‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Invites You to Peel Back its Many Layers

Bad Times at the El Royale poster

Bad Times at the El Royale” is one of those movies I have really come to deeply admire as it is like an onion you keep peeling at continually to see what’s underneath. Just when I thought I knew where things were heading, the story heads in another direction to where what we were initially introduced to is not all what it seems. As Bo Diddley once sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover, and while this movie’s poster tells us what we need to know before going into the theater, there is more to discover than we could ever anticipate.

The El Royale of the movie’s title is a hotel which, at one time, was one a glorious place to visit, but it has since fallen into disrepute. The first sequence shows a man entering a room there, digging beneath its surface to play a bag of money beneath it. He is later greeted by another man who he kindly welcomes in, but who quickly shoots him dead with a shotgun. It’s a wonderfully elaborate sequence which brings us into a motion picture which promises not to be the usual mainstream fare.

We then move to 10 years later when a number of visitors arrive at the El Royale to stay for a night or two. They include the kindly priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), aspiring singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo), vacuum cleaner salesman Dwight Broadbeck (Jon Hamm), and a young hippie named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). All of them are greeted by the hotel’s concierge and apparently its only employee, Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), who gleefully illustrates the location’s history and amenities for all of those willing to hear him out.

Revealing more from here would spoil one too many surprises as we discover not everyone is who they appear to be, but I can tell you the characters soon find themselves on a road to hell as their sins rise to the surface for everyone around them to see. In one way or another, everyone is either trying to escape their past or reclaim it in a way which offers no promises, and not everyone is going to make it out of their predicament in one piece.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” was written and directed by Drew Goddard who wrote the screenplays for the highly-entertaining “Cloverfield,” “World War Z” and “The Martian,” the one Ridley Scott movie in recent years which we can all agree on (in that it was great). Goddard also wrote and directed the horror comedy “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie I should have seen already, but anyway. He composes this movie in vignettes just as Quentin Tarantino composes his with chapters out of a novel. Each one allows us to learn more about the characters and what brought them to this once glorious resort. The question is, do they all know about the valuables buried beneath one of the rooms?

I enjoyed how Goddard kept peeling away at each of these characters’ identities as we learn more about them in ways which are both illuminating and shocking, and it kept me guessing as to where things were going to go next. There’s even a scene of shocking violence involving a wine bottle which just comes out of nowhere, and it slammed me back into my seat in a way such a scene has not in recent years.

The movie, however, does suffer as it goes on. You should have heard the collective gasp from the audience at the press screening I attended when they were told the running time would be two hours and 21 minutes. Most Hollywood studios these days would never dare to let one of their releases last more than 90 or 100 minutes, so the amount of freedom Goddard got here seems astonishing in retrospect.

I have nothing against movies which last over two hours as long as they are able to justify their length. It is far too easy for a filmmaker to become self-indulgent. In retrospect, “Bad Times at the El Royale” could have used some tightening in the editing room as the story slowly drags towards its conclusion which involves a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth, taking a much-needed break from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and his much-too devoted follower, Rose (the wonderfully possessed Cailee Spaeny). By the time we finally arrive at the ending, it feels like everything is concluding on the wrong note. This could have been an even more frustrating ending than the one in “The Matrix Revolutions,” but saying so is a little too punishing.

Still, there is much to admire here such as the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, the terrific set and art direction and, of course, the great cast that tears into their roles with great gusto. Jeff Bridges continues to remain one of our finest actors as he inhabits his role of Father Daniel Flynn in a way few others could. Cynthia Erivo proves to have quite the vocal chops here as her singing left the audience I saw this movie with in almost total silence. Dakota Johnson, finally freed from those god-awful “Fifty Shades of Grey” movies, gets to show an enigmatic side of her acting that makes it clear how we have no business dismissing her as just another pretty face. As for Jon Hamm, he is as charming as ever, and watching him hustle the other characters almost effortlessly makes me believe he will be the next Batman.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” is a flawed movie, but for me, its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. I am curious to see how audiences end up reacting to this as it is coming out in a cinematic time dominated by superheroes. Goddard’s film definitely stands outside the norm, but my hope is audiences will take the time to discover something a little different from what they are used to.

Whatever you think of “Bad Times at the El Royale,” you have to admit it allows Jeff Bridges to utter one of the best lines of dialogue in recent years:

“Shit happens… Get the whiskey.”

* * * out of * * * *

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Ralph Garman Continues to Walk the Showbiz Beat with ‘The Ralph Report’

Ralph Garman photo

I first became aware of Ralph Garman when he and Kevin Smith hosted a screening of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema. In the movie, Garman plays Caleb, husband to Sara (Oscar-winner Melissa Leo) who is a shameless member of Five Points Trinity Church, an infinitely homophobic religious sect which puts the WBC to utter shame. While Ralph has no dialogue, he left quite the impression on audiences as film acting requires you to do more with your face than with dialogue.

Caleb Red State

But following the screening, which also served as my introduction to “Hollywood Babble-On,” a podcast I am a die-hard fan of, Ralph demonstrated to the audience a talent he has long since been gifted with, doing voices. Whether he spoke as Al Pacino, Christopher Walken or Sylvester Stallone (“GREEDY AND LAZY!!!”), it was clear he had more than eight voices in his repertoire.

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Ralph Garman is an actor and radio personality who has appeared in such movies as “Sharktopus,” “Lavalantula,” “Ted” and “Yoga Hosers” to name a few. On television, he has lent his vocal talents to countless episodes of “Family Guy” and appeared on “The Joe Schmo Show.” But to many, he is best known for his time on “The Kevin & Bean Show,” a Los Angeles morning radio show on KROQ-FM. For almost two decades, he entertained audiences with his impressions and sketches which included him going nuts as Christian Bale and voicing the late Jerry Lewis so well to where he actually ended up talking with Jacques Chirac, the one-time President of France. This, of course, led to a lawsuit, but anyway.

On November 30, 2017, Ralph told audiences he was leaving “The Kevin & Bean Show” after 18 years and was very emotional about departing from a job he was at for a very long time. His exodus was the result of downsizing put forth by KROQ’s new management. To see him get laid off was painful as anyone who has gone through the same thing can understand the shock and sadness of seeing their regular routine upended for the sake of increased profits. It’s like your manager is telling you, “We would love for you to stay. We just don’t want to pay you and we figured you would have a problem with that.”

After interviewing with other radio stations for the possibility of employment, Garman came to realize he no longer wanted to work in an environment where he was told what he could and could not do. So, at the beginning of 2018, he debuted “The Ralph Report,” a weekly podcast which can be found on the membership platform website, Patreon. This has proven to be the perfect place for him to continue his work as he has developed a faithful following of listeners which he lovingly refers to as the “Garmy,” and it is a podcast I very much look forward to listening to Monday through Friday.

The Ralph Report Twitter logo

Wisely, Garman has tailored “The Ralph Report” to have different kinds of segments each day to keep things fresh and to not let it fall into a stagnant rhythm. He continues to “walk the showbiz beat” as he has said for years, looking at the latest news in Hollywood, listing the birthdays of celebrities, and checking out which movies did big business at the box office over the weekend. He also continues to have great fun at the expense of the reality show “The Bachelor” and its various incarnations along with his wife, Kari Watson. Hearing them riff on the latest “Bachelor” episode makes me want to watch it myself, and this is even though I typically live to avoid reality shows in general.

Like any good show, “The Ralph Report” continues to evolve to include new segments such as “Holiday or Holi-nay” in which he looks at each day’s national holidays to determine which one deserves to be celebrated over all the others. It’s constantly astonishing to see just how many holidays can be fit into a single day to where I wonder if there’s any day of the year which does not have one. It also reminds me of a classic episode of “The Simpsons” in which the following dialogue was spoken:

    Mayor Quimby: “Henceforth, this date shall forever be known as Flaming Moe’s Day!”

    Advisor: “Uh, sir, this is already Veterans’ Day.”

    Mayor Quimby: “It can be two things!”

Yes, it can.

Eddie Pence eating a peach

In recent months, Garman has also brought on stand-up comedian Eddie Pence to be his vice host, and the two play off each other very well. You also have to give Pence points for bravery as loyal members of the Garmy continue to pester him about the foods he should like but does not, facts he often gets wrong (“EDDIE!!! Is Wrong”), and those who continue leaving voicemails which start off with “DAMN YOU, EDDIE PENCE!” I think he deserves more respect than people often give him, and this is even though I am annoyed with him describing the sci-fi cult classic “Tron” as, in his words, “boring.” Hey, Eddie, no movie which stars Jeff Bridges, “The Dude” for crying out loud, can ever be considered boring. And yes, that includes “R.I.P.D.”

If I have to choose one segment from “The Ralph Report” I have come to like above all others, it is “Sex U.” Ralph originally did this segment on “The Kevin & Bean Show” until KROQ and the FCC forced the program to drop it. At first, I thought it would be poking fun at sex in general or at the sexually inexperienced, but it has proven to be a very thoughtful segment which deals with sexuality issues in an intelligent way. One episode in particular dealt with adult virgins who still find themselves celibate for varying reasons. This is actually a bigger issue than many even bother to realize. How do I know this? I’m not answering that.

But what’s especially appealing about “The Ralph Report” is that it is hosted by a man who remains a very down-to-earth individual. He moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a serious actor, and while things for him may not have worked out the way he expected, I think he has ended up exactly where he needs to be. Ralph has a loving wife and daughter, his love of the “Batman” television show from the 1960’s has proven to be infectious, and he strikes me as a celebrity you can have an easy conversation with. Also, he has taken the large step of creating a business for himself through Patreon, and it has proven to be a success which has nowhere to go but up.

