Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling

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Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (****)

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Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children – 2016

Director Tim Burton
Screenplay by Jane Goldman based on the book by Ransom Riggs
Starring Asa Butterfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Green, Dame Judi Dench, Chris O’Dowd, Lauren McCrostie, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney

When we look upon this time 50 years from now, will we remember that it was Samuel L. Jackson who provided at least 30% of all entertainment we ever got from movies? Miss Peregrine…is a good movie. It’s even better when you consider Tim Burton applied most of his best sensibilities with almost none of his worst. The think that helps the story border on greatness though, is our man Sam right in the middle of it all.

The backbone of the story is not all that original. Anyone who’s seen anything from Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer through Harry Potter will recognize the aimless seemingly untalented youth that finds his place among a bevy of similarly disaffected. The execution and casting helps set this one apart from others.

Jake (Butterfield) is a young man who recently lost his Grandfather Abe. Abe told his Grandson many stories about a wonderful place where he spent his youth. He had pictures of the place, including headmistress Miss Peregrine (Green). Even so, his recollections always stood outside the realm of believability. Eventually Jake is ashamed to even think he believed in them.

The most convoluted part of the plot is getting Jake to this place. We have psychoanalysis for no particular reason, and a trip to an English Isle to get Jake over the hump. All the while, as a parent I realize my kid’s emotional well being will never be resolved through air miles.

No matter how we get there, we get to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. We find it miraculous and caught in a perpetual time loop. Reliving the same day since the day before the Luftwaffe raid in WWII. They do not age, but are able to retain their memories. These loops have allowed Miss Peregrine and her children to hide from the outside world. I will leave the rest for the viewer. Suffice to say, the best parts of the film are finding out how all of this is possible, what the children all can do and why they would need to hide.

That reason is in the form of Samuel L. Jackson, as Mr. Barron. He has vested interests that involve procuring the children and we spend much of the second half of the film finding out why. The story unfolds very comfortably, though. So interested was I in the gifts of these children, the little bits that were doled out, the fact that they are being pursued doesn’t even occur to me until it’s right on shore.

Burton’s instincts are tempered here. He’s allowed the weirdness we normally get from him, but without any of the routine “no one understands how weird I want to be” normally pushed to the forefront. Having Green in the role normally reserved for Helena Bonham Carter infests certainly helps. Ultimately we get all of the benefits of the imagination of the creators with very few of the indulgences of a director who hasn’t heard “no” when it comes to a budget since Superman Lives.

Butterfield is an extremely graceful talent. His ability to seem normal while commanding one’s attention is remarkable. I can’t recall the time I have seen him onscreen and not at least enjoyed what he was doing.

Green is good when it comes to Miss Peregrine. She exudes peculiarity as well as safety. If this were a normal Burton film, Bonham Carter would have added a touch of danger for the children. It would have thrown everything off, so I am happy Burton selected her for the role.

This is not to say there was no danger present for our protagonist and his friends. The people that are snatched off of the screen come at surprising times and for this viewer and his 10 year old daughter, the food of choice for the antagonists is excruciating to ponder.

Burton’s choice of Bruno Delbonnel for cinematography is a winner. His palette exudes a warmth and refreshing greens and yellows to contrast with the colder colors of Jake’s reality outside of the Home. Big Eyes notwithstanding, Burton should continue working with Delbonnel in the future.

For those looking for an effective story to share with their children, you will find it here. My daughter Ellie hates sitting through movies. She didn’t move a whit through this one. It had her attention throughout. As a parent, I felt comfortable with the messages and the tone. You want your kids to know that there is danger in the world. This film is wise enough to let the adults duck out just in time for the kids to solve the dangerous riddles together.

(**** out of *****)

Cool Papa E Reviews Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episode I-VI)

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Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Episodes I-VI) 1977-2011

Nobody really needs to review this series. It is, for better or worse, part of the world lexicon of enduring stories. How this evolved from the story of Luke and his friends to eventually just the downfall and reacquired mojo of Anakin has filled many books, often more effectively than the movies themselves did. In truth, there are really only two superior films in the George Lucas era of Star Wars. The rest, while great to look at, is a measure of the tragedy of story-boarding over storytelling.

Thing about it is, those first two films are so good, a thousand ships of dreams have been launched by those in pursuit of the magic that they promise. Unfortunately, in the cinematic world we are boxed in a harbor. The Force Awakens is a prime example of another ship that ends up in familiar waters. It feels great, but there is nothing new aside from 3 humans and a delightful robot. Who’s counting more than me, though, that the next ship, Rogue One, will be far enough into this wonderful world for us to anchor for a while and dream about our next move into dreamland.

What I will do here will amount to more a list than anything. There will be a basic review and a best of and worst of for several facets of each film. I am kind of making it up as I go along, but I am sure this will be no worse than the script for Attack of the Clones.

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Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Pernilla August, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Ahmed Best

Best Line

Daultay Dofine: This scheme of yours has failed, Lord Sidious. The blockades is finished. We dare not go against the Jedi.
Darth Sidious: Viceroy, I don’t want this stunted slime in my sight again!

Worst Line

Jar-Jar Binks: Count me outa this one. Better dead here than dead at the core. Ye Gods! What is mesa sayin’?

Best Scene

Any of the fight scenes between Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.  Too bad they are split up with crap like “My give up.”

Worst Scene

I feel so bad for Ahmed Best. He is given a thankless, poorly conceived and even worse written role. His character gets in the way of so many scenes, he seems even to be a source of irritation for the ever calm Jedi. I would say his queries to Amidala when they are at Coruscant are a perfect example of this.She’s busy pondering their planet’s very existence while being manipulated by Palpatine and all he’s allowed to say is “Yousa thinking yousa people ganna die?” No wonder she never looks at him.

Best Effects

The film is pristine. Everything except for eye contact with the digital characters is worthy of praise. Naboo and Coruscant have joined Tatooine as places we all feel we have been. Nothing matches the sheen on the Naboo cruisers sleeking through space or the vibrant sheen of a lightsaber in the the rest of the cinematic universe.

Worst Effects

The afore-mentioned eye placement for digital characters is severely off-putting. Seeing the Jedi stare absently at Jar Jar is a touchtone to every bad effects decision that follows in the prequels.

Biggest Win

The one on two matchup of Sith vs. Jedi was a daunting decision that made everyone realize these Sith are for real and they are dangerous as hell.

Biggest Mistake

Too bad they ended that duel making Maul look stupidly on as a defenseless Obi-Wan jumps over him and then slices him open. Killing off good bad guys early and making them look like doofs is a Star Wars tradition, though.

Review in 50 words or less

This film is the beginning of a lengthy series of misadventures that have Lucas continually following his whims (Jar Jar, Pod Racing, green screen) without giving a strong story to back it up. The fault lies with hiring a bunch of talented digital artists, but no real story tellers.

Rating / Rank (*** out of *****) / 4 of 6

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Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Directed by George Lucas
Written by Lucas and Jonathan Hales
Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Temeura Morrison, Jimmy Smits

Best Line 

Obi-Wan: I was beginning to wonder if you’d got my message.
Anakin: I retransmitted it to Coruscant, just as you’d requested, Master. Then we decided to come and rescue you.
Obi-Wan: [looks at his handcuffed hands] Good job.

Worst Line

Padme: Please don’t look at me like that.
Anakin: Why not?
Padme: Because it makes me feel uncomfortable.
Anakin: Sorry milady.

Best Scene

Gotta go with two here, because the pickings are so slim. #1 is Windu’s dispatching of Jango Fett. Even if it is yet another early exit for a bad guy, it makes Sam Jackson look as cool as we all know he is. #2 is the space fight between the Fetts and Obi-Wan in the planet ring. It’s the best space battle in the prequels.

Worst Scene

Everything else. Everything.

Best Effects

There are so few decent aspects to this film, it’s not hard to define. The spaceship that Dooku / Tyranus flies from Geonosis to Coruscant is not only wonderfully conceived, but it is very cool to look at.

Worst Effects

Could be just the clones.  They all look painted onto the screen. It never looks like they are actual humans, or breathing beings at all. The gladiator stadium is ill conceived and even more poorly executed. Dexter is horrible too. Sure, they make the table move when he sits, but his there is no sound when he makes contact with the table afterword. Kamino looks like a latter day Elizabeth Taylor perfume commercial; beautiful and unreal.

Biggest Win

We all win when Mace is allowed to kick ass.

Biggest Mistake

Digital filming was the concentration for this movie, and there was increasingly little thought given to the story. Lucas pieced it together in a few weeks and then gave Hale about a half-week to clean it up.

Review in 50 words or less

Not only the worst Star Wars film, but one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The script is deplorable and the poor acting encouraged by Lucas’ inability to communicate makes it worse. Saddest of all is the movie looks more like a cartoon than anything.

Rating / Rank (1/2* out of *****) / 6 of 6

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Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Ian McDiarmid, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Lee, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz, Temeura Morrison, Jimmy Smits

Best Line

Supreme Chancellor: I know what’s been troubling you. Listen to me. Don’t continue to a be a pawn of the Jedi Council! Ever since I’ve known you, you have been seeking a life of great significance, far more than any Jedi.
[turns his back on Anakin]
Supreme Chancellor: Are you going to kill me?
Anakin Skywalker: I would certainly like to!
Supreme Chancellor: I know you would. I can feel your anger. It give you focus… makes you stronger.

Worst Line

Padmé: Hold me, like you did by the lake on Naboo; so long ago when there was nothing but our love. No politics, no plotting, no war.

Best Scene

I’m going to go with Obi-Wan dropping in on Grievous and his army. The winsome smile is a reminder of why this guy was picked to play a young Alec Guinness.

Worst Scene

Jedi Youngling: [a group of younglings are discovered by Anakin] Master Skywalker. There are too many of them. What are we going to do?
[with a cold, emotionless face, Anakin draws his lightsaber]

Best Effects

Everything looks pretty good this time around. A much better color palette and much clearer look to everything. The most cohesive mix of effects and scene go to the seduction of Skywalker by Palpatine at the Opera. That is the lasting image in my mind for this film. 2nd would be Windu vs. Sidious.

Worst Effects

The clones still look pretty damn bad, but the continual scenes of characters walking together in front of a blue screen will be remembered as a goofy descendant of the Scooby Doo scrolling background. The fight on Mustafar fails whenever the two Jedi start hovering on a variety of objects.

Biggest Win

The best thing about this film is easy: McDiarmid’s Palpatine. His performance is a standout in the series. Really, if one can remove him from the rest of the prequel trilogy, his performance is nearly award worthy. His look of actual lust for power is made all the more rewarding when one considers the fact that it takes him so long in movie years to get that for which his is plotting. His lines all roll off the tongue and none of them have the stench of Lucas’ middle school playtime prose.

Biggest Mistake

Having Padme die of heartbreak is lame as hell. George had years to think of something with which to kill her, and we get that?

Review in 50 words or less

It’s the film that is the most concise, if for no other reason than Lucas is backed into a corner and can only move forward. It is still a tremendously flawed film, but at least with the over-reliance on Palpatine we get to see some real Machiavellian shit go down.

Rating / Rank (*** out of *****) / 3 0f 6

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Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977 originally – 2011 version)

Written and Directed by George Lucas
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, James Earl Jones, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

Best Line

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

STAR
WARS

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

These words changed a lot of lives for the better.

Worst Line

Han Solo: Jabba, you’re a wonderful human being.

Only if you leave all of the dialogue in from that redundant conversation and wholly unnecessary added scene. Jabba was a fat guy in the original deleted scene.

Best Scene

Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader. My friends and I have replayed this scene a hundred times or more in our back yards growing up. That it was decided during a later draft shows the power that collective writing had back in the early days for Lucas.

Worst Scene

In any post 1997 version, its the addition of Jabba. It slows the film down with repeated and confusing dialogue, and makes Han look like he repeats himself like a daft man.”Han shot first” and the flying robot teasing thebigger one and getting hit also rate quite high.

Best Effects

It has to be the opening 10 minutes. Vader’s entrance onto the hapless ship filled with old guys who couldn’t shoot straight. This is one of the few firefights the Stormtroopers win, even if they all miss the droids.

Worst Effects

Why George ever thought to mess with the classic “Han shot first” scene will be subject to debate until shortly after Lucas is dead, and then will be restored by Disney.  Any version but the 1977 cut makes no sense, no matter how the director tries to explain it away. Do you want Greedo to be an inept bounty hunter?  Do you want Han to lose his ambiguity? Do you want to suck the charm out of the movie? If so, then any version post 1997 is for you.

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Han stepping over Jabba is a very close second, even if they worked on that 1000 hours and made it better than 1997, it still sucks.
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Biggest Win

Everyone who ever liked movies wins with this film. The crappy alterations cannot change the history that was made when Star Wars was first released. Everything good and some bad about movies stems from May 25, 1977 in Mann’s Chinese Theatre.

Biggest Mistake

The post 1997 edits take this film down a notch. It’s still a classic, but it’s got a few dings since then.

Review in 50 words or less

It’s hard to quantify how important this movie is to people. The original release is the most important movie I have ever witnessed. Without this film, I would not be obsessed with movies now. They could replace the edits with stills of Dom Deluise and I would still happily watch.

Rating / Rank (***** for original and ****1/2 out of ***** for post 1997) / Both are 2/6 

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Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Directed by Irvin Kirshner
Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz

Best Line

I sincerely think this whole script qualifies for best line. There are too many great lines and as far as I can see, only one bad one. The two best though, have to be as follows:

Princess Leia: I love you.
Han Solo: I know.

And

Darth Vader: There is no escape. Don’t make me destroy you.
[pauses]
Luke, you do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.
Luke: I’ll never join you!
Darth Vader: If you only knew the power of the Dark Side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No. I am your father.
Luke: No. No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!
Darth Vader: Search your feelings, you know it to be true!
Luke: [anguished] No! No!

Worst Line

General Reiken [to Han Solo]: A death mark’s not an easy thing to live with.

Best Scene

Again, there are so many iconic moments in this film. I have to narrow it down to Luke learning the truth and Han, Leia and Chewie’s surprise betrayal.

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Worst Scene

I have to nitpick here, because I really think there no obviously bad scenes. Seeing Luke blindly swatting at large things obviously lumbering towards him in his Cloud City battle with Vader makes him look like he would need training to beat a fat guy blue belt Jiu Jitsu who got his stripes fighting small kids.

Best Effects

Everything bursts off of the screen beautifully. The space flight of the Millennium Falcon takes the prize though. Inventive, crisp and smooth at once.

Worst Effects

Again, this is quibbling, but it has always felt like the Wampa was just one big giant arm on a stick swung by a stage hand.

Biggest Win

George Lucas owes his entire empire to the images and character possessed within this film. Everything started with A New Hope, but this is the film that cements Star Wars into the world’s psyche.

Biggest Mistake

Letting go of Kirshner and Kurtz. There has not been as good a Star Wars film by a long shot since these two were shown the door.

Review in less than 50 words

This is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the fount of imagination that springs forth for so many. Lucas deciding to make Vader Luke’s father and Leia falling for Han is storytelling at it’s peak. This is the lynch pin for all that follows.

Rating / Rank (***** out of *****) / 1 of 6

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Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

Directed by Richard Marquand
Written by George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan
Starring  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones

Best Line 

Admiral Ackbar: It’s a trap!

Worst Line

Good God they turn Solo into an absolute moron in Return of the Jedi. Everything he does is beyond annoying. If it weren’t for the Ewoks, he’d take the prize for worst thing about the film. I don’t know if it was a misread of the character they’d created or if George was mad that Ford wanted to be killed off. Or if it is an indication that Lucas’ creative vision was clouded by personal problems. Whatever happened, they get a head start at ruining the franchise before they even land on Endor.

Han Solo: Chewie and I’ll take care of this, you stay here.
Luke: Quietly. There may be more of them out there.
Han Solo: Hey, it’s me.

Best Scene

This film has not aged well. Scenes that are good are often tied to scenes that are just absurd. The fight on Jabba’s sail barge is the best example of this. While Leia is kicking some ass and killing the big slug, Han is blindly knocking Boba Fett into the Sarlacc pit, in what is the first of a long line of stupid bad guy demises. Still, this is the best moment for women in the entire series prior to Rey’s arrival in Episode VII.

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Worst Scene

Many to choose from here. The afore mentioned end of Boba Fett ranks high, but it’s nowhere near the assault to the senses that are the Ewoks. They have many a horrible scene, but nothing quite so bad as their attack on the heavily armored Storm Troopers with sticks and trees.

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Best Effects

The speeder bike race was cool at the time, and it still has some resonance. Not as much as the space battle over Endor though. Many good moments and exceptional editing win the day here.

Worst Effects

There are a few grainy scenes, like the Rebel planning room for the attack on the second Death Star, that have not improved even in the reissues. There are some updates that work, like the new song at Jabba’s palace, even if you can tell the cartoon figures from the real. I hate seeing Hayden Christensen standing next to Yoda and Ben in the end.

However, everything the Ewoks do look like little people in a loose fitting suit. They should have stuck to the original plan and just made a few more Wookie outfits.

Biggest Win

Initial Marketing and box office win the day. This movie was a tremendous hit at the time. It made a ton of money in its initial release.

Biggest Mistake

Long term. Return of the Jedi has no shelf life. The toys from the film stopped selling, especially when Lucas said he wasn’t going to be making any more. No one I have ever met owned an Ewok play figure of any kind.

Review in 50 words or less

Sorry folks, this one is a turd. The good is even with the bad here. The good on one side being most of the first act, the showdown with the Emporer and the space battle. The bad is most everything else. It completes the trilogy with a thud.

Rating / Rank 

(**1/2 out of *****) / 5 of 6

The Hateful Eight (Roadshow Edition) ****1/2 is a study of balance

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The Hateful Eight – 2015

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring  Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, James Park, Gene Jones, Dana Gourrier

That actors save their best performances for Quentin Tarantino is certainly not a surprise. That he continues to pull new good actors from the fringes is even less of a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson is consistently the best actor in the world when he boldly announces Tarantino’s words, even the one that Spike Lee doesn’t want him to use. This movie is no exception on that front, but he gets a lot of help here, too.

The genius within The Hateful Eight is that one never does secure a sense of balance. Even though the film takes place in a small, rickety inn for much of its three hour running time, there is nothing in the film that amounts to a sure thing as the eight of the title becomes seven, six, five…etc.

The bare essence of a story that only exists as bare essence is Kurt Russell as bounty hunter John Ruth, also known as “The Hangman.” Give you two guesses and a biscuit if you can figure why he has that name. When he comes across Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren just ahead of a blizzard, they have a discussion about their shared trade of hunting bounties. Warren, sitting atop a pile of dead bounties when we see him, first prefers the more certain thing of carrying the dead. Russell, for philosophical reasons, but really more as a contrivance of plot, prefers to watch them hang.

John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth: No one said this job was supposed to be easy.
Major Marquis Warren: Nobody said it’s supposed to be that hard, either!

But hard it has to be, so onward they go, until the blizzard stops them from getting to their destination of Red Rock. Instead, they land at Minnie’s Haberdashery. They find that Minne (Gourier) and her constant, lazy companion Sweet Dave (Jones) have left a Mexican named Bob (Bachir) in charge while she went to visit her ill mother. Most people will be able to piece together the chances of this being true, especially since it takes place in the third of six chapters. There is still a long way to go, but don’t start patting yourself on the back yet, genius.

That we find the rest of the eight there helps us to settle in with the characters to wait out the storm as tensions rise inside. The best scene in Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, takes place in the dining room. The terseness of the dialogue is matched only by the thoughts running through everyone’s head, made delightfully obvious by their demeanor and their faces. For anyone who enjoyed that scene, The Hateful Eight should be an utter delight.

The last two acts of the film take place like a vise slowly increasing its grip on the viewer. Every time one thinks they have sure footing on what’s going on, Tarantino yanks on the rug just enough so it’s necessary to reestablish footing. Some of this is predictable, yes. Some of this is built on plot holes and gaps in logic by the characters.  None of this matters because when you are experiencing the journey from Tarantino’s script to his camera lens, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapture of the process.

The cast is remarkable. There is not one bad or even mediocre performance. If I have a blind spot in movies (who’s counting?) it is definitely Samuel L. Jackson. He’s the only reason I even watch Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones anymore. The Tarantino / Jackson movie marriage is one of the best things I have ever experienced watching film. It’s more than Jules Winnfield by a longshot. Here is no exception. Jackson captures the movie with his wise and ruthless Warren. It pays to keep your eyes and ears trained to the Major, but not at the expense of watching his surroundings.

Leigh’s role as prisoner Daisy Domergue is rife with opportunity, and of course she makes the most of it. Her performance is less a victim and more catbird. She comes across more powerfully than the man that has her in chains. She’s funny and menacing both. Her increasing number of ailments throughout only add to the thought of the punishment that would be inflicted once she is unbound.

That Russell is the one delivering the punishment with her in chains makes it somewhat certain that at some point that circumstances will change. His job here is a tough one, because no one ever expects the prisoner at the start of a story to stay one throughout. He chews almost as much scenery as Jackson and Leigh, however. The camera still, after all of these years, loves that aged denim countenance.

That Tarantino misses some spots in his storytelling is obfuscated by his talent for tension building. For every moment one wonders how in the heck a certain character missed a certain clue, we are treated to incredible dialogue and a penchant for human observations one will not find anywhere else. He is not my favorite filmmaker, but his quality is ever constant and never diminishing. He long ago shed the wunderkind moniker and moved into the role of auteur. His energy is fresh as ever, even as his imitators have long ago stopped getting budgets for new projects.

The Roadshow aspect of the film is an example of his obsessive love for movie history. If it seems like overkill to some, it seems a fitting tribute to the art for others. I know I will be keeping my program, since it might be the last one we see in 50 years.

roadshow program

Is The Hateful Eight his best?  No, that will always be Jackie Brown, I think. It’s right there near the top. They are really hard to rank after #1. They all seem like different parts to the whole. If you are a fan or just appreciate the art, give this one your attention as soon as you can find a 70mm screen. It’s worth it.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (****) – Kicking ass when appropriate

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Kingsman: The Secret Service – 2015

Director Matthew Vaughn
Starring Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson
Screenplay Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

It’s getting to the point where it’s no fun to watch Mark Strong in movies. He’s only ever been a bad guy in so many of his films, but not even a memorable one. It was puzzling to see him in that commercial with Tom Hiddleston and Ben Kingsley about being an effective villain. He’s British. He does sound right. Never really thought about whether he had style. He always lost his power by the end of the movie, though. Seeing him in the first act makes one depressed about what can be expected in the third act.

The beauty about Kingsman: The Secret Service is that we get to see people outside of where we are used to seeing them. Strong, as Merlin, is a trainer of agents that work for a secret order. He’s callous and effective, but he’s not a villain. And thank the Lord, there’s no telling what will happen to him by the end of the story.

He’s not the only one playing against type either. Colin Firth is Harry Hart, also known as Galahad. He is an agent who made a mistake in 1997 that should have killed his whole team, were it not for the actions of Lee Unwin, who sacrificed himself to save the team. Years later, his son, “Eggsy” (Egerton) is heading nowhere fast when Firth comes to his aid, offering him the opportunity to, well, you can guess.

