MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – Painfully Authentic Depiction of Divorce

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I finally caught up with MARRIAGE STORY (2019) the other night, the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that I had not seen before the Oscars aired last week.

I had heard that its depiction of divorce was depressingly realistic, and after finally having seen it,  I have to agree. MARRIAGE STORY gets the emotions right.

MARRIAGE STORY opens with a voice-over by Charlie (Adam Driver) describing all the reasons why he fell in love with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and these reasons play out in little vignettes shown on-screen. Then it’s Nicole’s turn as she describes why she fell in love with Charlie, again in a voice-over narration with the accompanying vignettes. It turns out these were written by Charlie and Nicole as part of their mediation process, and when Nicole refuses to read out loud what she wrote, she walks out of the mediation meeting, and thus MARRIAGE STORY begins.

Charlie runs a very successful theater group in New York City, he as the director, and Nicole as the lead actress, but Nicole has always longed to return to Los Angeles where her family lives, but Charlie has never been interested in that idea, which has caused Nicole stress over the years. When Nicole accepts a role in a TV pilot, she moves to LA with their eight year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertston), a move that Charlie believes is temporary.

But once there, Nicole hires divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who reminds Nicole that this process is about her getting what she wants and that there is no reason why she has to settle for things she doesn’t want, a la things that Charlie wants. When Charlie arrives in LA, he’s served the divorce papers, and he feels blindsided and betrayed by Nicole as he was under the impression that they were not going to hire lawyers, but Nicole makes it clear that she is unhappy and this is the only way she is going to get what she wants.

Charlie hires a more sensitive attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but after losing continually to Nora’s hardball tactics, he hires a tougher attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) because as he tells Nicole, “I needed my own assh*le.”

As things get uglier and nastier, Nicole and Charlie have to deal with all their emotions even as they realize they don’t really want to hurt each other, in spite of the fact that their marriage is over and their divorce is imminent.

I really liked MARRIAGE STORY, even though watching it was a very uncomfortable experience.  As I said, it gets the emotions right. Through Nicole and Charlie, we witness the pain of watching one’s family and way of life disintegrate before one’s eyes, the frustration of suddenly being adversaries with the very person they’d been in love with, having to keep it together in front of their child, having to deal with their child’s emotions, but as a parent working alone. It makes them say things they simply don’t mean, as the whole ordeal gets inside their heads and changes them, scars them.

All of this is depicted very accurately in MARRIAGE STORY, as well as the sense that even while the divorce is happening, there’s the feeling that Nicole and Charlie don’t really want it to happen. That they love each other and don’t really want to hurt each other, but yet the marriage is over, and so there’s this weird mix of fighting for what you want and need vs. wanting on some level to keep that sense of family together even as the actual family is now separate.

So, kudos to writer/director Noah Baumbach for creating such a genuine portrait of divorce. The screenplay is outstanding.

As is the acting, especially by the two leads. Adam Driver continues to impress me as an actor. Sure, he plays Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS movies, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s been better in other movies, in films like LOGAN LUCKY (2017) and BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). His work here in MARRIAGE STORY is best of all.

Driver makes Charlie a self-absorbed character who is totally at home directing for the stage and perfectly content in that world, but it blinds him to the needs of his wife. He enjoys some powerful scenes, especially with Johansson, as their arguments are fiery and agonizing. Driver’s best moment comes when Charlie unleashes upon Nicole wishing her deader than dead, and then he just collapses, overcome with emotion, before apologizing for what he said.

Scarlett Johansson is just as good. As Nicole, she’s the one who seeks the divorce, but she’s also the one who needs the change, as Charlie is so stuck in his own world nothing she has said or done so far had been able to reach him. When she files for divorce, and Charlie tries to reconcile, in her eyes, it’s already too late. She believes if she goes back it’ll be the same, and she wants more for her life.

Johansson was equally as good as another mother Rosie in JOJO RABBIT (2019), which means 2019 was a pretty darn good year for Johansson.

Laura Dern won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role here as divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Dern is excellent, no question, although I thought both Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and Kathy Bates in RICHARD JEWELL (2019) gave better performances. That’s not to take anything away from Dern, who like Johansson, also enjoyed a stellar 2019. Dern was also in LITTLE WOMEN, as matriarch Marmee March, and she’s excellent in both films. In fact, these two performances are among Dern’s best ever. She’s been making movies for a long time, and so I for one was happy she won the Oscar. And I’m old enough to remember one of her earliest movies, SMOOTH TALK (1985), which I saw at the movies. She impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since.

