Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

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Joy

January 14, 2016 at 6:41 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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I am not sure how best to describe this funny little film, which may be why it has not done well with critics and audiences. It purports to be the true story of Joy Mangano, queen of the QVC and HSN, and her rise from obscurity to wealth, thought it primarily focuses on her efforts to get her first product, the self-wringing mop, off the ground. Needless to say, she cleans up (sorry). But, the problem is that her story isn’t all that exciting. Director David O. Russell clearly knows how to use Jennifer Lawrence, as films like “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” show. But he seems a bit lost here. Even with cast regulars like Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro, and just can’t create the chemistry that worked so well in his previous films, perhaps because most of the central characters are so deeply unlikeable. The real Mangano was an executive producer, grinding her ax to the nub in the process of making her entire family into stock villains, while portraying herself as a saintly victim. Russell tries hard to create some measure of light and life by dotting the film with interesting story-telling and visual devices, but they seem haphazard and are not consistently carried throughout. Sometimes the humor works and sometimes it seems strangely empty. The story finally seems to pick up energy when Cooper’s character arrives and QVC enters the picture. But then stumbles again, rallies briefly and ends with an emotionally empty where-are-they-now. It’s a shame because, even through this mess, you can still seeing Lawrence shinning as one of the most remarkable actors alive today. She plays steely-eyed vulnerable like nobody within 20 years of her; it’s impossible to imagine what she’ll be like if she continues evolving as an artist. In the end, she is the only joy that “Joy” has to offer.

American Sniper

January 18, 2015 at 6:43 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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Well, it’s going to be hard to argue with success. This movie has just had the highest box office earnings ever for a January weekend (in fact, it was a blow out). As Stephen Colbert would say, “the market has spoken.” Yet, I still kinda wanna argue. So, here is how I would parse it out: this is not the film to see if you are looking for a nuanced examination of our recent wars. Chris Kyle, upon whose autobiography the film is based, was not a man accustomed to moral ambiguities; there were good guys and bad buys, rights and wrongs and he knew which side he was on. That tone (and all it implies) permeates this movie. This is a hero’s tale and has an epic battle between hero and villain that results in a showdown in a dusty, one-horse town that (thematically) could have been right out of a Clint Eastwood western. And, make no mistake, Eastwood is going for big themes here; on this canvas, Kyle is a modern Odysseus. Perhaps he is. He saved many American lives, at times at great risk to his own. He had courage and skill and a sense of honor that cannot be dismissed and must not be minimized. And, if you want a modern American hero, this may be exactly the story for you. Yet, I could not help but feel hemmed in by the film’s agenda. Are there no uncertainties about the good of having likely killed more than 250 people? Is there not a story to tell about how some Iraqis might perceive us as a hostile occupying army? Of course there is but just not here. As I said, this is not a film that wishes to explore ambiguity. So, if you can understand and accept that lens, there is much of value in this movie. Bradley Cooper continues to prove his versatility and depth as an actor and he portrays Kyle’s moral certitude and later emotional detachment effectively. In fact, in the mid to later half of the film, we get to see the war’s cumulative effect on Kyle. These are the movie’s best moments. The cost to soldiers both physically and emotionally is made very clear and I was prompted several times to think of “The Hurt Locker.” In moments, this film goes deeper than that one, though (for me) the moral ambiguities of that film were more evocative in the end. It is at the end of “American Sniper” that the audience can most clearly see Eastwood’s message; an epic tale requires the epic ending and this one came straight out of “Beowulf.” I don’t blame Eastwood and I certainly don’t blame Kyle. Every opinion is valid and their points are strong ones. Who knows, they may be right. I just think that, personally, I identify more with uncertainty. Had the filmed gone there, it might have resonated more with me.

Guardians of the Galaxy

August 9, 2014 at 11:10 am | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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With this summer romp, Marvel has thrown their hat into the sci-fi ring, bringing to this genre the same tongue-in-cheek and referential humor that has helped them make superheroes accessible to more than just adolescent males (of all ages). Science fiction can often struggle under its own weighty self-importance and where “Guardians” is at its best is when it is upending that formula. The film takes its audience through the typical high-paced, effects-ladened thrill ride with enough acumen to appease the standard sci-fi junkie but there is nothing particularly new or interesting there. The visuals are great (all the aliens, ships, cities look cool) but not impressive. There were no “wow” moments on screen (in fact, there rarely are these days). And the plot itself has nothing to recommend it; it’s ridiculously convoluted and ultimately unimportant (other than to set up a baddie for future movies in the Marvel pantheon). Yet, despite all of that, the film is anything but mediocre. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot of fun. Credit goes first to the whip-sharp script by director James Gunn and screenwriter Nicole Perlman (not only is this Perlman’s first Hollywood script but she is the first female scriptwriter that Marvel has ever employed). They manage to create line after line of clever, charming or bitingly funny dialogue. Lead actor Chris Pratt (“Parks & Recreation”) is especially effective at delivering the lines with a world-weary/naive goofiness that is a sheer pleasure to watch. In fact, he is the other key piece to the film’s success. The other actors are solid but their performances do not particularly stand out (though the fantastic Lee Pace– “Pushing Daisies,” “Halt and Catch Fire” — makes a fun and cartoonishly ominous villain). It is Pratt who seems to inherently understand the pacing of the film’s humor; he delivers every line without overselling it. The movie got unfortunately bogged down toward the end with some unnecessary sentiment that felt like it was written more for the audience than for the characters. We didn’t need that and I, for one, didn’t want it. That aside, I enjoyed this film from start to finish. This is what a blockbuster is supposed to be: Fun. And I haven’t had this much pure fun at a summer movie in a while.

American Hustle

December 30, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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“Some of this actually happened.”  Thus states the disclaimer at the beginning of “American Hustle,” David O. Russell’s new film about the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s. That statement not only gives fair warning for any artistic license taken but also sets the tone for the film; for all the seriousness of the subject matter, it is also wryly funny. I knew little about Abscam prior to this film but it was, apparently, even wackier and further reaching than the movie portrays, ultimately bringing down a US senator, 6 representatives, a mayor and couple of other smaller elected officials.  Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “The Fighter,” “Three Kings”) brings together several of his previous partners-in-crime to fill out an all star cast including Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner. Russell captures the mood of the 70s with lavish costumes (especially on Amy Adams), outrageous hair and a score filled with the likes of Elton John, ELO, & Donna Summer. Russell also manages to get top notch performances from his actors, particularly from Cooper, whose coked-out maniac FBI agent steals most of the scenes he is in. All of the characters in this film are wacky enough and complex enough to be interesting and there are a couple of fun cameos to boot. The story mostly moves along at an entertaining pace, though it drags a bit in the middle and felt a tad over long. Those small quibbles aside, this is a clever movie about a story that could have only happened in the 70s with it’s strange mix of excess and naiveté.  This was a moment in history that would have otherwise been completely forgotten.

The Place Beyond The Pines

April 15, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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This is not the movie you think it is.  I just have to say that before I start and by way of explaining that I am not sure how to proceed without saying too much.  I will tread carefully.  Everything I saw in the trailers was over within the first 40 minutes of this 2 hour and 20 minute film.  What came next was all a bit of a surprise to me.  That’s the good news; I like have no idea where a film is headed and that was certainly the case here.  The bad news is, in the end, I wasn’t that interested in the journey.  Both Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling give fine but not outstanding performances.  Cooper’s pales when compared to the complexity of his character is “Silver Lining Playbook.”  Gosling ‘s performance lies somewhere between his too-cool-for-it-all character in “Drive” and his broken man in “Blue Valentine” and fails to be as believable or as resonant as either.  The brilliant Ben Mendelsohn (“Animal Kingdom”) is shamefully underutilized.  Ray Liotta is, well, Ray Liotta.  Eva Mendes doesn’t seem capable of the performance required of her character.  In fact, I felt like the whole movie lacked the energy it was trying to generate.  This story seemed to be trying to say big things about the relationship between fathers and sons over 3 generations and how we repeat the way we were raised, for better or worse, despite our best efforts.  I could be a powerful story and the script is certainly packed with punches but they all felt like glancing blows.  I’m not sure I can say exactly why.  The script is at times overwrought but there are some genuine moments that should have worked for me.  Part of it was that the characters didn’t connect with me; perhaps none of them is on the screen long enough for me to care.  I think this was a film with two too many stories told in a 3 act format.  It’s a shame but, in the end, it just didn’t work for me.

Silver Linings Playbook

November 24, 2012 at 10:07 am | Posted in 2012 | 2 Comments
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This was a genuinely funny and touching film that was better than it should have been but not quite as good as it could have been.  The majority of the movie has an edgy uncertainty to it that befits a story about a man struggling with his Bipolar disorder. Bradley Cooper does the best work of his I have seen, which, admittedly, isn’t saying much as I have only seen him in “The Hangover” and the tv series “Alias.”  He instills his character with a manic intensity that rings true.  He has the right blend of earnestness, blind certainty and delusion such that the audience can laugh at him but still root for him.  Likewise, Jennifer Lawrence shines here.  She shows the same toughened vulnerability and rawness she had in “Winter’s Bone” but she has matured as an actress  and there is greater depth here.  In contrast to Cooper, who’s wide-eyed expressions spoke of a mind too confused to be aware, Lawrence told us everything in her face.  Her damaged, angry character is a perfect foil to his expansiveness.  De Niro is also excellent Cooper’s father and he develops a very real person out of what could have been a caricature.  And Jacki Weaver, who plays his mother, threw me for a loop.  She was so fundamentally different from the Oscar-worthy character she played in “Animal Kingdom” and her American accent was so flawless that I could not place her until I looked her up later.  This chemistry leads to a fantastic first half (or so) of the movie.  It’s very funny, moving and slightly dangerous; it does not always take the easy road.  However, after the NY Giants game, there is a noticeable shift as all sorts of characters behave less realistically (like Cooper’s psychiatrist who all of a sudden starts hanging around the house like a family friend) and you get the sense that David O. Russell (“Three Kings,” “I ♥ Huckabees,” “The Fighter”) is trying to tie things up with a bow.  He is.  So, the film ends smoothly and sweetly but I shouldn’t complain; the ending works and is endearing and left the audience feeling good.  It just wasn’t quite as true as I wanted.  The film started with such a brittle, bittersweet energy, with a bit of a sharp bite, that I was sad to see the all the rough spots smoothed out.

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