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American Assassin – A Movie Review


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American Assassin

The Cinnamon Girl and I have very much been looking forward to American Assassin. The initial previews promised a taut thriller, with solid action and a couple of lead performances which could carry an excellent movie. They also pointed to a nuanced film that might have some philosophical depth to it.

As previews continued to churn out, our conceptions about the movie began to change (nuclear explosives? a rogue former protegee?) but we held fast the our anticipation, especially as it related to seeing Michael Keaton in what promised to be a solid role as a tough military man, intent on protecting America and training the next generation.

Good news: Keaton is great and steals every scene in which he is featured. His line delivery is wonderful – quirky and off center – so much so that the intensity he imbues in his Stan Hurley is utterly believable and totally magnetic. I bought Keaton in the role and wanted to know more about him than I did about Dylan O’Brien’s main character, Mitchell Rapp.

It is not that O’Brien is bad, he is simply not Keaton nor is he given much with which to work and, while an actor of Keaton’s ability can develop a character seemingly out of whole cloth, O’Brien is not in that league.

As the movie wore on (and that is the correct word, unfortunately), I wanted more of Keaton and less of… well… everyone and everything else.

Though the story was not particularly inventive (mentor’s old protegee and new protegee go up against each other – who will survive?), the action shifted all over the place from small situations to increasingly gigantic and increasingly hard to believe ones.

We’re in a tunnel! We’re in a hotel room! We’re in a car! We’re on a speed boat! We’re approaching a carrier group and… my God, is that a nuclear explosion?

Here is the thing, for a movie called American Assassin, there was a lot of action that did not feel covert. This was an over-the-top, superhero culture inspired extravaganza that I did not expect and the change from expectation to reality was not welcome.

While I loved Keaton’s performance (and he gets to chew some scenery here – literally) and was entertained by a set piece or two, the overall effect of American Assassin was far less than the sum of its parts, its violence, its action sequences and the many, many modes of transport the characters used and fought in and around.

Marginally enjoyable, utterly forgettable, this movie is a disaster without Michael Keaton. Actually, it is a disaster with Michael Keaton. Let us hope that his renaissance is not derailed by it.

 

 

AMERICAN ASSASSIN receives TWO PLANES, TRAINS and AUTOMOBILES out of a possible FIVE.

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Dunkirk – A Movie Review


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dunkirk-poster

The true story behind Dunkirk is stunning: during World War II, 400,000 Allied soldiers were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France awaiting some kind of rescue. The tactical decision to not send significant forces to their aid is surely not easily made, but, to do so could mean the crippling of the English army, navy and air force and could hand Germany the keys to overrunning Europe.

The men on the beaches of Dunkirk are essentially on their own.

Into this scenario, steps writer/director Christopher Nolan. Deservedly regarded as one of the best creators in film today, Nolan may have just directed his best movie to date. Without question, Dunkirk solidifies Nolan’s already sterling reputation. Sparse, spare and deeply affecting, Dunkirk unfolds with minimal dialogue and at a breakneck pace – a pace metered by the ticking of a stopwatch.

Time is an important element of the movie, perhaps the most important: how long will it take to get to a rescue boat, how long can the spitfires remain in the air, how long before the “little navy” is within range of the beach? Time is also an element that Nolan cleverly manipulates and, in that manipulation, lies the riveting excellence of the film.

Dunkirk is a really, really good movie.

And then, suddenly, it is a brilliant one.

It would not be fair to spoil how good Nolan here. Suffice it to say that this movie is as much about a writer/director’s prowess as any recent release of which I can think. A thinking person’s film about war, a summer blockbuster, a harrowing true story, Dunkirk wildly succeeds at being all 3.

The movie is short, which is something of a surprise for a Christopher Nolan film. Typically, Nolan’s movies are broadly scripted and involved and lengthy as well. Coming in at well under two hours, Dunkirk feels over before it starts and leaves one wanting to queue up for a repeat viewing.

From Tom Hardy’s (hey, can we ever see the guy’s entire face?) spitfire pilot, to Kenneth Branaugh’s Commander Bolton, to Mark Rylance’s Mr. Dawson, the actors are as good as their director. Each creates an indelible impression as do the young men (most notably a terrific Harry Styles) whose stories of trying to survive the beach tie the film together. As Dunkirk is very much a textbook on “show, don’t tell,” the cast has to make the most of the moments they are given. All of them do.

Dunkirk may well win Christopher Nolan his first Best Director Oscar and the movie is all-but certain to be nominated for Best Picture. Whatever accolades it receives, Dunkirk deserves.

There is not another movie like it in theaters now. They may not be another war movie like it, either.

Dunkirk showcases a master filmmaker at the top of his game.

 

DUNKIRK receives FIVE TICKING WATCHES out of a possible FIVE.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming – A Movie Review


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Spider-Man Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming has a lot riding on it. Billed as a coming-of-age story constructed in the vein of a 1980s John Hughes movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming is also the first joint venture between Sony and Marvel with Marvel controlling the content of the film. It brings Spider-Man firmly under the control of Marvel Studios and fully into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is intended to re-launch perhaps the most famous Marvel Comics character into a series of successful solo movies.

It is likely to succeed very well in this ambition.

The best – the very best – thing Spider-Man: Homecoming has going for it is star Tom Holland. Marvel movie fans got a taste of the actor in Captain America: Civil War when he joined the super hero clash and the screen lit up whenever Holland was on it. Pitch perfect in that movie, the actor is even more appealing here in his solo venture. Following two very good performances as Spider-Man (in Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), Holland had a bit to live up to as he stepped into the high tech tights. He is more than up to the challenge. In fact, for my money, he is the best of the bunch. That is saying something as the others were very good themselves.

Tom Holland makes the movie work. Though he is surrounded by wonderful actors (all the students in the movie are terrific, especially Zendaya as Michelle and Jacob Batalon as Ned), his energy outshines them all. This is quite a feat when considering Michael Keaton and Robert Downey, jr (not to mention Jon Favreau) are all on hand. Keaton and Downey, jr as as one would expect, both fully committed to their roles as the antagonist The Vulture and the mentor Iron Man respectively. Keaton, in fact, is a far more fully developed villain than we have come to expect from most Marvel movies and Downey, jr is so good as Tony Stark that it is difficult to determine where the character stops and the actor starts.

A common issue with these movies is that they try to do a bit too much, and Spider-Man: Homecoming suffers a bit from this malady. I loved the cameos (especially the one at the end!) but are they critical to the film? There are some nice set pieces, though some of the action sequences are fairly muddy in their execution. The entire side trip to Washington, DC seems excessive and unnecessary. It seems to me that everything that scene accomplishes could be handled in New York which is where the character belongs. But Spider-Man: Homecoming is Holland’s movie and, while it is not a perfect film, Holland makes up for all of these shortcomings and then some.

Beyond casting Holland, the filmmakers make two important decisions for Homecoming. First, they do not re-tell the origin of the character. Been there. Done that, thank you very much. Second, they put Peter Parker in high school. Spider-Man has always worked best as a teenager going through the struggles of coming-of-age. This Spider-Man has girl troubles, homework and a curfew (that he regularly breaks). He is trying to understand who he is and what he can do. He is carving out his place in the world and the movie does a terrific job with that arc.

Here is a Spider-Man that changes over the course of the film. Here is a Spider-Man that is funny and engaging. Here is a Spider-Man that is not driven by angst (the best versions of the character are not). Here is a Spider-Man that simply wants to be heroic.

Spider-Man: Homecoming succeeds in evoking a feel of high school movies of the past (think The Breakfast Club but Anthony Michael Hall with superpowers). It succeeds in incorporating the character into the fuller Marvel Universe. It succeeds in launching this version of the character. It succeeds in being a fun, summer entertainment and places itself firmly on the list of very good – not great – Marvel movies.

In many ways, it does feel like Spider-Man has come home.

 

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING receives FOUR AND A HALF (because Holland is just SO good) FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOODS out of a possible FIVE.

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Baby Driver – A Movie Review


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Baby_Driver_poster

Is there a more hyped movie coming out this summer than Baby Driver? Have you seen the commercials for it? It has been hailed as the most original film in years. It has been called brilliant. It has been widely praised.

Could it possibly live up to the advance press?

As it turns out, almost. It comes very, very close to delivering, dare I write it, on all cylinders.

What struck me most about Baby Driver is that, in a time of franchises and shared universes and sequels dominating the box office, this movie is original. It is a singular vision, fully realized by one voice: writer/director Edgar Wright. It is clear from the first frame that each and every aspect of the movie is under Wright’s control and each spins out of his mind.

And that is a lot of fun.

I love superhero movies and sequels as much as (more than?) the next person, but, as I watched Baby Driver I marveled at how fresh it felt. There is fun to that. And there is a palpable danger to it.

In the typical summer movie or the latest chapter in a franchise, a definite set of rules dictate the proceedings. The conclusion of these sorts of films are all but known as the opening credits unspool.

Such is not the case with Baby Driver. It is wild. It is fun. It is unpredictable and, because of that, it is dangerous. Very few of the characters behaved in a predictable manner. Very few of the situations played out as I thought they would. I did not see the end of the movie coming.

What a pleasure!

Ansel Elgort makes a terrific protagonist for Wright. As the soft-spoken, music-listening, fast-driving, Mozart in a go-cart Baby, Elgort effortless exudes cool. He is the center of the wheel in Baby Driver and Wright chose his lead very well. This could be a breakout for the star and his upcoming roles suggest that we will be hearing more from him. But, as good as Elgort is, Wright was smart enough to surround him with a truly remarkable cast.

Kevin Spacey is perfect as Doc, the brains behind each heist in the film. Witty, cool, unpredictable, Doc is an immediately indelible Spacey creation. Jamie Foxx is equally good as Bats, also unpredictable (seeing the pattern?), fully energize, Foxx is having a lot of fun in this one, and he shares that fun with the audience. And Jon Hamm rounds out the leading quartet brilliantly. His smooth charm, his steely gave and his good looks that cannot be hidden under a silly haircut or behind a three-day growth serve to make Buddy a key part of this unexpected joy of a film.

It should be noted that the suddenly everywhere Lily James is wonderful as well. She plays Debora, Baby’s girl friend, and makes a role that could fade into the background in a cast like this stand out. She and Elgort have chemistry and are well matched. She more than holds her own.

The characters are fascinating and well drawn. They are three-dimensional and clever. They are dangerous, like the movie itself. The plot is twisting, turning fun. The action (done without the aid of any CGI) is stunning. The music buoyant. The only thing that holds the movie back the slightest bit is the weight of expectation. It is great? Yes. Is it the greatest thing I’ve ever seen? No.

But it is a hell of a lot of fun.

In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more fun time at the movies this summer.

BABY DRIVER receives FOUR AND A HALF iPODS out of a possible FIVE.

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The Mummy – A Movie Review


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The Mummy

I am not a movie critic. And, by that I mean, I am not critical of movies in the manner in which those who have more refined tastes might be. I tend to know what I am going to like going into a film and tend to buy tickets to movies I know I am going to enjoy. Additionally, I typically set my expectations where I think they will be met.

So, while some films disappoint others because they fail to be more than they suggest they will be, I often find myself saying of those sorts of movies: that was just what I expected and wanted.

Case-in-point: The Mummy.

This Tom Cruise vehicle was exactly what it looked like it would be: an over-the-top romp with solid action, simple characterization and tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

Cruise stars as Nick Morton, an unscrupulous solider of fortune who finds himself in the wrong place at the right time when he and his sidekick Chris Vial (delightfully assayed by Jake Johnson) accidentally unearth the titular mummy’s tomb. Suspecting there is money to be made, Nick ensures that the sarcophagus of the mummy is raised and that he is along for the ride back to London with it.

What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, pretty much everything.

It is spoiling little to mention that transport of the mummy is interrupted by a plane crash that all of the characters do not survive. Following the crash, some resurrections and chase scenes, the mummy ends up in the heart of London, reanimated, angry and harboring an intense fixation on Tom Cruise’s Nick.

Let the games begin.

And let yourself go. Know what the movie is and you will enjoy it. Expect high art and you might be disappointed.

Sofia Boutella is the mummy and she is making something of a career out of playing characters buried under piles of makeup. While she was far more engaging (and playing a much more developed part) in last summer’s Star Trek Beyond, she is more than up to the challenge of playing the raving and revenge seeking mummy and, if the particulars of her plot are not entirely clear, who cares? Aren’t we all having fun?

Certainly Russell Crowe had the kind of fun only an actor of his caliber who can rise or lower himself to the level of his material can. Again, it is not much of a spoiler to reveal that he plays Dr. Henry Jekyll (yes, that one) and he seems to be the key to comprehending the goings on of the movie. Because he is Russell Crowe, he handles the massive exposition he is asked to relay with ease and, because he is Russell Crowe, he absolutely kills in a scene in which he is allowed to cut loose. I hope to see more of him if Universal’s Monster Movie Plans launch the way the studio would like them to.

Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise. He gives himself completely over to the movie and the jokes about him being mummy-like in the fact that he never seems to age are absolutely on point. We all know there is a dividing line between those who like Tom Cruise and those who hate Tom Cruise. I am in the I love Tom Cruise camp. What do I expect from Tom Cruise? Exactly what I got in The Mummy.

Perhaps I should want more from a movie. Granted, that is a defensible perspective and, yes, I do like to be surprised by a movie, surprised by twist and turns and defiance of expectations. But I did not need that from The Mummy. It was just what I desired on a summer evening. Is it particularly memorable? No. Was it perfectly fun? It absolutely was.

THE MUMMY receives THREE DOUBLE PUPILS out of a possible FIVE.

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Link’n’Blogs – 6.23.17 – Solo Change


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I loved Lincoln Logs when I was a kid. Though I never entertained the idea that I would be a designer, engineer or architect, something about putting together these wooden and plastic pieces was simply simple fun. Connecting to ideas through the blogosphere seems similar to this pursuit, hence the title of this weekly post. Each Friday, I intend to post something interesting I’ve read out there on the internets. Hopefully others will find these posts as thought provoking as I have.

Did you hear the one about the young movie directors who were given the assignment of directing a movie about one of the most beloved characters in science fiction film history only to be FIRED with 3/4 of principal photography completed and to be replaced by one of the biggest directors in the business? Click the photo!

Han-Solo-Film-Logo-Unofficial

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Wonder Woman – A Movie Review


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Wonder Woman Poster

 

 

Epic. Beautiful. Compelling. Inspiring.

Surely there are more adjectives with which to describe the cinematic triumph that is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, but we will begin with these.

Wonder Woman is truly an epic movie with roots going back far further than the character’s 75 year publishing history. The origin story told here in succinct and touching fashion, connects Diana of Themyscira to a centuries long tradition of Greek gods and goddesses, to an island that truly looks like paradise and to the Amazons whose dichotomy of love and war is brilliantly realized. Diana’s story unfolds as we encounter her at three critical stages of her life and learn that the life she believes she is leading may not actually be the life she actually is leading. Brilliant actors led by Connie Neilson as Hippolyta, Diana’s mother and queen of the Amazons, and Robin Wright as Antiope, Hippolyta’s second-in-command and Diana’s guardian, populate Themyscria, the Paradise Island of Diana’s birth. Please, American cinema, give us more strong women characters like these. Confident, fully developed and realized, capable and compassionate, the Amazons are exactly the kind of wise and peaceful people from which Wonder Woman would come. These are not women to be trifled with or to underestimate. These are warrior woman who have retreated from a world too infused with violence.

The epic nature of this movie begins here, in this first act which plays so wonderfully it is over before the audience realizes how terrific it is, and that tone is set for all that is to come. There is something special going on in this movie. Something larger than summer popcorn fare.

Into that reality falls Chris Pine’s Captain Steve Trevor. Pine is best known as Captain Kirk from the rebooted Star Trek movie, but there is no vestige of his Kirk performance here. Pine is terrific and serves as something of the lens through which the audience encounters Wonder Woman. Our understanding of who she is grows along with his own. Trevor’s reaction is one part awe, one part incredulity as he learns who this beautiful Wonder Woman is. The relationship that develops between them is believable and touching, much like the movie itself.

Beautiful is the correct adjective to describe Gal Gadot and her portrayal of Wonder Woman. Yes, the Israeli super model turned actress is gorgeous (and the movie easily and confidently has some fun with this reality as opposed to ignoring it – bravo Patty Jenkins!) but the character is beautiful both inside and out. Gadot was the best reviewed thing in Batman V Superman and she commands this movie.

Her Diana is intelligent, gracious, strong and confident. She is the epitome of power. She is driven by kindness. She is enchanting and wise. Gadot’s performance is so spot-on that is it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. Think of how well Robert Downey, jr embodies Iron Man or Johnny Depp Jack Sparrow. That is the type of mastery Gadot effortlessly exhibits in the role.

It is a good thing Gadot is as good as she is because the supporting actors of the piece, Lucy Davis, Danny Huston and David Thelwis to name three, are very strong here as is Elena Ayana as Doctor Maru. Davis’ Etta Candy is great fun and Ayana’s Maru is tragically drawn. Thelwis and Huston tower over the proceedings whenever they are on screen. They lend it the epicness the piece deserves.

The three act, three location structure of the film is something of a call-back to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (Krypton, Kansas, Metropolis and Themyscira, London, Germany) and the design serves the movie well. One scene in particular is a moving homage to Superman: The Movie that is sure to delight whether audiences note the resonance or not. Wonder Woman also owes something else to the 1978 movie – it owes its spirit.

Wonder Woman is just as compelling as Superman and more propulsive. The movie is ever moving forward to a goal, just like its main character. Diana knows her mission and sets out to accomplish it. The film does, too and Jenkins spends just enough time on each scene and in each location to keep the movie tight. Wonder Woman is the type of motion picture that audiences are going to want to see again.

As a character, Wonder Woman was initially created as an inspiration for young women to give them a character with whom they could connect much like young men had Superman and Batman. Throughout her history (and famously during the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s), Wonder Woman has been correctly co-opted as inspiration to women of all ages. More recently, she has been cast as an inspiration for peace. Amazingly, this movie honors all of those instincts in a conclusion that is perfect for this particular superhero movie and would be wholly out of place in any other. It is an inspiring ending to a moving  and inspiring film.

Wonder Woman is a movie that wears its metaphorical heart on its sleeve because it understands it must. It wears its heart on its sleeve because it understands its main character. It wears its heart on its sleeve because it understands it is okay to mean something even in a summer, superhero movie.

Wonder Woman stands for something important. It knows it can be an important film. It has a message to share. It does not shy away from the soul of its main character.

And it is all the better for those choices.

It is, from direction to star to execution, all but perfect. It is wonderful and I am eager to see it again.

WONDER WOMAN receives an unreserved FIVE GOLDEN LASSOS out of a possible FIVE.

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