But the main reason to see MARRIAGE STORY is to watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson performing at the top of their game. As good as the script is, MARRIAGE STORY ultimately works because of Driver and Johansson. They nail their roles, and the emotions that go along with them.

MARRIAGE STORY is not a fun movie, but it is an accurate one. Its depiction of divorce is painfully spot-on.

As such, it’s one of the finest dramas of 2019.

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Best Movies of 2019

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 Movies from 2019. Now, while I see a lot of movies each year, I obviously don’t see every release, and so it’s possible that some of your favorites are not on this list. But here are mine:

10. READY OR NOT

I loved this gory campy thriller in which Samara Weaving plays a bride who finds herself married into a peculiar family: they love games, and on her wedding night, the game of choice is a variation of kill the bride, and they mean it. They’re playing for keeps. But Weaving’s character is no victim. She fights back and then some! Although it sounds like a downer, this one is saved by its lively humor where you’ll find yourself laughing at things you have no business laughing at. Samara Weaving, who was so good in the horror flick THE BABYSITTER (2017) is excellent here once again.

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9. DARK WATERS

This riveting drama about one attorney’s fight against the powerful Dupont chemical company which was not only polluting one town’s water but an entire nation with its no-stick cookware features top-notch performances by Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway. The most disturbing part of this film, which was based on a true story, is that the issue was never satisfactorily resolved and continues to this day. A must-see drama.

 

8. JOKER

The lone superhero movie to make my Top 10 list, and that’s a stretch, because it’s not really a superhero movie. It’s a moving and often disturbing drama that chronicles one man’s descent into one of the most iconic superhero villains of all time.  Joaquin Phoenix knocks it out of the park as Arthur Fleck, the man who eventually becomes the Joker. While I still slightly prefer Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) because of the way he dominated that movie, Phoenix’ performance here is very different but equally as satisfying. The strength of JOKER is it makes the story of the Joker completely plausible. You’ll understand and believe how an ordinary person could become the Joker.

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7. THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

This heartwarming tale of a young man with Down syndrome Zak (Zach Gottsagen) who runs away from his state-run home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler features outstanding performances by Zach Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome in real life, Shia LaBeouf as the drifter who decides to help Zach fulfill his dream, and Dakota Johnson as the concerned social worker hot on their trail. Also features fine supporting performances by Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church. Superior script by writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. LaBeouf’s best performance to date.

 

6. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

The only horror movie to make my Top 10 List, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK is all the more impressive because it’s rated PG-13 and still manages to be scary, and that’s because it takes its business of scaring people seriously. Based on the popular book series by Alvin Schwartz, SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK succeeds at what a lot of other horror movies fail with, and that is, building suspense. This one gets more exciting as it goes along. It tells separate horror stories that are all connected by one compelling wraparound story. The whole thing works, making for the most solid and effective horror movie of the year.

 

5. THE CURRENT WAR (2017)

Filmed in 2017, THE CURRENT WAR was re-released in 2019 with a new director’s cut, and so I feel comfortable including it on my Top 10 List for 2019. This winner of a movie tells the fascinating tale of the competition between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) to be the first to provide electricity for the United States. This period piece which takes place in the late 1880s-1890s is beautifully photographed and handsome to look at. Features two powerhouse performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Shannon, both of which drive this movie along, as well as a notable performance by Nicholas Hoult as Nikola Testa.

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4. ROCKETMAN

Outstanding biography of music legend Elton John features perhaps my favorite acting performance of the year, Taron Egerton’s spot-on depiction of the flamboyant and troubled John. Innovative in its approach, mixing the music of Elton John into key moments of the story, this film succeeds as much as a musical as it does as a biography. The sequence where John performs at the Troubadoor club in Los Angeles is one of the more electrifying sequences in any movie this year.

 

3. HOTEL MUMBAI

Not really shown a lot of love by critics, HOTEL MUMBAI nonetheless was one of the more intense movie experiences of the year. Based on the true story of the terrorist attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai,  HOTEL MUMBAI tells the compelling story of how— with authorities hours away from reaching the hotel— the hotel staff decided it was up to them to protect the guests from the terrorists who had overtaken the hotel. Thanks to some taut and tight direction by Anthony Maras, and notable performances by Dev Patel, Armie Hammer, Jason Isaacs, Anupam Kker,  and Nazanin Boniadi, this one is a nail-biter from start to finish.

