YOUR MOVIE LISTS: SCARLET JOHANSSON – 2017

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Scarlett-Johansson

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

By Michael Arruda

Scarlett Johansson has made a few more movies since I posted this list in 2014.  Here’s an update, including movies through June 2017:

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Up today, a look at films starring Scarlett Johansson.  Here is a partial list of her movies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.  This dreadful looking comedy opened to negative reviews and received a “pass” by me, as in “I’ll pass on this one, thank you very much.”

And look for Johansson to return as Black Widow for the sixth time in the third AVENGERS movie, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, due out in 2018.  Sadly still no sign of that stand alone Black Widow movie,  rumored to be in the works a few years ago.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

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

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guardians2-poster

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

I did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

LOGAN (2017) – Fitting Final Chapter for Wolverine

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You can’t run away from your past, especially if you’re a killer with a heart.

That’s the theme which runs through LOGAN (2017), the latest Marvel superhero movie about everyone’s favorite X-Men, the Wolverine, and it’s a theme that’s backed up by frequent references to the classic western SHANE (1953) starring Alan Ladd as a former gunslinger also haunted by his past.

And in the case of LOGAN, it’s more than just a figurative canker, as in this movie Logan’s murderous past is literally poisoning him from within.

When LOGAN opens, a gang of thugs pick the wrong limo to car jack, because resting inside the vehicle is Logan (Hugh Jackman) and he doesn’t take too kindly to people messing with his property.  But we quickly see that this is an older and weaker Logan, and where in the past his alter ego Wolverine would have made quick work of these thugs, now it’s a much more difficult job.  Wolverine takes care of these baddies, but it’s more of a struggle than we are used to seeing.

That’s because the story takes place in the near future, in 2029, a time when all the mutants are now a thing of the past, and Logan is trying his best to live out his life under the radar.  He’s living in Mexico, in very poor conditions, and with the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) he’s caring for a very fragile and elderly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).   This is no easy task, since Professor X is prone to seizures, and when he has them, his extraordinarily powerful mind becomes a dangerous weapon and disrupts the world around him.  So, Logan has to keep the professor constantly medicated to prevent him from having seizures, and a lot of the money Logan earns running his limousine service goes towards purchasing these meds.

One day, Logan is approached by a woman Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who begs for Logan’s help.  She wants him to protect a young girl  Laura (Dafne Keen) who she says dangerous people are after.  Logan isn’t interested in helping and tells her to go away, but later he is approached by a man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) sporting a powerful mechanical hand who questions Logan about this woman, claiming he needs to find her because she stole something from him.  And when Professor X tells Logan about a young girl who is a mutant, Logan ignores him as well, telling the professor there simply aren’t any mutants being born anymore.

But Logan is wrong, and when Pierce and his men locate Gabriela, Laura escapes in the back of Logan’s car, and suddenly it’s up to Logan and the ailing Professor X to protect her.  And while Logan initially is not interested, Professor X  tells him just who she is and who her father is, and that point, for Logan, there’s no going back.

I really enjoyed LOGAN, so much so that’s easily my favorite of the Wolverine movies.

The first thing that stands out about LOGAN is that it is Rated R.  As such, there is a lot of language and bloody violence throughout, things not typically found in a superhero movie.  I’m sure this movie was able to be made as an R rated vehicle because of the extraordinary success at the box office of DEADPOOL (2016) which was also rated R.  And while the language in LOGAN is nowhere near as raunchy as the language in DEADPOOL, the film certainly earns its R rating.

The violence and the language both work here because they are integral to the story.  It’s the way Logan talks, and anything less wouldn’t have seemed as realistic.  Likewise, the violence reflects the ugliness which Logan is trying to forget.  LOGAN is an adult tale, and as such, is completely at home with its R rating.

At one point in the movie Professor X and Laura are watching SHANE (See my review at this site)  on TV, and the professor tells her that they are watching a very famous movie. More than that, SHANE with its story of Alan Ladd’s gunslinger Shane trying to forget his past serves as a backdrop to the main theme of this movie.  Logan wants out, but he finds he cannot turn his back on the people who need him.  In an interview, writer/director James Mangold cited SHANE and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992) as inspirations behind LOGAN.

I enjoyed the way Mangold directed this movie.  The action scenes work, and the pacing is good, until the end, when things definitely slow down.  The most exciting sequence in the film is probably when Logan, Professor X, and Laura befriend a farming family— another SHANE reference— and later that night they are attacked by Pierce and his men and their new “secret weapon.”  It’s the most intense sequence of the movie.

The violence is effective and fits in with the story being told here. It also looks a bit more real here than in other R-rated action movies. Often an R rating means nothing more than the ability to show blood, and in this day and age, the blood is CGI -created and very fake looking. The violence in LOGAN looks real.

There’s also a seriousness to the movie that sets it apart from a lot of the other Marvel superhero flicks.

Mangold also directed the previous film in the Wolverine series, THE WOLVERINE (2013). LOGAN is a much better movie than THE WOLVERINE and plays more like another Mangold movie that I really liked, the western remake 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

The screenplay by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green is also very good, which comes as no surprise since all three of these guys have extensive impressive writing credits. In addition to the theme of trying to forget one’s past, the story also deals with getting old.  Both Logan, and to a greater degree, Professor X, are nearing the end of their lives, and to watch them at this stage of their life journeys is interesting.

Like the rest of the world, I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and while he can play the character in his sleep by now, his performance here in LOGAN is a step above his usual work because of the added element of the age factor.  In the very first sequence of the movie we are introduced to an aged Wolverine. In previous movies, Wolverine would have made short work of the men attacking him, but here, it’s a major struggle for him. It’s a cool scene, a neat way to open the film, and it sets the stage for Jackman’s superior performance.

And not only is Logan dealing with the normal aging process, but he’s sick.  The years of having metal inside his body have been slowly poisoning him to death.

Equally as good as Jackman is Patrick Stewart as Professor X.  In fact, probably my favorite part of LOGAN is the chemistry between Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Their banter is a highlight of the film.  They are both terrific actors, and they really work well together.

It was a lot of fun to see Patrick Stewart playing Professor X again. He’s been sharing duties with James McAvoy, who plays the character in the rebooted series featuring younger X-Men.  As such, the character of Professor X has struck gold in these movies, as he is portrayed by two top-notch actors, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy. You can’t go wrong with either portrayal.

While I liked Dafne Keen as Laura,  she didn’t blow me away. Part of it is the writing of the character. She doesn’t say a whole lot, and a bulk of her scenes are strictly action scenes where she’s helped out by some CGI effects.  As such, she is less effective than she might have been.  Laura reminded me a little bit of the character Eleven played by Millie Bobby Brown in the TV show STRANGER THINGS, but ultimately was not as interesting.

The supporting cast was okay.  I found Stephen Merchant rather blah as Caliban.  I liked Boyd Holbrook as Pierce, but ultimately, he just becomes a glorified henchman. As the movie goes on, there’s less and less for him to do.

Like other Marvel movies, LOGAN struggles with its villain.  As much as I enjoy the Marvel movies, you can pretty much bank on it that the villain in the film is going to be sub-par, which I find really puzzling. You’d think more effort would go into creating memorable villains in these movies.

The main villain here, the man Pierce works for, is Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and he’s as dull as they come.  He pretty much put me to sleep.

And as good as LOGAN is, it doesn’t sustain its excellence all the way to the end. It starts off great, and up to that farmhouse scene, about two-thirds of the way in, it’s firing on all cylinders, but then it just fizzles out.

The final act is a letdown, and nowhere near as compelling as first two-thirds of the movie. And this is where not having a formidable villain really hurts, because you don’t have that to fall back on. If you have a memorable villain, then you are locked in until the end because you are waiting for that final confrontation. Without the villain, you’re not really waiting for anything, other than for the movie to be over.

LOGAN runs for two hours and seventeen minutes,and it could have easily been about 20 minutes shorter.

