Movies by the Minute: Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s final Soviet feature is a metaphys­ical journey through an enigmatic postapocalyptic landscape, and a rarefied cinematic experience like no other. A hired guide—the Stalker—leads a writer and a professor into the heart of the Zone, the restricted site of a long-ago disaster, where the three men eventually zero in on the Room, a place rumored to fulfill one’s most deeply held desires. Adapting a science-fiction novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Tarkovsky created an immersive world with a wealth of material detail and a sense of organic atmosphere. A religious allegory, a reflection of contemporaneous political anxieties, a meditation on film itself—Stalker envelops the viewer by opening up a multitude of possible meanings.    
                                                                         —from Criterion Collection website

I watched Stalker with my teenage son, a passionate and dedicated film aficionado whose examinations of them go way beyond the ordinary movie buff’s understanding of film elements. This is probably the biggest reason why I didn’t really “get” Stalker, a movie almost painful to watch—something I say only half sarcastically. The thing about Stalker is that it possesses a poetic, magnetic quality that pulls you in as much as the Room lures in the men the Stalker guides. CinemaTyler refers to movie critic Roger Ebert’s assessment of the work, that it absorbs, rather than entertains. Indeed, here is the mystery and allure of a frame-by-frame lyrical captivation; the long silences drive the heart rate up and the anticipation at times is almost unbearable. I don’t think I want to ever watch it again, yet I know I will. Part of me remains unconvinced I have what it takes to completely “get” the film.

Continue reading “Movies by the Minute: Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)”

Cinema 2019: Top Three

So now that I’ve talked a tad about books, allow me to turn our attention to some movies from 2019 I’ve seen and feel worthy to discuss. I’m not an aficionado like my teenaged son, who has been studying film and film history for years but, as I’ve long maintained, liking, even needing, to be told stories is coded into human DNA. I like most genres, but especially love a good mystery, drama, even comedy. My favorite for years has been Casablanca, and no amount of persuasion has ever been able to budge that. There are loads of movies I love—more on that in an upcoming blog—but nothing beats Bogart & Bergman and “We’ll always have Paris.” It was even my go-to sickbed film.

Most of the time I go to the cinema with himself, and it’s not unusual for me to be talked into checking out certain flicks because they are ones I might not have chosen to see on my own. I’m happy to report that I like most of them; occasionally, I’m more enthusiastic about one than either of us expected. Every so often I’m less than impressed. This time there were, however, a few I felt worthy of special mention because they touched me in a meaningful, more long-lasting manner, and maybe they will you too.

Honorable Mention:
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

While I’m not a ginormous fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, I can see what a good director he is, with shots that work perfectly and tight sequences embedded in nostalgia and paying homage to people and the era in which they lived. Set in 1969 Hollywood, with Sharon Tate and a declining Tinseltown as major characters (even if you don’t see the fabulous Margot Robbie’s Tate very often), Once Upon a Time gives us a view of life backstage and is advantaged with fantastic scenery and costuming. Brad Pitt as a heartthrob was never that impressive to me, but now, older and with a different aura about him, one that conveys a flawed nature, seemingly without much effort, his performances comes off as more on point and authentic. Of course, it helps that his character has more dimension, but I still think he brings something to the role that makes it truly his.

My top three:

Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold)

3. Don’t let anyone tell you this is a movie for boys only—my mistake ran along those lines. This is one of the shows I was persuaded to go watch and I’m glad I did. First of all, yeah, Christian Bale is sort of out there, but he’s a damn good actor and gives heart to Ken Miles, a sports car racing engineer I’d barely heard of but as a character came to care about. Playing a major role in Henry Ford II’s efforts to compete with Enzo Ferrari’s racing cars, Miles is a little on the edge and this very non-racing-enthusiast was absolutely thrilled with the speed and how the main players dance with each other in their battles of wits.

I found Catriona Balfe’s performance as Mollie Miles a little insipid, but also felt her character was robbed, especially with her dialogue during an argument between husband and wife. Here the exchange casts her grievance along the lines of the whinging, stereotypical woman who goes in for the attack without giving her husband a serious chance at presenting his perspective. Mollie always just kind of hangs back, which I found a bit annoying because though I am aware she is a supporting character, even the screws holding an engine together have to have some dimension—and in this movie they do. Mollie Miles, not so much.

Overall the film does an amazing job of widening its appeal to audiences: I understood what they were talking about and why their endeavors meant something, even though car engine chat makes my eyes glaze over. Even more than that, though, the magic of it all, the passion and the dream—I could practically feel the power of all that coursing through my veins, and not just because of the outstanding cinematography. Bale, whose performance I marvel over even in one of his movies I really dislike a lot, delivers yet again and Matt Damon—whom I used to confuse with DeCaprio—is a fantastic Carroll Shelby whose gum chewing and subtle but powerful facial movements tell so much about the real Shelby and what drove him.

JoJo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
book Caging Skies by Christine Leunen)

2. I hyper studied World War II in high school and at one time couldn’t get enough. Now, however, I’m a little burned out and can’t—or don’t want to—stomach the way some approach it today, with the current rise in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and attendant excuses for it. Waititi, however, presents a very different view of this time, not just by individualizing the experiences, which of course has been done before, but also by creating it as a comedy drama. I think we may have learned a bit from the brouhaha over Maus, one of the first graphic novels and one that tells the story of a Holocaust survivor—and royally cheesed a lot of people for telling such a somber story in “cartoon” form. Since then audiences have matured a little more and are able to recognize why the story of JoJo Beltzer and his mother, Rosie, might be told as it is.

