12 STRONG (2018)

January 18, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. During the movie, Afghanistan is referred to as “the graveyard of many empires”. Traditionally, January is the graveyard of most new movie releases, so it’s a pleasant surprise when we see an entertaining, well-made and historically interesting film, and it’s still mid-January!  Doug Stanton’s book “Horse Soldiers” is the source material for director Nicolai Fuglsig’s first feature film, and it’s anything but a disappointment.

The film opens on September 11, 2001 and subjects us, yet again, to those horrific images seared into the minds of anyone alive on that day. What most of us didn’t know, was that about a month later, a team of U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets) were being dropped into the rough and mostly unfriendly terrain of Afghanistan. This ridiculously courageous team of 12 men had one mission: secure Mazar-i-Sharif to prevent a takeover by the Taliban.

An early scene tells us this won’t be the usual blind patriotism we often see on screen. One of the soldiers, Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon), is told (with a bit of anger) by his wife, “I’ll love you when you get back.” This contrasts to the usual loyal and stiff-upper-lip military wife we see in most war movies. Another wife scrubs the oven rather than snuggle with her man, while yet another coerces a taboo pledge to come home to her.

Chris Hemsworth (THOR) plays Captain Mitch Nelson, the intelligent but not-yet-battle-tested leader of a special ops team. The plan is for Nelson and his team to connect with General Dostum, an Afghan War Lord in charge of the Northern Alliance, and fight together to gain control of Mazar. After arriving at a local outpost nicknamed “The Alamo” (34 miles from town), the team gets their first surprise … they must split up and cover the ground on horseback. Filmed in New Mexico, the journey is miserable and filled with danger – an ambush could occur at any moment, or perhaps they are being set-up by those they have been ordered to trust.

Horseback riding, caves, the weather, and the elements of the terrain are all challenges, but none of it compares to facing the Taliban forces which number in the thousands, and feature tanks, rocket launchers and an endless supply of weaponry. Director Fuglsig utilizes a “Days in Country” counter so that we can get some semblance of time and ongoing misery being fought through by the Americans. But no day is normal when the soldiers are on horseback while being attacked by tanks. The odds seem unsurmountable.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the story and welcome approaches of the film is back-and-forth between Captain Nelson and General Dostum. Initially, Dostum shows little respect by telling the young officer that he lacks “the eyes of a killer” and isn’t yet a warrior, and he spends a great deal of time lecturing and philosophizing on Nelson’s behalf. Of course, the lessons may be frustrating in the moment, but aren’t lost on Nelson as there is a huge payoff at the peak of the key battle.

The battle scenes come in all sizes – small skirmishes and massive, large scale assaults. Each is intense and dramatic and well-staged, though there are some moments where we shake our head in disbelief. At least we do until we remember that this is a true story, and despite that, it is truly unbelievable.

The supporting cast includes Michael Pena and his snappy punchlines, Trevante Rhodes (MOONLIGHT), William Fichtner with a shaved head, Elsa Pataky – Hemsworth’s real life wife as his screen wife, Taylor Sheridan, Geoff Stults and Jack Kesy. Rob Riggle plays Colonel Max Bowers, who was Riggle’s commanding officer when he served in the Marines. The previously mentioned Michael Shannon is a bit underutilized, but the film’s best moments are those with Hemsworth and Navid Negahban (as General Dostum). You likely recognize Negahban as Abu Nazir from “Homeland”. It’s their exchanges that show how the line between allies and enemies is not always crystal clear – even if they are fighting for the same thing.

Writers Peter Craig (THE TOWN) and Ted Tally (Oscar winner for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) do a nice job of character development, and the camaraderie of the 12 men of ODA 595 seems authentic – despite some schmaltzy moments over their 23 days of Task Force Dagger. Early on, we are informed that the most important thing to take to war is “a reason why”, and then towards the end, Dostum explains that the United States is in a no-win situation: we are cowards if we go, and enemies if we stay. It’s chilling commentary on a war that has dragged on much too long … despite the heroic efforts of the 12 horse soldiers.

watch the trailer:

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THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

October 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. The ultimate cinematic dilemma … how to make the next comic book movie stand out from the (many, many) others? The brilliant answer comes from director Taika Waititi and co-writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost – a screwball superhero action film that delivers not only the required alien war scenes, but also a campy villain for the ages in a movie that may be the funniest of the year.

