Favorite Moments in MARVEL Movies and Television

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Below is a list of my favorite moments featured in Marvel movies and television: 

FAVORITE MOMENTS IN MARVEL MOVIES AND TELEVISION

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1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004) – After a brutal fight with Doc Ock on top of a Manhattan El Train and saving the train’s passengers, an exhausted Spider-Man aka Peter Parker is unmasked by the latter in what I regard as the most poignant moment in any Marvel production.

 

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2. “The Avengers” (2012) – During its fight against invading Chitauri troops, director Joss Whedon gave audiences an iconic shot of the newly formed Avengers, before they continued the battle.

 

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3. “Iron-Man 3” (2013) – Iron Man aka Tony Stark saves the surviving passengers and crew of Air Force One in this breathtaking sequence, using aerodynamics, one of his Iron Man bots and his brains.

 

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4. “The Wolverine” (2013) – In this exciting sequence, the Wolverine aka Logan battles members of the Yakuza on top of a Tokyo bullet train, as he tries to prevent them from kidnapping the granddaughter of a recently deceased businessman that he had briefly met at the end of World War II.

 

 

5. “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D” (1.20) “Nothing Personal” – Agent Phil Coulson rescues his kidnapped subordinate Skye aka Daisy Johnson from HYDRA agents, who had hijacked the fallen agency’s C-17 plane, known as “the Bus”, with his sports car called “L.O.L.A.”.

 

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6. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – While staving off rogue HYDRA agents in Washington D.C., Captain America aka Steve Rogers has a brutal hand-to-hand fight with the assassin known as “the Winter Soldier”. Best fight scene in any Marvel production … at least for me.

 

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7. “Iron Man 3” (2013) – In this hilarious scene, Tony Stark finally comes face-to-face with the “terrorist” known as “the Mandarin”, who proves not to be what many had assumed.

 

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8. “The Hulk” (2003) – The opening credits of the 2003 movie featured the chilling efforts of Dr. David Banner to create super soldiers by introducing modified DNA sequences extracted from various animals to strengthen the human cellular response. This sequence gives me the chills whenever I watch the movie.

 

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9. “X2: X-Men United” (2003) – The second movie in the “X-MEN” franchise featured an exciting attack by a brainwashed Nightcrawler aka Kurt Wagner on the White House, in an attempt to assassinate the U.S. President.

 

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10. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) – S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury is attacked by HYDRA agents and the assassin known as “the Winter Soldier” on the streets of Washington D.C.

 

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11. “Iron Man 2” (2010) – S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow fights off security guards at Justin Hammer’s factory in order to prevent Ivan Venko from using James Rhodes in the War Machine suit from killing Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

 

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12. “Ant-Man” (2015) – Scott Laing aka Ant-Man attempts to infiltrate the new Avengers headquarters for a particular device, and has an unexpected encounter with Avenger Sam Wilson aka the Falcon.

 

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13. “Iron Man 3” (2015) – An Extremis enhanced Pepper Potts saves Tony Stark from villain Aldrich Killian by killing the latter.

 

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14. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – The recently enhanced Steve Rogers is recruited by a U.S. senator for a war bonds tour in this colorful montage, after the former is rejected by Colonel Chester Phillips when the super soldier formula is lost.

 

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15. “Thor” (2011) – Recently cast out from Asgaard by his father Odin, a now mortal Thor struggles to free himself from a hospital’s personnel before he is eventually drugged in this very funny scene.

 

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16. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – A group of extraterrestrial misfits uses one of the Infinity stones to defeat Kree supervillain Ronan the Accuser, who is bent upon destroying the Nova Empire’s capital city, Xandar.

 

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17. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – In this emotionally sad scene, S.S.R. Agent Peggy Carter gives in to tears, when communication with Captain America aka Steve Rogers is cut short, after he forces a HYDRA plane with deadly weapons into the Atlantic Ocean.

 

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18. “Spider-Man 3” (2007) – Another sad scene features Spider-Man aka Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson grieving over the dead body of their friend, Harry Osborn aka New Goblin, after the latter is skewered by villain Venom aka Eddie Brock.

 

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19. “Agent Carter” (1.07) “Snafu” – S.S.R. Chief Roger Dooley jumps to his death in order to save the lives of his subordinates from the bomb device that had been strapped to his body.

 

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20. “The Hulk” (2003) – Ang Lee directed this bizarre scene featuring the death of former military officer Glenn Talbot, after the Hulk aka Bruce Banner escapes from a military base.

 

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Honorable Mention: “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014) – Director Marc Webb directed this heartbreaking sequence in which Gwen Stacy falls to her death, after Spider-Man aka Peter Parker fails to save her from Harry Osborn aka the Green Goblin.
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“SERENA” (2014) Review

(This review features spoilers of the 2014 movie, “SERENA” and the Ron Rash 2008 novel from which it is adapted. If you have not seen the movie or read the novel, I suggest you do not read this review.)

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

Seven years ago, author Ron Rash wrote a novel about a young socialite’s effect upon the lives of her new husband, their North Carolina timber business and the Appalachian community that relied upon it during the early years of the Great Depression. The cinematic adaptation of Rash’s novel hung around development for a while, before it finally became the 2014 movie, “SERENA”.