 

2. JO JO RABBIT

For me, JO JO RABBIT was the biggest surprise of the year. It came out of nowhere and was a film that I went to see not knowing what to expect, especially considering it tells a tale of a young German boy JoJo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in World War II Germany who adores the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, so much so that his imaginary playmate is Hitler himself, played here with hilarious effectiveness by writer/director Taika Waititi. At times wildly comedic a la Monty Python, this one is also a moving drama as JoJo’s mother Rosie (Scarlet Johansson) is anti-Nazi and is secretly housing a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie). When JoJo discovers her, he is at first outraged, but as he gets to know her, he begins to learn the truth about what Nazism is all about. JO JO RABBIT is an amazing movie that works on all levels. Thanks to the writing, directing and acting talents of Waititi, and the rest of his talented cast which also includes Sam Rockwell as a Nazi captain with a conscience of his own, JO JO RABBIT is both a deeply moving drama and wild zany comedy, which provided for me the most and the best laughs from a movie all year. This was my pick for the Best Movie of the Year, until the final week of 2019.

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1. LITTLE WOMEN

And that’s because the last week of 2019 I saw LITTLE WOMEN, a perfect gem of a movie by writer/director Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers working today. Gerwig makes the bold decision to tell this story out of sequence, and the result is a fresh moving take on a literary classic, one that effectively speaks to modern audiences here in 2019. Features outstanding performances by two of the most talented young actresses working today, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, as well as a superior supporting cast which includes Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep. While I’m not really a big fan of the novel by Louisa May Alcott, I am an instant fan of this movie, thanks to Gerwig’s innovative directing and writing, the message about what life was like for women when they had so few rights, and the powerhouse performances by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, two actresses to keep our eyes on in the years ahead. Without doubt, LITTLE WOMEN is clearly my pick for the Best Movie of 2019.

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And there you have it, my picks for the Top 10 Best Movies of 2019.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MOVIE LISTS: SCARLETT JOHANSSON – 2019

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MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

One of my favorite parts of AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) was Scarlett Johansson’s performance as Black Widow and the character’s story arc. So, with that in mind, I thought I would bring this column (originally from 2014) up to date.

Here’s the updated partial list of Johansson’s movie credits through April 2019:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UNDER THE SKIN (2013) – sexy alien who has the bad habit of killing those she seduces. Offbeat and weird, definitely worth a look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROUGH NIGHT (2017) –  it’s a girl’s night out gone wrong as Johansson plays a woman enjoying a reunion with her college friends when they accidentally kill a male stripper.

ISLE OF THE DOGS (2018) – lends her voice to this Oscar-nominated animated film which also features voice work from Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – back as Black Widow again in what for my money is the best AVENGERS film yet. Nonstop entertaining, and a gut-wrenching emotional finale, thanks to the unstoppable cosmic villain Thanos who will not be denied.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – while I liked INFINITY WAR better than ENDGAME, Johansson enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series as Black Widow right here in this movie. Indeed, Black Widow’s story and Johansson’s performance are some of the best parts of this film, which wraps up the AVENGERS saga as the Avengers go after Thanos and attempt to undo what he did in the previous film.

There you have it, a partial list of some notable Scarlett Johansson movies, updated for 2019.  Previously, I had written about looking forward to the rumored standalone movie for Black Widow, and supposedly, that film even though it’s been rumored for years, is in pre-production, which is interesting, considering what ultimately happened to Black Widow in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. Anyway, I would still be incredibly excited to see that standalone movie for Black Widow, and I do hope it still happens.

Okay, that’s it for now.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) – Final Chapter in Current Marvel Saga A Good One

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The best of the AVENGERS movies was the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018). In that film, the Avengers had their tails handed to them by the cosmic supervillian Thanos, who succeeded in wiping out half the population of the Universe, including many of our favorite Marvel superheroes. INFINITY WAR was the perfect balance of rousing action-adventure, lighthearted comical quips, and gut-wrenching emotional scenes, especially its now infamous ending.

Marvel fans have waited a whole year to find out what happens next, and now we know, as the final chapter of Marvel’s Avengers saga has arrived, AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

And that’s exactly what AVENGERS: ENDGAME is, a final chapter. Sure, there will still be other Marvel superhero movies going forward, but the current saga, which began with IRON MAN (2008) and continued with films for Captain America and Thor and eventually the Avengers comes to a close with AVENGERS: ENDGAME.

So, not only is this movie dealing with the aftermath of Thanos but also the legacy of the Avengers themselves. Yup, it has a lot on its plate. How, then, does it perform?