For those who prefer their superheroes dark and brooding, this one will be a shock. Prepare for Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster – the most polite villain we’ve seen in awhile, and one who looks to be straight out of the 1960’s “Batman” series. Chris Hemsworth as Thor is one of many returning actors/characters, only this time he really gets to flash his comic timing on top of his Thunder God biceps. His love-hate, trust-no trust, see-saw relationship with brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is in full force, as is the Bruce Banner banter with The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s certainly more in line with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY than the previous movies for Avengers.

As much fun as Goldblum brings to the party, this is really Cate Blanchett’s show. She is the frightening (with a dash of camp) Goddess of Death, and long-lost sister of Thor and Loki, and daughter of Odin (Anthony Hopkins). With a headdress that puts everyone at the Kentucky Derby to shame, Hela’s enormous powers are such that she crumbles Thor’s mighty hammer with little effort – just to remind everyone that big sisters are renowned for messing up younger brother’s toys.

Of course, with that title, we know that the story revolves around what could be the end of Asgard. Joining in the fun are: Idris Elba who is back as Heimdall, Tessa Thompson as a master of one-liners Valkyrie, Karl Urban as Skurge – rewarded with a wonderful exit scene, Ray Stevenson returns as Volstagg, and rocky alien Korg who is voiced by director Waititi. Fans of the series will be happy to know other familiar faces pop up periodically – one especially magical sequence teaches Loki a quick lesson.

In addition to the main rescue story line, the powerful villains, and crazy aliens, there are numerous nods and tributes to previous versions (notably Planet Hulk, and Fantastic Four), and a hilarious early stage play with three cameos that make it clear, big time laughter is here to stay. It’s fun to catch the reunions from such previous projects as Star Trek, JURASSIC PARK and Westworld.

Special acknowledgment goes to director Taika Waititi for hilariously taking the comic book film world down a different path. He’s known for his comedic projects like HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (one of my favs from 2016), WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and his work on the brilliant but short-lived “Flight of the Conchords”. It’s still very much a Marvel movie, with visible fingerprints of Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. It’s also a fantastic adventure film that sets the stage for next year’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, while also featuring the best use ever of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. So get ready to rock, roll and rollick in a film that is just about as much fun as you can have in a theatre.

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:

 


THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

November 12, 2013

thor3 Greetings again from the darkness. While this is the second Thor movie, we feel a bit more familiar with the Norse God thanks to The Avengers. It’s not surprising that Chris Hemsworth can hold his own with the character given his looks and physicality, but this time he gets a run for his money thanks to Tom Hiddleston as Loki. (not my favorite part of the first one).

The film’s official villain is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who rules the Dark Elves and is trying to re-capture the all-powerful Aether, a substance of infinite energy. But the whole battle for the 9 realms is really just a sideline to Thor vs Loki, and Thor’s touch of humanity and eye for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Most of the key characters are back: Anthony Hopkins as Odin (even more over the top this time), Rene Russo (Thor’s mom), Ray thor2Stevenson as Volstagg, Jaimie Alexander (Sif), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Kat Dennings (Darcy), and Stellan Skarsgard (Erik Selvig).

This sequel is kind of interesting to analyze. It’s certainly bigger than the original … the special effects are huge and much improved. Light comic moments abound, but luckily the snark from Kat Dennings is minimal. Chris O’Dowd shows up for a couple of pretty funny, but slightly out of place scenes. There are a couple of cameos including an off-beat appearance by one of the The Avengers. Rene Russo even gets her own sword fight! Though it matters not to me, I assume there are many who would choose a Skarsgard other than Stellan to run around Stonehenge sans clothes. So while it has all of that going for it, the story often fails at engaging the audience.

thor4 This one is directed by Alan Taylor, who is quite a successful TV director, and there was clearly some upfront concern over the script as Joss Whedon was brought in for scene doctoring. I believe what we learn is that the fish out of water story works when Thor is on Earth, but it loses impact when Jane Foster visits Asgard. Still, Tom Hiddleston is such fun to watch as Loki, that none of that really matters.

It’s a superhero movie that will entertain the fans and provide plenty of ammunition for the critics looking to bash. If you see it in the theatre, you should know to stay for BOTH post-movie scenes. A rare Benecio Del Toro sighting makes it worthwhile.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you are a fan of the Marvel comics and the corresponding films … and know that there are many more to come!

