MOVIE LISTS: SCARLETT JOHANSSON – 2019

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MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

One of my favorite parts of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) was Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow and the character’s story arc. So, with that in mind, I thought I would bring this column (originally from 2014) up to date.

Here’s the updated partial list of Johansson’s movie credits through April 2019:

 

EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS (2002) – frightened by giant spiders in this horror movie starring David Arquette.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) – hanging out with Bill Murray in Japan in this quirky film by writer/director Sofia Coppola.

THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE (2004) – lends her voice to this big screen adventure featuring SpongeBob, Patrick, and their undersea buddies.

MATCH POINT (2005) – really shines in this Woody Allen drama starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

THE PRESTIGE (2006) – Part of the rivalry between magicians Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman in this Christopher Nolan thriller.

VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) – Another Woody Allen drama, this time with Javier Bardem.

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Hello Black Widow!  Johansson is the best part of this underwhelming IRON MAN sequel.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – Johansson’s Black Widow is the sexiest crime fighting heroine since Diana Rigg in the other THE AVENGERS, the 1960s TV show with Patrick MacNee.

HITCHCOCK (2012) – Playing Janet Leigh to Anthony Hopkins’ Hitch.

DON JON (2013) – Loses her boyfriend first to porn and then to older woman Julianne Moore in this quirky innovative movie by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – sexy alien who has the bad habit of killing those she seduces. Offbeat and weird, definitely worth a look.

HER (2013) – seduces Joaquin Phoenix with only her voice in this Oscar-nominated movie.

CHEF (2014) – has too small a role in this comedy drama by actor/director Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – Black Widow is back and she’s still kicking butt and looking incredibly sexy doing it in this superior CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel.

LUCY (2014) – She’s the best part of this science fiction thriller about a woman who suddenly finds herself able to access her full brain capacity.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – fourth appearance as Black Widow in this AVENGERS sequel, which is not as good as the first.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) – has one of the best scenes in the movie, a hilariously sexy sequence with Jonah Hill, in this otherwise underwhelming misfire by the Coen Brothers.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) – provides the voice for the snake Kaa in this impressive Disney remake of the Rudyard Kipling tale, well-directed by Jon Favreau.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016):  fifth turn as the sexy Black Widow in the third CAPTAIN AMERICA movie and one of Marvel’s all time best.  This rousing superhero film plays like THE AVENGERS 2.5 and contains some of the most entertaining sequences in the Marvel movie universe thus far.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017) – plays the lead role of the Major, a cyborg crime fighter, in this disappointing remake of the classic Japanese animated film.

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.

ISLE OF THE DOGS (2018) – lends her voice to this Oscar-nominated animated film which also features voice work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – back as Black Widow again in what for my money is the best AVENGERS film yet. Nonstop entertaining, and a gut-wrenching emotional finale, thanks to the unstoppable cosmic villain Thanos who will not be denied.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – while I liked INFINITY WAR better than ENDGAME, Johansson enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series as Black Widow right here in this movie. Indeed, Black Widow’s story and Johansson’s performance are some of the best parts of this film, which wraps up the AVENGERS saga as the Avengers go after Thanos and attempt to undo what he did in the previous film.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies, updated for 2019.  Previously, I had written about looking forward to the rumored standalone movie for Black Widow, and supposedly, that film even though it’s been rumored for years, is in pre-production, which is interesting, considering what ultimately happened to Black Widow in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Anyway, I would still be incredibly excited to see that standalone movie for Black Widow, and I do hope it still happens.

Okay, that’s it for now.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) Is No Disaster

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) chronicles the making of one of the worst movies ever made, THE ROOM (2003).  Not knowing much about this infamously bad movie, I wasn’t overly eager to see this one.

But you know what?  You don’t need to know anything about THE ROOM to enjoy THE DISASTER ARTIST.  James Franco’s film stands on its own.  And then some.

THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of two friends, Greg (Dave Franco) and Tommy (James Franco)  who meet in acting class and then move to Hollywood to pursue their dreams.  Greg is initially attracted to Tommy because of his confidence on stage, a confidence that Greg lacks.  But Tommy is strange beyond belief, as he is tight-lipped about his past, his age, and where he gets all his money. Yet there is an unstoppable drive about him, an unflappable positive attitude, and in spite of his mysterious past, he possesses an innocence and sincerity that Greg finds infectious.

