AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) – Action Tale Not Really Believable

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN (2017) is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable.

The trouble starts within the first few minutes of the movie.

Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on a picture perfect beach, but moments later, terrorists shoot up the shoreline, wiping out countless people, including Katrina.  Devastated, Mitch decides to seek vengeance, and in a Rocky-like montage, Mitch trains himself to become— an assassin!  He’s actually training to be a terrorist, so he can infiltrate the secret terrorist cell responsible for murdering his fiance.

And he does all of this with relative ease.  So, before you can say “Jason Bourne,” he infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible for killing his girlfriend and even finds himself in the same room with the man responsible for giving the order.  How convenient!

But before Mitch can finish the job, the CIA intervenes, kills the terrorists, and whisks Mitch away.  Why?  To turn him into a CIA agent of course!  He’s sent to train under the rough and tough Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) who sets out to break Mitch, but of course, you know how that turns out.  Mitch passes all the macho tests with flying colors.

The next thing you know Mitch is on Stan’s team and they’re in hot pursuit of some deadly terrorists who are intent on detonating a rather nasty bomb.  The man behind all the dastardly stuff is a shadowy figure known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), who it turns out, was trained by— you got it, Stan Hurley.  Ghost is the one who got away, the one who felt Stan betrayed him, and so now it’s up to Stan’s latest protegé, Mitch, to take on the old protege, Ghost.  Ten cents says you can figure out how that confrontation will turn out.

As I said, very little of this one is believable.

For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp.  O’Brien, who stars in the MAZE RUNNER movies, was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, and there are plans to turn this movie into a film series since Mitch Rapp is a recurring character in a series of best-selling novels by Vince Flynn.

But I thought he was too young here.  The idea that he could stand up to Michael Keaton’s Stan Hurley was never believable.  O’Brien just was never convincing as a tough assassin.

On the other hand, Michael Keaton was very convincing as the rock solid Stan Hurley, but Hurley is not the main character here, and there’s only so much Keaton could do here to help this movie along.

Taylor Kitsch was sufficient at Ghost, but Shiva Negar delivered a more memorable performance as fellow agent Annika.  I liked the chemistry she shared with Dylan O’Brien.  This part of the movie was believable.

Likewise, Sanaa Lathan was also very good as CIA agent Irene Kennedy, the woman who recruits Mitch and then struggles to control him.

This one was written by four screenwriters.  Stephen Schiff, Michael Finch, Edward Zwick, and Marshall Herskovitz all worked on this screenplay adaptation of the novel by Vince Flynn, and they all have a decent number of writing credits, too.  It didn’t really seem to help all that much here, though.

Michael Cuesta directed with mixed results.  I liked the opening terrorist attack scene on the beach, which I thought was a jarring way to open the movie, but subsequent action scenes didn’t pack the same punch.

There’s a torture scene which isn’t as effective as it should have been.  When Ghost captures his former boss Stan Hurley, he tortures him for information, but the trouble is, Stan is just too tough for this sort of thing.  Michael Keaton has a field day in this scene which if it wasn’t so violent would have been comical.  Keaton follows each brutal method of torture with a wisecrack and a grunt.  Things get so bad for the villain Ghost that he nearly throws a hissy fit.

I went to see AMERICAN ASSASSIN specifically because I wanted to see Michael Keaton.  I knew going in that he wasn’t playing the lead, and he does a fine job in a supporting role. But truth be told, this one would have been much better had Keaton been playing a lead role.

I see lots of action movies.  The really good ones make you forget they’re telling an impossible story.  They’re convincing in their execution.  The lesser ones simply go through the motions.

AMERICAN ASSASSIN clearly falls into the latter category.  It expends little or no effort in convincing its audience that any of it could be true.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Persistence Pays Off in THE FOUNDER (2017)

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It’s all about persistence.

That’s the central theme of THE FOUNDER (2017), the new bio pic starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc.

It’s 1954, and Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is a struggling salesman in Chicago who is shocked when a restaurant in San Bernardino, California orders eight of his milkshake machines.  Nobody ever orders that many machines, and so, curious and perhaps a bit inspired, Kroc drives across the country to California to see the restaurant for himself.

What he finds is McDonalds, an eatery that he at first mistakes for the typical drive-in restaurant of its day.  However, he observes that rather than wait in his car for his order to be taken, he has to walk up to a window in the front of the restaurant.  He is then amazed to have his food given to him before he even leaves the order window.

Kroc introduces himself to the two brothers who run McDonalds, Dick McDonald (Nick Offerman) and Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch).  The brothers give him a tour of the restaurant, including their custom-made kitchen which enables them to cook their burgers uniformly and quickly.

Impressed by the concept, Kroc approaches the brothers with a proposition:  he wants to franchise the restaurant across the nation.  He thinks their model is so superior to what everyone else is doing, it’s bound to be a success.  The brothers hesitate to agree at first, explaining that they already tried to expand but failed, as they couldn’t keep the quality of the other restaurants up to the level of their original eatery.

Bur Kroc persists, explaining that the brothers should leave everything to him, that he will be in charge of the expansion and he will be successful.  Eventually, the brothers agree.  What follows is the story of how Kroc relentlessly worked to build a McDonalds empire, which eventually put him at odds with the McDonalds brothers who were never as interested as he was in going national, and of course, eventually global.

THE FOUNDER is a fascinating story, a movie that is as entertaining as it is informative.  With Michael Keaton playing Ray Kroc, the slant in this movie is that Kroc worked so hard that he eventually claimed the title of “McDonalds Founder” even though he didn’t originate the model, because he worked for it and the McDonald brothers did not.  It’s certainly a take which is more sympathetic towards Kroc than the McDonald brothers.  I’d wager to guess that in real life Kroc was a bit nastier than he was portrayed in this movie, and the McDonald brothers a bit more victimized.

I’ve always been a Michael Keaton fan, and it’s been great seeing him back in major movie roles once again.  I loved him in BIRDMAN (2014) and in SPOTLIGHT (2015).  He’s equally as good here as Ray Kroc. He makes Kroc a frenetic salesman who after one rough time after another, sees McDonalds as his opportunity to finally make it big after years of failure.  And that’s why he works so hard.  That’s why he puts everything into the franchise, because he knows this is his one big shot.  He has to take it.

The film’s theme of persistence is a good one.  Regardless of what the real life Ray Kroc may have been like, in this movie, he’s portrayed as a man who is so focused on his goal, it’s difficult not to like him, even when later he does take a darker turn.  When he realizes that his success has suddenly given more power than he ever thought he would have, he decides to use that power to go after everything he wants because he knows he can get it.

In a lesser actor’s hands, Kroc may have lost all sympathy at this point, but as played by Michael Keaton, the role becomes a natural extension of Kroc’s personality and the circumstances he finds himself in.  In other words, it doesn’t come off as if he was a weasel in the making, just waiting for his chance to make it big, but rather, as a man who worked hard to be a success and then suddenly realized he had  the clout and influence to get whatever he wanted.

Nearly as good as Keaton are Nick Offerman as Dick McDonald  and John Carroll Lynch as his brother Mac McDonald. Offerman and Carroll Lynch portray the quirky brothers as two rather innocent men who were more than happy just to have their one restaurant.  When Kroc begins to take over, they are slow to react, and eventually they lose nearly everything because they were not prepared to stand their ground against Kroc’s ambition.

Nick Offerman recently starred in the TV series FARGO (2015), while John Carroll Lynch seems to show up everywhere these days.  He just played Lyndon Johnson in JACKIE (2016).  Among other things, he’s been in AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, and he was memorable in the small release horror movie THE INVITATION (2015).

Laura Dern looks worn and weathered as Kroc’s longtime suffering wife, alone most of her life as he is off building a fast food empire.  Even when she attempts to lend a helping hand and offer her support, it does her little good, as eventually Kroc leaves her for another woman.  The other woman is Joan Smith, the wife of one of his McDonalds managers, played effectively by Linda Cardellini.

Smith’s husband, Rollie Smith, is played by Patrick Wilson from THE CONJURING and INSIDIOUS movies.  B.J. Novak is memorable in a small role as Kroc’s business partner Harry J. Sonneborn, the man who advised Kroc to buy the land on which the McDonalds restaurants would be built, as a way to break free of the control of the McDonald brothers.

Even though its subject, Ray Kroc, is a controversial figure, THE FOUNDER is not THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013).  It’s just not that dark a movie.  Director John Lee Hancock films this one with bright tones which capture both the 1950s and McDonalds restaurants.

The screenplay by Robert D. Siegel also keeps things light.  The movie plays like an offbeat quirky drama as opposed to an ominous piece on the ruthlessness of cutthroat business tactics.

Ray Kroc is portrayed in a positive light, and the message of success from persistence resonates because it is true.  Most people succeed because they do not give up.  The Ray Kroc in this movie is an admirable character, while the McDonald brothers, while certainly portrayed as two decent gentlemen, are shown to be passive and unimaginative when it comes to seeing how far their business could go.  Kroc doesn’t so much as steal their business as he grows their business, and in this movie, they aren’t interested in going along for the ride, and so he takes the journey without them.

I really enjoyed THE FOUNDER.  Michael Keaton is excellent, and both the script by Robert D. Siegel and direction by John Lee Hancock are equally as good.

The end result is an entertaining bio pic that tells a rather fascinating story behind the origins of the McDonalds empire.

I’ll have a cheeseburger and medium fries, please. 

—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.  

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

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10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) Shines Light on Dark Story

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Movie Review:  SPOTLIGHT (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) has an ugly story to tell.

 

And it doesn’t shy away from telling it.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015) takes a hard and honest look at the scandal in the Catholic Church involving abusive priests and shows how reporters at The Boston Globe broke the story in 2001.  And the most disturbing aspect of it all which is clearly expressed in the movie isn’t believe it or not the staggering number of priests in the Catholic Church who sexually abused children in Boston, and as we find out during the Globe’s investigation, around the world— this alone is horrifying, absolutely horrifying, but what’s even worse, is that the higher-ups in the Church knew about it and let it happen.

 

And the movie doesn’t stop here.  It widens its lens and examines blame in the legal system and with the journalists themselves, as the reporters realize how many times the story had been brought to their attention and yet no one did anything about it.

 

“Spotlight” refers to the investigative Boston Globe column written by a team of four reporters- Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James).  When new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives from Florida to overhaul the newspaper and increase readership, he turns Spotlight onto a story about a Catholic priest accused of molesting a young boy.

 

The Spotlight team isn’t keen on the story since they feel it’s been covered before.  But Marty feels there’s more to the story and advises the Spotlight team to dig into it further.  What they find is nothing short of earth-shattering.  They soon discover evidence of two more priests in the Boston area accused of abusing children, and when they uncover evidence totaling 13 priests, they feel they have the makings of a real story.

 

They have no idea.

 

One of their sources, a psychiatrist who had been studying these cases for 30 years, tells them their number is very low.  He suspects the number should be about 90 priests in the Boston area alone.  The reporters don’t believe this estimate, but when they continue to follow the evidence and discover as many as 87 priests, they begin to fully understand the horror and the scope of the issue. They also realize that it’s not just a Boston problem.  It’s nationwide and then some.

 

Marty tells his team that their work is still not finished, that the real story here isn’t just the number of cases, but that he suspects the Catholic Church knew about these priests and did not remove them.  That’s the real story, he tells his reporters, and that’s the story that will ultimately lead to change.

 

The screenplay by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer tells a mind-boggling and horrifying story, and it tells it well.  In spite of the fact that the villain in this movie is no doubt the Catholic Church, the film really doesn’t partake in religion bashing.  It simply reveals a very sad truth- that atrocious crimes were allowed to happen by people who should have known better.  These crimes were hidden in a veil of secrecy.  The Spotlight investigation obliterated this veil, and the movie illustrates with great detail and care just how they did it.

 

SPOTLIGHT also sheds some insight into how so many people allowed this to happen.  On more than one occasion, people in the film say that the Catholic Church does a lot of good for the world and that it doesn’t need this kind of scandal.  After the events of September 11, we see news coverage of Cardinal Law speaking words of hope to the nation.  It’s easy to see why people were quick to defend the Church and give them the benefit of the doubt, and how when push came to shove, lawyers and journalists would simply turn a blind eye on the situation, never guessing just how severe the problem was.

 

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who’s instrumental in supplying key evidence to the Spotlight reporters, goes even further and blames the entire city of Boston, which he views as a closed society, that if you’re not Irish Catholic, you’re an outsider.

 

Others point out that editor Marty Baron is Jewish, and that he has an anti-Catholic agenda.  Yet, in scenes where we see Marty in action, his agenda is clear:  to keep the Boston Globe afloat.  The story of the Catholic Church scandal is just that, a story that needs to be told.

 

In terms of generating emotion, SPOTLIGHT doesn’t skimp.  There are numerous painful and sad scenes where the victims tell their stories to the reporters.

 

SPOTLIGHT boasts a brilliant ensemble cast.  Michael Keaton, while not as sensational as he was in BIRDMAN (2014) still shines as reporter “Robby” Robinson.  His cool professionalism allows him to lead his team along the dark path of the investigation, even as he learns that years ago he too had once passed up a story on the scandal, a story he barely remembers writing because it just didn’t register as important to him at the time.

 

Mark Ruffalo is excellent as the up-tempo workaholic reporter Mike Rezendes who becomes more and more emotionally charged the more he learns about the case.  Likewise, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also turn in strong performances as reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll.  They too become emotionally enraged, Matt because he has young children, and Sacha because she’s Catholic and goes to church with her very religious Nana.

 

And Liev Schreiber is near perfect as the calm, cool and efficient editor Marty Baron.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has a superior slate of supporting players.  Stanley Tucci is outstanding as attorney Mitchell Garabedian.  His take on the quirky angry embittered attorney is probably my favorite performance in the movie.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tucci receives a Best Supporting Actor nomination come Oscar time.

 

John Slattery from TV’s MADMEN plays Ben Bradlee Jr., one of the Globe’s editors, and he’s fabulous as well.  Other notable performances include Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan, Robby’s source inside the Catholic Church who resists Robby’s efforts to get him to talk for nearly the entire movie; Neal Huff as Phil Saviano, the sketchy leader of a victim’s group who seems to have an agenda to bring down the Church yet his evidence surprisingly turns out to be accurate; and Billy Crudup as Attorney Eric Macleash who by not filing cases and agreeing to private back room deals with Church leaders helped keep the scandal under wraps for years.

 

Crudup enjoys one of the best moments in the film when he’s finally cornered by Robby and Sacha.  Robby tells him that if he doesn’t talk, the story Robby writes will be about how Eric helped keep these child molesters out of jail, at which time Eric drops the bombshell that when he first received evidence about these crimes he went to the press, delivered the materials to the Globe, and he was ignored.

 

Director Tom McCarthy’s crisp editing keeps the story in SPOTLIGHT moving quickly, and even though its subject is grim and tragic, the pace never deadens under the weight of the subject matter.  The story unfolds at a near perfect pace.

 

SPOTLIGHT also has an emotionally effective music score by Howard Shore.

 

SPOTLIGHT tells an extremely disturbing story, and it’s one that everyone needs to hear.  Yes, it tells the ugly tale of abuse inside the Catholic Church.  It also tells the inspiring story how in the face of adversity a small group of reporters stuck to their guns and broke what many thought wasn’t even a story.  But most importantly the message in SPOTLIGHT is that people need to remain vigilant, and they need to speak out against the wrongs of society.  The victims here for the most part were children in underprivileged families.  They had no one to stand up and defend them from these predator priests.  Those who should have protected them, the Church leaders, did not.  And no one else bothered to pay attention.

 

That’s the story SPOTLIGHT tells, and it tells it well.

 

It joins SICARIO (2015) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) on my short list of best movies of the year.

 

—END

BIRDMAN (2014) Soars

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birdman posterMovie Review:  BIRDMAN (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

The majority of movies I see are pretty straightforward.  They don’t require much thinking to figure out what’s going on.  So, when I see a movie that does require some thought, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

BIRDMAN is a thought-provoking movie that, like a masterful painting, doesn’t always give you its full meaning right away.  You have to look at it for a while, think about it, digest it.

BIRDMAN tells the story of a has-been actor Riggan (Michael Keaton) who’s trying to resurrect his career by financing and starring in a play on Broadway.  He’s also doing this to reinvent himself.  He achieved superstardom decades earlier for playing the superhero Birdman in a series of Hollywood blockbusters, and this history makes the casting of Michael Keaton in this central role all the more intriguing, as it’s a case of art imitating life, as Keaton starred in the highly successful BATMAN movies directed by Tim Burton, and over the past two decades, he’s been largely invisible from the big screen.

Riggan is haunted by visions of Birdman, as the character constantly speaks to him, telling him to forget the play and return to playing Birdman in the movies again.  It would resurrect his career, Birdman says.  But Riggan refuses to listen, and as he says more than once in the movie, he wants to be remembered for doing something important in his life, for appearing in a work of art that actually means something, not just some mindless Hollywood blockbuster.

The best part of BIRDMAN is the first two thirds of the movie, where we follow Riggan’s efforts to get his play off the ground.  He’s helped by his agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) who does his best to keep Riggan focused on the play.  When they lose the other male actor due to an injury, they replace him with the well-respected method actor Mike (Edward Norton) who drives Riggan and the rest of the cast nuts with his quirky and antisocial behavior.  However, Riggan can’t get rid of him because he’s a name who sells tickets, and there’s no denying that he’s a helluva an actor.

Riggan is also involved in a relationship with his lead actress, Laura (Andrea Riseborough), while Mike is involved with the other actress in the cast, Lesley (Naomi Watts).  As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Riggan also has to deal with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who possesses a volatile personality and is trying to recover from substance abuse.

The interactions between all these characters bring this movie to life.  By far, my favorite part of BIRDMAN was watching these actors interact with one another.  The film is full of so much energy during these stage scenes, and it does a tremendous job capturing the back stage life of an actor, the fears, the toil, all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes of a Broadway play.

For me, this was the most satisfying part of BIRDMAN.  I enjoyed all the performances and loved watching Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough, and Naomi Watts.

But the main character here is Riggan, and the main performer in BIRDMAN is Michael Keaton, and it’s here where the film takes its strange twists and turns, as it enters into the mind of the disturbed Riggan. See, Riggan is going through a crisis.  He wants his life to mean something.  He wants to be remembered for doing something important, but he also realizes that his life isn’t what he wants it to be.  He’s reminded of this every time he sees his daughter, because he feels like a failure as a father.  He has similar feelings about his acting career.  Has it all been for nothing?  He doesn’t want the answer to this question to be “no.”

Under incredible amounts of stress, he looks like he could have a nervous breakdown or heart attack at any moment.  As such, he’s on the verge of losing his mind throughout the story, which might explain why he has conversations with Birdman, the fictional character he played in the movies.  And, oh yeah, he also believes he possesses telekinetic powers and can move objects just by using his mind.  Oka—aay.

So, at some point when watching these things happen on screen, you have to ask yourself, are these things really happening or are they just playing themselves out in Riggan’s mind?  Reality dictates that these things aren’t true, that they can’t possibly be happening.  For example, when Riggan finds himself flying, you realize, this can’t possibly be happening, but this line of thought opens up the question, if not reality, then just what exactly is happening?

Is he dreaming?  If so, how much of the story is a dream?  Riggan is also obsessed with death and tries to commit suicide several times in the story.  Does he succeed?  Could these conversations and images be the final thoughts of a dying man?

This is what I meant when I said there’s a lot to think about in BIRDMAN.  It’s as quirky and as satisfying a movie as I’ve seen in a long while.  While I didn’t always find myself enjoying it— -it gets so bizarre near the end it was difficult to gage what was truly going on— I never stopped appreciating it.

In addition to the excellent acting by Michael Keaton and the entire cast, there’s wonderful direction by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  The film works on two levels.  The first is as a portrait of stage life for actors in a Broadway play, and Inarritu’s camerawork captures this part of the film masterfully.  The way his camera follows his characters around, the way it leads the audience through dark hallways through first person perspective, and the way he holds the camera on Emma Stone’s face in several key scenes all work towards lifting the material to even higher heights.  There is a gritty realism here that possesses the feel of a reality TV show.

What makes Inarritu’s work here even more impressive is he juxtaposes these scenes with scenes that take us into Riggan’s subconscious, and these scenes play like anything but reality.

For this second level, the story of Riggan’s struggles with his own mind and soul, Inarritu chooses to take us into the realm of fantasy, as we have scenes of Riggan flying and moving objects without touching them.  What are we actually seeing?  Riggan’s thoughts?  Dreams?  Death images?  Or could reality really be this strange?

 

While Michael Keaton and his fellow cast members might drive this one along, and while Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s direction puts it all together, it’s the script by Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, and Armando Bo which provides the framework for BIRDMAN.  It’s a brilliantly realized story that intersperses its main character Riggan’s idiosyncrasies, hopes, fears, and dreams with an often hilarious and brutally honest tale of actors working on a Broadway play.  It’s Woody Allen meets Guillermo del Toro.

There’s also some insight on the power and value or lack thereof of criticism, as one of the liveliest and best scenes in the movie is a conversation between Riggan and theater critic Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan) who tells Riggan she’s going to destroy his theater career by writing a negative review of his play, even though she hasn’t seen it yet.  She refuses to call him an actor, speaking down to him, calling him a Hollywood celebrity who has no business being on stage. To his credit, Riggan fights back, telling Tabitha that this is his livelihood, that he has put his entire life savings into this play, and that she’s a bitter talentless person for writing a negative review before she’s even seen the play.

There’s also a scathing scene where Sam sails into her father about how he wants to be relevant but how he never will be, how he’s a “dinosaur” in an age of rapid fire modern technology that he refuses to accept.  It’s a painfully poignant father/daughter moment that probably has been shared by many parents and their children in this day and age of rapidly evolving technology that has changed the world entirely for people over the age of 40 and has made it a vastly different place from the one they remember.

On top of all this, the film also boasts a superb music score by Antonio Sanchez.  This amazing drum score will get inside your head.  It grows incredibly loud and cacophonous whenever Riggan is stressing out, and becomes an embodiment of his pain and angst.

BIRDMAN is not your typical Hollywood drama.  It’s a quirky frenetic tale of one actor’s fight to remain relevant, all the while happening during a time that for all we know he lays dying, with the events of the story simply playing out in his head.

Regardless of how you interpret it, it remains a highly satisfying film, because like the main character in its story, BIRDMAN is a movie that soars.

—END—