THE CURRENT WAR: DIRECTOR’S CUT (2019)

October 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Electricity. Bringing light and power to the world. Other than dependable food sources and clean water and air, nothing is more vital to our way of life today. However, going back in time only 125 years finds the sun and candlelight as the only forms of illumination. Oh, but behind the doors of laboratories for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, skilled engineers were working diligently to discover the breakthrough that would deliver light to the dark world.

Normally the making of a movie is not a story worth telling. The final work should speak for itself. But the story of this film’s road to the screen is not normal. This was the film Harvey Weinstein was working on when his sex abuse scandal broke. Weinstein went ahead with the screening of the film at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival despite pleas from the director that the film was not ready to be shown. Once the scandal hit, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (the excellent ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) was helpless – he couldn’t access the film for reshoots and final edit. Now, after two years of legal wranglings, he is finally able to present his finished project.

On one hand, it’s a feel good story for the director. On the other hand, the film falls short of being a top notch historical drama … despite it being a real life drama that changed the world. Most would agree there isn’t much entertainment value in watching the daily trial and error of engineers in a lab, so it makes perfect sense that director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick would turn their focus on the personal and professional rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as well as a portion of the story involving Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla – perhaps the most brilliant of them all.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, a true celebrity and renowned inventor. We see how Edison’s family life with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) takes a back seat to his work at his Menlo Park lab; a trait that becomes more extreme after a personal tragedy. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse, developer of railway air brakes, in a stoic and focused manner, and with a close relationship with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston). Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, he of brilliant mind contrasted with quirky and fastidious ways. The other two key players here are Matthew Macfadyen as JP Morgan, the banker who finances much of the work, and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison’s loyal assistant.

While difficult to imagine now, the big debate boiled down to what form of electricity was most practical for the masses. Edison believed it was direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and Tesla were all in for alternating current (AC), which they believed to be cheaper and more powerful. Edison, ever the media manipulator, created questions of public safety in regards to AC by pulling dramatic public stunts. An interesting note here is that despite Edison’s pledge to never invent military weapons or anything designed to take a life, it was his work that led to the use of the electric chair as a replacement for hangings in death penalty cases.

This rivalry between two titans of industry never seems to click, and sadly, Tesla’s story comes across as an add-on to the movie – though his work is worthy of its own movie. Westinghouse deals with his Civil War flashbacks, and Edison’s coarse nature is dulled somewhat here in an effort to make him a bit more appealing as a character. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair provides the “finish line” for this competition, with the winner lighting up the Fair and setting the stage for the rest of the country. There are flickers of a great movie here, and the performances reach the expected levels for such a strong cast, but overall the movie comes across a bit disjointed and trying much too hard to be regarded as a prestigious film.

watch the trailer:

 


AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

April 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what was originally titled “Avengers: Infinity War Part 2”, we get the much-anticipated conclusion to the most recent 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films … specifically Phase 3. Regardless if you are a deep-rooted fanboy or a casual viewer, you likely know the questions heading into this finale:

 

Can the Avengers defeat Thanos?

What role will Captain Marvel (and her pixie haircut) play?

Will those who died in AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR be brought back to life?

Will Tony Stark/Iron Man make it back from drifting in space?

Who will survive this final battle?

 

We knew this one had to be big, and in fact, it’s colossal/humongous/monumental … whatever your preferred adjective might be. And you can rest easy knowing that all of the above questions are answered quite clearly in this 3 hour epic from co-director brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the same directors and writers behind AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and a few other MCU entries).

Marvel has excelled over the past decade plus by combining interesting characters, understandable story lines, visually stunning effects, and clever humor. This finale offers all of that and more. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect ending to this galactic odyssey … and I don’t offer that praise lightly. From the use of Traffic’s classic “Dear Mr. Fantasy” and a gut-wrenching opening scene that yanks us right back into that feeling of dread provided by ‘Infinity War’, we know we are in for a ride that is quite a bit more somber and even more emotional than what we’ve come to expect.

The fallout from the Thanos snap is clear as we catch up with Black Widow, Captain America, Thor and Hulk. Each is dealing on their own terms, and while the Banner-Hulk merger is quite something to behold, trust me when I say, you’ve never imagined seeing Thor in his current state. This marks Chris Evans’ 10th film as Captain America, and he is front and center through much of the film – as is, in a bit of a surprise, Karen Gillan as Nebula. It makes sense given her tie to Thanos, and Ms. Gillan holds up quite well in the spotlight.

Since the previous and speculation has been on time travel and the Quantum Realm, brace yourself for a bit of convoluted talk about how that works, but that’s the closest thing to a negative I have to offer – and even that is offset by numerous punchlines at the expense of BACK TO THE FUTURE and most every other time travel movie ever made.

