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2018 – And There Came My Favorite Things of the Year | Movies


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At the end of 2018, AND THERE CAME A DAY shares favorites of this past year… not bests because “best” is surely in the eye and the opinion of the beholder but favorites as in my favorite movies, television episodes, comic books, books and moments.

This edition: MOVIES.

Click on any of the movies for my original review.

What were your favorite movies of the year?

MOVIES


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Three Identical Strangers – A Movie Review

 


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CaptureThough I would not call myself a devotee of documentaries, I have seen more than a few and I cannot recall one that made me feel so excited and so happy during the opening moments.

Three Identical Strangers tells the truly amazing story of three young men, 19-years-old to be exact, who, through a series of shocking coincidences, meet one another and discover they are, in fact, identical triplets who were separated at birth. Adopted by three separate families living – unbelievably – within 100 miles of one another, these three men connect and build lives together in New York City in the early 1980s.

As they learn about one another, they discover a series of shocking similarities and very few differences. They want to become fast friends and, for the most part, they do. The sheer joy of their connection buoys the beginning of the movie and the story of how they were separated, how their families were involved and what the forces were that drove them apart in the first place brings it all the way home.

Almost all the way home.

Without sharing more – and venturing into potential spoiler territory – Three Identical Strangers faces and all but overcomes a narrative problem: the exuberant start of the movie gives way to a conclusion that leaves questions, too many questions, left unanswered.

That, of course, is life. Life does not play out in themes that fit nicely together. Nor does Three Identical Strangers.

But it asks incredibly compelling questions and the highs of the beginning of the film soar in ways that fiction rarely can. Three Identical Strangers is very much worth watching and watching more than once. It will leave it surprised. It will leave you shocked. It will leave you wanting more.

THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS receives FOUR and a half IDENTICAL STRANGERS out of a possible FIVE

 

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Vice – A Movie Review

 


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CaptureI cannot boast for the veracity of the history that Vice – the new film from The Big Short writer/director Adam McCay – purports to be true, but I can vouch for how entertaining the movie is. Vice is engrossing from the moment it begins and it holds viewers interest right until the final credits (which, by-the-way, are interrupted by a Marvel movie style, stay-until-the-end sequence – don’t miss it). Crisply written, wonderfully acted and creative in approach, Vice is a triumph on many different levels and cements McCay as a force in serious filmmaking.

Any review of the movie must begin with praise for Christian Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney. Any list of the best actors of this generation that does not include Bale is a joke. Frankly, he might just be the best actor alive today. Able to play any role, Bale is as brilliant in his approach to Cheney as he has been in any other film. Remaking his body (he is said to have put on upwards of 45 pounds for the movie) and channeling Cheney remarkably well, Bale unleashes an acting clinic. Understated but commanding, he delivers what is surely to be an Academy Award nominated performance as the ultimate man behind the curtain. The movie does very little to sugarcoat what writer/director McCay clearly believes Cheney to be: a Machiavellian manipulator out to increase personal power. Cheney’s actions are driven by a desire to be on top and to protect the United States of America at all costs. His morality is suspect. His loyalty to anyone but himself limited. His calculation cold. But, in this framework, Bale manages to create, if not a sympathetic portrait, at least an understandable one. This is one of the best performances of the year, without question.

The rest of the cast is equally stunning. Amy Adams (another likely Oscar nominee) disappears as Lynne Cheney, the Lady Macbeth of the movie who, like Bale, creates a three-dimensional character out of what might have been a stereotype in lesser hands. Sam Rockwell shines as George W. Bush, making the most of limited screen time and Steve Carell all but washes away my memory of his recent misstep in Welcome to Marwen as Donald Rumsfeld. From top-to-bottom, the cast of Vice shines.

