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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SHAZAM! (2019) – Comedic Superhero Tale Only Half Works

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Shazam!

And just like that, just by saying that one word, young Billy Batson can transform himself into an electrically charged Herculean superhero! Woo-hoo!

That’s the premise in SHAZAM! (2019), the latest superhero movie from DC, the comic book company whose movies have been struggling to compete with its rival’s, Marvel, over the last decade. SHAZAM! is a light and funny film that gets all the comedy elements right, which is a good thing, because its story of magic and family ties or the lack thereof is nothing to write home about.

Fourteen year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been searching for his mother without success since being separated from her at a young age. As such, he’s been bounced around from foster family to foster family, experiences which all end the same, with Billy running away.

Now in a family led by foster parents Rosa (Marta Milans) and Victor (Cooper Andrews) that includes five other children, a home filled with positivity and good humor, Billy still resists being there. But one night he’s summoned by The Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins and whose powers are waning. He needs to give them to someone who’s pure at heart, and up until now his search has been fruitless, but he’s out of time, and so he gives his powers to young Billy.

When Billy says Shazam! he turns into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi). Knowing little about superheroes, Billy turns to his foster-brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) for help, and the two spend much of the film having fun with Billy’s newfound powers. Everything is great until supervillain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) comes looking for Billy, intent on destroying the newfound superhero so he can be the only all-powerful dude on the block, along with those seven deadly sins, of course, who are personified here as statues who come to life at Sivana’s bidding.

As I said, the story here is nothing to write home about. It’s all rather silly and ridiculous, and since the tone of this one is light and humorous, that’s not really a problem. However, I did find it to be a distraction. I mean, couldn’t the writers have made this story just a tad bit more realistic? Magic and wizards and statues that come to life, it’s all pretty childish. I can’t say that liked the story all that much.

What I did like was the humor. When Billy transforms into Shazam, and he’s a fourteen year-old inside an adult body belonging to an all-powerful superhero, the story is fun, and the movie is extremely watchable. Basically, it’s BIG (1988) but with a cape. In fact, when Shazam runs onto a giant piano keyboard inside a toy store, that’s a direct nod to the classic 1988 Tom Hanks comedy.

Zachary Levi is hilarious as Shazam. The scenes he shares with Jack Dylan Grazer are the best in the movie. Grazer’s Freddy helps Shazam learn about his powers as together they find out what he can and cannot do, which provide some uproarious results, like when Freddy suggests he try to “leap a tall building with a single bound” and Shazam doesn’t quite make it, crashing through a skyscraper window.

Other scenes have fun with the “fourteen year-old inside an adult body” theme, like when Shazam tries to buy beer for him and Freddy. Both of them promptly spit it out upon tasting it, disgusted by the taste, and in the next shot they depart the same store with arms full of junk food instead.

Levi, who played Chuck on the well-regarded TV show CHUCK (2007-2012) channels an exuberant Jimmy Fallon-like vibe throughout, and his scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Jack Dylan Grazer is equally as good as the nerdy superhero geek Freddy who gets picked on at school and so naturally relishes his time with Shazam.  Asher Angel is also enjoyable as Billy Batson, and he has some fine moments as well, although he unfortunately misses out on the films liveliest scenes since they feature his alter ego Shazam.

Young Faithe Herman delivers a scene stealing supporting performance as the younger sister Darla in the foster family, and Marta Milans and Cooper Andrews (who plays the King’s right hand man Jerry on AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD) both do a nice job as amiable foster parents Rosa and Victor.

Mark Strong, an actor I like a lot, is okay as villain Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, but it’s not anything I haven’t seen Strong do before. In fact, he was much better as Frank D’Amico, the villain in KICK-ASS (2010).

Director David F. Sandberg handles the comedic scenes with ease, but the rest of the film with its magic subplot, family themes, and generic superhero fanfare is all rather standard. Sandberg previously directed a couple of horror films, LIGHTS OUT (2016), an okay horror movie, and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second and better of the two Annabelle movies. In fact, the Annabelle doll appears briefly in a store window in this movie.