I found this format to be the perfect vehicle for this particular era, even more so than it might have done for the Great War, which was novel in its far-reaching destruction and horrific outcomes and consequences. The Second World War, however, opened up to a bitter frustration that more often seemed to find humor as a way to alleviate the pain and fear, many times out of necessity and not just because it could. Rosie embraces this approach, knowing that her Nazi-loving young son won’t be easily separated from the indoctrination by seriousness. Besides, he is lonely for his father, who we (and he) are told is fighting for Germany on a foreign front. At the same time, JoJo’s mother engages a subtle sternness, for example when the pair see a group of executed souls hanging in a square near their house and JoJo turns away. Rosie does the mother thing with her hand—placed on top of her child’s head, which she swivels in the direction of what she insists he look at—and its ordinary mother power is elevated as we recognize that covering a child’s eyes from horror is not the only form of psychological protection.

This becomes more important as we learn Rosie’s dangerous secrets and JoJo becomes embroiled within them. Having failed at a Hitler Youth (“HJ”) weekend camp in which he becomes known as a coward, “JoJo rabbit,” for his refusal to wring the neck of the animal that becomes his namesake, he amps up his efforts to be a good Nazi, along with some help from his imaginary friend, Adolph. Yes, it’s the same Adolph we all know and hate, presented as a bumbling, awkward caricature who aims to appear as an authority figure and dispenses advice to the young boy. One could almost see the spittle flying as the real Hitler would scream at such a depiction: running through the woods, flailing and falling; pleading with a ten year old; gorging himself on unicorn.

Having watched the film in its entirety, a moviegoer might be tempted to point out a presentation flaw in that the sheer absurdity of at least one character—surely this one doesn’t take this garbage seriously?—makes for a predictable arc later on. However, Waititi turns events in a way one might not predict at all, and when we do learn what happens, it is because we didn’t see it that we know for sure. We do know that this can be dangerous territory for a filmmaker to traverse, but Waititi brings us across through the eyes of a child. There is no need to “cut to the heart” of Germany’s 1940s abyss: we already know about it, and JoJo’s ignorance of darker matters is part of the larger point. Apart from that, knowing what we do hasn’t exactly worked out as we wanted, has it? The director’s presentation may be a dangerous one, and it should be: a bitter frustration with what we are seeing, long after we have laughed at crazy Hitler and turned from our awareness even as our real world contains absurdities not unlike one scene in which a fanatical officer comments, “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism.”

Little Women (Greta Gerwig)
(Adapted screenplay, based upon the
novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

1. Ah yes, the wee women everyone seems to know all about…except those of us who never read the book as a child. If I recall correctly, it was Saoirse Ronan’s attic scene in a film preview that drew me in, a passionate burst of emotion in which she, Jo March, comes to understand the reality of the choice she faces. Having grown up amongst a close family, she becomes the breadwinner when her father marches off with the Union army during the Civil War. Working as a teacher and freelance writer, she is delighted to discover the income she can attain with these abilities, though family law of the day dictates that everything previously hers, such as real property or finances, passes to her husband upon marriage. Determined not to allow this to happen, she by necessity erects a wall between herself and anyone she might become close with, not fully realizing, until the day in the attic, that this also blocks out many of life’s pleasures.

Greta Gerwig approaches these struggles with a balance that remains faithful to true feminism, one that demands what it does—legal existence—by refusing to forfeit it to marriage. When Jo’s sister Meg prepares for her wedding amidst Jo’s entreaties to run away because “we will be interesting forever,” she scolds her sibling: “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they are unimportant.” Jo’s reluctant acceptance of her sister’s impending departure juxtaposes with an acknowledgement that childhood is over, a strong indicator of the maturity required to recognize and respect the choices of others. Politics have probably always embedded themselves into film, but given the aggressive and bullying nature of today’s cinematic industry, one that steadily alienates those it seeks to attract, it was great relief to witness these scenes when Gerwig could easily have gone in the other direction. The director shows that film can be both romantic and inspiring; indeed, I found myself as sympathetic to nineteenth-century feminists as I always have been and with renewed determination to reach for my own stars.

Told along a split timeline, the March sisters (and others) make statements about life without lecturing the audience. Not all have as strong a character arc as one in particular, though this reflects reality, especially under the circumstances they all endure. They do live a life of genteel poverty, but it is one of struggle, perhaps reflected best in Emma Watson’s Meg, specifically when she goes away for a week to attend a ball. Save for youngest sister Beth, Meg is the kindest of the four, though with low self-esteem. Wearing a borrowed dress, she is browbeaten by her wealthy neighbor, Laurie, for participating in such a pretentious activity. They come to terms shortly after and Meg pleads with Laurie not to tell her sister Jo. One of the most poignant scenes in the film, with Watson’s eloquently subdued expressions magnificently reflecting her insecurity, movements and hesitations, it brings the story into sharp relief.

