Tag Archives: Guardians of the Galaxy

‘Batman v Superman’ and The Six Things I Never Want to See Again in a Comic Book Movie

After months of anticipation by fans eager to see their ultimate comic-book fantasies come to life, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” debuted to a record-breaking domestic haul of $166 million.

Last weekend, the movie set another very different kind of record. In a phenomenon referred to as a “second week slump,” its box office dropped by 68%. That’s the eighth biggest drop-off in history when it comes to similar sorts of films.

As a recent Los Angeles Times story points out, this is no real sweat off the backs of the makers of “Batman v Superman,” considering how much money the movie has already raked into their coffers.

But this development did spark an interesting debate about whether the so-called slump was due to poor word of mouth or because everyone who was planning to see the superhero showdown simply turned out to see it that first weekend.

Widely panned by critics and received less than enthusiastically by many moviegoers, according to exit polls, “Batman v Superman” isn’t the tedious failure reviewers have proclaimed it to be. Still, there’s no question the film could be better, especially with a few more polishings of its capriciously nonsensical screenplay.

The face-off between the Man of Steel and Gotham’s Dark Knight — with a little Wonder Woman as the filling in this superhero sandwich — is a labor of love by director Zack Snyder.

Snyder has a gift for faithfully duplicating sacred comic book moments hardcore fans are dying to see, while leaving the rest of us in the dark.

On a visual level, he trades in striking, if cliched, imagery that is undeniably entertaining. When it comes to narrative and dialogue, things get bumpier. Snyder movies are a lot of flash, little substance.

Strangely enough, it isn’t these trademark qualities that most annoyed me about “Batman v Superman.”

Rather, it’s the fact that the movie leans so heavily on lazy, exhausted and, frankly, exhausting comic-book tropes seen too frequently in franchises of this genre, whether the films are produced by Marvel, DC, or someone else entirely.

If Hollywood expects us to continue to accept a new world order in which every other film it produces features spandex, capes and godlike beings who stoop to save puny earthlings, then filmmakers must stop serving up more of the same and offer more of what we haven’t seen before.

In that spirit, here are six things I never want to see again in a comic book movie.

(Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen “Batman v Superman.”)

1. Wanton Destruction of Major Cities 

In 2013’s “Man of Steel,” a good third of the film is devoted to the cataclysmic clobbering of comic book capital Metropolis as Henry Cavill’s Superman attempts to thwart would-be Kryptonian overlord General Zod from conquering the planet.

This goes on for so long and with so much casual carnage, it becomes disturbing and, ultimately, tedious.

In “Batman v Superman,” we discover there is a method to the madness of this urban annihilation — it sparks the conflict the sequel centers on — but unfortunately this only gives Snyder the opportunity to rehash the Metropolis massacre.

I totally get that the impending end of the world, as embodied by havoc wrecked on recognizable urban landmarks, is a staple of comic book climaxes, but we’ve seen this so many times  now, it doesn’t even register anymore.

Whether the Avengers are defending Manhattan from Loki and his computer-generated Chitauri army or the Guardians of the Galaxy are stepping in to save the day after the entire Nova Corp fleet is blown to oblivion, there’s no urgency left in this most overused of urgent plot devices.

And while we’re on the subject, is anyone else bothered by the way these movies — Snyder’s especially — trot out 9-11 imagery for cheap emotional impact?

I know it’s been awhile since that dark day in American history, but I still can’t stand seeing skyscrapers on the point of collapse while workers utter desperate prayers and copy paper and dust clog the streets, accompanied by ear-ringing sound effects. It’s heartbreaking, not to mention tasteless.

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2. Origin Stories (Unless We Haven’t Seen Them Before)

When it comes to comic book origin stories, none have received more cinematic play than the young Bruce Wayne’s dramatic, traumatic loss of his beloved parents.

The horrific scene, complete with a dark alley, theater marquee, wild-eyed gunman, slow motion, and shattered pearl necklace, has been dramatized several times on film, including 1989’s “Batman” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

Though “Batman v Superman” doesn’t delve too deeply into the backstory of Ben Affleck’s aging, world-weary Bruce Wayne, Snyder feels the need to revisit this formative, horrific moment yet again. He has his reasons, of course, which we realize toward the film’s end, but they’re not very good ones.

I don’t know why directors feel the need to keep returning to our favorite superheroes’ roots. Heaven knows, we’ve sat through Spider-Man’s origin story about 50 bajillion times now, not to mention Wolverine’s, which has been examined from just about every possible angle.

So how about we institute a new rule? No more origin stories, unless it’s one we haven’t seen before or, at least, most of us aren’t familiar with.

I’d argue that’s half the reason the Iron Man trilogy was so successful — many of us were unfamiliar with the character — and a big part of why the recent Deadpool was a hit as well.

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3. Damsels in Distress

Considering that comic book movies sprouted from an industry that historically has not valued strong female characters, it’s no surprise Hollywood lags behind in this area as well.

Still, the studios have been making some encouraging progress lately, introducing more strong women with superhuman abilities in substantial roles, even if there are still only a handful of them.

Among these promising female role models are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. And Hollywood has more female-centric comic book flicks in the pipeline, including a “Wonder Woman” movie and “Captain Marvel,” featuring a woman in the lead.

Snyder at least introduces Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) in “Batman v Superman,” even if she only gets to really strut her lasso-wielding stuff in one scene. But troublingly, the rest of the film is populated by damsels in distress whose only function is to serve as bait for the gallant Superman.

In an egregious waste of the talents of Amy Adams, intrepid reporter Lois Lane spends the entire movie being rescued by Superman or doing inexplicably dumb things to motivate him, like tossing a Kryptonite spear into the water, only to clumsily attempt to retrieve it two scenes later.

Meanwhile, Supes’ beloved Ma Kent (again, a waste of Diane Lane) is held hostage in harsh fashion simply as a vehicle for the resolution of the male heroes’ conflict.

Fanboys may argue that the damsel in distress is a tried-and-true staple of comic book lore, but this is the 21st century and there is no excuse for any film’s female characters to languish without a reason to exist apart from their male co-stars.

And if all producers have in mind is lowest common denominator box office, it can’t hurt to present positive depictions of women that appeal to both genders.

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4. Easter Eggs for Movies I’d Rather Be Watching

This doesn’t happen all that often, but it did while I was watching “Batman vs Superman.”

There’s a scene in the movie in which Affleck’s Batman retrieves an old photograph of Wonder Woman. In the picture, she’s all set for adventure, wearing her classic character get-up and posing with three fascinating looking guys.

At that moment, I had an epiphany: This photo is the movie I wish I was watching right now!

I’ve experienced similar feelings at various points in the Avengers franchise or while watching the most recent Spider-Man reboots and I think this is going to happen more and more as we’re subjected to a continued onslaught of vaguely familiar sequels, reboots and spin-offs.

Part of the fun of comic book movie franchises is that directors lace the latest chapters with in-jokes just for the fans and references to favorite plot points or story threads. They also tease us with sneak peeks at future heroes, villains or developments, a la Marvel’s now famous end credit scenes.

The danger in this comes when a film’s purpose is merely to set up yet another film. If that’s the case, who can blame the audience for wanting to skip ahead and get to the good part?

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5. Boring Villains From Outerspace

Ok, so we all know extraterrestrial baddies are a big thing in comic books.

On the big screen though, this trend hasn’t proven to be very compelling, thanks to an abundance of brightly colored body makeup, cheesy CG effects, hammy acting, and a lack of motivation we humans can relate to.

In “Batman vs Superman,” for instance, Snyder introduces not one, but two extremely popular extraterrestrial megaliths the Man of Steel famously faces off against on the comic page.

To be fair, one of these big baddies is only hinted at, not shown, but even the prospect of this creature’s impending arrival fails to stir anything more than obligatory excitement. (And if you’re not a comic-book reader, you probably don’t even know what’s going on here.)

It can’t be just me who doesn’t give a fig what lumpy, purple computer-generated overlord Thanos is up to, floating around on that space rock, or why blue-hued Ronan (despite poor Lee Pace’s best efforts) is so hot and bothered about … er … I can’t even remember.

In the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the fabulous Oscar Isaac dons the weird makeup of the epic villain the film’s title refers to, but the prospect only fills me with dread because these evil dudes from outer space and regions beyond are rarely worth remembering.

Give me a recognizably human baddie any day, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, with his chillingly uncertain motives and passion for chaos, or David Tenant’s Kilgrave — if I may reference the Marvel television series “Jessica Jones” — who channels his power to sickeningly selfish ends rather than aiming to conquer the world.

The human propensity to evil is always more terrifying than any otherworldly threat.

6. Joylessness Masked as Grit

One of the reasons critics have been quick to pile on “Batman v Superman” is because the film isn’t always fun to watch.

An over-the-top clash between two of comicdom’s biggest heroes should be full of giddy energy, to say the least, but too often the movie bogs down in a gloom thicker than the dust that lingers over a devastated Metropolis.

There’s a lot of glowering, and grumping, and daddy issues, and gravely cynical pronouncements about the nature of power, and muddy, muddled action sequences that don’t send our hearts racing or keep us teetering on the edge of our seats.

That’s not to say comic book movies shouldn’t be dark, or edgy, or disturbing, or that they should all be kid-friendly laugh-fests, like the Marvel movies tend to be.

“The Dark Knight” trilogy is lauded for its grit, but it’s many other things as well — elegant, stylish, thought-provoking and complex with kick-ass action and nonstop thrills.

“Deadpool” is shockingly jaded, but it’s also a hoot. Or consider Snyder’s own “Watchmen,” a film that, like its source material, is seriously twisted, but also very playful.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a massive hit because director James Gunn infused it with pure, infectious joy. Contrast that with the recent failure of the unbearably glum “Fantastic Four” reboot and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Even the grittiest of comic book movies should speak to our sense of wonder.

Photos: http://www.youtube.com, marvel.wikia.com, marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com, blogs.indiewire.com, Marvel.

 

 

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‘Ant-Man’ Should Just Embrace Its Essential Silliness

Ant-Man
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)
117 minutes

Of the countless costumed superheroes Marvel has brought to the big screen, Ant-Man is one of the silliest.

A guy who wears an outfit that’s like a cross between an old-fashioned scuba suit and something out of the closet of G.I. Joe’s Cobra Commander is no match for Iron Man in the fashion department.

This is a dude who shrinks to the size of an insect and somehow that’s supposed to make him a deadly weapon. His sidekicks are six-legged creepy-crawlies he controls with his mind. He rides on the back of an ant, for Pete’s sake.

It’s kinda hard to picture him hanging with Thor and Black Widow.