While he is training, he runs afoul of the other candidates, save one, Roxy (Cookson). It doesn’t take a genius to guess who graduates the class. While he is training, Harry discovers a nefarious plot to save the world from the scam known as climate change, global warming or whatever they are calling it this year.

Richmond Valentine (Jackson) is a billionaire philanthropist who has his own ideas on what it means to “help” out his fellow men. His plan is nothing you haven’t seen before, but Obama’s on board, so that is enough to make it a bad idea. His main henchwoman, Gazelle (Boutella) is as memorable a bad chick as I have seen since Xena Onatopp. Her skill is precision cutting and excellent dance moves.

Jackson, who always seems to know the right drink to go with the meal, is exceptional as the bad guy. He adopts a lisp for no particular reason and has a different color New York Yankee hat for each outfit. He embraces his peculiarity without seeming like a parody. It’s a tough balancing act, but Jackson plays it like he was born for it.

What would this film be, though, without Colin Firth. He’s had the debonair part down for a while now, but rarely has he played one so deadly as Galahad. Vaughn puts Harry in some wonderful scenarios to take advantage of the former while lending credence to the latter. For once we get to see him completely unhinged when taking on a church of Westboro Baptist types. It’s hard to tell if the scene is offensive or funny and exciting as hell.

I never knew Firth's hair could move this way.
I never knew Firth’s hair could move this way.

Harry Hart: (Quoting Hemingway) There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.

Egerton is a somewhat mild presence as Eggsy. He is not the kind of action presence that screams to be noticed, but he gets off a cheeky line now and again. His training time with Harry is rather shorter than one would hope, but the time is well spent. A fair amount of this time is spent with Merlin at the school (and out). Roxy gets a lot of his attention, too, but not necessarily in the customary romantic way. Count that as one cliche not used. Hooray for the good guys.

Back to Clark, who is the best thing in the film. For once, his understated approach works well with the plot of the film. He is allowed to bloom quietly while others in the cast, particularly Jackson and in the end, Egerton, are exploding onscreen. This fine attention to detail makes an average story a good film.

Of Vaughn, it’s obvious the talent he has for character development, if not altogether original plot development. Starting at such a place of humility for Eggsy serves if they plan on expounding on his character in future films. The shift of focus away from an easy spy school romance is a good move, too, as it allows for better moments of mock-Bond humor later in the film, among other things.

Some of Vaughn’s best moves involve Valentine’s imaginings of a perfect world, including his selection of music with which to end the world (see below). The end really couldn’t come with a better sound. There are an equal number of jabs at liberal and conservative leanings, but it really is a nice touch to see the climate change movement get the kind of plot it deserves. To have such an obvious political scam being taken to such an insane extent belies the cynicism of a movement meant to keep money flowing to those who never stop making the emperor’s new clothes.

God save the Queen and long live the Kingsmen.

(**** out of *****)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (****1/2) too much good to be bad

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Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015

Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson

Tony Stark / Iron Man (facing fire of the enemy) Guys, wait. We gotta talk this through. (after incapacitating all of them with leg shots) It was a good talk.

Random bad guy writhing on the floor No it wasn’t!

It’s nice to know that after 3 years, Whedon hasn’t lost his sense of humor. After the stern Twitter lecture he gave about sexism the other day about a Jurassic World clip, that was no guarantee. With so much riding on the sequel to one of the biggest movies of all time, it’s easy to bet that he might take the thing too seriously this time. Thank God he didn’t script this film like he judges other people’s work.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a remarkable and assured piece of work. Once more, Whedon has taken many threads and woven them into a cohesive work that moves characters forward without sacrificing story and moves the story forward without sacrificing characters. Well, all of them except for War Machine. He always gets the short end of the hero stick, though.

This time around, Tony Stark has stumbled across some Artificial Intelligence tech that he can’t wait to work on with Bruce Banner. It’s nice to see them work. Together, with J.A.R.V.I.S (Stark’s almost living computer program), they decipher the code they come across and move toward Stark’s dream of being able to create a force of living Iron Men that can allow the Avengers to retire.

Ultron, their creation, decides to help them on their quest to retire, but not with a $50 watch and a spot on the beach. After incapacitating J.A.R.V.I.S., Ultron disrupts The Avenger’s after-party and starts on his own mission, with the help of two mutants (Can we call them that? No? Oh, well…), Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

Wanda has the ability to mess with people’s minds and create red plumes of chaos. Pietro is really fast and creates a friction that tears stuff apart. That these are not exactly the “gifts” they have in the comics is of little consequence. It’s close enough for Avengers work.

The messing with the minds part provides a lot of the challenges in the story. Everyone sees their doubts exploited except for one of them. That one’s a nice, sensible surprise, just like much of the film.There are very few moments that don’t surprise or satisfy those who have invested much in this universe.

Tony Stark has been in a free fall since the end of the Avengers Assemble, and that continues here. His work has always been fueled by his perceived weakness. This imprint works itself into the prototype. He keeps trying through the end. It’s been this continually evolving spark that has been expertly applied since the first Iron Man film by Downey, Jr. We see a continuation of what we thought was an endpoint in Iron Man 3 that is not entirely explained. Since it is in the same direction, it works.

Ruffalo’s Hulk has been the most interesting take on a tough character to find compelling. His forward progression shows in the form of a relationship with Black Widow (Johansson). The tenderness shown between the two is an expression of the vitality of both and definitely neat to watch. What happened to the guy who’s angry all the time? He’s trying real hard to work through his feelings again. It feels like a backward step.

Thor has more effective lines in this film than he did in his second solo film. Hemsworth is clearly comfortable working with Whedon’s dialogue and situations. His quest for answers is intriguing and I like the role he has in creating a solution to the problem. Ragnarok could be the Thor film for which we’ve waited.

Black Widow, as usual, plays a Jackknife of all trades. She acts as a salve to every part of the Marvel Universe that needs one. Johansson is complex without being wordy or emotional and is probably the most fully developed character Whedon has produced. Given what he has invested in her, one can understand why he might be sensitive to how Chris Pratt’s character talks to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character. Doesn’t make him right for that, but it makes him right for Black Widow.

The other major woman character, Wanda, aka The Scarlet Witch is a bit more limited, which is understandable given her role in the story. Johnson’s job is to be pissed at the good guys, work for the bad guys, find out that they are bad and then work with the good guys. Then she gets all confused and emotional. One shouldn’t have to wonder if she’ll snap out of it.

Pietro, aka Quicksilver is even more emotionally isolated. Taylor-Johnson gives a good read on the arrogance of one waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with him, but the accent is considerably weaker than his uncanny strength,

Captain America was my favorite character from the first film. Evans had the best film of Phase II and he’s rolled right into the third film with the authority of one who owns the team. He has several of the best action scenes, simply for Whedon’s remarkable ability to make his strength’s and weaknesses believable. His morality is as entertaining as it is true to the spirit of the straight-laced character. The fight scene with Ultron in Korea is one of the highlights of the film.

Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given tremendous depth and he nearly steals the show. As one of the more fragile Avengers, we discover he has even more to lose than his own life. It adds a nice resonance and makes the stakes something more identifiable. Whedon’s true gift is his ability to find a way to make the ones who might be easier to ignore impossible to forget.

Sam Jackson’s Fury acts as another sort of moral arbiter with the few scenes he shares with the rest of the cast. Nonetheless, Whedon gives him some great lines and allows him to fit inside his conspicuous existence, It’s hard to say where Fury goes in this Universe, but his character remains interesting.

As villainous voices go, they couldn’t have found one more delicious than Spader for Ultron. His lines are Spaderish to the point where he lays waste to cliche as easily as he does protagonists.His magnetism is lost a bit with the lack of expression afforded to a robot, but since when did Spader over emote?

Let me take the time to explain my plan...
Let me take the time to explain my plan…

Just when it seems like we’ve covered all the characters, we see an incredible new one. Bettany, who for several films has been the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S. is allowed to evolve into an amalgam of Tony’s creations, along with some key assistance from other resources. Vision, always an enigmatic personage, is no less a mystery here. He is a creation – drawing strong allusions to Frankenstein – that will have huge implications beyond this film. Bettany has a complete grasp of the character and its role in the plot. His entrance begins the most intense part of the story and it doesn’t let up.

To say Whedon nailed it is an understatement. He inhabits this world as much a participant as creator. It is obvious that he cared as much for the enterprise as anyone this side of Kevin Feige. That he is not going to be here at the next duo of films would be more of a concern if the guys that are taking the helm from him hadn’t created the best Marvel film in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Anthony and Joe Russo are also directing the next Captain America film called Civil War. Judging by the cast, they might as well call that Avengers 3.

If he wants to leave, best to do it now, when the mistakes are far outweighed by the things he’s gotten right. As for those mistakes, it is a little long. There is a little too much walking away from destruction with a stern warning. And, really, how do they keep the body count so low? I’m talking heroes, too. At least they don’t have Coulson die again.

Perhaps the best thing for me, though is seeing War Machine in action without making him embarrass himself.

(****1/2 out of *****)

This is not your father’s Robocop, it’s your younger son’s

RoboCop-Movie2014

Robocop – 2014

Director José Padilha
Starring Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jennifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel
Screenplay by Joshua Zetumer

Poor ED-209.  Never has there been such a cool looking law enforcement officer destined only to be the sucker.  In both the original classic and the good, but softer remake, ED-209 performs as the Washington Generals to Robocop’s Harlem Globetrotters.  Even if he and several of his brothers get the lead, there is no way he wins.

“It’s the illusion of free will” is the conclusion the makers of Robocop decide they have arrived to as they watch his creation mow down a bunch of other robots (ED 208’s if you are curious) and one of their commanders (Earle Haley).  His creation is, as it was in the original, a cynical attempt to buttress corporate greed. Omnicorp’s CEO (Keaton) wants to get more of his robot armed forces available in the U.S..  The automaton forces have done a decent job in the rest of the world, but here, they seem a little too much like drones.

The filmmakers give ironic codes to imply who is good and who is Republican.  The senator who is against the drones, Dreyfus (aka Richard) has a bill that was passed prohibiting their implementation.  On the other side, we have a TV Pundit Pat Novak (Jackson), who has a show called The Novak Element (O’Reilly Factor) intent on siding with corporate interests and against liberty.  If only the irony was funny and less politically misleading.  No one wants to see an action film with politics in it these days, much less lazy politics.

For those who don’t know the story behind Robocop, Det. Alex Murphy is nearly killed by bad guys, and then resurrected by Omnicorp.  This resurrected version becomes an almost unstoppable crimefighter.  His only weakness is that he is too good at his job, and finds people too high up the chain.  There are some differences between the incredibly graphic original and the new, PG-13 version.

To my surprise, I discovered that I liked some of them.  The new version strikes gold when supplying Murphy with tasers in order to subdue bad guys without having to decimate them.  I also like that he is aware of his family and past life, for the most part.  I never have been able to buy into the memory wipe concept.  Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle and Samuel L. Jackson are some heavy hitters to throw into the mix for what mostly amount to character roles.  I loved that it’s still Detroit that is the cesspool.  They called it back in the 80’s, and it came true.  Might as well stay with it.

Ultimately, though, the film is a lighter touch than the original.  Kinnaman lacks the charisma to even top Peter Weller, and that’s saying something.  Perhaps if he had more screen time apprehending criminals, some of the lines borrowed from the original (“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me…”) would feel more organic.  Abbie Cornish does not bring much to the table either.  There is not one bad guy who can even hold a candle to Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), not to mention Ronny Cox’s Richard “Dick” Jones.  There is very little in this film to supplant memories of the original.

That said, if you liked the original, but don’t want your kid to be exposed to the violence it engenders, try this one.  The original should definitely not be seen by anyone under the age of 17.  This movie is for anyone under that age.

(*** out of *****)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – The enemy is not us

captain america winter soldier poster wall

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 2014

Director Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson
Screenplay by Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a special kind of thrill.  In the small town of Seaside Oregon, Grouchnapper and I walked into a box theater which had less of a digital presentation than say, a transistor signal.  Grouchnapper grabbed a large chili nachos and I  went straight for the triple by-pass popcorn with butter.  Our expectations varied.  Grouchnapper had little to no expectations.  He’s seen maybe two of the Iron Man films, the second Thor and The Avengers.  Let’s just say he’s not an avid fan.

While not a comic con level fandom, I am decently versed in the storylines from the comics and fully up to speed on the entire Marvel Universe.  It’s the most ambitious film project ever concocted, the acting matches (and often surpasses) the effects and the concentration on story gives the movie a depth that is rarely seen in tent pole projects.  Having read the comic series of the same name, I figured even with Red Skull out of commission, this film could still be a mild winner in the way that the first film was.

Well, I couldn’t have gotten it more wrong, and couldn’t be more happy about it.  Making the further progression of character that was started in The First Avenger and accelerated in The Avengers, Steve Rogers is now a fully dimensional person and not just a muscle head.  He is forced to overcome a steady dose of obstacles rather than power his way through them, the way his contemporaries do.  It’s interesting viewing him take on foes that could take him out, were it not for his analysis of tactics.

The Winter Soldier starts with one such scenario.  Sure he can jump out of an airplane without a parachute, but he lands in the water.  Once he climbs on the boat, he makes good use of that shield, and a heavy-duty version of parkour.  The fight against the last guy (MMA Champion George St. Pierre) looks like a real challenge, even if he can kick another guy off a boat in mid-stride.

The next scene we see Sam Wilson (Mackie) running around the Washington National Mall Lake.  He is soon passed by Rogers, passed again, and then passed once more.  He strikes a crucial friendship with Wilson and then heads to work with Romanoff (Johansson).  While there, Fury (Jackson, in all of his glory) fills him in on a new S.H.I.E.L.D project called Insight, which sounds a lot like the illegal Spying and Drone Strike program espoused by Bush and then Obama.

Then it happens.  We see and hear the real Steve Rogers.  The one who is so pro-American, he is an enemy of the state.

“You hold a gun on everyone on Earth and call it protection. This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”

I look at Grouchnapper.  He is already looking at me.  No words need to be said: Captain America is a Libertarian.  He is suspicious of Jackson, but what he doesn’t know is that it’s not Jackson he needs to worry about.  They both need to worry about the people who think it’s a good idea to dig up what they consider to be information on people throughout the world, analyze that information and then act on it, outside the bounds of law.

Enter The Winter Soldier, well past the 1/2 hour mark, playing about the same role as outlined by the comic series, if working for a slightly different boss. Sebastian Stan completely nails the character’s single-minded determination, as well as the flashbacks from the first film which fully rounds out the person that was Roger’s truest friend.

Atwell makes a remarkably moving appearance as Peggy Carter, Steve’s great lost love from the first movie.  Seeing their heart wrenching discussion from her sick-bed brings such a completely pure sense of longing, one can’t help but feel for what both have lost.  It’s unusual for a comic book film to reach such heights of genuine emotion.

Anthony Mackie is a joy to watch as Sam Wilson, also known as Falcon.  This time, instead of a goofy set of wings, we get a government prototype set of wings that he deftly maneuvers to no real advantage.  Even so, his character is a plus for the story as he provides a willing partner to the Captain when he needs a team. Another such partner, Black Widow / Romanoff, continues her winning streak of providing the right balance of looks and effectiveness, providing the biggest asset. Johansson has never been a favorite of mine, but it’s hard to imagine the Marvel Universe without her at this point.

Redford, as a member of the World Security Council Alexander Pierce, provides an ironic choice as one who is in the position of making life or death choices for so many.  The idealism of his younger days has been replaced by a cynicism that he considers to be wisdom, much like the person who is in control of the Drones in present day real life.  They have their finger on the trigger, so of course this makes them right.  It’s a bitter irony that liberals have painted his character in the vein of some Republican nincompoop like Rumsfeld, when Pierce’s vision is way more complex and precise than “…we go to war with the army we have.”

Jackson is aces, as usual, with his most substantial turn yet as Col. Fury.  The one liners are sharp, the exasperation is on queue, the brinkmanship is appropriately serious.  His performance is crucial, as he thus far has been everything we think of when we see S.H.I.E.L.D. and he is going to be the one we go to once it all falls apart.  In what is the bravest, boldest move of the series so far, Marvel decides to tear down nearly everything they had built, up to now.  It only works because Sam is on board.   The result makes both the movie series and the previously floundering television series more intriguing.  One hopes that the former takes the leap successfully to otherworldly success for Guardians of the Galaxy, while latter takes the break to add some depth to the cardboard characters.

This leads us back to Captain America.  This is the best version of Steve Rogers possible for people like Grouchnapper and myself.  His spirit is one of true freedom, and, sadly, he is not representative of the present condition of the United States.  The country he fought for does not exist.  The alienation he feels is not exclusive to him, but he is strong enough to take it on.  The exhilaration felt in truly seeing someone fight your fight as a common person is profound.  It really is hard to believe this script made it as a major motion picture.  It might be the fact that one of the targets of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the president as well as Tony Stark, but the Markus and McFeely have hit the nail on the head.  We are definitely not in charge.  Likewise, many of us have an understanding of who the enemy is, and it is not us.

It was a bold choice to turn Steve Rogers into the spanner in the works for those who work against freedom.  His awkwardness fits right in with the circumstances. The ride is rough, and will only get rougher.  This is good for his character and great for the Marvel Universe.

(***** out of *****)

Turbo is kind of slow on the uptake

Turbo-Movie-2013

Turbo – 2013

Director David Soren
Starring (Voice) Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Michael Peña, Snoop Dogg, Maya Rudolph, Michelle Rodriguez, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Hader, Snoop Dogg, Luis Guzmán, Richard Jenkins, Ken Jeong, Michael Bell
Screenplay David Soren, Robert Siegel, Darren Lemke

Taking elements from one of the least artistically successful Pixar films (Cars) and one of the Pixar films most people forgot (Ratatouille) we have a story about a small normally disgusting thing (snail) aspiring to succeed in a field that would not normally be successful at (car racing).  If you never thought you wanted to see a movie about this, David Soren and co-writers Siegel and Lemke have not done anything here to change your mind.

Ryan Reynolds is Theo, or Turbo as he comes to be known.  His brother is Chet, played by Paul Giamatti.  If it’s hard to tell them by sound at first, it’s because they are not the same personalities they normally inhabit onscreen.  Instead, they are muted, child-safe versions with big hearts, big fears and big dreams.  Or something like that.

Turbo spends his time watching Guy Gagné (Hader) who’s putting a bad accent on a worse character.  Guy is the number one Indy racer in this story.  Watching him brings the mind to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Jean Girard.  Immediately one realizes that no matter how bad they make this guy, he will never be as funny as Cohen.  Will Turbo beat Gagné in the big race?  The fact that they did not name the film Gagné should be a clue.

Turbo is surrounded by some colorful characters, voiced by Jackson, Jeong, Bell, Snoop and Rudolph.  There are also some not so memorable characters who I won’t bother naming.  If you really want to know, just stare at the page for a while and it will be more exciting than watching the film.

How Turbo becomes the speedball snail is not really that interesting.  It was hard enough watching him blaze over detailed surfaces and trying to figure out how in the world his own surface was not torn to pieces.  There are some nice moments with some very realistic looking crows.  Quite simply, Sam Jackson is in control, no matter what his size.

The music is pretty good.  I enjoyed the clever use of The Jackson 5’s Back to Indiana, even if none of the characters had been to Indiana before.  There is a timely scene about those clever songs created out of Youtube clips that would be even better if it didn’t give the impression that everyone uses a Verizon phone.  Hopefully I get a free phone for that clever ad placement.

Kids will like this film, but many kids like to pick their noses when they are young.  There is nothing that will distinguish this film from any of the other 100’s of average films they will see in their lives.

(** out of *****)

Forgotten Gem: Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight – Made of stars

Out of Sight

Out of Sight – 1998

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Don Cheadle, Albert Brooks, Samuel L. Jackson, Luis Guzman, Isaiah Washington, Catherine Keener, Nancy Allen, Viola Davis, Michael Keaton
Screenplay by Scott Frank, based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

There was a time, before I was married, when I insisted that Jennifer Lopez must be one of the greatest actresses alive.  She added an ethereal quality to Gregory Nava’s landmark film Mi Familia, made a name for herself in the otherwise mediocre Selena, and she was delightfully repulsive in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn.  Then there was this film.  Made at the start of Soderbergh’s most fruitful period (The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven would follow), Out of Sight is one of those rare films made post Star Wars era that proved its not always the effects that have to be specia.  Out of Sight has the gift of a powerful script, a director at the peak of his powers and an unparalleled cast each doing what they do best.

George Clooney is Jack Foley, a famous convicted bank robber.  has a thing for U.S. Marshal Karen Sisco (Lopez), and she has a thing for him.  The problem in this scenario is that they meet when Jack is in the process of escaping from prison.  Thrown into the trunk by Foley’s friend Buddy (Rhames), they strike up one of the great meetings in cinema history.  Clooney’s disarming and charming delivery work smoothly with Lopez’ though but tender Marshal.  She exhibits intelligence and sexual tension with no ambiguity.

The moment we meet her father (the brilliant Dennis Farina) we know why she is such a hard edge.  Their back and forth show a shared passion for law enforcement, but more for figuring out  anything and everything.  A big reason this movie works is for the relationship between these characters.  Leonard knows that the way one adds romance to any situation is to remove all excess from a scene.  This way, when we see her act, her actions are entirely with purpose.  The chemistry between Farina and Lopez would be the highlight of most films.  That it is not is a tribute to the director and the lead.

Clooney’s Foley is Sisco’s equal in terms of depth.  His journey of life is a labyrinth of bank robberies and prison stays, with a few escapes thrown in for good measure.  That he is capable of displaying a flawed romantic character in the classic Leonard mold is a strength.  His character melds completely with that of Lopez.  Soderbergh gives this layered performance much added depth with cuts that unravel his story as you need the information.

Rhames’ Buddy is one of his prototypical supporting roles, much like his Mission: Impossible turns along side Tom Cruise.  Steve Zahn gives one of his most memorable characters in the lightweight Glenn Michaels.  Albert Brooks is an excellent bag of sleaze as rich guy crook Richard Ripley.  Don Cheadle is so well cast as Maurice Miller that, until Hotel Rwanda, I was certain that he would pull out a shiv in every movie he was in.

Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here.  His editing ability transcends Tarantino, given that he and Anne V. Coates cuts have exactly the feel of reading Elmore Leonard’s novels.  They are cold, precise and only containing the information needed to keep the story rolling along.  His lens work with Eliot Davis is flawless and spot on, especially in scenes like the hotel elevator / lobby  during the raid.

Scott Frank is an exceptional translator of Leonard’s words, with this film and the equally brilliant Get Shorty to his credit.  He leaves in everything that makes Leonard Leonard, allowing the characters to breathe and exude their brilliant gifts and flaws.  His most recent work, in The Wolverine, shows that he has not forgotten how to make a story flow through economy of character and dialogue.

Anyone wanting to break into the world of Elmore Leonard or Steven Soderbergh would best start here.  Once you have taken this in, you can pretty much go any direction for either artist.  Either way, this film should not be missed.

(***** out of *****)