Together, they set out to conquer the world— of acting, that is.

When they realize they’re simply not landing any jobs, they set out to make their own movie, financed by Tommy’s endless funds.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is the story behind the making of that movie, which has become a cult classic as the best “bad” movie ever made.

THE DISASTER ARTIST is absolutely hilarious.  Sure, the story behind the making of THE ROOM is interesting and amusing, but the driving force behind THE DISASTER ARTIST is James Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau. It’s brilliant.  Franco becomes Wiseau, from his unusual accent and way of speaking, to his awkward mannerisms,  to his unceasing drive to make a movie about “real life.”

Part of the comedy is that Tommy is such an oddball. He’s incredibly funny to watch. He seems to believe that he will be perceived as a great filmmaker even though we the audience see that he’s not even close and that his film is heading towards a disaster.  And there’s some sympathy here, because as strange as Tommy is, he’s not a bad guy.  He’s extremely likable.

James Franco steals the show, both in front of and behind the camera.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is not at all like a typical comedy, yet the audience was howling with laughter at parts, more so than in most comedies I see.  Franco is in so many movies, it’s difficult to pick his best roles, but his work here as Tommy Wiseau in THE DISASTER ARTIST certainly ranks up there with his best.

His brother Dave Franco does a fine job as Greg, the character most in the audience will identify with.  He likes Tommy a lot, and he enjoys their friendship, and he’s excited about making their movie, but as Tommy becomes more difficult to work with, as his weird behavior puts a huge strain on the cast and crew, their friendship is tested.

The entire cast is a treat, and there are plenty of familiar faces, some in major roles like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, and Alison Brie, and others in small roles or cameos, like Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Bryan Cranston.  Alison Brie, Dave Franco’s real-life wife, plays his girlfriend Amber here, and she is very good as well.  I’ve been a fan since her role as Trudy Campbell on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015).

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, is a hoot.  The characters are fleshed out— in Tommy’s case a bit too much, as he insists his bare butt be shown on camera or else his movie won’t sell, a scene that produced one of the biggest laugh-out loud moments of the film— the story is fresh and interesting, and the situational humor is nonstop amusing.

The majority of comedies these days bore me, mostly because they follow the same formula. Nowadays, it’s usually a bunch of drunk friends getting into mischief.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is anything but formulaic.  Sure, it’s a biography of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero on how they made THE ROOM, but it’s a story that is so darn funny, I don’t know how else you would describe it as other than a comedy.

THE DISASTER ARTIST is a completely unconventional movie about an off the wall character and the movie he and his best friend made.

You definitely want to check out THE DISASTER ARTIST. You’re in for a real treat.

It’s no disaster.

—END—

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) Is Light Comic Fun

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Right off the bat, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) wins accolades for not being another origin story.

We know how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.  We don’t need to see it happen again.   The film skips this back story and as such plays like a breath of fresh air. And that’s just for starters.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING has a lot more going for it, making it yet another Marvel superhero hit.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING actually doesn’t open with Spider-Man at all, but with construction worker Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).  Toomes and his crew are working clean-up after the massive battle between The Avengers and alien invaders, but he’s pulled off the job by secret government higher-ups, which to Toomes, means money lost, something he needs to support his family.  Bitter, when Toomes realizes his crew still has some of the alien technology in their scrap heap, he decides to keep it, to help even the odds with the elites.

The story jumps eight years ahead where we meet high school sophomore Peter Parker (Tom Holland), ecstatic about his fighting alongside Iron Man and the other Avengers in events seen in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  In fact, Parker’s mentor is Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) himself, who serves as the voice of reason and caution for the young superhero, reminding him to keep out of trouble and help out with the local little jobs; in short, to be the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  Stark leaves his best buddy Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to keep tabs on Parker, which he does with a tracking device that informs him of Parker’s every move.

Parker finds himself terribly distracted at school, as he’s constantly waiting for that call from Tony Stark to join the Avengers.  He’d like to date Liz (Laura Harrier) but he’s always running away as Spider-Man for one reason or other.  Things grow more complicated when his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, in a scene-stealing performance) discovers that Peter is Spider-Man, and can hardly contain his excitement.  He wants to tell everyone they know, but Peter reminds him that that is not a good idea.

