Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

June is Busting Out All Over

Movies in June by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

A few days ago, one of my very few friends said, "You know, June doesn't have many good movies.  Most are garbage."  
I answered, "Just because Ethan Hawke is in two them doesn't mean they're all garbage."

Below, I've listed 18 movies, some released in late-May;17 of them are in theaters and one big one on Netflix. None will be to everyone's tastes, but sift through and you're sure to find a few to your liking.  Films are in bold and italicized, with best bets in ALL CAPS, followed by release date in parentheses (remember some of the smaller films may come to a theater near you a week or two later than the date shown):

First, the one on Netflix: Thor: Ragnarok (June 5), one superhero movie that even non-Marvel fans can enjoy.  Chris Hemsworth (Thor), displaying a nice comic touch, plays half of the film off of Jeff Goldblum (in full Goldblum mode), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Bannon/Hulk), and Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie).  The other half is serious mythology, with Cate Blanchett (Hela) bringing Ragnarok (think the Apocalypse) down on Asgard.  Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Anthony Hopkins round out the excellent cast.

It's all a matter of personal taste in this genre, and I'm not going out on a limb for any of them.  The first two are originals, the third a female version of a proven heist tale, the fourth a remake, and the fifth a sequel.  

Adrift (06/01) - Based-on-true-story about a young couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) who agree to sail a boat across the Pacific, not counting on crossing paths with a Category-5 hurricane.

Hotel Artemis (06/08) - in riot-torn future LA, Jodie Foster runs a hospital for criminals; Sterling K. Brown tries to save his brother. Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate, and Dave Bautista join the action, sci-fi crime fun.

Oceans 8 (06/08) - Female Oceans 11, starring Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon.  Hopefully, Gary Ross plus great talent equals the ultimate summer popcorn flick.

Superfly (06/15) - Trevor Jackson in the title role remake of the 1972 blaxploitation movie.  With Jason Mitchell and Michael K. Williams.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (06/29) - Sequels of excellent movies don't always work if they forget what made the original good.  This looks like twice the killing, half the surprise and intrigue.

Only one worthwhile entry this in the genre this month, but it's the long-awaited (14 years to be exact) sequel to a huge hit

INCREDIBLES 2 (06/15) - Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter's voice) heads out to save the world, turning  Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson's voice) into Mr. Mom. Voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Kathleen Keener. 

It's that time of year, and you'll have no trouble recognizing the franchises here.  We'll probably see all three, like two, and love one.

DEADPOOL 2 (in theaters now) - Ryan Reynolds is back as the rowdy, raunchy superhero he was born to to play.  This time, he's up against Thanos, erm, Cable (Josh Brolin).  Morena Baccarin returns as Vanessa, along with a new slew of super and not so super heroes.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (06/22) - Want to know why dinosaurs went extinct?  Oversaturation.  Now, they are rescuing the dinosaurs from a volcano.  Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (05/25) - Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke help beat Star Wars into the ground, though I bet this cynical remake rakes in $500 million and gets 90+ from RT and EW. 

COMEDY - It's also the time of year for comic popcorn flicks, but there only seems to be one in June worth the drive and the price.

TAG (06/15) - Highly-competitive friends annually play a kids game; John Hamm, Annabelle Wallis, Isla Fisher, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress try to tag elusive Jeremy Renner.

It's nostalgia time for, as the saying goes, kids of all ages.  Don't miss this one. 

WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? (06/08) - On the heels of the excellent RBG comes our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, to take us back to the days when neighbors meant something and kindness ruled the day.

Four films here, all of the art house variety, and probably all worth your time and money.  Leave No Trace might be the top choice of the month.  American Animals looks very cool and entertaining.  Octogenarian Christopher Plummer (Boundaries) is working as hard as ever, but not as hard as Saoirse Ronan (On Chesil Beach) who is seemingly in a couple dozen movies again this year.

LEAVE NO TRACE (06/29) - Debra Granik (director of Winter's Bone who discovered a callow kid named Jennifer Lawrence) brings us a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, Oregon, who are pulled into urban social services and must find a way to escape and return to the wilderness where they were happy.  The 84 Metascore says she may have done it again.

AMERICAN ANIMALS (06/01) - Based-on-fact story of four college students who plan a heist--from a college library.  Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan.

Boundaries (06/22) - Pot-dealing dad (Christopher Plummer) is thrown out of his nursing home; what's a daughter (Vera Farmiga) to do?  (Saving Grace, Part 2?)  Film recommended by Babs de la Cine.

On Chesil Beach (05/18) -  Based on Ian McEwan's dramatic romance novel, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with love and freedom in 1960's England.  Emily Watson, Billy Howle

When Neil Gaiman is spinning the yarn, we at least have to pay attention.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (05/25) - Based on a Neil Gaiman short story, Elle Fanning hitch-hikes across the galaxy, lands in a London suburb, and finds love.  A punked-up Nicole Kidman is in pursuit.  Ruth Wilson.

Hereditary carries an impressive 86 Metascore, based on 25 reviews (24 positive And one mixed)

HEREDITARY (06/08 - Horror tale of a family--Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff--experience gone mad. Those who have seen this Sundance hit say the grIm suspense is unremitting.

RBG Documentary

RBG Quick Review by Guy S Malone, Researcher

On the surface, Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems too quiet, mousy even, to be one of the leading minds of American jurisprudence for more than a half-century.  Indeed, if confronted with that truth, she might drop her eyes for a moment, blush, and go silent.  We don't know if RBG ever read Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, but she seems to be a living emblem of Taoist philosophy:

Silence is a source of great strength.  This diminutive woman comes across as so soft-spoken and unassuming it is hard to believe that she was arguably the strongest influence during the seminal days of the women's movement.  In the 1970s, as Director of the Women's Rights Movement of the ACLU, she argued six landmark cases before the US Supreme Court, winning five.

When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'we did it ourselves.'  Even many of RBG's most ardent fans are not aware of her standing at the summit of women's rights--or her many other accomplishments.  It is only in retrospect that her achievements are recognized.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.  She wasn't even one of Bill Clinton's top choices for Supreme Court nominee.  As he worked down his list of candidates and met her he was even less impressed--until she spoke.  She sold him in minutes, and then she sold the Senate Committee; even Conservative Orrin Hatch ended up singing her praises, despite deep philosophical differences.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  She graduated first in her class at Cornell in 1954.  One of the first women accepted into Harvard Law School, she became the first woman to be named to the Harvard Law Review (top 25 out of more than 500 in a hostile, male-centric program).  When her husband Martin took a job as a New York tax attorney, she transferred, finishing first in her class at Columbia Law School where she later became the school's first tenured law professor.

