“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

 

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review

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“THE NICE GUYS” (2016) Review
The 2016 summer movie season proved to be not as impressive as I had originally thought it would be. I cannot recall a remake of television or previous movie with an original twist. Worst, many of the movies seemed to be nothing more than sequels. And if I must be brutally frank, not very good ones. But I have only come across two movies that struck me as completely original. One of them is the period action comedy, “THE NICE GUYS”.

Co-written and directed by Shane Black, “THE NICE GUYS” told the story of a down-on-his-luck private investigator and an enforcer investigating two cases that might have a connection with each other – the death of a fading porn star and a missing young woman, who happens to be the daughter of a U.S. Justice Department official. Set in Los Angeles circa 1977, “THE NICE GUYS” began with a young boy witnessing the death of fading porn star Misty Mountains in a car crash in the Hollywood Hills. Later, Misty’s aunt, Mrs. Glen, hires private eye Holland March to find her, claiming that she is still alive. Despite feeling skeptical of Mrs. Glen’s claim, Holland takes the case and discovers that a young woman named Amelia Kutner is connected to Misty. Unbeknownst to him, an enforcer named Jackson Healy has been hired by Amanda, who does not want to be found, to intimidate March into staying away from her. But when two thugs try to coerce Jackson into revealing Amelia’s whereabouts, he teams up with Holland and the latter’s young daughter Holly to find Amelia before the thugs do. The duo’s investigation lead them into the world of Los Angeles’ pornography industry and a scandal surrounding the automobile industry.

“THE NICE GUYS” was not a major box office hit. It barely made a profit, if I must be brutally honest. This is a pity, because I believe Shane Black not only directed, but co-wrote – with Anthony Bagarozzi – a first-rate action comedy. There were a few aspects of “THE NICE GUYS” that I found unappealing. One, I was a little taken aback that the main villains behind the murders committed in the movie and involved in the automobile scandal did not face any justice. Perhaps I should not have been surprised, considering that the main villains were a cabal of businessmen in the Detroit automobile industry. I mean, honestly, Black and Bagarozzi could have provided the movie with a more distinct main villain and saved an ending like this for a drama like 1974’s “CHINATOWN”, instead of an action comedy. And two, for a movie set in the late 1970s, one aspect struck me as anachronistic – namely the Judith Kutner character portrayed by Kim Basinger. What else can I say? Basinger looked like an early 21st century woman who had time traveled back to 1977, thanks to her anachronistic hairstyle. Visually, the actress stuck out like a sore thumb.

Thankfully, there was a lot more to admire about “THE NICE GUYS”. Shane Black and Anthony Bagorozzi really did themselves proud. Who else could write a comedic story about a group of people in the porn industry, using the power of film – a “porn” flick called “How Do You Like My Car, Big Boy?” to expose the shady dealings of a cabal of Detroit automobile makers; toss in an alcoholic private investigator, a burly and somewhat violent enforcer, the former’s 12 year-old daughter; and set all of this in 1977 Los Angeles? By all of the laws of nature (and writing), this should not have worked. But it did . . . beautifully. This movie featured some interesting and off-the-wall scenes that included Jackson and Holland’s first violent meeting, their search for the missing Amelia at a wild party held by a pornography producer in the Hollywood Hills, and that crazy finale at the L.A. Auto Show.

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some first-rate action sequences. Among my favorites are the screen fights that featured Russell Crowe, Keith David and in the first one, Beau Knapp. I would include Ryan Gosling, but his character did not strike me as an effective brawler, just a person who falls from high places, while in a state of intoxication. The movie also featured a first-rate scene in which the Jackson Healey and Holland March characters have a deadly shoot-out in front of the March home with a psychotic hit man named John Boy (a name that requires a photograph of actor Matt Bomer and an article on its own). But once again, the auto show sequence tops it all with some first-rate action that include a major brawl and an intense shoot out.

