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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MOLLY’S GAME (2017)

December 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue is like a rap battle with proper grammar and no down-beat. He must have been abused by pregnant pauses and moments of silence as a kid, as his screen banter gives new meaning to ‘the fast and the furious’. This latest is his directorial debut, but his loquacious diatribes have previously tested our attention spans in such films as STEVE JOBS, MONEYBALL, and of course, THE SOCIAL NETWORK (for which he won an Oscar).

Molly Bloom’s memoir is the adapted source material, and though her story might be a bit challenging to show, there is certainly much to tell … which is right in Mr. Sorkin’s wheelhouse. The verbal sparring amongst characters rarely pauses, and when it does, we have Molly immediately jumping in as narrator and guide.  The ultra-talented Jessica Chastain (ZERO DARK THIRTY) takes on the Molly role, and narrates her back story at break-neck speed (there is a pun in there). We learn her psychologist father (Kevin Costner) pushed her hard as a kid and she became off-the-charts intelligent while also being a world-class downhill skier.

A freak accident ended her athletic career, and after deciding to delay law school, Molly found herself working for a real estate agent in Los Angeles. Soon he got her involved with hosting the high-stakes underground poker games he ran for local celebrities, and being a quick study, she was soon running and managing her own games. When Molly was forced to take her game to New York, the players transformed from movie stars and professional athletes to business magnates, hedge-fund managers and, unbeknownst to her, the Russian mob.

Don’t mistake this for a poker movie. Cards and chips are everywhere, but this is Molly’s story, and Sorkin wisely simplifies the poker details and focuses more on Molly’s brilliant strategy to build her business. Of course, there wouldn’t be much to this were it just rich people playing poker. Less than a decade in, Molly is arrested in an overblown FBI sting featuring 17 armed agents at her pre-dawn door. The charges ranged from money-laundering to hedge-fund fraud to dealings with the Russian mob.

The criminal charges lead Molly into the offices of defense attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who is reticent to take what appears to be an unwinnable case. The Sorkin back-and-forth kicks into full gear as Molly and Jaffey expertly verbally spar until she convinces him that she is adamant in not wanting anyone else to get hurt – even if it might save her proverbial rear-end.

Although Sorkin doesn’t name names, it takes very little research effort to determine some of the featured players in Molly’s games. Hints are provided such as “green screen”, New York Yankee player, and Oscar winner. Michael Cera is identified only as Player X, but it’s quite obvious he is playing the noted green screen actor, and he does a nice job in a small, but vital role. The rest of the cast offers up colorful work: Jeremy Strong as Molly’s first boss, a very funny Chris O’Dowd, Brian d’Arcy as “Bad Brad”, Justin Kirk as a rock star, Angela Gots as the wise table dealer, and the always great Bill Camp as Harlan, whose story highlights the true risk in this supposed game of skill. Graham Greene has a nice moment as the judge hearing Molly’s case, and it’s likely the first time he and Kevin Costner have appeared in the same film since DANCES WITH WOLVES.

At times the film and story bear a slight resemblance to THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, but mostly it’s one woman’s journey through entrepreneurship and a web of legalities. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is used as a comparable for protecting one’s own name, as well as a life lesson for Jaffey’s young daughter. Writer Sorkin predictably surpasses first time director Sorkin, and never is that more obvious than a cringe-inducing father/daughter scene on a park bench near the end of the film. It’s designed to wrap up Molly’s inspiration and influence, but plays like a cheap Hollywood ploy to mop up loose ends. Molly deserved better, and fortunately most of the movie delivers.

watch the trailer:


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.

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BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015)

October 16, 2015

beasts of no nation Greetings again from the darkness. Cary Joji Fukunaga has quickly established himself as an expert storyteller with his previous writing and directing of Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the fascinating and conversation-sparking first season of “True Detective” (he did not direct the much-maligned Season Two).  He goes even deeper and darker this time by adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s novel about a child soldier.

When first we meet Agu, he is but an enterprising and fun-loving kid who thrives on mischief such as trying to sell “Imagination TV” – the empty shell of a console TV, complete with Agu and his buddies acting out scenes for those who peer through the picture tube opening. Agu describes himself as “a good boy from a good family”, and we believe him.

Somewhere in Africa is all we know about the location, and soon enough Agu’s village is under siege and he is separated from his mother, and forced to stay behind with the men – including his father and big brother. More terror forces Agu alone into the forest until he is brought into a mostly young group of rebel forces led by the Commandant (Idris Elba). It’s around this time that Agu begins “talking” to God through voice over narration that allows viewers to understand what’s going on inside Agu’s head – often quite contrary to what is happening on the outside as he transforms from mischievous kid to dead-eyed child soldier.  When Agu stops speaking to God, we understand that he believes he no longer deserves to be heard, but his words to the universe (directed to his mother) let us know, this boy has not yet lost his soul.

Though we never understand the war, or even who is fighting whom, this uncertainty is designed to help us better relate to Agu. He may be a tough-minded soldier, but we also never forget that he is mostly a little boy hoping to re-connect with his mother. Idris Elba plays the Commandant as part father-figure, part war lord, and part cult leader. He is a menacing presence one moment and a soothing voice of reason the next. When we (and Agu) learn the full story of his multiple sides, we are both sickened and disheartened. It’s the performances of both Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah (as Agu) that make this such a devastating and fascinating movie to watch, and it’s the filmmaking of Fukunaga that keeps our eyes glued to the screen when we would just as soon turn away.

This is a Netflix original film and they are experimenting with a simultaneous release in theatres and streaming. This approach has not previously been met with open arms by theatre chains when attempted by other distributors. It will be interesting to see if Netflix can make it work.

watch the trailer:

 


THE GUNMAN (2015)

March 20, 2015

gunman Greetings again from the darkness. Sean Penn becomes the latest addition to the AARP action hero club … a very crowded club these days. Unfortunately for Mr. Penn, he lacks the smirky charm of Bruce Wills, the uber-cool of Denzel Washington, and he fails to generate the empathy of Liam Neeson. He simply doesn’t come across as a very likable guy, and certainly not someone we can root for.

Based on the novel of Jean-Patrick Manchette, the movie starts out in the Democratic Republic of Congo where Penn is a mercenary disguised as part of a mining security detail. The first 20 minutes are convoluted and introduce numerous characters and sub-plots that leave us wondering if there are any good guys here … other than Penn’s idealistic doctor girlfriend played by Jasmine Trinca. A sure sign of a weak script is a film that is bookended by “newscasts” to explain both what is going to happen as well as what just happened.

Pierre Morel directed the first Taken movie, and his cast is stellar: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance. Somehow that combination delivers a hokey, over-acted, cheesy dialogue mess featuring absurd shoot-outs and action sequences that try to convince us Penn is some kind of quasi-superhero. His transformation from geopolitical hit-man to humanitarian is tough to buy, and it’s downright chuckle-inducing to see the times he manages to show off his sculpted torso. We can only assume his personal trainer received a bonus for each shirtless scene.

The story bounces from Africa to London to Barcelona to Gibraltar and back to Barcelona. It does include the best use of a live bull so far this year, though the actual bullfighting is somehow one of the least gruesome segments of the entire film. The film isn’t as sneaky as it thinks it is in making a statement about multinational corporations raiding Third World resources. Evidently, the message is that former assassins can be forgiven if they are re-born as committed to humanitarian causes, but capitalistic companies cannot possibly justify their work in impoverished areas.

All of the above could be shrugged off if so many wasted opportunities didn’t consistently frustrate. Penn has scenes with all of the other actors mentioned above, but there is almost no interaction between the others. Why no confrontations between Idris and Javier? How about one sequence with Penn, Javier and Winstone squaring off? So many fun actors, but so little cross-over. Frustration may be the best overall description for this one, and it encompasses everything from script to dialogue to camera work.

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.


PROMETHEUS (2012)

June 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ridley Scott bounds back into the sci-fi genre 30 plus years after his two classics: Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). Since then, he has avoided sci-fi and had some ups (Gladiator, American Gangster) and some downs (too many to list). Of course, in the film world, one need only create a single masterpiece to be forever worshiped … and the Alien lovers have always held out hope their master would return. Despite the sly marketing approach, Mr. Scott has delivered a prequel that should keep the geeks happy, while also having the “wow” factor to generate multiple viewings.

In the year 2089 we witness an archaeologist played by Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) discover an ancient cave gallactic map. With remarkable efficiency found only in the private sector, four years later, the Prometheus space ship is landing on the moon depicted in the drawings. It’s lofty mission is to discover the origin of life. The crew make-up is almost identical to the crew in Alien, only this time we get an ice queen corporate director, played by Charlize Theron, to emphasize corporate greed and lust for power, and the lack of love for science.

Once the ship lands, we pretty much know what the search crew will find. That doesn’t ruin the impact of the images. The strength of the movie comes from the visuals and effects. We never doubt that we are in a far away galaxy or that the aliens are real. This is one of the RARE times that the 3D version is recommended. Despite the dulled images caused by the glasses, this one was actually filmed in 3D and some of the effects really pop.

There will be much debate over this film because it looks effectively creepy and fascinating … downright phenomenal. However, it has too many of what I call “stupid movie character moments”. You know, those times when a character does or says something that just makes no sense – other than to create an opportunity for the filmmaker? There are plenty of those present here. The script is co-written by Jon Spaihts and “Lost” guru Damon Lindelof. The overall idea is brilliant and worth pursuing, however, the details and gaps are quite disappointing. We know there will be minor characters sacrificed in the name of creating fear in the survivors, but couldn’t we have more than one strong character? The Noomi Rapace character has much in common with Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley, but the others here are pretty generic.

 Idris Elba plays the ship’s captain, Guy Pearce plays Peter Weyland, the old man funding the mission and seeking immortality, and Logan Marshall-Green plays Rapace’s partner and lover. The only other character of interest is Michael Fassbender‘s android David. He models himself after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, right down to the golden locks. Android technology has come a long way since Alien and David can be quite a wry smart-ass.

In the end, the sci-fi geeks will decide if this one deserves to live on, but for me, despite the breath-taking technological effects, it’s not worthy of the “classic” label. It was kind of humorous to hear a score that bears an uncanny resemblance at times to the iconic score of Inception. It seems that film’s impact is nothing short of never-ending.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Alien OR you are fan of sci-fi and special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a coherent story line and strong characters

watch the trailer: