”, but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when ‘over-the-top’ is ‘just right’.

watch the trailer:

 


CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

March 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT”S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It’s Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie, and even though it’s actually a prequel to what we’ve previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control … see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.

In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990’s, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90’s era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls – who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.

The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film – her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.

The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak’s score complemented the heavy 1990’s rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.

Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we’ve seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It’s an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time – even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It’s fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.

watch the trailer:


THE GLASS CASTLE (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We all have our stories. The stories that make up our life. Some of us dwell on the “bad” things, while others remember only the good times. A few even romanticize the past, which could also be termed embellishment. Where exactly on this scale that Jeannette Walls’ story falls is debatable, but the facts are that her life story is the foundation for a best-selling book and now a high-profile movie.

Ms. Walls’ memoir describes her unconventional childhood with bohemian parents who cared more for freedom and independence than for feeding their kids. Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton (a ‘must-follow’ filmmaker after his powerful 2013 indie gem SHORT TERM 12) chose this as his next project, co-wrote the screenplay with Andrew Lanham, and wisely opted to work again with Brie Larson, who stars as the oldest Jeannette (from late teens through adult).

The film bounces around in time from Jeannette’s childhood in the 1960’s and 1970’s to her time as a New York gossip columnist in 1989. The timeline isn’t all that bounces, as we watch this family of six, seemingly always on the run, ricochet across America with all their belongings strapped to the top of the battered station wagon – usually on the run from creditors or following the latest dream from Rex (Woody Harrelson).

Rex is the type of guy who rants against most everything that makes up what we know as society. He can’t (or won’t) hold a job and fills his trusting kids’ heads with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow – going as far as drawing up plans and specs for the off-the-grid fantasy home referenced in the title. Rex then spends what little money the dirt poor family has on drinking benders which cause him to become a nasty, abusive threat.

Rex’s wife Rose (Naomi Watts) is a free-spirited artist who somehow possesses even fewer parental instincts than her husband. Although she could be labeled an enabler of his abusive ways, she might actually be the more interesting of the two, even if the story (and Jeannette) focuses much more on Rex. The best scene in the movie is when mother and grown daughter share a restaurant booth, and the two worlds collide.

Of course the real story here is how Jeanette managed to rise above this less-than-desirable childhood and achieve her own form of freedom as a writer. The stark contrast between the squalor of her West Virginia shack and the million dollar apartment she later shares with her fiancé (Max Greenfield) makes this the ultimate depiction of the American Dream – pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (even when you don’t have boots).

The acting is stellar throughout. Mr. Harrelson could garner Oscar attention as he manages to capture both the dreamer and failure that was Rex. Ms. Watts maximizes her underwritten role and turns Rose into someone we believe we know and (at least partially) understand. Ms. Larson embodies both the desperation of a teenager whose environment forced her to be wise beyond her years, and the iciness of a grown-up trying so hard to leave the past behind. In just a few scenes, Robin Bartlett manages to create a memorable and horrific grandmother – one whose actions explain a great deal. The most remarkable performance of all, however, belongs to Ella Anderson (the only good thing about THE BOSS). She captures our hearts as the adolescent Jeannette – the closest thing to a parent this family had.

There are some similarities between this film and last year’s expertly crafted CAPTAIN FANTASTIC. In fact, two of the young actors (Shree Crooks, Charlie Shotwell) from that film also appear in THE GLASS CASTLE. The biggest difference being that Viggo Mortensen’s character could be considered to have an over-parenting approach, while Woody Harrelson’s Rex never over-did anything, except drink and dream.

The movie probably has a bit too much Hollywood gloss and sheen to adequately portray the hardships of a large family living in poverty, though the top notch acting keeps us glued to the screen. By the end, we can’t help but wonder if some of Ms. Walls’ romanticism of her father and past might be due as much to her immense writing talent as to her childhood challenges.

watch the trailer:

 


FREE FIRE (2017)

April 19, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Searching back through more than a decade of film reviews, I can confirm that the phrase “slapstick shootout” has not previously been part of my movie lexicon … which is a relief since it could never be more accurately placed than in description of this latest from the husband and wife filmmaking team of director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump (prior works include High-Rise, Kill List and a few others). The zingers are plentiful – both in bullets and dialogue. It’s unlikely you’ve ever laughed as much during such a violent/gory/graphic assault on the senses (especially auditory).

Set in 1978 Boston, which allows for added humor via music, attire, hairstyles and vehicles, the basic premise is a meet-up for the deal between an IRA faction and a gun-dealer, with the brokers and “muscle” of each side along for the ride. When cases of AR70’s are presented instead of the ordered M16’s, the deal gets a bit shaky until cooler heads prevail. That is until one of the gun-runners recognizes an IRA guy as the one who disrespected his 17 year old cousin the night before. It’s at this point that the film cranks to a frenzy that would make the Mayhem commercial guy proud. It’s the visual definition of a cluster.

A stand-off and shootout occurs (with side deals and betrayals) over the next hour and yet the early comical dialogue somehow becomes next level great despite bullets whizzing through a terrific setting in an abandoned umbrella warehouse. Unlike in some movies, these bullets inflict pain (and the subsequent cries and wails). The characters continue to banter and threaten one another, all while dragging their lead-induced injuries across the dusty floor between various forms of protective shields strewn about the warehouse.