Being a period piece, “THE NICE GUYS” is a colorful movie to look at, thanks to contributions from the crew. I love sharp color in my films, especially if they are period pieces. And I am happy to say that Philippe Rousselot’s photography not only satisfied me color wise, but also gave the movie a late 1970s sheen that I have not seen in a long time. I noticed that some of his exterior shots were filmed in close-ups. And I cannot help but wonder if he had done this, because the movie was partially shot in Atlanta, Georgia. Also contributing to the movie’s late 1970s look was Richard Bridgland’s production designs. Speaking as a person who remembered that era (and location) very well, I have to give Bridgland kudos for doing an excellent job in re-creating that era. I also have to say the same about David Utley’s art direction. I was also impressed by Kym Barrett’s costume designs. As shown in the images below, I found them very colorful and spot-on:

I cannot help but wonder if Russell Crowe’s character had become attached to that faux leather jacket. The actor wore it throughout the film. Although David Buckley and John Ottman provided a solid score for the movie, I really enjoyed the variety of songs from the mid-to-late 1970s that were included. This especially seemed to be the case during the porn producer’s party that featured a band playing Earth, Wind and Fire tunes. Be still my heart!

“THE NICE GUYS” also featured some solid and outstanding performances. Murielle Telio, Beau Knapp, Ty Simpkins (who had worked with Black in “IRON MAN 3”), Lois Smith, Margaret Qualley, Jack Kilmer, and Gil Gerard (“BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY” anyone?) all gave some pretty solid performances. I can also say the same about Kim Basinger, who portrayed a very pragmatic, yet emotionally intense Federal prosecutor named Judith Kuttner.

But I was really impressed by the likes of Matt Bomer, who gave a really intense performance as the rather scary hit man, John Boy. It was nice to see Bomer portray a character so completely different from what he usually does. Yaya DaCosta was equally intense, yet very seductive as Tally, secretary to Kim Basinger’s Judith Kuttner. I thought she did a great job in conveying all of the interesting traits of Tally – friendly, sexy, intense and dangerous. Keith David had the unenviable task of being one of the few sane characters in this crazy film, while portraying a Detroit-born hit man nicknamed “Older Guy”. However, I nearly fell off my seat, while laughing at one scene in which he expressed dismay to Holland for allowing young Holly’s presence in the case. Speaking of Holly, the filmmakers cast young Australian actress Angourie Rice to portray Holland’s pragmatic and brainy daughter, who also served as the leads’ conscience. Not only did she give a first-rate performance, Rice managed to keep up with the likes of Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling with ease.

Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healey more or less played straight man to Ryan Gosling’s zany Holland March; and I have to give him kudos for being up to the task. It is not an easy job playing straight man to the clown, considering that people are more inclined to pay attention to the latter. But Crowe not only did his job, he also beautifully brought alive a very interesting character in his own right, enforcer Jackson Healey, a dependable guy who has this little penchant for unnecessarily using excessive violence to solve certain situations. And he really clicked with Ryan Gosling, who had the good luck to portray the hapless and alcoholic private investigator Holland March. The interesting thing about Holland is that he is not dumb at all. In fact, he is actually a perceptive investigator who is good at his job, when he is not inebriated, not trying to cheat his clients, wallowing in his infatuation of the mysterious Tally or too intent on saving his own skin. I have to say that Holland March has become one of my favorite Ryan Gosling roles of all time. And one of the funniest I have ever viewed on the silver screen. What else is there to say?

What a shame that the public did not embrace “THE NICE GUYS”. But it does not matter in the end. At least for me. I can think of numerous films that I loved, but were not exactly box office hits. Right now, “THE NICE GUYS” has become one of those films. It is sooooo fun to watch, thanks to a great, but not perfect script; sharp direction by Shane Black; and a marvelous cast led by a very talented duo, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. This movie will go down as one of my favorites from 2016.

 

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“STEVE JOBS” (2015) Review

“STEVE JOBS” (2015) Review

I might as well say it up front. “STEVE JOBS” is a strange film. At least to me. It is probably the oddest film I have ever seen in 2015. There are a good number of aspects about this film that makes it so odd to me.

Judging from the title of this film, it is not hard to surmise that “STEVE JOBS” is a biography about the late co-founder of Apple, Inc. Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, the movie was inspired by Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography. Sorkin’s screnplay was also inspired by a series of interviews he had conducted with people who had known Steve Jobs. So far . . . there seemed to be nothing odd about this film. And it is not the first biopic about Jobs. But what made this movie so odd? Well, I will tell you.