Eventually, Spider-Man crosses paths with Adrian Toomes, who’s been stealing alien weaponry and selling it on the black market.  Toomes has built himself a flying bird suit from the alien technology and flies through the skies as the Vulture.  And when Peter can’t convince Happy or Tony Stark that the danger from Toomes is very real, he suits up as Spider-Man and takes on the villain on his own.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is basically the Spider-Man story re-told from the perspective of The Avengers.  Ever since Marvel released THE AVENGERS (2012), the superhero films which have followed have pretty much all been tie-ins with that massive Marvel hit.  As someone who loved THE AVENGERS, I like all these tie-ins, as the universe that Marvel has built around these characters is a good one, and the story that continues to evolve remains compelling.

So, pretty much every move that Peter Parker makes in this movie is dominated by his obsession with wanting to join The Avengers.  It’s a far cry from the story told in the Tobe Maguire film, SPIDER-MAN (2002).  But SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING still works because in spite of the AVENGERS connection it keeps to the original spirit of the character in the comics.

As such, SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is an extremely light film.  The humor is on target throughout, and a bulk of this movie spends its time with Peter Parker and his high school friends, and these scenes work because both the writing and the acting are superb.

And in a strange juxtaposition, you have this light comical tale intertwined with another darker story featuring one of the better villains we’ve seen in a Marvel movie in a long time, Adrian Toomes/the Vulture, played by Michael Keaton.  It’s an odd combination, but it works.

One of the reasons it works is Toomes’ heavy-handedness makes for a superior foe for young Spider-Man.  You have all these high school scenes, and so you’re half expecting a high school student for a villain, but instead you have Toomes, a guy who is one of the more serious villains we’ve seen in a superhero movie in a long while.

Toomes is also the perfect antithesis to Tony Stark.  In Stark, you have the rich playboy running around playing superhero, while Toomes is the working class man who worked all his life but couldn’t make good for his family, and so he takes an opportunity, albeit an illegal one, to provide tons of money for his family.  It’s thinking that reminded me of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in TV’s classic BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is blessed with a solid cast.  Tom Holland actually debuted as Spider-Man in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016), and it was an awesome debut. Holland continues his success here.  His Peter Parker is young, very young, which is perfect because he comes off as a genuine high school student.  His scenes with his friends are among the best in the movie.  And his wise-cracking Spider-Man is still a hoot to watch, although truth be told, I don’t think he has any moments in this movie as out-of-this-world amazing as the fight sequence in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.

As Peter’s best friend Ned, Jacob Batalon really stands out.  He enjoys a bunch of scene stealing moments, the high school geek whose dream comes true when he finds himself actually working with Spider-Man, someone who knows the Avengers.

Laura Harrier is fine as Peter’s eventual girlfriend Liz, but it’s Zendaya who really stands out here as one of their quirky friends, Michelle.  She’s not in the movie much, but when she is, you can’t help but notice her.  She enjoys many fine little moments.

Robert Downey Jr. has a decent amount of scenes here as Tony Stark, but ultimately, even though he’s always fun to watch, he doesn’t get to do a whole lot.  Don’t look for Iron Man to rush in to save the day.  This is Spider-Man’s movie.

Jon Favreau has plenty of screen time as Happy Hogan, as he’s left in charge of keeping an eye on Peter.  Favreau is always fun in this recurring role, which goes all the way back to IRON MAN (2008), and he’s enjoyable yet again here.  Favreau is a talented guy.  He also directed IRON MAN (2008) as well as a lot of other movies, including THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016) and CHEF (2014), in which he also starred.

Chris Evans also shows up as Captain America, in a very humorous bit featuring promotional videos shown at the high school.  Want to teach the merits of physical education?  Pop in a promotional video featuring Captain America!  These videos provide some funny moments.

And Gwyneth Paltrow even makes a brief appearance as Pepper Pots.

But it’s Michael Keaton who really stands out here as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture. First of all, Keaton is a phenomenal actor who keeps getting better with age.  What I liked most about his performance as Toomes is that he makes the guy real.  Toomes is not out to take over the world or the universe. He’s not a shadowy villain without a clear-cut agenda.  He’s a real person with a real goal: after years of playing by the rules and not getting anywhere, he’s broken the rules to better support his family.

And Keaton is more than up to the task of making this guy believable. He also provides a real hardness to the character.  When he says he’s going to kill Spider-Man, you believe him.  In a way, it’s a performance that almost seems out-of-place here, because the rest of the film is so light and comical, while Keaton is dead serious in his scenes.  But it does work and works well, because ultimately it gives young Spider-Man a true test of his mettle.

Keaton gets one of the best sequences in the movie, when Toomey confronts Spider-Man near the end, and he speaks about what they have in common, that they’re both common folks who need to change the rules in order to succeed in life.  At one point, Toomey says, “I know you know what I mean.” It’s a line that resonates, both from Keaton’s delivery and from the knowledge we have of Peter’s life with his Aunt May, as they struggle to make ends meet, making Toomey’s line true.

And speaking of Aunt May, Marisa Tomei is quite effective as the younger sexier aunt of young Peter Parker. So much so that Tony Stark even quips about how hot she is.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was directed by Jon Watts, who comes off as an old pro here.  The film fits in with the rest of the Marvel movies seamlessly, in spite of the fact that this is the first superhero flick that Watts directed.

The pacing is good, the special effects decent, and the battle scenes are entertaining.  The sequence at the Washington Monument is probably the best action sequence in the film, and the scenes where Peter Parker has to scale the monument and realizes it’s higher than anything he’s climbed before is so effective it’s nearly vertigo-inducing.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING was written by six screenwriters, some of whom have extensive comedic credits, which comes as no surprise, since humor is a strength here.

There’s also an upbeat music score by Michael Giacchino, who’s written a ton of scores over the years, including the superior score to last year’s stand-alone STAR WARS movie, ROGUE ONE (2016).

While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is available in 3D, I saw a 2D print and liked it just fine.

And yes, there are after credits scenes, two to be exact.  The one at the very end after all the credits does provide a laugh-out-loud moment, so it’s probably worth waiting for.

All in all, I really liked SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.  Is it as good as Marvel’s best?  No.  Is it as good as this year’s earlier superhero hit from DC, WONDER WOMAN (2017)?  Not quite.  But I liked it better than the previous two Marvel entries, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017), and DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).

It’s light, it’s fun, and it features a gritty hard performance by Michael Keaton as one of the better Marvel movie villains yet, the Vulture, whose plans to better his family life are destroying a neighborhood, making him the perfect foe for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Best Movies of 2016

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La La Land (2016)Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND (2016

 

Here’s a look at my picks for the Top 10 movies of 2016.  Of course, while I do see a lot of movies— 58 this year, and that’s just theatrical releases—  I’m not able to see every movie that comes out, and so this list is limited to only those movies I have seen.

We’ll start with #10 and count down to #1:

 

10. THE INFILTRATOR

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Excellent performance by Bryan Cranston powers this crime drama which tells the true story of how U. S. Customs Official Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) went undercover to take down a  Columbian drug lord.

 

9. THE JUNGLE BOOK

Loved this remake of Disney’s animated THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967), and I’m a huge fan of that original 1967 animated classic.  Special effects here were amazing, and I really liked how director Jon Favreau made this family friendly film a serious hard-hitting adventure.

 

8. DEADPOOL

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The role Ryan Reynolds has been waiting for.  Sure, this vulgar, violent tale isn’t for everybody, but the humor is spot-on.  My second favorite superhero movie of the year. Best part is it is so unlike other traditional superhero movies.

 

7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016.  Plays much more like THE AVENGERS 2.5, rhis exciting tale pits Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and the rift between these two friends comes off as real and believable, something that the similarly themed BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed miserably at.  The scenes with newcomer Tom Holland as Spider-Man are off-the-charts good.

 

6. EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

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Hilarious comedy-drama starring Hailee Steinfeld as a seventeen year-old dealing with life as a teenager.  Things get complicated when her best friend starts dating her older brother.  Topnotch script and direction by writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig.