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are rational human being unwilling to spend time on the superhero fantasy world.  Just know that there are many more to come!

***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are interested in the Benecio Del Toro character, then continue reading.  If you prefer to be surprised, then please stop reading now.

Del Toro plays The Collector in the final scene.  Expect an expanded role for Guardians of the Galaxy.  The Collector is millions of years old and is a pre-Cognitive (he sees the future).  He collects items and beings of real power.  At the end of Thor: The Dark World, he takes possession of Aether and states “One down, five to go“. There are six gems of color in this universe and possession brings ultimate power.  Expect more to come in future Marvel films.


RUSH (2013)

September 28, 2013

rush1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan are back in their wheelhouse with a film based on real people. Their previous collaboration was Frost/Nixon, and they also had separate “true stories”: Howard with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, and Morgan with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Here they tackle personality opposites and fierce Formula One competitors James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The two lead actors are perfectly cast. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) slips seamlessly into the swashbuckling, rebellious playboy that was Great Britain’s James Hunt. Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Goodbye Lenin!) becomes the focused, determined, meticulous Spanish-German Niki Lauda (and could get mentioned come Oscar nomination time). You might think of Hunt as an X-Games type who thrives on publicity and fun, while Lauda is more scientist or engineer driven by the quest for perfection. Both were World Champions and their rivalry brought out the best rush2in each.

Do not think for a second that you need be a Formula One expert or even know the backstory of Hunt and Lauda to enjoy this movie. It is extremely entertaining and exciting. Morgan’s script might hover a bit more on the oh-so-photogenic Hunt/Hemsworth character, but it also does a nice job of preventing the not-so-likable Lauda from being a bad guy. In fact, it demonstrates that champions are not all alike.

The look of the film is exemplary. Beautifully photographed by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire), the colors and grainy texture make this look like it was filmed in the 1970’s, not just based then. While the racing scenes are stunning, it is actually an intimate look at this world and the men of this era. Without dwelling on it, we get a realistic feel for the fiery crash that caused Lauda’s horrific injuries and his extraordinary fight to recovery while in the hospital.

rush jh nl We also get a peek at the very different marriages of these two men. Hunt’s short lived bond with model Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde) ended when her affair with Richard Burton caused the final split between Burton and Liz Taylor. Lauda’s relationship with his wife (Alexandria Maria Lara) occurred without the whirlwind, but in a very real and organic manner. Both are an additional touch of realism to a quite real story.  The photo to the left shows the real Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

There have been no shortage of racing movies over the years. Some good: Le Mans (Steve McQueen) and Grand Prix (James Garner). Some not so good: Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) and Driven (Sylvester Stallone). Ron Howard’s latest clearly finishes near the top at the finish line.

**NOTE: James Hunt died from a heart attack at age 45 in 1993.  Niki Lauda is 64 years old and has owned and run small airlines and remained involved with racing through management and commentary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining and exciting movie based on two real life adversaries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for serious insight into the Formula One world

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmLvpSOh1QA


SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012)

June 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. After suffering through the miserable Mirror Mirror earlier this year, my fairy tale palate needed cleansing. The original Brothers Grimm tale was actually pretty dark and first time director Rupert Sanders has some success going heavy into ominous with his version. The movie has some flaws, but is actually quite fun to look at.

Early on, we get a taste of Charlize Theron as the wicked stepmother/evil queen. Her calm voice and unforgiving stare prove quite chilling and one of the best parts of the movie. The magic mirror (on the wall) shows signs of life and we understand quickly that this Queen’s power will not be used for the greater good. The palace itself is quite a site and Snow White’s escape provide us a behind-the-walls pass, including the medieval sewer system.

My favorite parts of the movie are the foreboding Black Forest and its polar opposite fairyland. The art decoration for both is excellent and fairyland even offers a nod to the Disney cartoon version. Both sets offer some stunning visuals … the forest ogre, the dwarfs and the white buck with a matrix rack. Ahh, the dwarfs. Can’t have Snow White without them. This group (originally eight) have the superimposed heads of actors we all recognize: Bob Hoskins, Ian McShane, Ray Winstone, Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Toby Jones, Johnny Harris, and Brian Gleeson. This camera trick allows us to connect pretty quickly with the group.

