THE MULE (2018) – Eastwood’s Latest Doesn’t Excite

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Clint Eastwood in THE MULE (2018).

At 88 years-old, Clint Eastwood still draws an audience.

When I saw his latest movie THE MULE (2018), a film that Eastwood both directs and stars in, the theater was packed. Nary an empty seat was to be found.

This is because Eastwood has been making movies for over 50 years, first as an actor and top box office draw and later as an extremely successful director. My whole life Eastwood has been acting in the movies, from the Spaghetti Westerns in the 1960s to the Dirty Harry movies to his later directorial gems like UNFORGIVEN (1992) and MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004). His career has been phenomenal, and at 88 years-old, he’s still churning out movies.  Incredible!

All this being said, however, THE MULE, Eastwood’s latest project and the first time he’s acted in a movie since TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012), is a rather underwhelming vehicle for the iconic filmmaker. At best it’s average, and at worst, well, it’s not that good.

THE MULE tells the story of a 90 year-old horticulturist Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) who after his longtime business folds accepts an offer to get paid for delivering a package across state lines. No questions asked. Of course, Earl comes to find out that he’s transporting drugs for a Mexican cartel, but since he enjoys the money, he continues to serve as their “mule,” getting paid handsomely for his efforts, so much so that eventually he becomes their top driver.

I had a lot of problems with this story, the biggest being that I simply didn’t care what happened to Earl or any of the other characters, and here’s why. At first, Earl doesn’t seem to know what it is he’s transporting, although it should be very clear to him from the outset what he’s doing, since his first day on the job he’s greeted by some unsavory characters wielding weapons. Regardless, soon enough he takes a peek at the package and sees once and for all that he’s transporting drugs.

But he simply doesn’t care. And this is the part of the story that I didn’t like, that the audience doesn’t really understand why he doesn’t care, since not enough is known about the character. Most folks I would imagine would not want to be working for a Mexican drug cartel, regardless of the money, and Earl especially seems like someone who wouldn’t want to do this kind of work.

Besides being a retired horticulturist, he’s also a retired Korean War veteran. As he says in the movie, he’s been in combat, so he doesn’t frighten easily, so I get that he’s the weathered tough guy who’s not going to bat an eye at these drug heavies. But we learn nothing about Earl to support the idea that he’d be okay with this kind of work.

The running theme of the movie is that people need to make time for their families. Throughout his whole life, Earl put his work before family, and as a result neither his ex-wife Mary (Diane Wiest) or his adult daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood, Clint’s real life daughter) want anything to do with him any more. Only his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) is willing to keep the lines of communication open.

Earl, at 90, is looking back and regretting his decisions, and yes, he is using his newfound riches to help his family, but even so he hardly seems like a family man.  He uses his money to spend nights with beautiful young women, and when he is invited to the home of the cartel boss Laton (Andy Garcia) he seems comfortable and at home.

I guess I expected a little angst and regret from the character for cozying up with the drug trade. There’s none to be found. And it’s not as if Earl lived a criminal life earlier. He raised flowers!  Earl is simply not a very drawn out character, nor is he all that interesting. In short, I didn’t care about him one iota.

Bradley Cooper, Michael Pena, and Laurence Fishburne play DEA agents hot on the trail of the cartel which employs Earl in scenes that are largely cliché and dull.  The dialogue is about as sharp as the writing on the daytime soaps of old.  Pretty bad.

And the women characters here fare even worse.  Dianne Wiest, Alison Eastwood, and Taissa Farmiga play three generation of women in Earl’s family and they are all reduced to cliché dialogue about his not being there for his family. The guy’s 90. You’d think they would have gotten over his absence a long time ago and moved on with their lives.

It’s a very shallow screenplay by Sam Dolnick and Nick Schenk, offering little or no insights on what’s like to be a 90 year-old man running drugs for a Mexican drug cartel. Earl seems to be as much invested in the job as if he’s just going for a Sunday drive. Part of this, I guess, is the point, that he’s not rattled, that he does his own thing and doesn’t allow the drug thugs to bully him, but it plays out in the most undramatic of fashions. There are hardly any suspenseful moments, nor is there much poignancy here.