 

 

Now we get down to my picks for the Top 5 movies of 2016:

5. HANDS OF STONE

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Critics panned this movie, but I absolutely loved this boxing pic about boxing champ Roberto Durant.  Edgar Ramirez  gives a spirited performance as Roberto Durant, and he’s supported by a fine cast which includes Robert De Niro, Ruben Blades, and Usher Raymond as Sugar Ray Leonard.  Excellent movie, much better than critics gave it credit for, although admittedly I am a sucker for boxing movies.

 

4. HELL OR HIGH WATER

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Easily could be my pick for the best movie of the year, this impeccably made crime drama follows a Texas crime spree by two brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) with an old Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) hot on their trail.  Features fantastic peformances by the three leads.  Jeff Bridges is amazing as always, and the same can be said of Ben Foster, and it’s also fun to see Chris Pine get to do a whole lot more than when he plays Captain Kirk in the rebooted STAR TREK movies.  Riveting direction by David Mackenzie, and a phenomenal thought-provoking script by one of my favorite screen writers working today, Taylor Sheridan.

 

3. SULLY

Easily the most efficient film of the year, SULLY, starring Tom Hanks, and directed by Clint Eastwood, clocks in at a brisk 96 minutes, and not a minute is wasted.  It tells the emotionally riveting true tale of pilot Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” and his decision to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  It’s an amazing story because all the passengers on the plane survived, and the film makes things even more compelling as it follows the subsequent investigation by officials who questioned Sully’s decision to land in the water in the first place.  SULLY features another remarkable performance by Tom Hanks, and yet another superb directorial effort by Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood is 86 years old, and yet SULLY plays with as much energy, oomph, and emotion as if directed by someone half that age.  I left the theater incredibly impressed.

 

2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

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This film could also have been my number one pick of the year.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a finely acted drama, led by two powerhouse performances by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, about a man Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) thrust into a life-changing situation as he finds himself having to care fo for his deceased brother’s sixteen year-old son.  His life in a shambles due to an earlier traumatic event, Lee knows he’s not the man for the job, but since there is no on else, he pushes himself to live up to his brother’s wishes and care for his nephew. Atmospheric direction by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, with a script that is as honest and believable as they come.

And now, for my pick for the Number 1 movie of 2016:

 

 

  1. LA LA LAND

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My pick for the Best Movie of 2016 also happened to be the last movie I saw in 2016, LA LA LAND.  What a fabulous way to end the calendar year!  LA LA LAND is an absolutely wonderful movie.

I  loved the energy writer/director Damien Chazelle brings to this one.  The opening dance number on a gridlocked L.A. freeway dazzles, and the film never looks back.  Emma Stone gives the best performance of her career to date, imbuing her struggling actress character Mia with so much raw emotion and quirky pizzazz she’s one of the liveliest characters I’ve seen on screen in a long while. Ryan Gosling is just as good as jazz musician Sebastian in this uplifting almost magical musical which follows Mia and Sebastian through a romance in which they help each other achieve their artistic dreams before reality ultimately sets in, forcing them to make decisions which affect their future.  A remarkable movie and genuine crowd pleaser.

Hands down, LA LA LAND is the Best Movie I saw in 2016.

Okay, that about wraps things up for today.  Thanks for joining me in 2016, and here’s to another fine year of movies in 2017!

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bryan Cranston Leads the Way in THE INFILTRATOR (2016)

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If you’re a Bryan Cranston fan, you’ll love THE INFILTRATOR (2016).

THE INFILTRATOR tells the true story of how U.S. Customs Agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) took on the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar and won. It’s 1986, the heart of the “War on Drugs” as waged by then President Ronald Reagan, and Mazur comes up with the idea to take down the drug lords not by going after the drugs but by following the money.

And so Mazur and his partner Emir (John Leguizamo) set up an elaborate money laundering scheme where Mazur impersonates a Mafia money guy in order to infiltrate the drug business.  They work their way to the higher-ups, which in this case means a man named Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt) and of course the ultimate prize of Pablo Escobar.

Along the way they meet with their share of undesirables, and the stakes grow increasingly high, as Mazur and his “wife” Kathy (Diane Kruger) infiltrate Alcaino’s home and family.  One false slip of the tongue and they’re dead.

THE INFILTRATOR is a well-made and highly entertaining movie.

While there’s lots to like about this one, the best thing is the acting, led by Bryan Cranston. While it may not be as crafted an effort as the one Cranston gave in TRUMBO (2015), nor as powerful as his five season stint on BREAKING BAD (2008-2013), it’s still a thoroughly captivating and entertaining performance.  Cranston gives Mazur an admirable confidence without sacrificing his vulnerablities and fears that go with the territory.

Cranston has that presence where he can hold your attention the entire time he’s on screen.  While there were many things I enjoyed about THE INFILTRATOR, the main reason I enjoyed it was because of Bryan Cranston.

The rest of the acting is also very good.  John Leguizamo is a natural as Mazur’s wisecracking unpredictable partner Emir.  It’s always fun to see Leguizamo when he’s not voicing Sid in the ICE AGE movies.

The women here also fare very well.  I really enjoyed Diane Kruger as fellow agent Kathy Ertz who joins the undercover ruse as Mazur’s wife.  She becomes a prominent player in the second half of the film, and she’s excellent.

Juliet Aubrey is also very good as Mazur’s real wife Evelyn.  She takes what could have been a cliched role- the worried wife- and makes her a three-dimensional and very sympathetic character.

Benjamin Bratt makes the most of his brief screen time as drug cartel leader Roberto Alcaino.  While there’s little doubt that Alcaino is a dangerous man, Bratt surprises in how sympathetic and likeable he makes Alcaino, making Mazur and Kathy more uncomfortable the more they get to know him, because they grow to like him.

Elena Anaya is equally as good as Alcaino’s wife Gloria.  Like Alcaino, she welcomes Mazur and Kathy into her family, adding to the difficulty of their continuing the sting.

The film is loaded with all sorts of unsavory characters, and as a result there are a bunch of noteworthy supporting performances here.  Among them are Yul Vazquez as bisexual drug man Javier Ospina who can’t seem to take his hands off anyone in the movie, especially the men.  It’s a weird and mesmerizing performance by Vasquez as there’s something almost vampire-like about Ospina.  And in a neat movie homage, at one point in the film Ospina mentions THE GODFATHER movies, and later, when he learns the truth about Mazur, he tells him, “You broke my heart,” which is the famous line uttered by Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to his brother Fredo when he learns his brother betrayed him in THE GODFATHER PART II (1974).  It’s not clear that Mazur gets the reference, but the audience does, making the moment frightening and menacing.

Speaking of vampires, Joseph Gilgun plays a lively character named Dominic, a convict who Mazur springs from jail so he can act as his personal protector.  Dominic is there to watch Mazur’s back, and he does.  Gilgun curently plays a vampire on the frenetic TV show PREACHER (2016), a nutty character named Cassidy, and Gilgun is just as wild here in THE INFILTRATOR.

And Olympia Dukakis is wonderful in two key scenes as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, the latter where she also gets to take part in the sting operation.

Director Brad Furman previously made RUNNER RUNNER (2013), a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake, and THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011),  a drama starring Matthew McConaughey, both okay movies.  I enjoyed THE LINCOLN LAWYER better than RUNNER RUNNER which struggled to remain believable.  THE INFILTRATOR is probably his best movie yet, a stronger film than these other two.

It’s an interesting screenplay by Ellen Sue Brown, based on the book by Robert Mazur.  In addition to the obvious drug war plot, the story also makes a point of painting a sympathetic portrait of drug villains Roberto and Gloria Alcaino.  They speak of family and loyalty, and they welcome Mazur and Kathy into their home.  At one point, Roberto asks Mazur who the biggest money launderer in the United States is, and he tells Mazur it’s the U.S. government, which while publically waging the war on drugs, privately welcomes drug money into its banks.

The film also makes a point of including bank executives as the villains here.  We see top bank officials listen to Mazur tell them point blank that his money comes from cocaine dealers, and yet they don’t bat an eye.  They simply welcome the money.  So, there is definitely an anti-business/banking element to this story, a la THE BIG SHORT (2015).

While the plot is not overly complicated- U.S. Customs official sets up sting to take down drug cartel- there are a ton of characters in this film, coming and going at any given time, and so one really has to pay attention or else risk being lost.

The actual pace is somewhat slow.  Do not see THE INFILTRATOR expecting an action movie.  It’s not.  It’s a drama and a thriller.  It’s also a movie where the dialogue drives the tension, and  most of the suspense comes from this dialogue, as you keep expecting Mazur and his fellow agents to say the wrong thing and then pay the price.

