“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

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“THE AVENGERS” (2012) Review

Back in 2007, Marvel Studios set out to do something that DC Comics managed to achieve some forty-four years ago through a Saturday morning animated series. The studio initiated a series of movies based upon some of its company’s popular comic book characters. This series first culminated into the 2012 hit movie, “THE AVENGERS”

The initial group of comic book heroes that became a team in “THE AVENGERS”, turned out to be the following – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first four starred in their own movies in what has become known as “Phase One” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). And the last two characters, the Black Widow and Hawkeye, appeared as supporting characters in 2010’s “IRON MAN 2” and 2011’s “THOR” respectively. Each movie, starting with 2008’s “IRON MAN”, hinted at the formation of Marvel Comics’ team of superheroes.

Written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon and directed by the latter, “THE AVENGERS” begins with Loki, the villain from “THOR” and the latter’s adopted brother, making a deal with the leader of the Chitauri aliens called the Other to lead an army on Earth, in order to subjugate the human race. In order to do this, Loki needs to retrieve the Tesseract, a powerful energy source originally found on Earth in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. The Tesseract opens a doorway that allows Loki to arrive a top secret S.H.I.E.L.D., use his scepter to enslave a few agents, Dr. Eric Selvig and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye and take the Tesseract.

In response to Loki’s attack, S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative. He, along with agents Phil Coulson and Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow; recruits Steve Rogers aka Captain America, Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk to form a team and stop Loki’s plans and recover the Tesseract. Both Captain America and Iron Man manage to capture Loki in Germany. But during a flight back to the States, Thorarrives and frees Loki, hoping to convince him to abandon his plan and return to Asgard. Instead, a confrontation ensues between the three heroes before Thor agrees to accompany them all back to the Helicarrier, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s flying aircraft carrier. Despite Loki being a captive, the Avengers still needed to find the missing Tesseract. Even worse, Loki does not remain a captive very long.

Nearly six years have passed since “THE AVENGERS” first hit the movie screens. And during its time in the movie theaters, it became one of the highest-grossing film of all time. Most fans and critics of comic hero movies tend to view any film with more than one villain as a box office or critical disaster. And yet . . . many of these same critics and fans seemed to have no problem with a movie featuring six comic book heroes. I find that rather . . . odd and contradictory, but there is no explaining humanity’s chaotic nature. I have never had a problem with a comic book movie featuring more than one villain or hero, as long as that movie was well written. And I cannot deny that Whedon and Zak Penn wrote a first-rate movie.

First of all, Marvel Studios had made the wise decision to map out the movie’s plot with four to five other movies. This enabled them to set up most of the characters before shooting “THE AVENGERS”. Natasha Romanoff had received a small introduction in “IRON MAN 2”. And Clint Barton was allowed nothing more than a cameo appearance in “THOR”. This meant that these two were the only ones left to be properly introduced in this film, along with their previous relationship as S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Tesseract, the energy source that Loki will use to allow Chitauri warriors to invade Manhattan in the movie’s last act, had originally been introduced in “CAPTAIN AMERICA” and hinted briefly in “IRON MAN 2” and in the Easter Egg scene for “THOR”. I wish I knew who had the idea to set up the story and characters for “THE AVENGERS” in previous movies. I would congratulate him or her for convincing Marvel to pursue this course of storytelling. For it paid off very well.

Second, I was impressed at how the main cast members – especially those portraying members of the Avengers – managed to click so well and create a viable screen team. Whedon and Penn’s script did not make it easy for them. Only the Black Widow and Hawkeye initially felt comfortably working together and even their relationship was disrupted by Loki’s temporary enslavement of Hawkeye’s mind. I could point out one or two particular performances by the cast. But if I must be honest, practically all of them stepped up to bat and performed beautifully. Okay, I must admit there were a few dramatic scenes that really impressed me.

I enjoyed the quarrel between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, who did a great job in developing the characters from initial hostility and wariness to trust and teamwork.  I also enjoyed Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who continued their outstanding work and screen chemistry as the two Asgardian siblings, in a scene in which Thor tries to convince Loki that he and their family still loved the latter, despite his actions in “THOR”. Scarlett Johansson managed to appear in three scenes that impressed me. One featured a contest of will and intellect between her Black Widow and Hiddleston’s Loki. Another featured both her and Mark Ruffalo, as she manages to convince Bruce Banner to help S.H.I.E.L.D. to track down the Tesseract. But my favorite scene featured a heart-to-heart conversation between Natasha and her old partner, Clint Barton, as they discussed her past and his mind enslavement by Loki. Samuel L. Jackson did an excellent job as the intimidating, yet manipulative director of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury. He also seemed surprisingly spry for a man in his mid-60s, as his character dodged several near death experiences. Clark Gregg was entertaining as ever as one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top agents, Phil Coulson. It was nice to see Stellan Skarsgård repeat his role as Dr. Eric Selvig. Although his role was not particularly big, Selvig had a major impact on the plot. And Skarsgård managed to give his usual, top-notch performance. Cobie Smulders managed to hold herself well as one of Fury’s assistants, Maria Hill. It is a pity that Whedon was unable to showcase Alexis Denisof a little more as leader of the Chitauri aliens. I suspect that being cloaked and hidden in the small number of scenes probably did not help much, in the end.

I remembered that Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner/the Hulk has received rave reviews from the critics and the fans. Many critics had also suggested that his portrayal of the character was superior to both Eric Bana’s performance in 2003 and Edward Norton’s 2008 portrayal. I say bullshit to that. I suspect that the critics had spouted this crap, because Ruffalo got to portray the Hulk in a movie that proved tobe a box office and critical hit. Ruffalo did a great job in portraying Bruce at this later stage of his existence as the Hulk. However, I also feel there was nothing exceptional about his performance that made his Hulk superior to Bana and Norton’s. This whole notion of Ruffalo giving a better performance than the other two actors strikes me as nothing but a lot of fanboy horseshit.

