AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – Final Chapter in Current Marvel Saga A Good One

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The best of the AVENGERS movies was the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). In that film, the Avengers had their tails handed to them by the cosmic supervillian Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half the population of the Universe, including many of our favorite Marvel superheroes. INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of rousing action-adventure, lighthearted comical quips, and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, especially its now infamous ending.

Marvel fans have waited a whole year to find out what happens next, and now we know, as the final chapter of Marvel’s Avengers saga has arrived, AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And that’s exactly what AVENGERS: ENDGAME is, a final chapter. Sure, there will still be other Marvel superhero movies going forward, but the current saga, which began with IRON MAN (2008) and continued with films for Captain America and Thor and eventually the Avengers comes to a close with AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, not only is this movie dealing with the aftermath of Thanos but also the legacy of the Avengers themselves. Yup, it has a lot on its plate. How, then, does it perform?

Well, let’s just say I don’t think there will be too many people who will leave the theater disappointed. That being said, my favorite AVENGERS movie remains the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME begins with a chilling scene as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), absent from the previous movie, experiences firsthand the horror of Thanos, as his family is wiped out by the infamous cosmic cleansing. The remaining Avengers, still reeling from both their overwhelming defeat and its aftermath, decide they have no choice but to pursue and track down Thanos, but then what? They can’t undo what Thanos has done.

Or can they?

I’m going to stop right there, because the less known about the plot the better.

I liked AVENGERS: ENDGAME well enough. Heck, I’m a huge Marvel fan, and so there was going to be very little chance I wouldn’t like this one.  The cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission, and as always in a Marvel movie, the cast of actors is second to none. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But there were some things I didn’t like. Take that cast of characters. One of the things I thought the previous movie AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR did extraordinarily well was giving all its characters equal screen time. While this may not have translated into equal minutes, it certainly meant nearly every character in the film enjoyed key moments and scenes.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME wasn’t as successful in that department this time around. Some of the Marvel characters get short-changed here. There were also far fewer key moments for the major characters. So, whereas directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a perfectly seamless and well-paced story in the previous entry, they weren’t as successful doing so in this movie. In terms of giving characters their due, things were a bit uneven.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not as sharp, tight, or as comical as the one they wrote for INFINITY WAR. Things simply didn’t flow as well here.

There’s also a somber tone throughout, understandably, since Thanos has wiped out half the universe, but the film doesn’t shed this tone till its final reel, and even then, it’s not really gone.

I also didn’t completely enjoy the method of the Avengers’ endgame. While it was fun to watch what they were doing, it didn’t always make the most sense, and the film really didn’t go out of its way to try to have it make sense. I wanted more from the story in this department.

The story arcs for Iron Man and Captain America really are the two main ones in this movie, and neither one disappoints.

Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise as Tony Stark/Iron Man since his first Iron Man movie in 2008, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME provides a fitting conclusion for the character. Once again, Downey Jr. delivers a top-notch performance.

Some of the most satisfying scenes in the film are between Tony Stark and Captain America. They had spent the majority of the past few movies arguing and fighting with each other, and now they have finally put their differences aside.

Captain America also gets a fitting conclusion in the film, and Chris Evans once again does an admirable job as the Captain. While I’ve liked Robert Downey Jr. from the get-go, Chris Evans has only gotten better with each successive film. He has made Captain America one of the best parts of these movies.

Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and he’s largely reduced to comic relief here, although he does get one moving scene with his mother back on Asgard.

While I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, I was disappointed with the interpretation of the Hulk this time around. We didn’t see much of the Hulk in the previous film either, as strangely, he retreated into the deepest parts of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, refusing to re-emerge after getting his butt kicked by Thanos. That doesn’t sound like the Hulk. This time, he’s a Hulk/Bruce Banner hybrid— “Professor Hulk”— which pretty much means he’s Hulk-lite. I think Hulk fans have been cheated in these past two films.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series. The same can be said for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. In fact, the two share one of the best scenes in the film, certainly the most emotionally riveting.

But no one else really has any key moments. Even Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who has a lot of screen time doesn’t have his usual comical presence. It’s not for a lack of trying. I just think the screenplay wasn’t as sharp.

When Josh Brolin played Thanos in the previous film, he was easily one of the best Marvel movie villains ever. You can’t say the same thing about him in this film. His screen time is drastically reduced, as is his impact.

The film really relies on the emotions from the previous movie, and it probably does this a little too much. I wanted more out of ENDGAME that was new.

And while I was glad to see the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) here, she doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot either.

But the cast you can’t beat. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast of AVENGERS: ENDGAME also includes Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Rene Russo, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Angela Basset, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Chris Pratt, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wow.

As I said, just the cast itself is worth the price of a ticket.

The action scenes are well-done and the build-up to the second confrontation with Thanos is a good one. The conclusion does what it sets out to do, wrapping things up neat and tidy and restoring order to the universe.

Again, I believe fans will be pleased.

That being said, while I enjoyed ENDGAME a lot, I liked INFINITY WAR more. Maybe it’s because I prefer darker stories. Or maybe it’s just the better movie.

And perhaps to reinforce the notion that ENDGAME is a final chapter in this part of the Marvel saga, there is no after credit scene here. Say what? Yup, it’s true. No comical lunch gathering for the Avengers. No teaser for what’s coming next. Nothing.

Fitting for a movie called ENDGAME.

—-END—-

 

 

 

 

 

 

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HORROR MOVIES 2018 – Worst to First

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Jamie Lee Curtis as long suffering Laurie Strode striking back against Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN (2018)

2018 wasn’t really the best year for horror movies, at least not at the theater. Netflix actually had some of the better horror movies I saw this year. But at the theater it was slim pickings. Of the nearly 100 movies I saw at the move theater this year, only 12 were horror films, and a few of those weren’t really “horror” per se. Granted, there were a few clinkers I avoided all together, and so by design I saw fewer horror flicks in 2018.

Here we go, my list of HORROR MOVIES 2018, from worst to first:

12.THE NUN  – by far, the worst horror film I saw this year. I know, a lot of people liked this one, but the script with both its lame story and ridiculous dialogue was horrible. Shot on location in Romania, the film looks terrific, but that’s all it has going for it. Part of the CONJURING universe.

11.INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY – yet another INSIDIOUS prequel. I really wish they’d put this series to rest already. I do like Lin Shaye as demon hunter Elise Rainier, but since this character was killed off in the very first INSIDIOUS movie, the continuing back stories told in the prequels don’t really resonate.

10. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – not really a horror movie, but you do have those dinosaurs. Pretty bad entry in the JURASSIC series. Silly and oftentimes dull.

9. HALLOWEEN – after all the hype, this latest entry in the HALLOWEEN series was ultimately a disappointment. Ignoring every other movie in the series except for the original John Carpenter classic HALLOWEEN (1978) the film joins Laurie Strode 50 years later as she’s still dealing with the traumatic events of being stalked by Michael Myers on Halloween back in 1978. Jamie Lee Curtis returns to the series to play Laurie once again, and her scenes are by far the best in the movie- the best written and the best acted. The rest of the movie is surprisingly awful. Tells nearly the same story as HALLOWEEN H20: 20 YEARS LATER (1998).

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8. RAMPAGE – Again, not really a horror movie, but the film does feature giant animals battling each other. This ultra silly Dwayne Johnson vehicle has its moments, and it’s more fun than you might think.

7. HEREDITARY – I know, for a lot of horror fans, this was the best horror flick from 2018. I was lukewarm to it. I enjoyed it for nearly 2/3 of the way through, but its ending pretty much ruined it for me. There’s a lot to like about this horror movie, which for me, ultimately did not deliver.

6. OVERLORD – this horror move/World War II action adventure combo wasn’t half bad. On the eve of D-Day, a small group of American soldiers on a secret mission discover a horrific Nazi secret. Works better as an action film than a horror movie, as the horror elements don’t really show up till the end, and they’re not as horrifying as expected.

5. THE POSSESSION OF HANNAH GRACE – this demonic possession movie was better than I expected. The gimmick here is that the possessed being is a corpse rather than a living person. I know. That doesn’t sound like much of a gimmick. But it works here thanks to a compelling lead performance by Shay Mitchell as the woman in the morgue who encounters the angry demon.

4. HELL FEST – another one that was better than expected. This one got off to an awful start with some sloppy direction and bad dialogue, but its standard tale of a crazed killer causing havoc at a Halloween amusement park gets better as it goes along, much, much better. Amy Forshyth is excellent as main character Natalie, the one girl in the group who’s not interested in horror or the supernatural but finds herself smack dab in the center of all it.

