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!

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I, TONYA (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Your recollection of Tonya Harding is likely not that she was the 1991 U.S. Champion figure skater and a two-time Olympian. And rather than honoring her as the first female skater to land a triple axel in competition, you likely remember “the incident” in 1994 where she whacked her on-ice rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee with a club. Only Ms. Harding wasn’t the one who attacked Ms. Kerrigan … and that’s only the beginning to what director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I LOVE YOU, and a bunch of other mushy stuff) detail in this madcap look at a reality infinitely stranger than most fiction.

Margot Robbie (THE WOLF OF WALL STREET) stars as Tonya Harding, and it’s a career-defining performance … funny, tragic, physical and emotionally charged. This isn’t the expected bleak biopic, but rather it’s a brilliant blend of parody, docudrama, and dark comedy focused on some real life folks that will surely make you grateful for your life. Harding’s abusive, profane and icy mother LaVona is played with aplomb by Allison Janney, who manages to bring some humor to the role of a woman whose approach went far beyond the realm of tough love and straight into cruelty. Sebastian Stan plays Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is Shawn Eckhardt, his friend and co-conspirator. In regards to these last two gents, we spend most of the film trying to decide if they are goofy, ignorant or downright dangerous (or all of the above).

Director Gillespie expertly weaves together the domestic scenes, ice skating scenes, and “current” interviews with the main characters. The domestic scenes include Tonya and Jeff, Tonya and her mother, Eckhardt with Tonya and Jeff, and Eckhardt with his own parents. The ice skating scenes emphasize how hard Tonya worked and her relationship with Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), while the interviews (recreated from actual interviews) provide contradictory details from the memories of Tonya, Jeff, Eckhardt and LaVona. The film tries not to make fun of them, but they kind of do it to themselves.

Bobby Cannavale appears as a “Hard Copy” reporter who provides some story structure by walking us through the timeline as reported by the media at the time. McKenna Grace plays a young Tonya, while Caitlin Carver is Nancy Kerrigan. Tonya has long been labeled as the most “notorious” figure skater, and a failed boxing career was the closest she came to capitalizing on her notoriety after the scandal. Her life and the incident have been the basis for songs, books, news specials, documentaries, TV parodies, and even a Brooklyn-based museum. The film reminds us that truth and recollections are open to interpretation, and that there is much more to the story than what was reported. Respect is too much for Tonya to hope for, but this excellent and entertaining film might deliver a dose of compassion or empathy (along with incredulity and some laughs).

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THE BRONZE (2016)

March 18, 2016

bronze Greetings again from the darkness. Leave it to the Duplass brothers (Executive Producers here) to turn the traditional sports movie genre upside down. Of course, this is about as much of a sports movie as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, but it does use the backdrop of the Olympics to make a point about fading fame. Mostly though, it’s an excuse to crack wise, spew profanities and spoil anything and anyone remotely innocent.

Melissa Rauch (Bernadette on “The Big Bang Theory”) stars as Hope, a former bronze medalist in Women’s gymnastics, who captured the hearts of Americans when she battled through an Achilles injury to perform her final event. The movie picks up a decade after Hope’s Olympic heroics and we first see her enjoying a clip of her big moment. And by enjoying, I mean … well, never mind. It turns out Hope never was able to compete again, and instead continues to milk her celebrity status around small town Amherst, Ohio. When her dad (Gary Cole) gently nudges her to take a coaching job, she shouts “I’m a star, not a coach!” Hope is a selfish brat whose egoism has her clinging to former glory and preventing her from joining society.

Hope gets tricked into coaching Maggie, the town’s up-and-coming gymnastics prodigy. Maggie (Haley Lu Richardson) idolizes Hope and is her polar opposite in every possible personality trait – a very welcome upbeat and perky addition to the movie. Instead of embracing the opportunity, Hope goes out of her way to sabotage naïve Maggie’s dream. Along the way, she also mistreats the gym owner who somehow fancies her – despite Hope’s hopelessness. Twitchy Ben (Thomas Middleditch) is a sweet guy who sees the good in Hope and does his best to pull her from the dark side.

A twist of fate places Hope at odds with her old flame and former Olympic gold medalist, Lance (Sebastian Stan), who is now a leader in the world of women’s gymnastics. These two banter like siblings who dislike each other, and also execute one of the wackiest ever on-screen comedic sex scenes – for all of you who have fantasized about frolicking with a gymnast.

Director Bryan Buckley is best known for his 50-plus TV commercials that have aired during Super Bowls, but here he lets Melissa Rauch do her thing (she also co-wrote the script with her husband Winston Rauch). There is some commentary on fame and celebrity (and cameos from Olga Korbut, Dominique Dawes, Dominique Moceanu), and some insight into narcissism; but mostly it’s a chance for Ms. Rauch to flaunt her foul motor-mouth with some extremely crass and raunchy lines. It’s kind of cute in an absurdly profane way, and some might agree it beats watching real gymnastics.

Note: Including a Doris Day song on this film’s soundtrack may be the funniest, or at least most ironic moment.

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THE MARTIAN (2015)

October 4, 2015

martian Greetings again from the darkness. With this week’s NASA announcement of the discovery of water on Mars, it seems necessary to point out that director Ridley Scott’s latest was not actually filmed on the red planet, but rather in the Jordan desert. OK, maybe not necessary, but it does serve as a reminder that the film (based on the popular book from Andy Weir) may be filled with science … but it’s also fiction – hence the label Science-Fiction.  If you were one of THOSE who actually paid attention in science classes and read the optional material, then you will probably find much fault in the details. For the rest of us, it’s a pretty fun ride.

Space has long been a popular movie topic, and a key to such favorites as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Aliens, The Right Stuff, Contact, Space Cowboys, Armageddon, Moon, and most recently Gravity and Interstellar. And of course there are the immensely popular franchises of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”, which both chose a different path than the “grounded” nature of the others. This latest film may actually have as much in common with Cast Away as it does with any of the space-based films, and while many movies these days seem to be advertisements for Apple, this one is owed a debt by the duct tape company.

Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) and her crew (Matt Damon, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Askal Hennie) are hard at work on their Mars mission when a severe storm causes them to evacuate in panic mode. When the storm hits, Damon’s astronaut Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead. Once it’s realized that Watney survived and has every intention of being rescued, the film kicks into gear.

There are three separate stories we follow: the ingenious and spirited survival mode of Watney, the politics and brilliance of the NASA organization, and the crew who now believes Watney’s rescue is their responsibility. The NASA group is led by director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) and includes support work from Chiwetel Ejiofar, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, MacKenzie Davis, Donald Glover and Benedict Wong.

Taking the approach of an adventure film with the MacGuyver of all Botanists, Damon’s charm and humor stand in stark contrast to the annoyances of the two leads from Gravity, and provide a mass appeal that should make this entertaining for most any viewer. This approach allows us to imagine ourselves stranded on Mars, and whether we would panic or consider ourselves Space Pirates. There is also a lesson here for all students out there … pay attention in Science class! For the rest of us … “get your a** to Mars”!

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RICKI AND THE FLASH (2015)

August 9, 2015

ricki Greetings again from the darkness. Having worshiped at the acting alter of Meryl Streep since 1977 (her brief appearance in Julia), this frequent movie-goer takes great delight in seeing her donning a leather jacket and bangles while strumming an electric guitar. Somehow she continues to expand on her already unmatched diverse resume of movie characters – this time as an aging leader of a cover band that plays to a small but loyal audience at a Tarzana bar.

Ricki is no rock star, though she clearly chased the dream. We learn of this when we see her working as a checker at the local supermarket, and then again when her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her home to Indianapolis in a desperate attempt to pull their daughter Julie out of a suicidal depressive state brought on by her husband leaving for another woman. Julie is played by Ms. Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, and their bond plays out well enough on screen.

The movie’s peak occurs with the family dinner scene, as Ricki is united with her three kids, including sons Josh (Sebastian Stan – known in the Marvel world as Bucky Barnes) and Adam (Nick Westrate). It doesn’t take long before true emotions are bubbling over causing much discomfort throughout the restaurant. See, Ricki left her family to chase her music dream, leaving Kline and his second wife Maureen to provide a sense of normal family life. Maureen is played by six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald, who sadly doesn’t get to “flash” her famous singing voice in a movie that is comprised of songs for about half of its running time.

Director Jonathan Demme (an Oscar winner for Silence of the Lambs) and writer Diablo Cody (an Oscar winner for Juno) inexplicably drop the family drama soon after the dinner scene and we spend most of the second half watching Streep and Rick Springfield play out their dysfunctional relationship onstage. If you are unfamiliar with Springfield, he was a pop star in the 80’s and was the Dr. McDreamy predecessor while on “General Hospital”. Lately you may have seen him as the creepy plastic surgeon on “True Detective” … he looks much more normal here.

The band does a nice job with the familiar songs, and Streep is effective as the lead singer and audience favorite. However, even with Demme’s stellar track record with musical documentaries (Talking Heads, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen), it’s difficult to understand why so much time is devoted to the musical performances after the extensive family drama set-up. A perfect example is that once the final act hits, Julie is given no more dialogue. It’s a strange turn.

The script does make a couple of very interesting points. The first involves the repercussions of a mother in chasing her dream … Ricki compares herself and perception to that of Mick Jagger. The second involves addressing the “job” of parents to love their kids. Either of these could be the central theme of a very interesting film, but as with other topics, the surface is barely scratched in this film. Despite the odd choices made by writer and director, it’s clear Ms. Streep is loving her time on stage … her version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away” is alone worth the price of a ticket.

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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

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