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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MILES AHEAD (2016)

April 15, 2016

miles ahead Greetings again from the darkness. What would rate as the bigger challenge: defining jazz or describing the life of Miles Davis? In true “passion project” mode, Don Cheadle not only portrays the iconic trumpeter, but also directs, co-writes and co-produces. Cheadle’s tribute to The Prince of Darkness is as open to interpretation as the hundreds of songs from Davis’ recordings over thirty plus years.

Having stated in numerous interviews that he had no interest in the usual “cradle-to-grave” biopic, Cheadle’s odd blend of fact, fiction and hallucination are meant to capture the essence of Miles Davis, rather than the life and times of the man. Guns, drugs, music, girls, and art are all present throughout this trippy trip of a movie that plays like an impressionistic painting, and not a portrait.

The bulk of the film is spent on Miles Davis during his self-imposed six year drug-fueled hiatus in the 1970’s when he secluded himself in Howard Hughes fashion. There is an odd and ill-fitting plot involving the “secret” master tapes that Davis has recorded while waiting for his manager (Michael Stuhlbarg as Harper Hamilton) to pay him the money he is owed. Mixed in is a “Rolling Stone” writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) desperately trying to get an interview with Miles and listen to the tapes. This mad caper-ish core benefits greatly from the quick cuts to the past … especially those featuring Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as Miles’ beautiful, talented and supportive wife.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect linear story-telling from a man whose life was anything but linear. After all, we are focused on the man who claimed his music was not “jazz”, but rather “Social Music” … and that “it takes a long time to play like yourself”. The car chases and gunfights might seem out of place, but do capture the essence of a man fueled by drugs and a possible (temporary) loss of his creative genius. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, Miles was remorseful for how he treated Frances. Or maybe it was simply the pressure of being Miles Davis …. The coolest of Cool Jazz.

Mr. Cheadle does a nice job in portraying Davis, and is spot on in the trademark raspy whisper which Miles was known for (the after-effects of a larynx operation in the 1950’s). Ms. Corinealdi (to appear in the new “Roots” project later this year) is outstanding as Frances Taylor, and is the one character we latch on to in hopes of maintaining our bearings throughout.

Taking its title from a 1957 Miles Davis album, the movie offers a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius who didn’t always fit into “proper” society, and would be the perfect pairing for a head-scratching trumpeter double-bill with the recent Born to be Blue, a look at Chet Baker.

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:

 


IRON MAN 3 (2013)

May 5, 2013

iron man1 Greetings again from the darkness. My initial reaction upon seeing this opening day was that some fanboys are not going to be happy. Of course, this happens every time Hollywood makes changes to the original comic book material in hopes of attracting massive box office numbers. While I recognize many of the “flaws”, I found this to be an interesting and entertaining turn on the Tony Stark/Iron Man series.

Shane Black was brought in to direct and help write the script. Mr. Black is best known for his crackling buddy dialogue in movies like Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also with Robert Downey Jr), but doesn’t have significant directorial experience (his most recent effort was KKBB 5 years ago). My belief has always been that what sets this franchise apart is Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. A wiseiron man4-cracking billionaire playboy technology and mechanical genius searching for his true identity. Mr. Black re-focuses the story on Stark. In fact, he basically takes everything away and has him start over.

Regardless of the story, many line up for these movies to see the special effects and the bad guys. The special effects are everywhere … and loud … and massive. The trailer shows a clip of Stark’s Malibu mansion being destroyed, but the entire segment is quite impressive. The number of Iron Man suits seems unlimited at times and the big finale gave me the same feeling of a 4th of July fireworks display when it ends with so many clumps of fireworks being fired at once, that the impact is dulled. As for the bad guys, The Mandarin is one of the most fierce opponents faced by Iron Man in the comics. His portrayal here by Ben Kingsley is a blast to iron man2watch, but will undoubtedly upset the true fanboys. Guy Pearce plays Aldrich Killian, a demented mastermind, once snubbed by Stark – in a scene we witness in flashback.

My preference here is to focus on the fun elements since that’s clearly what Marvel and Black are shooting for. Jon Favreau directed the first two entries in the franchise and here takes on a slightly bigger acting role as head of security for the Stark corporation … and he provides some comic relief. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) finally gets to do more than roll her eyes, but she still has her damsel in distress moments. Don Cheadle returns as Col. Rhodes … or War Machine … now re-branded as Iron Patriot, but mostly he is just waiting for his own movie. Rebecca Hall has some screen time as a smart woman who is not so wise in her choosing of partners. No comment. Ty Simpkins plays Harley, a country boy who helps Stark in his time of need. James Badge Dale, Miguel Ferrer, William Sadler, and Dale Dickey all have strong moments, but therein lies what may be the film’s biggest weakness.

iron man3 It’s an incredibly impressive film to watch … giant visuals, really good actors and quick, witty dialogue. But there seems to be an overload of each of these things. Guy Pearce’s character is woefully underdeveloped. I so wanted more of his backstory and motivation. Same with Harley, the boy. Much could have been done with that. Miguel Ferrer, always a worthy opponent, must have had his best scenes left in editing. The scene with Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle and Robert Downey Jr, may have been the best in the movie simply because we got a real peak at each of these character’s personality. That’s way more fun that another explosion!

The film pummels us with action, probably has too much Tony Stark and too little Iron Man for the fanboys, throws in a hard-to-swallow sub-plot regarding Anxiety issues for Stark (thanks to his Avengers escapades), and underutilizes Guy Pearce in what could have been a world class evil doer. Still, despite all of that, it’s fun to watch and Robert Downey Jr will always be Iron Man!

*NOTE: the expected Stan Lee cameo occurs during the Beauty Contest scene (he plays a judge)

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are fan of the Iron Man franchise … it delivers what we want and what we expect

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting something wildly different from the first two Iron Man movies – the tweaks are minor and mostly effective

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aV8H7kszXqo


IRON MAN 2 (2010)

May 9, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. No secret that I really enjoyed the first Iron Man movie a couple of years ago. For 2, we get the return of key players: Robert Downey, jr as Tony Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, and Jon Favreau in the director chair. We also get an onslaught of new players: Mickey Rourke as Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, Scarlett Johansson as Natalie/Natasha/Black Widow, Garry Shandling as Senator Stern and Don Cheadle (replacing Terence Howard) as War Machine.

Onslaught may be the best word I can use to describe the film. It is an onslaught to the senses. There are so many characters – both good guys and bad. There are so many explosions, fights and booms that we resist the urge to blink. There is so much overlapping and oddly paced dialogue that we strain to fill in the blanks. And what of the inside jokes and “advertising” for future Avengers fun? OK, maybe “Fun” is the key word, not onslaught. These characters are a blast (pun, slightly intended). Watching a creepy Mickey Rourke plot revenge in the Russian darkness is terrific. Sam Rockwell chewing scenery is not to be missed. Garry Shandling’s snarky senator is a hoot, especially at the end. And I have been surfing the net all night searching for a suitcase sized Iron Man suit. OK, not really … but that was super cool.

I’ve got it!  “An onslaught of fun!” The great and talented Justin Theroux was brought in to script the multitude of players and story lines … he must be a master juggler as none get cheated in their screen time. Even Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury is given a much heavier workload than in part one – setting the stage for his NINE scheduled film appearances as Mr. Fury.

The film is huge and spectacular, but falls just short of the first one for a single reason. The wow of discovery can only be had once. That’s not a knock on this one, but timing is crucial. Must also mention the brilliance of Robert Downey, Jr who seems born to play Tony Stark. Of course, the brilliance of Mr. Downey is that he always seems born to play his roles. He is a great actor … check his ability to spout wise cracking one-liners and then mix in a couple of actually tender moments with Paltrow’s Pepper Potts. Not many actors could do that effectively. He pulls it off seamlessly.

What really matters is that it’s a fun trip to theatre. Don’t expect this year’s Best Picture winner. Expect to laugh and be visually wowed. I certainly was.  If you liked the first one, chances are good that you will appreciate this well made sequel.


BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2009)

March 6, 2010

(3-5-10) 

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ever since Training Day became a hit, director Antoine Fuqua has been one of the director’s that escape harsh criticism from the Hollywood elite. He is a master of intense moments in time, but I believe many of his movies lack continuity to the point where the story seems to come second to adrenaline rushes. Brooklyn’s Finest is no exception.

The film follows the unconnected stories of three cops. Richard Gere is the stereotypical veteran cop who is one week from retirement, and begins the film with a gun in his mouth. Ethan Hawke is the desperate young cop whose family just keeps growing (his wife Lili Taylor is pregnant with twins) and he longs to provide better living arrangements. Don Cheadle is the undercover cop who, if he hasn’t already crossed the line, is dangerously close.

The best scenes are with Cheadle and Wesley Snipes, who plays a just released from prison hardened criminal. Their dialogue rings true for an undercover cop trying to play both sides and hold on to what’s “right”. If not for Ellen Barkin‘s histrionics, the worst scenes would be watching Richard Gere show off his full repertoire of three different facial expressions. Poor Ethan Hawke looks like no one let him eat or shower for 2 months prior to filming. The boy looks sad.

Even though we know it’s coming, the final act where the three stories intersect is pretty interesting and make for a satisfying shoot-em-up ending. Brace yourself for some hardcore street violence and language and a meandering soundtrack.  The film seems to funnel to the point that there is a very fine line between right and wrong for those in law enforcement.  I prefer to cling to the belief that this is a serious exaggeration.