 Kristen Stewart brings her successful Twilight run to fairy tale land. She isn’t given much to do other than fight and gaze. Her Joan of Arc look serves the film’s purpose, but does any guy really think she is “fairer” than Charlize? Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays the titular Huntsman and serves the cause admirably, as does Sam Claflin as Snow’s lusty, trusty childhood friend. Sam Spruell plays the Queen’s henchman brother, but is most memorable for one of the worst haircuts in Hollywood history … straight out of Dumb & Dumber.

The battle scenes are well done, the soundtrack is not overbearing as one would expect, but there seems to be something missing here. The film is fun to look at it, but just doesn’t deliver on any type of emotional level. Perhaps the material is just too familiar after all these years of hoping the first bite of an apple doesn’t render us unconscious.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the darker, sinister version that the Brothers Grimm intended OR you are just trying to wash away the memories of Julia Roberts cackling as the wicked Queen earlier this year

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something in line with the classic animated Disney version

watch the trailer:


THE AVENGERS (2012)

May 5, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The concern coming in was that this would be like an All-Star game, which as any sports fan will tell you, is typically a massive letdown. Assembling so many super heroes and colorful characters into one movie: Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and Loki … would probably lead to either mass confusion, a 4 hour movie, or short straws for a couple of characters. Somehow director/co-writer Joss Whedon has avoided the pitfalls and delivered a huge action film that is loads of fun for everyone, including the fanboys.

Whedon does a remarkable job of giving each character their fair share of screen time, and somehow manages to make the interaction between the characters the best part of the movie. There is some terrific dialogue and the number of quick-witted exchanges are too numerous to recount. While this would be expected from Robert Downey, Jr‘s Iron Man, I must admit to being pleasantly surprised at Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor and especially Mark Ruffalo‘s Dr Banner/Hulk. I found Ruffalo’s take on the role very interesting since he is the third actor to tackle this in the past nine years (Eric Bana 2003 and Edward Norton 2008). The movie contains quite a few laugh outloud moments, which is pretty impressive in a filled theatre.

 If you are going to combine six super heroes in a movie, you need a bad guy. A villain. Actually, a super villain. Tom Hiddleston as Loki (The God of Mischief from Asgard, and Thor’s brother) is up to the task. For me, he was a weak link in Thor, but here is a full-fledged, powerful evil mastermind looking to gain power by stealing the global power of Tesseract (Cosmic Cube), commanding an alien army, and ruling earth. Hiddleston is clearly having fun and it shows. For the movie to work at all, his plan and power must stand up to the impressive line up of good guys he is fighting. That is certainly the case.

 Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow has come a long way from her brief work in Iron Man2, and we really get to know more about Natasha the Russian spy … although her accent fades in and out. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye seems a bit out of place, but Renner is so cool, we don’t really care. Chris Evans as Captain America does a wonderful job of taking control of the band of misfits and displays the leadership expected of a super-soldier. We even get a good dose of Agent Coulson (Phil to his friends) and Clark Gregg‘s deadpan deliver is a great addition. Samuel L Jackson (as Nick Fury) will be adding hundreds of millions more to his current record of being the highest-grossing actor of all-time.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts. Since last we saw her, she has evidently been shopping for short shorts and helping design the new Stark Tower. Natalie Portman makes a creative cameo, reprising her awful role in Thor. Stellan Skarsgard is back as a believable scientist. Powers Boothe appears as a member of the Council that Fury reports to. The great Harry Dean Stanton(at 85 yrs of age) has a comical scene as a security guard who stumbles onto Hulk’s mess. And of course, Stan Lee makes his well-deserved cameo appearance – a tradition in the Marvel movies.

Much of the credit for this must go to Joss Whedon. He may finally be out of his “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” shadow, as this movie is quite an accomplishment. Entertaining and funny for the masses, yet detailed enough for the comic book fan boys. I was thinking how much fun this would be for a 10-12 year old, and how my mind might have exploded if something like this existed in my childhood. Even comparing this to the Christoper Reeve Superman movies will help you realize just how far super heroes movies have come.  There are some holes in the story and a couple of things will have you scratching your head if you think too hard … but this one’s not about thinking.  Just sit back and enjoy!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see the most Academy Award nominees ever assembled for a super hero movie OR you just want to have fun watching a big old summertime blockbuster with comedy, action and colorful characters

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have already decided you’ll hate it … otherwise, you might actually like it

watch the trailer: