Best Movies of 2017

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Here’s a look at my Top 10 favorite films from 2017:

10 DETROIT –

Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit. The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside the hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat.

Featuring John Boyega as a young security officer at the scene who tries to work as a peacemaker, and Anthony Mackie as a former soldier recently home from Vietnam who finds himself among the interrogated.   Will Poulter delivers the most memorable performance in the movie as a racist Detroit police officer. Sure, DETROIT is a one-sided interpretation, as the police are not viewed in a positive light, but the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

 

9 THE BIG SICK –

Both hilarious and moving, THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon, both of whom wrote the screenplay to this movie. Filled with countless laugh-out-loud moments, the film is loaded with memorable characters and situations. Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself, and Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano steal the show as Emily’s parents.

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  With a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love, it’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

 

8  STRONGER –

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a riveting performance as Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk. STRONGER sports a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   Longtime Boston comic and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Jeff’s Uncle Bob.

STRONGER is not syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

 

7 BATTLE OF THE SEXES –

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Based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King.  The script by Simon Beaufoy, who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the 1970s. It keeps a light and humorous tone throughout and does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  As he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons.

 

6 THE FLORIDA PROJECT –

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Amazing movie about life at a Florida motel that houses low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends over the course of one summer. The kids steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as a foul-mouthed six year-old girl named Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) are worth the price of admission alone. Also a great role for Dafoe, as Bobby knows these folks have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors here. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate. The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

 

5 WIND RIVER-

Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016. Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving. A young woman is brutally murdered, and FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is on the case, assisted by hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation where the murder occurred.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence. The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays. I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

4 THE FOUNDER –

Fascinating story that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model. Keaton is outstanding as Ray Kroc, seen here as a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given him more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it. In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants. The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics. With Keaton in the lead, it’s entertaining from start to finish.

 

3 WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES –

The new PLANET OF THE APES series keeps getting better and better. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017), the third film in the new rebooted series, is a thoroughly engrossing tale that is equal parts futuristic science fiction, epic adventure, and prisoner of war drama. All three parts work well to comprise a story that is captivating from start to finish, so much so, that this third film is clearly the best entry of the series thus far.

Director Matt Reeves, who also directed DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014), is one of the more talented directors working today. Andy Serkis returns as Caesar in another impressive CGI motion-capture performance. Woody Harrelson plays the human villain, an evil Colonel. Contains superior special effects. The apes look phenomenal. They’re so good it’s easy to forget that nearly every character in this movie is a CGI creation.  With lots of nods to the original series, WAR is an extremely satisfying chapter in the APES saga. One of the best, if not the best, genre film of the year.

 

2 GOOD TIME –

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One of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers of the year, GOOD TIME is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and mentally challenged Nick (Benny Safdie) who rob a bank and then botch the escape.   Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested. Connie spends the rest of the movie trying to break his brother out of the hospital in which he is being held, and what follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME was expertly directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Benny also plays Nick in the film, while Josh co-wrote the screenplay with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

Brilliant performance by Robert Pattinson as big brother Connie.  This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this. There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

 

1 DUNKIRK –

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling. DUNKIRK (2017), the World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some. In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape. However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did, and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

Superb cast, albeit mostly unknowns, deliver first-rate performances.  Veteran actors Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hardy are also outstanding.  The editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while. Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s my pick for the best movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!

—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.  

 

 

 

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—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.  

 

 

 

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: THE AVENGERS MOVIES

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YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies avengers-age-of-ultron

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today we’re looking at Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies.

 

Wait a minute.  Isn’t AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) which opens in theaters on May 1 only the second AVENGERS movie?  Technically, yes, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is only the first sequel to THE AVENGERS (2012)  but anyone who’s seen THE AVENGERS knows there are a lot of superheroes in this movie, and each of them have appeared in prior films leading up to these AVENGERS adventures.

Here’s a look at these movies:

IRON MAN (2008) – The film that started the AVENGERS journey.  Phenomenal movie, probably my third favorite superhero movie of all time, behind THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and THE AVENGERS (2012).  This is the film that introduced us to Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark aka Iron Man, one of the most entertaining and fascinating superhero personas ever.  Directed by Jon Favreau, this is a worthy film to kick off the franchise.  Also introduced Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as first appearance by Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008) – Edward Norton makes for a credible and intense Bruce Banner aka The Hulk, and Tim Roth is even better as the main baddie.  Excellent movie, much better than Marvel’s previous HULK (2003).

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man, as is director Jon Favreau, but this sequel is inferior to the first film and never really hits its stride.  Most notable for introducing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.  Both Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson return for this sequel.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) – Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Captain America in this handsomely filmed origin tale of the World War II superhero.  Nice IRON MAN tie-in as story features Tony Stark’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).  Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury.  Well-made adventure, solid from beginning to end.

THOR (2011) – Uneven but colorful film by director Kenneth Branagh.  The best part of this Thor origin story is Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He’s phenomenal and provides this one with its best moments.  The scenes on Earth work better than the scenes on Asgard.  On hand once more are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.  The first appearance by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – The biggie.  Arguably the best superhero movie ever made, although I give a slight nod to Christopher Nolan’s Batman masterpiece THE DARK KNIGHT.  This epic film by writer/director Joss Whedon brings together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye as they battle Thor’s troublemaker brother Loki.  Fantastic cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, each doing their thing, each incredibly entertaining, especially since they don’t get along for anything and sound more like a bickering family than a group of superfriends.

Mark Ruffalo takes over the role of Bruce Banner/the Hulk from Edward Norton and does a fine job, immediately making the role his own.  Also features Samuel J. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Loki is a somewhat lame villain.  The Avengers deserve a worthier foe.

Still, THE AVENGERS is grand entertainment from beginning to end, by far the best of the Marvel superhero movies.

IRON MAN 3 (2013) – Robert Downey Jr.’s third turn as Iron Man is better than the second film but not as good as the first.  The twist involving the villain Mandarin may not be for everybody, but all in all this is a very entertaining superhero film, a worthy installment in the IRON MAN franchise.  Gwyneth Paltrow, who has played Tony Stark’s love interest Pepper Potts in all three IRON MAN films, probably enjoys her best moments in this third film.

THOR:  THE DARK WORLD (2013) – Chris Hemsworth as Thor is once again the best part of this THOR sequel.  As in the first movie, the scenes on Earth are compelling while the fantasy-injected scenes on Asgard in spite of their dazzling look fail to resonate.  The villains here are Dark Elves.  They should have stuck to baking cookies.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – This Captain America sequel is even better than the first.  This time Captain America (Chris Evans) teams with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as he becomes a fugitive from the law while investigating the “murder” of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Darker entry than the first film, this Captain America sequel is yet another high quality well-made Marvel superhero movie.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – With writer/director Joss Whedon back at the helm, all your favorite Avengers return for this action packed sequel where Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye take on the all-powerful Ultron, voiced with nasty conviction by James Spader.  Topnotch cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  Also introduces Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch.

Okay, that about wraps things up here and brings us up to date, but the story is not yet finished, not by a long shot.  Marvel has more adventures planned.  It looks like another Captain America film will be out in 2016 followed by another Thor movie in 2017.  And of course, the Avengers will be back in their own third movie, so as of right now, all is well with the Marvel universe, and since these movies continue to provide quality entertainment, that’s fine with me.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

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mary_shelleys_frankenstein_ posterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, on the Kenneth Branagh/Robert De Niro flick, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994), published in the September 2014 edition of The Horror Writers Association Newsletter.

And remember, if you like this column, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.  You can also buy print copies directly from me right here through this blog.  Just leave an inquiry in the comment section.  Thanks!

—Michael

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

Few horror films have disappointed me more than MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994).

I remember being so excited when I first heard about it.  It was to star two of my favorite actors, Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein, and Robert De Niro as the Monster.  And it was being produced by Francis Ford Coppola.  What could possibly go wrong?

Evidently quite a lot.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN attempts to be a faithful film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.  For the most part, it is, in that it covers the events in the novel, but where the film falters is in its execution.  The scenes of horror in this movie just don’t have the relevance or the potency they should.

As much as I like Kenneth Branagh as a director, and as much as I find his Shakespeare films absolutely brilliant, he dropped the ball here with FRANKENSTEIN.  The first problem I have with Branagh’s direction in this movie is his use of the camera.  I think Branagh drank an entire pot of coffee before filming the scenes in this one.  There is an incredible amount of camera movement, so much so, it’s exhausting to watch.  And like bad acting, it’s also very noticeable.

Take the creation scene for example.  A shirtless Victor Frankenstein runs through his enormous lab, switching on this and that, and the camera races along with him every step of the way.  It’s such an overblown overdramatic sequence, and it’s all so unnecessary.  How about just flicking a switch?

The opening half hour of the movie is poorly paced, and it’s very choppy rather than smooth and elegant.  The scenes of Victor with his family are incredibly dull and boring, and later when he goes off to medical school and becomes interested in creating life, there’s very little drama or intrigue about it.  That’s the problem with the entire first half of the movie:  there’s no sense of dread, mystery, or horror.  It plays like a straight period piece drama, with little or no horror elements to be found.

Things get a little better once the Monster appears, but even this part of the film doesn’t really work. The film never becomes scary, and as a result, all the overdramatic scenes fall flat because characters are reacting to things which should be awful, but in the film aren’t properly portrayed as such.

For instance, housekeeper Justine Moritz is wrongly blamed for the murder of Victor’s younger brother when the Monster plants false evidence on her, and she is ultimately executed for a crime she did not commit.  This is a horrible tragic point in the story, but in this movie, it all takes place in a matter of minutes.  Justine is accused, and the next thing we know she’s being dragged to her death by an angry mob.  We see Victor and Elizabeth reacting to the horror, but the scene is so rushed and overemotional it lacks effect.

The screenplay by Steph Lady and Frank Darabont (of WALKING DEAD fame) is okay.  It does tell the Frankenstein story, and it does give the Monster some decent lines, especially when he wonders about his existence, but it never delves as deeply into the tale as it could have done.

We get a fleeting sense of why Victor wants to create life— he’s heartbroken over the death of his mother— but we never see him brood about this or exhibit passion about destroying death once and for all.  The Monster questions his existence, but his inquiries are brief and superficial.

The acting is decent.  Kenneth Branagh really isn’t bad as Victor Frankenstein, and each time I see this film, I enjoy his performance, but he’s stuck in a movie that doesn’t utilize him to his full potential.  I want to see Branagh’s Victor passionate about creating life, and then horrified to have to deal with his monstrous creation.  This doesn’t really happen in this movie.

Robert De Niro remains an odd choice to play the Monster.  It’s like casting James Cagney instead of Karloff as the Monster in the 1931 film.  De Niro is okay, but he’s just too De Niro-ish.  I watch this movie and I see Robert De Niro, not the Monster.  I also don’t like the look of the Monster in this movie.  The make-up job here did not impress me very much.

Helena Bonham Carter is fine as Elizabeth, and that’s one part of this movie that does work:  the love story between Victor and Elizabeth.  Tom Hulce as Henry Clerval, Ian Holm as Victor’s father, and John Cleese as Professor Waldman are all pretty much wasted in under written roles and they offer little if anything to this movie.  Then there’s Aidan Quinn, as Captain Robert Walton, stuck in a wraparound story which goes nowhere.

If you want to see a more faithful adaptation of the Frankenstein tale, check out the 2004 version of FRANKENSTEIN starring Alec Newman as Victor Frankenstein and Luke Goss as the Creature.  This TV miniseries is actually quite well-done

And while it’s not really a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s tale, the 1970s TV movie FRANKENSTEIN:  THE TRUE STORY (1973) starring Leonard Whiting as Victor Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin as the Creature does a better job than Branagh’s film of framing a horror story within a classy production.  Branagh scores high on the classy but stumbles with the horror.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN also has an ineffective music score by Patrick Doyle.  It’s overdramatic and used in all the wrong places.

MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN has handsome production values and A-list actors, but it fails to generate suspense, fails to tell its remarkable story, and most importantly, fails to capture the horror of what it must have been like for all of these characters, the Monster included, to live through this tale of a man who created a being and then abandoned him, and how this creation used his phenomenal strength to seek bloodthirsty vengeance against his creator and his family.  This brutal and fascinating story is pretty much glossed over superficially and melodramatically, which is sad because MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN should have been the remake Frankenstein fans had been waiting for.

Instead, it only made us appreciate the Universal and Hammer versions all the more.

 

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MY WEEK WITH MARILYN Delightful Tale of Two Film Icons

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my-week-with-marilyn-posterBlu-Ray Review:  MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011)

By

Michael Arruda

 

I missed Michelle Williams’ Oscar-nominated performance as Marilyn Monroe when MY WEEK WITH MARILYN played in theaters two years ago, and so I was happy to finally catch up with this one on Blu-Ray the other night.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) is based on the book “The Prince, The Showgirl, and Me” by Colin Clark, a memoir of how Clark worked as a third assistant to Laurence Olivier on the movie THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) and how he met and got to know the film’s other star, Marilyn Monroe.

Young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is eager to break into the movie business, and he catches his break when Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) agrees to let him help out around the set.  Colin quickly makes himself indispensable, and soon he’s hired as a third assistant, which means he’s a glorified errand boy.

Olivier is making movie THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, and he’s excited as it’s giving him the chance to work with American icon and movie star, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams).  When they need a house for Monroe to live in while she’s in England, they turn to Colin, and he impresses his employers when he actually books two houses, since the owner of the first house blabbed to reporters that Monroe would be living there.  The owner of the second house was much more discreet.

Things on the set are a disaster.  Monroe is constantly late and uncomfortable, prompting Olivier to be impatient and rude.  He also doesn’t approve of Monroe’s method style of acting, or the fact that she’s brought along her personal acting coach.  But when Monroe asks Colin to come to her house for a visit, she quickly warms up to him and finds in him a sympathetic ear, and thus begins a relationship in which Colin not only finds himself inside Monroe’s inner circle but also developing feelings for her.  Ultimately Olivier doesn’t mind because Monroe loosens up on the set and her disposition improves, to the point where she finally begins to click onscreen.

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN is a delightful movie that tells an entertaining story and features some very strong acting performances.

I really enjoyed Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe.  She certainly deserved her Oscar nomination.  I’m late jumping on the Michelle Williams bandwagon.  While I did enjoy her performance as Glinda the Good Witch in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013), before that she failed to wow me in SHUTTER ISLAND (2010), and I was never a DAWSON’S CREEK fan.  But after seeing her in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, combined with her work on OZ, needless to say, I’m paying attention now.

Even better than Williams is Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier.  I’ve long been a Branagh fan, and to see him play Olivier is a special treat, since many consider him to be the Olivier of his generation.  Branagh was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor here, and like Williams, he didn’t win.

Eddie Redmayne is also excellent as Colin Clark.  It’s a splendidly sincere performance by Redmayne, and he comes off as so likeable it’s easy to understand why both Monroe and Olivier liked and respected him so much.  Redmayne followed up this performance with the role of Marius in last year’s muddled LES MISERABLES (2012), and I remember him as being one of the highlights of that movie.  He certainly had one of the better singing voices in the film.

The supporting cast here is also excellent.  Leading the way is Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, and it was nice to see her in a much more sympathetic role than her recent turns as “M” in the James Bond movies.  Also on hand is Harry Potter’s Hermione herself, Emma Watson, as Colin’s love interest Lucy, that is, when he’s not hanging out with Marilyn Monroe.  I wouldn’t mind having this guy’s love life.

Philip Jackson is especially memorable as Roger Smith, the man Olivier hires to keep an eye on Monroe to keep her out of trouble.  Jackson makes Smith a loyal protector of Monroe rather than a nosy spy.

Equally as memorable is Dominic Cooper, who plays Milton Greene, a young man who works with Monroe and who is increasingly jealous of her relationship with Colin.  Cooper has been in a bunch of movies lately, including DEAD MAN DOWN (2013), ABRAHAM LINCOLN:  VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012), and CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011), and he’s been good in all of these.

Character actor Toby Jones is also on hand and gets to enjoy a couple of scene-stealing moments.  Jones is the son of Freddie Jones, an actor who has enjoyed a long and distinguished acting career, and who I always remember as Professor Richter in Hammer’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969).

My favorite part of MY WEEK WITH MARILYN was the dynamic between Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, as they were like oil and water on the set together.  One of the best lines in the movie comes when Colin sums up the reason why he thinks Olivier and Monroe struggle to get along:  because Olivier is a great actor who wants to be a movie star, and Monroe is a movie star who wants to be a great actor.

It’s an excellent script by Adrian Hodges, full of great lines and sincere scenes that are as moving and touching as they are humorous.  Branagh gets some of the best lines in the film, as Olivier’s patience is put to the test as he has to deal with Monroe’s idiosyncrasies and constant tardiness on the set.  And these lines work as well as they do because we know and understand that Olivier truly admires Monroe and he believes she’s brilliant on screen, and the fact that she’s not working smoothly with him nor responding to his direction is driving him nuts.

Directed by Simon Curtis. MY WEEK WITH MARILYN also does a nice job capturing the time and the setting of 1950s England.  The details in the sets and costumes are first-rate.  The film looks great, thanks to the cinematography by Ben Smithard.

And you can’t talk about MY WEEK WITH MARILYN without mentioning the make-up department.  Obviously, Michelle Williams looked stunningly authentic as Marilyn Monroe.  Anything less and the movie doesn’t work as well.  But the make-up unit also did an excellent job on Kenneth Branagh.  He really resembles Olivier in this movie, and it’s fun to watch certain shots where the lighting combined with the make-up and the way his hair is combed, where he really looks like Olivier.

If you like movies about film history and its icons, you’ll be thoroughly satisfied with MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, a wonderful movie that tells the story of what happened when the greatest actor of his generation met the greatest movie star of hers, and how one enterprising and sincere young man found himself in the middle of it all and in the position to make the whole thing work.

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