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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GIFTED (2017)

April 6, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The “right” choice isn’t always obvious. Things get more complicated when even the “best” choice isn’t clear. Place a young child at the heart of that decision tree, and the result may yield emotional turmoil and an abundance of moral high ground and judgment. Such best intentions are at the core of this latest from director Marc Webb (his first feature since 500 Days of Summer) and writer Tom Flynn.

Frank (Chris Evans) is raising his 10 year old child prodigy niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) in low-key small town Florida. The circumstances that brought the two of them together aren’t initially known, but are explained in a poignant moment later in the film. Frank has been home-schooling Mary and now believes it’s time she transitions to public school for the socialization aspect … “try being a kid for once” he urges. Of course, Mary’s teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate, Obvious Child) immediately realizes Mary is special, and just like that, the wheels of the educational system are in motion to explain to Frank why they know what’s best for Mary … a high-fallutin private school where she can be all she can be.

There is a really nice and enjoyable story here of Uncle Frank dedicated to doing what he thinks is best for bright and charming and spirited young Mary, but it all comes crashing down when the bureaucrats, and ultimately Frank’s mother (Lindsay Duncan), get involved. When the adults can’t agree on the best route for Mary, a courtroom battle ensues. Ms. Duncan gets a witness scene reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and her overall performance stands in effective stark contrast to the warm fuzzies of Mr. Evans.

The supporting cast contributes nicely, though Octavia Spencer’s role as kindly neighbor Roberta is more limited than it should be, and the love connection between Evans and Ms. Slate could have easily been omitted – but she is so pleasant on screen, that we don’t mind at all. Glenn Plummer and John Finn are the attorneys who go to war, and Fred the one-eyed cat also gets plenty of screen time. But there is little doubt that the movie really belongs to the effervescent Miss Grace. She nails the back and forth between kid and genius, and we never doubt her sincerity.

Child prodigies have been explored through other fine movies such as Little Man Tate, Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Shine, and while this one may run a bit heavier on melodrama, but it’s worthy of that group. The best discussions after this movie would revolve around what’s best for the child. Should she be deprived of “higher” education in order to live within a more “normal” social environment? Are any of the adults more interested in their own ego than in what’s in the child’s best interest? Home school vs public school vs private school is always good for some fireworks, and everyone has their own thoughts. So how do we decide who gets to decide? Does a parent get the final say on their child – even if their motivations may be in doubt? Should every kid be pushed to their academic – or artistic – or athletic – limits? The questions are many and the answers are complicated. There is a great line in the film that itself is worthy of conversation: “You got on the bad side of a small-minded person with authority”. Yikes. Even Cat Stevens’ great song “The Wind” can’t soften that.

watch the trailer:

 


BEFORE WE GO (2015)

September 3, 2015

Before we go Greetings again from the darkness. Many people (not me) were (and still are) enthralled by Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight). Because of this, it’s not shocking that a very similar type story would be set on the streets of New York City. However, you might be surprised to learn that Captain America himself, actor Chris Evans, has taken this on as his directorial debut.

Mr. Evans also stars alongside Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness), as they saunter their way through the city during the late night and early morning hours. In a borderline meet-cute opening, Nick (Evans) is tooting his trumpet in Grand Central Station when a frazzled Brooke (Eve) goes sprinting by and drops her cell phone. Brooke, of course, misses her train and Nick returns the phone fragments to her. He learns her purse was stolen and she lacks cash, credit and ID. Being a gentleman, he offers to help.

The cynic in me couldn’t help but wonder how helpful this gentleman would have been had the stressed out woman not been a world class beauty. Seriously, why do the all-night wanderers look like Chris Evans and Alice Eve, or Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy? Why don’t they ever look like those people on the “Wal-Mart” YouTube videos?

The film unfolds like a road trip movie … although it all takes place within a few city blocks. Each little segment is like a vignette, attached with string to the overall goal of getting Brooke back to her New Haven home before her husband arrives. See, both of our heroes are running from emotional and relationship turmoil … Brooke is avoiding a confrontation with her less-than-perfect husband, while Nick wants to/doesn’t want to see his 6 years ago girlfriend (Emma Fitzpatrick). He came to the city for the trumpet audition of his life, but his internal battle is over whether to see his old flame … all while subtlety trying to win over Brooke. Yep, it’s as lame and ridiculous as it sounds.