Being deeply loved gives you strength; loving someone deeply gives you courage.  As impressive as is her legal career, equally so is the love story of Ruth and Martin.  They were college sweethearts, Ruth was quiet and reticent while Martin was a gregarious jokester, both were as driven professionally as they were smitten with each other--potentially a recipe for disaster, in reality a story of strength and courage rooted in love.

At 1:38, RBG might seem long for a documentary.  It's not.  Serfing Dude, Don Swedanya, FilmZ, and I joined a near-capacity crowd in our art house cinema.  At times during the film, spontaneous applause broke out; other times, tissues dabbed at eyes.  In the end, in these divisive times, it was a wonderful shared experience to see what an American hero and true patriot looks like.
8.5 out of 10

Streaming Thor: Ragnarok, Annihilation, and Molly's Game --Quick Reviews

Three Brief Reviews co-written by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Even with Guy S. Malone, Researcher and I sharing writing duties, it's difficult to write film blogs and at the same time keep up with the manuscript for our second novel, grant writing, and various research projects.  Some good movies, like the ones we discuss today, fall through the cracks. And now that all are available for streaming, we're going to take time for mini-reviews.  Depending on your taste, all three are worth your time.  With that intro, here are our mini-reviews.
Enjoy. -- FilmZ

Thor: Ragnarok
If you are an adherent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), you've probably already seen this third entry in the Thor series; if you're only a casual follower or non-follower, you might have missed it or dismissed it entirely.  Without going into the gory details, Thor (2011) was most notable for misusing Natalie Portman, introducing the charismatic duo of Chris Hemsworth as the stolid Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki, and bringing the powerful Tesseract to the MCU canon.  The sequel, Thor: The Dark World also misused Ms. Portman and is generally considered one of the weaker entries in the MCU.  Conversely, Thor: Ragnarok is one of the strongest of the Marvel series, and it provides the integral jumping-off point to Avengers: Infinity War.  It is also the film where Chris Hemsworth emerges a both a super superhero and a fine comic actor (and it finally admitted it didn't know what to do with poor Natalie and mercifully let her stay home).  Director Taika Waititi takes the team-written plot of two stories that converge in the third act, and by throwing out the chaff and keeping the strong comic and action kernals, he gives us an epic that plays fast and loose with Norse mythology but is loads of fun.

One thread has Thor's sister Hela (an enthusiastically evil Cate Blanchett) along with a mountainous wolf and an army of undead invading Asgard.  Hela shows imposing strength, crushing Mjolnir (Thor's hammer) in one hand and casting him out of Asgard.  That leaves only the blind but imposing bridgekeeper to the Nine Realms Heimdall (Idris Elba), the ethically equivocating Skurge (Karl Urban), and lesser military leaders to prevent Ragnarok (Norse for Apocalypse).  Thor lands on Sakaar, a garbage planet, where he is captured by an alcoholic bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson)
 who coincidentally, is a derelict Valkyrie.  Sakaar's ruler Grandmaster (a delightfully Jeff Goldblumy Jeff Goldblum) is a tin-Caesar who loves gladiatorial contests, and so, Valkyrie knows exactly what to do with Thor.  In Grandmaster's court, we also find Loki, who has escaped servitude by his wiles.  In the gladiatorial pit we find The Hulk, who in human form is Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Between Marx Brothers-style shenanigans and deus ex machinas galore, our friends make their way out of Sakaar and back to Asgard.  The Sakaar thread is more entertaining, the Asgard thread follows the mythology better, and Thor: Ragnarok is the rare action movie where the action is the least entertaining part.  But put together, we have a unanimous high recommendation.
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Speaking of deus ex machina and Natalie Portman (see above), Annihilation is writer-director Alex Garland's first outing since his breakout sci-fi hit Ex Machina.  In this case, Garland is adapting from the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy.  And he does provide a much better role  for Ms. Portman than Asgardian arm-candy.  Here, she is Lena, a Johns Hopkins biologist, whose class lecture on cells is strangely reminiscent of the real-life Hopkins test subject Henrietta Lacks and is eerily prophetic, as we shall see.  Lena is morose, living a hermit's life, we learn, because her husband has been missing for a year after his top-secret military mission disappeared while investigating the "Shimmer," an iridescent, fog-like veil that has surrounded a coastal salt march after a meteor struck a nearby lighthouse.  One day, her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns, but he is different, and not just because he is spewing blood.  A military unit swoops in and rushes him and her, to a top secret facility with a rear-deck view of the ever-expanding Shimmer.  There, Kane can be studied by a medical team led by Dr. Lomax (Benedict Wong).

With time on her hands, Lena, who we learn is ex-military and prone to revelatory and disturbing flashbacks, joins an all-female team of volunteers to explore the shimmer in order to research it and search for other survivors, rather than remain alone with her thoughts.  All of these women, in fact, have disturbing secrets that compel them to volunteer for the dangerous mission.  Led by prickly psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the team consists of a diverse group, including paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), anthropologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson).  Armed to the teeth with weaponry and scientific gear they slide into the heart of darkness with the lighthouse-vortex as their goal.  What they find is as mind-boggling as it is mystifying.  Rob Hardy's cinematography matches their hallucinogenic experiences, and we feel the same time-warp as the exploratory team, as Annihilation is simultaneously suspenseful and slow-paced, intense and gloomy.  Trippy revelations abound, and there's a payoff at the end; perhaps if our expectations hadn't been set so high by Ex Machina, we would have joined others in their raves.  As it was, it was still pretty good.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Molly's Game
When we first heard of this film, we were intensely ambivalent.  We are Jessica Chastain fans, but the subject matter, however autobiographical, didn't seem thrilling.  Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Moneyball, The West Wing) is a gifted writer, but he seems a bit arrogant and misogynistic--and this being his directorial debu, too, well ...   And so, we demurred, waiting until well after the awards season to see it on its second run through the theaters.  Sorkin adapted the film from Molly Bloom's eponymous memoir, a portrayal of a young woman who had trained all her life to become an Olympic caliber skier who then, after a career-ending injury, switched gears to climb the summit of high stakes poker and eventually run the most expensive game in the world.  As one expects from Sorkin, the patter is clever and fast paced, and the athlete-turned-gambling queen delivers soliloquies with depth recalling the Sermon on the Mount.  If you buy that, you buy the film.  For the most part we did, but Sorkin's creative self-satisfaction made Molly's Game run about a half-hour too long.