The screenplay by Henry Grayden is a mixed bag. The comedy works. The rest doesn’t. Its message regarding family is that family is who you are with, not necessarily blood relatives, and it does this in a way that shows some pretty awful families. Billy Batson’s mom abandons him because she feels overwhelmed, and in a weird opening sequence, we meet Dr. Thaddeus as a young boy and witness his dad and older brother treating him horribly and cruelly. This is juxtaposed with the happy foster family run by Rosa and Victor.

There’s nothing wrong with this take on family, except that the examples of bad families are so over the top they’re difficult to take seriously.

The magic storyline along with the Seven Deadly Sins personified is, simply put, pretty ridiculous.

Shazam is only mentioned here by this one name. He’s not referred to at all by his other name in the comics, Captain Marvel, since Marvel Studios owns the rights to the name for their own character who of course just appeared in her own movie a few weeks ago, CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019), even though the DC character appeared in the comics before the Marvel character did.

Where does SHAZAM! rank with other recent DC flms? While it’s quite the different movie from AQUAMAN (2018), I liked it about the same, placing it below WONDER WOMAN (2017) but above BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).

I loved the comedy here, and really enjoyed watching Zachary Levi as Shazam whenever he was on-screen, but the rest of this film was pretty childish and phony, not the best criteria for a superhero movie.

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HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) – Brutal Re-Telling of Mumbai Terrorist Attack

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In 2008, terrorists stormed the famed Taj Hotel in Mumbai, India, killing and wounding hundreds of people. With only a miniscule police force outside the hotel, and special forces units hours away, it fell upon the hotel staff to protect the hotel’s guests. HOTEL MUMBAI (2019) tells their story.

Unfortunately, it also tells the story of the actual terrorists, as the film attempts to point out that the terrorists were young men who were obviously duped by their unseen leader to carry out these vicious attacks. This part of the movie, although minor, doesn’t work as well as the rest.

The best part of HOTEL MUMBAI is the stories it tells of the victims hiding inside the hotel.

Arjun (Dev Patel) is married, has a young son, and his wife is pregnant with their next child. He works at the hotel, and money is tight, and so he desperately needs this job. When he forgets his shoes, he’s scolded by the head chef Oberoi (Anupam Kher) and told to go home, but he begs to stay, and Oberoi relents and offers him a spare pair of shoes in his office.

David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi) are a multicultural couple. He’s American and she’s Indian. They’re at the hotel with their baby and baby’s nanny Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

Once the terrorists storm the hotel, head chef Oberoi is the one who pretty much organizes the resistance, helping to move as many guests as possible into the most secure area of the hotel.

As the terrorists move freely about the building, with special forces hours away, the story becomes more harrowing as the guests gradually begin to run out of options. There are only so many places they can hide, and the gunmen, armed with assault rifles and grenades, continue their onslaught with frightening persistence.

The scenes of death and carnage in HOTEL MUMBAI are brutal and difficult to watch. Some have suggested that these scenes border on the exploitative. I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that watching the gunmen march boldly through the hotel killing innocent people indiscriminately, taking their time about it because law enforcement was nowhere in sight, was wince inducing. But it also bolsters the story. The film makes clear the awful fate that awaits the guests if they’re spotted by the terrorists.

HOTEL MUMBAI works best when following the plight of the survivors, the frightened guests, and the brave hotel staff who did their best to protect them. Writer/director Anthony Maras and screenwriter John Collee flesh out the characters in a relatively brief time. I really cared for all of these folks, which made the movie that more effective.

And the cast also helps. Oscar nominee Dev Patel comes closest to playing a lead character, as the main story is framed around Arjun. Patel, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for LION (2016), and who also starred in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008) and CHAPPIE (2015), is as expected excellent here. Arjun is both a sympathetic and very brave character, putting his life on the line for the hotel guests.