While I don’t dislike Watson as an actress, I never saw her as a brilliant performer, but here she greatly contributes in a lovely way to Gerwig’s vision for the film: to retain the traditional feel of it and the era in which it is set, while simultaneously making it accessible to modern viewers. Florence Pugh as Amy enables viewers to see that self-centered behavior was as ordinary an attitude in the often-romanticized nineteenth century as it is today. Amy also reflects heavily on how marriage would shape her life, and Pugh’s performance as she works her way through her internal struggles is poignant and masterful. She too presents a face of feminism very unlike today’s movement, reminding us—also without any grandstanding—of the range of hardship women faced, from casual discrimination to literal loss of autonomy.

Certainly not an exhaustive review, this one would definitely be missing something without mention of costumes. The “traditional modern” is indeed realized in many of the outfits, fitting the period very nicely while also having the character of clothing many of us would quite like to wear today. The hoop skirts are rather another story, though the dresses themselves are quite attractive. Clothing matches characters’ moods or temperament, it seems, though nothing is ever overly or obviously utilized, such as Jo’s red, illustrating the streak of temper within her persona.

There are so many reasons to adore Little Women—the story itself, the many ways Greta Gerwig and others pulled it off, scenery, collaboration and more—and I am sure I will be exploring these in future blogs. As with so many others, this story has shifted something within me, and moving forward will be quite a different proposition than it would have been before I watched this film the first time. This is true with everything one experiences, of course, but we aren’t always privileged to feel that change, extraordinary indeed.

Movies by the Minute: A Quiet Place

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

Get ready not for just another movie—A Quiet Place is an experience, and one you won’t soon forget. This has to do with the fright factor, of course: a family’s survival is threatened by alien invaders who hunt by tracking sound, requiring everyone to stay absolutely silent in everything they do. The film also underscores the consequences of removing important elements of communication from the familial equation. In the world of A Quiet Place the alien monsters generate the conditions under which the family must live, but one of the film’s strengths is how it explores the themes of family and communication as they exist in our own societies with and without dangerous outside perils. Moreover, it renders the necessity of post-film retreat to discuss and decompress.

Director John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, opens the film as the family are 89 days into their new existence and many people worldwide are, we come to presume, dead. There were enough survivors, however, at least initially, to keep newspapers and other outlets running, and father Lee Abbott (played by Krasinski) has been doing research, evidenced to audiences by notes on his “war room” whiteboard, headlines and other informational tidbits. In this way Krasinski not only tells the audience some of what we need to know, but also sets the level of dramatic irony, increasing later as significant details emerge. By this time, audiences have bonded considerably with the family, and we root for them as they face their unique concerns and pain, together and alone.

The characters have some experience in how to survive this post-invasion era, and we learn by bits and pieces some of the techniques they have adapted, such as sand paths for quieter walking to town, or painted patches on non-squeaky floorboards. These are especially important to the Abbotts’ teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who happens to be deaf, an individual disadvantage, but one which also benefits the family as a whole because they can talk to each other more than most families, who lack knowledge of American Sign Language. Still, the Abbotts experience personality and perspective clashes like millions of others, and we witness them unable to reconcile their differences, one in particular that creates a terrible distance between two of the characters. The family’s stress and trauma are also compounded by the reality that the mother, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is pregnant. Of everything babies do, of course, crying is most notable, and it will endanger all their lives.

Krasinski shows us how the Abbotts strategize and make their way through each day, revealing in the process each character’s nature, especially following a horrific experience at the movie’s opening. What also draws us to our bonding with film and family is how fluidly he does this, in the process tying elements together, simultaneously utilizing them to show us how situations function. There is a small amount of telling, though by necessity, and through dialogue, sparingly, when Lee explains to a frightened Marcus (Noah Jupe) that the river’s roar isn’t dangerous to them because it is a constant sort of sound, or at least something the aliens have grown used to. We, too, realize the sense in the understanding: there’d be ongoing mass, fruitless attacks on the river otherwise.

What is perhaps central to enjoyment of the film is, as mentioned, the sheer experience of it: the director brings audiences into it as we unconsciously quieten ourselves. Naturally the dark cinema brings us to a state of greater stillness, but A Quiet Place amplifies the silence, this itself a statement of the movie’s content, and we find ourselves devoted to how quiet we are, as if our candy packages rustling put us in peril, or popcorn chewing will draw danger. At one point someone in our cinema dropped a plastic cup in surprise, following an especially tense moment, and cried out at the sound of it hitting the floor. That was followed by a collective intake of breath and then nervous laughter at the audience’s self-awareness of its own investment into the story. This for a movie that has, actually, very little dialogue.

This brings us to a point in which Krasinski’s talent perhaps shines through the most. The story is very tightly written and there is only one tiny little detail we felt was extraneous (“due date” written on the calendar); apart from that nothing is wasted or without meaning. Everything reveals something about the family or aliens, or gives us insight into the story and how it is progressing, perhaps one of the finest examples of economy in film today. All these elements themselves are brought to bear on the idea of communication, the characters’ own investment in survival and hope, Evelyn’s loving nature, Lee’s methodical dedication to his family, and the children’s confusion and adaptability.

A Quiet Place may very well bring mise-en-scène out of its abode as a “grand, undefined term,” given its intensely, sensitively artful utilization throughout the film. Soft knit Monopoly game pieces and rolling of dice on a blanket instead of the board spread on it; the camera movement within a frame showing Marcus only from the eyes up (and how expressive those eyes are!); composition in the very next shot showing Regan rising up into the frame from a sitting position; the authentic expression of confusion, fear and curiosity on Regan’s face and the choreography of her head turning to see an alien right behind her—all of these and more are so beautifully achieved, and merged so masterfully with the technical perfection of the script, that it is difficult even for casual movie-goers to miss.

The visuals and non-dialogue sounds play into the storyteller role as well, which is true in most movies, though here Krasinski—as if the rest discussed above weren’t enough to prove his genius—takes it to another level. For example the director, also very aware of the value of “less is more,” crafts one scene portraying Lee standing at a higher point as he witnesses the alien run through the corn field. We see and hear only the rapid rustling of corn stalks creating a pathway through the area, but we know very well what it is. Another incredibly tense scene shows a human and monster within sight of one another, though neither realizes it, an especially well-constructed scene for its dramatic irony, prior setup, utilization of strength and weakness, and crucial angle that we are only learning about within that scene. There is another moment: simultaneously icky and terrible, we squirm in our seats, perhaps even draw our feet up off the ground as the scene progresses, both for the potential multiple disasters that could occur as well as the steps needed to prevent them. Krasinski channels Hitchcock, the master of suspense, when he puts into practice the legendary director’s principle that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Others have done anticipation; this up-and-coming director utilizes it better and more creatively than we have seen in years.

While Krasinski does utilize a jump scare here and there, it is refreshing to see he doesn’t rely on the technique, instead keeping suspense real and open ended, and the audience focused on larger matters, such as narrative continuity, individual relationships and how each one affects the others. He also completely bypasses need for any given character doing something stupid in order to keep the story going. It has to be said: this review makes no pretense at being an exhaustive one. There is simply way too much greatness within A Quiet Place, from the writing, directing, the extremely talented cast and all around execution, for it to be a typical creature feature. Krasinski shows his understanding of the fine line between horror and thriller, and presents us with a story he himself describes as “a love letter to my kids.” It is a tale worth telling, not merely for its entertainment value, although there is that. It prompts in us a desire to communicate the meaningful, a follow-up response to one of the themes of the movie itself, as its thought-provoking messages—and what those might be—continue the conversation for a long time to come.

We cannot recommend A Quiet Place highly enough. Watch it at the cinema if you can get there before it stops showing, as this movie is a major reason people say there’s nothing like the big screen. Once you have, don’t be shy about purchasing the Blu Ray, because this is a film that not only bears but also wants watching repeatedly. Simply said A Quiet Place is too well-crafted to watch only once.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Molly’s Game

Movies by the Minute: Molly’s Game

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

I went to watch Molly’s Game without much interest, knowing I’d likely be bored (poker—not terribly fascinating), and all too aware I’d been feeling extra fidgety that day, but wanting my son to see something intriguing to him. It turned out to be a great decision and I’m happy to report my restlessness likely was released in my excitement at Aaron Sorkin’s scenes telling the story of Molly Bloom, hemmed in by bad guys and the legal system alike.

Bloom was slated to be an Olympic skier and spent her youth being trained by her overbearing father. A back injury sidelines her, however, and she later takes a year off before law school—at least that’s the plan—to move to Los Angeles. She lands an office job and is recruited by her boss to organize exclusive, underground poker games, where she earns large amounts of cash in tips alone. Initially rather green on the game, she quickly learns to curry favor and bring in new players, including film stars, athletes and investment bankers. Other elements and circumstances negatively affect the circle and Bloom finds herself the subject of an FBI investigation involving the Russian and Italian mafias, with both sides coming down on her.

Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, adapted from the real-life Bloom’s memoir, Molly’s Game: The True Story of the 26-Year-Old Woman Behind the Most Exclusive, High-Stakes Underground Poker Game in the World, opens and continues with a significant amount of narration. In most other movies this might be a fairly instant turnoff, but Sorkin, who also directs the film, gives Bloom dialogue that draws viewers in immediately, from her dramatic skiing and home life as her father pressures her to be an overachiever while simultaneously treating his daughter like the proverbial redheaded stepchild, to various other points in which realization suddenly dawns: “I’ve been watching this for an hour and a half already?”

The storyline doesn’t just contain Bloom’s legal and personal troubles: it all is told with an engaging substance and within a performance by Jessica Chastain that seems tailor made for her. Her character is intelligent enough to rapidly learn how to transform herself from office worker with a cheap wardrobe to successful businesswoman, though vulnerable enough to misstep in her financial judgements as they pertain to the amount of trust she bestows on those in positions to play her.

At some points in the film, Sorkin doesn’t make it immediately known how much time passes from one scene to the next, though he does provide enough indicators that we can figure that out—not necessarily all that difficult, given how he keeps us on our toes. The plot moves at an even pace, though packed with numerous details of an account we don’t realize at first we’ve been dying to hear. It is quintessential storytelling, Molly relating events in a back and forth between the now in her attorney’s office and scenes depicting what she is telling him—and us—about. Her voiceover often reaches out to us in a way not unlike that of someone we personally are interacting with, as they lean over during an especially shocking moment to lay their palm on our forearm in a conversational communion.

As the distinct points in time begin to merge, Sorkin continues to keep us on the alert because Molly’s choices—not really choices at all—are so loaded and fragile we aren’t sure when or how the explosions might go off. Moreover, Idris Elba, who plays Bloom’s attorney, approaches his role with a strict sensibility that gives way to an intensity, particularly in one pre-trial scene that shows him increasing his margins, demonstrating the actor’s versatile repertoire and ability to immerse himself into the mind of his character. Seamlessly, all this runs alongside yet another thread as Bloom’s life and future hang in the balance in the course of one final day. How this occurs and exactly what resolves itself and what doesn’t teams with the roles of Kevin Costner and Michael Cera, intricate parts of who Molly Bloom is and why she makes the choices she does, at the start as well as in conclusion.

Molly’s Game is recognizable—whether mere minutes or several weeks after viewing—as having high-level re-watchability. Perfect for a night at home or in the cinema, it is a storyteller’s story, one that will be requested repeatedly, even by those who know next to nothing about gambling, for it is a story about and with humanity, a cautionary tale of rise and fall, loyalty and betrayal, and the deconstructive devices within ourselves as well as those we choose to be around.

Viewers will leave electrified and should probably make plans for post-showing conversation, for they will not be ready to leave the tale just because the credits are rolling.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Signs

Avengers Anticipation

Turtle’s ranking of the MCU films 

Opens Friday, April 27! Yay!

So, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) turns ten years old this year. For a decade Marvel has been popping out movie after movie. None of them are great cinematic masterpieces that should win Best Picture, but are a lot of fun, quality movies that are sometimes pretty great. All have individually surpassed the $100 million line at the box office, but not all have been critically acclaimed. With Infinity War coming out in less than three weeks (18 days at the time this publishes; see trailer below), this is a great moment to rank all of the films released up until this point and a perfect moment to start an MCU binge (watch one movie a day from Iron Man to Black Panther). Without further ado, here is my ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

18) The Incredible Hulk (2008)

This movie is not terrible, it has some okay acting from Norton and a few good shots, but I don’t think it is controversial to call this the worst MCU movie. If you watch this as a standalone superhero flick, you can maybe enjoy parts but if you watch it as an MCU movie it is rather hard to sit through. The slow pacing, dull action, and poor CGI make this seem more like a DC movie and left a sour taste in my mouth when I saw it.

Rotten Tomato Score (RT): 67%
My Score: 63%*

17) Thor: The Dark World (2014)

To be honest, I remember very little of this movie because I might have fallen asleep on first watch. I saw it again and found it extremely underwhelming; it left me bored. I have very little to say about this, but I will say it has a few redeeming parts like Hemsworth’s unique charm and a few cool action bits, but overall, I found it very lackluster, just like its villain, whose name I can’t even remember.

RT: 66%
Me: 65%

16) Thor (2011)

Just like its sequel, this movie is littered with scenes that have slipped my mind completely. This origin story is so mind-numbingly dull that the most stand-out scene, Thor in the restaurant, is not even as good as the worst scene in other movies on this list. OK, OK, it’s no so bad; it does have a good ending battle and some okay jokes, but overall lacks the heart of the other movies higher up this list.

RT: 77%
Me: 71%

15) Iron Man 3 (2013)

I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say this is Shane Black’s worst film. I will say, however, that it is a pretty good one aside from its dark themes. The Mandarin twist is slightly dumb, but the rest is not as bad as others say. The writing is rather good and the acting from Downey is better than in the second.

RT: 80%
Me: 75%

14) Iron Man 2 (2010)

      Why do people hate this movie? The bird talk? Get over it.  If you forget that, this is a pretty solid movie. Is it amazing? No, don’t make me laugh. But overall this movie is pretty entertaining. Favreau really understands the character of Stark and that definitely shows here. It has some great acting from Rockwell, Downey, and Johansson; some good direction; and some pretty awesome action. I highly suggest you re-watch this.

RT: 73%
Me: 78%

13) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

      Let me start off by saying that this is an extremely underrated movie. The acting from Evans is pretty good and the timeline adjustment is done well. My biggest issue is the villain Red Skull who was so awesome in the comics, yet here is the most boring guy who at times can be a real expository mouth piece. I do suggest it, but if you loved Red Skull in the comics, maybe hold off on this one.

RT: 80%
Me: 78%

12) The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Coming out of this, I called this the best MCU movie. That was my first reaction. After re-watching it several times, I wonder what the heck I was thinking. It does feature some cool action and some pretty great character moments but is a huge let down when compared to the first. You should still watch this but don’t expect a sequel as good as the beloved original.

RT: 75%
Me: 81%

11) Ant-Man (2015)

Even though I would have liked to see Edgar Wright make this movie, it was pretty cool to see an origin movie this late in the MCU still be good. Rudd brings a fun vibe to this role that was a nice breath of fresh air that it needed. It has some really unique aspects, like that final battle that makes up for the forgettable villain. I am actually really excited to see the sequel coming the summer. Anybody agree?

RT: 82%
Me: 85%

10) Doctor Strange (2016)

Like the previous film, I am surprised this didn’t stink. I expected a two-hour acid trip but I got a really entertaining intro to a hero I can’t wait to see team up with the Avengers soon. Tilda Swinton was a little quirky but the story and visuals make up for it. One noticeable problem is Marvel’s main difficulty: the villain. Mikkelsen does a great job but I left a little disappointed about his reasoning.

RT: 89%
Me: 85%

9) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

I don’t get the backlash against this movie. I thoroughly enjoyed it. From an action or comedy stand point, this gives the original a run for its money, though the story is a little lacking. I did like the directions they took some of the characters in, but again, the villain was very disappointing and the Sovereign race was really un-needed. Other than that, the movie was really fun and a great time.

RT: 83%
Me: 87%

8) Black Panther (2018)

I was expecting a preachy movie, but what I got was a pretty great one that took a lot of bold choices. It features some of the best action, some great writing, and Coogler’s epic direction as the cherry on top. This is still rather new so I need to avoid spoilers, but I will say this has one of Marvel’s best villains.


RT: 97%
Me: 89%

7) Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

This movie is the Spidey film I always wanted. The Tobey Maguire, web-slinging trilogy was pretty good (the first two were at least), but this was more entertaining in my opinion. It found a way to capture the character’s personality from the comics and put it together with a fun story and get a really immersive movie. If you liked Spidey in Civil War, you will love this.

RT: 92%
Me: 90%

6) Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Why this wasn’t call Avengers 2.5 beats me, but it is still really good. The combination of all these heroes is awesome to watch, though the small moments are what make this movie. The style, tone, and action are all superb. Plus, that airport scene is flawless. Sorry to say: the villain is pretty underdeveloped, but the rest of this movie more than makes up for that.

RT: 91%
Me: 92%

5) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

A political drama in the form of a fun summer movie? Heck yeah! This movie is so different from the others on the list and that is what makes it so good. The Russos did such a great job and it is no wonder they were chosen to make the culmination: Infinity War! If you think this sounds weird, trust me, it works. Please, go watch this extremely original film.

RT: 89%
Me: 93%

4) Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all. Robert Downey, Jr. makes his famous comeback with this blockbuster landmark that has started the biggest franchise of all time. This is possibly the greatest origin superhero flick, featuring some amazing song choices and superb direction from Favreau. The villain is not the best but this is forgivable since this movie revolutionized the genre.

RT: 94%
Me: 94%

3) Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

      As you saw earlier on the list, I was really disappointed by the first two Thor flicks, but this is a whole different story. The fun tone and jokey attitude make this so much fun and eliminates all the problems the first entries experienced. Waititi revamped something I thought was dead and brought new life to the God of Thunder. I hope everyone gets a chance to experience this extremely thrilling movie, which also, by the way, has an awesome soundtrack.

RT: 92%
Me: 95%

2) The Avengers (2012)

This movie is an absolute game changer. The grand scope of this 2012 action-packed epic is utterly jaw dropping. The idea of bringing SIX heroes together seemed doomed from the beginning but Whedon, Feige, and the whole cast proved that idea wrong with this blockbuster record breaker. I really want to ruin nothing of this for those who haven’t seen it so please go see it.

RT: 92%
Me: 97%

1) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

      The first time I saw this, I didn’t really like it. I liked Iron Man 2 more. But then it topped list after list and so I watched it again. Ever since, no Marvel movie has come close to entertaining me more than this does. The acting is on point, the editing is superb, the jokes hit. It features amazing direction from Gunn, some of the best writing in recent years, and some jaw dropping visuals.

Most people had never heard of the Guardians before this, but this cinematic awesomeness put these fictional heroes on the map. Fast forward four years with the release of Infinity War approaching, and most people are talking about their anticipation to see them over Iron Man and friends.

Is this the greatest film ever made? No. Is it worthy of winning every single award at the Oscars? Absolutely not. Is it a great time and super kick butt? Yes. It isn’t trying to be the next Godfather or Citizen Kane, but as a cool summer blockbuster, it does a nearly perfect job.

RT: 91%
Me: 99%

So, that is my ranking of the MCU. Let me know down in the comment section your ranking and your thoughts on these flicks. I would love to interact and talk about these movies. Also, tell me if you would like to see an Infinity War predictions post and/or an in-depth review for one of these. Thank you so much for reading and of course hope you have fun re-visiting these in anticipation for Infinity War!

*My grades judge out of 100: the job they do telling the story they are trying to tell. I might give a drama a 95 and a blockbuster the same, but the drama will probably be a lot better. I judge an action thriller as that, and if it is action packed and very thrilling I will give it an amazing grade. A drama could be good but lacking and so I grade it an okay grade. That drama could still be a lot better than the superhero flick.

I often refer to it as The Nap World.

Getting a Moviecation

I like movies as much as the next guy, but a problem I’ve experienced since childhood is inability to sit still long enough to watch any in full. As a kid I was resigned to missing parts of the picture to get a snack or visit the bathroom just to move, and as an adult I tended to clean or cook during screen time.

The major result of this is that, like Beca in the clip above from Pitch Perfect, I never grew to fully appreciate film the way many others do, though this began to change when my son’s interest in the medium sparked and, over the years, intensified. He’s always liked watching movies, and I’m unsure at which point it really began to be something special for him, though I can say where his ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) obsession burst to life: at our library’s showing of Iron Man, a flick I was sure to have pretty much zero interest in but, hey, that’s what parents are for, right? Besides, I kind of like Robert Downey, Jr. and it made me recall my own brothers with fondness, it being titled, seemingly, to appeal mostly to male moviegoers.

I actually, pretty much, basically, somewhat, really liked it. OK, OK. I was hooked. (I even began later to call out, “Turtle, assemble!” in mornings when it was time to walk out the door.) As we caught up with movies already out on DVD and attended showings as pictures were released, my reading boy transitioned to this new love a sort of reverse habit he’d already possessed since some time: seeking out the novels to pair with his movie collection. And that was really magical because it entailed a merging of our interests and hundreds of hours of time spent discussing plots, characters and holes together with favorite scenes and actions. This grew as we both did: into talk of character arcs, three-act structure and the hero’s darkest hour, along with camera technique, balance* and continuity editing. We could share and show details even though at times it resembled people speaking to each other in foreign but closely-related languages. His love of film and my literature background nurtured each other and we found more in common to explore and examine than not.

It was a fairly amazing moment when I realized that much of what I loved about a great story in words can be satisfyingly combined with cinematography and other film technique to contribute to one’s enjoyment of various tales, and how special it was for me that I was learning it from my child. He was giving me a movie education. A moviecation.

By this time I’ve watched a number of movies with Turtle, some so I can keep tabs on what he’s seeing (a parent’s job never ends), others for the ordinary entertainment angle. Today, it is my pleasure to share some films, Turtle chosen, that we’ve watched together and that, for a variety of reasons, have stuck with me. These are films I likely would not have chosen without him, but now that I’ve seen them, not only has my own life in the moviegoer context been enriched, so too has my reading and writing process.

In no particular order:

For some reason, this Jack Lemmon movie’s blurb didn’t attract me very much and I had to be persuaded to watch what turned out to be a fantastic film. The tale of an aspiring businessman who rents his apartment by the evening out to wealthy upper-management types so they can conduct their trysts, The Apartment brings us quickly to a late evening when Lemmon’s character is growing tired of the arrangement, simultaneously aware he has to keep it up if he wishes to maintain his upward trajectory for promotion. Soon we are witness to woeful, hilarious and sober consequences and find ourselves rooting for the character of our choice as woven events become knotted and everyone seeks a way out—except me, as I became so entangled in each scene that I spoke aloud to characters, signaled approval (or not) and could almost feel the blood coursing through my veins in anticipation. I really had had no idea what to expect when I started to watch, and it stayed that way throughout. I also loved being able to view an older version of the New York business world, at a time we know was not exactly innocent (contrary to some descriptions), yet the individualized portraitures bring us surprise anyway, creating a sort of longing for a previous time.

Based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Daniel Plainview, a silver miner who becomes a successful oilman thanks to his ingenuity and ambition, along with a little luck. His obsession and temper, however, also play a role in the creation and destruction of his own future as he attempts to preserve it from the threat of competitors. While easy to characterize There Will Be Blood as a portrayal of capitalism, as opposed to the greed extant in any system, such a representation strips the film of its examinations of isolation, faith, family–and lack of–betrayal and self-preservation. Day-Lewis won best actor for his performance in this film full to the brim of captivating scenes and a glimpse into our nation’s past.

Coco initially appealed to me for its riot of colors amidst a celebratory aura that champions the remembrance of those who came before, a sentiment I heartily share. Its theme revolves around the Mexican holiday Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and focuses on Miguel Rivera, who accidentally winds up amongst the deceased, as he attempts to follow his musical passion despite his family’s prohibition of it. Studded with the famous Pixar “Easter eggs,” the scenes are remarkably detailed and captivating, and its most famous song, the poignantly memorable Academy-winning “Remember Me,” is utilized and performed in a variety of contexts and versions throughout the film. Viewers can’t help but be moved and charmed by its vibrant animation and layers of narrative that appeal to the universal need to know where each of us comes from. For those, like me, who rank Toy Story 3 or Ratatouille amongst Pixar Studios’ best, Coco gives them a serious run for their money.


*How elements such as light, sound, and movement work together within a film’s visual frame.

Stay tuned for more movie chatter and explorations of other great stories!

Check out my developing movie playlist and diary over at Letterboxd.

Movies by the Minute: Signs

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

I absolutely detest alien films, and my passing all these years on M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Signs is directly linked to my lack of awareness that this film isn’t about these creatures at all. However, when plopping down on the sofa in the midst of my son’s recent viewing of it, and he insisting on returning to the start, I was once more drawn into the world of Shyamalan. Having experienced a similar draw to his more recent Split, I didn’t resist, and was not disappointed.

Graham Hess, a former reverend and recent widower, begins to find crop circles in his Pennsylvania farm fields. Television news reveals lights and circles are appearing in other parts of the world as well, and strange occurrences support the family’s growing belief that aliens are mapping out an attack plan. Hess’s brother Merrill, who moved in to help care for his niece and nephew, provides some of the glue needed to hold the usually close family together as events move quickly toward terror and catastrophe. But Morgan—protective and loving toward his small sister—and Bo—whose quirkiness is matched to her demeanor—contribute as well, each one a key component within the path the family must take if they are to survive their ordeal.

In the telling of the story, Shyamalan’s genius shines through in just about every angle, something I later found many reviewers to miss. For example, when the family’s dog begins to act strangely, Hess says he will take him to the doctor, a non-vet. Morgan questions this, the father gives a semi-pat response and Shyamalan later provides a very significant clue as to why it plays out this way. This provides a very solid foundation not only for his reluctance to go to the vet, but is also linked, like so much else, to a central theme within the story. Moreover, it establishes Shyamalan’s ability to equally distribute information: it is viewer friendly in that the director doesn’t withhold information, though neither is there any need for spoon feeding. Indeed, this strength exists within a holistic framework wholly visible: as far as I could see, there are no extraneous scenes or occurrences; everything means something, as it should.

Also key to Signs is that the tale is told from the family’s point of view: we only know as much as they do, and they experience it all through the lens of their own encounters with life. This brings everything to a personal level as we begin to appreciate that these few days in their lives are intimately linked to what it means to have meaningful connections to other people and something larger than ourselves.

In turn, Shyamalan achieves this with such techniques as allowing us to use our own imagination. We don’t see huge cities aflame from alien battles with any nation’s air force, or disgusting attacks on people, replete with what I have an awful aversion to and call “moist noises,” the duty of which is to replace thematic elements with horror. Shyamalan has no need for this, simply because that isn’t the story he is telling.

Instead, the director relates a much more personal one in which unadulterated fear—not a Hollywood hyped version of it—questions what we think we know, and he applies this reflectively, though variably, as it would be in real life. As a character engages in an action, we expect a reaction—and it doesn’t come. It doesn’t come yet again, and still not. Then: BOOM! It comes and even the most jaded or confident moviegoer jumps in his seat at the reality that our knowledge is faulty. This is confirmed by the director’s fluid application of that technique, which as a by-product keeps the scenes fresh and thrilling, the tension palpable and even raw.

Signs is, in short, a magnificent thriller that hosts various levels and themes, created by a master storyteller wholly adept at angle, plot distribution and character development. This particular film’s genius—especially as related to the alien angle—is its point of view, as it takes us in a different direction to focus on the heart of the tale and addresses relationships, forgiveness, faith and hope, as well as what it takes to mend and maintain any or all of those. An eternal tale told by an absolute master.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Split

See below trailer for more on Signs

Still to come:

There is so much I could and want to say about Signs, which is why discussion on it will continue another day with the very one who introduced me to the film as we discuss various aspects, people’s responses, scene analysis and more. It will be, by necessity, chock full of spoilers and I will naturally post an alert.

Movies by the Minute: Split

A continuing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Matinee getaway OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

At the risk of being repetitive, my disclaimer is this: I like movies as much as the next person, though I’m by no means a fanatic. My fourteen-year-old boy, however, is quite the aficionado and more than once he’s used his stealth swaying powers to get me in front of the screen.

Tonight it was for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which after a few minutes in I recognized from previously viewing its trailer. While not (I thought) in love with Shyamalan or psychological thrillers, my lack of follow-up had more to do with the subject matter of abduction, a topic that unnerves me when immersed within it for too long—especially as part of storytelling.

In this particular tale three high-school girls are abducted from King of Prussia, later awakening to find themselves in a small room complete with torture lighting. Their kidnapper is a man with 23 personalities, key of which are revealed to viewers—and the girls, albeit more slowly—as the film progresses through scenes, including his visits to a psychologist and one of the girls, Casey, experiencing flashbacks of life events that aid her attempts to strategize a way out.

The room itself is part of the set I liked the least, for where we are placed as we observe events is almost claustrophobic. Shyamalan manages to generate in viewers a sensation of skittishness in there as we face the horrible colors, subtly glaring light (if that isn’t too contradictory) and overall ickiness of the surroundings: no windows, humid, basement-y, utilitarian and lonesome, the very place no cautious person would ever go into willingly.

We feel backed into a corner when confronted with James McAvoy’s multiple personalities, portrayed so brilliantly we will never look at Tumnus the same way ever again, which for the actor may be a pretty good deal as he escapes potential typecasting as a faun, and is known for his amazing repertoire. Truly, this was a risky role given the film’s uncomfortable content, but McAvoy owns it as he introduces the various personalities by the very expressions on his face. Spectacles are a prop for one identity, but they are almost superfluous given McAvoy’s ability to reposition his countenance and alter his accent, even his very voice to become who he is (at that moment). Who else resides inside his psyche is yet to be seen, as is the cost to whom he reveals himself.

Anya Taylor Joy also gives a fantastic performance even in silence, for her range of emotion speaks volumes: horrific fear, fierce determination, raw desperation, even bitter anger. As her abduction is set in motion and the two other girls are already knocked out, it might be contemplated that to simply wake up somewhere horrible must be the absolute worst. Taylor Joy challenges this as one tear runs from her eye and she is utterly paralyzed in fear and terror—too much so to simply leap from the car she might otherwise have escaped. One simply murmurs to one’s self: Oh. My. God.

As a director Shyamalan is impressive and I can appreciate his talents displayed in transitional shifts, perspective angles, fitful lighting and a host of other techniques utilized to create tension and elicit commentary directed at characters, willing them to do this or that—and do it faster. And while I am absolutely fascinated with the brain, I prefer mostly to stay out of the dark corridors of the mind. Shyamalan, however, manages to lure from this protective evasion to view technical brilliance and magnificent performance within the themes of, amongst others, the role of history, labels, leadership, agency, coping mechanisms, relationships and communication. And in the end we see a surprise that makes us think both Aha! and No way!

Stay tuned, people, stay very tuned. 

Assessment: Major performances are worthy of

cinematic experience, whether day or night


Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Dunkirk