It really does feel like Earl is out for that Sunday drive.  That’s about how much urgency this movie wields.

This is Eastwood’s second directorial effort this year, as earlier in 2018  he directed THE 15:17 TO PARIS, a film I liked even less than THE MULE. But I’m not souring on Eastwood. He’s made far too many gems for me to do that.  In fact, his previous three movies, SULLY (2016), AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were among my favorite movies of those years. And while he didn’t direct TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE (2012) he did deliver an outstanding performance in it.

But nobody’s perfect, not even Eastwood, and it’s difficult to make one high quality movie after another.

As such, I can’t say that I liked THE MULE all that much. I never warmed up to the main character, Earl, and I never really understood where he was coming from or why he was doing what he was doing. As a result, I never really cared for him. More so, I didn’t care for the rest of the story either, as the supporting characters and storylines played more like cardboard cut-outs than real people and situations.

THE MULE seems old and tired, and its main character, 90 year-old retired horticulturist Earl Stone appears to agree to work for a Mexican drug cartel for no other reason than he likes to drive and enjoys the money. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not exactly compelling storytelling.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A STAR IS BORN (2018) – Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga Sizzle in Remake

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Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN (2018).

If A STAR IS BORN (2018) is anything, it’s a showcase for its two performers, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who share strong chemistry throughout and lift this film at times to something quite special.

It also happens to be a remake.

A third remake, to be exact.

And so originality is definitely lacking. I’ve seen this story told three times before, in 1937 starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, in 1954 with James Mason and Judy Garland, and in 1976 with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. As good as this new version of A STAR IS BORN is, and it is very good, it really can’t get over the fact that it’s telling the same story the fourth time around.

Famed musician and performer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) while riding high on the celebrity charts is struggling with alcohol and drug addiction. One night, after a show, he visits a bar and happens to catch the performance of a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga). Jack is instantly impressed, and he basically asks her out on the spot. She initially says no, but Jack persists, and Ally gives in and agrees to go on a date with him.

They hit it off immediately, and Jack encourages Ally to pursue her songwriting career. In fact, one night at one of his concerts, he invites Ally on stage to sing with him, and the rest is history. Ally makes a big splash, and as her career is born and takes off, Jack continues to struggle with his addictions, leading the two, in spite of their romantic relationship, on opposite life journeys.

So, there’s the story, and if you’ve seen any of the previous film versions, it’s one you’re familiar with.  Now, I liked this 2018 version of A STAR IS BORN, but I would have liked it even more had I not known exactly what was going to happen.

The best part of this new A STAR IS BORN is the performances by Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. They are completely believable in their roles and as I said they do share tremendous chemistry onscreen. It’s not an exaggeration to say the two sizzle as a couple, which makes their characters’ ultimate fate all the more tragic.

Cooper, who is also making his directorial debut here—more on that in a bit— is excellent as Jackson Maine. For starters, I believe he did his own singing and guitar playing here, which is pretty awesome, considering how good he sounds. He makes Jack an authentic music star. And he’s likable. When he’s on top of his game, he’s generous enough to help Ally get started and more so he falls completely in love with her.

As Jack’s addictions grow worse, Cooper makes his pain so palpable you almost feel as if you’re drinking too much along with him.

Jack tells Ally that success is fleeting, and the world is full of talented people, but the ones who make it are the ones who have something to say, and he advises her to tell the truth, because truth is what compels audiences to show up. It’s perfect advice and reflects one of the secrets to good writing: keep it truthful. This theme resonates throughout the movie.

Lady Gaga is just as good if not better than Cooper. At first, she shows us Ally’s vulnerabilities and her lack of self-confidence, which is one of the reasons she’s so hesitant at first to spend time with Jack, as she fears he may only want to take advantage of her. But she soon realizes that’s not the case.

And of course, once she starts singing, being Lady Gaga, her voice takes on a life of its own and obviously makes her newfound fame completely credible. More impressive, though, aside from her singing, is that she shows off some first-class acting chops. I liked Ally and wanted to see her succeed, and more so, I was pulling for Ally’s and Jack’s relationship to succeed as well.

