Month: May 2014

Film Review- ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (****)

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Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire
Ladies and gentlemen, Earth, Wind, & Fire

“X-Men: Days of Future Past”  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Daniel Cudmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart 

Written by: Simon Kinberg (screenplay), Jane Goldman, Kinberg, & Matthew Vaughn (story); based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Directed by: Bryan Singer

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

The ‘X-Men’ films, in their own special way, are my cinematic ‘Tantalus’.  All of them have piqued my interest right up to the point of fully enjoying them.  As a result, I’ve been ‘tantalized’, hoping for a ‘X-Men’ romp that isn’t too drunk with continuity errors, bogged down with characters, or lacking a resounding emotional center.  Being of sound mind and body, I had a timely epiphany shortly before the showing for “X-Men: Days of Future Past”- if this were to fail in completely satisfying me, I would finally stop grasping for that cinematic fruit dangling above me.  Alas, this pairing of retro and future casts breaks through that frustrating creative logjam with this film.  “Days of Future Past” is an immensely enjoyable blockbuster- structured, paced, and edited brilliantly, with a knowing sense of itself and the saga before it.

In the not-too-distant future, the remaining X-Men face extinction battling shape-shifting ‘sentinel’ robots.  These are menacing, relentless creations that appear to be the demon spawn of the ‘Destroyer’ from “Thor” and a T-800 from the ‘Terminator’ saga.  Weary-looking but finally aligned, Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) discern that the only way to stop them is to break the rules and time travel back to the moment that inspired their creation.  If it weren’t for Jennifer Lawrence’s massive popularity, I’d have bet the farm that the instigator would be someone other than the blue-skinned Mystique.  Lo and behold, she is- the film quickly reveals the murder of Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the scientist behind the sentinels, which sets a pathway for the eventual mutant eradication.  Dinklage is perfect for this role- a brilliant underdog of a man with a sinister chip on his shoulder.  It’s prescient that the name ‘Oppenheimer’ came up during the film, for that’s precisely the name I thought of when observing Trask.

Luckily for this rag-tag bunch of mutants, they actually have someone who can ‘phase’, or time travel, in Kitty Pryde (Page), and luckily she’s the one person they need that has survived the genocide.  I suppose we don’t really have a movie unless Kitty survives, or a new mutant shows up; it’s convenient to be sure.  This ‘phasing’ power she has can tear apart the brain- good thing they have a mutant available that can constantly repair himself  in Wolverine (Jackman).  All of this time travel business is done in the simplest, most logical of ways, which is the correct way to do it.  In no way should a Marvel superhero movie be tackling the sublime science behind portals and time-matter displacement, lest we remind ourselves that this is a movie about mutated humans.  We should allow ourselves to suspend disbelief for this film, for the errors in time-space logic don’t completely disband the thread they’ve created.  I am normally eager to pull the string on time travel logic, but I enjoyed this film so much that it barely bothered me.

Wolverine’s monumental task is to arrive in the early 70’s and get adversaries Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Fassbender) to come together again, so that they might find the wayward Mystique and prevent her murderous ways.  Here the real fun begins.  Charles is drunk and lost, his school finished, and his powers subdued.  Magneto/Lensherr is in a concrete prison under the Pentagon.  Logan/Wolverine’s method of getting this to work may seem short, but I think it’s quite ingenious and sensible, showing that he’s not all brawn.  The film’s, and perhaps the entire saga’s best scene follows shortly thereafter involving new mission recruit Quicksilver.  To put it bluntly, the rival Quicksilver of Marvel’s “Age of Ultron” certainly has big shoes to fill.  The remainder of the film’s events are woven neatly between past and future events, culminating with an ending that is incredibly satisfying, especially for those of us who’ve invested so much in the saga.

In essence, “Days of Future Past” delivers what the previous films never quite executed- bringing a specific gravity to the screen, or providing an emotional pull appropriate enough for stories centered around themes of extreme prejudice.  I tired of hearing Magneto pontificate about some ‘war’ brewing in the first few films, only to see said ‘war’ last for twenty odd minutes on Alcatraz Island. Then, we were promised the ‘real’ story behind Wolverine’s past, only to see the film boggle our minds with retroactive continuity flubs and a milquetoast love story.  I actually came to appreciate “First Class” for the performances, but it isn’t a home run of a film.  For that matter, neither was “The Wolverine”, although it improved for me with a repeat viewing.  This film gets it right- the apocalyptic tone matches the depth of emotion portrayed.  The limitations of the original cast’s talents are bolstered by the likes of McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender.  Honestly, this film has the same expository language as the others, but the setting and consequences to make those lines mean something.  Each character’s arc means more with the stakes at hand and the urgency of the plot.  It also bears mentioning how visually striking the film is in both time periods, but at this point, shouldn’t that be the rule rather than the exception for this type of fare?

The draw of the X-Men seems to have always come from identifying with the outsider or loner culture, or perhaps the injustices of prejudice.  Maybe it has all been a result of the uber-popular Wolverine/Hugh Jackman pairing.  Whatever the case may be, nothing has been quite as satisfying as “Days of Future Past”.  I enjoyed nearly every moment of this film, which feels like a reward for having been put through the inadequacies of the others.  This film finally delivered on character arcs that began 14 years ago.  There exists a wonderful blend of talents, characters, and heaviness to this plot that’s overdue and welcome.  Despite the crowded cast listing this movie never feels crowded, no matter the wealth of powers on display and the quantity of personalities.  Even Wolverine seems more like a tertiary character here despite his importance to the plot.  Even the ending, which to some might appear as a slap in the face, is ingenious to me.  All possibilities for futures exist in this world, and we as an audience can run with that idea and not feel cheated. After all, that’s what comics do- reinvent themselves over time in interesting (sometimes not so interesting) ways.  I’m not sure I can blame a film series based on a comic for the same reason.  I applaud Bryan Singer for coming back to this franchise and sending it in an exciting, new direction.

*Note- You’ll want to stay through the end credits for this one.  Trust me- even if you don’t understand it, look it up somewhere on the interwebs and enjoy the thought of what’s coming.

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Film Review- ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ (***1/2)

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"Why do I always fall for your type, Spider-Man?"
“Why do I always fall for your type, Spider-Man?”

 

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”  ***1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Colm Feore, Felicity Jones, Paul Giamatti, and Chris Cooper

Written by: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Jeff Pinkner (screenplay); Kurtzman, Orci, Pinkner, & James Vanderbilt (screen story). Based on the Marvel comic created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Directed by: Marc Webb

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

It would be perfectly understandable for audiences to feel cynical about the ‘Spider-Man’ films.  After all the time, money, and emotional investment both the filmmakers and audiences shelled out for Sam Raimi’s trilogy, Sony “rewarded” everyone by hitting control-alt-delete on the franchise simply out of laziness and rights retention issues.  Coupled with the obvious fact that the first “Amazing” entry did little to deviate from the previous films, the whole saga has left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

Now cometh the latest entry, hastily produced to capture whatever unique need we might have had for Marvel’s teenage hero.  What are we to make of this latest incarnation, and should we even care?  Absolutely, we should.  I’m pleased to report that “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” has most everything I never knew I didn’t have in a Spidey story.  Sure, this film exists in a familiar world, but it also offers enough new material and thrills to the point of reinvigorating my interest in the character, errors be damned.  It was a monumental task that could just as easily have fallen flat, but director Marc Webb and crew somehow constructed the most enjoyable web-slinger adventure thus far.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, whose world has settled a bit after the events of the first film.  He’s grown into and loves being Spider-Man, he’s rekindled his romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), and seems to be headed in the right direction on the cusp of high school graduation (let’s ignore that Garfield is 30 years old).  In contrast to Raimi’s trilogy, where being a hero seemed such a burden on Peter, he seems to genuinely enjoy his role as hero now, carrying the right balance of braggadocio and humility.  Dare I say it, Spider-Man is a heck of a lot of fun in this film.

Part of that comes from perhaps the best pairing of a superhero and love interest  on-screen to date.  As cliché as it sounds, Stone and Garfield absolutely have great chemistry together.  It’s clear to me that they want to kiss each other, and their emotion never seems forced; the fact that they are dating off-screen does add a specific resonance to the fates of both characters.  It nearly seemed like these two had already been together for an entire trilogy.  Gwen Stacy is simply a worthy partner to Spider-Man’s greatness in every way- she’s self-sufficient, ambitious, resourceful, and so darned understanding of what Peter’s duality is.  Garfield himself is far more natural in the role the second time around; he played it oddly in the first, with what I can only describe as emo-twitches.

There is a loose end to tie up from the first film- Peter’s parents.  After all, they apparently left forever when he was a young boy, and The Boy Who Would Be Spider-Man has been left to doubt himself and wonder why.  That inner battle with his self-doubt is the driving force behind the film’s emotion, and even drives the plot.  Peter’s father, a brilliant scientist in his own right, may have been partially responsible for some rather devious experiments while working alongside magnate Norman Osborn (Cooper).  This leads to an entire subplot involving a ‘special projects’ department at Oscorp, and the introduction of Norman’s son Harry (DeHaan) and Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Foxx).

Brief as it may be, the dynamic between the elder and younger Osborns is interesting and unexpected.  The duality between the two intentionally mirrors that of the Parker father/son duo, and it becomes very clear why Harry is slightly unhinged.  He’s trying to become his own man in the shadow of an awful father and a sprawling family business.  He’s been in boarding school for a decade.  He’s unbalanced.  Dane DeHaan pulls off unhinged and unbalanced with ease, and his unconventional delivery, though it may seem odd, serves him well in this role.

Foxx’s Max Dillon is another interesting character, and his story also makes sense.  He’s a loner, so much so that he idolizes with extreme prejudice (especially Spider-Man).  When he eventually sheds that feeling and reaches his breaking point, it’s logical that he becomes Electro.  Electro is a character with some gravity, for the previously powerless Max is granted enormous power, and does not execute that power with great responsibility (see what I did there?).  Plus, he’s a dangerous dude, also a little unhinged.  “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” gives us a  villains that align out of necessity and are in lock-step with logic. As a result, it feels more satisfying and less forced.  It’s ‘logical villainosity’ as I see it.

By my last count, there are many more villains in this film, some not fully realized yet, some perhaps lurking in the darkness. The wise move to focus on just two, however, helps this film stay clutter-free, unlike the famously flawed, overflowing “Spider-Man 3”.  On the other hand, merely introducing the idea of additional baddies, gives the architects of this cinematic saga the leeway to plug and play if necessary. It’s a smart move that should satisfy both hardcore fans (put that villain in there!) and casual viewers (that’s not logical!) of the series.

It’s necessary to praise the look of this film as well, for it’s the strongest part.  Those that groaned about the special effects in the earliest trailers (myself included) quite simply owe the effects team an apology, for this film is brilliantly rendered, with a vibrant palate that keeps from becoming too colorful.  The 3-D effect here was immersive, adding the depth required of a character swinging through the air via webs, or with electricity bounding in all directions.  For the first time, Spider-Man doesn’t look like Gumby when he’s CGI gliding in-between skyscrapers.  Even New York becomes NEW YORK here, realized better that any film in the series.

My chief complaint with the Raimi films was the ‘stodginess’ of the stories.  At nearly every turn, we found some character waxing poetic about power and responsibilities, mixed with Kirsten Dunst turning her head ever-so-slightly followed by another set of maudlin dialogue, and peppered with awkward, forced emotion scenes.  To be fair, there are a number of positive aspects of the trilogy as well, but to be honest, I find it forgettable, and something of a chore to watch.  On the other hand, Marc Webb has managed to pull off a highly difficult task, creating a technically brilliant film that should satisfy both the die-hard comic fans and the thrill-seeking crowd, all while having to make difficult editing choices and making something seem relevant and not simply setting up another film.

I won’t detail the actual finale to this film, but bold would be the best word to describe it.  It’s visceral, and doesn’t cheat; it’s simply there to digest, brilliantly realized without any pulled punches. I found myself liking this so much that I even forgave mishaps like the unfortunate ‘Rhino’ and Ravencroft psychologist characters.  With this entry, Webb has made his saga stand apart from Raimi’s, for this is bolder, fresher, far more fun, and less awkwardly operatic than any of the previous four attempts.  It ends with a specific momentum, that seems correctly on-track to become something larger.  To butcher Dickens’ prose, “it is a far, far better thing that Webb does, than he has ever done” with this sequel.

There was palpable, actual danger in this film, and the stakes just seemed higher.  The story’s events led me to believe that they weren’t interested in the same choreographed story line of most superhero films, and the jarring nature of the ending created a tension not present in these films until now.  It’s exciting.  I actually like Spider-Man a whole lot more than I did before this film, and I’m looking forward to an expanded take on the character and what I presume to be a vast array of nemeses.  Bring on Green Goblin.  Bring on Vulture.  Bring on Dr. Octopus, or Venom, or whomever this creative team decides to throw at Spidey next; it’s no longer a chore to watch him.

*Note- If you’re like me and have become accustomed to waiting until the end of the credits for a specific scene to set up the next film, don’t bother.  If you’re interested in a non-sensical, contractually forced teaser clip for rival Fox’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in the middle of this film’s credits, then by all means stay.  It was an unfortunate coda.

Film Review- ‘The Other Woman’ (***)

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Who needs a guy when these two are your pals?
Who needs a guy when these two are your pals?

“The Other Woman”  *** (out of 5)

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Taylor Kinney, Don Johnson, and Nicki Minaj

Written by: Melissa Stack

Directed by: Nick Cassavetes

 

It would be bad form to pigeonhole Cameron Diaz as strictly a ‘comedic’ actor.  On one hand, she does have good comedic timing, even if I haven’t always enjoyed those movies.  On the other, she has the range to shine in Oscar contenders (“Being John Malkovich”, “Gangs of New York”).  What seems clear is her ability as a lead to draw audiences to her ‘chick flicks’, considering her general appeal to both women and men.  Director Nick Cassavetes’ “The Other Woman” is an excellent example of this, a female-driven story with a predominantly female-targeted audience that men can enjoy as well.  This is a film heavy on laughs, slick on delivery, and lays on just the right amount of schmaltz without being overly corny.  While it won’t break any new ground or redefine a genre, the parts of it that work are highly effective, and I expect it to settle nicely into a Saturday afternoon time slot on basic cable for years to come.

Diaz stars as Carly, a high-powered attorney.  We know she must be an impressive legal eagle, for the camera lingers not once, not twice, but three times during the course of the film on her firm’s logo.  I get it- the filmmakers want to make sure we see Carly as a career-driven woman first and not a tramp, but I always consider the blatant focus on success a slap in the face to the actor.  Diaz can handle that portrayal all by herself, and we the audience can handle the nuance between personal and professional just fine, thank you.  Back to Carly- she appears to have met her match in Mark (Coster-Waldau, HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’).  He’s an energetic, handsome, apparently successful guy that she has completely fallen for.  Imagine Carly’s surprise when she shows up half-naked at his door and Kate (Mann) answers.  Kate, of course, is Mark’s wife.

This discovery is a crushing blow to both Carly and Kate, as they both viewed Mark as the perfect man.  Carly, who had taken that big step from the dating scene to a committed relationship, is now a big ball of jaded. Kate, comfortable and a bit naive, is simply crushed.  She skipped out on big career plans to support her husband, and no longer sees the forest for the trees.  In an odd twist, Kate seeks out Carly, and begrudgingly, they both become friendly.  Their solution for Mark?  Revenge, otherwise the movie ends here.

Imagine their surprise when they find yet another woman involved, in the form of the buxom, young Amber (Upton).  Once she’s in the know, they involve her in their revenge plot, and the games begin.  All sorts of cruelties are perpetrated upon Mark, from estrogen pills and laxatives to manipulations of his already shady business dealings.  It’s clear Mark is a shady dude, devoid of any redeeming quality save his charm, and it’s clear that he’s due for a fall.  What these ladies do physically to this man is borderline abusive, and any equal action upon a woman might be considered a criminal act, but that’s not what this discussion is about.  Mark is a slimy pig, and revenge is allowed, even necessary, according to this film.

The result of these actions, however, create the centerpiece of enjoyment for this film, i.e. the chemistry these three women develop.  Through their friendship, all three feed off each other to break the bonds they formed with the dastardly Mark, and they’re able to begin again.  Kate’s brother, the hunky Phil (Kinney, TV’s ‘Chicago Hope’) gets involved to help out his sister, and offers the story’s yin to Mark’s yang, and catches Carly’s eye in the process.  Kate starts to realize the talents she left behind for her husband.  Even Amber starts to see a brighter future for herself.  The script is well-written in this way, providing logical, resonant conclusions for these women instead of opting for corny, typical wedding scenes, or something of the like. One particular scene involving the three women and a gathering on the beach toward the end of the film is supremely graceful despite the complete lack of spoken words.

There is nothing grand to proclaim about “The Other Woman”, as it is a relatively safe comedy.  Aside from a couple of oddly placed poop jokes, nothing steps too far out-of-bounds.  I do wonder if a darker tone would have worked more, or what a few well-placed ‘f-bombs’ might have done for effect, but it certainly has strengths as is.  For one, Leslie Mann is simply a comedic tour-de-force here, combining the ability to make pitiable depression and patient revenge seem utterly hilarious.  Mann simply shines, and I hope she continues landing meaty roles to showcase her many talents.  Diaz seems right at home with this material, able to convey strength, smarts, comedic energy, and elegance simultaneously, all while toning down the camp from previous comedic outings.  To be honest, I was weary about heading into this film based on the marketing I’d seen.  I got the distinct feeling that this would end up resembling the dreadful “The Holiday”.  Instead, Diaz and crew have delivered a film that respected its’ characters and audience just enough to make this ‘chick flick’ a worthwhile entry for both the girls and guys.  What a change!

Film Review- ‘Transcendence’ (**)

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"Evelyn, I've done it!  I'm just like Max Headroom!"
“Evelyn, I’ve done it! I’m just like Max Headroom!”

“Transcendence”   ** (out of 5)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara, Cillian Murphy, and Morgan Freeman

Written by: Jack Paglen

Directed by: Wally Pfister

 **POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

To paraphrase a cliché, judging a book by its’ cover can backfire in the other direction, as I have frequently discovered with cinema.  You might envision that a movie depicting the merger of artificial and real intelligences could be both entertaining and mind-bending.  You might think that a film with Christopher Nolan’s cinematographer of choice Wally Pfister at the helm might be as intricately constructed and well-written as Nolan’s films.  You’d be wrong- at least as it pertains to Pfister’s “Transcendence”.  Whether they lacked the skill, courage, or means to create a more resonant film, it most certainly does not resonate.

Johnny Depp stars (kind of) as Dr. Will Caster, the world’s foremost expert on artificial intelligence.  We know this because the film makes sure to ID his brilliance on fake magazine covers, and also because he’s dressed like my former professors.  Through the character’s speech at a ‘TED’-style conference, we also gather that he has a thorough understanding of humankind’s ability to approach the threshold of ‘transcendence’, a term that can have multiple definitions.  In the film’s context, it is meant to explain the act of elevating a consciousness from a human state to a computerized state (or so I surmised).

Well, where there are scientists ‘playing God’, there’s sure to be tech terrorists waiting to prevent such heathenism (science) from happening.  Lo and behold, a tech-savvy terrorist group led by the cutest murderer ever, Bree (Mara) steps in and poisons a lab with multiple innocent people, then shoots Dr. Caster in a crowd.  (If it seems like I’m giving something away, they show all of this in the trailer)  This is a hard group to sympathize with, with their efforts to prevent science from happening and all.    The film doesn’t offer much to get us to understand their point- they are simply obvious thugs.  They’re even shown scowling most of the time, walking ‘oafishly’ through their scenes with thug intent.  Since the film isn’t interested in distinguishing these people from straight-up murderers, why bother investing time in trying to understand them?

Back to Dr. Caster- with death looming, his wife and partner Evelyn (Hall) and best bud Max (Bettany) see an opportunity: this is the chance to attempt transcendence and keep Will’s mind alive.  After all, as they all agree, what’s the worst that can happen?  Sure, they’re all ignoring the potential side effects of their actions, just like all the responsible scientists from “Jurassic Park”, but hey- why not?  The moments leading up to the actual ‘transcendent’ event itself would be fascinating if actual science were involved.  Here we are, in a room with three of the world’s top minds, and the script gives us next to nothing in the way of legitimate scientific discussion.  Sure, they’re hooking Will up to a bunch of computer screens, and attaching electrodes, but what are they actually DOING?  Sure, we notice an errant dry erase board in the background with some random equations scribbled, but what do they mean?  This movie makes history by gathering all sorts of intelligent souls, then not bothering to illustrate their intelligence.  Brilliant!

Dr. Caster does achieve the impossible- transcendence.  He then does all sorts of wonderful/terrifying things to show off his delightful new role as Max Headroom (I’m likely dating myself with that reference).  What does artificial Johnny Depp do with all this newfound power?  First, he steals gobs of money for Evelyn, allowing her to build up a sprawling solar-powered facility in the middle of Nowhere, New Mexico to satisfy his growing needs for space and energy.  Then, he begins experimenting with cellular regeneration through ‘nanobots’, a technical word for ‘creepy, microscopic metal bugs’, and invites the community to his place to fix their ailments.  Naturally, there are complications, but I won’t divulge everything here.  Plus, the result is neither surprising nor interesting.

I did have some questions about Omnipotent Will that the film didn’t answer:  why would a transcendent being limit themselves by interacting with humans at all?  For that matter, why improve humanity when all of the fun answers are beyond humanity’s reach?  Sure, it’s a nice thought, but hardly believable that an AI would bother with us once it realized what it was and what we are.  Why would this intelligence even need to defend itself?  Couldn’t it just move somewhere else– after all, it’s connected to the internet, not confined to a physical body.  Why wouldn’t something that duplicates itself thousand-fold not bother to send a version of itself into space, or at least beyond the limits of Earth so that it could expand eternally?   Unfortunately, this film doesn’t have the capacity or the bravery to explore the multiple facets of the very thing it is named for- transcendence.

I believe there is a better film hidden in the ideas presented by “Transcendence”.  I just can’t help but think those ideas would be more realized with better script, and perhaps a better director.  Pfister has created something that seems more interested in the controversy surrounding the act of transcendence than the act itself, a thoroughly depressing missed opportunity.  Fair or not, I viewed the marketing for this film and the movie itself through the rose-colored glasses of a Christopher Nolan fan, assuming that his ‘directing tree’ would produce another progressive, smart film.  Naturally, Pfister’s camera produces images that look like Nolan’s, feel like Nolan’s, but clearly miss that key ingredient- meaning.  I wouldn’t write off his future as a director yet- that would be unfair.  This is a very good looking film, with the feel of something grander.  The truth, however, is that his debut is a resounding bore-fest, a film supposedly about the dangers of science and technology, just without the benefit of any critical scientific thought, or at least the slightest bit of wonder.