THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020) -Aaron Sorkin’s Courtroom Drama Lifted by Superior Cast

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Netflix seems to be excelling with the all-star cast.

Like its dreary drama THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME (2020), Netflix’s latest original movie, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, features a superior cast which includes Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, and Frank Langella.

The only drawback is it’s an almost entirely male cast. Then again, back in 1969, the principal players in this story were almost all male.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is the story of seven protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, who were leading the crowds outside the convention protesting the Vietnam war. After Nixon had won the White House, his Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman) decided to put these men on trial to make an example of them.

The seven included Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne,) Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Their attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) not only had to deal with the young hotshot prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) but also an incompetent judge, Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and constant interference from the justice department.

The film chronicles the trial which between Abbie Hoffman’s and Jerry Rubin’s theatrics, and Judge Hoffman’s bizarre rulings and interruptions, like spending time explaining that although he shares the same last name with Abbie Hoffman, that they’re not related, often resembles a full blown circus.

Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind the classic TV series THE WEST WING (1999-2006), and such notable movies as THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010) and MONEYBALL (2011), for which he wrote the screenplays, and his screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK won him an Oscar, THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a first-rate courtroom drama.

I was fully invested in this story, and it held my interest from beginning to end. One drawback, however, is as a director here, Sorkin does little to make this movie cinematic. It definitely plays like a TV drama, made for the small screen, rather than a film to be seen on the big screen at the movie theater. As compelling as its story is, there are surprisingly few memorable images from this flick.

And the screenplay, as interesting as it is, never really goes full throttle. This is a movie that I appreciated intellectually, but sadly, emotionally I was never moved as much as I expected to be. And I believe this is because the dialogue spends more time telling the whole story rather than focusing on the individual characters and their plights.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some emotional moments, the biggest of which occurs when Bobby Seale is cuffed and gagged in the middle of the courtroom. And there are some tense moments between Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman. Mark Rylance probably enjoys the best scenes in the movie, as his character attorney William Kunstler is frustrated throughout, but overall, there just aren’t that many sequences in the film where the heart starts racing.

The best part really as I said at the outset is the film’s outstanding cast, especially the veteran actors in the group.

Eddie Redmayne is fine as Tom Hayden, and Sacha Baron Cohen is excellent as Abbie Hoffman. And John Carroll Lynch adds fine support as David Dellinger. Lynch is one of my favorite character actors working today and has made notable appearances in such films as CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011), THE INVITATION (2015), and THE FOUNDER (2016) in which he also co-starred with Michael Keaton.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is convincing as attorney Richard Schultz who, while he is all in to win the trial, understands that these folks probably shouldn’t be on trial in the first place.

Mark Rylance probably delivers the best performance in the movie as defense attorney William Kunstler. Every time Rylance is on the screen the film is that much better. He plays Kunstler as a veteran attorney, who’s cool under pressure, and incredibly smart, but as the trial proceeds and he is met with more and more unfair opposition and tactics, he finds it increasingly difficult to keep his cool.

Rylance is an awesome actor who has given some of the best performances in the movies that I’ve seen in recent years, including in BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) and DUNKIRK (2017). His work here in THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is every bit as good as his work in those movies.

Frank Langella is outstanding as the incredibly frustrating Judge Julius Hoffman. He’ll have you shouting at the screen in anger. The only drawback with Hoffman is he’s inept from the get-go and so often sounds like someone with dementia rather than with an agenda, so while he’s infuriating he’s not a straight “villain” because you can’t help but wonder if he just isn’t all there any more.

Langella of course played Richard Nixon in FROST/NIXON (2008), a performance that earned him his only Oscar nomination. But he’s a terrific actor with more credits than one can list, going all the way back….way back!….. to his turn as Count Dracula in DRACULA (1979).

And Michael Keaton delivers a scene stealing performance in his brief screen time as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark. His two sequences, where Kunstler visits his house and then later when he’s on the witness stand, are two of the best scenes in the movie. Keaton is an exceptional actor who I still don’t think gets the respect he deserves.

Especially in recent years, Keaton has really turned it up a notch with performances in films such as BIRDMAN OR THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014), in which he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination, SPOTLIGHT (2015), THE FOUNDER (2016), and SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017), where he played one of Marvel’s most memorable screen villains yet and arguably outshined both Tom Holland and Robert Downey, Jr.

Also giving notable performances are Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, another of the seven, Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Bobby Seale, Ben Shenkman as fellow defense attorney Leonard Weinglass, and in one scene John Doman as Attorney General John Mitchell.

THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 is a compelling courtroom drama which tells a story from 1969 that still retains incredible relevance today, serving as a another sad reminder that even after the traumatic events of the 1960s we still haven’t gotten that far in terms of healing and unification in this country.

As such, in spite of the fact that it never really rises above the standard courtroom tale and lacks the emotional wallop expected with this kind of story, it’s still highly recommended viewing.

—END—

 

Movie Lists: The Joker

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The joke’s on you, Joker!

So says Adam West’s Batman to Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1960s campy TV series BATMAN.

The release of JOKER (2019), a superior standalone film about the origin of the infamous Batman villain the Joker that features an Oscar-worthy performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck aka the Joker, no doubt will re-open the conversation as to who made the best onscreen Joker.

So, with that in mind, welcome back to Movie Lists, that column that looks at lists of odds and ends in the movies. Up today, you got it: the Joker.

 

BATMAN (1966)

The Joker: Cesar Romero

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This movie was based on the ultra successful campy TV series from the 1960s starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. It featured four supervillains: the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker. It was originally intended to be released before the TV show aired, but the series was rushed into production and premiered ahead of time. As a result, the movie premiered in theaters the summer after the end of Season 1 of the series.

Like he did in the TV series, Cesar Romero, like his fellow actors in their fellow supervillain roles, played the Joker strictly for laughs. There was no rhyme or reason or any attempt to make the character real or threatening. And since it was in the 1960s, and since Adam West was hysterically funny as Batman, who unlike his counterparts the villains, played it straight, which made it all the more comical, the fact that Batman didn’t realize he was funny, it all worked. Remarkably well. And the humor still holds up today.

For more than twenty years, Cesar Romero, in all his campy hilarity, defined the role.

Until 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s BATMAN.

 

BATMAN (1989)

The Joker: Jack Nicholson

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The most controversial thing about Tim Burton’s BATMAN was his casting of Michael Keaton, who up until that point was only known for his comedic roles, as Batman. Yet Keaton silenced critics with a very effective performance.

Jack Nicholson did not share this problem. After all, he was Jack Nicholson, one of the most respected actors at the time. For many, the fact that he was playing the Joker was the main reason to see this one.

I’ve always liked Tim Burton’s BATMAN, although truth be told, it hasn’t held up that well to the test of time. When it came out, since the movie world had only known Adam West’s campy Batman, it was considered an extremely dark and serious take on the character. Yet, watched today, it comes off as much campier than it did back in 1989.

The same can be said for Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker. Nicholson blew away any notion that Cesar Romero would remain the definitive Joker. Nicholson’s Joker was a much darker take on the character, although once more, watched today, he seems much more cartoonish and campy.

That being said, I really enjoyed Nicholson as the Joker, and I enjoyed the way director Tim Burton framed the character, adding a lot of references to the Phantom of the Opera, especially the 1925 Lon Chaney silent version. The scenes near the end with the Joker leading Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) up the tower are clearly reminiscent of similar scenes where Lon Chaney’s Phantom led Christine into the depths of his underground lair.

Again, for nearly twenty years, Jack Nicholson was the gold standard for the Joker.

Until Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

 

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

The Joker: Heath Ledger

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The big news with THE DARK KNIGHT was that Heath Ledger died just before the release of the movie, and as a result, because of his amazing performance, he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor posthumously. Ledger’s performance as the Joker truly is phenomenal. THE DARK KNIGHT remains my favorite superhero movie of all time, and Ledger’s performance as the Joker is a major reason why

The film really is about chaos and anarchy, and we see it personified by the Joker who will stop at nothing just to create chaos, and he’s so good at it. The only reason he ultimately fails isn’t because of Batman, but because he misjudges the dark side of human nature. People aren’t as bad as he thought they were.

Hands down, Heath Ledger was and remains the best onscreen Joker. However, here in 2019, he just received his biggest competition.

 

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

The Joker: Jared Leto

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Jared Leto’s performance in the flawed DC movie SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) didn’t really work for me. It’s not entirely Leto’s fault, as SUICIDE SQUAD, a DC tale about villains rather than heroes, isn’t all that good. The reason to see it is Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She steals the show. Leto as the Joker does not.

 

JOKER (2019)

The Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

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The best part about JOKER is it’s not really a comic book movie. It plays more like a Martin Scorsese film as it tells its story about Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness, who regardless of the fact that he only wants to make people laugh, is continually beat upon until he can’t take it anymore. And when he rises up he’s less a supervillain than the face of a movement, and since he’s spent his whole life wanting to be noticed, he finds that he likes this new self.

Joaquin Phoenix is superb as Arthur Fleck here, and he gives the most sympathetic onscreen portrayal of the Joker yet. He will make you understand and believe how someone could become the Joker, and how the Joker could in fact be a real person. We’ve come a long way since the days of Cesar Romero.

By a hair, I still prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, since that film was insanely riveting, thanks mostly to Ledger. Joaquin Phoenix’s work in JOKER is entirely different from Ledger’s. JOKER is not a superhero movie. It’s a tragic violent drama, and as such works on an entirely different level. One day I may find myself preferring Phoenix over Ledger. That day is not today, but that doesn’t take away from Phoenix’s masterful performance.

It’s interesting to note that Cesar Romero almost wasn’t the first Joker. J. Carrol Naish almost played him in the serial BATMAN from 1943, which  was the first time Batman appeared on the big screen. The villain was originally going to be the Joker, but since it was 1943, he was changed to a Japanese villain, Dr. Daka, and was played by J. Carroll Naish. Some traces of the Joker still remain, as Daka’s hideout is located inside a carnival.

That’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed this list of actors who have played the Joker in the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) – Tom Holland and Zendaya Save Marvel Film from Mediocrity

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Welcome to the post-AVENGERS Marvel Cinematic Universe!

(Although, technically, this film is being called the final chapter of the latest phase of the Marvel cinematic universe, which is a lot of Marvel geek talk to me. As far as I’m concerned, the post-Avengers universe has begun!)

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) wrapped up the story arc not only for the Marvel Avengers movies but also for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Beginning with IRON MAN (2008), and continuing with movies about Captain America, Thor, and eventually the Avengers films which brought all these heroes together, Marvel built an ongoing and thoroughly entertaining story arc which permeated these movies and drove them forward above and beyond their standalone movie plots.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME ended that arc, and SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) is the first Marvel movie to come after the epic conclusion, which makes it the opening chapter in the next phase of the MCU (although, again, purists are lumping this with the previous film).

And that’s because SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME leans heavily on the events from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, specifically on Tony Stark/Iron Man, who was Peter Parker’s mentor. In fact, Stark’s influence is so prevalent here this film could have been called SPIDER-MAN: THE GHOST OF TONY STARK. He’s everywhere in this movie, from being the subject of conversations, to being on posters and billboards, to providing the technology which is instrumental to the plot of this movie.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME opens with a memorial and tribute to the fallen heroes from AVENGERS: ENDGAME, but don’t expect a gloomy and depressing Spider-Man movie. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is anything but, as its script is light and spunky and a lot of fun. For instance, the opening tribute turns out to be produced by two high school students, and it quickly turns humorous.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a dilemma. He was handpicked by Tony Stark to be the next Avenger, but he’s only in high school, and he’s much more interested in going on a trip to Europe with his classmates and trying to work up the nerve to ask MJ (Zendaya) out on a date than saving the world, which is why he ignores calls from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

However, Fury is not a man to be denied, and he eventually tracks down Peter in Europe and fills him in on the latest threat to the world, and once more, it’s an otherworldly threat. It seems the Elementals—earth, wind, water, and fire— giant weather-related creatures which wreak havoc everywhere, have arrived on Earth from an alternate universe.

But so has another superhero, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) who shows up to help Spider-Man take on these monstrous baddies. He also becomes Peter Parker’s new mentor.

And that basically is the plot of SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. In all honesty, it’s not terribly exciting, and by far this main plot is the weakest part of the movie. I could give a care. I was much more interested in Peter Parker’s relationship with MJ, and also with the pressure he was feeling from being handpicked as Tony Stark’s successor.

There’s also a plot twist midway through this one, which reminded me a lot of the plot twist in IRON MAN 3 (2013). I didn’t like that plot twist, but it wasn’t enough to ruin IRON MAN 3 for me, a film I generally liked. It’s the same here. The plot twist did little for me, but it didn’t really impact the movie all that much. Of course, it’s only a twist for those viewers who don’t read the comics.

While the plot is weak, the main characters are not. Tom Holland is back as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and once more he nails the role. I’m a big fan of the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies, and for nostalgic reasons, he probably remains my favorite movie Spider-Man, but Tom Holland definitely makes the role his own, and he’s certainly superior to Andrew Garfield’s take on the role.

Holland looks like a high school student, and his youthful exuberance and angst are second to none. One knock I have against this movie, though, is he enjoys far more success here as Peter Parker than as Spider-Man. I felt the film needed more Spider-Man.

Zendaya is excellent as MJ, reprising the role she introduced in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And she and Holland have a wonderful chemistry together. My favorite part of this movie was their story and watching them together on-screen.

Jake Gyllenhaal was pretty mediocre as Mysterio. For an actor as talented as Gyllenhaal, the role really didn’t give him a lot do. Michael Keaton, by contrast, fared much better as the villainous Vulture in SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Samuel L. Jackson is always fun to watch as Nick Fury, and that remains true here. He’s accompanied once again by Agent Maria Hill, once more played by Cobie Smulders.

Jon Favreau gets lots of screen time as Happy Hogan, a mainstay from the Iron Man movies, who’s not not only trying to look after Peter Parker for Tony Stark but also wooing Peter’s Aunt May, played again by the lovely Marissa Tomei. Both these actors enjoy fun and lively scenes.

Jacob Batalon is back as Peter’s best buddy Ned, as is Angourie Rice as classmate Betty Brant.

The screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers works best when focusing on Peter Parker’s personal story. The main superhero plot is mostly a dud, and the Elementals make for rather boring villains. The intriguing character is supposed to be Mysterio, but he’s not really that enthralling.

The best parts of the movie involve Peter Parker’s exploits with MJ, and his dealing with the pressure put on him by Tony Stark.

The humor also works well. In spite of the lackluster main plot, the film is lively and fun and moves along at a fast clip, with one engaging scene after another, and that’s because the Elementals never really become the driving force of the movie. In a way, this is not a good thing for a superhero movie, but SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME easily overcomes this because of the dynamic between Peter Parker and MJ.

Director Jon Watts, who also directed SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING, keeps the pace quick and the characters engaging, although none of the action scenes really resonate until the film’s climax. The final battle is very good, and it involves lots of deadly drones and makes for a rather exciting conclusion.

And yes, since this is a Marvel movie, there are after-credit scenes, both in the middle of the end credits and at the very end, and both these scenes reveal important plot points, so you want to stay till the end.

I had fun watching SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME, which comes as no surprise, as I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Superhero movies. That being said, I liked the previous installment SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING better, because I liked the plot of that film more, and it benefitted from having Robert Downey Jr. in the cast as Iron Man as well as Michael Keaton as the villain, the Vulture. That’s some major superstar power absent from this film.

Still, Tom Holland is incredibly agreeable to watch as Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and Zendaya is equally as captivating as MJ. They’re enough to carry this movie and lift it above its mediocre main plot.

At the end of the day, SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME is several notches below the best of the Marvel movies, but it’s still a Marvel movie, which makes it a lot of fun and well worth a trip to the theater.

—END

 

 

 

Worst Movies of 2017

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I saw a bunch of movies in 2017.  Most of them were pretty darn good, as it was an excellent year for movies.  However, there were some clunkers, some films that just did not succeed.

Here are my picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2017:

10 THE DARK TOWER

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This fantasy thriller based on the epic eight novel series by Stephen King is anything but epic.  First of all, it’s a prequel. We meet a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who’s haunted by recurring bad dreams in which he sees a Gunslinger (Idris Elba) battling a Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey) over the fate of the world.  Jake eventually enters their world and joins the fight against the Man in Black.

For a movie based on an eight book series by Stephen King, the story it tells is about as skeletal as you can get. The film skimps on details and characterizations, and as a result it’s not very satisfying. It’s also not visually impressive. Both Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey are fine in their roles, but they’re not enough to save this movie, which is not awful. It’s just so sparse it’s inconsequential.

9 AMERICAN ASSASSIN

AMERICAN ASSASSIN is one of those movies that could have been so much better had it only been believable. For starters, I simply did not buy Dylan O’Brien as Mitch Rapp. O’Brien was chosen for the role specifically because he’s young, as there are plans to turn this movie into a film series, but he’s way too young here. Michael Keaton fares better in a supporting role as CIA tough guy Stan Hurley. Its tale of a young man seeking revenge against the terrorists who murdered his girlfriend, who’s then recruited by the CIA, never rings true.

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.

8 BEATRIZ AT DINNER

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman named Beatriz (Salma Hayek) who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) at a dinner party one evening. I loved the plot but not the execution.

The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful, but the payoff isn’t up to snuff. There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion. On the contrary, it’s quite the head-scratcher. The film seems to be satisfied with its dinner party sequence, and like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

7 KIDNAP

KIDNAP is pretty much a nonstop chase as a mother Karla (Halle Berry) pursues the people who kidnapped her young son in broad daylight over roads, highways, and wherever they lead her.  Sounds like an intense thrill ride, but it’s not, because the filmmakers forgot one very important ingredient:  they forgot to make it believable.

Karla in her pursuit of the kidnappers causes more accidents and collateral damage than James Bond and Jason Bourne combined, yet the police aren’t anywhere to be found, except for one officer who is killed, which should have generated a massive police response. Nor are the kidnappers deterred. Karla creates an uproar within seconds of the kidnapping, so much so you’d think the kidnappers, regardless of how much money they might be paid for stealing children, would not want this kind of exposure and would dump the child and take off.  But no, they hang on, as if this particular child was the next Lindbergh baby. The screenplay by Knate Lee wastes a scary premise as the story becomes contrived within moments of Karla’s jumping into her car to chase after her son’s kidnappers.

Halle Berry is a very good actress.  She deserves to be in better movies than KIDNAP.

 

6 47 METERS DOWN

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In general, I like movies about sharks, even though most of them have been pretty bad. 47 METERS DOWN joins the list of lousy shark movies. Sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are vacationing in Mexico, enjoying the beaches and basically getting away from it all.  They meet a couple of fun-loving young men who convince them to take the shark cage tour under water. Lisa and Kate go underwater together in the shark cage, which I thought strange since they’re on a date and it would have made more sense for each of them to go underwater with their respective dates.  Anyway,  the line holding the cage breaks and they fall to the ocean floor, which is 47 meters down and infested with hungry sharks.

Sounds like an exciting movie, but strangely it is not.  The whole thing is all rather flat, thanks to some uninspiring direction by Johannes Roberts. The CGI created sharks don’t help.  They don’t look real. I also never felt the fear that these women should have felt.  They might have been stuck in an elevator for all I knew, rather than in a shark cage.  Their emotions were never that intense.

Considering its plot, this one is surprisingly dull throughout.

5 PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES

While I still enjoy the Captain Jack Sparrow character played by Johnny Depp, the PIRATES films themselves have become shallow and redundant, with no sense of storytelling whatsoever.  PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) is really the tale of two new characters:  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the dashing blacksmith who teamed up with Jack Sparrow in the first three PIRATES movies, and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is still around, but he’s not really the main focus here.

The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson is pretty much geared for six year-olds. The humor doesn’t work either. The jokes are watered down and not edgy enough to earn many laughs. The film plays like a TRANSFORMERS movie under water.  Special effects galore, but no story to be found, which is a shame, because it wastes a character I like a lot, Captain Jack Sparrow. This fifth PIRATES film is flat-out awful.  Better to walk the plank than to sit through two plus hours of this sea tale.

4 GHOST IN THE SHELL

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Awful science fiction flick starring Scarlett Johansson, based on a comic and classic anime movie from 1995, which in spite of the extravagant special effects and eye-popping visuals, is about as imaginative as yolk in the shell.

Johansson plays the Major, a cyborg with a human brain. She’s surprisingly dull in the role. The screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger, based on the comic “The Ghost in the Shell” by Masamune Shirow, is anemic and flat.  The dialogue is uninspiring, and the story dull and mindless. Director Rupert Sanders does a nice job with the visuals and adds some nifty cinematic touches, although the dazzling futuristic cityscape is not entirely original, as it is clearly reminiscent of the look of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).

A major disappointment, GHOST IN THE SHELL is about as thought-provoking and compelling as those awful RESIDENT EVIL and UNDERWORLD movies. Without a doubt, it’s my least favorite Scarlett Johansson movie.

3 RINGS

RINGS was so incredibly dull and boring that it was really difficult to sit through this one. The biggest offender? The storytelling.  The screenplay by three writers, David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman really struggles to tell a story.  The movie gets off to such a disjointed start it’s laughable.

Director F.  Javier Gutierrez goes through the motions.  No memorable images or scares to be found.  Don’t bother with this one.  It’s a complete waste of time.

2 THE MUMMY

A disaster from start to finish, I can only hope this becomes a lost film. With THE MUMMY, Universal launched their “Dark Universe” series, an attempt to reimagine their monster movies of yesteryear as a sort of Marvel superhero spinoff. This is a huge mistake.  Someone needs to shut this concept down yesterday. The idea of re-booting these classic Universal monster movies as superhero action flicks is an insult to the original films.  If you are going to remake them, they need to be remade as horror movies, plain and simple.

The story is a complete mess and features Egyptian artifacts stolen by crusader knights, a secret spy organization run by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), a dashing treasure hunter named Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and oh yes, there is a mummy, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella).  This movie is so bad that not even the prospect of a female mummy can save it.

Things get so bad Tom Cruise’s character is actually refered to as a “young man.” Cruise’s presence here doesn’t do the movie any favors.  Not that it would have saved this movie, but a younger more dynamic actor would have made things a bit better. And poor Russell Crowe is forced to utter the worst lines in the movie as Dr. Jekyll.  His voice-over narration at the end of the film is so bad it sounds like an off-the-cuff ad lib about good vs. evil.  He gets to say such nonsense as “which side will win— we just don’t know.  He might be a hero.  He might be evil.”  This might be a real script. And as the Mummy, Ahmanet, Sofia Boutella just isn’t given enough to do to have any relevant impact.

Here’s hoping THE MUMMY is lights out for the Dark Universe.

1 THE BYE BYE MAN

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While 2017 was a great year for horror movies, it didn’t start out that way. Back in January we had to endure THE BYE BYE MAN.  It’s hard to believe that any movie in 2017 could be worse than THE MUMMY, but unbelievably, there was one: THE BYE BYE MAN.

First of all, what an awful title! Sounds like a children’s book. THE BYE BYE MAN has all the things that make a dreadful horror movie: bad acting, uninspired direction, and a weak script. There are some awkward shots by director Stacy Title, almost amateurish, during some scenes of dialogue, where the camera jumps from one character’s face to the other and often lingers there.  During key moments of the movie, the audience was laughing.  Not a good sign.  The script by Jonathen Penner was dull and redundant.  The characters were also weak, and I wasn’t interested in any of them.

THE BYE BYE MAN is a forgettable horror movie, and it’s my pick for the worst movie of the year.

And that wraps things up here for today.

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.

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 2017

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

10 DETROIT –

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

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

 

9 THE BIG SICK –

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

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

 

8  STRONGER –

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

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

 

7 BATTLE OF THE SEXES –

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

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

 

6 THE FLORIDA PROJECT –

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

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

 

5 WIND RIVER-

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

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

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

 

4 THE FOUNDER –

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

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

 

3 WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES –

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

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

 

2 GOOD TIME –

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

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

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

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

 

1 DUNKIRK –

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

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

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

For The Love Of Horror cover

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

 

 

 

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—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

It Follows poster

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.

mad max fury road poster

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.

spotlight 2015 poster

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.

sicario poster

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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spotlight 2015 poster

 

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