The film begins with the FBI investigating Molly (Chastain) for consorting with the Russian Mafia, and her Attorney Charles Jaffrey (Idris Elba) asserting that her problems will go away if she just gives the Feds some names.  But Molly has a code, and she insists on taking her (slim) chances in federal court.  We then enter flashback mode to her early years in Colorado, growing up in a family of bright high achievers, driven on by a domineering father (Kevin Costner).  A terrible accident on the slopes that ends her Olympic hopes, she decides to leave everything behind and start a new life, escaping to Los Angeles.  To make ends meet, she lands a job with nasty entrepreneur Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong) who also runs a high stakes poker game involving some of the biggest movers and shakers in Hollywood.  Molly is intellectually gifted and clever enough to know that the job requires a delicate balance between consummate discretion and control while pandering to the players' egos.  Soon she is running the game, successfully building it until one of the players, Harlan (Bill Camp), falls apart and another player, a narcissistic and cruel actor, Player X (Michael Cera) runs her out of her own game.  But Molly is nothing if not resilient and resourceful.  She moves to New York with a mind full of experience and ideas, and she begins anew.  Unfortunately, it is here where undesirable and dangerous influences insinuate themselves into her game.  Also unfortunately, the tightest part of the film was left on the West Coast.  In New York, events build and unravel too fast, and they come back together again with facile convenience, but not before Idris Elba delivers a typical Sorkin monologue with typical Elba passion and conviction.  That performance, along with a convenient but compelling return of her father, save the second half of the film.  Chastain's captivating Molly, Elba's charismatic (if poorly-cast) Jaffrey, and Costner's gripping Larry Bloom save Sorkin's bacon.
7.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Director Armando Ianucci transports his Emmy-winning Veep sensibilities across space and time to the Soviet Union in 1953.  Working from a script he developed with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows--from a comic book by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin--Ianucci chronicles the events leading up to and following the despot's demise.  And "chronicle" is the correct word in the sense that they nail much of the history, and how better to skewer this terrible period than to hold a mirror up and point out its absurdity?  Of course, horrific is horrific, so the director assembled a brilliant cast of American and English actors and allowed them to amp up their on-screen personas, delivering lines about pogroms and torture without a wink or a nod.

The action unfolds as we follow Stalin's inner circle; a group of men--some cunning, some dim-bulbed, all suck-ups--whose behavior seems more in line with the Marx Brothers than Karl Marx (that was too obvious, right?).  And therein lies the satire: these men wield unchecked savagery in the service of a paranoid and sadistic leader, yet they do so in a casual, almost off-handed manner, saving their emotional investment for currying favor and getting the upper hand on each other.  After a humorous but overlong concert vignette that establishes the level of fear and paranoia among Russian citizens, we settle in at Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) country dacha where he relaxes, eating, drinking, and watching American cowboy movies with his inner circle. A thin veneer of forced gaiety shrouds each man's fear of getting on “the list” and results in fawning over their leader, juvenile jealousies, and timid jokes.  Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) even memorizes Stalin's responses to his jokes and has his wife, Nina (Sylvestra Le Touzel) record which did and didn't work.  That night, Stalin has a stroke and goes undiscovered until well into the next day because the guards are afraid to disturb him, and once he is discovered, his deputies are too fearful to make a decision.  In the end their dithering and frets are for naught; Stalin has died.

And so it begins: the jockeying for succession to become General Secretary, complicated by the need to cope with Stalin's children: the manic Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the maniac alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend).  When those two aren't disrupting the worst-laid plans, the plot focuses on the rivalry between between Khrushchev and Deputy Prime Minister Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, surprisingly effective at emanating farcical terror), the ruthless head of the NKVD--Soviet secret police.  Where Khrushchev is a hand-wringing improvisor, Beria is a Machiavellian plotter, both men ambitious, but both must move carefully because the nominal successor is the skittish Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, a marvelous performance in which he portrays simultaneous pomposity and insecurity).  Another insider is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin, in full Monty Python form), who was reputedly on "the list" and thus seems more interested in ingratiating himself to whatever successor arises.  This sets Palin up for one of the films highlights: as the leaders sit around the conference table making one of their frequent show-of-hands decisions, Molotov finds himself with the tie-breaking vote; what ensues is 30-seconds of dizzying verbal vacillation culminating in his nervous smile of satisfaction and the bewildered frowns of his compatriots.  Beria does manipulate the decision to put Khrushchev in charge of funeral arrangements while he takes charge of security.  This infuriates Nikita, but ends up working to his favor as Beria replaces the Soviet Army with his own NKVD troops, infuriating our last major player: the proud, bombastic General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who responds, “I’m smiling, but I am very fucking furious.”

Iannucci's strength is developing satire seasoned with slapstick while never leaving the reality plane.  In his world, truth is as strange as fiction, and both seem equally plausible.   One area where he departs from film realism is his decision to allow his performers to act as the stereotypical characters we've become familiar with in Boardwalk Empire (Buscemi), Arrested Development (Tambor), a Monty Python sketch (Palin), or in Harry Potter (Isaacs).   This strategy follows even to rejecting attempts at Russian accents in favor of voices ranging from American wise-guy to British upper-class twit.  These gambits have determined the success of the film to some critics.  We bought it; and the film.
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers, Kind of a Review)

Avengers: Infinity War (No Spoilers, Kind of a Review) by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher

We're supplementing the writing duties of Guy S. Malone, Researcher, today because, frankly, we need checks to avoid spoilers.  Also, we will only talk about Avengers: Infinity War in the most tangential, abstract way while still making sure you get some helpful information, but we can't emphasize enough that you need to see Avengers: Infinity War ASAP.  There are some serious trolls and idiots who derive sick pleasure out of ruining surprises for people. 

First, let us say that we liked it--a lot.  Brothers Anthony and Joe Russo have multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies under their belts, and they've got the style down pretty well by now.  For substance, they brought along chief screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely from Captain America: Civil War, which featured a dozen heroes.  At the release of that movie, we were worried super elbows would be flying as characters vied for screen time.  As it turned out, my fears were baseless.  But Infinity War featured nearly two dozen heroes; how was that going to work?  Pretty well, thank you, although the 149 minutes run-time helped (and, no, I didn't check my watch).

The very basic, no spoilers premise is: super-villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) has set a career goal of collecting all six Infinity Stones (several of which have been located in previous films).  If he gets them all, he will become virtually indestructible and rule the Universe. 

All that stands between him and his goal are:
The Avengers (Earth and Asgard)- Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), War Machine/James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Black Panther/T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), and fledgling Avenger Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland).
The Mystical World - Sorcerer Supreme Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
The Guardians of the Galaxy - Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn), Groot (Vin Diesel, Terry Notary), Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). 

Rounding out the crew of good guys are several other familiar and pivotal characters: Americans, Asgardians, Aliens, and Wakandans--like Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and others.  So many superheroes and friends splash across the screen that the movie doesn't have room for regular folks, except as backdrop.

How can Thanos possibly defeat such a fearsome array.  Well, first, he is a Titan, so he's imposing in  his own right.  Second, he has bred an imposing gang of family and friends, several of whom would carry a film's archvillainy on their own: Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), Proxima Midnight (an unrecognizable Carrie Coon), Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), and Corvus Glaive (Michael Shaw).  Third, every time Thanos picks up another Infinity Stone his powers increase exponentially.

If you have seen even a couple MCU movies, you've got the formula down, and you could probably write a rough outline to be filled in by specifics: a threat is posed; heroes are introduced, individually or as small groups in touching, meet cute, heroic, or humorous ways; each vignette is interspersed with evidence of a mounting peril; Tension mounts to critical mass proportions; a climactic battle that lasts too long ensues in which our super-heroes are poised on the precipice of defeat ... .

Avengers: Infinity War has it all.  To put it into perspective with the other movie in the series, it has more tender and emotional moments than most and barely enough humor to lighten this, the most gravitas-laden of the 19 MCU films extant.  (It would take Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok-level laughs to balance the tone here, but the weight is intentional.  In several ways A:IW is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, not surprising in that it serves as prelude to the next Infinity War 2.

Ideally, by this time, you have seen all 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading up to Avengers: Infinity War, but honestly, you can bag The Incredible Hulk.  Although it's a decent movie, it stars Edward Norton, who was replaced by Mark Ruffalo in subsequent films.  So, 17 movies.  Wait.  Ant-Man pulls a no-show, too.  And some of the movies stray enough from the ongoing mythology that they are not requisite to your understanding and enjoyment of A:IW.  In truth, though it helps to have seen a few, including one from each of the main characters/groups, plus the most recent few.  There is not a lot of exposition to catch the viewer up with what is going on; we are expected to know what is happening from the opening scene onward.  Having said that, is it critical to have seen all 18 precursor films?  No.  In fact, you can get away without having seen any.  Here is what you do:
1) See the movie with someone who has already seen it.
2) Do not, repeat, DO NOT ask questions during the movie.
3) Go out for coffee or drinks afterward and ask away.
4) See it a second time (you will likely want to).

Is Avengers: Infinity War the best of the MCU movies?  A lot of critics say no, but I don't know how we can judge it at all since only half of the tale has been told.  Considering everything mentioned above, I'll have to rate it:
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.0 out of 10 on an Artistic Scale

Summer Movie Guide

Summer Movie Guide by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

What better way to spend a sunny summer day than in a movie theater?  Lots of ways, you say?  Then read no further and go darken someone else's blog.  Some folks want to get out of the heat, and if the choice is a dungeon, a cave, or the local cineplex guess where you will find me?  Your darned tootin'.

Below, you will find my assiduously researched and arbitrarily filtered summer movie guide, chronologically ordered by release date.  Included are blockbusters, art-house films, date movies, documentaries ... heck, you will even find movies you couldn't drag me to with Wonder Woman's lasso of truth. I've added my own snark, cynicism, and even fearless predictions (Glenn Close for an Oscar).  All that with an economy of verbiage for which Paul Komisar, my old Philosophy of Ed Prof would approve.

You're welcome,

Guy S. Malone, Researcher

04/27  Avengers: Infinity War - 22 superheroes fight for screen time and against Thanos, who aims to collect all six Infinity Stones so he can rule the Universe.  Too many stars to name, go check IMDb.

05/04  Tully - Dramedy from Diablo Cody, reteaming with director Jason Reitman (Juno, Young Adult); Charlize Theron, a mother of three, is gifted a nanny (Mackenzie Davis) who teaches her how to be a Mom.  Awards Watch.

05/04  RBG - Documentary about the notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, focuses on her 25 years as a SCOTUS Justice, even catching her gym workout. Sure to win some judgments come Oscar time.

05/11  Life of the Party - A mom (Melissa McCarthy) mortifies her daughter (Molly Gordon) when she decides to return to college to finish her degree. With Maya Rudolph.

05/11 The Seagull - Chekhov dramedy, a son's love for his narcissistic mother plays out in rustic Russia.  Amazing cast: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll, Elizabeth Moss, Brian Dennehy = Awards

05/18 Book Club - Comedy, Diane Keaton, Candace Bergen, Jane Fonda, and Mary Steenburgen use Fifty Shades of Grey as how-to manual with Richard Dreyfus, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, and Craig T. Nelson.

05/18  Deadpool 2 - Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is back for hard-R-Rated fun, this time battling arch-villain Thanos, er, Cable (Josh Brolin), and Morena Baccarin returns to keep the "merc with the mouth's" ego in check.

05/18  On Chesil Beach - Based on Ian McEwan's dramatic romance novel, a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with love and freedom in 1960's England.  Emily Watson, Billy Howle

05/25  How to Talk to Girls at Parties - Based on a Neil Gaiman short story, Elle Fanning hitch-hikes across the galaxy, lands in a London suburb, and finds love.  A punked-up Nicole Kidman is in pursuit.  Ruth Wilson.

05/25  Solo: A Star Wars Story - Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke help beat Star Wars into the ground, though I bet this cynical remake rakes in $500 million and gets 90+ from RT and EW. 

06/01  Adrift - Based-on-true-story about a young couple (Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin) who agree to sail a boat across the Pacific, not counting on crossing paths with a Category-5 hurricane.

06/01  American Animals - Based-on-fact story of four college students plan a heist--from a college library.  Ann Dowd, Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan.

06/08  Hereditary - Horror tale of a family--Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Milly Shapiro, and Alex Wolff--experience gone mad. Sundance hit.

06/08  Oceans 8 - Female Oceans 11, starring Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Matt Damon.  Hopefully, Gary Ross plus great talent equals the ultimate summer popcorn flick.

06/08  Hotel Artemis - in riot-torn future LA, Jodie Foster runs a hospital for criminals; Sterling K. Brown tries to save his brother. Jeff Goldblum, Sofia Boutella, Jenny Slate, and Dave Bautista join the action, sci-fi crime fun.

06/08  Won't You Be My Neighbor? - Documentary about our favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, from back when neighbors meant something and kindness ruled the day.

06/15  Incredibles 2 - Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter's voice) heads out to save the world, turning  Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson's voice) into Mr. Mom. Voices: Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Kathleen Keener. 

06/15  Superfly - Trevor Jackson in the title role remake of the 1972 blaxploitation movie.  With Jason Mitchell and Michael K. Williams.

06/15  Tag - Highly-competitive friends annually play a kids game; John Hamm, Annabelle Wallis, Isla Fisher, Ed Helms, Hannibal Buress try to tag elusive Jeremy Renner.

06/22  Boundaries - Pot-dealing dad (Christopher Plummer) thrown out of his nursing home; what's a daughter (Vera Farmiga) to do?  (Saving Grace, Part 2?)  Film recommended by Babs delaCine.

06/22  Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom - Want to know why dinosaurs went extinct?  Oversaturation.  Now, they are rescuing the dinosaurs from a volcano.  Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine.

06/29  Leave No Trace - Debra Granik drama, a father (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie), living off the grid outside of Portland, OR are pulled into urban social services and fight to get back to the wilderness.

06/29  Sicario: Day of the Soldado - Sequels of excellent movies don't always work if they forget what made the original good.  Thia looks like twice the killing, half the surprise and intrigue.

07/06  Ant-Man and the Wasp - Sequels of excellent movies sometimes do work if they don't take themselves at all seriously--and if they have cluelessly cool superhero Paul Rudd, plus Evangeline Lilly (Wasp).

07/13 Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation - Drac receives a vacation on a monster cruise so he doesn't have to serve others at his hotel.  Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Steve Buscemi.

07/13  Shock and Awe - In the wake of 9/11, two journalists (Woody Harrelson, James Marsden) work to uncover the truth about the Bush Administration claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

07/13  Skyscraper - Hostage-team rescuer Dwayne Johnson leaps tall buildings in a single bound, but this time with an inner-world as a war vet with an amputated leg and a tough past. Neve Campbell, Pablo Schreiber.

07/13  Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot - Gus Van Sant dramedy/biopic, Joaquin Phoenix as a man using art to rehab from a life-changing accident.  Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill

07/20  Blindspotting - Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal co-wrote and star in this dramedy about race and class clashing in a gentrified Oakland, CA.  

07/20  Equalizer 2 - Only makes the list because it's Denzel as Robert McCall, delivering very satisfying vigilante justice, but what if it's someone he loves? Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Pedro Pascal.

07/20  Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Against our better judgment, we mention this, and we believe they had this sequel's name before they made the original. Meryl Streep, Lily James, Amanda Seyfried.

07/27  Mission Impossible: Fallout - All together now: Ethan and his IMF team race against time in a mission gone wrong.  Rebecca Ferguson is back, does the plot matter? Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg.

08/03  Christopher Robin - An adult Christopher (Ewan McGregor) reunites with Pooh (Jim Cummings' voice) who helps him to enjoy life again.  Hayley Atwell; voices of Chris O'Dowd, Toby Jones, Brad Garrett, Sophie Okenodo.

08/03  The Spy Who Dumped Me - Comedy, two best friends (Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon) become embroiled in international intrigue when one of the women discovers her former boyfriend was a spy.

08/03  The Darkest Minds -  Based on Alexandra Bracken's YA dystopian thriller, four teenage plague survivors develop strange skills and must escape bounty hunters. Amandla Stenberg, Mandy Moore, Gwendoline Christie.

08/03  The Wife -  A wife (Glenn Close) gives up her career aspirations to support her Nobel Laureate husband (Jonathan Pryce). Also, Elizabeth McGovern, Christian Slater.  Close finally scores an Oscar.

08/10  Dog Days - Various Los Angelenos' lives are changed as they are brought together through their mutual love of dogs.  Nina Dobrev, Vanessa Hudgens, Eva Longoria, Lauren Lapkus, Adam Pally, Finn Wolfhard

08/10  The Meg - Guilty pleasure as Jason Statham pursues a shark that makes Jaws look like a minnow to save folks trapped in a submersible.  Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose.

08/17  Crazy Rich Asians - An Econ prof (Constance Wu) travels to her boyfriend's (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore to find she is the target of an army of golddiggers who want her man.  Michelle Yeoh.

08/24  The Bookshop - In small-town England in 1959, a woman (Emily Mortimer) opens a bookshop, becoming an unlikely political and social lightning rod of polite tyranny.  Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson.

08/24  Papillon - Remake of 1973 Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman biopic of Henri Charriere's time on Devil's Island, this time with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. 

08/31  Kin - Earthly and alien forces pursue an ex-con and brother, who are in possession of a strange weapon. James Franco Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz, Carrie Coon.

Isle of Dogs

Isle of Dogs review by Guy Malone, Researcher

Three free tips about Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs:
1) don't expect a laugh out loud comedy;
2) if possible, see it on a big screen;
3) if you're not a Wes Anderson fan, don't see it at all.

Anyone who saw Anderson's only other stop-action animated film, the wildly entertaining and intact Fantastic Mr. Fox (based on a Roald Dahl story), could be forgiven for expecting a daffy, wickedly comic plot.  Isle of Dogs is a more subversive, truly fractured fairy-tale, and the humor is positively arid.  That's where point two kicks in: Anderson is a world-builder, and his is a richly-detailed worlds are filled with nuance and nonsense; this film, more than any other WA opus, is a jaw-dropping original.  Which brings us to point three; any enjoyment one feels is dependent upon a prior appreciation of the auteur's trademark sensibilities and eccentricities.

At the top, we are informed, in typical Andersonian fashion that "All barks have been rendered into English."  Knowing this, plus the fact that almost all spoken Japanese goes untranslated, and that the narration is presented by Frances McDormand and Courtney B. Vance, we are thus prepared to once again enter Wes-World.

The setting is the Japanese city of Megasaki 20 years in the future.  In response to a suspicious dog flu epidemic, authoritarian--and cat-worshiping--Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has decreed that all dogs must be exiled to nearby Trash Island.  In a magnanimous gesture, the Mayor includes Spots (Liev Schreiber), the guardian/pet of his 12-year old ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).  Atari commandeers a vintage plane and chugs off to rescue Spots.  Meanwhile, on Trash Island, a pack of exiled dogs--Rex (Edward Norton), a self-professed "indoor dog"; Boss (Bill Murray), a softball team mascot; Duke (Jeff Goldblum), a stammering gossip; King (Bob Balaban), of Doggy Chow commercial fame; and Chief (Brian Cranston)--scrounges for meals and wistfully recalls their past lives.  All, that is, except Chief because while the others came from caring environments, Chief is a stray, a stray who doesn't like people, and who admits to being a biter.

After crash-landing, Atari makes contact with our pack of pooches, and even with the language barrier, the dogs want to help the 12-year old boy, all except Chief.  As usual, though, the pack puts the motion to a vote, and as usual, the only dissenting vote is Chief--ironic for the pack leader to never get his way.  Thus begins the major plotline.  Along the way, Chief is smitten by the beautiful Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), they receive guidance from the sage Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) and his sidekick, a pug named Oracle (Tilda Swinton) who understands TV.  They encounter a band of wild dogs, led by Scrap (Fisher Stevens), the scarred Gondo (Harvey Keitel), and Peppermint (Kara Hayward).

Meanwhile, on the mainland, a scientist who has developed a vaccine for the "dog-flu"or "snout-fever" or whatever scary name the Mayor is using, dies from poisoned wasabi, compliments of Major Domo (Akira Takayama), the Mayor's Karloffian henchman.  American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) has been following Atari's story, having developed a crush on him, and learning of the scientist's death, she rallies the forces of her high school newspaper staff and starts to unravel the plot.  As she rallies her forces on the mainland, the dogs develop their own plan, and soon the plots join up in a typical WA wildly ramshackle conclusion.

Anderson's touches, obvious to those who love his films, are in abundance; for example, if you translated Isle of Dogs to "I Love Dogs," you are tuned into Wes.  Some are less obvious: Star Trek fans will appreciate a section of the film, entitled "The Search for Spots" (Spock?).  The end credits have Angelika Huston voicing the "Mute Poodle."  Perhaps more than any of his other films, Isle of Dogs is chock full of happy Easter eggs like these.  Also, more than any of his films, this one seems more disjointed and haphazard.  I will see it again, though, and even a third time, because I want to wring out all of the understanding I can muster.

Our film partners had their own immediate takes: Ambrose pointed out the all-too-real-world reference to institutional racism as employed through the Mayor's scapegoating, paranoia, and xenophobia to rationalize deportation.  And if one wanted to find further references, the poisoned wasabi seemed very, erm, Putin-esque.  Some critics complained about the appropriation of Japanese culture, but we see it more as homage.  Another of our film group recognized the influence of Akira Kurosawa.  And it is true, Wes Anderson does idolize the great director as well as animator Hayao Miyazaki.  We must also remember that Kunichi Nomura (yes, he also gave voice to Mayor Kobayashi), helped Anderson write the story, along with Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman.  Even considering the political and cultural weight, in the end, Isle of Dogs is the story about the enduring love between people and dogs.  The dogs in the story are not beautiful (except for Nutmeg); they are scruffy and dirty, the intricate detail of animators endearingly captures every bit of disheveled, dirty dog.  Alexandre Desplat is an award-winning composer, nine times nominated for his beautiful soundtracks to films like The Shape of Water, for which he won an Oscar.  Around his buddy Wes, though, he is equally creative (he also won for Grand Budapest Hotel), but he gets a chance to go off the rails, and we get treated to both Japanese Taiko drums and Prokofiev's Troika.  And speaking of awards, Wes Anderson just set the bar for animated films at the 2019 Academy Awards:
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
8.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Black Panther: Have We Turned the Corner?

Black Panther—Have We Turned the Corner? by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

This movie has already been dissected, parsed, and mythologized.  What is there to say that hasn't already been said?  So, let's start with the obvious: a Marvel film released in February will get a huge turnout, no matter the circumstances; that Black Panther is also the first with a predominantly Black cast brings an under-served audience to join built-in mad Marvel fans, propelling BP to historic heights.  The studio also struck a smart, respectful note, making BP the atypical stand-alone Marvel outing--not even a cameo from another Avenger.  Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole expand Stan Lee's original hero into a relevant modern-day morality tale in which even the antagonist has an understandable point.

Eons ago, a meteor crashed into the jungles of Africa, depositing the mother lode of vibranium, a rare metal of uncanny properties.  The peoples that inhabited this land soon learned the tremendous powers of vibranium, and as the metal enabled great technological advancements, the culture grew into the nation of Wakanda.  The people had the wisdom to understand the importance of hiding their wealth from imperialists and other exploiters, so they concealed their entire region within the the verdant forest. 

Flash to present day. After the assassination of his father, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne to rule Wakanda to rule not only as King but also to serve and protect his nation as Black Panther.  Early on, the conflict is introduced by his friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), who wishes T’Challa to use Wakanda’s hidden resources to help oppressed people and assume its place as a world power.  A more immediate problem arises, though, when Wakanda is beset by a breach of secrecy: some vibranium has been stolen by arch-villain Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and will be sold to the highest bidder in Seoul.  T’Challa takes off, accompanied by Wakandan spy, and his true love, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of his elite all-female security force.  Assisting them remotely is his kid sister and scientific genius Shuri (Letitia Wright).  At the Korean casino where the exchange is to occur, they spot CIA operative Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and everything becomes more complex.  The ensuing battle puts the strength and wile of all combatants, good and evil, on display.  It also serves as setup for the main conflict: between T’Challa and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), once the innocent victim of a wrathful mistake by T’Challa’s father, now a fearsome enemy bent on revenge.

No doubt, Black Panther will go down as one of the unqualified hits of the 2018 movie year, and that success also emphasizes the box office clout for high "status" films produced by and starring Black artists (add Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother and Forest Whitaker as the shaman to the list).  The talent on display in front of and at work behind the cameras provide both role models and ideals to which children of all races can aspire.  How can one not welcome such success? 

As laudatory as this is, we should temper our enthusiasm with a dose of big-picture reality.  So many have written about A) what a great film Black Panther is, and B) how it represents a turning point in the acceptance of status films representing and produced by the Black community.  Let’s examine it: Regarding point A: how great is the film?  Well, it is a Marvel film, so it’s well-executed, has tremendous CGI, and the script has a just enough humor to show it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  But it IS a Marvel film, so it’s graded on an easier curve by many critics, most notably Entertainment Weekly (who has graded only one of 18 Marvel films below a B-) and the Rotten Tomatoes fanboy critics, who treat Marvel movies and Star Wars entries like they are Citizen Kane.  Like most Marvel movies, there is no real sense of imminent peril; in the case of BP, it’s because vibranium is so powerful and versatile, and Shuri’s genius so all-encompassing, that deuses are ex machina-ing all over the place.  And while a compelling antagonist is expected, especially as played by Jordan, it is a surprise that Wright and Gurira in support outshine Boseman and Nyong’o's leads.  And what Marvel movie worth its salt would be without a final battle that’s ten minutes too long.  As to point B, we would be more willing to see a turning point in acceptance of high stature Black films had last year's excellent Best Picture winner Moonlight earned more that a paltry $28 million domestic gross.  Times change, you say?  Not so much: the expected box office juggernaut expected of the Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay treatment of the classic story A Wrinkle in Time never realized its potential.  So, have we turned the egalitarian corner with Black Panther? No, but it is a big step in the right direction.  Now, if T’Challa turns out to be one of the leads in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War
8.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
7.5 out of 10 on an Awards Scale

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Upon leaving the theater, our own Captain HE gave the film a "nine out of ten" and later added in writing: "Riveting, well-acted, thoroughly entertaining with a fabulous cast. Here is a movie that does not rely on digital enhancements to carry a story. Jennifer Lawrence is formidable. Please try not to think of any parallels relating to current U.S. political situations. TRY!"

When retired CIA operations director Jason Matthews wrote Red Sparrow and its follow-up books, Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate, he either knew some things before the rest of us did, or he was damn lucky in choosing the experiences he decided to fictionalize out of his 33-year career.  The CIA, of course, had to approve the book and the script, and they loved it, as described here:  The film seems like the script from the Robert Mueller investigation, and despite its "R" rating, the storyline and the fact that it stars Jennifer Lawrence and an amazing cast, its popularity should be through the roof.  Strangely, whereas most American films do much better in the US than they do overseas; Red Sparrow's foreign box office amounts to nearly twice its American earnings, even beating out Black Panther in some markets.  It is a strange scenario, but more on that later, now for the film:

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi, famed and thus supported by the ballet company and the government.  During a performance one night, her male lead trips, falling on her with his full weight, shattering her leg. Her career ended, she is about to lose both her apartment and medical coverage, which assists her chronically ill mother (Joely Richardson).  Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an administrator in the Russian intelligence service who makes her an unsavory offer. She’s to serve as a honey trap for a man of interest, an abhorrent offer to her, but she has no choice.  Vanya has other, more sinister plans, though, and the plan turns violent and bloody and forces her deeper into his clutches.

Cut to a dark and foggy park, and CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is about to make an exchange with a Russian double agent, known only as Marble.  Unfortunately for them, the police unwittingly stumble upon their transaction.  Nate has to beat feet, scrambling frantically to the border where he has to ram through guards and leap into the American sector, his cover blown.  He is led to the offices of his handlers (played by a grim Sakina Jaffrey and a wry, amused Bill Camp) where he pleads for another chance.

Thus begins a double narrative: as Nate struggles to get back to the field, Dominika is "recruited" to enter Sparrow school where she will learn both world-class espionage and prostitution. Sparrow school students are uniformly young, physically strong, and beautiful.  Their curriculum is overseen by grim academy supervised by a severe Matron (Charlotte Rampling).  It is here where politically correct critics have taken issue as Dominika endures the extremes of punishment and degradation, but it is here where their myopic viewpoint becomes blurred.  The extremes to which Dominika is subjected become the springboard from which she takes control of her fate through sheer force of will and her nascent gifts—athleticism, intelligence, a brutal nature, and a preternatural gift of reading people's intentions.  She is well aware that she is a woman in a man’s world, but she doesn't beg sentimentality--even though Dominika is sentimental about her mother.  Matron certainly isn't sentimental; she dislikes Dominika's independent will, but she acknowledges her talent, and soon the former prima ballerina is sent into the field.

Vanya meets with his superior, Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and decide to send Dominika as a honey trap to entice Nash into revealing the identity of Marble.  Here, the narratives of Domenika and Nate combine and intertwine; we become witnesses to manipulation and double-crosses, games both are playing that we see but do not fully understand until all elements come together in surprising and satisfying fashion.

Red Sparrow is a blend of the Bourne films and John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, much better than the fun but mindless Atomic Blonde.  Although it has action, it is not an action film. Rather, it is an old-fashioned spy film with intrigue that keeps the audience thinking, guessing, and on its toes through its full 2:20 runtime.  In other words, it predictable doesn't play well to many of the clickbait critics that infest Rotten Tomatoes.  Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) has not made a classic, but Red Sparrow is a damned good film.  Beautifully shot in Budapest, Vienna, and London, with a superior international cast that includes, in addition to those already mentioned, Mary-Louise Parker as another intrigue-peddler and Sergei Polunin as the Bolshoi male lead.  The romantic chemistry between Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Lawrence isn't there, but it might be even better that Matthias Schoenaerts' lascivious Uncle Vanya does spark with Dominika, a perversion that fits in with the whole seamy world of espionage.

And of course, there is Jennifer Lawrence.  You've heard us extol her talents loudly and often; allow Manolha Dargis, film critic of the New York Times to describe the actress's contributions better that we can:
"As she does, Ms. Lawrence goes all in, seamlessly meeting the movie’s physical demands — whether she’s dancing onstage or crawling in blood — while turning Dominika into a character who grows more real with each unreal scene. ...  It helps that Ms. Lawrence, like all great stars, can slip into a role as if sliding into another skin, unburdened by hesitation or self-doubt. Craft and charm are part of what she brings to this role, as well as a serviceable accent, but it’s her absolute ease and certainty that carry you through “Red Sparrow.” She was born to screen stardom, and it’s a blast to see where it’s taking her."

Unfortunately, it may not take her into the further exploits of Dominika Egorova.  In addition to the aforementioned critical obstacles others, some willful, some mere fate, have stood in its way.  Fate intervened when Red Sparrow's release put it up against the Black Panther juggernaut.  It didn't help that we are currently in a time when people are most sensitive about violence against women, despite the fact that RS is based on real-world events, and it shows its protagonist, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) overcoming her plight and turning the table on the patriarchy (much like Lisbeth Salander did in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  But those hurdles are matters of bad timing.  Willful human intervention created a perfect storm of opposition against Red Sparrow: First, on RS's opening weekend, the online ticketing hub MoviePass blocked subscriber's from purchasing tickets and still have offered no explanation. Still, film studios don't care about reasons or excuses, and they don't care how great a movie is or that it is headed toward $100 million overseas; their only concern is the domestic bottom line.

Still and with all, we heartily recommend Red Sparrow.  Our group loved it, so we will end with a comment from our own Serfing Dude, who left the showing calling it the best film we had seen in a while (and that included Black Panther and Annihilation): "It was better than I expected and I did anticipate it to be better than some of the critics were saying. It kept me guessing throughout and allowed for some clever surprises. It was an intriguing look at the spy game and given the present issues concerning Russia in the geopolitical realm, a very pertinent movie. The cast was outstanding, led by J-Law."
8.5 out of 10 for Artistic and Entertainment merit.

Films Released in 2017: A Final Word

Closing the books on 2017
-- by FilmZ and Guy S. Malone, Researcher, with contributions from the usual gang

Despite the fact that they took place nine weeks into 2018, last week's Academy Awards marked the end of Awards Year 2017 for Hollywood.  It was a sobering year, marked most notably by the Weinstein scandal and its aftershocks that shook the film industry to its core.  Out of the ashes has arisen a movement for gender equality in Hollywood that for the first time may go beyond lip service and become a commitment.  Aiding that is the reality that the top acting talent today is largely female; harming that is the reality that box office is still dominated by males.  Example: the Rock earns more per year than Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emma Stone combined.  Now, we truly like the Rock and his movies, but please.  Still, we believe (hope?) the ripple effect will go far beyond the film industry and into society as a whole.

2017 also brought a revelation: we detested the black hole created when the Star Wars universe rebooted and hogged all of the holiday box office from better, but smaller, films, but we have to admit that there was one positive effect.  Some of the best and most enjoyable movies fled to the far reaches of the calendar.  Six of our top 15 films, including Get Out (February 24) and Dunkirk (July 21) came out at times usually reserved for dreck or popcorn fare.

Anyway, what follows are our Top-15 films of the year, followed by the best remaining films in separate categories, totally arbitrary ones (invented by the totally arbitrary Guy S. Malone, Researcher).  We do this year to year, based on the movies we have seen.*

* Disclaimer: We see around 50 movies a year, but our record for catching foreign films and documentaries hovers somewhere between embarrassing and abysmal (I will now don my cilice in repentance) so you won't see those categories here.  Also, in the land of King Scrapple, some of the best films zip through town so fast that by the time we get from the house to the theater they are gone.  For those, we call on the gang of movie serfs to apprise us.

15 BEST FILMS OF 2017:

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri - cool, bombastic crime thriller; best of the year

Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan's totally new take on the war film: nonlinear, with no stars

Get Out - Jordan Peele's breakthrough film stunned us with his satirical take on race relations

mother - Darren Aronofsky's Creation to Apocalypse allegory not meant for the popcorn crowd

Darkest Hour - Lily James and Ben Mendelsohn join Oldman as Oscar-worthy

Lady Bird - Greta Gerwig's coming of age film charmed the critical community and moviegoers

The Shape of Water - A treat for the senses; many liked because they ought to, but worthy of Oscar

Call Me By Your Name - Luca Guadagnino and James Ivory crafted a beautiful LGBT tale

The Post - Spielberg cake with Hanks, Streep, and a terrific supporting cast icing

- Scott Cooper and Christain Bale reunited in this simmering Western character study

Baby Driver - Don't judge a film by its title; Edgar Wright's hyperkinetic heist movie

The Big Sick - Culture clash, mortal stakes, and memorable performances elevate this rom-com

Detroit - Kathryn Bigelow excels in depicting war; the Algiers Hotel incident is war

The Phantom Thread - gorgeous film and performances, hampered only by a weird romance

Mudbound - Sundance darling was every bit the breakthrough that Get Out is, but less fanfare


Action/Adventure Recommended:
The Lost City of  Z- Historic drama with Charlie Hunnam as Amazon explorer Col. Percival Fawcett
American Made - Action-comedy with Tom Cruise as pilot Barry Seal, embroiled in Iran-Contra
Logan Lucky - Steven Soderbergh's rural Oceans 11 with the Charlotte Speedway as the mark
Wind River - Taylor Sheridan thriller; FBI agent and tracker investigate murder on a reservation
Good Time - Robert Pattinson, a small-time crook's crazy night, trying to get his brother out of jail

Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommended:

Blade Runner 2049 - Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins reunite in stunning fashion
The Last Jedi - the best Star Wars entry since The Empire Strikes Back (damning with faint praise)
Beauty and the Beast - Vivid, energetic live-action remake with Emma Watson, Dan Stevens
Personal Shopper - Olivier Assayas' moody ghost story, starring his muse Kristen Stewart
Okja - Young girl and fascinating beast defeat multinational capitalists in Joon ho Bong's fantasy
Kong: Skull Island - Kong meets Apocalypse Now, Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson

Superhero Recommended:
Wonder Woman - Got a lot of early raves, but not enough to elbow into Oscar nominations
Logan - Original Screenplay nominee depicts end of an era with top X-Men Wolverine and Prof. X
Spider-Man Homecoming - Exciting, funny reboot with Tom Holland as the best Spidey yet
Thor: Ragnarok -  Laughs and action as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) saves Asgard from Cate Blanchett
Guardians of the Galaxy - A notch below the original, but still fun as the Guardians discover family

Films That Invoke the "mother! Warning": The following films will force you to think & question your belief system--they are NOT recommended for the popcorn crowd.
The Little Hours - Based on stories from the Decameron, Aubrey Plaza & Co are profane and funny
Ingrid Goes West - Aubrey Plaza again stretching boundaries, this time as a social media mental case
The Killing of a Sacred Deer - Yorgos Lanthimos' sins of the father parable is brutal and absurd
Beatriz at Dinner - Holds a mirror up to the ugliness of Ayn Rand capitalists and their sycophants
I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore - depressed woman recruits odd neighbor for retribution

The Meyerowitz Stories 79 - Finally, a good excuse to see an Adam Sandler movie, and no one did
Colossal 70 - Monster destroying Seoul psychically connected to US alcoholic (Anne Hathaway)
Their Finest - Propaganda film team boosts British spirits post-Dunkirk in this dramedy
LBJ 54 6.5 - Woody Harrelson as Pres. Johnson, driving through the Civil Rights Act of 1964
The Circle - Sci-Fi fun with Emma Watson as a worker bee for charismatically evil Tom Hanks

Disappointments (S
econd disclaimer: We only see movies for which we have decent expectations, so even our disappointments are great art when compared to a lot of stuff out there.)
The Florida Project - Willem Dafoe's presence almost (but not quite) overcomes obnoxious children
Murder on the Orient Express - With Branagh, this looked like a sure thing. Stick with the '74 version
Victoria and Abdul - Even with Judy Dench and production values, this remains pedestrian
Kingsman: The Golden Circle - could've gone Monty Python route, regrettably chose Transformers
Life - Alien reimagining has cool cast and flash, but somehow it turns out dismal
The Great Wall - Multiple strategic blunders; Matt Damon should've given this one to Casey Affleck

Animated Recommended:
Coco - Runaway animated hit of the year
Ferdinand - Classic children's tale finally brought to the big screen
The Breadwinner - Strong-willed Afghani girl provides for her family
The LEGO Batman Movie - The LEGO movies are always better than we expect
Loving Vincent - The visually stunning oil-painted film covers for an OK story

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