A brief stop for a psychic reading is a highlight, if for no other reason than we get relief from the flirting, fighting, and philosophizing of Brooke and Nick in the form of veteran actor John Cullum – a little bit psychic and a little bit elder wisdom. The film does have a nice look to it – the city alternates between dreamy, dangerous and hardcore. Unfortunately, the overused shaky-cam has a negative impact on many intimate scenes, and prevents us from enjoying the colors, lights and textures of the city. Editing out the sprinkled profanities would make this an easy fit for Hallmark or the Lifetime channel. It’s harmless enough, just not as charming or romantic as it tries to be.

watch the trailer:

 

 


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

watch the trailer:

 


SNOWPIERCER (2014)

July 5, 2014

snowpiercer Greetings again from the darkness. It’s easy to understand how frequent movie goers develop an affinity for certain directors, however, it’s important to not blindly praise based on a name. Korean auteur director Joon-ho Bong has previously delivered a couple of artistic and interesting genre movies with The Host and Mother. His first (mostly) English language film is a sci-fi, politically-oriented action thriller that is based on a French graphic novel, and utilizes well known actors from the U.S. and U.K. This is definitely “world cinema”.

The basic premise is that a man-made experiment to “fix” severe global warming change goes bad, leaving the earth as an uninhabitable frozen tundra … even worse than Green Bay. The only survivors are those aboard a perpetual motion train that circles the earth year after year. Onboard is a class-segregation system (ala The Hunger Games) with the richest 1% at the front (first class) of the train and the 99% lower class bringing up the rear (steerage). This case of haves vs have-nots leads to the expected rebellion by the oppressed lower class.

As the rebels make their way towards the front of the train, each car brings new obstacles … in fact, each car plays like a new level in a video game – each different and more challenging than the previous. In between are a wide variety of creative fight scenes that allow the director to show off his visual acumen in close-quarter battles – some quite violent.

Comic relief is provided by a near clown-like Tilda Swinton. Her appearance and delivery are hilarious and seem better fit for a Wes Anderson movie … well, if not for the fact that I found the entire movie works better as a comedy than the political commentary it’s meant to be. Each of the main characters provide a bit of interest on their own: Chris Evans as the main rabble-rouser, Jamie Bell as his right-hand man, John Hurt as the old-timer and Octavia Spencer as the wronged-mother. Actually the best story line involves Nam and Yono (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung respectively) as a father-daughter team with skills integral to the rebellion, as well as their own agenda.

While the fight scenes were well-staged, I couldn’t help but think of beer commercials every time the camera provided an exterior shot of the train. Luckily these shots and the abundance of posturing and lame dialogue kept me chuckling enough that it overshadowed the high number of ridiculous sequences … not the least of which is the final introduction to the Wizard of Oz-like train engineer in the front car.

Director Joon-ho Bong continues his technical advancements in visual and action effects, but he will need to deliver much tighter stories to capture a large U.S. audience. In fact, more drama was delivered by his real-life “final cut” battles with Harvey Weinstein than the on screen uprising.

***NOTE: I think having Ed Harris wear his beret from The Truman Show would have been a nice effect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see a true “world cinema” production featuring talent from Korea, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe class warfare (even with a stop off at a sushi bar) is a topic best suited for real life

watch the trailer:

 


CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

April 20, 2014

capt america Greetings again from the darkness. Many were unimpressed with the first Captain America movie, though I have always had a soft spot for the most heroic and genuinely pure of the superheroes. This sequel opens with Steve Rogers trying to acclimate after a 70 year sleep … he thinks the internet is pretty cool. It is a bit surprising that the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe, known for You, Me and Dupree) are the ones who load up on plot lines within a Marvel movie.

Starting off with big time action sequences, the movie then morphs into a geopolitical weave of intrigue between SHIELD and HYDRA. New to this maze of distrust is Robert Redford … proving once again that Hollywood doesn’t trust guys wearing suits in fancy offices. In a twist, Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) find themselves the target of a manhunt by those they work for. Then they drag Falcon (Anthony Mackie) into this … his flight suit is a nice effect. All of this happens after an unexpected action-packed sequence featuring Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson).  The titular Winter Soldier provides an identity twist, as well as some intense fighting.