Armie Hammer, who we just saw in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) where he played Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin, is very good here as David. The scenes where he makes his way back up to his room to rescue his baby and Sally are extremely compelling.

Nazanin Boniadi is equally as good as David’s wife Zahra. She too has to brave the bloody corridors of the hotel to find her family. And Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who spends most of the movie protecting Zahra’s and David’s baby is excellent as the terrified Sally.

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs, who recently played Captain Gabriel Lorca on STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18), and who also starred in the impressive horror movie A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016). Here he plays a Russian operative named Vasili who’s a guest at the hotel and befriends Zahra once the terrorists attack. Not only does he get some of the best lines in the film, but he’s the only character in the movie inside the hotel with any kind of military experience.

My favorite performance in the film however probably belongs to Anupam Kher as head chef Oberoi. He makes Oberoi the ultimate professional, and when he’s tasked with protecting the guests, he accepts the challenge and does what he can. What I particularly liked about this character and Kher’s performance is that he doesn’t suddenly become an action hero. He’s a chef, and what he can do to help these people is limited. The help he can offer is based on his knowledge of the hotel, knowing where the safest place is to keep the guests, and also his cool demeanor as head chef serves him well in keeping the people calm.

Kher was also memorable in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and THE BIG SICK (2016). He’s a character actor who makes his mark every time I see him in a movie, even if he’s playing a relatively small role.

As I said, HOTEL MUMBAI also portrays the terrorists as young men pretty much brainwashed by their unseen leader who speaks to them on the phone and coldly encourages them to kill as many people as possible, all in the name of Allah. While the film should be commended for taking this approach— it’s always a good idea to present as many sides to a story as possible— it didn’t really win me over. Watching them brutally murder people, I didn’t really want to know anything about them, nor did I feel sympathy for them. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more had it not featured any background on these killers at all. Intellectually, I understood the approach, but emotionally I rebelled against it.

The film does a better job pointing out that the Muslim terrorists do not represent all Muslims. Zahra is also Muslim, and her confrontation with one of the terrorists, one of the most riveting scenes in the movie, is symbolic of this difference.

The other subplot that also really works is the small security force which realizes that even though they are outmanned and outgunned, they have to do something to fight back, and so they venture back into the hotel in an attempt to commandeer the security cameras so they can at least get a fix on the terrorists’ positions inside the hotel. Theirs is also a harrowing story.

HOTEL MUMBAI is a riveting and oftentimes disturbing re-telling of the deadly terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel. I hesitate to say I enjoyed this film because it’s not a comfortable movie to sit through, but it succeeds in telling its edge-of-your seat story of a small group of hotel guests and staff who banded together to fight for their survival against a merciless group of vicious gunmen.

While I may not have “enjoyed” it, I highly recommend it.

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TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) – Average Actioner Enjoys Strong Finish

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TRIPLE FRONTIER (2019) is Netflix’ latest foray into the big budget movie business. The film opened theatrically on March 6 and then streamed on Netflix on March 13, meaning it’s available to everyone at home even while it’s playing at theaters.

Netflix did the same thing with the Oscar nominated movie ROMA (2018). It’s a move that is getting plenty of backlash from Hollywood, as heavy hitters like Steven Spielberg have spoken against this kind of release. I guess because they fear it takes away from box office dollars or delegitimizes the industry.

All I know is that as someone who’s living on a strict budget, I liked the fact that this past weekend I didn’t have to pay $13.00 for a movie ticket to see TRIPLE FRONTIER. I watched it in the comfort of my living room. I’m sure we haven’t heard the end of this debate, but for now, I’m on the side of Netflix. Unless they simultaneously provide every theatrical release on their streaming service, I doubt it’s going to influence my movie going habits all that much.

But back to TRIPLE FRONTIER.

TRIPLE FRONTIER is an action thriller about a group of special forces operatives who decide that after years of service they just weren’t compensated properly, and so they agree to rob a drug dealer to give them the financial security they need. Hmm. Doesn’t sound like the wisest idea to you? Me, neither, which is a major problem I had with this movie.

Anyway, Santiago “Pope” Garcia (Oscar Isaac) has been chasing down a drug lord named Lorea for a long time but has yet to catch him. At long last, with the help of one of his contacts on the inside, Yovanna (Adria Arjona) Pope finally locates the whereabouts of Lorea, inside a compound deep in the jungles of South America. Better yet, Lorea keeps all his money there as well, an insane amount that could make several people rich beyond their wildest dreams.

And so Pope rounds up his former war buddies, folks who nowadays are struggling financially even after their years of service, and offers them the chance to remedy all that. If they do this one job, take out the drug lord and steal his money, they’d be set for life.

The group includes William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), Ironhead’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund) and Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal). After some heavy-duty soul-searching, the group agrees to do the job, which of course is no surprise or otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a movie!

That being said, it seems like a pretty dumb idea, and for these guys to be in on it so easily I thought strained credibility.

Anyhow, they set out to the jungles of South America where even with all their professional experience, things, of course, do not go as planned.

The best thing TRIPLE FRONTIER has going for it is its cast. With three very strong leads, the film survives a mediocre first half before its shifts into high gear for its latter stages.

Ben Affleck receives top billing although his character Redfly isn’t really the main character in the film. Redfly is the oldest of the bunch and at first seems the wisest. In fact, the others don’t want to go forward with this mission unless Redfly is in. Redfly is also the character who is suffering the most financially, struggling to support his teenage children.

Affleck is fine in the role, and his character’s plight makes his decision later to jeopardize the mission by taking extra money make sense.

The central character in the film however is Pope, played by Oscar Isaac, as he’s the character who brings the team together and continually pushes them to get the job done, even when the odds stack up against them. Isaac is a talented actor who’s been in a lot of really good movies, films like OPERATION FINALE (2018), ANNIHILATION (2018), and EX MACHINA (2014). Of course, he’s most known nowadays for his portrayal of pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies.

Isaac is excellent here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, and for me, his was the best performance in the film. You get the idea that this is something Pope wouldn’t have done ten years ago–actually, none of these guys would have— but now he seems to be driven almost by anger that even after years of putting their lives on the line, they have nothing to show for it. He’s almost obsessed with the mission, and his obsession stems from the need to seek justice for himself and his friends.

None of these guys come off as greedy.

Charlie Hunnam is an actor I have mixed feelings about. For the most part, I like him as an actor, but there are times when I find his performances grating. For example, I enjoyed him a lot as Jax Teller on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014) but by the show’s final season, I had grown so tired of Jax’ character and Hunnam’s performance that I almost couldn’t watch it any longer.

His performances in the movies THE LOST CITY OF Z (2016) and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (2017) were both very good, yet I can’t say that I enjoyed him all that much in either CRIMSON PEAK (2015) or PACIFIC RIM (2013). For the most part, here in TRIPLE FRONTIER, he’s very good. I certainly believed that his Ironhead character was a special forces officer.

Both Pedro Pascal and Garrett Hedlund round out the cast nicely, and it’s a good thing that these five guys deliver the goods because the film is pretty much focused on them and them alone from beginning to end.

One flaw in the film, however, regarding the cast, is that Adria Arjona who plays Pope’s contact Yovanna isn’t given much to do at all. Her character is reduced to not much more of an afterthought, which is a waste of Arjona’s talent. Arjona has starred in the TV series TRUE DETECTIVE (2015) and the hard-hitting horror movie THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016). She’s excellent in her few scenes here, but had her character been included more, the story would have been even better.

As it stands, the story is a mixed bag. The first half of the movie is rather slow and not all that interesting.