The movie is divided into three acts. Each act is set during an event in which Jobs launches one of his computer products. Act One is set in 1984 in which Jobs and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman deal with problems before the Apple Macintosh launch. Act Two features Jobs preparing for the NeXT Computer launch at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall in 1988. The final act is set in 1998, in which Jobs, who has been named CEO of Apple, Inc., prepares to launch the iMac, the computer that restored the company’s fortunes. All three acts also feature Jobs interacting with the following people:

*Joanna Hoffman – Jobs’ marketing executive and confidant
*Steve Wozniak – Apple, Inc. co-founder and creator of the Apple II
*John Sculley – CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993
*Chrisann Brennan – Jobs’ former girlfriend
*Andy Hertzfeld – Member of the original AppleMacintosh team
*Joel Pforzheimer – GQ Magazine journalist, who interviews Jobs throughout the film
*Lisa Brennan-Jobs – the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan

By now, many would realize that the movie really is not about those new products being launched by Jobs throughout the film. It seemed to be about his relationships with the other major characters featured in this movie. However, by the time I watched the movie’s final frame, it occurred to me that“STEVE JOBS” was really about his relationship with his oldest offspring, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, who aged from six to twenty years old in this film. What was so special about this particular relationship? Well, according to Sorkin’s screenplay, Jobs and Brennan had a brief fling toward the end of the 1970s, which resulted in Lisa’s conception. However, Jobs had refused to acknowledge Lisa as his daughter for several years. Once he did, their relationship continued to be fraught with tensions, due to Jobs’ suspicions that Lisa’s mother was an erratic parent who was using the girl to acquire a lot more money from him. By the time Lisa is a twenty year-old college student, father and daughter have a spat over her apparent failure to prevent her mother from selling the house he had given them and his threat to withhold her college tuition.

And this is the problem I had with “STEVE JOBS”. Do not get me wrong. Most of the performances in this movie were excellent – including those by Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg and Perla Haney-Jardine, who portrayed the 19-20 year-old Lisa. Michael Fassbender, in my opinion, gave a performance worthy of the Oscar nomination he had received. So did Kate Winslet, who also received a nomination for her brilliant performance as the pragmatic and loyal Joanna Hoffman.

I also felt that the subject of this movie was interesting. I also found the various products launched by Jobs, along with his impact or lack thereof on Apple, Inc. throughout this period rather interesting, as well. And Jobs’ relationships with Hoffman, Wozniak, Sculley and Hertzfeld were also interesting. But I eventually realized these topics were minor in compare to Jobs’ relationship with Lisa. Even during his conversations with the other characters, the topics of Lisa, Chrisann and his own complicated childhood were brought up by the other characters. This movie was really about Jobs’ role as a father. And that is why it ended in such an abrupt manner, when he and Lisa finally managed to reconcile right before the iMac launch. And honestly, I feel this was a mistake.

Despite the fine performances and the interesting topics featured in this film, I left the theaters feeling somewhat gypped. I thought I was going to see a biographical movie about Steve Jobs and his impact upon the high tech community and the people he knew. To a certain extent, that is what Boyle and Sorkin gave the audiences. But this movie was really about Jobs’ relationship with his daughter Lisa. And instead of admitting it outright, I feel that Boyle and Sorkin manipulated the audiences into realizing this. No wonder everyone else kept bringing up the topic of Lisa. No wonder the movie was only set between 1984 and 1998. No wonder it ended so abruptly, following his reconciliation with Lisa. And no wonder this movie failed to make a profit at the box office. For a movie with such potential, I found it rather disappointing in the end.

Favorite Novels Set in the OLD WEST

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Below is a list of my favorite novels set in the Old West:

 

FAVORITE NOVELS SET IN THE OLD WEST

1 - Flashman and the Redskins

1. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This seventh novel in George MacDonald Fraser’sFlashman Papers details British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences on the emigrant trail during the California Gold Rush and the Great Sioux War of 1876, some 26-27 years later.

2 - Centennial

2. “Centennial” (1974) by James A. Michener – This epic novel spans two centuries into the history of the northeastern plains of Colorado, which includes the fictional town of Centennial.

3 - The Furies

3. “The Furies” (1976) by John Jakes – This fourth novel in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of Amanda Kent’s experiences between 1836 and 1852, during the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, the California Gold Rush and the abolitionist movement in New York City.

4 - Ride the River

4. “Ride the River” (1983) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of 16 year-old Echo Sackett, who leaves her East Tennessee home to claim a family fortune and keep it out of the hands of murderous thieves throughout the Ohio River Valley.

5 - Heaven and Hell

5. “Heaven and Hell” (1987) by John Jakes – This third entry in John Jakes’ North and South Trilogy concludes the experiences of the Hazard and Main families, following the end of the Civil War. The novel mainly focuses on Madeline Main’s struggles during the early years of Reconstruction and Charles Main’s experiences with the U.S. Army in the West.

6 - Lonesome Dove

6. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This award-winning novel chronicles the adventures of several retired Texas Rangers, while driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

7 - The Warriors

7. “The Warriors” (1977) by John Jakes – This sixth entry in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of members of the Kent family during the Western Campaign of the Civil War in 1864, the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Erie War and the rise of unions.

8 - True Grit

8. “True Grit” (1968) by Charles Portis – This highly acclaimed novel tells the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who recruits U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her seek retribution for the murder of her father by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney.

9 - Forgiving

9. “Forgiving” (1991) by LaVyrle Spencer – This romantic tale tells the story of a young St. Louis journalist, who arrives in 1876 Deadwood following the death of her father, to mend family ties with a younger sister who had ran away, five years ago. She ends up falling in love with the local sheriff and discovering a shocking secret about her family.

10 - The Daybreakers

10. “The Daybreakers” (1960) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of Tyrel and Orrin Sackett, who head west to flee a family feud in Eastern Tennessee.

List of Favorite Movie/Television Productions About the AMERICAN REVOLUTION/FOURTH OF JULY

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the American Revolution and/or the Fourth of July holiday:

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIE/TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS ABOUT THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION/FOURTH OF JULY

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“John Adams” (2008) – Produced by Tom Hanks and directed by Tom Hooper, this seven-part award winning miniseries about the second U.S. president is set on the eve and during the American Revolution. The miniseries is based on David McCullough’s 2001 biography. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams.

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“TURN: Washington’s Spies” (2014-Present) – Craig Silverstein created this AMC television series about the Culper Spies ring during the American Revolution. The series stars Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull.

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“National Treasure” (2004) – Jon Turteltaub directed this adventure/heist film about the search for a massive treasure that had been gathered over the centuries and hidden by American Freemasons during the American Revolution. Nicholas Cage starred.

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“Live Freed and Die Hard” (2007) – Bruce Willis returned in this fourth “DIE HARD” movie about Detective John McClane’s attempt to stop a cyber terrorist from hacking into the Federal government’s computers with the help of a computer hacker, during the Fourth of July holiday. Directed by Len Wiseman, the movie co-starred Justin Long and Timothy Olyphant.

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“1776” (1972) William Daniels, Howard DaSilva and Ken Howard starred in this entertaining adaptation of the Broadway musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Peter H. Hunt directed.

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“Independence Day” (1996) – Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith and Bill Pullman starred in this epic science-fiction adventure about a group of people surviving an alien invasion during the Fourth of July holiday. Roland Emmerich directed.

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“The Patriot” (2000) – Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger starred in this historical drama about the experiences of a South Carolina farmer and his family during the American Revolution. Roland Emmerich directed.

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“Johnny Tremain” (1957) – Robert Stevenson directed this adaptation of Esther Forbes’ 1944 novel about the experiences of a young apprentice during the few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Hal Stalmaster, Luana Patten and Richard Beymer starred.

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“The Crossing” (2000) – Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington in this television drama about the Continental Army’s Delaware River crossing and the Battle of Trenton. The movie was directed by Robert Harmon.

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“April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this television adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the coming-of-age for a Massachusetts adolescent during the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

“THE INFORMANT!” (2009) Review

As a rule, I am not particularly fond of whistleblower films. I find them rather boring and unoriginal. Then I saw Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie, “THE INFORMANT!” and concluded there might be one whistleblower film that I do like.

Based on true events and the 2000 non-fiction book, ”The Informant”, by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, the movie is about Mark Whitacre, a rising star at Decatur, Illinois based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s who wound up blowing the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics, only after his wife forced him to. Soderbergh cast Matt Damon as Whitacre and Scott Bakula as FBI Special Agent Brian Shephard, the man to whom he ratted out ADM.

The movie began in 1992 when the FBI was brought in to investigate a possible case of corporate espionage against ADM. The espionage case later was found to be groundless, but during their investigation, Mark Whitacre, under pressure from his wife, told an FBI agent named Brian Shephard that he and other ADM executives were involved in a multinational conspiracy to control the price of lysine. So far, this plot struck me as no different than any other whistleblower movie. But what made ”THE INFORMANT!” unique to me was the character of said whistleblower – Mark Whitacre. The movie’s first half portrayed him as an eccentric man and enthusiastic executive who seemed reluctant to expose his superiors at ADM. But he eventually dedicated himself into assisting the FBI into spending years in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid. Following the raid, it all went downhill for Whitacre. The stress of being the FBI’s mole for three years led him to react to the media in a bizarre manner. More importantly, the FBI and the public discovered that Whitacre had embezzled millions of dollars from ADM.

When I first saw the billboards for ”THE INFORMANT!”, I thought it would be some kind of espionage film like the Jack Ryan novels or something like 1974’s ”THE CONVERSATION”. I eventually learn that the movie might have more to do with industrial espionage . . . and the fact that it was another whistleblower film. Why I did not bother to skip this film upon hearing this, I do not know. Perhaps I was willing to give it a chance due to the fact that Soderbergh and Damon (who did the three ”OCEAN’S ELEVEN” movies) were working together, again. And you know what? I am so glad that I gave it a chance. What started out as an amusing, yet detailed account of Whitacre’s years as a whistleblower for the FBI, ended in a chaotic character study of a very intelligent man who turned out to be a chronic liar and embezzler. As much as I enjoyed the movie’s first half, I really enjoyed the second half that exposed Whitacre’s crimes. The plot – or should I say Whitacre’s character – began to spiral out of control once the whistleblower tried to deflect himself from fraud charges in hilarious ways. By the time the movie ended, I did not know whether to be astounded or amused by how it all fell apart for Whitacre.

”THE INFORMANT!” featured a pretty good solid cast that included Scott Bakula as the long suffering FBI agent Brian Shephard who had recruited Whitacre to act as an informant for his agency . . . and lived to regret it. Joel McHale portrayed his partner, the more outgoing FBI agent Robert Herndon. It was interesting to see comedians like Thomas F.Wilson, the Smothers Brothers – Tom and Dick, Allan Harvey, Patton Oswalt and Scott Adsit all in serious roles. I enjoyed Tony Hale’s performance as Whitacre’s first attorney, James Epstein. Watching his reaction to the growing chaos that seemed to surround Whitacre was rather funny. And Melanie Lynskey gave a strong performance as Whitacre’s wife, Ginger, who seemed to act as the whistleblower’s conscious and backbone. But who am I kidding? The movie is owned lock, stock and barrel by Matt Damon’s brilliant performance as Mark Whitacre. I cannot even describe how good he was in capturing this complex, deceiving and yet, sympathetic personality. I found it criminal that Damon was not nominated for an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Do I have any quibbles about ”THE INFORMANT!”? Uh . . . I can only think of one or two complaints right now. I found Soderbergh’s cinematography rather uninspiring. Yep . . . that is what I had said. The film’s director had also acted as the photographer. And I found it dull and slightly metallic at times. If Soderbergh honestly considers himself a genuine cinematographer . . . well, I would suggest that he stick to directing and producing. And I must admit that right before the FBI had decided to arrest some of ADM’s executives, the pacing became so slow that it nearly dragged the film. Aside from those complaints, I really enjoyed this movie. But I must warn you . . . if you are expecting it to be another ”THE INSIDER” or ”DEFENSE OF THE REALM”, you are going to be sadly disappointed. ”THE INFORMANT!” struck me as possessing an unusual and highly original story for it to be viewed as another whistleblower film.