Please keep up the great work, Ralph! I look forward to seeing how “The Ralph Report” will evolve from week to week. Kudos to you as well, Eddie, for being an effective vice-host. Just remember Eddie, I love “Tron” and I mean it. Bye.

Click here to visit “The Ralph Report” website and learn more about the podcast and how to subscribe.

 

The Best Movies of 1998

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Now it’s time to go to take a look back at the movies of 1998, the same year when California started the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. What else happened that year? John Glenn became the oldest astronaut to go into space, and it gave us a reason to watch the space shuttle launch on television for the first time in years. The Denver Broncos became the first AFC team in 14 years to win the Super Bowl when they beat the Green Bay Packers (I’m so glad I didn’t bet on that game). The whole controversy of President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky exploded, which the President’s enemies seized upon like teenagers going through their dads’ Playboy magazine issues while he is out of town. And, most ironically, a court in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan ruled Osama Bin Laden was “a man without a sin” in regard to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Well, we knew better.

As for myself, I was in my second year at UC Irvine and my fourth year in college. I still had a dorm room all to myself, and I was busy with school work and appearing in plays like “Enrico IV,” “The Scarlet Letter” and “Twelfth Night.” Of course, I tried to get out to the movies as much as humanly possible. Many of the movies on this list were ones I actually didn’t get around to seeing until years later, so it’s probably best I am giving you this list now.

10) There’s Something About Mary

Theres Something About Mary poster

Bobby and Peter Farrelly gave us one of the most gut bustlingly hilarious movies ever made with “There’s Something About Mary.” I was dying with laughter while watching this, and I wasn’t expecting to. In retrospect, I should have though since this came from the same directors who gave us “Dumb and Dumber” as well as “Kingpin.” On top of having so many funny moments, the movie also has a lot of heart in the way it portrays the two main characters played by Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. Those of you who think Diaz can’t act need to revisit this one because she is so good at playing a teenager who we later see as a well-meaning adult with a few too many stalkers.

9) American History X

American History X poster

So much has been said about the making of “American History X” and the bitter disagreements between director Danny Kaye and actor Edward Norton. Regardless of whoever deserves the majority of the credit, there is no denying this is a powerful and unforgettable motion picture. Norton gave one of his very best performances as white supremacist Derek Vineyard, and the look he gives the camera after killing two people is a very chilling moment which is not easily erased from the conscious mind. Norton also gets great support from Edward Furlong who plays Danny, Derek’s brother, who threatens to tread down the same hateful path Derek has. Kaye, even if he didn’t get final cut, gives the movie an amazing look in black and white which captures the escalating tension of Derek’s journey from a world of hate to a place of compassion.

8) Dark City

Dark City movie poster

Alex Proyas followed up his brilliant adaptation of “The Crow” with this visionary sci-fi epic about a man who wakes up not knowing who he is, and of those who seek to capture him for their own twisted experiments. Like many great sci-fi movies “Dark City” was a box office flop upon its release, but it has since found an audience to where there’s no denying it is a cult classic. You’re along for the ride with Rufus Sewell as he tries to understand his place in a world ruled over by the Strangers. This movie remains suspenseful to the very end, and the look of the movie feels like no other I have ever seen. Jennifer Connelly also stars in the film and looks beautiful as always, and it is interesting to watch Kiefer Sutherland play a complete wimp after watching him for so long on “24.”

7) Out Of Sight

Out of Sight movie poster

Here’s the film which brought Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney together, and it also serves as one of the very best adaptations of an Elmore Leonard novel. With “Out of Sight,” Clooney proved without a doubt there was going to be life for him after “ER” with his performance as Jack Foley, the most successful bank robber in America. When Jack escapes from jail, he ends up sharing some trunk space with Federal Marshall Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez). “Out of Sight” also marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Soderbergh, and he got to work from a truly great screenplay written by Scott Frank. Also starring is the fantastic Catherine Keener, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Dennis Farina, Isaiah Washington, and the always reliable Don Cheadle. This movie was a lot of fun, and Clooney and Lopez had such great chemistry together.

6) Rushmore

Rushmore movie poster

This was my introduction to the highly creative world of Wes Anderson. “Rushmore” is an instant comedy classic with more depth to it than many others of its genre at the time. Max Fischer is an original eccentric character; a young man involved in just about ever extra-curricular activity at school, all at the expense of his report card. Jason Schwartzman is great fun to watch as Max, and Bill Murray gives a performance which damn well should have earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. With Anderson, his comedy is fueled by the sadness and isolation of his characters, and of the things they desperately want in life. “Rushmore” is filled with as much meaning as it does laughter as both Schwartzman and Murray battle over the same woman played by Olivia Williams. It also owes a lot to the late Mike Nichols’ enduring classic “The Graduate.”

5) Happiness

Happiness movie poster

Todd Solondz’s follow up to “Welcome To The Dollhouse” may very well be the most ironically titled film in cinema history. Controversy followed “Happiness” all the way to its release, and the MPAA of course just had to give it an NC-17 (it ended up being released unrated). One of the blackest of black comedies ever, it follows the lives of three sisters and the various people who are a part of their fragile lives. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a frighteningly memorable performance as an obscene phone caller, and it was one of the first real examples of the brilliant character actor we came to see him as. But the bravest performance comes from Dylan Baker who plays Bill Maplewood, a psychiatrist, husband and loving father who, unbeknownst to his family, is a pedophile. Baker ends up making you empathize, but not sympathize, with a man who we would instantly despise once we discovered his terrible secret. As unappealing as these characters may seem, Solondz makes us see ourselves in them and to where we cannot see we are not all that different.

4) The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski movie poster

I didn’t get to see this when it first came out in theaters, but my parents did eventually strap me down in a chair to watch it, and this should give you an idea of how much they love it. The Coen brothers follow up to “Fargo” did not get the same reception when originally released, but it has since built up an amazing cult following. Much of this is thanks to Jeff Bridges’ brilliant performance as Jeffrey Lebowski, aka “The Dude.” What could have been a performance built on stereotypes of the slackers we know in life turns out to be perhaps the most memorable character in Bridges’ long and underappreciated career. It’s an ingenious comedy with not so much a plot as a connected series of events which start with the theft of Lebowski’s carpet which he says “tied the whole room together.”

3) The Truman Show

The Truman Show movie poster

It still seems criminal how Peter Weir’s film was surprisingly, and infuriatingly, snubbed for a Best Picture nomination. Jim Carrey gives a truly astonishing and powerful performance as Truman Burbank, a man who slowly becomes aware he is the star of a reality show about his life. Yes, he should have been nominated for an Oscar alongside his co-star Ed Harris, but there will always be the unforgivable snubs. “The Truman Show” has become a prophetic movie of sorts as reality shows are the norm in today’s culture, and this obsession we have over them remains very strong to this day. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay was a brilliant examination of how we might view our own life if we found out it was based on a lie, and that everything we know is actually wrong. This stands as one of Weir’s best American movies in a long and justly acclaimed career.

2) Shakespeare In Love

Shakespeare in Love movie poster

While it may have gotten overwhelmed by Miramax’s Oscar campaign, there’s no denying “Shakespeare In Love” is a brilliant and highly entertaining romantic comedy. The film tells the story of how Shakespeare goes about writing “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” which eventually evolves into “Romeo & Juliet.” Gwyneth Paltrow gives a most entrancing performance, and I loved watching her every second she appeared onscreen. Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as Shakespeare himself, a passionate writer who is hopelessly enamored with Paltrow’s Viola. I also got a huge kick out of Geoffrey Rush’s performance as theater manager Philip Henslowe, a brilliant comic creation who steals every scene he is in. “Shakespeare In Love” serves as not just a great story of how Shakespeare may have written one of the most immortal plays ever, but also as a great satire of the film industry and how it deviously profits from unsuspecting participants.

And now, drum roll please…

1) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan movie poster

It would be so easy to put this as my top choice thanks to some of the greatest and most vividly realistic depictions of war ever put on film. Steven Spielberg’s depiction of the landing on D-Day is nothing short of amazing, and it was one of the reasons why I saw this film five times before it came out on DVD. But moreover, it is a deeply respectful salute to those war veterans who served in the armed forces during World War II. “Saving Private Ryan” is filled with great performances from a great cast of actors including Edward Burns, Jeremy Davies, Giovanni Ribisi, Tom Sizemore, Adam Goldberg, Vin Diesel, Matt Damon, and Barry Pepper among others. But it also has one of Tom Hanks’ best performances ever as Captain John Miller, a military man who leads his men to find Private Ryan and bring him back home to his grieving mother. Just when you thought Spielberg had peaked with “Schindler’s List,” he gives us yet another astonishing piece of filmmaking which shows him at the height of his powers.

Honorable Mentions:

Primary Colors – Great Mike Nichols movie based on the book by Joe Klein. It features great performances from John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates as well as an extraordinary cameo from Mykelti Williamson.

Bullworth – Warren Beatty’s scathing political satire may be a bit too broad, but it is a very effective indictment of how the Democratic Party let the American people down.

Elizabeth – Definitely worth mentioning for the brilliant breakthrough performance of Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth.

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s crazy novel is a true acid trip nightmare with Johnny Depp channeling the reporter all the way to what he was famous for wearing and smoking.

God Said, Ha! – Wonderful concert film of Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show which deals with the time her brother got cancer, and of how she later got cancer herself.

Hurlyburly – Film adaptation of David Rabe’s play dealing with Hollywood players and their dysfunctional relationships with one another. Features a great cast which includes Sean Penn, Chazz Palminteri and Anna Paquin among others.

Affliction – Another emotionally bruising movie from Paul Schrader which is based on the novel by Russell Banks. Features career high performances from Nick Nolte and the late James Coburn who deservedly won an Oscar for his work.

Next Stop Wonderland – An eccentrically unusual kind of romantic comedy which helped introduce actress Hope Davis to a wider audience.

Ronin – One of the last films from the late John Frankenheimer which stars Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, and Jonathan Pryce among others. It also features some of the very best car chases of the 1990’s.

Run Lola Run – Kinetic German thriller with Franka Potente that views her attempts to save her boyfriend’s life in three different ways. This was a great teaser for what would come in 1999, when movies of different kinds proceeded to change the rules of where a story could go.

The Thin Red Line – Terrence Malick’s first movie in over 20 years threatened to be more meandering than anything else, but it is filled with such powerful imagery and to where many considered it more anti-war than “Saving Private Ryan” was.

John Carpenter’s Vampires – It was advertised as a horror movie, but it is really a more of a western and the closest John Carpenter has ever come to making one. James Woods’ performance alone is worth the price of admission as he plays the most badass of vampire hunters, Jack Crow.

Star Trek: Insurrection – Much better than its reputation may suggest, being an odd numbered Star Trek movie and all.

 

 

‘Iron Man’ Got the Marvel Cinematic Universe Off to a Strong Start

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The 2008 summer movie season started off with a bang with the long-awaited release of “Iron Man” which starred Robert Downey Jr. as the egocentric weapons maker turned world protector, Tony Stark. It also marked the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which brought its many characters to the silver screen with great success, and this one still remains one of the best to come out of it.

“Iron Man” starts with Tony traveling through the Afghanistan desert with a military convoy that gets attacked by terrorists. Tony flees the hummer transporting him and almost gets killed by one of the missiles he designed. When he comes to, he is being held captive in a cave and kept alive by an electromagnet attached to his torso which keeps the shrapnel inside his body from going to his heart. The terrorists, led by Raza (Faran Tahir), force Tony to build them one of his most destructive missiles on pain of death, but he instead takes the parts they give him and creates a bulletproof suit which allows him to escape in spectacular fashion.

When he gets back to America, he has a press conference where he states he will turn his company from a weapon making factory into one that doesn’t promote endless destruction. Having seen the damage he has done to others, he is now determined to protect those from the weapons he created. As for the iron suit which saved his life, he works at perfecting it into something strong and indestructible. On top of giving him the ability to fly, it also allows him to get back at those who took advantage of his destructive creations.

“Iron Man” is a tricky movie to make because it is the type meant to set up this particular superhero and then move on to the inevitable sequels which never come out soon enough. It is a credit to director Jon Favreau that the characters are as interesting as the action is exciting. Unlike other comic book adaptations, this story feels much more grounded in reality and doesn’t have characters that don’t seem real. Unlike Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 3,” here we have a superhero who doesn’t waste his time feeling sorry for himself on a regular basis.

But the real masterstroke of “Iron Man” is the casting of Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He is without a doubt one of the best actors working in movies today, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role. When he first appears, he clearly acts like the man Weird Al Yankovic sang about in “I’m Such a Groovy Guy.” Both brilliant and sexy, it’s tempting to believe Downey Jr. is playing himself, but that assumption would be unfair. He makes Tony’s transition from selfish egomaniac to world protector almost seamless and never less than believable. Inside that cool and ever so confident exterior, there lies a man who is taking his life and company in a direction which may completely kill it.

Seriously, Tony is one of coolest comic book heroes to appear in movies for the longest time. Most of the comic book heroes we have grown up with are emotional wrecks and understandably so. Batman saw his parents murdered in front of him, Superman only got to see his parents at that Crystal Palace as he lost his human father earlier than he should have, and Spider-Man lost his uncle when he was murdered. But Tony isn’t necessarily waylaid by emotional disasters the way those characters were. While many of us want to spit on those who look like they had everything handed to them on a silver platter, Tony more than earns his place in society and you never doubt his abilities to create extraordinary things.

Also, Tony has quite the lifestyle most guys envy. He has one hell of a mansion up in the hills of Malibu that has the most incredible view, and his personal jet is equipped with a pole that comes out of the floor for his very lovely stewardesses to take advantage of. I saw this movie in a theater with some friends of mine, and one of them leaned over to me and said, “This is the only way to live!”

In retrospect, this character is a relief after watching those other male superheroes who turn into whiny crybabies that remind me too much of myself. Female superheroes don’t fall into this category much, so that should make you wonder which gender is truly the stronger one.

The rest of the “Iron Man” cast is perfectly chosen. When the movie came out, Jeff Bridges was one of the most underappreciated actors working in movies (this has since changed). His character of Obadiah Stane, one of the main heads of Stark Industries, is a slimy corporate executive whose outer exterior projects a man of kindness and trust Tony relies on. That trust is utterly betrayed when Obadiah files an injunction against Stark to gain control of his company and put it back in the direction it was going before Stark started changing his ways.

Unlike Tony, Obadiah has no creativity or brilliance to rely on. All he has are selfish desires and a misplaced loyalty to Stark’s father who helped build the world’s first atomic bomb. Although he has the makings of another villain whose sole interest is world domination, Obadiah represents those who are too easily threatened by the winds of change. Bridges, like Downey Jr., gives Obadiah dimensions you wouldn’t necessarily expect a character like this to have. This is not just some one-dimensional bad guy like others, and it is a credit to Bridges’ brilliance that he makes this very clear.

Also, on board is Gwyneth Paltrow who is a wonderful presence as Tony’s longtime assistant, Virginia “Pepper” Potts. While it might seem weird for her to play someone’s assistant, she imbues Pepper with beauty, smarts, intelligence and heart which Tony more than depends on his life for. She also shares great chemistry with Downey Jr., and their relationship is key as those inevitable sequels would prove. Paltrow also has one of the movie’s best lines as she meets up with a Vanity Fair writer Tony made out with the night before:

“So, you just spend your time taking care of everything Tony asks you to do?

“I take care of all duties that Tony asks of me to do. That includes taking out the garbage.”

We also have Terence Howard as Tony’s military consultant and close friend, Jim Rhodes. Jim is the one who tries to keep Tony grounded in reality, but he never quite succeeds. Howard is great here if he a bit underused here, and this is the second movie I have seen where he plays a character constantly giving press conferences (“The Brave One” was the other one).

The movie has many great action scenes which you come out of feeling justified in saying, “that’s cool man!” When Iron Man fights off terrorists in a war-torn country, he finds very creative ways to dispatch his enemies that are too good to reveal here. Also, there are scenes where Tony is testing out different parts of the suit. This can usually be seen as the boring set up part for the superhero, but these moments make you jump out of your seat because you find yourself laughing harder than you usually do.

With “Iron Man,” Downey Jr. who gives us something more than the average super hero. He gives us one with brains, smarts and, most importantly, a soul. It doesn’t matter if you have great special effects if you don’t have the story or the characters to match up with it. “Iron Man” has that, and it set the bar high for the comic book movies which followed in its wake.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Only the Brave’ Celebrates the Lives of Those who Risk Everything to Keep Others Safe

Only the Brave movie poster

While watching “Only the Brave,” I kept thinking of what Mike Kellerman said in an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street:” “Fire is a living thing. It eats, it breathes air, it can be killed. Something about that power draws people in.” This dialogue played in my head while Josh Brolin stares at a wildfire off in the distance, wondering which direction it will spread in. From this, we can tell he doesn’t just see fire as simply something to be put out, but as a force to be fought with on its own term. The term fight fire with fire takes on a special meaning here, and it is shown to be more than just the title of a Metallica song.

“Only the Brave” is, yes, based on a true story. In this case, it is about an elite crew of firefighters who came to be known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots and who risked their lives on a regular basis to stop wildfires in their tracks. In June 2013, 19 of their members died while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and it remains one of the deadliest incidents involving United States firefighters outside of the September 11th attacks. I figured the movie would be all about this fire and of who survived it and who didn’t. However, it is really about these group of men who come together to form a brotherhood of sorts as they come to depend on one another as their work is always very dangerous. In the process, we also see the bonds they have with their families and loved ones, and of the constant balance they have to work at between work and family life.

Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the leader of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who is eager to build a team of firefighters which will not simply serve as background performers while other elite firefighters push them to the side. You would think firefighters from different places would be quick to band together in the face of mother nature’s havoc, but each individual firefighting group is shown to be a competitive bunch as they want to claim the glory of being a hero before anyone else. After dealing with conflicts and money problems inherent in the realm of politics, Eric gets the funding he needs to begin training men who are infinitely eager to fight fire with fire.

Now a movie like this typically employs a number of stereotypical characters like the ladies’ man, the fearless leader, the trusted second-in-command the one who looks as if he is in the wrong place, and “Only the Brave” does traffic a bit in this area to where I thought this might become “Top Gun” but with firefighters instead of pilots. But thanks to an excellent cast which includes Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze, Alex Russell and Ben Hardy, we get to be intimately involved in the exploits of these firefighters to where we have to admire their selflessness in what they do.

An actor worth noting in particular is Teller who has given excellent performances in “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller plays Brendan McDonough who, at the movie’s start, is a hopeless drug addict. From the character’s first appearance, I figured Brendan would be the one to start the Yarnell Hill Fire as he carelessly is shown smoking crystal meth to where he is barely conscious, and I kept waiting for him to drop a match in a field without even realizing it. Brendan comes to discover his ex-girlfriend is pregnant, and he reacts to this news flippantly as it only increases his capacity for self-destruction. But upon seeing his baby for the first time, he suddenly begins to turn his life around and looks to get employed on Eric’s firefighting team.

Teller’s performance is superb as he doesn’t make Brendan into the typical cinematic addict, but instead a person who goes from being lost in life to one who finds a purpose as he seeks to give his child the life his father never gave him. The interview scene he has with Brolin is superb as Teller never overdoes it as Brendan knows full well he can’t fool Eric since he sees right through his addiction. I kept waiting for Brendan to relapse as this is usually the case for addicts in a movie, but Teller makes his character’s hard-fought battle towards sobriety noble and believable. This is also the second movie he’s been in these past few years where he plays a man determined not to take painkillers even though they certainly would help (the other is “Bleed for This”).

Brolin is an ace at playing blue collar workers, and he never has to do much to convince us how believable he can be in portraying a firefighter. Through his expressions and actions, we quickly see this is someone who can tame the nastiest fires he and his team come into contact with. The “No Country for Old Men” actor shares a lot of great scenes with his male-costars, but his best moments come between him and the always terrific Jennifer Connelly who plays Eric’s wife, Amanda. Their relationship is a strong one, but it takes on an increasing strain when Amanda wants kids, something Eric is not quick to agree on. From this description, it sounds like the average marital conflict we see in every other movie, but Brolin and Connelly bring a lot of raw emotion to their roles to where they inhabit their characters more than anything else. This could have felt clunky, but the actors keep this from happening, and this is especially the case when Amanda reminds Eric what she goes through every day when he walks out the door to go to work.

“Only the Brave” was directed by Joseph Kosinski whose previous films were “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” This one takes place in the real world instead of in the realm of science fiction, and yet he still brings a strong visual flair to each scene as we watch the fires lay waste to the land with an unforgiving power, and we fear for the deer running through the fields even as a wildfire gets closer and closer. At the same time, he also puts much of his attention on these men as this movie is about the job they did, not the fire which killed many of them. Kosinski makes us share in the friendships they build with one another and of the joyous moments they spend with their families to where we feel we are a part of their lives. Nobody involved with this motion picture should need to convince anyone of the emotional investment they put into this material, and this makes its tragic climax all the more devastating to witness.

Even though I knew how things would end for this group of firefighters, it didn’t make it any easier to sit through. These men had the best training and were constantly being drilled on how to protect themselves in the event of being trapped in a fire, but like other natural disaster, a fire is indiscriminate in who and what it attacks as it seeks to breathe for as long as it can. What everyone is left with are a tremendous amount of grief and survivor’s guilt, both of which deserve a movie of their own to explore.

I walked out of “Only the Brave” in tears as the filmmakers paid special tribute to the men of the Granite Mountain Hotspots, those who lived and those who died. Even the best of preparations could not spare them from the destructive flames they perished in, but it still never took away from the bravery the showed us, and this movie gives them a well-deserved memorial to their selfless efforts. While we mourn the loss of life, we celebrate the lives these men led as they deserve much more than being just a footnote in history.

“Only the Brave” marks a big leap forward for Kosinski as he shows there is more to him than directing big science-fiction films with awesome music scores. It is also worth noting how the movie’s credits are shown at the beginning as opposed to at the end like in “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion.” Not only that, but the credits are presented in a surprisingly subtle fashion as Kosinski must have realized his talents could not and should not upstage the firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

As I write this review, wildfires have been doing tremendous damage in Northern California near where my brother lives with his family. Seeing this film makes me think about what his family and others are enduring right now as the damage left in the fires’ wake is just awful. I also find myself thinking of those firefighters up north and wonder if they are getting the respect, not to mention the funding, they deserve. Whereas “Backdraft” felt more like a Hollywood take on the lives of firefighters, “Only the Brave” feels like the real deal, and it makes me want to go up to those who are working tirelessly to keep wildfires from spreading and shake their hands. This movie is proof of how much they deserve our respect.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Suffers from Overkill, But it’s Still Worth a Look

Kingsman The Golden Circle poster

Ever since his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” filmmaker Matthew Vaughn has done an excellent job of reinvigorating different movie genres to great effect. His “Kick-Ass” was the comic book movie many were too afraid to make, and I like to think it paved the way for “Deadpool.” He brought the “X-Men” franchise back to vibrant life with the prequel “X-Men: First Class,” and it was a prequel which put so many others like it to shame. And then he gave us “Kingsman: The Secret Service” which turned the world of spy movies upside down. In a time where James Bond, Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movies and the Jason Bourne franchise ruled the spy genre with an iron fist, Vaughn made “Kingsman” stand out amongst the competition to where it felt fresh and unique as it was filled with invigorating action sequences and characters who were wonderfully realized and as suave as 007 is without being anywhere as cold.

While Vaughn skipped out of doing follow-ups to “X-Men: First Class” and “Kick-Ass,” it was very re-assuring to see him come back to co-write and direct “Kingsman: The Golden Circle.” Now that all the origin stuff is out of the way, we can now watch Eggsy Unwin/a.k.a. Galahad (Taron Egerton) battle the enemies of the world in a beautifully tailored suit without having to prove to us he is worthy of the status he has attained.

Indeed, Vaughn refuses to keep us waiting as “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” opens with a gangbusters action sequence in which Eggsy fights former Kingsman trainee Charlie (Edward Holcroft) in the back of a taxi as it hurtles through the streets of London while Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” blasts away on the speakers. It’s a lively introduction to a movie as Vaughn looks to be holding nothing back, and it made me eager to see if he could top what came before.

But just as Eggsy looks to be settling down with the beautiful Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom), a sudden attack completely decimates the Kingsman suit shop and its headquarters to where he and his trainer and die-hard John Denver fan Merlin (Mark Strong) are desperate to defeat the nemesis who laid waste to their well-dressed intelligence community. They eventually discover their chief antagonist is the notorious criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) who looks to gain worldwide stardom as a drug dealer, and this leads them to join up with their American counterpart, the Statesman, in an effort to exact revenge.

At this point, I should say while “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” proved to be a fun time at the movies for me, it does have flaws impossible to ignore. With a running time of over two hours, I couldn’t help but think a lot of fat could have been trimmed as this sequel feels overstuffed with characters Vaughn can’t give enough attention to as he tries, perhaps too hard, to subvert our expectations as this movie heads towards its unsurprisingly violent climax. Also, while the original was full of anarchic energy, this one settles into a rhythm which might seem more conventional than “Kingsman” fans may care for.

Still, I had a giddy time with this sequel, and one of the main joys I got from it was the casting of Julianne Moore as she gives us one of the most lovely and appealing sociopaths I have ever seen in a movie. Her character of Poppy Adams is the world’s biggest drug dealer, but she suffers from homesickness while hiding away in the undiscovered ruins of Southeast Asia. Poppy ends up curing her homesickness by making her hideout into a 1950’s theme park which evokes memories of “American Graffiti” and the classic television show “Happy Days.” I kept waiting for The Fonz to show up, but Poppy ends up entertaining herself with a certain musician who should remain nameless before you watch this sequel.

Moore is clearly having a great time co-starring in this “Kingsman” movie as she makes Poppy into a villain who is as delightful as she is devious. Even as she entertains prospective applicants wishing to join her evil empire, it doesn’t take much for her to show an ever so subtle psychosis with those who have failed her as they meet a fate as grisly as the one who got put into a wood chipper in the movie “Fargo.” Even as her actions show her to be incredibly vicious, Moore is a hoot throughout to where she makes it hard for us to hate Poppy even though we should despise her from the get go. She also has kidnapped a certain musician who… Well, I will leave you to discover the identity of the superstar she has kidnapped for her own personal entertainment.

While this sequel does tread familiar ground, it allows our protagonists to travel to Kentucky where they meet their American equivalent, the Statesman who have a flair for alcohol as Kingsman does for clothing. It also allows for charming American actors like Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry to join the party in a variety of roles which they fit them like a glove. It’s especially nice to see Berry in something good after appearing in the critical debacle released this past summer which was “Kidnap.”

One who stands out in “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal, best known for his work in “Game of Thrones” and “Narcos,” as Statesman secret agent Whiskey. Pascal has a wonderful Burt Reynolds vibe going on here, and I don’t just mean his mustache. He also proves to be incredibly effective with a lasso, albeit an electronic one which can decapitate its victims as well as capture them before they can escape.

As for the cast members from the original, Taron Egerton does a wonderful job of taking Gary “Eggsy” Unwin to the next stage in his life as we watch his character continue his journey from leading an aimless life to embracing one filled with purpose. Eggsy still has his friends from the past, but he is open to embracing a future which includes a lifelong commitment to the woman he loves. It’s not often you see a spy movie where a secret agent calls his girlfriend to ask for permission to sleep with the enemy in order to save the world.

Mark Strong also gets to have more fun with his character of Merlin as he gets to be more of a field agent this time out. Strong also makes Merlin’s funniest moments feel genuine to where it feels more emotionally moving than I expected. His rendition of a particular John Denver song carries more meaning these days than when it first became a hit, and it makes for of this sequel’s most unforgettable moments even as the Monty Python bit, “Farwell to John Denver,” kept playing in my head as I watched him.

And yes, it is so great to see Colin Firth back as Harry Hart. While Harry suffered a rather grisly fate in the original, this character had to come back in one way or another. Even as Harry struggles to remember the secret agent he once was, Firth invests him with a dignity and sense of duty which empowers his performance in a very memorable way.

When all is said and done, I did have a lot of fun with “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” regardless of its flaws. At almost 2 hours and 30 minutes, it runs a lot longer than it should, and it does suffer from overkill as Vaughn looks at times to be desperate in topping what came before. The sequel also could have been more anarchic as the original lovingly laid waste to many spy movie clichés. This one threatens to be a little more conventional, but it still embraces its R-rating with a lot of glee.

Rumor has it that Vaughn already has a third “Kingsman” in the works, and it would be great to see this franchise grow even further. But if he is to make another one, my hope is he embraces the anarchic nature of the original more than he did here. As spy movies continue to be made, the genre will always need a swift kick in the butt.

* * * out of * * * *