The theatre was packed with Dallas area critics and industry folks, and there was a significant amount of cheering, applauding and more than a few sniffles. Yes, this one will take you on an emotional journey as well as a visual one. It has a tough/emotional beginning and a tough/emotional ending. These are characters we’ve gotten to know over multiple films … and you should know just about every major or mid-major character from every Marvel film makes an appearance, as do numerous minor ones. It’s quite a remarkable reunion. And yes, the brilliance of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One more than offsets the Pepper Potts scenes.

Creator Stan Lee does get his final posthumous cameo (good for more applause), and there is a ‘women’s movement’ moment that seems to be Marvel’s “we hear you” statement. Much of what we see is “inevitable”, but as the Avengers assemble this last time, we are there to laugh, cry and gasp. This is what happens when ‘over-the-top’ is ‘just right’.

watch the trailer:

 


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:

 


THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

April 20, 2017

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. We aren’t likely to watch a more beautiful or expertly photographed film this year. Director James Gray’s (The Immigrant, We Own the Night) project looks and feels like a throwback to days of epic filmmaking, and cinematographer Darius Khandji (Se7en, Evita, The Immigrant) fills the screen with green and gold hues (similar to Out of Africa) that deliver both a sense of realism and a touch of romanticism. The minor quibble here is with the emphasis on the biographical rather than the more interesting and compelling and adventuresome expeditions to the “new” world.

Our true to life hero (and the film’s portrayal provides no other description) is military man and explorer Percy Fawcett played by Charlie Hunnam. Based on the book by David Grann, the film divides focus into three areas: the stuffy, poorly lit backrooms of London power moguls; the 1916 WWI front line where Fawcett proves his mettle; the jungles of Amazonia wherein lies Fawcett’s hope for glory and redemption. It’s the latter of these that are by far the most engaging, and also the segments that leave us pining for more detail.

The three Fawcett expeditions form the structure for the quite long run time (2 hours, 21 minutes). In 1906 the Royal Geographic Society enlisted Fawcett for a “mapping” journey to distinguish boundaries around Bolivia in what had become a commercially important area due to the black gold known as rubber. Fawcett was not just a manly-man, he was also obsessed with overcoming his “poor choice in ancestors” and gaining a position of status within society. Using his military training and personal mission, that first expedition (with help from a powerful character played by the great Franco Nero) was enough to light Fawcett’s lifelong fixation on proving the existence of Z (Zed) and the earlier advanced society.

Back home, Fawcett’s wife Nina (Sienna Miller) shows flashes of turn-of-the-century feminism, though lacking in judgment when she suggests a ridealong with her husband on his next expedition. Although the couple spends little time together, given the years-long trips, they do manage to produce a hefty brood of kids, the eldest played by Tom Holland (the new Spider-Man).

1912 brings the second Amazonia expedition, the one in which renowned Antarctic explorer James Murray (a snarly Angus Macfayden) joins Fawcett and his by now loyal and expert travel companion Henry Costin (a terrific Robert Pattison). The trip proceeds as one might expect when an ego-driven, unqualified yet wealthy passenger is along for only the glory. Murray’s history is well documented and here receives the treatment he earned.

It’s the third trip in 1925 that Fawcett makes with his son that will be his last, and the one that dealt the unanswered questions inspiring Mr. Grann to research and write his book. It’s also the segment of the film that leaves us wanting more details … more time in the jungle. With the overabundance of information and data available to us these days, the staggering courage and spirit of those willing to jump in a wooden canoe on unchartered waters and trek through lands with no known back story, offer more than enough foundation for compelling filmmaking. It’s this possibility of historical discovery that is the real story, not one man’s lust for medals and confirmation. More jungle could have elevated this from very good to monumental filmmaking.

watch the trailer:

 


THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

January 6, 2013

impossible Greetings again from the darkness. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio C Sanchez reunite for a much different film than their taut thriller The Orphanage (2007). What separates this from the long list of disaster films is that it’s exceedingly well made, it’s based on a true story, and it puts a young actor in a role vital to the connection with audience.

The real life Belon family from Spain have for some reason been presented here (by Spanish filmmakers) as the British Bennett’s with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (as Henry and Maria). They are on vacation at a beach resort with their three boys Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). In the beginning the resort plays like paradise. Unfortunately, this is Thailand in 2004 when one of the worst impossible2natural disasters of all-time hits … a Tsunami with enormous force and monstrous waves.

Filmed with remarkable intensity, we see Maria and Lucas (separated from the others) struggle mightily to survive and stay together. This 10 minute sequence leaves the audience spent and gasping for air. Rarely do we witness such realistic near-drownings on screen. The film soon breaks into two simultaneous acts: the fight for survival by Maria and Lucas; and the quest to find them by Henry, Thomas and Simon.

