‘Avengers: Endgame’ Had Me Going Out of the Movie Theater Saying Wow

Avengers Endgame poster

WRITER’S NOTE: Will or will not this review have spoilers? Does it matter pointing it out at this point? Like any other movie, it would be best to keep from reading this review until you have seen this one.

Now you all know how much I hate the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me, but there is also another I get seriously annoyed with, and it is this one: “it has all led up to this.” When a movie trilogy reaches its end or a television show finally arrives at its season or series finale, this phrase is often utilized as a way to get butts in the seats or eyes glued to the television in a why which will have advertisers salivating to no end. More often than not, it feels like a shameless trick to get us to watch something we otherwise wouldn’t, and we come out of it feeling angry as we have been easily duped.

But when it comes to “Avengers: Endgame,” the term “it has all led up to this” makes perfect sense. This is the 22nd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which started back in 2008 with “Iron Man,” but this one has a strong sense of finality as the superheroes we have followed all these years will rise and fall all at the same time. Yes, the MCU will continue on, and we have “Spider-Man” and “Black Panther” sequels to look forward to, but after this penultimate installment, things will never be the same. What results is an exhilarating motion picture which thrills even the most jaded of moviegoers, and its conclusion will leave you emotionally drained for very good reason. Yes, it really has all led up to this.

Three weeks have passed since Thanos (Josh Brolin) captured all the Infinity Stones, snapped his finger and eliminated half of all life across the universe. Those Avengers who survived the snap are, as you can expect, infinitely eager to avenge those lives who disintegrated, but their quest for justice does not go in the way you might expect. In fact, for some it comes too quickly and leaves a lot of damage in its wake.

Following this, the movie then jumps ahead five years as what is left of humanity is grappling with the things they can do in the aftermath. Some are still eager to undo what Thanos did while others have done what they can to move on. Either way, they are dealing with a clear case of survivor’s guilt, and their enthusiasm for saving the universe is not what it used to be.

Yes, these characters are blessed with super powers we would love to have o, but the filmmakers are quick to show us how they are as human as we are. They suffer from doubts, anxiety, frustration and, as this movie begins, they are overcome with despair. While they may be special or gifted, they aren’t much different from the average joe as the weight of the world lies heavily on them, and they don’t have time to balance their checkbook. (Who does anyway?)

Time travel plays a significant role in this MCU movie as a couple of the Avengers, namely Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), come up with a theory which will make it possible for them to accomplish, albeit with some limitations. Like everyone else, the Avengers have seen every time travel movie ever made and are quick to mention such classics as the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Time After Time,” “Timecop” (was this particular Jean Claude Van Damme film ever that popular?), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” and even “Hot Tub Time Machine.” Somehow, “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” was left off this list, and I am deeply perturbed as a result. The Enterprise crew saved humpback whales in that one for crying out loud!

I enjoyed how “Avengers: Endgame” plays on our knowledge of time travel as a plot device. Even though science renders these various time travel methods to be utterly bogus, the pluses and minuses of actually changing historical events are always prominent in our minds. Remember all that talk about the space time continuum? Whether or not the conclusion of this movie is in doubt, I spent much of it wondering how things would end up once the mission was complete. What gave me comfort was what Doc Brown said in “Back to the Future Part III” about how the future isn’t written and how it is whatever you make it.

Granted, the time travel aspect does get a bit confusing at times, especially when certain characters end up facing off against their past and present selves. It reminded me of when Austin Powers faced a similar predicament in “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” and that one was a comedy. But the movie proves to be so much fun, who cares?

Helming “Avengers: Endgame” are Anthony and Joe Russo, brothers who have been a major asset to the MCU ever since they directed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they have an infinitely impossible job of balancing out a story filled with far too many superheroes, most of which will not get the same amount of screen time as the biggest ones of all. The ending is bombastic, but never in an overwhelming way. And yes, it is three hours long, but it never drags nor is it in need of a top-notch editor the way “I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu” was. For what it’s worth, you can head straight to the bathroom once the end credits start as there are no special scenes during or after them.

I imagine a lot of people look at these “Avenger” movies as being the kind which don’t require the cast to give their best performances ever. This assertion, however, is deeply unfair as many of the actors here have inhabited these characters for close to a decade. From one movie to the next, we see these characters evolve in meaningful ways to where we have to recognize what the passing years have done to them. It does not matter how incredible they are because they age like us even if they don’t always show it.

Chief among the cast is Robert Downey Jr. whose role as Tony Stark/Iron Man helped to rejuvenate a film career which looked to be permanently undone by drug abuse. Downey has taken Tony from being a lovably arrogant playboy millionaire to a less self-centered man who becomes eager to reign in his fellow superheroes before they do damage they won’t be able to walk away from. Tony himself has some interesting developments along with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to where his hesitation to disrupt the course of events is challenged endlessly, and watching him here makes you realize how far he has come in this role.

Another actor is Chris Hemsworth who has had quite the journey as Thor. For his first two movies, he portrayed the powerful Asgardian as an unshakably pure force who could not ever be corrupted. Then came “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best “Thor” film yet, which allowed Hemsworth to take some risks with the character in ways which made him even more interesting. With “Endgame,” we get to see Thor in his Big Lebowski phase, and we can tell Hemsworth is just having a blast taking this superhero in this direction. We should applaud him for taking chances here as other actors would have been a bit too fearful to do so.

Then there is Chris Evans who took Steve Rogers and his alter-ego of Captain America from what we thought would be the average white guy and turned him into a charismatic good guy in a way we did not see coming. Evans really hits his peak here in the MCU as he finishes his run in a very moving way, with Steve Rogers getting to reclaim a part of his past he thought he lost many years before. It is not spoiling anything to say this is Evans’ last time playing this superhero, but seeing him take his curtain call here is wonderfully fulfilling.