The film takes place in 1986 but curiously the hairstyles, clothes, and look of the whole thing reminded me of a decade earlier, 1976!  The grainy print gives the film  an authentic feel, but of the 1970s not the 1980s.  I felt like I was watching SERPICO (1973) rather than MIAMI VICE.

But these are small matters.

I really enjoyed THE INFILTRATOR.  It’s a nail-biting suspense drama and showcase for the acting talents of Bryan Cranston and a stellar supporting cast.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout.

—END—

GODZILLA (2014) – The King of the Monsters Deserves Better

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Godzilla 2014 poster 2 THE HORROR: GODZILLA (2014)

Horror Movie Review by Michael Arruda

 

He’s the King of the Monsters, and has been since he debuted in his first feature film 60 years ago in 1954. I’m talking of course about Godzilla, and he’s back on the big screen in GODZILLA (2014), a stylish reboot by director Gareth Edwards.

For some, this movie is being hailed as one of the best in the series, a phenomenal motion picture that deserves four stars. For me, it’s an okay giant monster movie that in spite of the creative talents of its director, suffers from a lackluster story, dull characters, and way too little of the main star— and I’m not talking about Bryan Cranston.

I’m talking about Godzilla. The King of the Monsters just might need a new agent after this one.

GODZILLA opens in 1999. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) and his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) send their young son off to school and then head off to work at the local nuclear power plant. On this fateful day, there is a nuclear accident and Sandra is killed.
The action switches to present day, where the adult Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has just returned to his family after a tour in the military, but before he can even settle back in with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son, he receives word that his father has been arrested in Japan. Ford decides to go off to Japan to help his dad.

To Ford’s dismay, he learns that his father is obsessed with trying to prove that the nuclear accident which killed his mother was not the result of a natural disaster but of something else that the government is covering up. Of course, it turns out that Joe Brody is correct, that there has been a major cover-up, that the true cause of the disaster was a giant monster called the MUTO, an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.

There are two MUTO, a male and a female, and they are a threat to the world, which is why suddenly Godzilla emerges from the depths of the ocean to defeat these monsters, to make things right. Who knew Godzilla was so thoughtful?

While the strength of any Godzilla movie has never been its story, I thought the plot to this latest GODZILLA movie was considerably lame. The reason for Godzilla’ appearance is all right, and admittedly it’s consistent with a lot of his appearances in the Toho films, in that he shows up to defeat the bad monsters and save the world, but this was mostly the case in the silly Toho films from the 1960s and 1970s.

In the Toho Godzilla movies from the 1990s and 2000s, Godzilla was a bit more menacing, and so I expected more from this 2014 film in terms of Godzilla. Not that Godzilla is back to his silly superhero self. He’s not. He’s rather scary looking here. However, he doesn’t do much in this film that makes him frightening to humans. In fact, the military spares him throughout, since they’re constantly advised by Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) that Godzilla might be their best bet to defeat the MUTO. I found the military’s easy acceptance of this theory farfetched.

The best Godzilla movies are the ones where you’re not too sure about Godzilla. He’s fighting those bad monsters, sure, but he’s destroying cities and killing people, too. In this movie, Godzilla comes off like the savior of the world. I almost expected to see a halo around his head.

Godzilla’s screen time is also limited. No surprise, since director Gareth Edwards did the same thing with his earlier monster movie MONSTERS (2010), a stylish film that skimped on the monster scenes. Similarly, Edwards does some stylish things in GODZILLA, but Godzilla and the MUTO monsters are featured minimally.

The screenplay by Max Borenstein is disjointed and uninspiring. Its multiple storylines never quite seem to gel with each other, and there isn’t one strong narrative holding it all together, mostly because the main storyline is nothing special. Strangely, the Godzilla plot seems to be the least important part of the entire movie, playing second fiddle to the MUTO and the Aaron-Taylor Johnson storylines. The Bryan Cranston subplot is not much more than an afterthought.

Bryan Cranston is a terrific actor, and he could have been the glue that held this narrative together, but he’s simply not in it enough. His role is very, very small.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ford Brody is rather dull, largely because we never really get inside his head. He’s putting his life on the line to stop Godzilla and the MUTO, while also trying to get back to his family, yet he doesn’t seem scared at all. He should be terrified.