The screenplay by Mark Boal and director J.C. Chandor is stuck in familiar territory with its tale of folks seeing a huge loot of money as the answer to their life’s prayers. Boal, who wrote the screenplays to the superior military movies THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) covered the rogue aspect of the military with more nuance in those films than he does here.

Things pick up for the second half of the film when the story jettisons its soul-searching and finally becomes an exciting action thriller. From the moment the robbery begins to afterwards, when things continually prove more difficult than expected, the story remains riveting.

It’s also during the film’s second half where director J.C. Chandor fares better as well, as he crafts some very exciting scenes, including a harrowing helicopter ride over a towering mountain range, a dangerous mountain climb, and a thrilling car chase through the jungle.

TRIPLE FRONTIER  is an okay action thriller. Its second half is much better than its first, and while it’s well-acted by its five main male actors, the absence of a major female character is certainly noticed here.

If you like testosterone-filled action movies and don’t mind a sprinkle of conscience thrown in for good measure, you probably will enjoy TRIPLE FRONTIER, although it’s not quite as hard-hitting as these types of action films need to be, nor is it as thought-provoking as it tries to be. The result is a rather average actioner that benefits from its three male leads and the fact that it certainly finishes stronger than it starts.

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ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

—END—

 

 

 

 

COLD PURSUIT (2019) – Liam Neeson Actioner First Bad Movie of 2019

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The big story regarding COLD PURSUIT (2019), the latest action movie starring Liam Neeson, comes from real life, where recently Neeson made controversial comments that some have deemed racially offensive, and there’s no doubt, what he said is indeed racially offensive.

But it was an odd thing to say, considering he spoke of thoughts he once had, thoughts that never turned into actions, and so at the end of the day, Neeson didn’t commit the racially charged crime he thought about doing, but even so, why talk about something you once only thought about?  To me, this was an absolutely stupid thing for Neeson to say.  What was he thinking?

Anyway, since no crime was committed or accusation of a crime made, the biggest thing I saw Neeson guilty of was putting his foot in his mouth. And so as a fan, I still went to the theater to see COLD PURSUIT.

And the reason I absolutely did not like this movie has nothing to do with all the real life drama mentioned above.

In short, of all the action movies Neeson has made starting with TAKEN (2008) this might be the worst.

The story is simple and sounds much better than it actually is.  Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snow plow driver who quietly and faithfully plows the snowy roads of a ski resort community just outside Denver, Colorado. He’s so appreciated that at the beginning of the movie he is awarded the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Nels lives a modest, happy life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern).

All is good until their adult son is murdered by a powerful drug lord who lives in Denver, which is a big no-no, because if there’s one thing every movie fan knows, you don’t mess with the relative of a character played by Liam Neeson. So, yes, the rest of the movie is about Nels seeking vengeance for his son’s murder and taking on the powerful drug lord and his henchmen.  As I said, this one sounds better than it is.

The biggest problem with COLD PURSUIT is its script by Frank Baldwin, based on the screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson to the 2014 Danish film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. Rather than being a straightforward action thriller, COLD PURSUIT tries to be a dark comedy but fails miserably.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed its set-up and getting to know Nels and his wife Grace. And since I enjoy Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, I was looking forward to seeing these two in this movie, but that’s not how things unfold, as Dern’s character pretty much disappears from the story.

Plus, with Nels being a snow plow driver and a hunter, you’d think that he’d use these skills in getting back at the people who killed his son, but the film’s idea of his skill set is driving a snow plow and using a gun. Not exactly all that specific.

Strangely when the film should have gotten better, when Nels sets his sights on revenge, it gets worse. The biggest culprit is its misplaced sense of humor. The gimmick in this film is to place each deceased character’s name on the screen after their death, and the hope here seems to be that if the filmmakers do it enough (there are a lot of deaths in this movie) it will become funny. Nope. It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s not funny later.