It’s also not lost on me that there is an added layer to this movie regarding the real life performers. We have Bradley Cooper, an actor, playing a famous singer, and Lady Gaga, a famous singer, making her acting debut, playing a newcomer to the entertainment scene.  As I watched their early scenes together, where Jack advises Ally how to handle her music career, I couldn’t help but think it’s Lady Gaga who knows the ins and outs of the music industry, and in reality she’s the one who could be doing the advising.

As I said, A STAR IS BORN is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, and it’s a strong one.  His work behind the camera shows that he’s a good storyteller, as the film conveys its emotions at all the right places.  The story moves at a decent pace with the possible exception of the third act which drags a bit.

Cooper also wrote the screenplay along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters. Roth has a ton of writing credits, including FORREST GUMP 1994).

A STAR IS BORN also features a strong supporting cast. Sam Elliott, in spite of the fact that sometimes his muttering is difficult to understand, does a fine job as Jack’s older brother and some-time manager Bobby. The two share some emotional scenes together, in particular one where Jack says some pretty hurtful things to his older brother, and later, the opposite, where Jack tells Bobby the truth about how he has always looked up to him.

Andrew Dice Clay gives a nice subdued performance as Ally’s dad Lorenzo. And Dave Chapelle enjoys some key scenes as Jack’s buddy George “Noodles” Stone.

Overall, I liked A STAR IS BORN, mostly because I really enjoyed watching Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga together on screen. The film also has something to say about success, the entertainment industry, and alcohol and drug addiction.

However, I would have liked it more had I not known exactly how this ill-fated love story was going to end.

—END—

 

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

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Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017) – Less of an Awesome Mix

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guardians2-poster

I loved the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), and it instantly ranked as one of my favorite Marvel superhero movies.  As such, I was really looking forward to VOL. 2, and I fully expected to like it.

I did not.

As GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) opens, old friends Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and newly born Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are busy saving the galaxy from bad guys, in particular taking on a giant monster in order to protect a civilization’s valuable commodity, batteries.  They’re also busy arguing with each other, and their banter is certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of the movie.

When Rocket steals some of the batteries they were supposed to be protecting, Queen Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends an armada of ships in hot pursuit to get the batteries back.  Our friendly neighborhood galaxy guardians are rescued by Ego (Kurt Russell) who claims to be Quill’s long-lost father.  He’s also all-powerful and invites Quill and his friends to his own personal planet which he made himself to show his son what a wonderful life he had been missing.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) has been shamed by his fellow traders because he had taken part in the buying and selling of children.  Yondu decides it’s time he makes amends, and he seeks out Quill, one of those former children.  And the Guardians will need his help because things are not what they seem with Quill’s dad, Ego.

The biggest problem I had with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 is its story.  The Guardians of the galaxy are a fun group of wise-cracking, in-fighting misfit superheroes, but in this movie their main adversary is Ego, and for most of the movie, they don’t even know he’s an adversary.  Instead, they spend most of their time dealing with Ayesha, who really isn’t that interesting a character.

Another subplot has Gamora contending with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), another story that isn’t all that interesting.  Then there’s the cutesiness of Baby Groot.  Now, I had fun watching Baby Groot, but I thought the film went overboard with all the cute stuff.

In short, I love the main characters, the guardians, and I still had fun watching them.  But they’re stuck in a story here that absolutely bored me.  And once more, as if it’s a mandatory part of the Marvel movie formula, there isn’t an intriguing or worthwhile villain to be found anywhere in the galaxy.

Chris Pratt returns as Star-Lord, and he’s as handsomely charming as ever, but he’s in this flat story with his dad Ego, and the character suffers for it.   Likewise, while I really enjoyed  Zoe Saldana as Gamora once again, she too is hindered by her main story, the ongoing rift with her sister Nebula.

Dave Bautista probably fares the best in his return as Drax, as he has some of the funnier lines in the film.  But in terms of action, Drax doesn’t do a whole lot.  Bradley Cooper is enjoyable again voicing Rocket, and then there’s Baby Groot.  I have no problems with Baby Groot, but if the main story of this one had been stronger, I wouldn’t have found the cutesiness here with Baby Groot so grating.