Elizabeth Olsen as Ford’s wife Elle does seem terrified, and when she’s frightened, she’s very good, but that’s about all she does in this movie, act afraid.

Ken Watanabe as Dr. Serizawa gets some of the worst lines in the movie, delivering such simple utterances as “Godzilla must fight the MUTO,” and “Godzilla will save us.” And the camera always seems to be closing in on his face for some dramatic revelation, but all he has to say is silly nonsense like “Let them fight.”

David Strathairn, who I usually like, is wasted here as Admiral William Stenz. He’s one of the more ineffective military leaders you’ll see in a monster movie. The monsters are running rampant destroying cities left and right, and Strathairn’s Admiral is in his command center listening to Dr. Serizawa utter his absurd lines of dialogue.

And while the CGI effects look good, I wasn’t blown away by them. I thought Godzilla looked decent, but honestly, he didn’t look any better than the man-in-suit TOHO films from the 90s and 2000s.

I didn’t see it in IMAX, but I did see it in 3D, and I wasn’t impressed with the 3D effects at all.

GODZILLA never drew me in to a level of fear or suspense or even excitement where I was psyched to see the final battle between Godzilla and the MUTO. We continually see the monster stuff happening from a distance without getting in close, and I just didn’t get the sense of the human fear, loss of life, and destruction. Director Edwards’ idea of showing us the destruction caused by the monsters is a headline scrolling across the bottom of a television newscast saying “Honolulu destroyed. Thousands missing.” In terms of effective storytelling, that just doesn’t cut it for me.

But I do like Edwards’ style when he does decide to show us things. Godzilla’s first appearance is a good one, although it’s brief. I thought the sequence on the train where Aaron Taylor-Johnson has to save a young boy while the monsters are attacking all around them was effective, as was another scene involving a train, when the military is transferring a bomb across a fog shrouded bridge and the MUTO attacks them.

I also liked the attack scene on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. So, there were moments I definitely liked. But there just weren’t enough of them.

This combined with a lack of Godzilla, no interesting characters other than Bryan Cranston’s brief role, and a mediocre story that never wowed me, made GODZILLA a major disappointment for me, an uneven film that failed to make me forget the TOHO productions which inspired it.

The King of the Monsters deserves better.
—END—

 

GODZILLA (2014) – Preview

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Godzilla 2014 posterGODZILLA (2014) – Preview
By Michael Arruda

GODZILLA (2014) opens in theaters today, Thursday, May 15.

Here’s a preview:

Let’s start with the cast.

With Bryan Cranston fresh off the extremely popular BREAKING BAD TV series, GODZILLA has at its center an actor who can easily anchor a story. If you’ve seen BREAKING BAD, you know what I’m talking about. He’s also lent fine support to many movies as well, so having him in the cast of GODZILLA is a huge plus.

GODZILLA also stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson who played Kick-Ass in the hit movie KICK-ASS (2010) and in its sequel KICK-ASS 2 (2013). He also starred in the Oliver Stone thriller SAVAGES (2012), a film that wasn’t that well received, but I liked it a lot. Taylor-Johnson was especially good in it.

Then there’s Elizabeth Olsen, who I enjoyed in the otherwise awful horror movie SILENT HOUSE (2011). The film stunk, but Olsen was good. Rounding out the cast are Juliette Binoche and David Strathairn. The movie definitely has a talented cast.

It’s directed by Gareth Edwards, who also directed MONSTERS (2010), a film I wasn’t crazy about because the titled monsters didn’t really appear in the movie all that much. That being said, it was a very stylish movie, so I’m looking forward to seeing what Edwards will do with GODZILLA.

Max Borenstein wrote the screenplay, with music by Alexandre Desplat, who’s written a ton of music scores including the scores for THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014), ARGO (2012) and THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).

I have high hopes for the special effects since there are enough people on the Visual Effects team to fill a dictionary.

So, the talent is there.

The trailers have looked great, and Godzilla in the brief times we’ve seen him in the trailers looks impressive.  GODZILLA has the potential to be one of the best films in the series.

The only thing now is for the actual movie to be released.  And that happens today.

Welcome back, Godzilla!

—Michael