The first half of the film is the strongest portion and it deals with the storm and it’s aftermath. The second half is very emotional impossible3and focuses on the courage of Lucas and the strength of Maria. It’s one of the most unique combination tales of survival and family love that we’ve seen. The filmmakers wisely choose to let the story follow the family and not throw in cheap parlor tricks like TV newscasts. We all remember those reports, and the actual film does a terrific job of recreating the frightening images.  There is also a short, but sweet (almost mystical) scene featuring Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) contemplating the stars.

Acting by the leads take this to elite status. Ewan McGregor turns in what is his best performance in quite some time. His phone call home scene is excruciating to watch. Naomi Watts delivers what is likely an Oscar nominated performance, despite being almost unrecognizable while laying in a hospital bed during much of the film. The real star and soul of the film is Tom Holland as the youngest son. His performance recalls those of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants … two of the best ever child performances.

Be forewarned. This one is a true tearjerker … especially if you are a parent or grandparent. Keeping in mind that it’s the true story of one family’s ordeal makes a few scenes almost impossible to watch clear-eyed. The film ends with a photo of the Belon family … perfect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a good tear-jerker, especially if based on a true story OR you want to what terrific filmmaking in a disaster movie looks like OR you need proof that it is possible to make Naomi Watts look unattractive.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the trailer eclipses your preferred public display of emotion

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgw394ZKsis


FRIGHT NIGHT (2011)

August 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. We can’t really discuss this movie without referencing the 1985 original. Writer Tom Holland was involved with both (including directing the original) and gets credit for updating the story while maintaining the look and feel. It seems as if vampires are everywhere these days, but the Fright Night recipe expertly mixes suspense, danger and campy humor.

Charley (Anton Yelchin) and his single Mom (Toni Collette) live in a quiet Las Vegas suburb. Charley’s nerdy friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) notices the place is getting quieter everyday … people are disappearing! These disappearances correspond with the arrival of Charley’s new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell). Yep … Jerry the Vampire.

 Charley at first ignores Ed’s investigative skills and concentrates on Amy (Imogen Poots), the out-of-his-league girlfriend whom he desperately wants to get to know better. And then … Ed disappears. Charley tries to push Amy aside and solve this mystery. It doesn’t take long since he breaks into Jerry’s house and discovers where he stores the bodies of his victims. As you might expect, Jerry doesn’t take well to the invasion.

Charley goes to Vegas showman Peter Vincent (David Tenant) to seek help in destroying Jerry. See, Peter Vincent’s crazy Vegas show is all about fighting the evil dead among us. Of course, Vincent isn’t quite as tough off stage.

 There are plenty of moments of campy fun as Charley pursues Jerry. Not the least of which is a fender bender which includes Chris Sarandon, who played Jerry in the original. While it’s a nice homage, it just made me miss Roddy McDowall, who originated the role of Peter Vincent. Still, watching McLovin as a tough-talking vampire is quite a bit of fun as are the few moments of doubt from Collette and Poots.

Craig Gillespie directs the film, and his success a few years ago with the indie hit Lars and the Real Girl brings an added touch of class to the film. He really does a nice job of balancing the terror of the story with the humor necessary to make this one enjoyable and a bit different.

 A tip of the cap to the casting of the movie. Yelchin (Star Trek, The Beaver) is a real up and comer. Ms. Poots was very effective in Jane Eyre and it will be interesting to follow the direction of her career. Collette is a real pro. Colin Farrell seems to really enjoy his turn as a vampire and adds some subtleties and quirks that make it fun. David Tenant (“Dr. Who”) really captures the Vegas Peter Vincent. Mintz-Plasse is one of the few who can effectively bounce from high school nerd to powerful vampire. Must also mention some hidden gems: singer Lisa Loeb makes a quick appearance as Ed’s mother, Charley’s friend Mark is played by Dave Franco – brother of James (you will spot the resemblance), and Peter Vincent’s girlfriend Ginger is played by Sandra Vergara, sister of Sofia from “Modern Family” (again, you can’t miss the resemblance).

In this day and age, it isn’t easy to assemble such a strong cast, script and director for a movie that isn’t centered around alien action, terminal disease or toilet humor. If you enjoy campy horror films done with an acknowledged tongue planted in cheek, then I recommend this one. It delivers exactly what you hope and expect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoyed the 1985 original OR you get a kick out of campy vampire flicks

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your vampire movies to be dark and mysterious OR you are convinced no one can ever be a better vamp than Robert Pattinson

watch the trailer: