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Justice League: A (Spoiler Free) Movie Review


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justice-league-poster-fandango

Batman smiles!

But more on that later…

If one were to peruse my prior reviews of DC movies, one would find that I have been far more generous in my appraisal of their quality than widespread opinion has been. I have also enjoyed them more, it seems, than much of the movie-going public (though, for the negative reputations these movies have, someone is seeing them – they make a lot of dough!). It should come as no surprise, then, that I very much enjoyed Justice League. There is a Seven Samurai, bring the heroes together quality to the film that is intentional and that works very, very well. Each of the five (six?) heroes of the Justice League are spotlighted quite nicely as they determine whether or not to band together against, you know, ultimate evil.

Let us begin with that self-same ultimate evil. The glaring disappointment in the movie is Steppenwolf, the antagonist whose actions bring together the League. Like many (most?) superhero movies, Justice League has a difficult time establishing Steppenwolf as more than a powerful force bent on destroying the world. He is powerful. He might destroy the world. His motivation beyond that is murky as is the CGI that realizes him on screen. There are some breathtaking CGI scenes in Justice League – very cool, very fun visualizations. Steppenwolf, unfortunately, is not one of them. He is just another generic, superhero movie villain with very little, visually or otherwise, to distinguish him.

The members of the League itself, however? Not generic. At all.

Justice League has a tonally different feel from the prior movies of the DC universe. Where those movies, in my opinion, delved surprisingly deeply into the implications of heroes living in the “real world” and the ramifications of their presence, Justice League end-runs any significant thematic rumblings in favor of save-the-world dynamics. And the dynamics are engaging, exciting and fun.

Batman (Ben Affleck having much fun in the cowl) knows something is coming for the Earth. He learned this at the end of Batman v Superman and he is aware that his actions have left the earth vulnerable, aware that Superman’s death is, at least partially, his responsibility. He and Wonder Woman (the again terrific Gal Gadot) embark on a quest to bring together other meta-humans to face the coming crisis. These are the meta-humans Batman and Wonder Woman learned of from Lex Luthor’s jump drive in Batman v Superman and the fun kicks into high gear when the team starts to come together.

Say what you wish about Zack Snyder as a director. I believe it is difficult to fault his casting choices. Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ezra Miller (the Flash) and Ray Fisher (Cyborg) are all terrific and bring much to the party. Miller’s Barry Allen is a particular delight and he had a challenging task to differentiate himself from Grant Gustin’s popular turn as the Flash on television. His performance more than does that. He is hilarious and endearing. Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the surprising heart of the movie and the depths that could be mined with the character point to great potential. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman has a bit more going on than the tough-guy images shared in the previews might suggest. Individually they are good.

Together, they are great.

The fun of Justice League is found in the well drawn interplay among the leaguers. Director Zack Snyder, writer Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, who came into the movie very late in the process (and it is very difficult to tell where Whedon picked up from where Snyder left off) know that their stars will carry the day, so much so that the plot of the movie, which is more than serviceable, is less important than the players. It is difficult to single out any combination of the Leaguers as the best combination and that is a credit to cast and director.

If the DC movies (save the almost universally well received Wonder Woman) have been bleak, humorless, gray and meandering, Justice League set out to and succeeded in rising above those critiques. The movie begins briskly and does not take its foot off the gas until the final stinger scene (at the far end of the credits… stick around, people). It is rumored that Warner Bros. mandated a running time of no more than two hours. While I would have loved to have seen a bit more (and a long run time may have addressed some of the Steppenwolf issues), I understand the choice. And it works.

Justice League is a big, fun, superhero team origin story. It is a story of redemption for Batman who lightens up in this one, who cracks jokes and smiles and, through whom, perhaps the upcoming DC movie slate is changed. Future DC movies are well positioned following Justice League.

And, hey, let’s get Justice League II on the schedule.

Now, that the team is in place, I want to see what happens next.

JUSTICE LEAGUE receives FOUR AND A HALF BAT SMILES out of a possible FIVE.

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Murder on the Orient Express – A Movie Review


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Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-poster-1

Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is one lavish movie. Each set piece, from the opening scene at the Wailing Wall to the final shot in the uninviting cold of a wintry train station, Branagh has directed a lovely looking movie unlike most films audiences currently experience. Branagh is underrated as a director and what he does in this movie is special: he blends amazing shots and set pieces with a massive cast while remaking a Hollywood classic and keeping the material feeling fresh. While not perfect, Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging and engrossing … dare I write… ride.

The movie presents a terrific “locked-room” mystery: a murder has been committed on a trained and the train and passengers are icebound. Someone among them is a killer. Conveniently, someone among them happens also to be “perhaps the greatest detective in the world.”

Branagh directs himself as Agatha Christie’s most famous creation: Hercule Poirot and he gives himself the same loving treatment the scenery receives but he does not only allow himself to shine. Branagh has a massive (and immensely talented) cast to balance here. Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Johnny Deep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley and Josh Gad to name just a few. While the constraints of the film do not allow for full character development, Branagh allows each of the cast a moment in the spotlight over the course of the movie.

Depp gives a surprisingly complex performance in very limited screen time. It is some of his best work in a long time, frankly, and much has to do with the restraint he allies to the role. Ridley receives the most exposure out of the supporting cast but her works suffers from the fact that there is very little for her to actually do except match wits with Branagh’s Poirot. Gad is terrific and brings energy to each scene and Jacobi and Dench are clearly having fun working with Branagh, their long-time collaborator.

But it is Pfeiffer who vies most compellingly for the spotlight. The actress is having something of a re-emergence and it is most welcome. Not only is she wonderful in the film, but she also sings the Branagh co-penned song over the closing credits. She is given a nice emotional range to portray over the course of the movie and she handles in brilliantly.

The movie suffers, a bit, from an abundance of acting riches. Beyond the cast mentioned, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom jr. and Tom Bateman as also wonderful but all of the actors feel a bit jammed into the proceedings. On the one hand, this is a problem because the audience would like to know more about them. On the other, this is just fine for, after Poirot, the star of the story should be the mystery at hand and the ability of the audience to follow the twists and turns to a satisfying conclusion.

Here the movie looks a little better than it plays out.

In order for the plot to make sense and the killer to be revealed, the audience endures an awful lot of flashbacks and, while these are handled well from a technical aspect (in black and white, shot at oblique angles) they are less integrated into the overall flow of the narrative. Branagh works hard to let the audience connect most of the dots but, at the end of the day, his Poirot must explain all.

While the explanation is faithful to the source material, it does not hold together quite well enough to yield a completely satisfying experience.

Murder on the Orient Express is a wonderful looking movie to watch and it is entertaining to see actors of this magnitude share the screen. And the mystery at the heart of the movie almost pays off.

Almost.

The film ends with a promise of another installment.

I would see it… just for Branagh’s mustache.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS receives FOUR INSANE MUSTACHES out of a possible FIVE.

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Link’n’Blogs – 11.10.17: The Art of the Poster


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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.

Do you love movie posters? I do! The only thing about movies I love more than movie posters is opening credits … I think much can be judged about a movie by its opening credits, but that is a post for another time.

This post is about… POSTERS! Empire put together a respectable list of the 50 best movie posters of all time and you might wish to take a look. Not only do they show each poster, they give a little story about what went into the composition of each and who was behind it. VERY cool stuff. Click the photo below…

Best Posters

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LBJ – A Movie Review


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LBJ

Playing out more like a tv movie of the week than a major motion picture, LBJ is simply too small to tell give audiences any kind of sense of the larger-than-life figure that Lyndon Johnson was. There is nothing offensive about the movie and it is well shot and well made. It just lacks any ambition and does not justify its existence in any way, shape or form. The film suffers from any kind of comparison to the far superior All the Way in which director Jay Roach makes the good decision to center in on one point of LBJ’s amazing story, thereby illuminating a critical moment in American history and providing Bryan Cranston, who played Johnson in that film, a tour-de-force opportunity.

LBJ eschews this approach and tries, rather, to set up a comparison LBJ and JFK as the backdrop of film whose intentions are to explore what made a lion of the senate and, seemingly, a president who knew how to get things done. The problem here is that the Kennedy parts of the story seem far more intriguing than the title subject. And, when the moment of truth arrives in the third act – when Johnson decides that he must support Kennedy’s full agenda – he seems more weak than strong, more functionary than leader.

I do not think that is what the movie had in mind.

The film does do a good job portraying LBJ as a foul-mouthed Svengali of American politics and the dynamics of his senate dealings and his more than complex relationship with the Kennedys (specifically with Bobby) are involving and well drawn. Woody Harrelson (who looks jarringly little like the man he is portraying) is up to every challenge the movie asks of him. The movie simply does not ask that much.

The rest of the cast has even less to do. Richard Jenkins, normally a fascinating actor to watch, is reduced to something of a two-dimensional, mustache twirler. Jennifer Jason Leigh fades into the background as Lady Bird Johnson. The rest of the ensemble is adequate and up to the meager tasks they are asked to perform.

What could have been an involving film about a complex man is reduced in size, theme and scope to something too pat, too easy and too simplistic. There are no high points. There are few low points. There is a steady proficiency that is empty and disappointing.

LBJ is fine.

Woody Harrelson as the eponymous Lyndon Johnson is fine.

Direction by the former brilliant and now serviceable Rob Reiner is fine, too.

The entire affair is fine.

It is no better than that.

LBJ receives TWO AND A HALF SCATOLOGICAL INSULTS  out of a possible FIVE.

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Thor | Ragnarok – A Movie Review (Spoiler Free)


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RagnarokThor | Ragnarok’s director Taika Waititi’s imagination seems to have been given free reign by the higher ups at Marvel Studios and the resultant movie, wisely, breaks with much of the formulas of previous Marvel films. The Marvel movies are typically very good and certainly make money hand-over-fist, but their patterns were beginning to calcify. The stories were beginning to be all too predictable. The plots repetitive.

Giving creative people freedom to explore what these characters may become and allowing these creators to make changes to them is a bold and good impulse. While trying to be too bold with Marvel characters may have cost Edgar Wright, the original  director of Ant-Man his job might have, seen through the lens of James Gunn’s unpredicatble success with The Guardians of the Galaxy led to Waititi’s Thor | Ragnarok. Choosing talented people and letting them make the movies they envision may be the new Marvel method.

If so, bravo Marvel. Keep movies like this one coming. 

Thor | Ragnarok is one of the zaniest, craziest, over-the-top movies I have seen in quite a while. Evoking for me memories of the off-the-wall insanity of The Lego Movie and the first Despicable Me (the writers/directors of those had to be altered in some fashion, right?), Thor | Ragnarok plays like some kind of  joyous, Technicolor LSD trip, juiced up on steroids.

The basic plot of the titular hero attempting to stop”the end of everything” on his home world Asgard is not stunningly original. The execution, however, is anything but boring and the over 2 hour running time of the movie flies by before one can catch one’s breath from laughter.

There is a lot of fun being had in Thor | Ragnarok. The returning assemble is clearly having a lot more fun than the did in the relatively deary last entry Thor: The Dark World (possibly the low-water mark for Marvel Studios) and the additions to the cast are winning and delightfully entertaining.

Tessa Thompson, as Valkyrie, is a wonderful creation. As removed from her comic book origins as any character in a Marvel Studios movie has been, Thompson captures the audience with a Han Solo like bravado and a strength of performance so natural that the question of whether she can stand toe-to-toe with the ever lovable Chris Hemsworth never arises in the audience’s mind. Her Valkyrie may be the first original lead character in a Marvel Studios film and, if she is any indication of where these movies can go if they jettison the source material with a little more freedom, more power to them.

Cate Blanchett gives a delicious performance as Hela, the primary antagonist of the movie. Rumor has it that she took the movie on the urging of her young son who wanted to see his mom in a Marvel movie and she should thank him if that is true. She has more fun destroying things and people throughout the movie and is more fun to watch doing it than the majority of Marvel villains. Though her motivation and plot is no more complex than most of the other evils Marvel heroes have faced in this vast movie mythology, her performance forgives that failure utterly.

And Jeff Goldblum is all anyone could want him to be and more. There is no “top” he will not soar over and each scene he is in seems more ridiculous and terrific than the last. Though few will be clamoring for a Grandmaster movie, I imagine we will see much more of Goldblum in Marvel Studios movies to come. I eagerly await that.

Outside of the strong and winning performance by Hemsworth, the rest of the returning Thor Players seem to know they are in something special, too. Tom Hiddleston remains the best of the Marvel antagonists and his Loki continues to engage and surprise. The Warriors Three are here and more than adequate with the little they are allowed to do. It was said that Anthony Hopkins turned down reprising his role as Odin until he read and loved the script. Though his part is small, it is great to see him here having fun and providing the gravitas that only he can. Idris Elba’s Heimdhal might be the most heroic character in the movie and I would loved to have seen more of him. He and Hemsworth have an easy chemistry and they are great to watch together.

Cameos (and extended cameos) abound here. The Hulk is featured and Mark Ruffalo is just what we want him to be. And the Hulk is more than we could have hoped for. Marvel has finally figured this character out and while he might never headline a movie, if they can continue to hew closely to this arc, fans should be happy. Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as Doctor Strange and, while it was nice to see him, his scenes actually do very little to advance the plot of the movie. They might, in fact, be the only place where Thor | Ragnarok slips into fan service. As a fan, I was okay with this… The other cameos are so spoiler-y they cannot be mentioned but an audiences will be delighted by them.

Taika Waititi makes very few missteps here. His choices are bold, bright and fun. However, the movie is not perfect. Karl Urban’s Skurge is, unfortunately, never fully realized. And, while the antics of the movie are fun and amusing and the stakes seem high enough for a superhero movie like this one, I fear there is not a lot of heart at the center of Thor | Ragnarok. Perhaps there does not have to be. After all, this is a big budget, big action entertainment. Maybe it does not need to be more than that. The movie delivers everywhere it should. There may have been the potential to deliver just a little more. May have.

Thor | Ragnarok plays something like a mix of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers and that is a great tone to strike. It is grand. It is a Jack “King” Kirby comic book played out before one’s eyes. It is a terrific two hours at the movies.

It is, as the Hulk might say, a smash.

THOR | RAGNAROK receives FOUR and a HALF AIR CRAZY CAMEOS out of a possible FIVE.

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Only the Brave – A Movie Review


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ONLY THE BRAVE (2017) Movie Poster CR: Columbia PicturesOnly the Brave tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a group of fire fighters whose heroism is as laudable as it is hard to believe. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, the movie is something of a visual spectacle – a seamless mix of practical and computer generated effects that puts the audience in the center of the fires these men fight and in the midst of the action they confront.

The Granite Mountain Hot Shots are led by a well tuned Josh Brolin whose Eric Marsh holds the team together through a winning mixture of passionate commitment and tough love. Brolin, who seems ever on the verge of breaking big, is playing at the type of role in Marsh that he wears well: the grizzled, plain-spoken sage hiding more beneath his typically placid surface than meets the eye. Brolin’s Marsh is the glue that holds both the Hot Shots and the human element of the movie together and, refreshingly, his relationship with his wife Amanda (played by the excellent Jennifer Connelly) is important to the story and more central the to proceedings than it typically would be in a film of this nature.

This is a good thing. The interaction with Amanda humanizes Marsh in a way nothing else in the movie does and these fire fighters are best served when they appear to be humans doing amazing things.

That is the theme at the core of the film: bravery begets bravery and as this group of men expands (the inevitable outsider Brendan Mcdonough who becomes beloved by the group role is ably played by Miles Teller) and comes together as a unit, they become stronger by clearing each hurdle put in their paths, those natural and those constructed by humanity.

On hand to keep things light is Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, acting for all the world as if he is making his role up as he goes along. He is charming and winning. Terrific, too, is the underrated Taylor Kitsch as Christopher MacKenzie, a fire fighter whose depth is well handled in the movie. Less developed is James Badge Dale’s Jesse Steed, a fairly standard, “I am a hero” role for an actor who has shown he can do a lot more than what is asked of him here.

The action scenes are breathtakingly imagined and the movie itself is earnestly told.

If there is a weakness here, it is found in the fact that film plays out by-the-numbers. Though the story is certainly affecting, there are not many surprises in Only the Brave. It is a solid, well-directed story of heroism and self-sacrifice, well worth a couple hours in the theater.

ONLY THE BRAVE receives FOUR AIR TANKERS OF WATER out of a possible FIVE.

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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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