Probably my favorite performance in the whole movie belongs to Michael Rooker as Yondu, in the largest supporting role in the movie.  Yondu was in the first film as well, and the character is further developed this time around, and Rooker is more than up to the task of fleshing out this bright blue character.

Karen Gillan gets more screen time as Nebula as well, and a new character Mantis (Pom Klementieff) gets to enjoy some fine moments, mostly when interacting with Drax.

But the villains fall completely flat here.  I had been excited about Kurt Russell playing Ego in this movie, and there’s nothing wrong with Russell’s performance, but I found the character boring.  Likewise, Elizabeth Debicki did nothing for me as Ayesha.  The biggest knock on these villains is their agendas are dull.  Ayesha is just chasing down stolen batteries and looking for payback, and Ego is all about what his name implies.  All this evil power, and nothing to do with it.  What’s a villain to do?

Sylvester Stallone shows up for about five seconds as Stakar Ogord, in a role that’s clearly a set-up for a future movie.

James Gunn, who wrote and directed the first GUARDIANS movie, is back doing both here in the sequel.  He scores better behind the camera than at the keyboard.  I thought the film looked great.  I saw it in 2D, and it looked fine, although I wouldn’t have minded seeing it in 3D, but the times didn’t work out for me.  The visuals are eye-poppingly colorful and cinematic.

The action scenes are so-so.  While fun and lively, none of the action scenes here blew me away.  Some went on too long and made me yawn.

Again, the biggest knock on this one is its screenplay, by director James Gunn.  The story did nothing for me, and the villains were disappointing.  Ego has all this power and ability and he seems to know nothing about what to do with it.  Boring.

And the film’s theme, that they are more than friends, that they are family, has been done to death already and didn’t add anything fresh to this sequel.

As expected, the film does have another awesome mix as a soundtrack, so there are no complaints here.

Like other Marvel movies, there is an after credits scene. No, wait, that’s not quite accurate.  There are several after credit scenes, so you if you want to see them all, you have to wait till the very end of the movie.  That being said, to be honest, I didn’t like any of these after-credit scenes.  It’s a case where more doesn’t mean better, which is a nice microcosm of the entire movie.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 brings our entertaining squabbling guardians back to the big screen, and they are certainly fun to watch, but they’re stuck in a dull storyline that doesn’t do them justice.

The awesome mix volume 2 simply isn’t quite as awesome the second time around.

–END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

WAR DOGS (2016) -Gritty Tale of Guns & War

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war dogs poster

WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat.  He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.

Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business.  Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.

And they do.  Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000.  And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death”  to do it.  After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.

They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army.  The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion.  Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.

Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars.  Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.

As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you.  WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy.  Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.

As such, I really liked WAR DOGS.  The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic.  It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.

Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies.  A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  You can add WAR DOGS to this list.

Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here.  Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014).  He’s excellent again here.  He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.

While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one.  In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.

He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch.  As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him.  Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim.  He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.

And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard.  Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why?  Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.

Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death.  I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq.  The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.

All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution  for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head,  questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.

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10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) Is NOT the Sequel CLOVERFIELD Fans Have Been Waiting For

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10-Cloverfield-Lane-Movie-Poster

Let’s get this out of the way right now:  10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is not a sequel to CLOVERFIELD (2008), arguably one of the best giant monster movies ever made.  For this reason alone, this well-written, acted, and directed thriller is flawed.

It’s flawed because producer J.J. Abrams resurrected the CLOVERFIELD name, resurrected the anticipation and excitement of fans the world over of the original movie, only to put out a film with as much in common with CLOVERFIELD as THE MARTIAN (2015) has with GODZILLA.  Yeah, but if you pay close attention, you’ll see that the astronaut in THE MARTIAN had a cousin who worked for the company responsible for resurrecting Godzilla.  Isn’t that cool?  Isn’t that a wild connection?

No, it’s not.

It’s geeky and annoying.  Now, obviously, there is no connection between GODZILLA and THE MARTIAN, but the example shows the level of connection we’re talking about between CLOVERFIELD and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  It’s minuscule.

It’s also embarrassingly clear that J.J. Abrams threw in the Cloverfield name simply as a marketing ploy to attract viewers.  Shame on him.  Sure, you can argue otherwise, but you might just sound like Donald Trump doing it.

