By Marc S. Sanders

I think the Civil War chapter must be one of the best installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action ranging from fight scenes to car chases to shootouts and explosions are so well executed and edited.

This film lives up to what makes each Marvel character special in their own way, and while most of the attention is naturally focused on Chris Evans’ Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier (aka Bucky), the large cast is respectively given numerous moments to shine individually with well-conceived backgrounds and traits beyond just their superpowers.

Interestingly, until the late scene where all the characters collide against one another, the film was very shy of any intentional humor and focused more on what is morally correct in this fantasy world. There was a debate to grapple with, and a threat to both sides of the moral compass. All good layered dimensions, my favorite vice of effective storytelling.

Anyone who says popcorn movies like Avengers are nothing more and simply brainless would fail at recognizing good analysis and dimension. More often than not the MCU succeeds at setting up a dilemma to keep a viewer hooked. Once they are taken…then the storytellers will do something bold like destroy the headquarters, or an airport, or a whole city or Iron Man’s armor, and on and on. Too many other franchises (Transformers, Fast/Furious or DC) bring the buildings down before the cement is dry and the windows are Windexed. That’s when story is neglected for showmanship. There’s no weight to the loss. What do I care who died? You just destroyed the village in order to save it. Disney and Marvel know this and steer clear of those habits.

The cast is so perfectly assembled in Civil War. They interact very well with line exchanges, debates and fisticuffs.

Much of this film was a blur during my first viewing. These are Marvel movies. There are so many now, the scenes all seem to blend together. Yet now I see this particular film is special. Good set pieces, costumes, makeup, visual effects and great performances lead to a great, fun presentation. I’m sold.


By Marc S. Sanders

The character of Ultron, a terrorizing cyborg, has been a favorite Marvel Comics villain of mine ever since I discovered him in 1984 during the Secret Wars 12 issue limited run. He looked sinister with a devilish face in the shape of a metallic claw. His sonic blasts appeared more destructive than anything else ever drawn on the page. Ultron was a badass!!! (“Language!”). That being said, the cinematic interpretation is quite different, yet he’s modeled on a much more grown up sculpt.

Ultron is still a terrorist bent on utter destruction, but now he has a disregard for man. He’s written quite inventively as a direct contradiction to arguably the favorite of all the Marvel cinematic characters, Iron Man aka Tony Stark. How fitting that James Spader is cast opposite his former brat pack cast mate (Less Than Zero), Robert Downey, Jr. It is really uncanny how the dialect of Spader’s limitless Ultron can sound just like Downey’s genius Stark but with a means of annihilation; “All of you against all of me.” Ultron is smart first, powerful second. He’s not just a monochromatic android. There’s a means to his end and an inventive science to his purpose; uproot a country high in the sky and then DROP IT BACK DOWN INTO THE PLANET, like an anvil flattening Wile E. Coyote. It’s actually more novel than I’m giving it credit for.

Most Marvel afficianados from the blogs, and fellow colleagues as well, do not care much for this chapter in the MCU. I have yet to understand why. Again, each character is really drawn out beautifully by Joss Whedon with a respective storyline. Finally, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye is given some oomph to his back story. So is Paul Bettany as the other cyborg, Vision, formerly J.A.R.V.I.S, the artificial intelligence.

Vision/J.A.R.V.I.S. outshines Data (“Star Trek: TNG,” apologies to my friend, Jim Johnson), but will never top C-3PO. I like how he’s introduced as an amalgamation of all of the film’s main characters’ abilities. Bruce Banner and Tony Stark, Thor, Ultron, Scarlet Witch, some brilliant doctor friend, and even the nation of Wakanda. They all have a piece of themselves in Vision. It’s a better story than the comics ever suggested. Maybe I’m biased having grown up on these stories, but the Vision element makes me want to clap every time I see it. So inventive and economically told for a two-hour film with a ginormous cast. Vision’s introduction is one of the best scenes in all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

A great device to unhinge most of the Avengers comes through by means of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch (identified as Wanda Maximoff) who cripples them with mind control. How else should a sorceress take out a whole lotta muscle? It works and it gives Olsen conflict to play with. The visual effects surrounding her are also pretty cool. Sure, it might be just some neon red mist, but the cinematography and CGI surrounding her look gorgeous.

This installment also serves as neat set up for what’s to come. Quick Easter Egg in Age Of Ultron: Tony Stark Name drops the term “Endgame.” Oooooooo!!!!!!

It is really admirable what Marvel and Disney have done with the MCU, and especially watching this film. It’s ironic how filmmaker James Cameron made a statement hoping for “Avengers fatigue” so the phenomenon can die down in movie houses, etc. Funny! For me, seeing all of Ultron’s toys and wit seemed to outshine quite a bit of the residuals spawned from Cameron’s Terminator franchise.

Whedon wrote and directed a film with much more intelligence, wit, at least as much action, and threat than I ever got from Cameron’s reputation of clunky dialogue and plot hole time travel storytelling. It would do Mr. Cameron well to maybe not throw stones at the glass Avengers towers. I’m skeptical that his upcoming FOUR Avatar films will carry the smirk inducing cues the MCU has used to its advantage.


By Marc S. Sanders

Anthony and Joe Russo direct one of the best action pictures of the last 20 years as they pit the heroic patriot against weaponized SHIELD planes, trap him in an elevator with 15 strong arm men to take on singlehandedly, and most especially the dude dressed like the American flag goes up against a mysterious figure that possesses a highly weaponized steel arm. Best yet, none of these sequences pertain to the story so much as they frame it.

Chris Evans returns as Steve Rogers aka the first title character, and he’s even better this time around. Captain America: The Winter Soldier hearkens back to the thematic 1970s conspiracy theory features like The Parallax View with Warren Beatty and Three Days Of The Condor with Robert Redford as Cap first finds himself on one side of an important debate for our modern times. When is too much warfare enough? How far must we go to serve as a means of protection? Evans appears as if he’s researched the strong position held by his character, and he’s believable in his mindset. Is the motive out of fear, or power, or could it actually just all be for protection? He’s convincing in his character’s argument. Naturally, if he can’t agree with the powers that be, he’ll find himself on the run with allies like Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Anthony Mackie as the supercool Falcon.

Johansson is given much more to work with as she trades “Buddy Cop Movie” wits with Evans as well as helping him with his dating scene. She also offers up some sharp intelligence to a promising complex former KGB/spy. It’s about time she get her own film in the series. She’s overdue. (Well…now we all know how that turned out.)

It’s especially appropriate that Redford himself is recruited as Secretary Alexander Pierce. Redford plays puppet master for a film that offers the biggest altering twists the MCU has offered up to this point. To handle the role requires an actor with a history to his career and since Redford has dabbled in films of this nature, he fits right in. He must have been especially pleased to accept this role recognizing the layered angles to a script provided by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeeley.

Sebastian Stan returns with an astonishing turn as his character Bucky. When all the surprises are revealed by him, your pulse will likely not have come down following a thrilling highway shootout.

Lastly, credit must be given to Samuel L Jackson. This film offers the most for his Nick Fury character to play with. Fury finds himself on the wrong end of an argument that leads to a shocking betrayal and sabotage. Jackson’s roles often fall into the same routine of timing and delivery, screaming “mother effing” frustrations. It’s often lovingly joked about but it gets tiring too. Here however, he’s given a chance to be the victim of a brutal attack and deal with an aftermath. It’s the best material written so far for the Nick Fury character.

The Russo brothers, not normally known for big budget extravaganzas, surprised audiences with a well-executed film that offers suspense, extensively choreographed action sequences and great characterizations all around. They have identified Captain America as the soldier of morals, but moreover they recognize where he stems from. The Brothers certainly haven’t forgotten that he’s really a 95-year-old man at the time of this story. That sets up some good laughs. The adventure of the picture is top notch and thankfully it primarily all takes place in daylight where nothing is strategically hidden and appearing as shortsighted work in dark photography. The Russos know how to pinpoint exactly where Cap needs to throw his shield, what it should bounce off of, and how the hero should get it back. Everything here is top notch.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier only gets better with repeat viewings, and you really don’t even need the other MCU films to follow its trajectory. It’s worth watching at any given moment.


By Marc S. Sanders

Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe concludes with Marvel’s The Avengers. This is a real treat and a feast for the eyes. It’s not my favorite of all the Marvel films because it gets a little too Saturday morning cartoon like at times, but it’s enjoyable to watch for good escapist popcorn fun.

Movie goers were salivating for the year 2012 to arrive which would finally assemble Thor, Iron Man, Captain America and the Hulk on screen. Thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon that wish had finally come true and Whedon does not try to reinvent the wheel. When you assemble a team of heroes, you pit them against a large army and watch every variation imaginable of how the Hulk can smash, or what Iron Man’s armored suit can launch.

By now, you all know how I feel about the actors portraying their respective roles. Best to just say the chemistry works among them. They find reasons to squabble and Whedon provides moments for them to use their given talents against one another. So you get to see what happens when Thor smashes his hammer against Cap’s shield.

The actor who finally gets his moment in the sun is Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the orchestrator behind this team up. Jackson is more subdued than his other well known characters from the Tarentino films or Snakes On A (Mother effing) Plane. He does get to say “stupid ass idea” at one point and there’s the Samuel L. Jackson we all know and love! In comics, the Nick Fury character was reinvented before any of the films to harbor the appearance of Jackson. This film proves why the writers went that route. He’s great. He’s fun to watch. He makes for a great leader of the secret agency SHIELD. In tow with him is Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson, a welcome cameo guy before this film, Gregg gets in a few scenes that show his endearment, and offer some dramatic weight as well. The guy could be waiting on hold while Black Widow takes out a couple of thugs, and you are cracking up at Gregg as Coulson, not necessarily Black Widow. He’s so likable that well…heck…he should get his own Marvel TV show….wait….nevermind….I digress.

Again, however, the women of the MCU are not drawn well for the screen. Scarlett Johansson makes her second appearance as Black Widow. She’s got a great, funny early fight scene while tied to a chair in a sleek black dress, but that’s all for show. She hints at a checkered past but this film does not offer much to expound on that. I understand. There’s a lot going on here. So there’s not much here for her to do. It’s time she got a film of her own, however. I’ll sign the petition. Wait! Nevermind! Colbie Smolders is a waste as Agent Maria Hill. She is nowhere convincing as a bad ass agent. Her line delivery seems forced. Her role seems unnecessary. Her scenes should have been on the deleted floor. It would have allowed more time for Johannson to play up her character. How is Maria Hill different from Black Widow in this film, anyway? She’s not. Therefore, cut out Maria Hill.

Jeremy Renner is given nothing to do but shoot arrows as Hawkeye, and work against the Avengers while under a spell from Loki.

Speaking of Loki, the great Tom Hiddleston is back. Hiddleston just elevates the Marvel films to more than just a comic book movie. His glee as the God of Mischief is different than say any version of the Joker’s. Pay attention Syndrome (from The Incredibles)!!! When Hiddleston monologues, you want to listen, unless you are the Hulk.

Whedon does an awesome job with the action scenes as he gradually destroys an aircraft carrier when chaos takes hold among the various heroes, and then later he destroys New York City in a fun amusement park like battle through the streets, subways and skyscrapers. It’s a little reminiscent of Richard Donner’s (or Richard Lester’s) Superman II, and Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters. It’s fun to watch the Hulk run through a building only to come out the other side and leap upon the head of a gigantic, flying centipede to bring it down on to the top of a building. Who cares how this all gets cleaned up? The greatest city in the world always figures out a way.

Whedon sealed the pop culture significance of superheroes in the early 21st Century. He’s done what guys like Michael Bay beg to do with other toy/comic book franchises. Marvel’s The Avengers stands out as an important impact in cinematic filmmaking. It’s not best picture worthy, but it is nonetheless important to how blockbuster films are conceived and created. Sadly, some people still don’t get it right, all these years later.


By Marc S. Sanders

Iron Man 2 is a Frankenstein’s Monster of a film. Director Jon Favreau returns, but not with the same insight he invested into the first Iron Man. This loud, headache inducing sequel is an assemblage of cutting room floor scenes taped together to mask itself as a cohesive narrative brought to life. The movie exists. Yet it has no brain.

Six months have passed since the events of the first film, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is ready to open his peace parade Expo in New York. The problems begin here. Stark, who redeemed himself as a born-again, eyes open martyr at the end of the first film, reverts to an obnoxious jerk full of brash, rude cockiness. Downey goes so over the top with his improvisational one liners that you can hardly stand Tony Stark, and this is all before he gets drunk and pees in the Iron Man suit.

Stark is experiencing rapid blood toxicity from the suit and he is unable to find a solution. I might have been concerned at first but after the film is over, the convenient remedy just made me feel cheated. Poor writing offers a convenient get of jail free card.

Then there is Stark’s relationship with his friend Rhodey (Don Cheadle). Cheadle shows potential in the part he resumed from Terrance Howard, but he really only serves two sole purposes, to have an armor throw down with Tony throughout the mansion (a stupid fight by the way), and to wear the new War Machine armor. That, I’ll say is pretty cool in charcoal black with red eyes and a shoulder resting machine gun.

Gwenyth Paltrow is back as Pepper Potts, and she just kvetches a lot. Paltrow and Downey’s chemistry are all but gone. Not really the actors’ fault though. More so, it’s the dumb screenplay by Justin Theroux who I guess found it adorable for the two players to squabble amid the action scenes. It’s rather annoying actually.

Theroux makes a lot of misfires here. The great Mickey Rourke appears to have fleshed out a great villain known as Whiplash. A Russian physicist with a grudge against Stark. Rourke offers a scary appearance of long hair, gold teeth and a tattooed muscular body. Oh, and he has a cockatoo as well. Mustn’t forget that. Too much of this film is devoted to this bird that does nothing. Whiplash is insufficiently written. He has a mid-film battle with Stark at the Grand Prix in Monaco, then following a prison escape, he’s harbored by Stark competitor, Justin Hammer, in a factory where he does nothing but build robots. None of this is interesting.

Sam Rockwell plays Hammer as a whiny kid in nerdy glasses and even nerdier three piece suits. He’s not a villain you ever love. He’s a Frank Burns, but his stupidity against Stark and Rourke’s character offers no humor from the stooge that he is.

Side stories focus on anticipation towards the first Avengers film with Samuel Jackson as Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, yet not much is offered. They have nothing to do with anything else going on in this hodgepodge. Johansson finally gets a good fight scene during the climax, but it remains brief.

So there’s really nothing in Iron Man 2. It’s just a mix of things smashed together. The Iron Man suit only has three scenes, one to open the Expo (no fight there), one to have drunk Tony Stark fight with Rhodey while wrecking his house (Belushi did it better in Animal House, as well as the cast of Sixteen Candles), and then finally in a climactic ending against Hammer’s military robots and Rourke’s Whiplash who hardly participates in the moment.

Iron Man 2 is likely my least favorite of all the MCU films. (Actually, Eternals took that top honor, recently.) It offers one redeeming quality and that’s its end credit scene, maybe my favorite of that particular category.

Otherwise, Iron Man 2 is pointless, dumb, ignorant of its product, and flat out obnoxious.

Stan Lee Cameo: Was that Larry King? Really?


By Marc S. Sanders

Director/Screenwriter Spike Jones is a master at adding multiple dimensions to what we always know exists. It’s been evident in his prior films, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are, (which I did not care for personally), and most especially in Being John Malkovich. He plants the seeds of fantasy in what we can normally touch, hear and see. Then his elements of fantasy receive a supportive crutch from what his viewers have always been familiar with.

her is another masterwork; a film that takes place in the not too distant future that expounds on our current digital age. If we can already talk to “Siri” or “Alexa” and trick–umm, excuse me, “her” (I mean “Siri”) into making sophomoric dirty jokes, then of course we are bound to approach the stage where we can literally, truly fall in love with her and then she can reciprocate.

With her raspy yet silky vocals, Scarlett Johansson is inspired casting as the voice of “Samantha.” Had she actually had a physical presence in the film I would have totally fallen for her affections. The film hinges on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore. If we can’t believe that he loves “Samantha” more than he loves himself (a surefire test of true love as far I’m concerned) then “her” falls apart. Phoenix passes abundantly. He deserved his Oscar nomination.

From the start, you become very accustomed to the banter between Theodore and his electronic device voiced by “Samantha.” Both have personal feelings. Both have personal longings (more especially “Samantha” the computer, of all things!!!).

Spike Jonze explores all the diameters and dimensions of a loving relationship. The ups, downs, and in betweens. What’s different is how all of these layers of a relationship are received in this currently fictional (bound to come true, one day) dynamic of a relationship. Theodore and “Samantha” are affectionate. They argue, they laugh, they even make love. Watch the movie to understand that last point. It happens, and it is perfectly executed with the residual effects of their lovemaking bringing the film into its next act brilliantly.

Jones won the Oscar for original screenplay simply for how innovative this picture is. I’m not sure it’s the most exciting two hours of film, however. Personally, I think other films in this category back in 2013 had sharper and more interesting scripts. her is practically all talk and when it ended, I was ready for it to be over, and it concluded as I expected.

Still, Jones is fortunate that his cast (Johannsson, Phoenix, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara and Chris Pratt) trusts him. If they hadn’t, this movie would have lost its magic by probably how absurd this script must have originally been perceived on paper. Well done work by all involved but credit has to begin with Jones, the screenwriter.


by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A beautiful, mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in Scotland and takes them to her home, where something very strange indeed happens to them…

Under the Skin captivated me in a way that I did not expect.  It is a sci-fi mystery that stubbornly refuses to supply neat and tidy answers, and yet is spellbinding to watch. How director Jonathan Glazer accomplished this is no less mysterious to me than the origins of the movie’s main character, a solitary young woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a bravura performance that must have required a great deal of courage and trust in her director.

After a cryptic opening sequence involving some trippy visuals accompanied by an eerie musical score, Johansson’s character (listed only as “The Female” in the credits) gets down to business.  With the help of a mute motorcyclist (???), she acquires a van and trolls the streets of Scotland for young men on their own in the city.  She lures them into her van with pleasant conversation and a smile, which is easy enough to do when you look like Scarlett Johansson.  She then takes the men back to a deserted house in the country where I wouldn’t DREAM of revealing what happens.

The appeal of this movie is not the story, although that is obviously a big part of it.  It’s the storytelling.  Director Glazer works from a script that has the bare minimum of dialogue, usually when The Female is convincing men to get in her van.  Everything else depends on visuals.  It’s the kind of movie my friend Marc would enjoy, as it uses the camera to tell the story much more so than the soundtrack.  It shows us images and challenges the viewer to put two and two together to figure out what’s happening.

This visually-heavy strategy is a tightrope walk.  One false step and, instead of a mind-bending masterpiece, you get a head-scratcher that leaves you feeling cheated.  Under the Skin manages it.  There is one specific visual sequence that sealed the deal for me, a scene that provides a more detailed explanation of what happens to the men once they’re inside The Female’s house.  The real genius of the scene is that it provides information without fully answering the questions going through your head.  What is that black liquid?  Are the men hypnotized?  Their behavior would make it seem so.  And exactly how big is that house?

I’m being deliberately obscure because the delight of the film comes from discovering the thread of the story and following it along with The Female.  Her discoveries were just as interesting and scary to me as they were to her, because I felt really in tune with her character while I was watching the movie.  The closest I can get to describing it is…a long, LONG time ago, there was a computer game called Hacker that I got for my Commodore 64.  It came with literally no instructions beyond putting the disk in the drive and loading the game.  Then your screen went blank and it just displayed: “LOGON”.  And that was it.  As the gamer, it was up to you to figure out what to do in order to keep playing.  As you discovered more clues to the object of the game, you became more and more involved.

That’s how I felt watching Under the Skin.  Those opening visuals start you off thinking, “What the f@#k???”  Then the movie progresses, and the wheels start turning, and you realize what’s happening, and what The Female is attempting, and the discoveries she’s making about herself, and before you know it you’re as wrapped up in the story as she is.

I remember there was a lot of talk when this movie came out, but I never really hear anyone discuss it any more, outside of movie-centric blogs and Facebook pages.  If I can convince just one person who hasn’t seen it that this movie is worth their time, I will be happy.  Under the Skin deserves to be seen, discussed, and puzzled over.

P.S.  Under the Skin is, in fact, mildly famous because, yes, Scarlett Johansson gets naked.  But don’t get too excited.  Her nude scenes are utterly drained of any sexuality or eroticism whatsoever, due to their context.  You’ll see what I mean when you watch it.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, etcetera, etcetera…
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 96% Certified Fresh

PLOT: After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War, the universe is in ruins. With help from some of their remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more to try to undo Thanos’ actions.

I have tried several different drafts of this review, and I simply am unable to write a decent review without necessarily revealing spoilers.





You have been warned.

For starters, Avengers: Endgame is not my favorite movie in the MCU.  (That title still goes to the incredibly complex, endlessly debatable Captain America: Winter Soldier, the superhero movie for people who hate superhero movies.)  BUT…Endgame contains my single favorite moment in the entire franchise.  It occurs during the climactic battle, and it involves…hardware.  YOU know what I’m talking about.

That aside, while Endgame is a more-than-worthy sendoff for the 11-year-long story arc, and is Hollywood spectacle at its best, I gotta be honest and say that the 3-hour running time was starting to get to me around about the 2-hour mark.  Yes, the plot threads all had to be woven together to bring everything to a head for the ultimate showdown, and I wouldn’t dream of eliminating anything that I saw, but it just was feeling a little slow.

Other than that…it gets all A’s across the board.

  • ACTION – I haven’t seen CGI action on this scale since the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Or Avengers: Infinity War, take your pick.  I can only imagine the headaches and nervous breakdowns experienced by the hordes of CGI artists who painstakingly created the outstanding battle scenes.  They were incredibly dense, but I was never unable to see any of the key moments involving key characters.  Nothing was too dark or murky.  It was an event.
  • HUMOR – In spite of the heaviness of the proceedings, the filmmakers never lost sight of their origins: COMIC books.  From the first appearance of Thor in residence at New Asgard, to Stark’s never-ending supply of dry one-liners, to Hulk’s selfie in the diner, the audience is always kept from falling into major depression, even after some really, REALLY dark moments in the story.
  • CLOSURE – The film ends the way it does because it HAD to.  Some of the original actors are just getting too old to do it anymore, folks, that’s just the way it is.  Hugh Jackman hung up his claws on Wolverine because he was getting too old to get into that kind of shape anymore.  And some other actors are just ready to move on.  It’s time.  Regardless, though, the way that certain characters were granted their own particular curtain call…it was IMMENSELY satisfying, not a bit gratuitous, and even noble for everyone involved.  I wasn’t moved to tears myself, but there were audible sniffles in the movie theater.

(I did also REALLY like the abandoned New York cityscapes after we jump ahead in the timeline a little bit.  I’ve always LOVED the concepts of modern edifices and cities left to ruin after abandonment.  That’s one of the reasons I really love I Am Legend.  BUT I DIGRESS.)

So, yes, it’s worth the hype.  They got it right.  It is a fitting final chapter to one of the most amazing cinematic achievements in history.  It IS a little long, but I can get over that.

And I am stoked to see what comes next.


By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Scarlett Johansson, Emily Mortimer, Brian Cox
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 76% Certified Fresh

PLOT: At a turning point in his life, a struggling, engaged tennis instructor (Rhys Meyers) falls for an aspiring actress (Johansson), who also happens to be engaged…to his soon-to-be brother-in-law.

Watching Match Point is as exhilarating as any moviegoing experience I’ve ever had.  It’s pure soap, much like its uncredited (but obvious) inspiration, 1951’s A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift.  But a crucial decision is made by the main character in Allen’s film that shifts everything into darker territory more comparable to Hitchcock than George Stevens.

One of the best things about the film is the editing.  It’s not a short film, clocking in at just over two hours, but everything feels pared down to the bare essentials.  The passage of time is indicated in efficient pans or quick cuts.  Unnecessary conversations are cut short.  Winter changes to spring in a single fade.  Allen wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story, and it makes for a film that hurtles along breathlessly.

The performance by the lead, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, is also a key factor.  Watching it again for the first time in quite a while, I was struck by how measured his deliveries are.  There’s nothing wrong with it on a technical level, but it always feels like he’s acting or performing.  Even when his character, Chris, interacts with his girlfriend who eventually becomes his fiancé, nothing he does feels real.  It’s almost distracting, how theatrical his performance is compared to everyone else’s.  I was thinking, “Well, I guess Rhys Meyers is the best they could get to stay under budget.”

EXCEPT…when he meets Scarlett Johnasson’s character, Nola.  Only then do his eyes and face reflect the lust in his words.  They flirt fiercely for about a minute before they’re interrupted, but the damage is done.  He’s hooked.  And it’s at THAT point I realized the “staginess” of his acting in previous scenes was intentional, because his character WAS acting.  Chris is ALWAYS putting on a performance for everyone around him, except Nola.  With Nola, we see the real Chris, the focused, hungry Chris who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

It’s a brilliant layer to a brilliant film.  Woody Allen has created a movie that starts out exactly like so many of his previous character-driven art-house films, so much so that we never suspect the surprises in store.  For the score, he chose stock opera recordings, really OLD opera recordings that sound so scratchy I wonder if any of them were actually being played on the old Edison cylinder players.  It’s the PERFECT topping.  It creates a uniquely Allen-esque atmosphere that lulls us into the feeling that, well, I know where THIS is going.

But I assure you, you don’t.

Pay particularly close attention to the various discussions of luck peppered throughout the film.  At multiple milestones in the film, luck plays a HUGE part, not always for the good.  Are these plot conveniences?  Well, how much of our own lives are governed by luck, good or bad?  An acquaintance of mine was killed in a wreck where a truck toppled onto him from a highway overpass.  Another was killed because someone was driving at night with no headlights.  Another friend contracted breast cancer, but is now in remission.  I have two uncles who last cancer battles.  Yet another acquaintance, the daughter of a friend, beat childhood leukemia.

Luck is inextricably linked with our existence, to the degree that it’s a little frightening.  We can bitch and moan about plot contrivances in movies and convenient phone calls and the rest, but if you step back, everything in existence is a contrivance: random meetings and phone calls and stoplights that keep us from hitting that pedestrian, and missed flights on airplanes that end up crashing, etcetera.

That’s REALLY what Match Point is drilling down to.  We live our lives, we play our roles, we follow the scripts WE choose…or are they chosen for us? Even without the backdrop of luck as a metaphysical discussion, the movie is an absolute top-notch thriller, one of the best of 2005, or any year, for that matter.  But it’s that next level hanging in the background that makes it my favorite Woody Allen film.