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

0

spiderman_homecoming_poster

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—

 

 

 

 

 

Superhero Movies 2016 – Worst to First

0

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

batman_v_superman

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

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

the-legend-of-tarzan-movie-poster

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

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

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

suicide_squad_movie poster

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

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

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

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

doctor-strange-poster

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

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

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

x-men-apoc-poster

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

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

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

deadpool-movie-poster

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

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

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

captain-america-civil-war-2016-hollywood-movie-poster

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, thanks for reading!

—Michael

Books by Michael Arruda:

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

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

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

0

 

CaptainAmerica Civil War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain America Civil War-2016-hollywood-movie-poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BEST MOVIES OF 2015

0

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

 

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: THE AVENGERS MOVIES

0

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies avengers-age-of-ultron

By Michael Arruda

Welcome to another edition of YOUR MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today we’re looking at Marvel’s THE AVENGERS Movies.

 

Wait a minute.  Isn’t AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) which opens in theaters on May 1 only the second AVENGERS movie?  Technically, yes, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON is only the first sequel to THE AVENGERS (2012)  but anyone who’s seen THE AVENGERS knows there are a lot of superheroes in this movie, and each of them have appeared in prior films leading up to these AVENGERS adventures.

Here’s a look at these movies:

IRON MAN (2008) – The film that started the AVENGERS journey.  Phenomenal movie, probably my third favorite superhero movie of all time, behind THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) and THE AVENGERS (2012).  This is the film that introduced us to Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark aka Iron Man, one of the most entertaining and fascinating superhero personas ever.  Directed by Jon Favreau, this is a worthy film to kick off the franchise.  Also introduced Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as first appearance by Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008) – Edward Norton makes for a credible and intense Bruce Banner aka The Hulk, and Tim Roth is even better as the main baddie.  Excellent movie, much better than Marvel’s previous HULK (2003).

IRON MAN 2 (2010) – Robert Downey Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man, as is director Jon Favreau, but this sequel is inferior to the first film and never really hits its stride.  Most notable for introducing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow.  Both Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson return for this sequel.

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) – Chris Evans is perfectly cast as Captain America in this handsomely filmed origin tale of the World War II superhero.  Nice IRON MAN tie-in as story features Tony Stark’s dad Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper).  Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury.  Well-made adventure, solid from beginning to end.

THOR (2011) – Uneven but colorful film by director Kenneth Branagh.  The best part of this Thor origin story is Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He’s phenomenal and provides this one with its best moments.  The scenes on Earth work better than the scenes on Asgard.  On hand once more are Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.  The first appearance by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.

THE AVENGERS (2012) – The biggie.  Arguably the best superhero movie ever made, although I give a slight nod to Christopher Nolan’s Batman masterpiece THE DARK KNIGHT.  This epic film by writer/director Joss Whedon brings together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye as they battle Thor’s troublemaker brother Loki.  Fantastic cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, each doing their thing, each incredibly entertaining, especially since they don’t get along for anything and sound more like a bickering family than a group of superfriends.

Mark Ruffalo takes over the role of Bruce Banner/the Hulk from Edward Norton and does a fine job, immediately making the role his own.  Also features Samuel J. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Loki is a somewhat lame villain.  The Avengers deserve a worthier foe.

Still, THE AVENGERS is grand entertainment from beginning to end, by far the best of the Marvel superhero movies.

IRON MAN 3 (2013) – Robert Downey Jr.’s third turn as Iron Man is better than the second film but not as good as the first.  The twist involving the villain Mandarin may not be for everybody, but all in all this is a very entertaining superhero film, a worthy installment in the IRON MAN franchise.  Gwyneth Paltrow, who has played Tony Stark’s love interest Pepper Potts in all three IRON MAN films, probably enjoys her best moments in this third film.

THOR:  THE DARK WORLD (2013) – Chris Hemsworth as Thor is once again the best part of this THOR sequel.  As in the first movie, the scenes on Earth are compelling while the fantasy-injected scenes on Asgard in spite of their dazzling look fail to resonate.  The villains here are Dark Elves.  They should have stuck to baking cookies.

CAPTAIN AMERICA:  THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) – This Captain America sequel is even better than the first.  This time Captain America (Chris Evans) teams with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as he becomes a fugitive from the law while investigating the “murder” of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Darker entry than the first film, this Captain America sequel is yet another high quality well-made Marvel superhero movie.

AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON (2015) – With writer/director Joss Whedon back at the helm, all your favorite Avengers return for this action packed sequel where Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye take on the all-powerful Ultron, voiced with nasty conviction by James Spader.  Topnotch cast includes Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.  Also introduces Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch.

Okay, that about wraps things up here and brings us up to date, but the story is not yet finished, not by a long shot.  Marvel has more adventures planned.  It looks like another Captain America film will be out in 2016 followed by another Thor movie in 2017.  And of course, the Avengers will be back in their own third movie, so as of right now, all is well with the Marvel universe, and since these movies continue to provide quality entertainment, that’s fine with me.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

STOCKING STUFFERS 2014: Gifts I’d Like to Find Under My Tree This Year

0
"I hope you like my gift, Larry.  I picked it out of the graveyard myself."

“I hope you like my gift, Larry. I picked it out of the graveyard myself.”

STOCKING STUFFERS – 2014

Gifts I’d Like to Find Under My Tree This Year

By

Michael Arruda

 

Here are a few horror movie goodies that I’d like to find under my Christmas tree this year, in no particular order:

 

-A newly discovered unedited complete version of KING KONG (1933) including the infamous lost “spider in the pit” sequence.  Sorry folks, this still hasn’t been discovered yet and as of right now only exists in our collective imaginations.

 

-For the recently restored unedited version of HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) to be made available here in the United States.  This one does exist, but no sign of it in the U.S. yet.  What’s the hold up???

 

-A boxed set of all the Universal monster movies with long lost scenes restored, including Bela Lugosi’s scenes of dialogue as the Frankenstein Monster in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), Dwight Frye’s extended scenes as Karl in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), and the original cut of THE WOLF MAN (1941) where Lon Chaney’s Larry Talbot only becomes a werewolf in his own mind.

 

-A horror movie with Johnny Depp in a serious role instead of the over-the-top goofy roles he’s been taking of late.  It’s as if he’s quit being Depp and instead has adopted the persona of Jack Sparrow from the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, and it’s Sparrow making all these recent films like DARK SHADOWS, THE LONE RANGER, and INTO THE WOODS, not Depp.

 

-More horror films with Chloe Grace Moretz.  She was phenomenal in LET ME IN (2010) and pretty darn good in the re-boot of CARRIE (2013) as well.  And the best part?  Chloe Grace Moretz is not a scream queen!  She’s a force to be reckoned with.

 

-Speaking of LET ME IN, how about some more horror movies by director Matt Reeves?  He’s directed two of the best horror movies in the past decade, CLOVERFIELD (2008) and LET ME IN (2010), not to mention the excellent DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014).  He’s one of the most talented genre directors working today.

 

-Speaking of CLOVERFIELD, how about the long awaited sequel which has been rumored for years finally coming out?  That would be nice.

 

-A reversal in the decision to turn the Universal monsters into superheroes.  The powers that be at Universal are making a huge mistake here.  To me, this decision is a concession that these monsters are no longer scary, and that’s simply not true.  All it takes is a good writer, combined with a talented director, and these monsters could be relevant again.  Don’t bother remaking the origin stories- we all know them.  What we need are new tales of these monsters in frightening horror movies which will scare modern audiences to death.  Leave the superheroes to Marvel!

 

-Speaking of Marvel, I’d like to see Robert Downey, Jr. in a horror movie.  Scarlett Johansson too, for that matter.

 

-Speaking of people making horror movies, Woody Allen made his decision to move on from comedies years ago and continues to churn out quality films year after year.  I sure wish he’d channel his keen writing talents and write a horror tale someday.  I think it would be pretty cool.

 

-Lastly, to all my writer friends, I’d like to find a copy of your latest book under my tree so I could read your work throughout the year.  My Christmas wish for all of us is that we have books in print year after year for years to come!

 

Thanks all!

 

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, happy winter!

Thanks for reading!

 

—Michael

 

 

 

 

CHEF (2014) Cooks Up A Happy Meal

0

Chef posterMovie Review: CHEF (2014)
By
Michael Arruda

If you want to see delicious food cooked up in a movie, then CHEF (2014), the new comedy drama by director/writer/actor Jon Favreau is the film for you. The mouth-watering dishes prepared in this flick made me want to toss my popcorn and run to the nearest five-star restaurant.

However, if you’re looking for a good story to sink your teeth into, then that’s a different matter, because the story CHEF tells is more like that bag of popcorn than a gourmet meal.

CHEF opened in theaters back on May 30, and I had intended to see it before now, but on my first trek to the theater several weeks back, some technical issues postponed the showing. I finally got around to seeing it this week.

CHEF tells the story of gourmet chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau). He’s the head chef at a popular restaurant, and his life at this restaurant is all good. He has complete control over what he cooks, or at least he thinks he does, he enjoys a fun friendship with his fellow cooks Martin (John Leguizamo) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale), and he’s sleeping with the beautiful hostess, Molly (Scarlett Johansson). However, his life outside the restaurant is not so good. He’s divorced, his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) is rich and he isn’t, and since he’s so busy at the restaurant, he just doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with his ten year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony).

When influential food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) whose opinions can make or break an establishment visits the restaurant, Carl excitedly plans a special menu to impress the man. However, the restaurant’s owner Riva (Dustin Hoffman) convinces Carl to stick with his regular menu, arguing that Carl’s food is good enough as is, and that the reason the restaurant is doing so well is because of the way Carl prepares the present menu. Carl agrees.

The results are not pretty, as Ramsey writes a negative review. Carl is devastated by the bad review, and he makes things worse when he sends what he believes to be a private message on Twitter to Ramsey which suddenly goes viral, and when Ramsey writes back with even harsher language, Carl finds himself in an online war of words that he is not prepared to handle.

Before he can say “tweet” Carl finds himself out of a job, and suddenly he’s soul searching as to what he’s going to do with his life. He settles upon the idea of running a food truck, and the rest of the film is a road trip movie, as Carl, his friend and fellow cook Martin, and his young son Percy drive the truck from Florida back to their home in California, with of course Carl using this time to bond with his son.

CHEF was written and directed by Jon Favreau, who also plays the lead role, Chef Carl Casper. The multi-talented Favreau is probably best known as the director of the first IRON MAN (2008) movie starring Robert Downey Jr., but he also directed another of my favorite movies, the classic Will Ferrell comedy ELF (2003). In addition, Favreau directed IRON MAN 2 (2010) and COWBOYS AND ALIENS (2011). Favreau also starred in all three IRON MAN movies as Tony Stark’s personal bodyguard Happy Hogan.

Favreau obviously has talent, and perhaps this is the reason that I expected more from CHEF.

On the strength of its supporting cast alone, it would be hard to dislike this film, as it features Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr., and Oliver Platt in small roles, and all are very good in their limited screen time, especially Johansson. Had her character Molly been in this film more, CHEF would have been a better movie. Robert Downey Jr. looks like he rolled off the set of an IRON MAN movie, as he does his Tony Stark shtick here, playing the flamboyant wealthy ex-husband of Carl’s ex-wife who agrees to finance Carl’s new food truck.

CHEF gets off to a strong start. We’re treated to rousing scenes of food preparation, fast-paced cooking action in the kitchen, and energetic camaraderie amongst the chefs. Throw in Scarlet Johansson as your hostess, and this one is prepped for a fun beginning.

But the fun slows down when Carl loses his job because strangely at this point in the story the film loses its edge, settling for “happy” and “sweet” moments as opposed to funny ones. It also sugar coats its serious side, which had it been played up, had we felt more of Chef Carl’s pain when he was out of work, for instance, would have given this pleasing tale more balance. As it stands, it’s awfully syrupy sweet.

I also didn’t really like Carl all that much. He’s a nice enough guy, and later when he finally does bond with his son Percy he becomes a nice dad as well, but when things go sour with food critic Ramsey Michel he becomes something of a whiner. He goes on at length several times in the movie about how Michel’s words “hurt me” and he lambastes Ramsey saying that since he’s just a critic and not a chef, he has no idea what he’s talking about. These emotional tirades do not make Carl a likeable person. Instead, he comes off like a big baby who can’t handle criticism. I can’t say that I was nuts about Jon Favreau in this role.

There are also times when he’s gushing with happiness that just didn’t ring true for me. You just lost your job. You shouldn’t be this happy this fast. But he is.

Which brings me to another problem with CHEF, and that is, there’s too little conflict. Carl loses his job for all of two seconds before he’s up and running with his cool new food truck. Not only this, but the truck is an instant success and suddenly he’s more popular than ever.

I also didn’t like the character of Carl’s ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara). She is so supportive of her ex-husband, she seems more like his sister than his ex-wife. The two get along better than most married couples. There’s also something very condescending and annoying about the way she speaks to Carl. Worse yet, he doesn’t seem to notice.

On the contrary, young Emjay Anthony is excellent as Carl’s son Percy. He gives the best performance in the entire movie. Likewise, Jon Favreau’s best scenes in CHEF are the ones where he plays off Anthony. But since CHEF is an R rated comedy, I expected more than just a G rated tale about a 10 year-old boy. And it’s R rated for language, because as you would expect, the language in the bustling restaurant kitchen and later on inside the food truck is rather colorful.

Scarlet Johansson is also excellent as Molly, the hostess who’s involved in a relationship with Carl at the beginning of the movie. Sadly, her character completely disappears in the second half of the film, and the movie suffers for it.

Both Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Platt are solid in their supporting roles, and Robert Downey Jr. pleases in his one scene as Inez’ ex-husband Marvin, who could be Tony Stark’s long lost cousin.

John Leguizamo is okay as Carl’s buddy Martin, but he’s been better in other things, and Martin never becomes the hilarious buddy he’s intended to be. The same can be said for Bobby Cannavale as Tony.

But you can’t beat the scenes of cooking, food preparation, and gourmet meals. You’ll be drooling in your seat. The items prepared in this movie, even on the food truck, are mouthwatering. If only the entire movie had been the same.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like CHEF, because I did. For the most part, it entertained me, and in the lightest of fashions made me laugh, but unfortunately it also went to the “happy” well too many times for my liking. The bottom line is things should have been more difficult for Carl— he whines and complains about things, when really, in this movie, things are never so bad for him— and the movie should have been funnier.

CHEF is a light comedy that could have used more meat on its bones.

I feel like I got an appetizer when I wanted a meal.

—END—