One cannot talk about “THE AVENGERS” without discussing the film’s visual effects. What can I say? They were outstanding. Well . . . somewhat outstanding. Seamus McGarvey’s photography struck me as very effective in giving the movie an epic feel. And his work was vastly assisted by the visual effects team led by Jake Morrison. For a movie set either in New York City, or over the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a flying aircraft carrier, I was very surprised to learn that a great deal of the movie was shot in both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Cleveland, Ohio. Surprisingly, the film crew only spent two days shooting in Manhattan.

I do have a few complaints about “THE AVENGERS”. One, although I was impressed by Whedon’s direction and McGarvey’s photography, I cannot say the same about the work they did for the Black Widow/Hawkeye fight scene aboard the Helicarrier. To be honest, I found it slightly murky and confusing. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek’s editing did not help. Their work revived bad memories of Paul Greengrass’ quick-cut editing at its worst. Honestly? Jon Favreau did a better job of shooting her fight scenes in “IRON MAN 2”. I also realized that Whedon had been talking out of his ass, when he claimed that a good deal of the movie would be shown from Steve Rogers’ point-of-view.  One, I never thought that Whedon had a firm handle on the Steve Rogers’ character.  Whedon’s Steve Rogers aka Captain America seems willing to question authority figures – only in extreme circumstances.  This is not the Steve Rogers who is more inclined to follow his own path than blindly follow orders.  Even worse, the film never really hinted any troubles Steve may have experienced dealing with the early 21st century.  And then we come to the Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk character.  Could someone explain why the Hulk turned out to be more powerful than a pair of Norse gods – namely Thor and Loki? How in the hell did that come about? This certainly was not the case over fifty years ago, when Thor beat the pants of both the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner in the Marvel issue, Avengers #3 (Jan. 1964). Could someone please explain this phenomenon?

I have another minor problem with the movie. In the past five years, fans of the MCU movies have been aware that the Titan supervillain, Thanos, has been collecting all of the Infinity stones, including the Tesseract featured in this film. And yet … Thanos handed over one of the stones – the Mind Stone set in a scepter – to Loki for the latter’s use during the Chitauri’s invasion of Earth. Why would he do that? Thanos is going through a great deal of trouble to get his hands on the Infinity stones. Why would he hand over the only stone – even temporarily – he had in his possession? That makes no sense to me. If I had been Thanos, I would have kept that stone close to me, no matter what.

“THE AVENGERS” may not be perfect. But it is still obviously one of the best comic book movies I have seen, hands down. And it turned out to be one of the best movies of 2012. It deserved all of the accolades it had received. And for the first time in his career, Joss Whedon seemed to have directed a movie that matched his work with his “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” and “ANGEL” television series.

 

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“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

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“CINDERELLA MAN” (2005) Review

When I had first learned about Ron Howard’s biopic about boxing champion James J. Braddock, I was very reluctant to see the film. In fact, I did not even bother to go see it. Instead, I merely dismissed “CINDERELLA MAN” as a ‘“SEABISCUIT” in the boxing ring’. After I finally saw the movie, I must admit that my original assessment stood. 

”CINDERELLA MAN” and the 2003 Oscar nominated film, ”SEABISCUIT” seemed to have a lot in common. Both were released by Universal Pictures. Both films possessed a running time that lasted over two hours, both were sentimental stories that centered around a famous sports figure and both were set during the Great Depression. Unlike ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” told the story about a man – namely one James J. Braddock, an Irish-American boxer from New York and Bergen, New Jersey. The movie started out with Braddock (portrayed by Russell Crowe) as a boxing heavyweight contender in 1928, who had just won an important bout against another boxer named Tuffy Griffiths. But within five years, Braddock found himself as a has-been struggling to keep his family alive during the depths of the Depression, while working as longshoreman. Thanks to a last minute cancellation by another boxer, Braddock gets a second chance to fight but is put up against the number two contender in the world, Corn Griffin, by the promoters who see Braddock as nothing more than a punching bag. Braddock stuns the boxing experts and fans with a third round knockout of the formidable Griffin. After winning a few more bouts, Braddock ends facing boxing champ, Max Baer (Craig Bierko), for the heavyweight title in 1935.

Despite the similarities between ”CINDERELLA MAN” and ”SEABISCUIT”, I must admit that I regret not seeing this film in the theaters. It turned out to be a lot better than I had expected. Director Ron Howard, along with screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman, did an excellent job of chronicling Braddock’s boxing career at a time when he had been labeled a has-been by the sports media. The movie also featured some excellent fight sequences that came alive due to Howard’s direction, Crowe, Bierko, and the other actors who portrayed Braddock’s opponents. Although the movie’s main event was the championship fight between Braddock and Baer during the last thirty minutes, I was especially impressed by the sequence that featured Braddock’s fight against Art Lansky (Mark Simmons). In my opinion, most of the praise for these fight sequences belonged to cinematographer Salvatore Totino, and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill (who both received Academy Award nominations for their work) for injecting the boxing sequences with rich atmosphere and effective editing.