The narrative itself is engaging and involving. Told in a similar but slightly more structured manner than The Big ShortVice attempts to shed light on the story of the so-called “most powerful vice president” ever in the United States. Playing off recent events in American history to great effect, the movie suggests that Cheney (and others like him) have been working in relative secret behind the scenes for decades, manipulating events, taking advantage of moments and striking at opportune times to solidify their power and their world view.

If 50% of what McCay dramatizes is true, this is one scary movie.

Taking some narrative risks – all of which pay off – Vice is more than a bio-pic, it is a grandly staged, darkly comedic entertainment whose aforementioned mid-credit sequence is a must for viewers of any political stripe. Vice is well aware of the increasingly divided culture into which it is released and suggests that we have gotten where we are because we, as a society, are not paying enough attention. It begs us to pay more.

VICE receives FOUR and a HALF HEART ATTACKS out of a possible FIVE

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Welcome to Marwen – A Movie Review

 


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CaptureWelcome to Marwen is terrible but at least it is also very, very long.

Or perhaps it only felt that way.

Leaving a movie you are not enjoying is always an option, but Welcome to Marwen is such a terrible mess, that you might think it cannot get any worse as the story unfolds.

Spoiler alert: it can and it does.

An exercise in taking what might have been (and I emphasize “might” because, after watching Marwencol, the documentary which inspired this movie, I am unsure why an feature film was ever necessary) an interesting concept and mishandling it badly, Welcome to Marwen plays out as a fairy tale that an old relative might relate: there are some interesting and, perhaps, magical things going on, but the important parts are bungled or forgotten and the tale comes off as creepy and disturbing.

That is what Welcome to Marwen is: disturbing.

It is difficult to believe considering the talents of director Robert Zemeckis and the amount of money that surely was spent on the film, but Welcome to Marwen is a mis-fire on almost every level. Its plot is incomprehensible, its characters are off putting and its themes are muddy at best. It hopes to be an inspirational lark.

It is not.

Let’s begin with the levels on which it works: it is a pretty amazing visual spectacle. The animation of the dolls who represent real people in the life of protagonist Mark Hogancamp is amazingly well done. Steve Carell, as Hogancamp, is in his usual excellent form, making a relatively likable character from a script that gives him very little support. In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the performances in the movie. Leslie Mann, Merrit Wever, and Gwendolyn Christie are perfectly fine, too but, again, the script is such a mess that whatever character arcs they might have been trying to play are utterly lost.

The movie does not pay off key plot points. It has characters who act utterly irrationally. Its time setting is strangely hard to pin down. Is that an intentional choice? Impossible to tell. The movie wants to evoke a Secret Life of Walter Mitty feel. It does not succeed and makes a mess while trying.

 

“Mess” is the key word here because Welcome to Marwen does not know what it wants to be. Shifting wildly among various tones, the movie never establishes itself firmly. Is it a fantasy? Is it a story about brain injury and recovery? Is it a romance? I watched the thing and I have no idea.

I doubt the filmmakers do, either.

A study in a movie gone horribly wrong, Welcome to Marwen will fade from theaters very quickly. Fortunately for Carell, his fans can see him in Beautiful Boy and Vice this holiday season. Vice, in particular, is far better than this.

WELCOME TO MARWEN receives ONE and a HALF TALKING DOLLS out of a possible FIVE

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Aquaman – A Movie Review


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CaptureWith a charismatic lead, a globe trotting, byzantine plot and some truly creative and over-the-top visuals, Aquaman delivers one of the most entertaining and pure comic book-y superhero movies an audience is likely to get. Utterly embracing every element of the sometimes bizarre history (yes, history – the character has been around for over 75 years) of Aquaman, the movie gets just about everything right by not shying away from its source material. Aquaman does not try to make its hero anything other than what he is: a super strong dude who can breath underwater, who can swim really fast and who can talk to fish. Striking a perfect balance between silliness and outright silliness, Aquaman is exciting, fun and refreshing.

Jason Momoa makes a perfect, bro-inspired Aquaman and while this take may be a bit removed from the character as he is typically portrayed in the comics, Momoa’s performance works perfectly. His Arthur Curry is a man not on a mission, a man who has saved the world once (Justice League, anyone?) and a man who is happy to be left alone. While he is aware of his background as an Atlantean, he has no desire to explore it. Just get this guy a cold one and some quality time with his dad and he will be okay. Momoa has the character down as if he has been playing him for years and, should his screen appearances as Aquaman continue, his casting will likely be regarded as spot-on as that of Robert Downey, jr. as Iron Man. Momoa is that much at home as Aquaman.

The rest of the cast is more than up to supporting him, starting with Amber Heard’s Mera, an Atlantean herself who is more than a match for Momoa’s Arthur Curry. Heard is almost as fun to watch as Momoa, diving in her role with the same self aware smile and assurance that flavors the film. Her Mera is powerful and passionate and Heard is terrific in the role. When she is given some comedic notes to play, she is equally good and she and Momoa have a very nice chemistry.

Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman bring their acting pedigree and reputations to their roles as Vulko and Atlanta respectively. Both chew the appropriate scenery and lend the proceedings their stature. Seeing both of them de-aged by computer is remarkable. Dafoe, in particular, seems to have traveled as rough a road as the character he plays.

Of the many things Aquaman has going for it, its treatment of its villains is a cut above the typical, megalomaniacal adversaries comic book movies usually present. The performances turned in by Patrick Wilson as Ocean Master and Yahya Abdul Marteen II as Black Manta are terrific, sure, but the manner in which the story treats the villains is just as good. Motivations are clear. Plots are, too. They have objectives and both see themselves as the hero of the story. Further, they both have legitimate reasons for their hatred of Aquaman and their enmity is no stretch. This makes for satisfying conflict above the normal fare.

Director James Wan has created and visually stunning – if sometimes overwhelming – world in which Aquaman swims. The colors (from the odd day-glo choice of Mera’s hair) leap from the screen. The aquatic characters have life and depth and are interesting and amusing and the set pieces, particularly the one involving characters known as “The Trench” are as involving and frightening as anything in other comic book movies. Much like his cast, Wan embraced the form here and the movie is all the better for that choice.

One part Raiders of the Lost Ark, one part Romancing the Stone and all parts comic book movie, Aquaman is a romp the likes of which does not come around very often, especially in the increasingly cookie-cutter world of super hero movies. The cast is terrific. The action is engaging. The plot is fun.

If you cannot crack a smile or two during Aquaman, you might be taking life just a little too seriously, bro.

AQUAMAN receives FOUR and a HALF ANTHROPOMORPHIZED OCTOPI out of a possible FIVE

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – A Movie Review


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CaptureMany reviews start out with a variation on the phrase “you’ve never seen anything like this” and, upon seeing the reviewed film, one may say to one’s self, “I’ve seen many, many things like this.” In the case of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse “you’ve never seen anything like this” might be true.

Bold, inventive, involving and charming, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is such a delightful film that it entices you to want to line back up, purchase another ticket and see it again. Within moments of the movie’s opening scenes, I was wondering, with all the technological skill and acumen at work in cinema these days, why this movie was not mounted as a live-action project for, surely, the fact that it is an animated movie will significantly limit its box office potential and draw. Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I am a fan of all things comic book in the movies and that I truly enjoyed the latest Spider-Man film Spider-Man: Homecoming. I write this with little fear of being contradicted: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a far more fun and fulfilling movie than that one on every level.

Into the Spider-Verse just works. The visuals work. The story works. The soundtrack works. The humor works. The drama works. The family narrative works. It all works.

The movie tells the origin story of Miles Morales and how he becomes Spider-Man. “Wait,” you might be saying, “Miles Morales? Where’s Peter Parker?” Don’t you worry. Peter Parker is here, too. In fact, a couple Petes show up and, when they do, Into the Spider-Verse does not get bogged down into explaining why they have shown up when they have or why these particular spider-people have made the scene. It simply tells its story trusting that its audience is smart enough and willing to follow along. If you are not in those categories, 1) you may not have a soul and, 2) this is not the movie for you. Into the Spider-Verse does a quick and brilliant job with the superhero origin story but does so from the perspective that the audience has seen this before and doesn’t need to know about why there are radioactive spiders or women spider-people or spider-pigs for that matter. It just wants to sweep the audience up in its story and it wildly succeeds in doing so.

At the core of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a story about family. Miles Morales is like many young people – loving his family but slightly embarrassed by them at the same time, craving his independence but reliant on advice from his elders. He does not know quite who he is or what he will become, but he is engaged in the process of finding out. That he is given superpowers at the same time is just one more problem to handle.

Miles Morales is a Spider-Man for our times, a mixed-race teenager who does not want the power when he receives it, is afraid to tell his parents what has happened to him (because, of course, he gained his power while doing something he should not have been doing) and simply wants to help – to do good. We can use more stories about characters like Miles and I hope we get them.

The voice cast featuring standout work by Shameik Moore as Miles and Jake Johnson as an aging Peter Parker are terrific. Listen for the voices of actors having a blast in this one. There are more than a handful that will surprise you. The direction by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman is terrific and the movie takes the audience on a wonderful, break-neck paced joy ride that one does not wish to end too soon. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might be (might be!) the best superhero movie released in 2018…

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE receives FIVE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-PIGS out of a possible FIVE

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Green Book – A Movie Review


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CaptureSometimes, when a director gets the casting right, the movie works. Get the casting right in certain films and the rest takes care of itself.

Such is the case with Green Book, the based-on-a-true-story account of the unlikely friendship between an under-educated Queens bouncer and a brilliant Manhattan concert pianist. Viggo Mortensen, looking 30 hamburgers north of Aragorn, and Mahershala Ali, as magnetic here as he was in Moonlight, star as Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley, mismatched road buddies on a trek through the deep south in the early 1960s. Lip has been hired as much for his driving skills as for his ability to think on his feet to chauffeur Shirley on a two-month concert tour which will take the two men into some of the most segregated and racist parts of the pre-Civil Rights South. They navigate to safe establishments for Shirley by using a “Green Book,” a guide to African American friendly establishments on their route.

These two actors give tremendous performances, both inspiring and involving. While the characters they assay are quite different, there is a commonality between the two actors: they are amazingly charismatic. When they are on screen without one another, they command those scenes. When they are together (which is the majority of time of the movie), Green Book is an absolute delight to watch.

Mortensen’s Tony never devolves into a stereotype which could certainly have happened in the hands of a lesser actor. Rather than take shortcuts, Mortensen develops a fully realized character in Lip, one who is not conflicted about right and wrong, but who is selective in his application of his morality. The movie gets most of its laughs from Tony but it is smart enough to never laugh at Tony. Ali has a similar challenge to Mortensen: making a character who could be one note into something more. His Dr. Shirley is upper class and well-read, a prim-and-proper, fastidious character who wants things his way. Again, with a less talented performer, Shirley becomes off putting and sterile. Ali never allows that to happen and keeps the audience engaged by allowing his character to be revealed slowly and carefully. The two actors have a synergy that is terrific to watch.

Green Book is directed by Peter Farrelly who is best known for gross-out comedies such as There’s Something about Mary. While his direction is more than competent here, it holds few surprises. He seems to know enough not to get in the way of a terrific cast and a compelling story.

Green Book tells a compelling story. It may not surprise, but it does not need to. Rather, Green Book stands on the shoulders of the friendship between the two main characters, finds its heart in their story and finds its backbone in the performances of its lead actors. As it turns out, Mortensen and Ali are perfect and the movie is, too.

GREEN BOOK receives FIVE MAGIC ROCKS out of a possible FIVE

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