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3. THE MEG – this giant shark tale starring Jason Statham should have been stupid, but surprise! It’s actually pretty good. So much so that it was one of my favorite movies from last summer. No, it’s not JAWS (1975), but it’s the best of the recent shark movies, in spite of run-of-the-mill special effects.The strength of THE MEG is its surprisingly snappy script and exceptional performances by everyone involved, and seriously, you can’t really go wrong with a Jason Statham action movie, even if he’s battling a gigantic prehistoric shark.

2. ANNIHILATION – this film is way superior to the previous ten films on this list. This horror/science fiction flick about a group of women led by Natalie Portman on an expedition to investigate a bizarre phenomenon where the normal laws of nature don’t apply has three things going for it: the science fiction aspects will blow your mind, the horror scenes deliver, and its female cast is second to none. Exceptional science fiction horror.

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1. A QUIET PLACE – my pick for the best horror movie of 2018. Sure, its ending doesn’t make a lot of sense, but what comes before it works so well I let the weak conclusion slide. This tale of vicious alien creatures with exceptional hearing which hunt down humans whenever they hear them follows one family’s efforts to survive in this apocalyptic tale directed by John Krasinski, who also stars as the father in the family. Co-star Emily Blunt has one of the best scenes in the movie, a birthing scene. Yup, try giving birth silently as a hungry alien creature closes in for the kill. Scary stuff. Well done throughout. Also a lot of fun to see a movie that for nearly 45 minutes offers no sound on the soundtrack as the family has to survive silently. It was amazing how fast the silence caused people in the theater to stop munching on their popcorn.

There you have it. A look at the horror films from 2018.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THANKSGIVING TURKEY AWARDS 2018

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It’s Thanksgiving here in the U.S, that holiday where people kick back and relax, reflect on what they’re thankful for, and eat lots of food, especially turkey.

With that in mind, here are some Thanksgiving Turkey Movie Awards for 2018.  Of course, the year is not over, and so these lists are not final. There’s still room for more turkeys, so to speak.

Okay, let’s get right to it!

Here are my 2018 TURKEY AWARDS:

WORST MOVIE

(And again, this list is not final. There are still five weeks left before we close out 2018.)

Right now, my least favorite film of 2018 would be PEPPERMINT, a dreadful action film starring Jennifer Garner, followed closely by THE NUN, a flat-out awful horror movie, and THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, a very unfunny comedy that wasted a cool concept. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a raunchy R-rated Muppet comedy? But they blew it.

 

WORST ACTING PERFORMANCE

This is difficult because acting is not something that is lacking in today’s movies. Actors today perform at a level that I think generally speaking is much higher than actors in the past.  They convey emotions that come off as authentic more often than actors from  yesteryear. While there have been great actors in every generation, I think in terms of numbers, more actors today deliver performances that are spot on than ever before.

So, how to choose a poor performance when there really isn’t any? I’m going to cheat a bit. I’m going to go with the three main “actors” in Clint Eastwood’s THE 15:17 TO PARIS, and this is cheating because these three guys aren’t actors. Eastwood chose to cast the three real life men who thwarted a terrorist attack on a Paris train to play themselves in his retelling of this heroic tale. Decades from now, Eastwood’s decision may be deemed as genius, but right now, that’s not the case for the simple reason that those young men aren’t actors and as such were out-of-place in a movie, even playing themselves. As a result, their scenes were incredibly boring and lifeless.

 

WORST SCREENPLAY

THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS – This screenplay by Todd Berger couldn’t be less funny if it tried. They should have hired Fozzy Bear. Waka! Waka!

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There’s not much that’s happy in THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018)

 

WORST DIRECTOR

Brian Henson, THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS. Henson has made real Muppet movies.  He should have known better and pulled off a far more successful movie. He dropped the ball with this one.

 

WORST HORROR MOVIE

THE NUN. Nun of this movie is worth your time.

 

WORST SEQUEL

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY, followed by OCEAN’S 8, JURASSIC PARK: FALLEN KINGDOM, THE EQUALIZER 2, and MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN! Not a good year for sequels. Then again, when is it ever a good year for sequels?

 

WORST SUPERHERO MOVIE

DEADPOOL 2 – now this is not really a bad movie. It’s simply the superhero film I liked the least in 2018.

So far.

 

And now for the THANKSGIVING AWARDS portion of the column. Movies I’m thankful for this year:

 

MARVEL

Three of the best films of the year so far have been Marvel Superhero movies: BLACK PANTHER, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Yup, it’s been a marvelous year for superheroes!

 

DOCUMENTARIES

With WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? the documentary on the life of Mister Rogers leading the pack, 2018 has been a stellar year for documentaries.

 

MOVIES ABOUT WOMEN

It’s been a great year so far for movies starring women, written and directed by women, and that are telling stories about women.  Some of these movies include BOOK CLUB, EIGHTH GRADE, ANT-MAN AND THE WASP, ANNIHILATION, and LEAVE NO TRACE.

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BOOK CLUB (2018) is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, thanks largely to its female cast which includes Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, and Mary Steenburgen.

 

BEST HORROR MOVIE

A QUIET PLACE – smart horror at its best, even if its ending isn’t nearly as intelligent as the rest of the movie. The horror genre is alive and well.

 

BEST SUPERHERO MOVIE

BLACK PANTHER – this Marvel superhero movie transcends the genre and is so good it has no business being a superhero film. Marvel continues its run of incredibly entertaining movies.

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CLASSIC ACTORS

Veteran movie actors have graced the screen throughout 2018, including Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen, Candice Bergen, Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Ben Kingsley, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

BEST MOVIE

Sorry, but you’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for this revelation.

 

So, these are just a few of the movies I’m thankful for this year, along with some cinematic turkeys.

Thanks for reading, and wishing you a happy holiday season!

Gobble! Gobble!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ANNIHILATION (2018) – Natalie Portman Leads All-Female Team in this Thought-Provoking Science Fiction Adventure

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The all woman team in ANNIHILATION (2018)

While superhero movies have captured all the hype and box office receipts in recent years, science fiction films have quietly enjoyed a resurgence of their own. The last few years has seen a decent number of science fiction films landing at the cinema, most of them very good high quality affairs.

You can go ahead and add ANNIHILATION (2018) to that list.

ANNIHILATION was written and directed by Alex Garland, the man who also wrote and directed EX MACHINA (2014), one of those recent high quality science fiction flicks, a thought-provoking thriller about artificial intelligence.  Here in ANNIHILATION, Garland takes on a topic that is rather innovative and original.

In ANNIHILATION, biologist and college professor Lena (Natalie Portman) is dealing with the absence of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac), an army officer who’s been missing in action for over a year. One night, Kane returns home, but he’s different, distant, but before Lena can find out why, Kane becomes violently ill.  She rushes him to the hospital, but before they can get there, the ambulance is intercepted by the military, and both Kane and Lena are extracted from the vehicle.

When Lena awakes, she finds herself being questioned by a psychologist, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Lena learns the truth of her husband’s mission, that he and his unit had been sent in to investigate a mysterious area called the “Shimmer.” Numerous parties had been sent in, and none had returned, until Kane.

When Lena learns that Dr. Ventress is leading an all female team— a scientific decision because so far the investigators had all been male and they had all failed— into the Shimmer, she decides to join them, believing she owes it to her husband to learn what happened to him and what exactly is going on inside the bizarre area.

The Shimmer began when an unknown object struck a lighthouse on the south coast of the United States, and afterwards the lighthouse began to emit an unusual aura which over the course of the year continued to grow, and Dr. Ventress predicts that unless it is stopped it will continue until it covers cities, states, and eventually, everywhere.  The Shimmer looks like a huge oily wall which distorts one’s vision, and so you can’t really see beyond it.  Those who have entered, have not returned, except, of course, for Kane.

When Lena and the all women team enter, they immediately realize that they have entered a place where the laws of nature have changed, and it’s up to them to find out how and why and to survive its hostile environment.

ANNIHILATION tells a fascinating tale that works on multiple levels. Sure, the thought-provoking science fiction ideas are there, in this case some innovative thinking involving refraction and DNA, but ANNIHILATION works even better as an adventure and a thriller.

There are some very exciting sequences here involving some frightening creatures which live inside the Shimmer, in particular an enormous crocodile and later an extremely intense sequence involving something that was once a bear. There are some definite edge-of-your seat moments in this one.