Now, I have no problem with a dark comedy, especially one about murder, but this one doesn’t work. The characters, including Nels, are all so superficial I didn’t care about any of them. And as the story goes along, Nels actually takes a back seat to rival drug gangs who are trying to wipe each other out. The result of this mess is a film that kinda glorifies murder. People are killed left and right and then the film tries to have fun with their deaths. If you’re going to take this approach, you either have to be really funny or at least have characters fleshed out enough that you feel something when they die. This film does neither.

Liam Neeson is okay as Nels Coxman, but his performance here is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, and frankly, he’s done it much better before. Also, Nels is a cold fish who displays about as much emotion avenging his son’s death as a man standing in the middle of a frozen lake ice fishing.

Laura Dern’s talents are completely wasted in a throwaway role as Nels’ wife Grace. Midway through the film she leaves Nels and that’s it for Dern. She leaves him a note, and it’s a blank piece of paper, which pretty much sums up the emotional impact of this movie.

The main villain “Viking”— and yes, all the bad buys here have nicknames, a la TOP GUN (1986), and in fact, one of the names comes right from that movie— as played by Tom Bateman is one of the most annoying bad guys I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Viking and the rest of his henchmen are about as believable as cartoon caricatures.

Two of the more notable performances belong to John Doman and Emmy Rossum who play two members of local law enforcement, but their storyline goes nowhere, and so they barely make an impact.

There’s also a completely ridiculous subplot involving Viking’s young son, which goes beyond ludicrous once Nels abducts the boy and the two become fast friends. Huh? As I’ve been saying, this one’s pretty bad.

COLD PURSUIT was directed by Hans Petter Moland, and things are so bad here that not even the beautiful snowy mountains of Colorado can save this one. It’s  all very scenic, but the film doesn’t really use its frigid landscape to tell its story.

Plus I really wanted to know more about Neeson’s character. I wanted to know why he felt he could take on drug mobsters and succeed. The film never really gets inside Nels’ head. In fact, for large chunks of the movie, Nels disappears, and the film focuses on the various drug henchmen with all their nicknames.

Ho hum.

At the end of the day, COLD PURSUIT is a cold and rather ugly film. The death count is high, yet none of the demises have any impact, with the possible exception of the very last one, which comes a little too late in the game.

In the interest of full disclosure, the audience I saw this one with, albeit a sparse one, seemed to like the movie more than I did. They chuckled on occasion. I did not.

For me, this one’s an easy call. COLD PURSUIT is the first clinker for 2019.  I suggest giving it the cold shoulder.

—END—

AQUAMAN (2018) – Jason Momoa Best Part of Underwhelming Underwater Adventure

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It’s no secret that in the battle of big screen superhero movies, Marvel has had the upper hand over DC. The Marvel movies have been nonstop outstanding, while DC has struggled with simple notions like storytelling. As a result, it hasn’t been much of a contest.

With the exception of WONDER WOMAN (2017) the recent crop of DC films has been pretty bad. Before WONDER WOMAN, the last DC superhero movie I really enjoyed was THE DARK KNIGHT (2008).  Been a while.

Now comes AQUAMAN (2018), the origin tale of DC’s underwater superhero, with amiable hunk Jason Momoa playing the lead.

Is AQUAMAN all wet? Or is it as refreshing as a summer shower?

Well, truth be told, it’s somewhere in the middle.  The best part by far is Jason Momoa’s spirited performance as Aquaman.  He’s got all the best lines in the film, and his character is the only guy on-screen who’s all that interesting. At times I thought I was watching two different movies, one written by the folks who wrote all the Aquaman scenes, and another written by someone else.

The result is one very mixed bag of a movie.

After a silly and pointless pre-credit sequence which explains how Aquaman’s parents met, the film jumps into one of its best sequences, showing Aquaman rescuing the crew of a submarine from some pretty nasty pirates. Indeed, this might have been my favorite sequence of the whole film, and that’s because we get to see Aquaman interacting with real people in the here and now, rather than in the underwater fantasy kingdoms, where most of the film takes place.