Normally I would concentrate on the major characters, but most everyone involved in the deal-gone-bad has at least a couple of memorable lines and moments. The gun-runners are led by Sharlto Copley as Vernon, a cocky, mouthy South African whose dialect sounds an awful like New Zealander Murray in the classic TV gem “Flight of the Conchords”. In a movie that seems impossible to steal, Copley comes the closest and his Vernon would make a perfect Halloween costume and annoying party guest. His cohorts are Marion (Babou Cesay), Gordan (Noah Taylor, Max 2002) and Harry (Jack Reynor, Sing Street, 2016). The IRA group is led by uptight Chris (Cillian Murphy), Stevo (a hilarious Sam Riley, Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), Frank (Michael Smiley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). The two deal brokers are the ultra-debonair Ord (Armie Hammer) and the lone female Justine (Brie Larson). It’s a terrific cast having a ridiculously good time with a creative and rollicking script.

Know going in that the film is a very hard R-rating for violence, drug use (in the middle of the shootout), and a bounty of flowing F-words. It’s neither for the faint of heart nor those who take their standoffs too seriously. Director Wheatley employs a vast array of unusual camera angles to ensure the action never looks boring, and his use of secondary and tertiary sound (especially with dialogue) is expert and dizzying at times. Don’t expect too many layers or sub-plots. It’s simply a shoot ‘em up romp capitalizing on black comedy to the nth degree. John Denver might not have approved of the use of his song, and just remember, “We can’t all be nice girls”.

CAUTION: this is the RED BAND trailer and is NSFW or Kids:

 

 


KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

March 25, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. I enjoy creature movies. Even as a kid I enjoyed creature movies (as distinguished from monster movies, which I’m also fond of). From the classics to the (very) low budget ones on late night TV to the fear-mongering from Japan … I enjoy them all. Of course the most fascinating of the bunch is King Kong, and this version arrives 84 years after the still magnificent 1933 version from Merian C Cooper and featuring Fay Wray.

This time there is no shootout on The Empire State Building, and the connection between Kong and the girl is limited to a few knowing glances. Most of the film takes place on Kong’s island … one he shares with some other creatures (not rodents) of unusual size. Unlike Spielberg in Jaws, who teased us for half the movie before finally revealing the shark, we get a glimpse of the imposing Kong very early on.

The cast is the best yet for a creature feature. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins play scientists/conspiracy theorists; Tom Hiddleston plays the world’s only mercenary with perfect hair and skin; Brie Larson is a self-described anti-war photographer; while Samuel L Jackson, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann and Toby Kebbell play military men on their last mission at the end of the Vietnam War. The most colorful character is played by John C Riley – an eccentric WWII survivor who has been living on the island since 1944.

Jordan Vogt-Roberts directs this version, and his resume of The Kings of Summer and mostly TV work begs the question of how the heck did he get this gig? Fortunately he has cinematographer Larry Fong alongside, and his significant big action picture experience is obvious in the breath-taking helicopter scene (as well as many others). It’s impossible not to notice the extreme love shown to Apocalypse Now and even Jurassic Park. Some of the shots and tone seem as if pulled directly from those films … even moreso than the original King Kong. We even get Samuel L Jackson recycling his “hold onto your butts” line.

There is plenty here to satisfy us lovers of creature features, though this version certainly lacks the emotional impact of Fay Wray and Naomi Watts connecting with Kong … not much Beauty, but plenty of Beast. It’s certainly recommended that you stay for the post-credits scene that sets the stage for 2020.

watch the trailer:

 


ROOM (2015)

October 24, 2015

room Greetings again from the darkness. Tragically, stories of women being held captive have become all too common in this sometimes frightening world in which we live. Emma Donoghue had the high profile, real life situations of Jaycee Dugard, Elisabeth Fritzl and Amanda Berry (Ariel Castro) to draw from for her terrific novel upon which this film is based. While not easy for anyone (especially parents) to watch, it’s a well made movie with outstanding performances … including a career-changer from Brie Larson.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank, a critical favorite from last year) takes us inside the world – or more accurately – the walls where Ma (Brie Larson) and her just turning 5 year old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live. Seven years ago, Larson’s character was abducted while walking home from school, and since then she has given birth to Jack, and the two have been held captive in a small shed with only a skylight connecting to the outer spaces of life. The captor … known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) … periodically brings them supplies, while also regularly visiting to satisfy his more base needs with Ma.

For the first half of the film, we as viewers are held prisoners right along with Ma and Jack. We see what a patient and wonderful mother she is as she strives to provide some semblance of hope for her son, though in a nearly hopeless situation. When Jack turns 5, Ma begins to explain the outside world to him, as she knows they must try to escape in order for her son to have any semblance of a normal life. During this time, we are in awe of this 10 x 10 environment and how it is every bit the nightmare we have imagined while reading the articles and seeing the reports on real life ordeals.

The second half of the film is equally fascinating, as we watch young Jack and his sense of wonder and caution at discovering the real world. We also see the psychological trauma that Ma experiences after staying strong for so long. Assimilating into society brings different challenges for both Ma and Jack, plus those of her mother (Joan Allen), her father (William H Macy) and her mom’s new beau (Tom McCamus). The film doesn’t shy away from their reactions, though some are easier to stomach than others.

Providing any more details would soften the impact of the film, and this is one that is meant to be felt – even if it’s a true kick in the gut. The film is well cast and well acted, and young Jacob Tremblay captures our hearts quickly and joins the short list of child actors who go far beyond “cute” and into profound. Brie Larson exploded onto the acting scene in Short Term 12, one of my favorite movies of 2013; but it’s here where she steps into the elite level of actresses. She brings a tenacity and emotional strength that leaves us never doubting whether she has “her strong”.

watch the trailer: