The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Holiday ACTION Films!

Treeboom.jpgAn annual list of holiday films is a challenging endeavor once you’ve been at it for a while. I mean, sensibilities change slightly from year to year, but not enough to warrant developing a list that is nearly identical to the year’s previous list. Therefore, I have invented a gimmick to allow me to publish an annual holiday film list that is different enough from year to year and also will not damage my journalistic integrity by contradicting original recommendations. If you want to know my quintessential thoughts on the best overall holiday films, please see my 2014 list or my 2015 list.

So what’s the gimmick? Holiday films are themselves a subgenre of the various classic genres of film. In other words, we have holiday comedies, horrors, dramas, classics, tragedies, etc. Therefore, my intention is to offer a list of the best holiday films of a specific genre each year. 2016, for better or for worse, may go down as one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory. While “Tumult” is not a generally accepted genre, Action/Adventure certainly is. Therefore, this year the list is getting an action overhaul to reveal The People’s Critic’s Top Ten Holiday Action films of all time!

 

  1. reindeerReindeer Games – John Frankenheimer’s final film, Reindeer Games, does not generally enter the discussion as one of the director’s best efforts. However, when previous films include, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, and The French Connection…II (still pretty good though), you buy a little favor as you enter your final act. Reindeer Games does not find its way onto many top 10 lists, so I am honored to have crafted one that it most certainly (just barely) belongs on. Admittedly not a problem free film, Reindeer Games finds Ben Affleck coerced to assist in a Christmas Eve casino heist by Charlize Theron and her brother Gary Sinise.

  1. lethalLethal Weapon – Nothing says, have a holly, jolly Christmas like Mel Gibson, right? Well, the boys may be “getting too old for this shit” now, after four films and a television series, but back in 1987, the buddy duo of Murtaugh and Riggs was a new thing. Right from the start when a naked hooker swan dives out of a hotel room window to her death to the song, “Jingle Bells,” this film has the holiday spirit! A coke bust in a Christmas tree lot is just the icing on the cake. This film is a blast though. While the mismatch, buddy-cops does feel cliché now, this was the film that really put that formula on the map.

  1. majestyOn Her Majesty’s Secret Service – Not only the best Bond movie, but Diana Rigg is hands down the best Bond girl as well! George Lazenby’s sole entry as Bond sees 007 off to Switzerland in pursuit of that nasty Blofeld who threatens to release a lethal virus upon the world unless he receives a pardon for all of his previous crimes (perhaps this film would have been more aptly named, ‘Lethal Weapon’ than #9). The film is set around the holidays. They don’t play a major role, but there is a lot of snow everywhere, some dangerous Christmas gifts, and perhaps the worst Christmas song you’ve ever heard.

  1. imIron Man 3 – Occasionally I hear people ask, why hasn’t Marvel made a Christmas movie yet? Well, guess what? They did, and it was Iron Man 3.  Sure it was released in the month of May, but this one truly has a May/December relationship.  The holidays play a pivotal role here, whether it’s a scene at a 1999 New Years Eve party or a scene where Tony Stark tests out his new Iron Man suit to a funky rendition of “Jingle Bells” – the holiday spirit is there.  Iron Man 3 is a very smartly made film, and while it still addresses comic book staple themes like good/evil, identity, revenge, and freedom, an emergent theme can also be extracted from it – learning from mistakes.  This installment is Downey Jr.’s best as he tactfully and authentically balances humor, intensity, and sentimentality without ever missing a beat.

  1. batmanBatman Returns – A Tim Burton Christmas is always a good time. Add Batman and you have something really special. Megalomaniac and billionaire (sound eerily familiar?) Max Shreck (played by Christopher Walken) and Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Danny DeVito) join forces in corrupt quest to take control of Gotham City. Another moody masterpiece from Burton using the holiday backdrop as a stark contrast to create a macabre, surreal experience for the viewer. Christmas imagery is turned on its head where ornaments and even trees are charismatic weaponry, rather than fun decorations.

  1. rockyRocky IV – Granted, this film probably has the least to do with the holidays than any of the others on this list. Still the climactic fight happens to be on Christmas, which qualifies it for the list. This is pure guilty pleasure watching as all of the tropes of the fighting genre are on full display. The epic battle between underdog Balboa and the superhuman Draggo (played by Dolph Lundgren) is worth the set-up though.

  1. gremGremlins – “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.”  These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas!  In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls. This film dances the line between horror/action and comedy with great results.

  1. prisoners2Prisoners – Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a construction worker who lives in a quiet New England suburb with his wife, teenage son, and six year old daughter. While spending Thanksgiving with the family of his life-long friend and neighbor, Franklin Birch (Terrance Howard), Keller and Franklin discover that both of their daughters are suddenly missing. With the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the police, they are able to track down the RV and apprehend a suspect (Paul Dano), but due to his mental incapacity and lack of evidence, he is released. This sends Prisoners in a harrowing new direction as Keller and Franklin wade through some ethically murky waters in the search for their daughters. This is an intense one, and while not a traditional holiday film nor a traditional action film, it has both and is outstanding!

  1. jurassic-worldJurassic WorldHow will you spend your Christmas vacation? Why not at the same Costa Rican island where just 22 years prior, dinosaurs ran wild killing everyone in their path? That’s the premise of this blockbuster sequel whose cold-blooded characters heighten our warm blooded heartrates with more action and more “chaos.” Grab a cup of cocoa and hitch a ride on a raptor for this year’s number two holiday action film!

  1. dieDie Hard – Perhaps the film that made the holiday action film subgenre possible, Die Hard is a classic. That nasty Hans Gruber (played expertly by the great Alan Rickman, whom we lost earlier this year) takes control of the very office building where NYC cop John McClane’s wife, Holly, works. With all of the building inhabitants except John McClane now held hostage by Gruber and his band of terrorists, McClane finds himself the only one who can save Christmas…and the lives of his wife and her coworkers! Rickman makes “snarky, German terrorist” an art form and the action and the tone in this film are perfect. There’s just no topping this one.

What do you think?  Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film?  Let me know!

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Captain America: Civil War

CWDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely  

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olson, Paul Bettany, Paul Rudd, and Daniel Brühl

What’s left to say about a movie that within 2 weeks has amassed a $940 million global box office and taken the Marvel Cinematic Universe above the $10 billion mark?  Generally, my goal in writing these reviews is to recommend worthy films for my audience in the hopes of aiding the decision on what to see.  Whenever one of these massively popular films is released, it seems silly to review it.  I mean people that want to see Captain America: Civil War will see it regardless of what any number of critics say.  So then, why write about it?  What’s my motivation? In this case, I think the story is less the film and more to discuss its place in the company of the 12 other films that have been released in the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Of course, I still find it useful to identify the good and the bad about the film and offer a summative recommendation, but given that most of my readers have probably already seen this film if they are going to, I want to offer something a little extra as well.

So, what are the “12 other films” that accompany Captain America: Civil War? It’s important to make that distinction.  For the purposes of this article, The X-Men films, Spider-Man films, Fantastic Four Films, and Deadpool will not be considered.  The 13 films pertinent to this discussion are those planned out by Marvel studios starting with 2008’s Iron Man and include the following: Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and Captain America: Civil War.

So now that we’ve identified the players, I will take a moment to review the latest film in the franchise and discuss its place in the field.

Captain America: Civil War is less a Captain America film and more a third Avengers film.  All of the key players are present in this film except Thor and the Hulk, and the events of the film are an immediate continuation from the action of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The principle conflict revolves around a global agenda to put the Avengers under United Nations supervision. Tolerance for the devastation and civilian casualties that have resulted from Avenger-related battles has been exhausted, and at least one Avenger, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) agrees with the idea of putting the Avengers in check.  Stark’s persuasive and personal reasons cause a stir in the once unified Avenger team, but his words fall on deaf ears when it comes to Captain “America” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans).  Rogers believes that any supervision of the Avengers will only result in corruption and ineffectiveness.  Suddenly an ideological divide is struck that threatens to tear the Avengers apart from within.

The film does a pretty good job of introducing the conflict and representing both sides, although the reasoning for why one Avenger takes this side versus that side is ultimately rather arbitrary.  What is certain is that a line has been drawn (actually quite literally in one scene) and our heroes must navigate some rocky moral terrain.  While the main “villain” of this film is philosophical in nature, there is a human antagonist  named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ex Sakovian Colonel with some dark secrets and control of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

This film is less distinctive from the rest of the pack than its predecessor, Captain America: Winter Soldier.  The thrilling political conspiracy that threaded through the Winter Soldier is replaced by a more standard “Comic Booky” genre story.  Subsequently, the action is a bit shakier this time around, regardless of the fact that Winter Soldier directors Anthony and Joe Russo helmed this film as well.  Nevertheless, the Russo brothers do direct the hell out of this film showing their range with expertly crafted chase sequences as well as some heavy emotional material.

Another plus is that like Winter Soldier, the story remains mostly rooted in reality, and Captain America’s motives continue to be protecting his homeland at all costs.  Additionally, Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far.  First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache!  I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.  Captain America: Civil War advances Marvel’s epic storyline yet another step forward and the Russo Brothers prove to be worthy of inheriting the Avengers mantle from Joss Whedon for the upcoming Infinity War films. A-

Captain America: Civil War is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.  As usual, stick around through the credits for two additional scenes….

…and now in keeping with the Marvel cinematic tradition, I have a “post-credits” stinger for you!

The Top 13 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films According to The People’s Critic:

  1. Captain America: The Winter SoldierA
  2. Iron Man 3A
  3. Marvel’s The Avengers – A-
  4. Captain America: Civil WarA-
  5. Iron ManA-
  6. Avengers: Age of UltronA-
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger – B+
  8. Thor – B+
  9. Ant-ManB+
  10. Iron Man 2B
  11. The Incredible Hulk – B
  12. Thor: The Dark WorldB
  13. Guardians of the Galaxy – B-

Average score for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2016) – B+

Feel free to sound off in the comments section about my rankings.  Did I get it right?  Are you a Guardians of the Galaxy fan who wants to give me a piece of your mind?

Pacific Rim

ImageDo you know where your inner child is? Well with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has created a dazzling visual spectacle determined to find it for you and leave you wide-eyed and astounded.

Pacific Rim finds the world in the near future with alien monsters emerging from the sea where they have been at rest for millions of years. Finding our deteriorating atmosphere well-suited to their biology, masses of these nearly 300 feet tall creatures known as Kaiju begin laying siege to Earth claiming millions of lives and squandering its resources. Setting its differences aside for perhaps the first time in history, the world comes together, pooling its global assets to develop a weapon that can combat these enormous threats. The answer: 250 foot tall robots called Jaegers controlled simultaneously by two pilots who through a mind meld process called “Drifting” are able to provide the neural power necessary to run the massive machines.

Del Toro is no stranger to the fantastic. He has co-written the screenplays to the recent Hobbit series as well as written and directed the fantastic over-the-top Hellboy films and Blade II (the best one). However, the film he may be best known for is his remarkable twisted fable Pans Labyrinth, which won three Oscars. Here del Toro continues his hitting streak by accomplishing the very thing that has seemingly puzzled Gore Verbinski and Michael Bay for years: creating a wildly epic action film that isn’t clunky, irritating, or devoid of excitement. It would seem very likely for an audience to become detached from a film about giant alien monsters fighting massive robots, but in Pacific Rim, this is not the case. Travis Beacham’s script develops his characters and not just the action. Furthermore, del Toro’s directing makes sure we care about each battle and understand what’s at stake at every turn; this allows the audience to never feel desensitized by the escalating preposterousness.

Who is Charlie Hunnam? Well if you don’t watch Sons of Anarchy, you’d assume he’s a British guy trying his damndest to play an American and not succeeding, and you’d be right. Hunnam plays Raleigh, a modern reincarnation of the Maverick archetype from Top Gun (look for the “you can be my wingman” moment mid-way through the film). Nonetheless, this type of bravado induced superstar with a chip on his shoulder is exactly what a film like Pacific Rim needs at its core. Accent aside and tempered only by his new partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Hunnam is extremely likable and handles the sensitive tough guy persona nicely. Hunnam is joined by a bevy of fun supporting characters who del Toro seemingly mined from successful television shows. Idris Elba from The Wire and Luther commands the screen as General Stacker Pentecost, and it would be a safe (and welcomed) bet that we’ll see Elba on the big screen again and often. Hellboy himself, Ron Pearlman, (and Sons of Anarchy alum) sinks his teeth into the campy role of black market entrepreneur Hannibal Chau, a name he geniusly created based on “his favorite historical figure and his second favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” Finally, there’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who channels Rick Moranis as Dr. Newton Geiszler who plays the Oscar to his partner’s (Burn Gorman) Felix in an “Odd Couple” of scientists looking to discover a brainy solution to the Kaiju attack while Raleigh and company cover the brawn angle.

I’ll admit, Pacific Rim was the film I was most anticipating for the summer. Yet all bias aside, it is an example of everything a big, fun summer movie should be, and if you’ve seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness, then Pacific Rim should be next on your list. A

Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 11 minutes. It is a post-convert to 3-D film, so it is not necessary to see it in that format, yet The People’s Critic will admit that the conversion is top notch. Also, be sure to stay at least mid-way through the credits for a very rewarding bonus scene that is worth the wait. Those who wait through the entire credits will get a minor, yet potentially important reward as well.

Iron Man 3

ImageI remember being a child reading Marvel comic books by the dozens.  I’m going to get a little nostalgic now, so if you’re just interested in a review of the film, move on to the next paragraph.  I’d go to comic books stores weekly to get my favorite issues and become immersed in the stories and the artwork.  The static images were vibrant in my mind, and occasionally as I imagined the action between the comic panels, I’d ponder how glorious it would be to see my favorite heroes come to life.  It seemed like a pipe dream, but now it seems that the day has actually come.  Iron Man 3 represents the eighth spectacular achievement in the Avengers vein by Marvel studios as they revolutionize the concept of the film franchise.  The cinematic universe that Marvel studios has created achieves a detailed serial nature usually reserved for complex television dramas.  The success of these films is often attributed to their effects and unyielding action.  Nevertheless, the greatest titles, Iron Man 3 being one of them, deserve their status because of clever writing and character development.

Iron Man 3 finally finds the suited up superhero, Tony Stark pitted against his greatest nemesis, The Mandarin.  While Iron Man’s battle with The Mandarin in the comics dates back to 1964, The Mandarin’s role in Iron Man’s cinematic adventures has only been hinted at in the previous two films.  Thanks to clever and creative writing from director Shane Black and screenwriter Drew Pearce as well as a superb performance by the great Ben Kingsley, The Mandarin was well worth the wait…and that’s all I’ll say.

For the sake of keeping Iron Man 3’s impact in tact, plot should be discussed minimally.  What can be said is that a new terrorist, The Mandarin is violently attacking America in order to expose what he believes is a hypocritical and offensive ideology shared by the American people.  At one point, Stark mentions that he “sounds like a Baptist minister,” suggesting perhaps that he’s using “crisis” as a way to force decision, a controversial Baptist philosophy.  It gets personal when Stark’s head of security, Happy Hogan (played again by Iron Man 1 & 2 director, Jon Favreau) is seriously injured in one of The Mandarin’s attacks.  There is much more to the story including a minor flashback to 1999 where Stark is just hitting his stride.  It is there that he meets bourgeoning scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) and “botanist” Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall), and again…that’s all I’ll say.

Iron Man 3 is a very smartly made film, and while it still addresses comic book staple themes like good/evil, identity, revenge, and freedom, an emergent theme can also be extracted from it – learning from mistakes.   Film series usually start to run out of steam by the third part, with few exceptions.  A third film in a series tends to be darker and excessive in regards to whatever made the first two work be it action, villains, or some sort of familiar formula.  Iron Man 3 learns from others’ mistakes and avoids them.  In fact, it can be said that this film acts as a “how-to” manual on freshening up conventions.  In scenes where the hero is captured by henchmen who are normally silent and sinister, Shane Black and Drew Pearce devise witty and even humorous dialogue that makes those scenes enjoyable.  At one point, Iron Man must team up with a child, a move that often results in schmaltzy sentimentality, yet in the hands of Black and Pearce it works.  By the end of Iron Man 3, it is clear that these film makers are thinking quite a few moves ahead and have no intention of letting the audience down at any point.  The film has fun with Stark’s Iron Man identity being public knowledge and various nods to The Avengers add another level of substance and self-referential fun.  Robert Downey Jr. has certainly found a home in his role as Stark/Iron Man.  This installment is his best as he tactfully and authentically balances humor, intensity, and sentimentality without ever missing a beat.

Other favorites are back as well including Rhodey (Don Cheadle) formally War Machine, now dubbed the Iron Patriot and Stark’s reliable CFO/lover Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  The other star of this film is the Iron Man suit itself.  JARVIS and the suit have made some exciting and enjoyable upgrades that are quite central to the evolution of the story.  Iron Man 3 is another excellent entry into an ever-blooming genre of film.  It is entertaining, gratifying, and most of all – clever. A

Iron Man 3 is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.  It should be seen in 2D rather than 3D as nothing is gained from the 3D transfer.  Also, as with every Marvel film, stay through the credits!