Ironically, the movie’s centerpiece – at least in my opinion – was its deception of the Depression. I understand that Howard had used the city of Toronto to serve as 1930s Manhattan and New Jersey. And judging from the results on the screen, he did an excellent job of utilizing not only the cast led by Crowe, but also the talents of production designer Wynn Thomas, Gordon Sim’s set decorations, Peter Grundy and Dan Yarhi’s art direction and Totino’s photography to send moviegoers back in time. There are certain scenes that really seemed to recapture the desperation and poverty of the Depression’s early years:

*Braddock begs for money from the sports promoters and boxing managers at Madison Square Garden
*Mae Braddock’s discovery of the gas man turning off the family’s heat
*The Braddocks witness the desertion of a man from his wife and family
*Braddock’s search for his friend, Mike Wilson (Paddy Considine), at a Hooverville in Central Park

Howard and casting agents, Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins, managed to gather an impressive group of cast members for the movie. The ironic thing is that despite the impressive display of talent on screen, hardly anyone gave what I would consider to be a memorable performance – save for one actor. Russell Crowe naturally gave an impressive, yet surprisingly likeable performance as James Braddock. Although I found his performance more than competent, I must say that I would not consider it to be one of his best roles. There was nothing really fascinating or complex about his Braddock. I suspect that screenwriters Hollingsworth and Goldsman could have made Braddock a more interesting character . . . and simply failed to rise to the occasion. I have to say the same about their portrayal of the boxer’s wife, Mae Braddock. Portrayed by Renee Zellweger, her Mae was a loving and supporting spouse, whose only kink in her personality revolved around her dislike of Braddock’s boxing. In fact, Zellweger’s Mae threatened to become a cliché of the countless number of women who end up as wives of men in dangerous professions. Thankfully, Zellweger managed to give an excellent performance and with Crowe, create a strong screen chemistry.

Paul Giamatti received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Braddock’s manager, Joe Gould. Many had assumed that Giamatti had received his nomination as a consolation prize for being passed over for his superb performance in ”SIDEWAYS”. After seeing his performance as Gould, I suspect they might be right. I am not saying that Giamatti gave a bad performance. He was excellent as Braddock’s enthusiastic and supportive manager. But there was nothing remarkable about it . . . or worthy of an Oscar nomination. If there is one performance that I found impressive, it was Paddy Considine’s portrayal of Mike Wilson, Braddock’s friend and co-worker at the New York docks. Considine’s Wilson was a former stockbroker ruined by the 1929 Crash, who was forced to become a menial laborer in order to survive. Although his plight seemed bad enough to generate sympathy, Considine did an excellent job of portraying the character’s bitterness and cynicism toward his situation, President Roosevelt’s ability to lead the country out of the Depression and the world itself. I hate to say this, but I feel that the wrong actor had received the Oscar nomination. God knows I am a big fan of Giamatti. But if it had been left up to me, Considine would have received that nomination.

We finally come to Craig Bierko’s performance as Max Baer, champion boxer and Braddock’s final opponent in the movie. Baer’s character first makes his appearance in a championship fight against Primo Carnera, following Braddock’s surprising upset over Corn Griffin. From the start, he is portrayed as a brash and aggressive fighter who does not know when to quit. And it gets worse. Before I continue, I want to say that I have nothing against the actor who portrayed Baer. Like Crowe, Zellweger and Giamatti, Bierko had to do the best he could with the material given to him. And he did the best he could. Bierko, being an above-average actor, infused a great deal of energy and charisma into his portrayal of Baer. It seemed a shame that Howard’s direction, along with Hollingsworth and Goldman’s script forced Bierko to portray Baer as some kind of callous thug who felt no remorse for killing two other fighters in the ring and was not above needling Braddock at a Manhattan nightclub by making suggestive remarks about Mae.

Baer’s son, Max Baer Jr. (”THE BEVERLY HILLIBILLIES”) had been naturally outraged by what he deemed was the movie’s false portrayal of the boxer. What the movie failed to convey was that Baer had only killed one man in the ring – Frankie Campbell – and had been so shaken up by the other man’s death that it affected his boxing career for several years. Nor did Baer ever make any suggestive remarks toward Mae Braddock. He also hugged and congratulated Braddock following the latter’s June 1935 victory. I really do not know why Howard thought it was necessary to turn Baer into a one-note villain. Someone claimed that the movie needed a nemesis for Braddock that seemed more solid than the vague notion of the Depression. If that is true, I believe that Howard and the movie’s screenwriters turned Baer into a villain for nothing. As far as I am concerned, the Great Depression made an effective and frightening nemesis for Braddock. This was brilliantly conveyed in Braddock’s bout with Art Lasky. At one point in this sequence, the New Jersey boxer seemed to be on the verge of defeat . . . until his memories of his family and how the Depression had affected them . . . urged him to a hard-won victory. Sequences like the Braddock-Lasky fight and Braddock’s search for Mike Wilson in the Central Park Hooverville made the Great Depression a more effective nemesis than the one-dimensional and crude behavior of a falsely portrayed Max Baer ever could.

Despite the movie’s badly written portrayal of Baer, and slightly uninteresting major characters like James and Mae Braddock, and Joe Gould; ”CINDERELLA MAN” is still an excellent biopic that featured exciting boxing sequences. More importantly, it is one of the few Hollywood films that revealed an in-depth look into one of the country’s most traumatic periods – namely the Great Depression. Flawed or not, I believe that it is still worth watching.

 

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“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

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“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

At least ten years or more must have passed since I last saw the 1969 Bond movie, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS)”. EON Production’s sixth entry in the Bond franchise has the distinction of being the only movie that starred Australian male model-turned-actor, George Lazenby. It was the first EON movie that did not star Sean Connery – already fixed in the public’s mind as the only actor who can portray James Bond. And it was the only movie that was directed by former film editor, Peter Hunt. 

I first became aware of “OHMSS” back in the mid-1980s. I had seen it on television once, when I was a child. But ABC Television’s botched editing had turned me off from the movie. I eventually became a fan during repeated viewings of the movie during the mid and late 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, “OHMSS” had been fixed as my favorite Bond movie. For years, it remained in this position, despite repeating viewings of other Bond movies, the release of the Brosnan films and my own mysterious reluctance to watch “OHMSS”. It seemed as if I was afraid to watch it again, fearful that my earlier adulation of the film might prove to be misguided. And then EON Productions released “CASINO ROYALE” in the theaters back in 2006. “CASINO ROYALE” had impressed me so much that my doubts about “OHMSS”increased even further. After seeing “CASINO ROYALE” for the third time and 2008’s “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I finally decided to watch “OHMSS” for the first time in years.