Well, let’s just say I don’t think there will be too many people who will leave the theater disappointed. That being said, my favorite AVENGERS movie remains the previous one, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME begins with a chilling scene as Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), absent from the previous movie, experiences firsthand the horror of Thanos, as his family is wiped out by the infamous cosmic cleansing. The remaining Avengers, still reeling from both their overwhelming defeat and its aftermath, decide they have no choice but to pursue and track down Thanos, but then what? They can’t undo what Thanos has done.

Or can they?

I’m going to stop right there, because the less known about the plot the better.

I liked AVENGERS: ENDGAME well enough. Heck, I’m a huge Marvel fan, and so there was going to be very little chance I wouldn’t like this one.  The cast of characters alone are worth the price of admission, and as always in a Marvel movie, the cast of actors is second to none. We’ll get to that in a minute.

But there were some things I didn’t like. Take that cast of characters. One of the things I thought the previous movie AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR did extraordinarily well was giving all its characters equal screen time. While this may not have translated into equal minutes, it certainly meant nearly every character in the film enjoyed key moments and scenes.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME wasn’t as successful in that department this time around. Some of the Marvel characters get short-changed here. There were also far fewer key moments for the major characters. So, whereas directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a perfectly seamless and well-paced story in the previous entry, they weren’t as successful doing so in this movie. In terms of giving characters their due, things were a bit uneven.

The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely was not as sharp, tight, or as comical as the one they wrote for INFINITY WAR. Things simply didn’t flow as well here.

There’s also a somber tone throughout, understandably, since Thanos has wiped out half the universe, but the film doesn’t shed this tone till its final reel, and even then, it’s not really gone.

I also didn’t completely enjoy the method of the Avengers’ endgame. While it was fun to watch what they were doing, it didn’t always make the most sense, and the film really didn’t go out of its way to try to have it make sense. I wanted more from the story in this department.

The story arcs for Iron Man and Captain America really are the two main ones in this movie, and neither one disappoints.

Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise as Tony Stark/Iron Man since his first Iron Man movie in 2008, and AVENGERS: ENDGAME provides a fitting conclusion for the character. Once again, Downey Jr. delivers a top-notch performance.

Some of the most satisfying scenes in the film are between Tony Stark and Captain America. They had spent the majority of the past few movies arguing and fighting with each other, and now they have finally put their differences aside.

Captain America also gets a fitting conclusion in the film, and Chris Evans once again does an admirable job as the Captain. While I’ve liked Robert Downey Jr. from the get-go, Chris Evans has only gotten better with each successive film. He has made Captain America one of the best parts of these movies.

Chris Hemsworth returns as Thor, and he’s largely reduced to comic relief here, although he does get one moving scene with his mother back on Asgard.

While I like Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, I was disappointed with the interpretation of the Hulk this time around. We didn’t see much of the Hulk in the previous film either, as strangely, he retreated into the deepest parts of Bruce Banner’s subconscious, refusing to re-emerge after getting his butt kicked by Thanos. That doesn’t sound like the Hulk. This time, he’s a Hulk/Bruce Banner hybrid— “Professor Hulk”— which pretty much means he’s Hulk-lite. I think Hulk fans have been cheated in these past two films.

On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow enjoys some of her finest moments in the entire series. The same can be said for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. In fact, the two share one of the best scenes in the film, certainly the most emotionally riveting.

But no one else really has any key moments. Even Ant Man (Paul Rudd) who has a lot of screen time doesn’t have his usual comical presence. It’s not for a lack of trying. I just think the screenplay wasn’t as sharp.

When Josh Brolin played Thanos in the previous film, he was easily one of the best Marvel movie villains ever. You can’t say the same thing about him in this film. His screen time is drastically reduced, as is his impact.

The film really relies on the emotions from the previous movie, and it probably does this a little too much. I wanted more out of ENDGAME that was new.

And while I was glad to see the addition of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) here, she doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot either.

But the cast you can’t beat. In addition to the actors already mentioned, the cast of AVENGERS: ENDGAME also includes Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Karen Gillan, Zoe Saldana, Evangeline Lilly, Rene Russo, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Dave Bautista, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Hayley Atwell, Natalie Portman, Marisa Tomei, Angela Basset, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, William Hurt, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Chris Pratt, and Samuel L. Jackson.

Wow.

As I said, just the cast itself is worth the price of a ticket.

The action scenes are well-done and the build-up to the second confrontation with Thanos is a good one. The conclusion does what it sets out to do, wrapping things up neat and tidy and restoring order to the universe.