My favorite part though is the female cast.  It’s a fresh take on a science fiction adventure tale like this to have the main players all be women.

Natalie Portman leads the way with a strong performance as Lena. She gets to express two sides of this character.  There’s the cold, clinical biologist side, as she investigates the strange phenomena inside the Shimmer, and since Lena is ex-military, having spent several years in the army, we get to see her no-nonsense kick-ass side, as she takes on the formidable creatures inside this strange land.  Portman excels at both.

I like Portman a lot, and it was fun to see her in this action role after her meticulous performance as Jackie Kennedy in JACKIE (2016).

Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Dr. Ventress.  As the leader of the group, she is as tough as nails in her determination to reach the lighthouse in the hope of resolving this dilemma. While Leigh has enjoyed a long career, she’s turned in some particularly impressive supporting performances of late, including memorable roles in GOOD TIME (2017) and THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015).

The other three women are also notable.  Tuva Novotny as Cass, Gina Rodriguez as Anya, and Tessa Thompson as Josie round out the cast in impressive fashion. Thompson was also excellent starring opposite Michael B. Jordan in CREED (2015).

And Oscar Isaac is effective as Kane, Lena’s husband who’s not quite the same once he comes home.  Isaac also starred in Alex Garland’s previous science fiction flick, EX MACHINA, and he’s known now for his recurring role as Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

ANNIHILATION is not perfect. It’s slow at times, more so during its third act.  Early on, when the audience is first learning about the Shimmer, the story is so engrossing that pacing is not a problem.  But once we start to get answers, things slow down a bit as the film moves towards its conclusion.

The CGI effects are uneven.  Some of the creatures look fearsome, while others look fake.

The story works if you don’t think about it a whole lot. I couldn’t help but think that if such an event were really happening, there’d be more of a military presence around the Shimmer.  We’re led to believe that there is, but it’s not something we see much of. In fact, we see hardly anyone other than Dr. Ventress and her team.

Still, I enjoyed the screenplay by director Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. The dialogue is strong and the concepts explored in the story rather fascinating.

And the film looks stunning. The mind-boggling world inside the Shimmer contains some memorable cinematic images.

The whole film has a sort of LOST (2004-2010) vibe to it, and if you mix in a little bit of ZOO (2015-2017) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (any version you’d like) you’ve got ANNIHILATION, a nice mix of edge-of-your-seat thrills and thought-provoking science fiction.

But its strongest attribute is its all-female team, which by far is the most refreshing part of this exciting fantasy adventure.

—-END—

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

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2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

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4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

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Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

JACKIE (2016) – Haunting Look Back at JFK Assassination

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JACKIE (2016) is the most haunting film I’ve seen in a while, and Natalie Portman’s extraordinary performance as Jackie Kennedy is a major reason why.

Even before the first camera shot, we hear Mica Levi’s dramatic and unsettling somber music, setting the tone for the entire movie.  Levi wrote a similarly effective score for the underrated Scarlet Johannson science fiction flick UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

A reporter (Billy Crudup) visits Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, shortly after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. He is there to write her story, to give her an opportunity to tell the world what she is thinking and feeling after the horrific events of November 22, 1963.

The interview begins with the reporter commending Mrs. Kennedy for her superior job the year earlier when she took part in a televised tour of the White House for CBS.  The conversation inevitably turns to the day of the assassination, as Jackie recounts what it felt like to be there in that car as her husband was murdered by her side.

The bulk of the story revolves around the aftermath of the assassination, how Jackie wanted JFK to be remembered, and it shows Jackie researching the Lincoln funeral and planning the services for JFK in a similar fashion.  Her idea for a long procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., are met with resistance by the Johnson administration, worried about security, as the feeling at the time was that the world had gone crazy.

JACKIE is a film filled with powerful little moments, from a quick glance by Jackie at LBJ as he is sworn in as President shortly after JFK’s death, to Jackie’s sadness and disillusionment at being asked to quickly move out of the White House because the Johnsons need to move in.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the reason to see this movie.  Her performance is so steeped with grief and pain you leave the theater nearly exhausted from the experience.  There are so many moments where she knocks it out of the park.  There is one quick shot in particular where we see her crying uncontrollably as the presidential motorcade races through the streets of Dallas on its way to the hospital where President Kennedy would be pronounced dead on that fateful day of November 22, 1963.  It’s gut-wrenching.