In the end, my fears seemed groundless. My latest viewing of “OHMSS” proved that I had every right to view it as one of my all time favorite Bond movies. After 41 years, the movie still holds up as one of the finest Bond movies in the entire franchise, if not the finest. And it also one of the few Bond films to closely follow its source, namely the 1963 novel penned by Ian Fleming. What makes the latter remarkable is that the previous Bond entry, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” barely resembled its literary source, aside from a few characters and the setting.

“OHMSS” picks up with Bond searching for Blofeld, now wanted by various governments for his past forays into international terrorism and extortion. His search leads to meeting the most important woman in his life other than Vesper Lynd – Teresa (Tracy) Draco di Vicenzo. Not only will his meeting with Tracy lead to a serious change in his private life, it will also affect his professional life, thanks to Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange Draco when he provides Bond with information leading to Blofeld. Of course, Draco was only willing to provide this information, if Bond courts his daughter. In the end, Bond not only tracks down Blofeld, but destroy the latter’s latest attempt to extort the United Nations. But as many know, Bond’s latest professional conflict will result in tragedy for his private life.

I only have a few problems with “OHMSS”. One of them was the director Peter Hunt’s decision to have actor George Baker (portraying the real Sir Hilary Bray), dub Lazenby’s voice, while Bond is impersonating Sir Hilary at Piz Gloria. Why they had decided to do this confounds me. It seemed very unnecessary, unless the director was aiming for Sir Hilary to sound like a cliché of a British scholar. Another problem I had were some of the jokes that came out of Bond’s mouth. I consider this problem minor, since “OHMSS” – like many other Bond movies had its share of good and bad jokes. One particularly good joke was the St. Bernard who came to Bond’s “rescue” after the latter had survived his bobsled fight against Blofeld. And last, but not least, there were a few moments when the editing seemed a bit . . . questionable. A good example would be the scene that featured Bond’s first meeting with Draco. There is a moment when it seemed that Bond had asked Draco for Blofeld’s whereabouts. It seemed as if Lazenby had spoken too soon, cutting off actor Gabriele Ferzetti’s lines too soon. Another viewing seemed to reveal that poor editing might have been at fault and not Lazenby’s acting. And another review seemed to agree with my findings.

Aside from the previously mentioned quibbles, I had no problems with “OHMSS”. In fact there is so much to enjoy about this movie – including the main star, George Lazenby. Many critics and fans either tend to dismiss his performance as wooden or give him minor credit for his valiant attempt at a decent performance. Frankly, I think that he was a lot better than many give him credit for. I must admit that he has a rather odd voice (which I suspect has been influenced by his Australian accent), but so did most of the other Bonds – including Connery’s tendency to indulge in pre-adolescent diction, Moore’s drawl, Dalton’s Welsh accent and Brosnan’s . . . well, I cannot really describe Brosnan’s voice. I just find it odd. But despite Lazenby’s odd voice, his acting comes off very natural and he seems to project Bond’s emotions with an ease that should not have come easy to him. But he does. And instead of portraying Bond as some kind of action/sexual icon, he portrays the character as very human. This is very obvious in the following scenes:

-Bond’s growing impatience with Tracy’s antics
-Bond’s surprise that M had given him leave instead of accepting his resignation
-Bond’s breakthrough with Tracy
-the Piz Gloria dinner sequence
-Bond’s fear of capture during his escape from Piz Gloria
-Bond’s proposal of marriage to Tracy
-Bond’s quarrel with M over Tracy and Blofeld
-Tracy’s death

Personally, I thought that Lazenby really shined in the marriage proposal scene, those scenes that featured Bond’s quarrels with M and the Piz Gloria dinner sequence. Despite having his voice dubbed by George Baker in the latter, Lazenby managed to express Bond’s emotions during that scene effortlessly without having to say a word.

The movie also benefited from the presence of Diana Rigg, who had recently left “THE AVENGERS” to begin a movie career. What can one say about the great Diana? Not only did she effortlessly combine all the complex personality traits of Tracy di Vicenzo – witty, emotional, sad, brave, determined, etc. Is it any wonder that Tracy is viewed by many actresses as the ultimate Bond woman? Even better, both Rigg and Lazenby managed to create great chemistry together as the romantically doomed pair.

Not only did “OHMSS” benefited from both Lazenby and Rigg’s performances, the pair was ably supported by a fine cast that included the warm and charismatic Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, the talented Ilse Steppat who portrayed the intimidating Irma Bunt shortly before her death (she never lived to experience the movie’s release), the always dependable Bernard Lee as M – giving one of his better performances, and the charming and fun Angela Scoular as Blofeld’s English patient, Ruby. Of course one cannot forget the legendary Telly Savalas, who became the second actor to portray Ernst Blofeld on-screen. And as far as I’m concerned, he was the best. He was not impeded by Donald Pleasance’s ridiculous scar and questionable accent or Charles Gray’s foppish portrayal. Instead, he radiated intelligence and menace, making him the only Blofeld (in my opinion) worthy of being Bond’s nemesis.

I also have to commend Peter Hunt’s direction. “OHMSS” was his first time at bat as a director. Any other inexperienced director could have turned one of Ian Fleming’s best novels into a hash job. Fortunately, Hunt proved to be a talented director and did justice to the novel – although I did have a problem with the editing of a few of his scenes. Hunt was not only ably supported by a fine cast, but by screenwriter Richard Maibaum, editor and future director John Glen, and John Barry’s marvelous score and Hal David’s haunting lyrics to the song, “We Have All the Time In the World”. Cinematographer Michael Reed superbly recaptured the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the exotic elegance of Portugal with his photography. And one cannot forget skier Willy Bogner Jr. and Alex Barbey for creating the first and probably best ski chase in the Bond franchise.

I could probably go on about how much I love “OHMSS”, but I do not want to sound repetitive. What can I say? After 48 years, I consider to still be one of the best Bond movies in the franchise . . . and definitely one of my favorites. And I am happy to see that “OHMSS” is finally being recognized by many as the fine film it is. If you have not seen this film, I suggest that you rent or buy it as soon as possible. Or else you will be missing something special.

“GREEN LANTERN” (2011) Review

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“GREEN LANTERN” (2011) Review

The year 2011 marked the end of the television series, “SMALLVILLE”.  The same year saw the release of “THE GREEN HORNET”, starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou. And a few months later, Warner Brothers Studios released their adaptation on the DC Comics superhero, the Green Lantern. 

Directed by Martin Campbell, “THE GREEN LANTERN” told the story of a hotshot test pilot for Ferris Aircraft named Hal Jordan, who becomes the Green Lantern . . . or one of them. Before Earth was formed, a group of beings called the Guardians of the Universe used the green essence of willpower to create an intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps. One such Green Lantern, Abin Sur defeated a fear-essence being Parallax and imprisoned him in the Lost Sector on the ruined planet Ryut. However, Parallax eventually escapes from his prison, kills four Green Lanterns and destroys two planets. After Parallax mortally wounds Abin Sur. Dying, the latter crashes on Earth and commands his Green Lantern ring to find a worthy successor. 

Hal Jordan is chosen by the ring and transported to the crash site, where Abin Sur appoints him a Green Lantern, by telling him to take the lantern and speak the oath. At home he says the oath of the Green Lanterns while under trance from the glow of the lantern. Hal is whisked away to the Green Lantern Corps home planet of Oa, where he meets and trains with Tomar-Re and Kilowog. He encounters Corps leader Sinestro, who is not pleased that a human, which is primitive compared to other species, has become a Green Lantern. Meanwhile, scientist Hector Hammond is summoned by his father, Senator Robert Hammond to a secret government facility to perform an autopsy on Abin Sur’s body. A piece of Parallax from inside the corpse inserts itself inside Hector, mutating the latter and giving him telepathic and telekinetic abilities . . . at the cost of his sanity. Throughout the movie, Hal not only has to deal with his private insecurities and fears about being a Green Lantern; the uneasy state of his relationship with his boss/ex-girlfriend, Carol Ferris; and most importantly, the increasingly dangerous Hector and Parallax, who is slowly making its way toward Earth. 

Unfortunately for “GREEN LANTERN”, it flopped at the box office. Because of its $200 million budget, it is considered one of the biggest failures of the 2011 summer season and a major embarrassment for Warner Brothers. The critics tore the film apart before it even reached the movie theaters. And a good number of moviegoers stayed away in droves. In fact, its failure reminded me of what happened to “SPEED RACER” back in 2008, another Warner Brothers release. Pity. Because I managed to enjoy “GREEN LANTERN” and thought it was a pretty solid adaptation of the famous comic book hero.

Now, “GREEN LANTERN” was not the best superhero movie that I have ever seen. To be honest, I found it rather mediocre.  The movie’s plot struck me as one of those typical superhero origins tale that every fan of this type of movie genre has to . . . well, endure. Some of these origins have managed to knock my socks off. “GREEN LANTERN” failed to do so. And I do have a major complaint about the screenplay written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg. I thought it had failed to form a stronger connection . . . or relationship between the infected Hector Hammond and Parallax. The two characters only shared one scene and seemed over pretty damn quick. 

But I do believe that the critics’ enmity was undeserved. “GREEN LANTERN” provided plenty of drama, laughs, action and special effects. The screenwriters did a great job in developing Hal Jordan’s character, allowing actor Ryan Reynolds plenty of dramatic meat to show off his acting skills. The screenplay also provided some strongly written supporting characters – especially Carol Ferris, Sinestro, and Hector Hammond, who was provided a strong subplot involving his relationship with his father. And aside from my disappointment over the Hector-Parallax connection, I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in providing a strong connection between Hal’s personal demons, his introduction to the Green Lantern Corps and the dangers of Parallax.

The behind-the-scenes production for “GREEN LANTERN” struck me as outstanding. I was very impressed. Felicity Browning lead a team that provided first rate makeup for some of the cast. I was especially impressed by their work on Mark Strong, Peter Sarsgaard, and even Ryan Reynolds’ eyes, while in his Green Lantern garb. But Grant Major’s production designs for both the planet of Oa really blew me away. I believe the visual effects supervised by Jim Berney and special effects by John S. Baker probably helped. Not only was I impressed by the designs and effects featured in the Oa sequences, but also the design of Parallax, which freaked me out a bit.

As I had earlier pointed out, the movie’s screenwriters did a solid job in their characterization of Hal, making him a complex and interesting character. But it would have never worked without Ryan Reynolds, who not only provided his trademark wit to his performance, but also provided Hal with a great deal of pathos and complexity. Reynolds also created great chemistry with his co-star Blake Lively. I had been very impressed by her performance in last year’s movie, “THE TOWN”. And her performance as Hal’s ex-girlfriend, boss and fellow test pilot, Carol Ferris; only proved that my original opinion of her acting talents was not a fluke. She still managed to be very impressive. 

Ever since I saw him in “JARHEAD”, I have been a fan of Peter Sarsgaard. His portrayal of Hector Hammond, the insecure senator’s son and scientist, has made me into an even bigger fan. I think it was a testament to Sarsgaard’s acting talent that he allowed Hector to remain a sympathetic character, despite his transformation into a villain from the Parallax infection. And it has been a while since I have seen Mark Strong portray a good guy – three years to be exact. For me, his portrayal of fellow Green Lantern Sinestro, was spot on . . . and a breath of fresh air. Both Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins provided solid support as government scientist Dr. Waller and Hector’s father, Senator Robert Hammond. Mind you, I found nothing remarkable about Bassett’s role, which is not surprising, thanks to the screenwriters. But it was interesting to see Robbins portray a somewhat smarmy personality, who seemed more interested in his son’s ambitions (or lack of) than in his son. 

Look, “GREEN LANTERN” may not be the one of the best comic book hero movies ever made. And it does not strike me as one of the most original I have ever seen. But I do not believe it deserved the harsh words that many movie critics dumped on it. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes production, Martin Campbell’s direction and the cast led by Ryan Reynolds, I thought that “GREEN LANTERN” turned out to be a solid and entertaining film.

1500s Costumes in Movies and Television

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Below are images of 16th century fashion found in movies and television productions over the years:

 

1500s COSTUMES IN MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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“The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939)

 

 

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“The Sea Hawk” (1940)

 

 

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“The Adventures of Don Juan” (1949)

 

 

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“Elizabeth R” (1971)

 

 

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“The Prince and the Pauper” (1977)

 

 

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“Orlando” (1992)

 

 

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“Shakespeare in Love” (1998)

 

 

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“The Tudors” (2007-2010)

 

 

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“Wolf Hall” (2015)

“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

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“FLIGHT” (2012) Review

For years, I thought that director Robert Zemeckis had lost his way. I thought the Academy Award he had won for the 1994 movie, “FOREST GUMP” had transformed a talented and slightly eccentric filmmaker into a pretentious and boring one. 

I realize this is a cruel thing to say. Robert Zemeckis had been one of my favorite directors ever since I first saw his 1978 comedy, “I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND” on television. But after he won a Best Director Oscar for “GUMP”, he seemed to have lost his touch. I am not saying that movies like “CONTACT”“WHAT LIES BENEATH” and “CASTAWAY”were terrible. For me, they seemed to lack that Zemeckis touch that had made his previous movies magical for me. But after seeing the director’s latest endeavor, “FLIGHT”, I believe there is a good chance that he may have regained his mojo.

“FLIGHT” tells the story of an airline pilot, who manages to prevent a flight between Orlando and Atlanta from perishing in a fatal crash. Only six people – four passengers and two stewardesses – die in the crash. An investigation of the crash reveals not only malfunctions within the plane, but also evidence of alcohol use by the crew, especially by the pilot, one Whip Whitaker. Whip had used cocaine before the flight to keep himself alert and imbibed alcohol during the flight. The airline pilots’ union hires Hugh Lang to defend Whip and prevent the latter from serving time in prison for drug and manslaughter charges. Lang claims he can get the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)‘s toxicology report declared inadmissible in court and focus the investigation on the plane’s malfunctions. But both he and Whip’s friend and union representative, Charlie Anderson, gradually become aware that Whip is a hardcore alcoholic and drug abuser. And his addictions might stand in the way of any successful defense on Lang’s part.

I am not stating that “FLIGHT” is perfect. It had one or two aspects I found questionable. One, I thought a movie that is basically a character study of an alcoholic airline pilot possibly facing the consequences of his substance abuse should not have a running time of 139 minutes. Yes, I believe it was at least fifteen to twenty minutes too long. And one of the scenes I would have trimmed featured a cameo appearance by the very talented James Badge Dale. Do not get me wrong. I thought that Badge Dale gave a superb performance as a cancer patient that Whip Whitaker and future girlfriend/fellow addict Nicole Maggen met in a hospital hallway. Unless Badge Dale had said something that related to the story (and if he did, someone please enlighten me), I saw no reason to include his character into the story. My other problem has a good deal to do with a repentant Whip recounting his alcoholism and drug use to a counseling group. Honestly, it felt as if Bob Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins injected a segment from an episode of the “ABC AFTERSCHOOL” television series . . . and that Whip was talking to a group of high school students.

Despite these flaws, I must admit that “FLIGHT” really impressed me. The last time I saw a movie or television series about an alcoholic was CBS’s “KNOT’S LANDING” in which the Gary Ewing character (portrayed by actor Ted Shackleford) experienced his last bout of alcoholism and recovery. It was ugly to watch. Since then, I have made a point of deliberately avoiding movies about alcoholics and drug abusers. At least two family members have died from the consequences of drug abuse and one dead relative was a former alcoholic. When I sat down in a movie theater to watch “FLIGHT”, I never thought that Denzel Washington would be portraying such a hardcore substance abuser. But you know what? I am glad that I saw the movie.

There are many aspects about “FLIGHT” that I truly enjoyed. Thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ direction, Don Burgess’ cinematography and award worthy editing by Jeremiah O’Driscoll, the movie featured a kick ass plane crash sequence that left me breathless and wired at the same time. It was a beautiful thing to watch and worthy of a series of Academy Awards technical nominations. But more importantly, Gatnis created a superb portrayal of the alcoholic airline pilot that gave plenty of meat for both Zemeckis and actor Denzel Washington. Some of the movie’s best moments aside from the actual crash included Whip’s future girlfriend, Nicole Maggen, nearly dying from a heroin overdose; Lang and Whip’s meeting with the president of the airlines; Whip and Nicole’s conflict over his constant drinking; Whip’s confrontation with his ex-wife and son; Lang’s chewing out Whip about the latter’s legal situation; and Whip’s failed attempt to resist consuming booze he found in a mini bar in a hotel room. My two favorite scenes featured the attempts of Whip’s colorful friend/drug dealer Harling Mays to help him recover from another alcoholic binge before he can testify before a NTSB hearing . . . and the actual hearing itself, which ended with a surprising twist.

The performances for “FLIGHT” were superb. I could not find a bad or mediocre performance from any member of the cast. Not one. I have already pointed out James Badge Dale’s excellent performance as a cancer patient that Whip and Nicole briefly met. I was also impressed by Tamara Tunie’s stalwart, yet emotional performance as senior flight attendant Margaret Thomason; Brian Geraghty as Whip’s religious co-pilot Ken Evans, who lost the use of his legs; Peter Gerety’s colorful portrayal of airline owner Avington Carr; and Nadine Velazquez’s solid performance as Katerina Marquez, the recently deceased flight attendant who had been Whip’s lover.

But the performances that really caught my eye came from Melissa Leo, who gave a brief, yet subtle performance as lead NTSB investigator Ellen Block; John Goodman, who was deliciously larger than life as Whip’s friend and drug dealer, Harling Mays; and Bruce Greenwood’s quiet, yet emotional portrayal of Whip’s much put upon friend, Charlie Anderson. Don Cheadle (who last worked with Washington in the 1995 movie, “DEVIL IN THE BLUE DRESS”) gave a superb performance, while acting as more or less the backbone of the movie as Whip’s uber talented attorney, Hugh Lang. Kelly Reilly finally caught the eyes of critics in her excellent portrayal of recovering drug addict, Nicole Maggen, who ends up falling for Whip.

But the man of the hour was Denzel Washington. Ever since winning his second Academy Award, ten or eleven years ago, he has given a series of solid or excellent performances in movies that were either successful or not. But it was plain to me that his performance as alcoholic Whip Whitaker was one of his very best in years. Washington was always at his best when portraying characters that were complex – with both likeable and dislikeable traits. Only a true performer, in my opinion, is not afraid to tackle such a character. As the last twenty to thirty years of superb performances have shown, Washington has never been afraid to tackle such characters like Whip.

“FLIGHT” may have suffered from a running time that I found too long and an ending that struck me as a little too adolescent for my tastes. But I must admit that it has become for me one of the best movies I have seen this year. As a filmmaker, Robert Zemeckis has returned in top form. And his endeavors were assisted by excellent photography and editing, a top-notch screenplay by John Gatins and first-rate performances from a talented cast led by the always superb Denzel Washington.

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” (1983) Review

The third movie and sixth episode of George Lucas’ original STAR WARS saga, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”, has become something of a conundrum for me. It was the first STAR WARS movie that immediately became a favorite of mine. But in the years that followed, my opinion of the film had changed. 

Directed by Richard Marquand, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” picked up a year after “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” left off. The movie begins with the arrival of the Emperor Palpatine aka Darth Sidious and his apprentice, Darth Vader to the Empire’s new Darth Star, which had been in construction above the moon of Endor. Luke Skywalker, Jedi-in-training and Rebel Alliance pilot, finally construct a plan to rescue his friend, Han Solo, from the Tatooine gangster Jabba the Hutt. His plan nearly fails, despite help from Princess Leia Organa, Lando Calrissian, Chewbacca and his droids C3-P0 and R2-D2. Despite the odds against them, the group of friends finally succeed in rescuing Han and killing Jabba.

Following the Tatooine rescue, Luke returns to Dagobah to finish his Jedi training with Jedi Master Yoda. However, Luke discovers Yoda on the verge of death from old age. When the old Jedi Master finally dies, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost appears and verifies what Luke had learned on Bespin in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” – that Darth Vader is his father, Anakin Skywalker. Obi-Wan insists that Luke has to kill his father in order to destroy the Sith Order, but the latter is reluctant to commit patricide. Eventually, Luke returns to the Rebel Alliance rendezvous point, and volunteers to assist his friends in their mission to destroy the the Death Star.

I was not kidding when I stated that “RETURN OF THE JEDI” was the first STAR WARS movie to become a personal favorite of mine. I disliked “A NEW HOPE” when I first saw it. It took me nearly a decade to get over my dislike and embrace it. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” creeped me out a bit, due to its dark plot, the revelation of Darth Vader’s true identity and Han’s unhappy fate. The movie has become one of my two favorites in the franchise. But I loved “RETURN OF THE JEDI” from the beginning. By then, I finally learned to embrace Lucas’ saga. And the positive ending with no potential of a sequel made me equally happy. And yet . . . my feelings toward the movie gradually changed. Although I still maintained positive feelings toward the movie, I ceased to regard it as my personal favorite from the STAR WARS franchise.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” did have its problems. One, the movie featured both a second Death Star and Luke’s return to Tatooine. For me, this signalled an attempt by George Lucas to recapture some of the essence from the first movie, “A NEW HOPE”. In other words, I believe Lucas used the Death Star and Tatooine to relive the glory of the first movie for those fans who had been disappointed with “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. And there is nothing that will quickly turn me off is an artist who is willing to repeat the past for the sake of success.

Tatooine proved to be an even bigger disappointment, especially since I have never been fond of the sequence at Jabba’s palace. I never understood why it took Luke and his friends an entire year to find Han. Boba Fett had made his intentions to turn Han over to Jabba very clearly in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. So, why did it take them so long to launch a rescue? Exactly what was Luke’s rescue plan regarding Han in the first place? Not long after she arrived with Chewbacca, Leia made her own attempt to free Han from the carbonite block and failed. Had Luke intended for this to happen? Had he intended to be tossed into a pit with a Rancor? Were all of these minor incidents merely parts of Luke’s plan to finally deal with Jabba on the latter’s sail barge? If so, it was a piss-poor and convoluted plan created by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured the development of Luke’s skills with the Force. Since the movie made it clear that he had not seen Yoda since he departed Dagobah in order to rescue Han, Leia and Chewbacca from Bespin; I could not help but wonder how Luke managed to develop his Force skills without the help of a tutor. I eventually learned that Luke honed his Force skills by reading a manual he had found inside Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Tatooine hut. Frankly, I find this scenario ludicrous. Luke’s conversation with Obi-Wan’s ghost on Dagobah featured one major inconsistency. Obi-Wan claimed that Owen Lars was his brother, in whose care he left Luke. Considering Obi-Wan’s unemotional response to Owen’s death in “A NEW HOPE”, I found this hard to believe and could not help but view Obi-Wan’s words as a major blooper. Especially since Obi-Wan had reacted with more emotion over Luke’s reluctance to become a Jedi and kill Darth Vader.

Many fans have complained about the cheesy acting and wooden dialogue found the Prequel Trilogy movies. These same fans have failed to notice similar flaws in the Original Trilogy movies, including “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Especially “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Mind you, the movie did feature some first-rate performances. But none of it came from Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. I really enjoyed Ford and Fisher’s performances in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. But I feel they really dropped the ball in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. They seemed to be phoning in their performances and the Leia/Han ended up rather wooden and unsatisfying to me. This was especially apparent in the scene in which Leia, after learning the truth about Vader’s identity, seemed too upset to answer Han’s demanding questions about her conversation with the departed Luke. Both Fisher and Ford really came off as wooden in that scene. When I had first saw “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, I despised the Ewoks. My feelings for them have somewhat tempered over the years. But I still find them rather infantile, even for a STAR WARS movie. Although I no longer dislike the Ewoks, I still find that village scene in which C3-P0 revealed the past adventures of Luke and his friends very cheesy and wince-inducing. Unlike the past two films, the camaraderie between the group seemed forced . . . and very artificial. The Ewok village scene also revealed a perplexing mystery – namely the dress worn by Leia in this image:

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For years, I have wondered why Leia would carry such a dress with her, during the mission to Endor. I eventually learned that the Ewoks created the dress for her, after she became their guest. And I could not help but wonder why they had bothered in the first place. Luke and Han did not acquire new outfits from the Ewoks after they became the latter’s guests. And how did the Ewoks create the dress so fast? Within a matter of hours?

Thankfully, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” had plenty of virtues. One of those virtues turned out to be Mark Hamill, who gave the best and probably the most skillful performance in the movie as Luke Skywalker. Unlike the previous two movies, Luke has become a more self-assured man and Force practitioner, who undergoes his greatest emotional journey in his determination to learn the complete story regarding his family’s past and help his father overcome any remaining connections to the Sith. He was ably supported by James Earl Jones (through voice) and David Prowse (through body movement), who skillfully conveyed Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker’s growing dissatisfaction with the Sith and himself. “RETURN OF THE JEDI” also marked the real debut of Ian McDiarmid’s portrayal of politician and Sith Lord Palpatine aka Darth Sidious. Although the actor achieved critical acclaim for his portrayal of Palpatine in the Prequel Trilogy movies, I must say that I was impressed by his performance in this film. McDiarmid was in his late 30s at the time, but I he did a first-rate job in portraying Palpatine as a powerful and intelligent Sith Lord and galactic leader, whose skills as a manipulator has eroded from years of complacency and arrogance. Billy Dee Williams returned as ex-smuggler Lando Calrissian, who has joined the Rebel Alliance cause. Although his portrayal of Lando did not strike me as memorable as I did in “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”, I believe he did a very solid job – especially in the Battle of Endor sequence. I finally have to comment on the Jabba the Hutt character, who proved to be very memorable thanks to Larry Ward’s voiceovers and the puppeteer team supervised by David Barclay.

“RETURN OF THE JEDI” also featured some first-rate action scenes. The best, in my opinion, was the speeder bike sequence in which Luke and Leia chased a squad of Imperial stormtroopers on patrol through the Endor forest. This sequence was actually shot in the Redwood National Forest in California. The combined talents of Lucas, Marquand’s direction, Alan Hume’s photography, the ILM special effects, Ben Burtt’s sound effects (which received an Oscar nomination) and especially the editing team of Sean Barton, Marcia Lucas and Duwayne Dunham made this sequence one of the most exciting, nail biting and memorable ones in the entire saga. But there were other scenes and sequences that impressed me. Despite my dislike of the entire sequence featuring the rescue of Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, I cannot deny that the scene aboard Jabba’s sail barge proved to be entertaining. Even the ground battle between the Imperial forces and the Rebel forces (assisted by the Ewoks) proved to be not only entertaining, but also interesting. The idea of the Ewoks utilizing the natural elements of Endor to battle and defeat Imperial technology provided an interesting message on the superiority of nature. And if I must be honest, I found the destruction of this second Death Star to be more exciting than the first featured in “A NEW HOPE”.

Despite the barrage of action scenes, there were a few dramatic scenes that I found impressive. The best one proved to be the confrontation between Luke, Vader and Palpatine aboard the second Death Star. Luke and Papatine’s battle of wills over Vader’s soul not only provided some interesting performances from Hamill, Earl Jones/Prowse and McDiarmid; it also resulted in one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the movie. Another excellent dramatic scene featured Luke’s discussion with Obi-Wan’s ghost regarding Vader’s true identity. Both Hamill and Alec Guinness gave excellent performances in the scene. It also, rather surprisingly, revealed the flawed aspect of the Jedi’s righteous nature for the very first time.

After the release of the six STAR WARS movies produced by George Lucas, I realized that I no longer regarded “RETURN OF THE JEDI” as the best in the saga. Unfortunately, I now rate it as the least most satisfying film in the saga, so far. Certain plot holes and some weak performances made it impossible for me to view it with such high esteem. Yet, I cannot say that I dislike the film. In fact, I still enjoyed it very much, thanks to a first-rate performance by Mark Hamill, who really held the movie together; some excellent action sequences and a surprising, yet satisfying twist that ended the tale of one Anakin Skywalker. Despite its flaws, “RETURN OF THE JEDI” still managed to be a very satisfying movie.