And while the final act is much less interesting than what came before it, the ending of the movie, the final frame, is a good one.  So, you have an excellent superhero movie that runs a bit too long and forgets itself for its final 30 minutes or so before ending with an exclamation point.

All in all, LOGAN is a fine entry in the Marvel superhero universe, a more adult tale than usual, and a fitting final chapter to the Wolverine story.

—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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look at the superhero movies from 2016, ranked from worst to first:

batman_v_superman

7. BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE – By far, the worst superhero movie of 2016. The script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer doesn’t work. In spite of the fact that Batman and Superman do not trust or like each other, a big part of the plot revolves around Lex Luthor’s plans to pit them against each other.  Why?  They’re enemies already!  Also, the big moment where Batman and Superman change their tunes about each other is both unbelievable and anticlimactic.

Both Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman are fine, but the story they are in is not.  Also unimpressed with the action scenes by director Zach Snyder.  Best Part:  Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.  Worst Part:  Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.

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6. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN- Tecnically, not really a superhero movie, but growing up I always considered Tarzan a superhero of the jungle.

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a serious good-looking production by director David Yates that suffers from one fundamental problem:  it’s boring.

Alexander Skarsgard is terribly uncharismatic as Tarzan, Margot Robbie somehow doesn’t wow as Jane, and Christoph Waltz thinks he’s still playing Bond baddie Blofeld, hamming it up as villain Leon Rom.  The liveliest lines go to Samuel L. Jackson as Tarzan ally George Washington Williams.  The movie would have been better served had it given this oomph to Tarzan.

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5.SUICIDE SQUAD –  The DC superhero movies continue to struggle, but that being said, I liked SUICIDE SQUAD.  Somewhat.

Whereas she didn’t wow in THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, Margot Robbie more than makes up for it here as Harley Quinn.  Robbie’s electrifying, sexy performance as the bad-girl-turned-good-maybe easily steals this movie.  It’s easy to understand from Robbie’s performance how Quinn is the Joker’s girlfriend.

While I’m not a Will Smith fan, he’s really good here as Deadshot, and his and Robbie’s performances were the main reasons I enjoyed this movie.  The rest of the cast is simply average.  The plot less so.  The screenplay by director David Ayer has all this build up to this squad of misfits only to see them square off against one of their own, a supernatural witch, no less.  This one simply lacks vision.

Also, Jared Leto’s Joker is ultimately a disappointment, partly because of his performance, but mostly because the role is under written.

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4. DOCTOR STRANGE – The first of the superhero movies on this list that I consider excellent.  It’s no surprise that all four of the top superhero movies from 2016 come out of the Marvel Universe, the studio that continues to churn out one superhero hit after another.

Certainly the most imaginative superhero movie of the year.  Not only does it tell a captivating story, but it’s also a visual treat. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Doctor Strange, the obnoxious neurosurgeon turned superhero after a devastating injury ruins his career and sends him in search of healing through the Far East mystic arts.  What he finds is new life as a superhero.

As usual with the Marvel movies, it struggles with its villain, as Mads Mikkelsen really doesn’t get to do a whole lot as bad guy Kaecilius.

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3. X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE –  My sleeper pick on the list.  Critically panned and not really loved by fans, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE nonetheless entertained me from start to finish.

The main reason I enjoyed this one?  The performances by James McAvoy as Professor Xavier, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Since taking over these roles when the series rebooted with X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), McAvoy and Fassbender have made them their own.  It’s difficult to dislike a movie when these two talented actors are helming it.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence is here, too, as Raven/Mystique, but in all honesty I’ve enjoyed Lawrence in most of her other movies more than here in the X-MEN series.

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2. DEADPOOL (CKF) – For many, DEADPOOL was the best superhero movie of 2016.  For me, it was second best.  That being said, it was certainly the most unusual superhero movie of the year.

Foul-mouthed Deadpool— played by Ryan Reynolds in a role he was born to play— lets loose with an abundance of raunchy language not even George Carlin, Richard Pryor, or Eddie Murphy combined could match.  As such, this R rated superhero movie is not for everyone, but if you don’t mind raunchy language, you are in for quite a treat.

The liveliest superhero movie of the year, as well as the funniest.

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1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – My pick for the best superhero movie of 2016 is easily Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  This one plays more like THE AVENGERS 2.5. Its story about a rift between Captain America and Iron Man is much more believable and emotionally satisfying than the rift between Batman and Superman in BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE.

This one is so good, that even though it’s the third Captain America movie, it belongs in the conversation as one of the best superhero movies ever made.Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo direct this one with high energy and lots of style, and the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is a genuine crowd pleaser.

Also features a phenomenal cast which has no business being in a superhero movie. You’ve got Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, and Sebastian Stan as the Winter Soldier.  And with all these folks doing their things and doing them well, the movie is almost stolen by young Tom Holland in his debut as Spider-Man.

An awesome movie.  Marvel has been churning out one quality superhero movie after another going back to IRON MAN (2008), and they show no signs of slowing down.  I’m looking forward to their upcoming releases in 2017, starting with LOGAN on March 3.

And there you have it, my list of the superhero movies from 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.  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.  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.  

 

Eye-Popping Visuals Propel DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

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DOCTOR STRANGE (2016), the latest Marvel superhero movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Stephen Strange, a neorosurgeon turned superhero who can hop through alternate universes and time and space with relative ease, is an eye-popping cinematic adventure, missing only one important ingredient:  a story worthy of its visual grandeur.

DOCTOR STRANGE is the story of brilliant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) whose ego is as big as the multiple universes in this movie.  He’s the best there is and he knows it.  But all of that changes after a catastrophic car accident leaves him with hands that are no longer functional due to severe nerve damage.  His days as a surgeon are over.

But Strange refuses to accept this fate, and in his search for answers learns of a man Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who after being paralyzed, miraculously regained full used of his legs.  It was a case that Strange himself had passed on, believing that Pangborn was beyond cure and surgery would not have helped.  Strange tracks down Pangborn, who tells the doctor that our of desperation, he had traveled to the Far East and it was there that he met people who taught him about mytisc arts and cured him.

So Strange travels to the Far East to meet these folks.  Initially, he rejects the teachings of this group, led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), as he believes in medical science, not mystic mumbo jumbo.  But The Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) eventually show him enough of these alternate universes and mystic powers that he has no choice but to accept their teachings.

He becomes their star pupil, which is a good thing since they need his help, as a former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is stealing valuable pages from their private book collection and using them to wreak havoc on the world.  At first, Strange wants no part of their war.  As he says, he’s a doctor who has sworn to save lives, not destroy them, but once again, after seeing firsthand the evil deeds of Kaecilius, he changes his mind, and the newest Marvel movie superhero Doctor Strange is born.

Strange sets out not only to save the universe but also to get back his girlfrend, fellow doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) who he had alienated with his ego-driven rude personality.  Since this is a Marvel superhero movie, chances are high that Strange will succeed at both.

I really enjoyed DOCTOR STRANGE, in spite of a story that I found very, very silly.  In fact, for me, the weakest part of this movie was its story.  Not the background story on Doctor Strange himself.  I liked that part.  I’m talking about the whole plot with Kaecilius, and him using ancient spells and what-not to cause all kinds of sinister damage on the world.  That whole story I just couldn’t get into.  I couldn’t take it seriously.

Other than this, the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and director Scott Derrickson, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, is pretty good.  I enjoyed the characterizations a lot here, and the dialogue is snappy and first-rate.  These writers share a pretty strong horror/science fiction background as well.  Spaihts wrote PROMETHEUS  (2012), while Cargill and Derrickson wrote the SINISTER movies.  Derrickson also wrote the screenplays to THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005) and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014), two films he also directed.  I enjoyed DOCTOR STRANGE more than all of these other movies.

The Marvel superhero movies have always boasted A-list casts, and DOCTOR STRANGE is no exception.

Leading the way is Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange.  Cumberbatch nails the role, and he makes Strange a guy you love to hate, or hate to love.  I mean, he’s an arrogant pain in the ass, and later, even as he humbled by his injuries and by the vast overwhelming amounts of information and knowledge shown him by The Ancient One, he’s still an arrogant pain in the ass.  But when he’s using this side of his personality to take on the bad guys, he’s a hoot to watch in action.  I’ve said this about other actors who have appeared in Marvel superhero movies, and I’ll say it again here:  Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange delivers a high level performance that has no business being in a superhero movie.  It’s great acting.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is likeable enough as Mordo, and Tilda Swinton is her usual icy self as The Ancient One, perhaps being a bit warmer here than we’ve seen her in the past.  Swinton of course played the White Witch in the NARNIA movies, and she was also sufficiently cold as the irritating Mason in the fine science fiction actioner SNOWPIERCER (2013), starring Captain America himself, Chris Evans.

Benedict Wong delivers a nice scene-stealing performance as Wong, the stoic librarian and protector of The Ancient One’s books who Strange spends most of the movie trying to get him to crack a smile, which he refuses to do.

I also really enjoyed Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and thought her scenes with Strange were all very good.  It’s just too bad the character never really became anything more than simply Doctor Strange’s love interest.

And while Mads Mikkelsen is effectively villainous as main baddie Kaecilius, like most of the villains in the majority of the Marvel superhero movies, he doesn’t do a whole lot nor is he developed to the point where we feel like Doctor Strange is in deep trouble because of him.  At this point, I’m convinced that the powers that be behind the Marvel superhero movies just don’t care that much about their villains, because without fail, in spite of the fact that these movies are all pretty darned good, the villains are always the least memorable part.  In fact, for me, the best Marvel villain remains TV villain Wilson Fisk played by Vincent D’Onofrio on the TV series DAREDEVIL.  The movie villains haven’t come close.

I saw DOCTOR STRANGE in 3D, and I have to admit, it looked pretty darn good.  In fact, I’d have to say one of my favorite parts about this movie was the way it looked.  I loved its visuals, especially the scenes near the end where Doctor Strange is hopping through time and space.

I thought director Scott Derrickson handled things well, and this is certainly the best movie I think he’s directed.

Once more, I pretty much enjoyed everything about this movie except for its story, which I found silly and at times flat out ridiculous.  Frankly, I thought it was beneath the rest of the production, which featured strong acting and high production values and eye-popping visuals.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-credits scene— there are two actually, one midway through and one at the very end.  I enjoyed the first more than the second.

So, where does DOCTOR STRANGE rank with the other Marvel movies?  Well, for me, it’s not quite as good as the heavy hitters:  THE AVENGERS movies, IRON MAN (2008), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), and DEADPOOL (2016) I enjoyed more than DOCTOR STRANGE.

But I liked it better than the THOR movies, and it’s probably up there in the same neighborhood as the first CAPTAIN AMERICA movie.  It’s a solid superhero adventure, entertaining from start to finish.

And since it’s part of the Marvel cinematic universe, which has produced one quality superhero movie after another, that’s not so strange.

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X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) Provides End-of-the-World Excitement

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Movie Review:  X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016)

By

Michael Arruda

I’m not hearing great things about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE (2016), the latest film in the Marvel X-MEN series, which is too bad, because all things considered, it’s a purdy darn good movie, one well worth the price of a movie ticket.

Let’s turn back the clock a little bit, to 2011, when the X-MEN series was rebooted featuring younger actors in an X-Men origin story, X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011).  I absolutely loved this movie, and it ranks in my Top 5 List of the best Marvel superhero movies ever made.  A big reason for this was the performances by James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.

The second film in the rebooted series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) played with time travel and combined cast members from the original series with the cast from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.  A creative idea to be sure, but the film stumbled with its execution, and I was not nuts about this movie.

Now comes X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE, the third film in the rebooted series.  This time around, we learn that mutants have been in existence since the beginning of time, and one such all-powerfult mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) sets his sights on taking over the world  but is betrayed and buried in a pyramid in ancient Egypt.

Jump to the 1980s, twenty years after the events of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, and ten years after the events of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and Apocalypse escapes from his Egyptian grave and once more sets his sights on taking over the world.  His strength is that he can enhance the abilities of others, and so he always assembles four mutants, four horsemen, to be his minions, and he uses them by making their special ablities even stronger.  He gathers four mutants, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the grand prize, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Magneto has been doing his best to blend in with society.  He has a wife and a young daughter, and he has given up his powers so he can live in the real world.  But things go sour when he is discovered, and his wife and daughter are killed.  This leaves Magneto feeling very bitter indeed, and so he is more than willing to join forces with Apocalypse.

Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted mutants, when there is a great disturbance in the force— oops, wrong series.  But there is a great disturbance, an energy surge, coming from Apocalypse.  When Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) shows up and informs Professor X that Magneto has joined the bad guys again, it’s up to Professor X and his students to save the day.

Except that Apocalypse wants Professor X’s mental abilities for his own, and so he abducts the professor in order to force him to work for him.  And so now it’s up to Mystique and the latest and youngest X-Men recruits to save the world by going up against the most powerful mutant in existence, Apocalypse.

This is no small task, which is why the last third of the movie is so exciting.

There are many things to like about X-MEN:  APOCALYPSE.

However, when talking about the Marvel superhero series, you have to start with the acting, and that’s because these films have assembled an A-list cast on a regular basis, meaning that when you watch a Marvel superhero movie, you’re pretty much guaranteed A-list caliber acting.  The acting in these films is far better than what you would expect in a superhero movie, and the acting in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is no exception.

Both James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto are excellent in this movie.  They also work extremely well together, and so whenever we are fortunate enough to see them in the same scene, the film is that much better.

In addition to McAvoy and Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence completes the star triumvarate as Mystique.  Now, as much as I like Jennifer Lawrence, I’m not nuts about her as Mystique.  She has shown so much range in other roles, in films like SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) and JOY (2015), it’s difficult to accept her in a role where she’s covered in blue make-up.  She also plays Mystique like a mutant cousin of Katniss, her character in THE HUNGER GAMES movies.  It’s just not my favorite mix.

The rest of the young cast is first-rate.

Nicholas Hoult is very good as Beast, Sophie Turner is mesmerizing as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee who was so memorable as the young boy in the vampire movie LET ME IN (2010) and also in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) is charmingly electric as Nightcrawler.

And as he did in the previous X-MEN movie, Evan Peters provides scene-stealing fun as Quicksilver.  Reprising her role from X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS Rose Byrne is effective in her return as CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert.

Oscar Isaac makes Apocalypse a formidable villain.  A frequent stumbling block in the otherwise pristine Marvel superhero films is their inablity to craft a worthy villain for their heroes.  It hasn’t hurt the movies since the Marvel superheroes generally are such an entertaining lot on their own, as they are full of flaws and can’t seem to stop arguing and fighting amongst themselves.  Still, a decent villain would only help, and here in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, Apocalypse is a decent villain, and then some.  And you can’t fault his agenda:  he just wants to destroy the world, that’s all.  Technically, he wants to wipe out everyone on Earth who possesses great power so he can then rule it with ease.  Greedy bastard.

Apocalypse is all-powerful, so much so he fathoms himself a god, and his powers are indeed god-like.  What this means is that even the combined strength of all the X-Men mutants, even with Professor X and Magneto working together, they can’t stop this guy, which makes for some dramatic cinema.  And how they finally do gain the upper hand against this superpowerful villain makes sense and works.

I enjoyed both the direction by Bryan Singer and the screenplay by Simon Kinberg.

Singer is no stranger to the X-MEN universe, having directed the first two films in the series, X-MEN (2000) and X-MEN 2 (2003), and the most recent film in the series, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014).  He crafts some powerfully emotional scenes in this one, including the scene where Magneto’s family meets a tragic end.  The conclusive battle is also very exciting.

Kinberg’s script strikes a nice balance between witty snappy dialogue and poignant moments, like when Professor X tells Magneto that he is not alone, that he hasn’t lost everybody.

That theme, being alone, is prominent throughout the film, and is what Professor X ultimately uses to set him and his X-Men apart from Apocalypse- the villain is alone, while they are not.

As there are in most of these Marvel superhero movies, there is an additional scene after the end credits, but it’s hardly worth the wait, and so if you’re not in the mood to sit through the credits, don’t bother.  You won’t be missing much.

I liked X-MEN: APOCALYPSE a lot.  While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as this year’s DEADPOOL (2016) or CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016), it’s still a very good movie, a worthy entry in the Marvel superhero universe.

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Marvel’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) – Epic Superhero Adventure One of Year’s Best

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For nearly a decade, starting with IRON MAN (2008), Marvel has been churning out quality superhero movies year after year, and their latest installment, CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR (2016) continues this trend.

It’s the best superhero movie of the year so far.

Yeah, I know, I loved DEADPOOL (2016), and I still do, but by the length of Ant-Man’s pinky fingernail, I prefer CIVIL WAR.  There are just so many good things about this movie that lift it to the top of the class.

And yes, I realize the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies and the X-MEN films pre-date IRON MAN, but for me, Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN was the movie that jettisoned the recent explosion of high quality Marvel superhero films.

The only thing problematic at this point in these Marvel movies is there have been so many films in the series, it’s often a challenge to keep track of the multiple storylines and characters.  The writers need to keep this in mind and do a better job explaining plot points from previous films.  For example, I don’t want to spend precious minutes in the theater trying to remember just how it was that Vision got hold of Loki’s technology.  When I do that, I miss what’s going on in the movie.  Other than this, these films are clicking on all cylinders.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is about the rift that occurs between Captain America and Iron Man over the future of the Avengers, a rift that leads to an all out war between the two factions. The governments of the world have grown tired of the destructive collateral damage inflicted by the Avengers every time they go about saving the world.  They’re weary of all the death and destruction, and so they want the Avengers to sign an agreement saying they will no longer act unilaterally, that they will only act when instructed by the United Nations to do so.

Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) has been riding an emotional roller coaster lately.  His girlfriend Pepper Pots has left him, and he’s recently been feeling extremely guilty over the deaths he has inadvertently caused in the line of duty.  In his mind, the Avengers are a bunch of loose cannons, and some restrictions would be a good thing.  Put the responsibility on someone else’s shoulders, for once.

Captain America (Chris Evans) has the exact opposite reaction to the agreement.  His best friend Bucky, aka the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is blamed for an international assassination and terrorist attack. Since Captain America believes Bucky was framed, he wants to investigate on his own without the sanction of the United Nations, which wants Bucky arrested.  In Captain America’s mind, if the Avengers give up their freedoms now, it will only get worse later.

And thus the battle lines are drawn.  The Avengers are suddenly divided.  It’s Team Captain America vs. Team Iron Man, and these two sides do more than just verbally spat.  They engage in an all out war, in a battle sequence that is as good as any other in the entire Marvel movie series.

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There’s a lot to like about CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.

Let’s start with the cast.  A lot of these folks have been playing these characters for a while now, and so they have really grown into these roles.  Chris Evans has always played the all-American superhero Captain America to near-perfection, in both the previous CAPTAIN AMERICA movies and in THE AVENGERS series.  He’s even a tad better here as his all-American image takes a hit— up to a point.  When he goes rogue, on the surface it seems like something Captain America wouldn’t do, but then again, there are certainly those who embody American patriotism who would shudder at the thought of reporting to the United Nations.  Sure, in this movie the Captain is also rebelling against the U.S. government, but in the current political climate even that decision doesn’t seem far-fetched.

And while technically this is a CAPTAIN AMERICA movie, it does play more like THE AVENGERS 2 1/2.  As such, Iron Man plays just as big a role in this one as Captain America does.  Robert Downey Jr. has been phenomenal as Tony Stark/Iron Man ever since he first played the role in IRON MAN (2008).  This marks the sixth time Downey Jr. has played the character, following the three IRON MAN movies and the two AVENGERS films.  I, for one, have not grown tired watching Downey Jr. play the role.