Coming out of “Avengers: Endgame,” all I could say was, wow. It’s the perfect capper to an amazing franchise, and my hat is off to everyone at Marvel for crossing the finish line in such an unforgettable way. DC Comics and Warner Brothers can only hope to be this successful with their own cinematic universe. Not once was I worried this franchise would flame out the way “The Matrix” did with “The Matrix Revolutions.” Everyone involved hit it right out of the park with this installment, and you don’t even need record breaking box office to prove it.

Of course, the question now is, where will the MCU go from here? I cannot see Marvel topping what they did here, especially with the cast taking their bow in the way the original Enterprise crew did at the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” by providing their signatures. I imagine there are many more Marvel movies in our future, but the journey from here will still be fraught with expectations which may or may not be met. If this was to be the last MCU ever, it would have been perfect. All the same, superhero/comic book movies still reign supreme at the box office, so hopefully the ones coming soon to a theater near you will still be wonderfully entertaining. Whether or not they are as glorious as this one is another story.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

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Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’ Gives Empathy to an Unfortunate President of the United States

W movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

You really have to admire what Oliver Stone pulled off here as he himself has been a big critic of the Bush Administration (and who isn’t these days?). Like “Nixon,” Stone has given us an empathetic portrait of an infamous President and tears down the stereotypes we have about this particular person so we can see him up close for who he really is. It is not a Bush bashing piece, but that would have been pointless anyway because we bash George W. Bush on a regular basis. With “W.,” Stone has given us what is essentially a father-son story as George W. is a man who spent the majority of his life trying to get his father’s, President George H.W. Bush, respect. It is clear from the start Bush Sr. respects Jeb more than he who bears his first and last name, and this leads George W. to do things he would never have done otherwise, such as run for political office.

“W.” covers George W. Bush from his days at a Yale fraternity hazing to the end of his first term as President. His second term is not covered here which is just as well as we are deep in the muck when it comes to political and financial affairs. It flashes back and forth in time from when he is President to his days as a rootless young man who is unsure of what he wants to do with his life other than party and get drunk. The movie does have the feel of a comedy, but it gets more serious in other moments. The tone Stone sets here is not always clear, and it does take away from the movie a bit. Still. it kept me engrossed as it covered the life of a man I can’t wait to see leave the White House.

George W. Bush is played here by Josh Brolin, and he had a great streak last year with “Grindhouse,” “American Gangster” and of course “No Country for Old Men.” Christian Bale was originally cast in this role, but he dropped out at the last minute due to the makeup effects not working to his liking. It’s just as well because Brolin looks like a much better fit being from Texas and all. Playing Bush to a serious degree is a difficult challenge to say the least because we have long since gotten used to seeing him being lampooned on “Saturday Night Live,” and as a result, we cannot help but look at Brolin’s performance as a caricature of George W. But in the large scheme of things, Brolin manages to make the role his own, and it becomes more than a simple impersonation which was obviously not what he was going for in the first place.

In fact, Stone did a great job of casting as he got actors who don’t simply impersonate the people we know so well, but who instead embody and inhabit them. In the process, the actors force you to look at some of these personalities a bit differently than we have in the past. Getting past the preconceptions we have of people is always tough, but it is at times necessary in order for us to better understand how certain individuals, particularly those with the most power, tick.

One actor I was most impressed with here was Richard Dreyfuss who plays Vice President Dick Cheney. Dreyfuss has a great and frightening scene where, in a private conference with all the heads of state, he makes a case for attacking Iraq and Iran in order to get control over their vast oil supplies and keep dictators like Saddam Hussein from coming down on us ever again. The one moment which sent a chill down everyone’s spine is when someone asks Cheney what the exit strategy out of Iraq is, and he replies, “There is no exit strategy. We stay there forever.”

Everyone in the theater was frozen in silence as this is the one thing we keep begging future politicians to do, provide an exit strategy. Dreyfuss plays the scene not at all as a villain, but as a man who convinces the Commander in Chief of why he sees this path of action is the right one for the administration to take.

Another really good performance comes from Toby Jones (“The Mist”) who plays the master of smear campaigns, Karl Rove. Jones ends up making Rove seem both charismatic and likable, and he also subtly brings out the emotional manipulator in the man who succeeds in getting under George W.’s skin to make him the puppet he is today. I hate Rove for everything he has done, but Jones succeeds in making us admire him, begrudgingly so, for being so fiendishly clever. Rove’s powers of manipulation are ever so subtle to the point where we barely notice them, and Jones gets this across perfectly and with amazing subtlety.

As Bush Sr., James Cromwell makes us see that this particular U.S. President is fully aware of how his children are at a huge disadvantage. While he had to work hard to get to where he ended up at, his offspring had everything handed to them on a silver platter. Bush Sr. obviously wants the best for his children, but in seeing to his black sheep of a son’s needs and troubles, he comes to see he has done more harm than good.

As the movie goes on, Cromwell goes from presenting the elder Bush as being terribly disappointed in George W. to being deeply concerned over his son’s decisions about Iraq. We see Bush Sr. the end of the first Gulf War discussing his reasoning as to why they shouldn’t go after Saddam as it might make the dictator a hero in the eyes of many. Indeed, Stone makes us sympathize with the senior Bush in ways I never expected to. The moment where we see Bush lose the Presidential election to Bill Clinton, I actually found myself saddened as it comes across how there were many opportunities which would never be realized. This was shocking to me because I really wanted to see Clinton beat Bush, and I was thrilled he did.

In the end, however, the movie really belongs to Brolin who gives us a George W. Bush that is seemingly well intentioned and yet hopelessly naïve. You may not completely blame him for all the troubles going on in the world right now, but you can never excuse him for not taking more responsibility for his actions. We see Bush embrace God and become a born-again Christian, and while this helps him with his drinking problem, it also gives him blind faith which will prove to be his flaw as a person which will eventually undo him. Brolin makes Bush goofy yet well intentioned, and he makes clear the heartache he feels as he cannot escape the shadow of his famous father.

Stone’s “W.” is not the classic political movie “JFK” was, but it is effectively made and shows how we need to understand the human side of those we brand as criminals in order to get at what makes them act the way they do. This is an important lesson to remember as we go on in life.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘No Country for Old Men’ was the Best Movie of 2007

No Country for Old Men poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2007.

Now this is a great movie!

No Country for Old Man” stands alongside some of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best movies including “Fargo” and “Barton Fink.” Some say it is a return to form for the brothers after their last two movies, “Intolerable Cruelty” and “The Ladykillers,” but they can’t be as bad as people say they are. Even the worst Coen brothers’ movies are far more interesting than most American movies made today. The one thing “No Country for Old Men” proves is they never lost their touch to begin with, and who are we to think that they ever did? I mean really!

This movie is based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy, and he has written a lot of great novels over the years like “All the Pretty Horses.” I have not had the opportunity to read any of his books, but my understanding is they deal with a world where the goodness of human nature is a rarity as the atmosphere is overwhelmed by cruelty. His books have also been described as “unfilmable” by many, but I guess no one told the Coen brothers this (would it have made a difference?).

It all starts off with hunter Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who stumbles upon a Mexican standoff gone bad where rotting corpses of drug runners and dogs are impossible to ignore (think of the ending of “Reservoir Dogs”). There are also a bunch of trucks laying around, and in them Llewelyn finds the only survivor who begs him for some water. But Llewelyn ends up passively avoiding his pleas as he has no water to give. Instead, he finds among the carnage a big stockpile of heroin and $2 million dollars in cash. He doesn’t bother with the drugs, but he takes the cash and stashes it back at his trailer home where he lives with his wife Carla (Kelly MacDonald).

His conscience, however, keeps him from getting any sleep, so he ends up doing what even he openly says may be “the biggest mistake” he could possibly make. He fills up a bottle of water and heads back to the site to give to that Mexican. Instead, he gets ambushed by a faceless gang who take their shots at him as he escapes away. From then on, the movie is a chase to the finish. But this isn’t simply a chase movie, but a movie where the souls of the characters threaten to be every bit as barren as the desert lands in Texas.

“No Country for Old Men” is one of those movies where everything you hear about it is absolutely true. It has great acting, directing, cinematography and a superb screenplay. There isn’t a single wasted moment in it, and it is certainly one of the most quietly intense movies I have seen in some time. I think it is safe to say the Coen brothers have faithfully adapted Cormac McCarthy’s work while adding their own flavor and dark humor to it, and they drive away at one of his main themes in the book; society getting crueler, and of the end of the world as we know it.

In a sea of great performances, the one man who steals the show here is Javier Bardem who portrays Anton Chigurh, a man who is deeply psychotic but not without principles. From start to finish, Bardem gives us one of the scariest villains in cinematic history whose mere presence forces the characters to immediately fear for their safety. Those other characters who fail to do so are either totally naïve or have no idea who they are talking to.

Josh Brolin is having one heck of a great year right now in the movies. He started 2007 off early on as Dr. Block in “Grindhouse,” then we saw him play a very corrupt cop who runs afoul of Denzel Washington in “American Gangster,” and he is probably in another movie right now which I have yet to see. Safe to say, this is the best performance he has given this year as he is perfectly cast as Llewelyn Moss, a hunter who gets in way over his head.

The other performance worth singling out is Tommy Lee Jones’, and he gives one of his very best ever as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. His character is really the observer of human nature and the decline of it in this story. Jones was pretty much born to play just about any part of a movie adapted from one of McCarthy’s novels. Like the novelist, he clearly understands the worldly feel of Texas and human nature, and this is echoed in the voiceover he gives at movie’s start.

I am not quite sure what to make of the ending. And what is meant by the title “No Country for Old Men” anyway? Is it a metaphor for how the old way of doing things has long since passed the Sheriff Bell by? That the lessons our elders taught us will soon become insignificant? Or is the painful truth that society has no use for men once they qualify for senior citizen discounts? The Coen brothers are not quick to give us answers, but they do give us much to think about as this is a motion picture which will linger with you long after the end credits have concluded.

“No Country for Old Men” is the best movie I have seen in 2007. As I said, there is not a single wasted moment in it.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Sicario: Day of the Soldado’ Proves to Be a Powerful and Worthy Sequel

Sicario Day of the Soldado movie poster

Sicario” was one of the most intense cinematic experiences I have had in the past few years, and it was one of the best movies of 2015. When I heard a sequel was being made, I was excited but also a bit reserved as I soon learned Emily Blunt, Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins and the late Johann Johannsson would not be returning for it. Sure, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan were back for another round, but would this be enough? Sequels at times have an immense power to sully their predecessors in an unforgivable way, and I was praying this one would not be a mere cash in.

Well, “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” (soldado is Spanish for soldier) doesn’t quite equal the brute force and honesty of its predecessor, but it does prove to be a very strong sequel. It also turns out there was a good reason to continue the stories of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) and Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Whereas “Sicario” was about the militarization of the police, this sequel removes the policing aspect from it to reveal an even darker and more cynical take on the war on drugs and illegal immigration.

“Soldado” gets off to a brutal start as we watch three men enter a grocery store in Kansas City and blow themselves up. The way this scene is set up quickly reminded me of the take no prisoners attitude Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” and this is made even clearer when one suicide bomber looks to spare a mother and child from certain death, and then does not. Like the original, “Soldado” is not about to offer its audience an easy way out of the harsh reality it presents here.

To combat this terrorism, which Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) defines as “violence used to achieve a political goal,” the United States government gives Graver permission to use extreme measures in combating the Mexican cartels as they are believed to have smuggled Islamic terrorists across the U.S./Mexican border. Graver makes it clear he will need to get “dirty” in order to achieve the goals laid out to him, and considering what we have seen Graver pull off previously, we know things will get dirtier than ever. Seeing Riley tell Graver “dirty is exactly why you are here” makes this scene more chilling as it shows how complicit the U.S. government is prepared to be in bending the rules, and we also know they will be quick to deny any culpability just like the IMF does in “Mission: Impossible.”

Graver decides the best course of action is to start a war between the two drug cartels, and this involves the kidnapping of Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of one of the cartel’s kingpins. To pull this off, Graver enlists the sicario (Spanish for hitman) Alejandro Gillick, who still hungers for revenge against those who murdered his family. The way these two handle this kidnapping is insidiously clever as they make Isabela believe they did not abduct her in an effort to mess with her head and keep the cartels fighting amongst themselves. Of course, the best laid plans are usually thwarted at the most unexpected moment.

I first off have to say how glad I am to see Del Toro and Brolin back for this sequel. Both actors have cracked and weathered faces which help to do a good portion of the acting for them as their characters have endured endless moral crises which more than shows on the surface of their skin. While many actors are desperate to look younger than their actual age, it’s a nice to see a pair who are not afraid to show the lines in their face. Besides, does it make sense to cast baby-faced models as characters who have seen more than they should in a lifetime? I think not.

In “Sicario,” we were reminded of how brilliant an actor Del Toro can be as he made Alejandro Gillick into a complex character whose soul is deeply wounded, but who still seeks vengeance on those who wronged him. Never does Del Toro have to raise his voice to show the power Alejandro has over others, and seeing him fire a dozen bullets into a cartel lawyer is a fascinating sight as he may seem calm on the surface, but there is still a seething rage which cannot be contained. Besides, when it comes to revenge, one bullet is never enough.

With Brolin, we know he can portray Matt Graver in a way few other actors can as his character interrogates suspects almost effortlessly and carries out secret missions with surgical precision. The Oscar-nominated actor continues to play Graver as a man who has long accepted the fact he has become a lot like the enemies he hunts down, and it marks another great performance from him in a year which has seen him dominate the screen in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Deadpool 2.”

What I found especially fascinating about “Soldado” is how it examines a particular moral conundrum both Matt and Alejandro find themselves in. When their mission suddenly goes awry, the U.S. government cancels it and orders them ro erase all proof of their involvement in Mexican internal affairs. Of course, this also means assasinating Isabela Reyes, but while Matt is intent on cleaning up the mess he and his team have been caught up in, Alejandro is not about to murder her. Having seen many, many movies throughout my life, I have long since become familiar with the characters in them who are determined to do the right thing and yet end up paying a high price for this as their sins have yet to be paid off. Knowing this makes “Soldado” even more intense as I began to wonder how these characters would suffer before they would be freed from the damage they have wrought.

Speaking of Isabela, I was really impressed with the performance of Isabela Moner who makes this drug kingpin daughter a tough cookie right from the start. When we first meet her, she is fighting a fellow classmate and leaves her bloody and bruised. During a meeting with the principal, she knows he is in no position to expel her because of who she is, and that vicious look in her eyes is all you need to see who has the most power in that situation. When kidnapped, however, Moner makes her character’s predicament all the more palpable as she gets thrust into a violent situation beyond her control, and her reaction to it all feels unmistakably real. And like all my favorite young adult characters in movies, she comes to see through the bullshit adults are dishing out to her.

Directing “Soldado” is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, best known for directing gritty crime movies like “ACAB – All Cops Are Bastards” and “Suburra” as well as episodes of the critically acclaimed television show “Gomorrah.” While Sollima is unable to match the existential dread Villeneuve brought to “Sicario,” he succeeds in grounding the story in the same brutal reality we were introduced to previously. Even when Sheridan’s screenplay looks to strand us in formulaic territory, Sollima makes seemingly predictable scenes especially intense as even he knows how brutal the war on drugs can be.

Taking over cinematography duties is Dariusz Wolski who is known for his work on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and who gave a very special look to Alex Proyas’ “The Crow” and “Dark City.” It’s near impossible to match the unique look Deakins gave “Sicario,” but Wolski manages to equal the brutal visuals and stark landscapes to where we cannot deny this movie takes place in a reality we like to keep a safe distance from.

Then there is the film score which is composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir, a classically trained Icelandic cellist who collaborated with Johannsson on “Sicario.” Suffice to say, the music ended up in good hands as Guðnadóttir’s has created themes which match the ominous power Johannsson gave us back in 2015, and he brings back “The Beast” theme with tremendous gusto as the harsh realism shown here feels more brutal and chaotic than ever before.

“Sicario: Day of the Soldado” had no real chance of equaling the original, and I accepted this fact as I walked into the theater. But in the end it doesn’t matter because what we got here is a really strong sequel which captures a great deal of the original’s intensity and blunt truths, and it makes for a compelling motion picture. There is already talk of a third “Sicario” movie, so here’s hoping this one does well at the box office to ensure this will happen. And if they can get Emily Blunt to appear in it, that would be great as well.

Granted, this sequel is coming out at an interesting time as politicians are calling for increased security at the border, and immigrants are either being denied entry to the United States because of the country they are coming from, or their children are being separated from them for political leverage. While many may point to one group of people or another as being the biggest problem America has to deal with, the “Sicario” movies show how widespread corruption is and how far it has spread. One key scene to remember in “Soldado” comes when Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez), a Mexican-American teenager and aspiring hitman, gets a ride back across the border, and his driver turns out to be a Caucasian woman with a baby in the backseat. As Miguel pays her, she is quick to tell him, “Give me a job that pays better and I’ll do it.”

In this day and age, it is not so much the truth which matters, but of who controls the narrative.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The filmmakers dedicated this movie to memory of Johann Johannsson who died on February 9, 2018 at the age of 48. It is a real shame we lost him so soon as his work on “Sicario,” “Arrival” and “The Theory of Everything” was remarkable, and it would have been great to see what themes he would have continued composing had he lived. Rest in peace Johann.

‘Men in Black 3’ Has as Much Heart as it Does Laughs

Men in Black III poster

Ten years between sequels is almost too long for many franchises to remain relevant, but “Men in Black 3” proves to have been worth the wait. While it doesn’t quite reach the inventive heights of the original, it is easily better than the last movie which didn’t stay in the audiences’ collective consciousness for very long. This sequel has a good dose of humor, excellent casting, and is more emotional an experience than I could have expected it to be.

Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones return as MIB Agents J and K, and their relationship is as cantankerous as ever. This time they are pursuing an intergalactic criminal named Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) who has just escaped from a prison on the moon and prefers to be called “just Boris.” But while in pursuit, Agent K suddenly disappears and no one seems to remember J having him as a partner. The new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson), informs J that K has been dead for forty years, and she deduces from J’s refusal to believe, as well as his sudden thirst for chocolate milk, that there has been a fracture in the space time continuum. This leads J to discover how Boris traveled back in time and K in the year 1969. Upon being made aware of how time travel does exist, and has long since been rendered illegal, J ends up going back in time to save his partner and help him do what he should have done years ago, kill Boris.

Time travel has always been a tricky plot device in science fiction movies, and it hasn’t always been used well. However, it gives “Men in Black 3” an edge as we have come to know these characters over the course of a few films, the first which came out in 1997. Seeing Smith get transported back to 1969 gives the movie endless possibilities and story lines to follow, and director Barry Sonnenfeld explores as many of them as he can.

At 106 minutes long, “Men in Black 3” is the longest movie in this franchise and certainly feels like it too. The previous entries had a more economical running time and went by quickly, but this one takes its sweet time getting started as there is a good deal of exposition for Smith to go through before he travels back to the past. But once he does, this sequel really hits its stride as he gets to be a fish out of water in a time which was not always kind to African Americans.

Smith is still great fun to watch as Agent J, constantly improvising terrific one-liners as he explains to people why an enormous fish broke out of a Chinese restaurant (his explanation for this is classic). His boundless energy people know him best for is still very much intact as he deals with situations which, in any other case, would be completely unbelievable. But Smith is smart as he doesn’t play everything for laughs, and certain revelations about his character come to light which forever change his perception of the things he has been led to believe.

Agent K as a character has always presented Jones with a welcome opportunity to have fun with the straight-laced persona he is best known for in movies like “The Fugitive.” What’s great about his performance in this sequel is how he shows the deep sadness which lingers in those eyes of K’s even while his line delivery never betrays any sort of emotion. While his appearance in “Men in Black 3” proves to be a more of a cameo than anything else, his presence is always felt even when he is not onscreen.

But the best thing about “Men in Black 3” is Josh Brolin who gives an inspired performance as the younger version of Agent K. He nails all of Jones’ mannerisms perfectly and succeeds in making the character his own. Like Jones, Brolin gives off some of the most wonderfully dry expressions and reactions which have made this character so much fun to watch from one movie to the next.

Some of the newest members to the “Men in Black” franchise include Emma Thompson as Agent O who steps in as the leader of MIB after the death of Zed (Rip Torn who played the character in the two previous MIB movies). Thompson has a brilliant moment where she has to speak in a ridiculous sounding voice, and seeing her do it with a straight face is a wonderful reminder of how brilliant an actress she is.

Bill Hader from “Saturday Night Live” also shows up here as Andy Warhol who turns out to be another MIB agent and is tired of being all artistic and stuff. It’s a small role but Hader makes the most of it and is a delight to watch as always. Alice Eve is as delectable as can be as the younger version of Agent O, and she makes the audience want her to get it on with K just so he can loosen up.

As “Men in Black 3’s” main antagonist, Jermaine Clement (best known for “Flight of The Conchords”) is terrific as an inherently dangerous alien whose main flaw is taking his nickname of Boris the Animal a little too seriously. While he doesn’t quite compare to Vincent D’Onofrio’s bug alien from the first movie, he is easily an improvement over Lara Flynn Boyle’s character from “Men in Black II” which never left much of an aftertaste. Clement infuses Boris with a dark sense of humor which keeps him from becoming like any other alien the MIB Agents have fought previously.

Sonnenfeld fills the screen with a lot of visual gags which will make you want to see “Men in Black 3” more than once. The passing of time between sequels has given planet Earth a whole new set of aliens including Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. When it comes to going back to the 60’s, he never goes for the obvious gag. He also makes better use of man’s mission to the moon than Michael Bay ever did with “Transformers: Dark of The Moon.”

But what makes this sequel work so well is how deep it gets into the relationship between Agents J and K to where the audience comes to realize how much of a part they play in each other’s lives. For fans who have watched Smith and Jones from the beginning, seeing their relationship get defined in a whole other way makes for an especially fulfilling cinematic experience. This is especially commendable for this movie as it was reported to have begun production without a completed screenplay.

“Men in Black 3” shouldn’t work as well as it does since it’s the third movie in a franchise as filmmakers at this point are usually out of fresh ideas of where to take the action. But while it might seem best relegated to the 1990’s where it started, there is still enough energy and creative work in this movie series to keep things going for another sequel. After watching this, a “Men in Black 4” does feel like a welcome possibility.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Deadpool 2’ Ups the Ante and Leaves You Begging for More

Deadpool 2 poster

I want to say that when “Deadpool” was released, it was a breath of fresh air in a time of endless comic book/superhero movies, but this description doesn’t do it justice. The air coming from the 2016 box office hit was filthy, and we loved how Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller and company refused to play it safe with this Marvel Comics character to where a PG-13 rating just wasn’t going to do it for them. But in addition to being so gleefully profane, the movie also had a big heart as it ended with a message of loving someone inside and out instead of just admiring what is on the surface. If there ever was an R-rated movie for today’s teenagers to sneak into, “Deadpool” was it.

Now we finally have its long-awaited sequel, “Deadpool 2,” which was preceded for the longest time by a pair of jokey trailers which didn’t have much in the way of new footage, but instead put its wisecracking hero in situations which didn’t always put him in the best light, and we laughed our asses off all the same. Surely this sequel couldn’t match the inventiveness and comedic genius of the original, right?

Well, I am very happy to report that “Deadpool 2” proves to be just as funny and entertaining as its predecessor, and in some ways, I thought it was even better. While this one looked as though it would suffer from overkill as the recent “Kingsman” sequel did, everyone in front of and behind the camera keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming in rapid succession. With Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall and a plot which refuses to make clear right away of where this sequel is heading, I was never sure of what would come next. As a result, I could never take my eyes off the screen.

So, what has Wade Wilson/Deadpool been up to since his last expletive-laden adventure? Quite a bit actually, and it has thrust him into a realm of despair he doesn’t see himself escaping from. What ends up giving him a reason to live is helping to protect Russell Collins (“Hunt for the Wilder people’s” Julian Dennison), a young mutant who goes by the name of Firefist for reasons which become immediately clear to where Pyro’s penchant for lighting everything up pales in comparison. But in the process, they are both met by Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cybernetic mutant soldier who is looking to right a terrible wrong, and his main target might not be who you think.

The amount of pop culture references is countless in “Deadpool 2,” and you may need to watch this sequel twice to catch all of them. Right from the start, Wade wastes no time in skewering popular icons like Wolverine who made his swan song in last year’s “Logan.” From there, we watch as this particular comic book character lays waste to gangsters to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” gleefully provides a spoof of the James Bond opening titles which include such classics as “directed by one of the guys who killed the dog in ‘John Wick,’” and he makes you look at Barbara Streisand’s song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from “Yentil” in a very unnerving way. Also, he is quick to call you out on obvious references such as a line from “Robocop,” and by that, I mean the original, not the remake. Whether it’s a good or bad guy you are talking about here, at least they have great taste in movies.

However, the laughs and action come at us so quickly in “Deadpool 2” to where it takes longer than usual to figure out what the movie’s main plot is. At times, it seems like the filmmakers are geared towards throwing jokes, action scenes and filthy jokes and the expense of an actual story, and it looks as though we won’t find a story until the third act. Even Wade at one point says if he and his newly-appointed X-Force achieve their goals, there won’t even need to be a third act. Of course, I was having too much with this sequel to criticize this point all that much, and a story does indeed emerge.

Reynolds has come a long way from his “Van Wilder” days to get to this point. He’s given memorable performances in “Buried” and “The Proposal,” but his career has been overshadowed by having starred in one of the worst comic book movies ever, “Green Lantern.” “Deadpool” served as his redemption for that cinematic misfire, and his dedication to staying true to Wade Wilson and his alter-ego has been commendable considering the ill-fated debut he made as this character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Watching Reynolds here is a reminder of what a gifted comedic actor he can be when given the right material, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role instead of him.

Tim Miller stepped out of the director’s chair for “Deadpool 2,” and in his place is David Leitch who assisted Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in their path to ass-kicking glory in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde.” I was impressed at how he managed to keep this sequel’s energy and laugh quotient up and running throughout as I kept waiting for the whole thing to burst at the seams. It’s no surprise “Deadpool 2” lacks the freshness of the original, but it does have the same level of insane energy and even more to spare beyond it.

And there’s Josh Brolin who appears in his second Marvel movie in two months as Cable. Just as he did in “Avengers: Infinity War,” he gives this iconic comic book character a wounded humanity which makes especially complex and threatening throughout. Even when Cable undergoes a change of alliances which is almost as unbelievable as any in “The Fate of the Furious,” Brolin keeps a straight face throughout the proceedings which become increasingly over the top. It’s also great to see how Brolin has a good sense of humor about himself as he endures barbs relating to “The Goonies,” and looking at his scared face here made me want to say, “Who do you think you are, Thanos?”

It’s also nice to see a variety of new and familiar characters here like Karan Soni whose character of taxi driver Dopinder has developed a bit of a blood lust which Wade is not quick to take all that seriously. Stefan Kapičić gets a bit more to do as Colossus in this sequel as this character does what he can to make Wade a better person. The character of Peter, a regular person with no superpowers, is an inspired addition to this series, and I would love to have seen Rob Delaney play him in more scenes here. T.J. Miller also returns as bar owner and Wade’s best friend, Weasel, but considering his penchant for making fake bomb threats, I believe this will be the last time we see him in this role.

Deadpool 2” could have been too much of a good thing, but I had so much fun with it to where it didn’t matter if it was. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie, and it is nice to watch a movie where the jokes hit far more often than they miss. Reynolds, like Ben Affleck, have a strong sense of humor about his past mistakes in the world of cinema, and its fun seeing a movie star crack a few laughs at their own expense However, I am curious as to why he did not lay waste to “Blade: Trinity.” That misbegotten sequel was every bit as bad as “Green Lantern.”

And as always, be prepared for a post-credit sequence which is by the funniest of its kind since “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is too damn hilarious to spoil here, and you have got to see it for yourself.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * 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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Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ is a Seriously Intense Motion Picture

Sicario

I think we have all long since come to the conclusion that the war on drugs is, to put it mildly, an utter failure. Instead of ridding the world of illegal substances, this war has allowed the drug trade to exist in a way it never intended to. Furthermore, many fighting this war have become just as bad as the drug czars they are pursuing, and this should not be seen as anything new. And when you cross a drug cartel, they punish you in the most painful way possible and let the rest of the world know it in a horrifyingly unforgettable manner. In short, we will never get rid of illegal drugs if we keep going on the route we have been on for far too long.

There are many movies which have chronicled the pointlessness and shocking brutality of the war on drugs and the unscrupulous politics behind it like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” “Kill the Messenger” and David Ayer’s “Sabotage” which I liked more than most people did. “Sicario” is the latest film you can add to the list, and it proves to be one of the most riveting and nerve wracking of its kind as we follow an idealistic FBI agent as she descends into the hellish center of this war and learns a number of harsh truths never taught at Quantico.

“Sicario” hits the ground running with a very intense scene which sets up the chief perspective you will see things from. We meet FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she rides along with her fellow agents to a drug bust in which they raid a house where a kidnap victim may be at. Things get even more heightened when the agents discover dozens of dead and decaying bodies hidden in the walls, and this is only the beginning of what’s in store for the audience.

This bust leads Kate to be enlisted, voluntarily of course, by an undefined government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin) which is put together to aid in the drug war escalating at the U.S./Mexican border. But once there, Kate will find her idealistic nature put to the test as she discovers this war has become more personal to some than she was led to believe.

It should be no surprise “Sicario” is a seriously intense piece of filmmaking considering it was directed by Denis Villeneuve who gave us the equally intense “Prisoners” a few years back. He succeeds in putting us right into Kate’s shoes as we follow her every step of the way as she enters a town as foreign to her as it is to us. We discover things at the same time she does like a couple of naked dead bodies hung from a nearby bridge, a chilling warning of what happens to those who interfere with the drug trade. We also share her sense of panic and terror when a character next to her says, “Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”

The movie also makes us share in Kate’s utter frustration as Matt and his troops keep the nature of their overall mission a secret to her and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya). But once she is sucked into this increasingly insane mission, she finds it impossible to tear herself away from it even as she questions its legality.

Villeneuve is a master at creating a slow burn intensity which keeps escalating for what seems like an eternity before the situation finally explodes. The picture he paints of the drug war is an a very bleak one, and I imagine this movie won’t do much for the Mexican tourist trade. He is also aided tremendously by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures the bleakness of a town long since ravaged by the drug war in a way both horrifying and strangely beautiful, and by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose film score lights the fuse to “Sicario’s” intense flame and keeps it burning to where, once you think it has hit its peak, it burns even brighter.

Emily Blunt proved to the world just how badass she can be in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and she is clearly in her element here as an FBI agent who has yet to learn how the drug war is really fought. Seriously, this was one of the best performances by an actress in a 2015 movie. Blunt fully inhabits her character to where you can never spot a faked emotion on her face. It’s a fearless performance which must have emotionally draining for her to pull off, and I love how she never strives for an Oscar moment. Blunt just is Kate Mercer, and you want to follow her into the depths of hell even if you know you won’t like what’s about to be unveiled.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Matt Graver, a government agent who clearly knows more than he lets on. We can see this is a character who has seen a lot of bad stuff go down and has long since become numbed to the effects of an endless drug war which shows no signs of stopping. Brolin doesn’t necessarily have one of those clean-scrubbed faces as his is rough around the edges, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to value this kind of face enough. Some actors benefit from having history written all over them, and Brolin is one of those actors as he makes you believe he has long since been to hell and back.

But make no mistake; the best performance in “Sicario” belongs to Benicio Del Toro who portrays Alejandro, a mysterious figure whose motives and intentions are eventually revealed towards the movie’s conclusion. Del Toro is great at hinting at the horrors his character has faced as Alejandro looks to be suffering a serious case of PTSD, and he makes this character into a dangerously unpredictable one whose next move is always hard to guess. His role in this movie reminds us of what a brilliant actor he can be, not that we ever forgot, and he succeeds in increasing the already high-tension level this movie already has.

“Sicario” is a hard-edged and remarkably intense thriller which grabs you right from the start and holds you in its grasp all the way to the end. Like any great movie, it will shake you up and stay with you long after you have left the theater. Some movies are made to be watched, but “Sicario” was made to be experienced. It’s not the kind of experience audiences are always pinning for, but those willing to travel down its dark path will find much to admire.

* * * * out of * * * *

Grindhouse

Grindhouse movie poster

Grindhouse” is a double feature of movies written and directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and it is their ode to the exploitation movies of the 70’s and 80’s which used to play in all those seedy movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Now a lot of those movies were poorly made and had bad acting, writing and directing, but this is not the case here as this crazy love letter to all things exploitation gets brilliant treatment from two renegade minds of Hollywood cinema. To put it mildly, “Grindhouse” was an awesome experience. How great it is to see some kick ass movies made by two guys who have such a love for movies and who love making them.

“Grindhouse” starts off with the first of four fake movie trailers. This is part of Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s plan to immerse you in the experience of watching grindhouse movies like they did as kids; the scratched-up prints, those missing reels, the restricted ratings, the film breaking apart, and of course those insane coming attractions trailers which at times were more memorable than the movies they were promoting.

Anyway, the first trailer was for “Machete” which was done by Rodriguez and stars Danny Trejo as a Mexican framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and he ends up going after the bad guys with a bloody vengeance. This was a blast to watch and the best of all the fake trailers in “Grindhouse” as it captures the ridiculous one-liners we gleefully remember from all those over the top action movies from the 80’s. I especially liked how they had Cheech Marin playing a priest who Machete gets to kill the bad guys with him. He almost succeeds in stealing the trailer right out from under Trejo’s feet.

Then things get underway with “Planet Terror,” Robert Rodriguez’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie. It is basically his ode to all those zombie movies which came out before we met the fast-paced zombies of “28 Days Later,” and it’s a cross between a George Romero movie and a John Carpenter movie. “Planet Terror” even features a score composed by Rodriguez himself, and he wrote and shot a lot it while listening to Carpenter’s music from “Escape From New York.” In fact, you can even hear a small part of Carpenter’s score in “Planet Terror” if you listen very closely.

“Planet Terror” was a total blast, a flashback to those go for broke action and horror movies that didn’t even try to hold anything back. It reminded me of the “Evil Dead” movies among others where everything and everybody were going nuts. Then again, with the characters running for their lives away from zombies chasing them, can you blame them?

Rodriguez has put a great cast together for “Planet Terror.” The one person who will be remembered forever from it is the ever so luscious Rose McGowan who plays Cherry, a dancer at a strip club who can’t keep from crying as she dances in front of customers. As you know from the movie’s trailer, one of her legs ends up getting chopped off and it eventually gets replaced by a machine gun which she uses to gleefully sadistic effect. It makes for some hilarious moments as Cherry doesn’t even hesitate in blowing away as many zombies as she can.

Also great in “Planet Terror” is Freddy Rodriguez who brings a total rebel quality to his role as El Wray who is a very cool customer indeed. You also have Michael Biehn playing the sheriff, Josh Brolin who plays Dr. Block whose wife, Dakota (played by Marley Shelton), has been cheating on him with another woman, and even Bruce Willis shows up as a military commander who knows more than he is willing to let on.

One of the people I was especially impressed with was Jeff Fahey who I have not always been a big fan of as he always seemed to me to be playing himself in every role he takes on. But here he is loads of fun as J.T., a gas station and restaurant owner who continually claims to have the best barbecued meat in all of Texas. It ended up making me look at Fahey in a whole new light, and as a character actor, he proves to be invaluable.

“Planet Terror” is one gory ride, to put it mildly, but then again what do you expect when you have Tom Savini playing one of the sheriff’s deputies? Have you even seen the movies he has worked on in the past? Rodriguez gets all the gross details down like body parts getting blown or ripped off in an ever so disgustingly precious fashion. Those same body parts are, as a man, the last things I ever want to lose! Ever!

After “Planet Terror” ended, we were treated to the other three fake movie trailers that “Grindhouse” had to offer. Edgar Wright, who directed “Shaun of the Dead,” did the trailer for “Don’t,” and it was endlessly hilarious as it showed us all the things we shouldn’t be doing when we’re in a horror movie. Then there was Rob Zombie’s “Werewolf Women of The S.S.” which was as funny as it was bizarre. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil this one for you as there are cameos here that are too inspired to just give away. And finally, there was “Thanksgiving” which was directed by Eli Roth, the same man who gave us “Hostel.” Thanksgiving does seem to be one of the few holidays left which have yet to be turned into a horror franchise where horny teens get slaughtered in a creatively bloody fashion.

Then we get to Tarantino’s addition to the “Grindhouse” movie: “Death Proof.” It stars Kurt Russell as Stuntman Mike, a serial killer who uses a car instead of a knife to murder young women. No reason is really given as to why he does this, but in a movie like this does it even matter?

“Death Proof” has its share of gruesome moments including a car crash that is shown from different angles as you see how each person gets horribly injured in a head-on collision. Suffice to say, if you have been in a nasty car accident, you probably won’t want to see this. It also features one of the more exhilarating car chases in recent memory where Russell tries to run a Dodge Charger which is occupied by a trio of women off the road. One of these women, Zoe Bell (Uma Thurman’s stunt double in “Kill Bill”) is riding on the hood of the Charger like the insane stunt woman she is. Seeing her struggle to stay on the car makes the scene all the more frightening and exciting as a result. Tarantino clearly has no interest in throwing all sorts of CGI effects at us. He wants to give us the real thing, and that he does.

Of the two movies in “Grindhouse,” I have to say that “Death Proof” was my favorite. Although it takes a while to get to the action, the dialogue is fabulous in a way only Tarantino can come up with. He continues to come up with great lines which make the characters much more distinct than those in your average action movie filled with stock characters. One of the actresses involved with “Death Proof” said Tarantino really knows how to write for women and knows how they think. Now, this might be open to debate for a lot of people, but I think that is absolutely true as it is shown here and in other movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown.”

Russell remains one of the most underrated actors working in movies today as he can go from genre to genre and from playing a good guy to a bad guy pretty easily. He is great in this role where he plays a pure psychopath who is clearly schizoid as he goes after his next trio of soon to be victims, and it resembles the kind of work he did in movies like “Escape From New York.” Russell is perfect as Stuntman Mike that it got to where I just could not see Mickey Rourke playing this same role even though he was originally cast in it. Rourke wouldn’t have been bad, but this role feels like it was tailor-made for Russell.

So overall, “Grindhouse” was a kick-ass experience that I am ever so eager to see again. I already have the soundtracks to both “Planet Terror” and “Death Proof” which are fantastic to listen to. Then again, I did actually get them before I even saw “Grindhouse” because I was pretty confident that I would not be disappointed, and I wasn’t. Although it drags a little in spots, it is never boring. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, and it is as politically incorrect as any movie in recent years, but it will definitely appeal to those who have been eagerly and patiently awaiting the resurrection of grindhouse cinema they grew up watching in the past. Many had no choice but to watch those exploitation classics on video and DVD, but with Rodriguez’s and Tarantino’s “Grindhouse,” we finally get to see movies like them again on the big screen where they belong.

* * * * out of * * * *