Again, I believe fans will be pleased.

That being said, while I enjoyed ENDGAME a lot, I liked INFINITY WAR more. Maybe it’s because I prefer darker stories. Or maybe it’s just the better movie.

And perhaps to reinforce the notion that ENDGAME is a final chapter in this part of the Marvel saga, there is no after credit scene here. Say what? Yup, it’s true. No comical lunch gathering for the Avengers. No teaser for what’s coming next. Nothing.

Fitting for a movie called ENDGAME.

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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – Epic Marvel Superhero Movie Plays Like Season Finale

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Awesome.

That’s the first word that comes to mind after seeing AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), the third AVENGERS film and nineteenth movie overall to take place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Yup, Marvel has been on quite the run, and it shows no signs of slowing down with its latest entry.

The story AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR tells is simple and easy to rally behind, making it an action-packed thrill ride with enough emotional ups and downs between light moments and dark ones you’re sure to leave the theater not only entertained but moved as well.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) is busy collecting the Infinity Stones, supernatural items which have been featured in several of the earlier Marvel movies. Thanos wants all six because once he has them, he will have the power to destroy the universe.  Now, Thanos does not want to destroy the universe. Nope, he just wants to trim it down a bit.  Systematically, randomly, and without mercy, he simply wants to wipe out half of civilization, so that the other half can thrive and lead better lives. What a thoughtful guy! As he says, the greatest decisions take the greatest sacrifices, and he’s the one to make such bold decisions and carry them out.

Standing in Thanos’ way are the Avengers, Earth’s mightest superheroes. They scramble to not only prevent Thanos from getting all the stones but also to destroy the madman once and for all. The trouble is, the Avengers as we know them don’t really exist any more.  They broke up, as shown in events from CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016). When Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) learns the news, his response is “What do you mean, broke up? Like a band? Like the Beatles?”

So, the group of arguing superheroes has disbanded, and when the fight begins, they are not together.  They also are in need of help, which arrives with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and also Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the warriors from Wakanda. Together, the fight is on.

But AVENGERS: INFINTIY WAR is much more than just a superhero war movie.

Start with the villain, Thanos, who with his nearly unstoppable powers may be the best Marvel movie villain yet. Thanos is not some cliché madman who wants to take over the universe. No, he wants to prune it, the way we care for trees and gardens in the spring. Remove dead branches and weeds, and prepare for new life. Trouble here is, Thanos wants to remove things— beings— that are very much alive. But his motivations are based on real issues, like overcrowding and population explosion. As he says during one point in the film, the universe and its resources are finite, and it can’t sustain unlimited growth forever, and that’s where he comes in. As he sees it, he’s there to give people a better life, and this isn’t some lie to cover for some other darker more ludicrous plan. It’s really what Thanos intends  to do, and for those reasons.

If there’s one drawback to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR it’s that if you haven’t seen the previous films in the Marvel movie universe, you no doubt won’t be as moved because you won’t know the background to the characters. You wouldn’t understand the depth of Iron Man’s and Captain America’s rift if you haven’t seen CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).  You wouldn’t appreciate the relationship between Thor and Loki if you hadn’t seen the THOR movies, nor the full humor of the Guardians of the Galaxy if you hadn’t seen their movies, nor the dynamic between Iron Man and young Spider-Man if you hadn’t seen SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017). And on I could go.

That being said, it’s not an issue of following the story, because AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR handles its storytelling smoothly.  You could see this movie without having seen any of the others and easily follow what is going on and enjoy the story. You just wouldn’t get the same emotional impact if you hadn’t seen these characters before.

The brilliant part of these Marvel movies is they have introduced these characters and told their stories patiently over the years through a series of high quality movies, and there have been so many of them that they really play out like a TV series. You watch AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR and you’ve seen all the other Marvel movies, this film plays like a season finale.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has what all the other Marvel movies had before it, a phenomenal cast, superior writing, and superb direction. Just look at the cast here: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Tom Hiddleston, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Idris Elba, Danai Gurira, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Chris Pratt, William Hurt, and Josh Brolin.

Wow.

Double wow.

At the center of this story is Tony Stark/Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr. The recent run of Marvel movies began with IRON MAN (2008), the film which introduced Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, a role he has made his own over the years.  This marks the ninth time he has played Tony Stark in a movie.

Once more, Robert Downey Jr. excels in his scenes as Tony Stark, and his climactic confrontation with Thanos is one of the many highlights of the film, mostly because we have followed this character since IRON MAN and to see his story arc come to a head with this battle with Thanos is a high impact moment.

Likewise, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the other main Avengers character, and as we saw in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, he has become the leader of one faction of superheroes, separate from Tony Stark and his followers, since they experienced a major disagreement over their relationship with the U.S. government. Like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans has also played Captain America nine times in the movies, and also like Downey Jr., his performances have been exceptional.

Now known as simply “The Captain,” and sans his mask and shield and now sporting a beard, he assembles his group along with Black Panther and the warriors from Wakanda to defend the Earth from Thanos. In their greatest battle, Captain America and Iron Man are not together.

Also successfully reprising their roles are Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. The Guardians of the Galaxy are also on hand, and Chris Pratt and company lend plenty of fun moments to the fray.  And you can’t forget Tom Holland as Spider-Man.

And as I said, Josh Brolin, with his cool, calm demeanor and nearly unlimited strength, makes for one of Marvel’s best villains as Thanos.

There are so many fun moments in this one. Star-Lord’s (Chris Pratt) interactions with Thor are hilarious, as is the rapid fire pop culture discussion between Star-Lord and Spider-Man. Drax (Dave Bautista) is his usual honest self, and he gets to partake in several laugh-out loud moments. Likewise, there are fine moments between Tony Stark, Peter Parker, and Dr. Strange, poignant moments between Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) and an emotional scene where Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Okoye (Danai Gurira) leap to Scarlet Witch’s defense.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a superior script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It tells a solid story, does a remarkable job giving this huge ensemble plenty to do and many of their own signature moments, and contains fine dialogue throughout. And this is no surprise since both these guys have written several of the previous Marvel movies, including one of the best, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo do a fine directing job. The movie starts off with a thrilling pre-credit sequence showing Thanos tangling with Thor, Loki, and the Hulk, and pretty much decimating Asgard, which sets the stage perfectly for the rest of the movie. The audience learns immediately that Thanos is a formidable foe.

The film is paced nicely as its 149 minute running time flies by.  It also looks great, as the various worlds here are full of eye-popping color and look amazing.  The battle scenes are pretty much all exciting and authentic.

This is the Russo brothers’ first AVENGERS movie, taking over the directorial duties from Joss Whedon. The Russos had previously directed CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016).

There are so many memorable moments in this movie they are too numerous to list. But since I can’t contain myself, here are a few more: it was fun to see the characters from BLACK PANTHER back doing their thing here in this movie. Doctor Strange is actually more likable here than he was in his own movie. Loki has one of his best on-screen sequences yet. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) also has some powerfully emotional scenes, as does the wise cracking Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who Thor constantly refers to as the “Rabbit.” And on and on I could go.

And then there’s the ending.

What. A. Bold. Ending.

Okay, I’m partial to dark endings, but this is exactly the type of ending which so many movies which feature such powerful villains should have but all too often don’t because filmmakers shy away from them. I absolutely loved the ending to AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. It will leave you breathless, speechless, and without saliva. Any other ending would not have seemed as real. It hearkened back to the ending of the best STAR WARS movie, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And of course, we know there is yet another untitled AVENGERS movie to follow, and so we know there is more to this story to be told, even though this ending is as dark as they can get, and the film is better for it.

Like the other Marvel movies, there is an after-end-credit scene, so if you want to see it, be sure to sit through the credits. There’s also another hilarious Stan Lee cameo, and these just seem to get better and better.

I absolutely loved AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, and as a testament to how good these Marvel films have become, while I loved this film, it’s not my favorite Marvel film of the year so far, as that distinction still belongs to BLACK PANTHER (2018) which is so good it’s in a league by itself.

That being said, you can’t go wrong with AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR which is pretty much nonstop adventure and excitement throughout. Its story about a group of admirable, off-beat, and oftentimes oddball characters who are usually at odds with each other, united to protect life across the universe from a madman who wants to destroy half the population because he wants to save the other half, and has the power to do it, is a winner and a crowd pleaser.

And if you’re a Marvel superhero movie fan and have seen all the movies, you get the added bonus of this film playing out like a season finale.

As such, I can’t wait for “next season’s” premiere, and that will happen with the next AVENGERS movie, due out in 2019.

Let the countdown begin.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Worst Movies of 2017

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mummy poster

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOUR MOVIE LISTS: SCARLET JOHANSSON – 2017

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Scarlett-Johansson

YOUR MOVIE LISTS:  Scarlett Johansson

By Michael Arruda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading!

—Michael