I’ve enjoyed Portman in lots of other movies, but I’ve never seen her as focused and as dominating as she is here in JACKIE.  Her performance as Jackie Kennedy is potent and powerful.

There is a strong supporting cast as well, but you hardly notice them as Portman is so dynamic here.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, and he’s very good.  In fact, some of the better scenes in the film are between Sarsgaard and Portman.  The dynamic between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy is fascinating to watch.  At times, they are united, with Bobby fiercely defending Jackie and the legacy of his brother, but at other times they are at odds, like when Jackie flips out that Bobby kept secret from her the news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed, allowing her to take her two children out in public when such an action put them at risk.  Bobby declares that he would never put her and her children at risk, to which she blasts him, blaming both him and her slain husband for thinking they can control the world when obviously they cannot.  Bobby repeats his assertion that he would never put her at risk, and if you know anything about Bobby Kennedy and his sense of family, it’s a statement that rings true.

Sarsgaard has been in tons of movies and plays all sorts of roles.  He just played the villain in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), he was also in BLACK MASS (2015), and probably my favorite Sarsgaard performance from recent years was his turn as Linda Lovelace’s slimy husband Chuck in LOVELACE (2013).  He’s solid here as Bobby Kennedy.

Billy Crudup is particularly good as the nameless reporter who in addition to writing Jackie’s story often trades barbs with her in the sometimes testy but always respectful interview.  Crudup was similarly memorable in the small role of Boston attorney Eric Macleish in SPOTLIGHT (2015).

Greta Gerwig adds fine support as well as Jackie’s social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, although if you really want to see Gerwig strut her stuff, see the quirky comedy MAGGIE’S PLAN (2015), in which Gerwig really shined.

John Hurt, who just passed away on January 27, 2017, enjoys some fine scenes as the priest who Jackie confides in.

And Caspar Phillipson, with a little help from the right haircut and  the proper clothes, is a dead ringer for JFK.

Chliean director Pablo Larrain has saturated this film with dramatic and melancholy images.  The entire film feels like a funeral.

The assassination sequences are particularly well-done.  Shown in several different flashbacks, often with the camera in close, sometimes at ground level with the racing motorcade, other times in the back seat with Jackie and her mortally wounded husband, these sequences are raw and real.

These scenes borrow heavily from the Zapruder film, that iconic 26 second home movie fortuitously shot by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder who was just trying to film a home movie of President Kennedy, and instead captured the brutal assassination on film, providing a historic document that otherwise would not exist.  For instance, the image of the President reaching for his throat after being struck by the first bullet, you can’t see that image without thinking of the Zapruder film, and without the Zapruder film, we wouldn’t have that image.

The somber shots of the funeral procession, juxtaposed with earlier shots of the young Kennedy household in the White House, hosting parties which celebrated the arts, and with the young Kennedy children playing in the background, showing a time of unparalleled hope and promise, makes the finality of what happened, of what could have been, all the more disturbing.

For the most part, the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim is very good. It especially captures the point that Jackie through the elaborate funeral procession and through allowing her children to take part, was trying to make, that she wanted to show the world just what the murder of her husband meant, that a father of two young children had been brutally killed, that two young children were now fatherless, and for what?

We learn a lot about Jackie’s motives, which can be summed up by a fierce need to protect and even shape her slain husband’s legacy.  She wanted the world to remember her husband as a great President, as someone who accomplished much in his brief stay in the White House, because she believed he had.   This is in direct contrast to another moment in the film, where we see Bobby Kennedy lamenting that their time had been cut short, that they had so much more they were going to do, and now it was over, and he asks, what have we accomplished?

If there’s a weakness, it’s that the scenes between Jackie and the reporter never evolve into anything more.  I expected more from these scenes, either through the eyes of the reporter or through Jackie herself.  Their conversations remain the same throughout, and after a while their scenes together feel repetitive.

The film clocks in at an efficient 100 minutes, which is a good thing because this one is sad, depressing, and dark.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the main reason to see this movie.  It’s an extraordinary performance, one that will move you to tears.

Somber, reverent, and brutal, JACKIE is one of the more haunting movies I’ve seen in a long time.

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