Not too long after Aquaman saves the day, he’s visited by Mera (Amber Heard) who tells him that he must return to the undersea kingdom of Atlantis because his brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is about to wage war on the people who live on land. Aquaman isn’t interested, but when his human father is almost killed in an attack, he changes his tune and agrees to accompany Mera back to Atlantis to stop his brother and become the true king of the underwater world.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I have to admit.  I’m biased. I’m just not a big fan of fantasy tales, and that’s pretty much what AQUAMAN is. It plays like THOR under water, even having Aquaman deal with his brother King Orm, the way Thor had to deal with his brother Loki.

So, all this story involving Atlantis and the great battle to restore peace and harmony under the sea I simply found a colossal bore.

What was not a bore was Jason Momoa as Aquaman.  He’s phenomenal in the role, and I’d be more than happy to see him play it again in a movie that told a better story.  He obviously looks the part with his sculpted ripped body, and he also gives the character a lively personality with plenty of wise-cracks and moments of playful humor.  Momoa is really good.

I also enjoyed Amber Heard as Mera, although as I said before, it seems she and the rest of the cast didn’t have the same screenwriter as Momoa did.  Her lines are often pretty bad, but when she’s in scenes with Momoa, they work well together and she makes the character at least somewhat interesting.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well.  I thought Patrick Wilson was badly miscast as the main villain, King Orm. I just never really bought him in the role, and scenes where he battles Aquaman, where he’s pitted against the massive bulk of Jason Momoa I thought were laughable because looking at the two of them side by side how can one believe that a guy who looks like Momoa wouldn’t wipe the floor with Wilson in about two seconds? I’ve enjoyed Wilson in nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, especially in the INSIDIOUS and CONJURING movies, but not so much here.

Willem Dafoe doesn’t fare any better as Vulko, an official from Atlantis who remains loyal to Aquaman.  Vulko’s lines were so bad I had a hard time keeping a straight face whenever he spoke.

On the other hand, Dolph Lundgren does fare better as King Nereus, mostly because he looks the part. He looks like a king and also like someone fit enough to tangle with Aquaman.

The talents of Nicole Kidman are largely wasted in a throwaway role as Aquaman’s mother Atlanna.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for the best villain in the movie, Manta. Sadly, he has to play second fiddle to King Orm here, but his scenes going up against Aquaman are some of the better scenes in the movie.

AQUAMAN was directed by acclaimed director James Wan, known mostly for his horror movies, films like SAW (2004), INSIDIOUS (2010), and THE CONJURING (2013). His horror roots are on full display here as there are plenty of giant sea creatures. There are also plenty of sea battles, all of which went on too long for me.

AQUAMAN is visually striking, as the underwater sea kingdom of Atlantis is colorful and dazzling.  There’s a lot to see, and I can’t fault the way this movie looked. But in terms of story, it didn’t do much for me, nor did its battle sequences, which I found long and after a time unexciting.

The screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall hits a home run with its depiction of Aquaman but falls flat just about everywhere else.  The main story is a snooze, and the supporting characters okay but not as sharply written as Aquaman himself. I would have liked this one better had its storyline featured Aquaman dealing with events on land and interacting with people above water.

Even the interesting plot point of the underwater kingdoms  wanting to strike back against humanity because of the way we maltreat the oceans, filling them with endless trash, goes nowhere. It’s mentioned but then is buried underneath the infighting between Aquaman and his brother.

You can do a lot worse than AQUAMAN, but you could also do a lot better.  Jason Momoa’s performance is definitely worth checking out, and on the big screen, the visuals here are highly impressive, but you’ll have to sit through an underwhelming plot that is hardly exciting and never compelling, and with a running time of 143 minutes, that’s a long time to sit and be underwhelmed.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

New in 2019! DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version coming soon!

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

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

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

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Print cover

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Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

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