His Tony Stark is a wise-cracking playboy badass who is actually more interesting and fun to watch than when he wears his Iron Man suit.  That being said, Downey Jr.’s Stark, like Chris Evans’ Captain America, goes through some changes here.  He has developed a conscience in his “old age,” as he is feeling increasingly guilty over the innocent deaths he has caused in the line of duty.  Since he’s usually such a rebel, the fact that he’s the one who wants to side with the government, goes against type.  Combined with Captain America’s similar unexpected reaction, it makes for some fresh and compelling storytelling.

Scarlett Johansson returns as Black Widow, and she is every bit as good as she’s been the previous four times she’s played the role.  Likewise, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Paul Bettany as Vision, Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, and Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, all return to reprise their roles.

Ant-Man is an incredibly entetaining character, and Rudd takes advantage of nearly every moment he’s in the movie.  Likewise, I enjoyed Elizabeth Olsen even more here as Scarlet Witch than the previous two times she played the role.  She has a lot more to do in this movie, and for the first time you really get to know her character.

If all these actors and characters weren’t enough, there are also two impressive debuts in CAPTAIN AMERICA:  CIVIL WAR.  Chadwick Boseman is impressive as Black Panther.  Boseman, you might remember, played Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013).

But even better than Boseman is young Tom Holland as Spider-Man.  Holland is so impressive as the smart-alecky Spidey that he just might have nailed the best performance in the entire movie.  He’s that good.  And in an interesting bit of casting, Marisa Tomei plays Peter Parker’s Aunt May, a considerable younger version of the character.  But I really liked Tomei in the role, and with with Holland’s Peter Parker really looking like a high school student, the younger Aunt May made perfect sense here.

One character I’m not nuts about is the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).  While Stan is fine in the role, the character does little for me.  Thankfully, even though the plot revolves around Captain American’s buddy, he’s really not in the film all that much.

The Marvel superhero movies always seem to struggle with their villains.  The bad guy in this one, Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is meh, but it’s less of an issue in this movie since the Avengers are fighting each other.  You might even argue that this film has the best conflict in the Marvel series since they are indeed fighting one another.

Speaking of that fight, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely got the conflict right, something that the writers of the recent BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016) failed to do.  In that flick, the rift between Batman and Superman seemed forced and contrived.  In this movie, I bought the divide between Captain America and Iron Man hook, line, and sinker.  Plus, the movie takes the time to develop the supporting characters’ beliefs, and so when they choose sides, it also makes perfect sense.

CIVIL WAR clocks in at 146 minutes, and as a testament to the terrific job done by directors Anthony and Joe Russo, those 146 minutes flew by.  I did not feel as if I were sitting in the theater for a long time at all.  The film caught my interest early on and held it to the very end.

In the tradition of the Marvel supehero movies, there are two post credit scenes in CIVIL WAR, one in the middle of the end credits and one at the very end, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll want to stay till the last credit rolls.  I always stay.  Why not, right?

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo also handle the action sequences with ease.  The chase scene involving Captain America, the Falcon, the Winter Soldier, and Black Panther is a keeper, and as I said earlier, the sequence where Team Captain America takes on Team Iron Man is among the most exciting and entertaining sequences of the entire Marvel supehero series.

CIVIL WAR is also a nice balance of light and dark.  As always with these Marvel movies, the humor is spot-on.  There are several laugh-out loud sequences, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, which caused the theater to erupt with laughter.

It’s also quite dark, as the film truly captures the angst both Iron Man and Captain America, as well as the rest of the Avengers, feel at the prospect of going up against each other and really going all out to hurt each other.   This authenticity of emotion is something I never felt in the recent BATMAN V. SUPERMAN.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is one movie you do not want to miss, especially if you’re a Marvel supehero fan.  With apologies to DEADPOOL which I liked almost as much, it’s the best superhero film of the year so far.

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