The multiple plot lines and emphasis on trust issues all correlate pretty well to some of the things going on in the world today. That adds an enjoyable element that really brings relevance to the Captain America character. Because of this, the repartee between Cap and Natasha is limited … we get some, but much less than what we have come to expect from other Avengers-related films. And it’s probably a good idea to go a different direction with the Avenger who really is different from the others. Don’t miss the extra scene in the closing credits … it’s the lead in to Avengers: Age of Ultron movie coming in 2015.

**NOTE: there is the always-anticipated Stan Lee cameo, and it adds the usual touch of humor

watch the trailer:

 


THE ICEMAN (2013)

May 24, 2013

iceman1 Greetings again from the darkness. Dramatizations are at their best when actual footage of the subject or event doesn’t exist. They can be an effective way to highlight a particularly interesting story or person with details we might not otherwise access. Richard Kuklinski‘s story is fascinating and frightening. He is known as the mob’s most prolific hit-man/contract killer. Writer/director Arial Vromen has adapted Anthony Bruno‘s novel for the screen, and wisely cast Michael Shannon in the lead. It makes a nice companion piece to the chilling 1992 documentary The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.

The movie is dominated by the hulking presence of Shannon as Richard Kuklinski. Shannon is no match for the physical size of Kuklinski, but his movements and the camera angles capture the powerful and imposing monster that he was. If iceman2you are unfamiliar with Kuklinski’s story, he killed somewhere between 100-250 people. His missions were carried forth in cold-blooded, heartless and widely disparate manners. Additionally, he often dismembered his victims and froze bodies and parts to prevent the actual time of death from being established. He was good at his job, though hardly a good guy. But wait! Not so fast …

Kuklinski was also a husband a father of two daughters who made up what appeared to be a lovely, normal family in suburban New Jersey. This guy had an internal switch he flipped from the street to the dining room table. When he was iceman6captured, his wife and daughter claimed they had no clue what he did for a living (he had told them he was in Finance). Sure, they admitted to his having a wild temper and even threatening his wife a few times, but they never once considered that he was a cold-blooded killer by day and neighborly barbecue dad on weekends.  The photo at left is an actual family photo of the real Kuklinski family.

Winona Ryder plays Deborah, Kuklinski’s wife. Before you snicker, you should know that Ryder is exceptional in the role. Her comeback tease in Black Swan gave us hope she had returned to form, and with this turn displays the talent we always knew was there. The always dependable and creepy Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as Roy Demeo, the mobster for whom Kuklinski worked. The scenes with Shannon and Liotta together are bone-chillingly frightening. Chris Evans (light years from Captain America) plays fellow hit-man Robert Prongay aka “Mr Freezy”. Kuklinski credits Prongay with valuable insight into poison and disposal of bodies. It’s heart-warming to see that even contract killers have support groups. Other fine acting comes courtesy of David Schwimmer iceman4as smarmy Josh (Demeo’s right hand man), Robert Davi (as Leonard Marks. Demeo’s link to the family head), James Franco (as one of the hits), and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s incarcerated brother Joey.

Childhood flashbacks give us the table-setting necessary to understand the balance of nature v nurture in the Kuklinski household. Still, no matter how much abuse or misery one has a child, it’s difficult to comprehend the stoic evil that possessed Kuklinski. And to be clear, Michael Shannon’s performance is his best yet … and that is saying a great deal. He has become one of the most interesting actors – one who can take the lead as he does here and in Take Shelter, or as a scene-stealing supporter in Revolutionary Road, Mud and the upcoming Man of Steel (as General Zod). iceman3He’s not a flashy actor, just an enormously talented one.

Vromen captures the gritty feel of the nearly three decades of “family” life in a manner that reminds of Kill the Irishmen … the Ray Stevenson take on Danny Greene. The atmosphere and inner turmoil are similar, but there is no comparison to the Kuklinski evil. Should you doubt this, I would highly recommend the documentary previously mentioned. Watching the actual dead eyes of the real Richard Kuklinski as he talks about his life is beyond horrifying.

*NOTE: the real Kuklinski claimed to have killed Jimmy Hoffa.  His story was unable to verified because … you got it … he was very good at his job.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are intrigued by the power of “family” life and how the members handled problems OR you are familiar with Kuklinski and want a film that captures the essence of the monster and the times (bad clothes and facial hair).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: violence, even when based on true stories, is not your cup of tea

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aciNNjzyS20