“SERENA” begins during the late fall of 1929, when the New England-born timber tycoon, George Pemberton, is forced to travel to Boston and secure more funds for his lumber business in western North Carolina. While attending a horse show with his sister, George meets Serena, the daughter of a businessman who had owned his own lumber business in Colorado. After a quick romance, the newlyweds return to Waynesville, North Carolina. There, Serena and George clash with the latter’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who regards the young bride as an interloper in his relationship with George. Serena also discovers that George had conceived a child with a local servant girl named Rachel Hermann. Although George reassures Serena that the infant boy means nothing to him, she discovers otherwise after she suffers a miscarriage. Deadly antics follow as the Pembertons deal with legal threats and grow apart over George’s illegitimate child.

When “SERENA” first reached the U.S. movie theaters, it sunk at the box office amidst negative reviews from the critics and fans of Rash’s novel. I have never read the novel. But I have read its synopsis after seeing the movie. And I have also read the reviews. There seemed to be a mixed reaction to the novel, despite its success. But the reaction to the novel seemed a lot more positive than the reaction to the film. Many have criticized director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle’s changes from the novel. Serena’s point-of-view was reduced in the film. Bier and Kyle added a background in the timber business for the leading character. They removed an early scene featuring a clash between George and Rachel Hermann’s father Abe (Harmon in the novel). They removed the Greek chorus of loggers and changed the ending. And you know what today’s moviegoers and television viewers are like. If a movie or series is going to adapt a novel, these fans usually insist or demand no changes. This is a very unrealistic or dangerous attitude for any filmmaker or television producer to have. To produce a film or a television movie, series or miniseries takes a great deal of money. And a producer needs to consider so much – especially in creating an adaptation of a literary source.

There were some changes made by Bier and Kyle that did not bother me. I felt more than relieved that they had decided to drop that violent encounter between George Pemberton and Abe Hermann (Harmon) at the Waynesville train station. While reading about it, I felt that such a violent encounter happened too soon in the story and it struck me – personally – as ridiculously over-the-top. Perhaps other fans missed it. I did not. According to some criticism of Rash’s novel, the Selena Pemberton character came off as a one-note monster with no real depth. Some have lobbied the same charge at George Pemberton. Since I have never read the novel, I do not know whether they are right or wrong. But I am grateful that the movie did portray both characters with some emotional depth. This was apparent in the couple’s intense regard for one another and the emotional breakdown that occurred, following Serena’s miscarriage. I also have no problems with Kyle’s decision to add a background in lumber in Serena’s back story. I thought her familiarity with a lumber camp gave credence to her ability to help George deal with the problems that sprang up within his camp. On the other hand, both Bier and Kyle managed to find time to focus on the Pembertons’ willingness to exploit the natural beauty around them for business and George’s penchant for hunting panthers. I also found the clash between the Pembertons’ efforts to maintain their business in the Appalachian Mountains and the local sheriff’s desire to preserve the surrounding forests for a national park rather interesting. I had no idea that the clash between those who wanted to exploit the land and those who wanted to preserve it stretched back that far.

I was surprised to learn that had been filmed in the Czech Republic and Denmark. However, looking into the background of the film’s crew and cast members, I found this not surprising. With the exception of a few, most of them proved to be Europeans. I have no idea which Czech mountain range where “SERENA” was filmed, but I have to give kudos to cinematographer Morten Søborg for his rich and beautiful photography of the country. But thanks to Martin Kurel’s art direction, Graeme Purdy’s set decorations and Richard Bridgland’s production designs did an admirable job of transporting audiences back to early Depression-era western North Carolina. As for the movie’s costume designs, I thought Signe Sejlund did a top-notch job. Not only did she managed to re-create the fashions of that period (1929 to the early 1930s), she also took care to match the clothes according to the characters’ personality, class and profession.

I never read any of the reviews for “SERENA”, so I have no idea how other critics felt about the cast’s performances. When I first learned about the movie, many bloggers and journalists seemed amazed that Jennifer Lawrence would be cast in the role of the emotional and ruthless Serena Pemberton. Personally, I was not that amazed by the news. The actress has portrayed ruthless characters before and she certainly had no problems portraying Serena. I thought she did a top-notch job in capturing both the character’s ruthlessness and the intense emotions that the latter harbored for her husband. There is one scene that truly demonstrated Lawrence’s talent as an actress. And it occurred when Serena discovered that George had been secretly keeping an eye on his illegitimate son. I was impressed by how Lawrence took the character from surprise to a sense of betrayal and finally to sheer anger within seconds. Bradley Cooper, who had co-starred with Lawrence in three other films, portrayed Serena’s ruthless, yet passionate husband, George Pemberton. Cooper not only conveyed his character’s businesslike ruthlessness, but also the latter’s moral conflict over some of his actions. My only complaint is that I found his New England accent (his character is from Boston) slightly exaggerated.

“SERENA” featured solid performances from the supporting cast. Toby Jones did a good job in portraying the morally righteous sheriff, McDowell. Ana Ularu also gave a solid and warm performance as Rachel Hermann, the young woman with whom George had conceived a child, when he used her as a bed warmer. Sean Harris was very effective as the conniving Pemberton employee, Campbell. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Charity Wakefield, and Blake Ritson. But the best performances amongst the supporting cast came from David Dencik and Rhys Ifans. Dencik gave a surprisingly subtle performance as George’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who resented his partner’s marriage to Serena and her increasing impact on their lumber business. In fact, Dencik’s performance was so subtle, it left me wondering whether or not his character was secretly infatuated with George. Equally subtle was Rhys Ifans, who portrayed Pemberton employee-turned-Serena’s henchman, Galloway. Ifans did an excellent job in infusing both Galloway’s emotional ties to Serena and ruthless willingness to commit murder on her behalf.

Contrary to what many may believe, “SERENA” has its share of virtues. But it also has its share of flaws. One aspect of “SERENA” that I had a problem with surprisingly turned out to be the cast. Mind you, the cast featured first-rate actors. But I was not that impressed by the supporting cast’s Southern accents that ranged from mediocre to terrible. I could blame the film makers for relying upon European (especially British performers). But this could have easily happened with a cast of American actors. Only two actors had decent (if not perfect) upper South accents – Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris. I have no idea how Bruce Davidson, one of the few Americans in the cast, dealt with an Appalachian accent. He barely had any lines. Another problem I had with the movie turned out to be the score written by Johan Soderovist. First of all, it seemed unsuited for the movie’s Appalachian setting. Worst, Susanne Bier and the film’s producer failed to utilize the score throughout most of the film. There were too many moments in the film where there seemed to be no score to support the narrative.

At one point of the film, Kyle’s screenplay seemed to throw logic out of the window. When George committed murder to prevent Sheriff McDowell and the Federal authorities from learning about his bribes, a Pemberton employee named Campbell who had witnessed the crime, blackmailed him for a promotion. Yet, later in the film, Campbell decided to tell McDowell about the murder and the bribes. The problem is that Kyle’s screenplay never explained why Campbell had this change of heart. It never revealed why he had decided to bite the hand that fed him. And I have to agree with those who complained that the film did not focus upon Serena’s point-of-view enough. The movie’s title is “SERENA”. Yet, most of the film – especially in the first half – seemed to be focused upon George’s point-of-view. I have no idea why Bier and Kyle made these changes, but I feel that it nearly undermined the film’s narrative.

My biggest gripe with “SERENA” proved to be the ending. If I must be honest, I hated it. I also thought that it undermined the Serena Pemberton character, transforming her into a weeping ninny who could not live without her husband. Kyle’s screenplay should have adhered a lot closer to Rash’s novel. I am aware that both Serena and George loved each other very much. But Serena struck me as the type of woman who would have reacted with anger against George’s lies about his illegitimate baby, his emotional withdrawal and his attempt to strangle her. She reminded me of a younger, Depression-era version of the Victoria Grayson character from ABC’s “REVENGE”. Both women are both very passionate, yet ruthless at the same time. And if the television character was willing to resort to murder or any other kind of chicanery in retaliation to being betrayed, I believe that Serena was capable of the same, as well. Rash allowed Serena to react more violently against George for his betrayal, before sending her off to Brazil in order to start a lumber empire. Yet, both Rash and Kyle seemed determined to kill off Serena. Kyle did it by having Serena commit suicide by fire, after George was killed by a panther. I found this pathetic. Rash did it in his novel by having a mysterious stranger who bore a strong resemblance to George to kill her in Brazil. In other words, after surviving Serena’s poisoning attempt and an attack by a panther, George managed to hunt her down in thirty years or so and kill her. I found this ludicrous and frankly, rather stupid. I would have been happier if Serena had killed George and left the U.S. to make her fortune in Brazil. She struck me as the type who would get away with her crimes. If the murderer in“CHINATOWN” could get away with his crimes, why not Serena Pemberton? I feel this would have made a more interesting ending.

It is a pity that “SERENA” failed at the box office. Unlike many critics, I do not view it as total crap. I have seen worse films that succeeded at the box office. I suspect that many had simply overreacted to the film’s failure to live up to its original hype, considering the cast, the director and the novel upon which it was based. But it was not great. I regard “SERENA” as mediocre. The pity is that it could have been a lot better in the hands of a different director and screenwriter.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” (2014) Review

Most of the films featured in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been set on Earth – mainly in the United States – and featured human characters. There have been exceptions – namely the two “THOR” movies that were partly set in the realm of Asgard and 2012’s “THE AVENGERS”, which featured an alien invasion. For the first time, the MCU released a movie mainly set in worlds other than Earth. And it is called “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”.

Directed by James Gunn, who wrote the film with Nicole Perlman, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” told the story about an uneasy alliance between a group of extraterrestrial misfits, who find themselves on the run after one of them steals a coveted orb. The movie, ironically, begins on Earth in 1988, when a kid named Peter Quill is abducted by a group of space pirates called the Ravagers led by a mercenary named Yondu Udonta, following his mother’s death. Twenty-six years later, Quill steals a valuable orb from the abandoned planet of Morag. Before he can get away, Quill is intercepted by Korath, a subordinate to the fanatical Kree, Ronan. Although Quill escapes with the orb, Yondu discovers his theft and issues a bounty for his capture. Meanwhile Ronan, who originally agreed to acquire the orb on behalf of the villainous titan Thanos, sends an assassin named Gamora after the orb. In return for getting the orb for Thanos, Ronan wants the latter to destroy the Nova Empire.

Quill attempts to sell the orb on the Nova Empire’s capital world, Xandar, when Gamora ambushes him and steals it. A fight ensues, which attracts a pair of bounty hunters – the genetically engineered raccoon Rocket and his tree-like companion, the humanoid Groot. All four are arrested by the Nova Corps and they are sentenced to a prison called Kyln. The four form an alliance to profit from a sale of the orb to a buyer that Gamora knows on an outpost called Nowhere, once Rocket informs them that he knows how to break out of prison. They acquire a new ally named Drax the Destroyer, who wants revenge against Ronan for killing his family. Drax tried to kill Gamora, due to her past association with the Kree, but Quill talks him out of it after Gamora reveals that she never intended to hand over the orb to Ronan. Gamora is willing to betray Ronan, because she is unwilling to allow him to use the orb’s power to destroy the Nova Empire and other worlds. The five misfits eventually discover from Gamora’s buyer, Taneleer Tivan aka the Collector that the orb contains a powerful stone known as one of the Infinity Stones, a collection of gems of immeasurable power that destroys all but the most powerful beings who wield them. Fearful that Ronan might destroy the Universe if he gains possession of the orb, the five friends become determined to stop him from gaining possession of it.

At first glance, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” seemed to come out of nowhere and with no connection to the other films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the end, there were quite a few connections to the other films. One, other Infinity Stones – mentioned by Tivan – were featured in other films. “IRON MAN 2”, “THOR”, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” and “THE AVENGERS” all featured the Tesseract. And “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” featured the Aether, which found itself in Tivan’s possession by the end of that film. The character Thanos was revealed to be the one behind the Chitauri invasion in “THE AVENGERS” The character Tivan aka the Collector was featured in a mid-credit scene in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. Also, the Ronan character is not the only Kree character to appear in a MCU production. The corpse of a dead Kree was featured in an episode of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. So, the connections between “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and the other MCU films are pretty strong. Many had doubted the success of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”, due to its unknown factor of the major characters. Although the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” comic book was first published by Marvel in 1969, the following publications of the title have been far and few. In fact, Marvel had to revamp the title in 2008.

Marvel and Disney’s fears proved to be groundless in the end. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became a major hit during the late summer of 2014. It even managed to surpass (slightly) the major success of the previous MCU movie,“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”. I understand why “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” became such a success. It is a first-rate film that proved to be the gem of the summer. Thanks to Nicole Perlman and James Gunn’s screenplay, the movie expertly set up the movie’s narrative – first with Peter Quill’s kidnapping and later, his theft of the orb. Mind you, there is nothing particularly original about the narrative for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. I cannot recall the numerous films or television productions about a group of outsiders who struggle to form an alliance or friendship in order to overcome an enemy or problem. Hell, this even sounds like the narrative backbone for “THE AVENGERS”. But I have never come across a movie or television that allowed this narrative to play out with such caustic wit and humor. Perlman and Gunn also did an excellent job in allowing the five protagonists to form both an alliance and later, a strong friendship, in a timely manner. In fact, friendship seemed to be the main theme of“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. And the focus of that friendship centered around the Peter Quill character, who abandoned one set of friends – the Ravengers under Yondu Udonta – that proved to be rather questionable, and formed a more solid friendship with his four new companions.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” benefited from some very strong characterizations. Peter Quill – at first glance – seemed like some minor variation of the Tony Stark character. Although adept at defending himself in a fight, Quill never struck me as the aggressive type. I enjoyed how actor Chris Pratt portrayed him as someone who would prefer stealth and charm over action. Some of his facial reactions alone were a joy to watch. Gamora, the assassin who had been trained by Thanos . . . after he wiped out her family, proved to be a surprisingly moral character. In fact, I would say that she possessed the strongest moral center out of the five major characters. And that is an ironic thing to say about an assassin. Thankfully, Zoe Saldana did an excellent job of conveying Gamora’s moral center . . . and dangerous nature at the same time. I never thought I would become attached to a CGI animal described as a genetically-altered raccoon. But I must say that the character Rocket provided a great deal of sharp wit and verbosity that infused a lot of energy into the story. And a lot of that energy came from Bradley Cooper’s voice performance. Another dangerous, yet fascinating character proved to be the vengeful Drax the Destroyer. In fact, I can honestly say that Drax was probably the most chaotic character in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. But what else can you say about a character who is not only seeking revenge, but does not understand the meaning of metaphors. And I have to say that professional wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista did a marvelous job in portraying a ferocious, yet humorless character with such sharp comic timing. And finally we have – “I am Groot.”. Ah yes, the talking and walking tree. Rocket’s companion. What can I say? I adored that warm, compassionate and loyal walking piece of timber. And I have to give kudos to Vin Diesel, who only had one line to speak over again, throughout the movie, do so with different inflections.

But there were other interesting characters featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Audiences saw the return of Taneleer Tivan aka The Collector, who was last seen in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”. And once again, Benicio del Toro gave an eccentric, yet very interesting performance of the interstellar collector. Nebula, who was raised as Gamora’s sibling by Thanos, certainly proved to be a character I will never forget. Although not the main villain, Nebula proved to be a scary and intimidating character in her own right, whose own ambiguity is dictated by feelings of jealousy toward Gamora. And actress Karen Gillian did an excellent job in conveying these aspects of Nebula’s character. Despite the presence of Thanos, the movie’s main villain proved to be a Kree fanatic named Ronan the Accuser. The fanatical Ronan refuses to accept a peace treaty between the Kree and the Nova Empire and seeks Thanos’ help in destroying Xandar. In the end, he proved to be something of a one-dimensional character lacking any eccentricities or ambiguities whatsoever. And honestly, one has to thank Lee Pace’s intense performance that managed to maintain my interest in Ronan. Another character that proved to be a minor disappointment was Korath, one of Ronan’s subordinates. And like Ronan, he also struck me as a bit one-dimensional, yet rather intense. However . . . the character had one scene that proved to be rather funny – his first meeting with Quill on Morag, in which he failed to recognized the latter’s nickname. And one has to thank Djimon Hounsou’s performance for making that scene work. It seemed a pity that Hounsou did not have a larger role in the film.

The characters from Xandar struck me as solid, but not particularly memorable. There were two exceptions – Corpsman Rhomann Dey, a professional member of Xandar’s military/police force and whose dry sense of humor strongly reminded me of S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson; and Nova Prime Irani Rael, the slightly intimidating and righteous leader of the Nova Corps. And both John C. Reilly and Glenn Close gave outstanding performances in their roles. The most fascinating supporting character for me proved to be Yondu Udonta, the temperamental, yet occasionally decent leader of the Ravagers, who had served as Quill’s guardian after snatching him. There were times when I could not tell whether he was a bad guy, a good guy or simply another self-absorbed rogue after his own interest. And I must say that Michael Rooker gave a very entertaining and flamboyant portrayal of the character. I look forward to seeing him in future films.

I have to be honest. Most of the visual effects for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” did not blow my mind. But there were a few scenes that I found noteworthy. I liked the idea of the Nowhere outpost being set inside the floating head of a Celestial corpse. Very original. And the wide exterior shot of the colony upon the protagonists’ arrival is very impressive, as shown the following image:

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The scene was enhanced by Ben Davis’ photography. I also enjoyed his work in the movie’s final action sequence that featured Ronan’s attempt to destroy Xandar. Gunn’s direction, along with the visual effects made the scene breathtaking. To a certain degree. Some of the aerial action involving Rocket and the Nova Corps struck me as somewhat confusing. I also enjoyed Alexandra Byrne’s costumes, but like the visual effects, they did not take my breath away. I was not expecting anything out of the ordinary, but . . . I found them at best, solid.

The summer of 2014 proved to be very dismal for me, aside from a few films. One of those films that provided some realentertainment was “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. If it were not for the work of director James Gunn, the exciting and witty screenplay he co-wrote with Nicole Perlman and the first-rate performances from a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, the 2014 summer could have ended on a bad note for me.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

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“AMERICAN HUSTLE” (2013) Review

For the past three years, the career of David O. Russell seemed to be on a roll. During said period, he has directed, produced or both three movies that have garnered a great deal of acclaim and awards. The latest of this “Golden Trio” happened to be a period comedy drama called “AMERICAN HUSTLE”.

Set mainly in 1978, “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is loosely based on the ABSCAM operation, set up by the F.B.I. as a sting operation against various government officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The movie begins with two con artists and lovers, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser, who are caught in a loan scam by F.B.I. Special Agent Richie Di Maso. The latter proposes to release them if Irving assists him in a sting operation against Mayor Carmine Polito of Camden, New Jersey and other officials. Sydney tries to convince Irving not to agree with Richie’s proposal. But desperate to avoid prison and reluctant to leave his adopted son with his verbose and slightly unstable wife Rosalyn, Irving agrees to assist Richie and the F.B.I. The sting operation nearly starts off on the wrong foot, thanks to a clumsy tactic on Richie’s part, but Irving manages to woo back the charismatic and popular Carmine, who is seeking funds to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City. The scam seems to be going fine, despite Sydney’s growing relationship with Richie. But when Carmine introduces Irving, Sydney and Richie to the notoriously violent Mafia overlord Victor Tellegio into the plan to raise money; and Rosalyn’s jealous nature and notoriously big mouth threatens to expose the sting operation; Irving realizes he has to come up with an alternate plan to save him and Sydney from the Mob and the F.B.I.

While watching “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it occurred to me that it is filled with some very interesting and eccentric characters. First, there are the two lovebirds – Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser – with his odd toupee and her fake British accent. Then we have Richie Di Maso is an ambitious “Mama’s Boy” with hair permed into tight curls, who is a bit too eager to prove himself with the F.B.I. Irving’s wife Rosalyn is an unhappily married woman with a big mouth and a careless and self-involved personality. And Mayor Polito is a happy-go-lucky politician with a rather large pompadour hair-style and questionable connections to the Mob. The movie is also populated with a Latino F.B.I. agent recruited by Richie to potray a wealthy Arab sheik, a charming Mob soldier who ends up falling for Rosalyn, Richie’s frustrated and wary F.B.I. supervisor, and a very sinister Mob boss that can speak Arabic. If I have to be perfectly honest, I would have to say that the movie’s array of characters struck me as being the movie’s strong point.

This should not have been a surprise. “AMERICAN HUSTLE” is also filled with some great performances. Christian Bale gave a wonderfully subtle and complex performance as the aging and stressed out con man who reluctantly finds himself involved with a scam operation set up by the F.B.I. He certainly clicked with Amy Adams, who gave one of the most subtle performances of her career as the charming, yet desperate former stripper-turned-con artist, who found herself in a state of flux over her freedom and her relationship with her partner/lover. Bradley Cooper was practically a basket of fire as the aggressive F.B.I. Agent Richie Di Maso, who become over-eager to make a name for himself within the Bureau. Mind you, there were moments when Cooper’s performance seemed to border on hamminess. I could also say the same for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Irving’s not-so-stable wife, Rosalyn. However, I must admit that Lawrence also provided the movie with some of its best comic moments. Jeremy Renner was a joy to watch as the charismatic mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito. The latter must have been the most happy-go-lucky role he has ever done.

“AMERICAN HUSTLE” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Louis C.K. was very effective Richie’s long suffering boss, Special Agent Stoddard Thorsen. Michael Peña provided some memorable comic moments as Special Agent Paco Hernandez, who surprised everyone with his ability to speak Arabic. Robert De Niro, who also made a surprising appearance as mobster Victor Tellegio, gave a subtle and intimidating appearance . . . especially in a scene in which he tested Agent Thorsen’s ability to speak Arabic. The movie also featured solid performances from Jack Huston as a young mobster, Alessandro Nivola as Richie and Thoren’s boss, Anthony Zerbe as a corrupt congressman, and Elisabeth Röhm as Mayor Polito’s equally happy-go-lucky wife Dolly.

I was also impressed by the production designs for “AMERICAN HUSTLE”. Judy Becker and her team did an exceptional job of bringing the late 1970s back to life. She was also assisted by Heather Loeffler’s set decorations and Jesse Rosenthal’s art direction. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs did an excellent job of not only capturing that particular era, but also representing the major character. This was especially apparent in his costumes for the Sydney Prosser, who used low-cut dresses and gowns to distract her marks. And I mean very low cut.

If there is one problem I have with “AMERICAN HUSTLE”, it is probably Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell’s screenplay. At first, it seemed perfectly fine to me. But eventually, there were aspects of the screenplay I found either troubling or confusing. One, I noticed that Russell tried utilize the use of multiple narrations that Martin Scorsese used in his 1995 movie, “CASINO”. At first, he used Irving and Sydney’s narration. Then he added Richie’s voice to the mix. The problem is that I can only recall Richie’s narration in one scene. Nor do I recall Sydney’s narration in the movie’s second half. Also, the first half of the movie seemed to hint that Richie’s mark in his operation was Camden’s Mayor Polito, who wanted to raise funds to revitalize Atlantic City. Why? Why would the mayor of Camden be interested in revitalizing the fortunes of another city, located in another county? And why was the F.B.I. so interested in Camden’s mayor? At first, I thought the agency was aware of his mob ties. But when Carmine introduced Irving and Richie to mobster Victor Tellegio, both the con man and the Federal agent seemed by the mobster’s appearance. So, why did Richie target Carmine in the first place? To make matters even more confusing, Richie extended his sting operation to several members of Congress. There seemed to be no focus in the operation and especially in the story.

Despite the confusing screenplay, I must admit that “AMERICAN HUSTLE” was an entertaining movie. Not only did it recaptured the era of the 1970s, but also featured some superb performances from a cast led by Christian Bale and Amy Adams. I thought it was entertaining enough to overlook its flaws.

“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” (2012) Review

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“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” (2012) Review

When I learned that “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” had earned a good number of nominations and acclaim during the Fall/Winter of 2012-2013, I found myself scratching my head in confusion. I had never heard of the film. I spent a good deal of that movie season paying more attention to the likes of “ARGO” and “LINCOLN”. So when the movie earned a good number of Academy Award nominations, my first reaction turned out to be . . . “What was the big deal?” 

Written and directed by David O. Russell, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” was based upon Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, “The Silver Linings Playbook”. Since I never read the novel, let alone heard of it, I would not be able to compare the movie to the novel. The movie is about a bipolar man named Patrick “Pat” Solitano Jr., who moves in with his parents in Philadelphia after being released from a psychiatric hospital. Pat is determined to get his life back on track, stop his dependence on medication and reconcile with his estranged wife Nikki, who had obtained a restraining order against him after he had violently attacked the man with whom she was having an affair. While attending a dinner party held by his friends, Ronnie and Veronica, Pat meets Veronica’s sister – a young widow suffering from sex addiction and depression over the death of her police officer husband. Pat and Tiffany begin an odd friendship over their shared neuroses. Learning that both Tiffany and Veronica know Nikki, Pat asks the former to deliver a letter he had written to Nikki. In return, Tiffany asks him to be her partner in a dance contest. 

Matters seem to go well for Pat until his father Pat Sr. asks him to attend a Philadelphia Eagles football game as a “good luck charm”. The latter had bet all of his money on the game. His father’s request leads Pat to skip practice with Tiffany. However, he is dragged into a fight with racist thugs who were attacking his Indian-born psychiatrist and brother. When the Eagles lose the game, Pat Sr. becomes furious. Tiffany who is also angry, arrives at the Solitano home and berates Pat for missing the dance practice. She also points out that the Eagles win a game whenever she and Pat spend time together. Convinced that Pat being with Tiffany is actually good luck, Pat Sr. makes a parlay with his gambling friend that if the Eagles win their game against the Dallas Cowboys, and if Pat and Tiffany score at least a 5 out of 10 in their dance competition; he will win back double the money he lost on the first bet.

Although “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” received a good deal of acclaim, there have been some critics who have dismissed the film as a mediocre, yet slightly entertaining romantic comedy. And some have pointed out the unlikeliness of a comedic romance between two characters with serious neuroses. Before I actually viewed the film, I believed I would end up in the latter camp. But when I finally saw the film . . . my skepticism disappeared. What can I say? I found myself drawn to both the characters and the story. A good number of years have passed since I last enjoyed a romantic comedy. It seemed to be a genre that Hollywood rarely seems willing to explore, unless situated in the middle of an action-adventure story, or in a television sitcom. I noticed that “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” has been described as a comedy-drama. When one considers a movie featuring main characters with mental disorders, I could see why any moviegoer would expect a good deal of drama injected into this story. I am not saying that the movie’s narrative skirted over its dramatic issues. It made Pat’s emotional problems clear, especially his unwillingness to get over his wife Nikki, his parents’ wary regard for him, his tendency to run away from his feelings for Tiffany, and the latter’s own romantic frustrations with him. And yet, the style of David O. Russell’s directions, along with the cast’s performances made the film seem more like a straight comedy, instead of a comedy-drama. Did this bother me? Not at all.

“SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” featured some genuinely great moments. I do not think I will ever forget that amateurish, yet odd dance number performed by leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Nor do I think I can forget those scenes featuring their characters’ odd encounters, while jogging. But my favorite scenes include the first attempt by Pat’s friend Danny McDaniels to leave the Baltimore psychiatric hospital, Pat’s wild and loud quarrel with his equally loud father during the early hours of the morning, Pat’s funny sessions with his analyst Dr. Cliff Patel, and Pat Sr. making that final bet with his friend Randy. But if I had to pick my favorite scene, it would be Pat and Tiffany’s first meeting at the dinner party hosted by Pat’s friend Ronnie and Tiffany’s sister Veronica. From the moment the two leads lock eyes upon each other, until he escorted her home, it was a blast to watch. The scene features one of my favorite “boy-meets-girl” moments in any Hollywood film.

At least four members of the cast for “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” earned Academy Award nominations. But the rest of the cast also gave excellent or really exceptional performances. The movie featured some really solid performances from Shea Whigham (Jake Solitano), Julia Stiles (Veronica Maxwell), Anupam Kher (Dr. Cliff Patel) and Dash Mihok (Officer Keogh). Chris Tucker went against his usual splashy style for a very funny, yet subtle performance as Pat’s fellow hospital inmate, Danny McDaniels, who keeps making attempts to escape and who immediately noticed the chemistry between Pat and Tiffany. I do not recall ever seeing John Ortiz in a comedic role before, but I must admit that he was rather funny as Ronnie, Pat’s high strung friend, who is beginning to question his relationship with Veronica Maxwell. 

And the four cast members who ended up receiving Academy Award nominations, truly deserved them, as far as I am concerned. Jackie Weaver earned a much deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination as Pat’s sane mother Dolores, who seemed to be caught between a rock and a hard place between a bipolar son and a temperamental and slightly obsessive husband. Robert De Niro gave one of his best performances in his later career as Pat Solitano Sr., a temperamental and slightly obsessive man, who is wary of his younger son; yet even more obsessed over the Philadelphia Eagles. He deservedly earned his first Academy Award nomination in 21 years. Bradley Cooper, who worked with De Niro for the second time, earned an equally deserved Academy Award nomination as the movie’s main character, Pat Solitano Jr. – a man struggling with both a bipolar condition and a failed marriage. What I liked about Cooper’s performance is that he effectively portrayed a very volatile personality without crossing the line into hamminess. Jennifer Lawerence earned her second Academy Award nomination as Tiffany Maxwell, the troubled young widow, who seemed hellbent upon being the new woman in Pat’s life. Lawrence eventually won her Oscar – for Best Actress. Before I saw this film, I found myself wondering if she deserved it. After seeing her performance in this movie, I think I would have made it a tie between her and Jessica Chastain. Lawrence was a revelation as the strong-willed, yet emotional Tiffany.

It is a pity that I never saw this movie when it was in the theaters during the fall of 2012. I really wish I had. I think it is one of the best comedies I have seen in years. David O. Russell did justice to the story as the film’s screenwriter and director. And it boasted some superb performances from the likes of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. If I had seen “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK” when it first arrived in the theaters, it would have my list of favorite movies of 2012.

 

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Favorite Movies Set in LAS VEGAS

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Las Vegas, Nevada: 

 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN LAS VEGAS

1 - Ocean Thirteen

1. “Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007) – In this third entry of Steven Soderbergh’s OCEAN’S TRILOGY, Danny Ocean and his co-horts plot a heist against casino owner Willy Bank, after he double-crosses one of the original eleven, Reuben Tishkoff. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Al Pacino starred.

2 - Casino

2. “Casino” (1995) – Martin Scorsese directed this adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book about the clash between a professional gambler and a mobster sent to operate a mob-controlled Las Vegas casino. Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone starred.

3 - The Hangover

3. “The Hangover” (2009) – Todd Phillips produced and directed this hilarious comedy about four friends who to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. The groom-to-be ends up missing the following morning, and the three remaining friends search all over town to find him, despite having no memories of the previous night. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha and Heather Graham starred.

4 - Bugsy

4. “Bugsy” (1991) – Warren Beatty and Annette Bening starred in this biography of mobster Ben Siegal during his time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Directed by Barry Levinson, the movie co-starred Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley.

5 - Ocean Eleven

5. “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) – This remake of the 1960 movie also served as the first entry of Steven Soderbergh’sOCEAN TRILOGY. In it, Danny Ocean and a group of thieves plot the heist of three Las Vegas casinos owned the current boyfriend of Ocean’s ex-wife. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia starred.

6 - Rush Hour 2

6. “Rush Hour 2” (2001) – Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker re-teamed in this sequel to their 1998 hit, in which they go up against a counterfeit ring that takes them from Hong Kong to Los Angeles and finally Las Vegas. Brett Ratner directed.

7 - Diamonds Are Forever

7. “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971) – Sean Connery starred as James Bond in this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1956 novel. The British agent investigates a diamond smuggling operation that leads him to the crime organization SPECTRE and arch nemesis Ernst Stravos Blofeld. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie co-starred Jill St. John and Charles Gray.

8 - Viva Las Vegas

8. “Viva Las Vegas” (1964) – Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret lit up the screen in this musical about a race car driver forced to find a way to raise money to enter a race in Las Vegas, while romancing a hotel swim instructor. George Sidney directed.

9 - Miss Congeniality Armed and Fabulous

9. “Miss Congeniality: Armed and Fabulous” (2005) – Sandra Bullock stars in this sequel to 2001’s “MISS CONGENIALITY”, as the now famous F.B.I. agent Gracie Hart. When two of her friends – Miss United States and pageant commentator Stan Fields – are kidnapped, she recruits the help of fellow agent Sam Fuller to help her. Directed by John Pasquin, Regina King and William Shatner co-starred.

10 - Honeymoon in Vegas

10. “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1992) – Nicholas Cage starred in this comedy about a man who loses a great deal of money to a professional gambler, while in Vegas to marry his girlfriend. The gambler agrees to clear the debt in exchange for a weekend with the girlfriend, who reminds him of his late wife. Directed by Andrew Bergman, the movie co-starred Sarah Jessica Parker and James Caan.

“THE HANGOVER, PART II” (2011) Review

“THE HANGOVER, PART II” (2011) Review

Two years after the success of the blockbuster comedy, “THE HANGOVER”, director Todd Phillips followed up with a sequel about the lead characters’ adventures in Bangkok, Thailand, following another disastrous bachelor’s party. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis returned to star in this sequel. 

In this sequel, Phil Wenneck, Doug Billings, and Alan Garner accompany Stuart “Stu” Price to Thailand to celebrate his upcoming wedding a woman of Thai descent named Lauren at a beach resort outside of Bangkok. Much to Alan’s dismay, Lauren’s younger brother, a medical student named Teddy, joins them. Despite disapproval from Lauren’s father, who compares Stu to rice porridge, the wedding party goes according to plan. Unfortunately, the four friends and Teddy take part in a mini bachelor’s party on the beach. Although Phil insures that the beer they are drinking had not been tampered by the infantile Alan; he, Stu and Alan awaken the following morning at a dirty Bangkok hotel. Apparently, Doug had left the party a little earlier to join his wife at their hotel room. They also discover gangster Leslie Chow (whom they first met in Las Vegas) and a chain-smoking capuchin monkey. Stu has a face tattoo and Alan’s head is completely shaven. However, the three friends cannot find Teddy. They only find his severed finger. And as Chow begins recalling the events of the previous night, his heart stops after snorting a line of cocaine. Panicked, the trio dispose of Chow’s body in an ice machine and begin their search for the missing Teddy.

In conclusion, I must admit that I found “THE HANGOVER, PART II” very entertaining. One, I loved the Thailand setting and cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s photography of the locations. Two, director Todd Phillips did a great job in maintaining the movie’s pacing, ensuring that I would never fall asleep. Three, the chemistry between the main cast seemed as potent as ever. I noticed that Phillips continued the chemistry between Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis from the first movie. However, I was a little disappointed that Justin Bartha did not take part in the trio’s adventures in this movie. Instead of being the missing person (as he was in the first film), his character left the bachelor party before it all went to hell.

However, Phillips did find a way to bring back Ken Jeong as gangster Leslie Chow. And he was as funny as ever. In fact, one of Jeong’s funniest scenes featured the trio and Chow’s arrival at a high-class hotel restaurant to meet an American gangster (and undercover Interpol agent) named Kingsley. Other funny scenes include Stu’s discovery that he had drug-induced sex with a Kathoey prostitute, Phil’s reaction to getting shot by a Russian gangster, Mike Tyson’s surprise appearance and performance at Stu and Lauren’s wedding, and a crazy car chase through the streets of nighttime Bangkok.

But was “THE HANGOVER, PART II” funnier or just as funny as the 2009 movie? I can honestly say . . . no. The first twenty minutes of the film did not strike me as particularly funny, no matter how much humor Scot Armstrong, Craig Mazin and Todd Phillips tried to wring from the script. The ending seemed a bit too cheesy and sentimental at times. And why on earth did they include a scene in which the trio and Chow dropped off the badly wounded monkey (who had been shot in the stomach) at a veterinary clinic. The movie also featured an appearance from Paul Giamatti, who was far from funny in his role as fake gangster/undercover Interpol agent Kingsley. And this was a major disappointment, considering Giamatti’s talent for humor. And I wish that Nick Cassavetes’ cameo as a Bangkok tattoo artist could have been a bit funny. I suspect that if Mel Gibson had been in the role, he would have garnered a lot more laughs. I could say the same for Mason Lee (Ang Lee’s son), who made a less funnier missing person than Bartha. As for Nirut Sirijanya, he seemed downright humorless as Stu’s disapproving father-in-law-to-be. I realize that his character was humorless, but so was Melissa, Stu’s former girlfriend. But actress Rachael Harris portrayed the humorless Melissa with a great deal of comedic skill. I cannot say the same for Sirijanya.

Many people had complained that “THE HANGOVER, PART II” more or less followed the same plot formula as “THE HANGOVER”. And they would be right. Like in the first film, the characters experienced the following:

*a hangover from drugs fed to them by the socially challenged Alan
*a missing person who is locked in some space at the hotel they had awaken
*Stu experiences a physical impairment (a tattoo in this film, a missing tooth in the last)
*Stu becomes involved with a prostitute
*theft of someone’s pet animal (in this case, a monkey)
*Phil is hospitalized
*a red herring situation regarding the missing person
*Stu sings
*Phil is forced to admit not knowing the location of missing person
*Stu figures out the location of the missing person
*

Well, you get the drift. The only reason I am willing to tolerate this lack of originality on the screenwriters’ parts is due to the fact that I still managed to enjoy the movie. Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis not only proved that they were still funny, but could also be an effective comedy team. Thanks to the movie’s humorous story and performances, and the exotic Thai locations, I am certainly looking forward to the DVD release of “THE HANGOVER, PART II”.