Ant-Man’s early adventures include surviving a bathtub full of water and navigating a dance floor made lethal by an abundance of platform heels. Even The Cap, in all his homespun cheesiness, is far too majestic to hobnob with this would-be mini Avenger.

I say this not as a slam against Marvel’s newest and tiniest recruit, but to point out that “Ant-Man” the movie would work better if the studio just embraced the silliness and left it at that.

The signs of “Ant-Man’s” troubled production history are evident in the film’s uneven tone, which swings like a pendulum between pure, unapologetic fun and some “serious” — and seriously cliche — relationship drama.

“Ant-Man” appears to be aiming for the cool, irreverent, goofy vibe of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but what’s missing is “Guardians” director James Gunn’s precise vision.

It’s tempting to attribute “Ant-Man’s” identity issues to the dueling visions of original writer-director Edgar Wright, who shockingly left the project after almost a decade of script development, and Wright’s replacement, Peyton Reed, who primarily works in the romantic comedy genre.

No less than four screenwriters are credited with penning the flick, including Wright, “Attack the Block” director Joe Cornish, “Anchorman” director Adam McKay, and star Paul Rudd.

Marvel is fortunate to have Rudd. With his easygoing nice-guy charisma, the actor goes a long way toward making this confused comic book romp feel a little more cohesive.

That’s another issue with Marvel’s movie Ant-Man: He’s not a very interesting character.

Scott Lang is an electrical engineer fresh off a stint in San Quentin for a daring, well-intentioned cyber crime. All he wants to do is spend time with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), but he’s lost custody after failing to pay child support.

(Poor Judy Greer pops up as exactly the kind of no-nonsense, anxious mom she portrayed earlier this summer in “Jurassic World.”)

After losing a thankless job at a popular dessert chain — in what has to be one of the weirdest product placement stunts ever — Scott attempts one last score, breaking into the house of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), scientist, tech company founder and discoverer of the mysterious “Pym Particle.”

Scott cracks the safe, absconds with a seemingly worthless helmet and leather suit, and soon learns he’s been recruited by Pym to retrieve a piece of dangerous, stolen technology from Pym’s former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

At this point, “Ant-Man” bogs down in exposition detailing the history and properties of Pym’s strange, black and red suit. Scott’s initiation into its uses, and his subsequent tutorial on how to ally himself with various species of his namesake insect, play like something out of another Disney property, the 1989 Rick Moranis comedy, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

The special effects are great, but there’s little at stake in the film’s early action sequences.

While Rudd does his best to endear us to Scott and his ant-colony cronies, Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are stranded in suffocatingly obvious scenes of father-daughter discord. Lilly plays Pym’s emotionally distant daughter, Hope, and is saddled with the same dominatrix-style bob worn by Bryce Dallas Howard in “Jurassic World.”

This leaves plenty of opportunity for Michael Pena to virtually pick up the movie and run away with it. As Scott’s ex-cellmate, Luis, the actor presides over a zany, if stereotypical, Greek chorus of criminal types who specialize in reviving the film whenever it shows signs of expiring.

I suppose the simplicity of “Ant-Man” could be considered refreshing after the complicated pomp and circumstance of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Aside from a few references to “Ultron,” a cameo by one of the lesser Avengers, and a prologue featuring some famous S.H.I.E.L.D. alumni, “Ant-Man” remains relatively unentangled by Marvel’s sticky web of intrigue.

Oddly, it’s in the last 20 minutes or so that the movie hits its stride in a hilariously hair-brained finale involving a private jet, The Cures’s “Disintegration,” a bug zapper, Thomas the Tank Engine and several other inspired elements that capitalize on the shrinkage and expansion possibilities of Pym’s amazing particle.

If only the entire film was this peculiar.

Photo: es.gizmodo.com

 

Best Pic Nominees Are So Fabulous, Choosing a Winner Hurts a Little

The task of sitting through each of the movies nominated for the best picture Oscar can sometimes feel like just that — a task, a chore, a tedious homework assignment.

That wasn’t the way I felt this year. For once, I enjoyed and admired all eight selections vying for Oscar’s top prize. They truly are the best Hollywood had to offer in 2014.

(If I have one complaint, it’s that the Academy failed to use one of its extra best picture slots to nominate the year’s most entertaining movie, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” I know, it’s a — gasp! — comic book movie, but it’s every bit as deserving as the more “serious” films on the list.)

Of course, the universal excellence of this year’s best picture bunch makes deciding which film deserves the coveted gold statuette all the more difficult. It’s made the race more unpredictable as well.

Despite the added challenge, I’m willing to take a stab at which picture will emerge victorious on Sunday night (the Academy Awards air at 5:30 p.m. on ABC). And while we’re at it, let’s discuss the best director race.

For predictions in the acting categories, click here.

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Best Picture

There isn’t a weak or overrated film among the nine nominees for best picture, but if I had to pick my least favorite, it would be “The Imitation Game.”

The story of British mathematician Alan Turing’s heroic code-breaking exploits during World War II, and subsequent persecution for his sexuality, showcases a powerful performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. However, some aspects of the drama feel sensationalized, more so when you realize how many elements of this biopic are actually fictional.

When it comes to dramas about eccentric British geniuses, “The Theory of Everything” tells the life story of physicist Stephen Hawking in a way that rings truer — it plays out, unexpectedly, as a messy love quadrangle — and with far more style. The fact that “Theory” is not a by-the-numbers romance, told from the point of view of Hawking’s long-suffering first wife, is its biggest strength. It also contains a couple of powerhouse performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, whose chemistry evolves from tender to heartbreaking.

“Selma,” another biopic vying for best picture, has been roundly snubbed this awards season. The Academy failed to nominate director Ava DuVernay — she would have been the first African-American woman to receive the honor — and lead actor David Oyelowo, who is a marvel as Martin Luther King Jr., radiating the civil rights legend’s charisma and expertly mimicking his rousing oratory style. It’s a shame because “Selma” is a compelling and necessary reminder of the power of protest in a divisive and confusing year for American race relations. I love the way DuVernay juxtaposes seemingly mediocre moments with great ones to elegantly humanize King.

The young upstart in the best picture category is “Whiplash,” debut director Damien Chazelle’s electrifying cat-and-mouse game between a sadistic music instructor (a terrifying J.K. Simmons) and the ambitious drummer (Miles Teller) he pushes to the edge. The audience is pushed to the edge, too, with an intensity few films achieve. There’s a precision, an originality and a dark side to this movie that is a whole lot of twisted fun. Like Teller’s drummer, however, Chazelle’s gotta pay his dues before he can win Oscar fame.

The most widely seen of the nominees is “American Sniper,” director Clint Eastwood’s account of the life of sharp-shooting Navy Seal Chris Kyle. Despite its popularity, “Sniper” is far too controversial to win the Oscar. Conservatives embrace Kyle as a hero. Liberals denounce the film for failing to condemn America’s messy Middle Eastern wars. This disparity is evidence that both groups have oversimplified what is actually a work of surprising complexity, a film that confronts the domestic consequences of war, something we tend to ignore.

As much as I admire the aforementioned films, there were three movies in 2014 that captured my heart and took my breath away with their technical innovation and artistry.

Director Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is undoubtedly his masterpiece. The filmmaker has reached the pinnacle of his talent for delightfully rococo pop-up book production design. The movie’s pulse is found in a hilarious, oddly touching performance by Ray Fiennes as a poetic, scheming gentleman concierge, presiding over a faded hotel in a fictional, war-ravaged Eastern European country. With all the visual flair of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and the bittersweetness of “A Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” the movie is a genuine charmer.

Sadly, “Grand Budapest” doesn’t have much of a shot against the two front-runners in the best picture race, even after winning the Golden Globe for comedy.

Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” took the Golden Globe for drama, as well as the top prize from the British Academy of Film and Television and dozens of critics’ groups. The film is neck-and-neck with “Birdman,” which captured the best picture prize from the producers and screen actors guilds. I find myself torn between these two remarkable films and I think Academy voters will be too.

Both films are exceptionally innovative. Director Gabriel Gonzalez Inarritu created the illusion that “Birdman” was shot in one single, exhilarating take, inspiring raw and captivating performances from a stellar ensemble cast. Michael Keaton’s turn as an insecure, aging actor trying desperately to build a last-minute legacy for himself is astoundingly funny and full of ugly, bleeding emotion.

Linklater filmed “Boyhood” a little at a time, over a period of 12 years, which lends the story of a boy’s ordinary but amazing childhood a rare and lovely verisimilitude. Armed with naturalistic acting by young star Ellar Coltrane — who becomes a young man before the audience’s very eyes — and a fine ensemble cast, subtle but transporting pop culture references and a killer soundtrack, the movie inspires intensely personal reflections on memory, wonder, mortality, family and the passing of time.

It’s a tough call, but I’m betting Academy voters will be seduced by the hopeful optimism and sweetness of “Boyhood.”

Don’t rule Inarritu out, though. (See my best director prediction, below.)

What Will Win: “Boyhood.”

What Should Win: “Boyhood.”

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Best Director

“Who is Morten Tyldum?” you might ask.

He’s the Norwegian director of “Foxcatcher,” whose thriller “Headhunters” was previously nominated by the Academy for best foreign language film. And he’s got a snowball’s chance in hell of winning this year’s best director Oscar.

Bennett Miller is a more established Hollywood presence, earning a director nod for “Capote” in 2006. Sadly for him, the race comes down to three veteran filmmakers finally getting their due from the Academy: Anderson, Linklater and Inarritu.

Inarritu recently took home the Directors Guild Award, a big predictor of who will win on Oscar night, while Linklater scooped up the Golden Globe and the BAFTA.

The contest is so close between these two, I’m betting the Academy will make the rare but not unprecedented decision to split the best picture and director prizes. Inarritu will win the gold for the edgy and awe-inspiring technical achievements showcased in “Birdman,” while Linklater’s “Boyhood” takes the best picture trophy.

I’m usually not a fan of such splits — logically, the year’s best director is the director who made the best picture — but I’m so torn between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” I’d be happy to see them both triumph.

Who Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Who Should Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Photos: ca.complex.com, http://www.selmamovie.com.

 

 

The Top Five Films of 2014 (And the Not-So-Top Ones)

After the mad dash of the holidays, we stumble into January determined to take stock of the year that was and sweep aside the old in preparation for the new.

2015 brings with it an exciting new batch of movies, but before we welcome such heady stuff as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” it’s time to look back on the best of 2014.

My Top 10 list falls a little short this year. I could only come up with five really exceptional films. But there are many other cinematic highlights to discuss, along with a bonus list — the 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014.

Happy New Year.

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The Top Five Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. “Birdman”: Like a wild, unpredictable improvisational jazz piece (an idea referenced in the film’s inventive musical score), Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s show-biz satire exhilarates and astonishes. Seemingly shot in one seamless, kinetic take, the movie is unlike anything we’ve seen before. An excellent cast lays bare a humiliating array of ego trips and insecurities, most notably Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in performances that are self-deprecating and spell-binding. Fame has never been so fickle, so funny or so heartbreaking.

2. “Boyhood”: Watching 2014’s most languid and lovely drama is like thumbing through a decade’s worth of scrapbooks of one lad’s ordinary, extraordinary life. Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed the movie over a period of 12 years, resulting in a fictional time capsule of youth that never feels fabricated. As the boy in Linklater’s ‘hood, Ellar Coltrane is at once average and remarkable, bolstered by the poignant presence of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his flawed but well meaning parents. Whether you’re 15 or 50, this movie sparks reflections of formative moments in your own life.

3. “Guardians of the Galaxy”: The year’s most undeniably entertaining movie was shockingly absent from many critics’ Top 10 lists. Come on, guys! Don’t pretend you didn’t love this wacky space romp, which expertly culled its irresistibly fun ideas from such timeless classics as “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” In introducing us to its strangest band of misfit superheroes yet, Marvel shamelessly pandered to ’80s nostalgia and got us all hooked on a feeling. Chris Pratt’s roguishly charming Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana’s butt-kicking Gamora, Dave Bautista’s hilariously literal Drax and the lovable duo of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel) are part of cinema history now, and rightly so.

4. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”: I thought I was over Wes Anderson. The director’s rococo affectations were beginning to feel increasingly empty to me. But then came “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” detailing the quirkiest of adventures shared by concierge extraordinaire Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes) and his trusty lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori). Anderson’s fantastical fairy tale of international intrigue contains one surprising and delightful cameo after another, but it’s really a showcase for the improbable comedic talents of Fiennes, whose portrayal of the unflappable  Gustave is unexpectedly bittersweet. Anderson has always been a filmmaker to be reckoned with. This is undoubtedly his masterpiece.

5. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: There are movies you like, and then there are movies you fall for, truly, madly, deeply. In 2014, that film for me was writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s effortlessly cool, exquisitely romantic vampire drama. As sleek and sexy as midnight velvet and dripping with playful pop cultural, literary and musical references, “Lovers” depicts the reunion of insomniac soulmates who aren’t your average bloodsuckers. Tom Hiddleston plays angsty Adam as a brooding old-school rock ‘n’ roller from Detroit. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is his exotic, more adventurous paramour, who hangs out in Tangier with none other than Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). This film really has to be seen to be believed. I want to sink my teeth into it again and again.

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Honorable Mentions

“Gone Girl”: Gillian Flynn’s poisonous page turner is demented, disturbing and oh-so-much wicked fun in director David Fincher’s darkly funny big-screen treatment. You’ll never look at Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris and the rest of the film’s fine cast quite the same way again.

“Nightcrawler”: Jake Gyllenhaal’s greasy, greedy, hypnotic turn as a ravenous coyote prowling L.A.’s seedy nightscapes in search of anything that bleeds is the highlight of writer-director Dan Gilroy’s pointed media satire.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”: Building on the firm foundation laid by 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” this sequel unites multiple generations of our favorite mutants — including Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven and a double dose of Magneto and Professor X — in a twisty brain-teaser that effectively erases the franchise’s loathed third installment and paves the way for exciting installments to come.

“Edge of Tomorrow”: “Groundhog Day” meets “Alien” in a surprisingly clever post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick, which nobody saw because they were tired of watching Tom Cruise in post-apocalyptic sci-fi flicks. Cruise is billed as the star but Emily Blunt steals the movie out from under him as a tough-as-nails warrior, nickname the Full Metal Bitch.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”: Marvel’s ever popular comic book movie franchise finally grew up with a thriller that boasts slick action and a satisfyingly adult script.

“Snowpiercer”: The year’s most original, intriguing and just plain weird sci-fi thriller depicts a violent, stylish, totally bizarro class war aboard a train designed to traverse an ice-bound post-apocalyptic globe. You probably loved it and hated it simultaneously.

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Memorable Performances

The ever charming Shailene Woodley wormed her way a little deeper into our hearts in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent.”

Angelina Jolie was deliciously nasty as the misunderstood anti-heroine of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” reboot, “Maleficent.”

Tom Hardy did nothing but sit behind the wheel of a car and talk on the phone but was somehow spellbinding in “Locke.”

No one portrays eccentric geniuses quite like Benedict Cumberbatch, who dazzled as a socially awkward code breaker in “The Imitation Game.”

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The 10 Most Overrated Films of 2014 (in no particular order)

1. and 2. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” weren’t terrible but they were both seriously out of balance, proving the point that splitting book adaptations into too many parts may be financially savvy but cheats the audience out of a tightly crafted story.

3. “Magic in the Moonlight”: Woody Allen’s latest whimsical comedy features gorgeous French locales and yummy 1920s costumes but it’s an epic bore that teases us with the promise of supernatural intrigue, then delivers a lot of tedious talk instead.

4. “Begin Again”: Writer-director John Carney’s follow-up to the captivating “Once” is disappointing simply because there’s nothing genuine about it, from the forgettable music to the precious, pretentious performances of Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley.

5. “Chef”: Many moviegoers were charmed by this sleeper comedy, but I failed to fall under its spell, mainly because I can only watch Jon Favreau drive around in a food truck for so long.

6. “Godzilla”: After last year’s underrated but totally awesome “Pacific Rim,” this monster mash-up promised super-sized thrills. The film’s scaly star was largely absent, however, making this Kaiju smash-fest a giant disappointment.

7. “Under the Skin”: Critics inexplicably went ga-ga for director Jonathan Glazer’s interminably dull indie drama, which consists of a morose, otherworldly Scarlett Johansson trolling the streets of Glasgow for unsuspecting perverts.

8. “The Lego Movie”: I’m not going to deny this animated flick featuring everyone’s favorite building blocks is fun, playful and clever to a point. Seriously, though, how old are we, America’s collective moviegoing audience? 12?

9. “Interstellar”: Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi opus is stunning in many ways and I was one of the critics who highly recommended it. Two months later, though, I have to admit this technically impressive but flawed film was easier to forget than I expected.

10. “The Interview”: Sony Pictures and the nation’s major movie chains never should have caved to the cyberterrorist threats that kept this North Korea-bashing comedy out of theaters. I just wish Seth Rogen and James Franco’s goofy riff on totalitarianism actually had something to say. Then it might be worth all the fuss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Expendables’ Go Out With a Ba-Boom

The Expendables 3
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (violence including sustained gun battles and fight scenes, language)
126 minutes

Nostalgia for the 1980s ruled the box office this past weekend as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” held the No. 1 spot and “Guardians of the Galaxy” followed close behind.

There was little love, however, for another group of ’80s relics. The veteran action stars of “The Expendables 3” saw their sequel flop, opening in fourth place.

Apparently, the gimmick of Sly and his friends assembling to have some fun and make a little movie together has lost its punch. There’s also the fact that, according to Box Office Mojo, a “pristine” version of the film has been available online for weeks. So maybe “Expendables” fans are just a bunch of pirates.

Whatever the reason for the downfall of the aging mercenaries, “The Expendables 3” deserves at least a little better. For those who still miss old-fashioned stunt work, groan-inducing one-liners and the days when men of few words and many muscles dominated the big screen, this third installment is just as cornily entertaining as the first two films.

Although “The Expendables 2” rolled out a crowd-pleasing cameo by Chuck Norris and featured the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, as the villain, the third movie boasts an ensemble so large, you can barely pick out their faces on the promotional billboards.

In case you’re wondering, returning Expendables include Sylvester Stallone, of course, as head honcho Barney Ross; cool-as-a-cucumber Jason Statham as Barney’s righthand man, Lee Christmas; perpetually surprised-looking Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench, Barney’s former comrade and occasional rival; Dolph Lundgren as antisocial but well-armed Gunnar Jensen; Randy Couture as demolitions expert Toll Road; and Terry Crews as heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar. (Jet Li fans will have to be patient, but don’t worry, he’s here, too.)

When it comes to new additions to the cast, “The Expendables 3” amps up the star power, albeit of the has-been variety, as none other than Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes grace Sly and the gang with their presence. And then there’s Mel Gibson, showing up in his most substantial big-screen role since his career imploded in a cloud of scandal.

Let’s talk about Mel for a moment. Like many people, it’s difficult for me to take him seriously after his reprehensible antics over the last few years. I don’t usually hold these things against actors, but in this case, it was nearly impossible not to judge. “The Expendables 3” serves as a strange, almost haunting, reminder of Gibson’s talent. He still looks haggard and doesn’t have much of a part, playing a maniacal arms dealer — didn’t he just do same role in “Machete Kills”? — but considering what he’s got to work with, he’s not half bad. (In stark contrast, Ford never seems to be enjoying himself until he finds himself inside the cockpit of a helicopter.)

It is Gibson’s character, the modern art-collecting Stonebanks, who lures the seasoned but still lethal team of soldiers-for-hire known as The Expendables out of retirement once again. Turns out he has a history with Barney (Sylvester Stallone), one so painful, it causes Sly to clench that Botoxed jaw and get a misty, far-away look in his eyes.

Barney and his men are dispatched by their new CIA contact (Ford, replacing Bruce Willis’ Church) to halt a deal by Stonebanks, but the mission quickly turns personal. When one of their own is threatened — yes, the plot of “Expendables 3” hews closely to that of “Expendables 2” — a shaken Barney attempts to shelve his team so they can enjoy their sunset years without prematurely expiring.

This leads to a hilariously sentimental montage of Barney’s dudes moping around in hotel rooms with no bros to hang with and no one to kill. It also results in the recruitment of a team of rookies including boxer Victor Ortiz, mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey, Kellan Lutz of “Twilight” dreamboat-hood and newcomer Glen Powell.

These young whippersnapper Expendables don’t add much to the film. Perhaps Stallone included them to make the film seem more, I don’t know, relevant? Or perhaps he’s pandering — unsuccessfully — to a younger audience. Maybe that’s also why “Expendables 3” is rated PG-13 instead of the R this action throwback clearly calls for.

Despite the absence of blood and other gory details, this third entry has almost everything you’d want from an “Expendables” movie: shameless testosterone and male bonding, an extravaganza of explosions, machine-gun fire and martial arts, and cheesy quips, although it feels like there are less of these than in previous installments. Still, Stallone finds gags in everything from Snipes’ recent prison stint to Willis’ abrupt departure from the franchise.

Much of the film’s humor can be attributed to Snipes, spry as ever and raring to go as Doc, an ex-Expendable who is dramatically reunited with Barney and friends, and Banderas, stealing scenes as Galgo, a motor-mouthed wannabe Expendable.

Working from a story and script by Stallone, director Patrick Hughes — watch out for this guy, he’s been tapped to helm the American remake of “The Raid” — cooks up some satisfyingly old-school stunt sequences, including a doozy of a prologue revolving around a prison train ambush and a finale in which Stallone leaps onto a choppah (as Schwarzenegger calls it).

It’s probably time for the Expendables to hang up their body armor and shoulder holsters and call it a day, but if No. 3 is the end, at least Sly and the gang go out with a bang.

All Hail the Bad-Ass Ladies of Summer

We all know the drill when it comes to the summer movie season.

Summer is popcorn time. Time to switch off the brain and have some fun. Time for explosions. Time for action. Time for Michael Bay to assault us with giant fireballs, urban destruction and noise. Time for action heroes, like Hugh Jackman and Tom Cruise, to run around, look worried, flash massive biceps and DO THEIR OWN STUNTS.

Yes, summer is an exciting time with a potential blockbuster we will all love, so help us, lurking around the corner EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND.

This year, the season is winding to a close after fulfilling all the traditional requirements described above. But something unusual happened, too, something worth noting and celebrating.

In those months that typically overflow with testosterone, more than a few of the BIG MOVIES were headlined by women. And these women delivered amazing performances, proving themselves every bit as — in some cases even more — entertaining than the dudes who usually dominate the summer movie landscape.

So I’m calling it: Summer 2014 was The Summer of Bad-Ass Ladies. Below, we pay tribute to the baddest of them all. Nobody deserves it more.

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Angelina Jolie in “Maleficent”: As one of the most famous people in the world, Jolie is celebrated for her benevolent activism, charity work and super-sized family with husband Brad Pitt, but there’s always been something slightly unnerving about her, too. Maybe that’s why she’s perfectly cast in Disney’s reboot of 1959 animated classic “Sleeping Beauty.” With those celebrated cheekbones sharpened to a knife’s point and all that slinky black leather, Jolie isn’t just striking to look at, she succeeds in transforming one of Disney’s scariest villains into a complicated, funny, tragic figure worth rooting for. Creepy yet playful, right down to that silky purr and killer sneer, her Maleficent is sinister and sexy, outshining every visual effect in a movie that’s built almost exclusively on optical bedazzlement.

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Shailene Woodley in “The Fault in Our Stars”: Hollywood’s latest go-to girl for movies targeted at the coveted teen demographic proved herself a capable action heroine in March’s “Divergent.” Two months later, she took on the risky role of Hazel Grace Lancaster, the beloved protagonist of John Green’s best-selling YA novel. What’s remarkable about Woodley’s performance is her unsentimental naturalism, portraying a 16-year-old girl who isn’t in love with a vampire or fighting for survival in a dystopian death arena. Aside from the harsh fact she’s dying of terminal cancer, Hazel is an ordinary young woman. Woodley embodies her sharp wit and candor with charm and a refreshing absence of glamor. In the film’s opening weekend, a largely female audience showed their appreciation to the tune of $48 million.

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Emily Blunt in “Edge of Tomorrow”: If we were to crown a queen of the Bad-Ass Ladies of Summer, that honor would belong, without question, to Emily Blunt. What’s that you say? You didn’t bother seeing “Edge of Tomorrow”? You’re not the only one. Director Doug Liman’s twisty sci-fi thriller under-performed at the box office, probably because of its resemblance to Tom Cruise’s previous twisty sci-fi thriller, “Oblivion.” The irony is that Cruise isn’t the true star of “Edge.” He may enjoy more screen time, but he plays second fiddle to Blunt, who brings a marvelous mix of toughness and vulnerability to the role of the alien-slaughtering, mech-suit-rocking Rita Vrtaski, aka the Full Metal Bitch. Blunt’s character is the last hope for humanity against slithery outerspace invaders who can control time, resulting in Cruise reliving the same day over and over. I know. It sounds like “Groundhog Day,” but the movie is far more clever than you’d ever guess and Blunt is its most winning asset.

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Scarlett Johansson in “Lucy”: We all knew ScarJo could kick some butt. As the only female member of “The Avengers,” she’s presided over some impressive stunt sequences, proving she’s more than just a hot chick in a catsuit. But Johansson takes it to another level in Luc Besson’s goofy, wannabe-existential actioner, playing a naive college girl who gains instant access to 100% of her cerebral powers when exposed to an experimental drug. At first, Lucy’s evolution manifests itself in lethal martial arts skills but by the end of the film, she simply has to flick her wrist to immobilize an entire gang of stereotypical Asian baddies. I liked the old Scarlett, so sweetly befuddled in “Lost in Translation,” but I love this new Scarlett — so cool, calm and controlled she’s barely human. Of course, Johansson has evolved enough as an actress to make sure her character’s humanity still comes through.

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Zoe Saldana in “Guardians of the Galaxy”: Here is another intriguing actress who has never let her beauty stand in the way of a versatile career. The characters she plays may be wildly different — whether in indie dramas or comic book adaptations — but they’re always satisfyingly strong-willed. As green-skinned warrior Gamora in “Guardians,” Saldana displays strength and humor, holding her own against the formidably funny Chris Pratt. Pratt, of course, plays Star-Lord Peter Quill, leader of Marvel’s unlikely band of galactic superheroes. Refreshingly, director James Gunn grants Saldana equal screen time to her male co-stars. Gamora shows her stuff in several epic fight scenes and she’s by far the most intelligent member of the Guardians. She may flirt with Quill but she never succumbs to his pelvic sorcery. She’s no damsel in distress.

Come and Get Your ‘Guardians’ Love

Guardians of the Galaxy
Three and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, some language)
121 minutes

Everybody loves The Avengers, but let’s face it. When it comes to personality, the members of Marvel’s prize superhero team are kind of square. Patriots, Asgardian princes and scientists with anger issues are only so interesting. Even the wise-cracking Tony Stark is a bazillionaire and a genius. Not very easy to relate to.

Maybe that’s why the ensemble of sorry wretches at the heart of “Guardians of the Galaxy” is so appealing. It’s made up of outlaws and losers, like Drax the Destroyer (played by wrestler Dave Bautista), an elaborately tattooed muscleman who is out for vengeance and takes everything extremely literally. Naturally, this is the source of much hilarity.

Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana in butt-kicking mode), a green-skinned mercenary with daddy issues. After all, she’s the adopted daughter of Thanos, the wrinkly, purple baddie first glimpsed in the end credits of “The Avengers.”

Even weirder are Rocket, a resourceful, genetically-modified talking raccoon with a temper (his feisty voice is supplied by Bradley Cooper), and his best pal, Groot (Vin Diesel), a self-regenerating tree — just go with it –- who is surprisingly clever but boasts a limited vocabulary.

The merry ringmaster of this improbably lovable menagerie is Peter Quill, who also goes by the cocky alias “Star-Lord.” In an immensely winning performance, Chris Pratt plays Quill as a roguishly charming space pilot in the mold of Harrison Ford’s swaggering, self-obsessed Han Solo. Truly, a star is born.

To say that “Guardians” director James Gunn was influenced by the early work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg is an understatement. Adapted from one of Marvel’s more obscure properties, the movie is a rollicking sci-fi-fantasy space opera with a rascally, retro vibe that recalls the original Indiana Jones and Star Wars flicks.

The film’s opening scene, in which Quill parts a valuable relic from its temple pedestal on the planet Morag, is pure “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” goosed to the groove of Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”  A sequence set in a mining colony faintly echoes that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Mos Eisley Cantina. There are thrilling space battles galore, and Rocket and Groot are basically C-3PO and R2-D2 with more attitude.

With its population of extraterrestrials in a rainbow of skin tones and its intergalactic fashions — that’s some wig, Glenn Close! — “Guardians” also calls to mind “Star Trek” … on crack … as Gunn pokes into the freakiest corners of the Marvel Universe. But the film never feels derivative and it’s a ton of fun.

Based on the comic book series by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, the movie begins on a somber note with the death of young Star-Lord’s mother. That formative chapter in Peter Quill’s life is followed by another major event, the arrival of a spacecraft sent by his long absent father to retrieve his son from Earth.

Cut to the grown Quill, who is now quite comfortable living in outerspace. To his chagrin, his Star-Lord alias is met with disdain by most residents of the galaxy, thanks to his reputation as a rather smug smuggler who frequently runs afoul of the law.

Quill is after his latest score — a coveted silver orb — when he literally collides with Gamora, who has been sent to retrieve the object for Thanos’ ally, Ronan (Lee Pace).

Ronan is the genocidal leader of warrior race the Kree and he’s also the movie’s weakest link. Pace, who was so adorable on “Pushing Daisies” but now specializes in playing menacing fantasy monarchs (see his elf king, Thranduil, in “The Hobbit” trilogy), doesn’t do a whole lot besides make cartoonishly dire pronouncements in a very deep voice. He also glowers at equally blue hench-lady Nebula. (Yes, Doctor Who fans, that is Karen Gillan, aka Amy Pond, under all that makeup.)

Ronan is after the same thing every Marvel villain seems to be after. I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to reveal that it’s an infinity stone. I know these glowing MacGuffins are one of the things that unify all the films in the franchise, but am I the only one who’s getting sick of them?

Back to the plot: While Gamora is after Quill in order to collect the orb, Rocket and Groot are after him as well, hoping to collect the bounty on his head. In the process, the whole posse winds up in prison, where they are joined by Drax and work together to mastermind one of the most entertaining jailbreaks in recent cinematic memory. Normally, these guys are out for themselves, but when they realize what will happen to their galaxy if Ronan gets his hands on the orb, they make an uneasy pact to save the place they call home.

After cutting his teeth on dark comic book satire “Super” and low-budget horror flick “Slither,” Gunn penned the “Guardians” script with Nicole Perlman, who is rumored to be toiling on a Black Widow spin-off for Marvel. (That could bode very, very well.)

Gunn and Perlman’s “Guardians” screenplay is hilarious and kinda sweet and just when it starts to get too cheesy, the director pulls it back from the brink with the perfect dose of snark and playful visual effects that put the considerable skills of the film’s VFX crew on eye-popping display.

The movie’s best device is a nostalgic one. Because Quill is from Earth, he’s constantly making references that baffle his alien buddies but connect with the audience, especially anyone who fondly remembers Troll dolls, the Walkman and Kevin Bacon in “Footloose.”

The film’s tone is dictated largely by its inspired soundtrack, built around Quill’s beloved Awesome Mix Tape of ’70s and ’80s pop.

Just be prepared. You will never, ever get “Hooked on a Feeling” out of your head again. It’s the new “Let It Go.