Other than this though, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a pretty nifty thriller.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is leaving her boyfriend.  He calls her (that’s Bradley Cooper’s voice on the phone.) asking her to come back, but she’s not interested.  She no sooner turns off her cell when she’s involved in a nasty car accident which leaves her unconscious.

When she awakes, she finds herself imprisoned in an underground bunker, and she assumes she’s been kidnapped.  When the peculiar Howard (John Goodman) shows up and tells her that he hasn’t abducted her but rather has saved her life after the car accident, she doesn’t believe him; and when he tells her she can’t leave because outside the bunker the world she once knew doesn’t exist anymore as some unknown apocalyptic event has poisoned the air killing everyone on the surface, she thinks he’s crazy.

Even when she meets the third tenant in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who confirms Howard’s story, she’s still not convinced.  But later, when Michelle tries to escape and sees a woman outside the door whose skin seems to be peeling from her face and acting crazy, it appears as if Howard has been telling the truth.

The three then set their sights on surviving, and life is good, until certain things come to light that confirm Michelle’s worst fears.

The story told in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is tight and well-written.  It’s an excellent screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matthew Stuecken, and Damien Chazelle.  There’s an uncomfortable feeling permeating throughout this film, as you’re never quite able to feel at ease around John Goodman’s Howard.

John Goodman delivers a phenomenal performance as Howard.  He’s the best part of 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.  Goodman is almost always good, but his performance here in this movie is extra special.  He’s just “off” enough where you’re pretty sure you don’t trust him but you’re not quite convinced because the crazy things he says all seem to be true.    He’s a difficult character to read, which is one of the reasons the story works so well. Should Michelle trust him?  Or should she try to kill him?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is equally as good as Michelle.  She is not a helpless victim at all. At first, she’s constantly trying to escape, and even later, when she more or less believes Howard, she still keeps her eyes wide open.  No one is going to pull  a fast one on her.

And John Gallagher, Jr. rounds out the phenomenal trio with a decent performance of his own as Emmett.  At first, you’re not sure how much Emmett knows or what his intentions are, but as the story goes on, he becomes Michelle’s biggest ally.

Director Dan Trachtenberg, in his feature film directorial debut, does a nice job at the helm.  He gives this film a claustrophobic feel as he puts the audience right in the middle of the action with the characters in the underground bunker.

There are plenty of suspenseful scenes as well.  There’s one scene in particular where they are playing a game, and it goes from funny, to suspenseful, to back to funny again all in a matter of seconds.

Strangely, the weakest part of this movie is its ending, and it’s strange because it should have been the best part.  This is where the film should have tied in with the original CLOVERFIELD, but alas, that’s not how things play out.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a tight little thriller, a stand-alone movie that would work on its own merits even without the CLOVERFIELD name in the title.  Unfortunately, however, the name is in the title and the fact that is so loosely connected is a shame.  It’s pretty much not connected to the earlier movie at all.  Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012) was more connected to the ALIEN series.

Why does this matter?  Let me use another movie to make my point.  Take JAWS (1975) for example.  And let’s say instead of JAWS 2 (1978) the next movie in the series was called 10 JAWS LANE, and in this movie, there’s no shark, there’s no Brody, no Matt Hooper, it doesn’t take place on Amity Island, and heck it’s not even about a shark!  It’s about an unknown threat that may or may not be lurking in the ocean while our characters are holed up in an underground bunker.  It’s a well-made movie, but without even one reference to the events in the previous film, I think audiences would have been miffed, and they probably would have felt cheated.  That’s how I felt towards 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE.

All this being said, I still enjoyed 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, although it’s nowhere near as good a movie as CLOVERFIELD.

It is suspenseful, though, as it plays more like an Alfred Hitchcock movie than a horror movie.  Is this bad?  Not at all, but again, it works against the expectations generated by the CLOVERFIELD name.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is a decent thriller, but it’s not CLOVERFIELD, nor is it related to it in any way shape or form.  And when your namesake is one of the finest giant monster movies ever made, the fact that you share no connection to it, is definitely not something worth celebrating.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

It Follows poster

10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

spotlight 2015 poster

1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

sicario poster

And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael