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Film Review- ‘Terminator Genisys’ (*)

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He's been waiting for this moment.  He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.
He’s been waiting for this moment. He, alone, has been waiting for this moment.

 

Terminator Genisys  * (out of 5)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney, J.K. Simmons, Byung-hun Lee, Matt Smith, Dayo Okeniyi, and Courtney B. Vance

Written by: Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier; based on characters created by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd

Directed by: Alan Taylor

 

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

Say what you want about the Terminator franchise (you surely could), but there exists an absolute earnestness to each film that elevates the “B” movie premise.  I love that about the first four films, how unabashedly sure they are about themselves.  That’s the glue that holds them together.  On the other hand, it is quite possibly the most milked of all the franchises, barely hanging on for relevance. So many have had the rights to the property, so many have tried to capitalize on the name, that I’m amazed anything is still left to present.  Terminator Genisys is the long-gestating culmination of an attempt to make new what many had seen as old, unappealing, and unnecessary.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the film is an astonishingly vile culmination.  The final product is far worse when considering the time and effort put in to resurrect this lifeless brand, as well as our time as the audience, shoveling in the drivel, waiting for the payoff.  Genisys is a clear indication that a new direction, whilst noble for creative purposes, is not always the best direction.

Describing the story of a Terminator film cannot happen without a prior understanding of the utter silliness.  We are, after all, talking about pseudo-science, killer robots, and time travel here.  The beginning of the film brings us up to speed on the eve of victory for John Connor (Jason Clarke) and the ‘Resistance’ against Skynet and the ‘machines’ in 2029.  Connor, his right hand man Kyle Reese (Courtney), and the remaining soldiers arrive at a typical ‘Deus Ex Machina’ inside Skynet headquarters.  Connor knows what happens next, and so do we- in a last-ditch effort to save itself, Skynet sends a terminator back through time to eliminate Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) before she gives birth to John.  He then sends Reese back to protect her.  This takes us up to the opening of the original film, and we’re in familiar territory.  So familiar, in fact, that the film even reproduces (as much as possible) the arrival of the original T-800 in 1984 Los Angeles.  Here’s the catch- another T-800 (Schwarzenegger) is waiting for him, and a brief battle ensues.

Meanwhile, Reese has arrived in 1984, but there’s another catch; a T-1000 (the liquid metal version) has inexplicably shown up to dispose of him.  Sarah Connor appears out of nowhere and helps him escape.  What?  Come again?  I know, this all seems strange, and it is, even though we knew this from the surprisingly revelatory trailers.  According to the following expository scene, the future has been ‘reset’ due to the events of the first two films.  It’s the Star Trek ploy- once you reset the past, you can write whatever you want to fit the needs of a new franchise, based on a loose understanding of parallel universes.  Nevermind that we lack an explanation for how a T-1000 appeared, nor do we understand why his appearance is altered.  Nevermind that somehow, John and Kyle are the most clean-shaved post-apocalyptic soldiers to ever appear on-screen.  Nevermind that this entry blatantly ignores the events of the unpopular third and fourth films, despite audience investment in new characters and destinies.

Audiences have been trained by now to accept most time travel films on faith alone, for there is no basis for reference.  However, Genisys lacks the common decency to even follow the franchise’s rules.  Before, we knew that characters could never ‘return’ to the future, but here, it’s as simple as using material from 1984 to accomplish the goal.  Before, we understood this story’s timeline to be cyclical- Kyle Reese came back, fathered John Connor, died, Connor survived a second attempt, and it all led to an inevitable future war that Connor was to overcome.  Before, we understood the real threat of nuclear holocaust as the driving force behind our heroes’ actions.  Now, this film wants to tell us that “Genisys”, a “cloud” type of system invented by the Miles and Danny Dyson (remember them, Terminator 2 fans?), and our attachment to smart devices, will be our demise.  That’s how these writers brought social consequence to this film?  Give me a break.  By ignoring the third and fourth films, and thus creating an alternate timeline devoid of nuclear fear, Genisys has spat in the face if its’ own continuity, a bold statement to make for what amounted to an already flimsy timeline.  The film even creates a subplot about wanting to know who actually sent ‘Pops’ back to protect Sarah as a child, but then never resolves the matter.  In fact, that’s the whole onus for Skynet to find out that info, yet it isn’t resolved.  This film is simply not intelligent enough to coerce us into forgetting what came before.

Furthermore, what happened to these characters?  Linda Hamilton’s portrayal of Sarah Conner was inept at first, but gracefully inept; then menacing and ruthless.  Hamilton made this role legendary for those very reasons.  This film fails Sarah Conner by writing, then portraying her, as a petulant brat.  Emilia Clarke bears a slight resemblance to Hamilton, and her vocal imitation is close enough, but that’s where the comparisons end.  She certainly lacks the grace and gravity of Hamilton’s performance, and it’s a befuddling choice.  Jason Clarke is unintentionally comical as John Connor, lacking the weariness and cautious optimism we’ve grown to understand from the role.  He opts for a plain delivery, and clearly doesn’t know the character like we do.  I say this knowing full well that the character isn’t the character we know for most of the film (no spoilers there, the trailer gave it away).  The worst offender, again, is Courtney.  Not only does he inexplicably react differently than the Kyle Reese we knew before, he offers the polar opposite performance to Michael Biehn’s in the original (even markedly different from Anton Yelchin in Salvation).  We’ve previously known that the man adores Sarah Connor, but somehow can’t manage to care much about her in this film.  I’m confused.  I can handle obvious needs to re-cast for a film 31 years later.  What I cannot accept is a bland, unaffected delivery from an actor playing a character that grew up in an apocalypse, yet clearly has no shortage of access to grooming products, weight training equipment, or protein-laden foods.

Not every performance is lacking, however.  If there is anything to take from Genisys, it is again the presence of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger.  For what little he offers in depth, we always love him in this role, for his limitations as an actor actually work for the character.  His choices have been curious and reasonably unsuccessful since his stint as governor, but the old reliable T-800 fits him so well.  He’s also the only main character that appears to understand he’s in a Terminator film.  He’s the franchise’s best asset, the constant amongst the changing of ownership, the bevy of different writers, and the re-casts.  He’s the one delivering the most honest performance, which is clearly ironic, as he’s the freaking robot.  I mean this with the greatest of affections for our most unlikely of screen legends, but when your film’s most professional moments come from Arnold Schwarzenegger, you’re doing it wrong.  I’m almost sympathetic to the man, for his earnestness deserves a better film.   J.K. Simmons, the recently minted Oscar winner, is also inexplicably in this movie.  He deserves a larger, more integral role as someone who actually watched the first four films, and appears to be the only human putting the pieces together.  The audience needs that character, yet we barely see him.  It’s another miss in a series of misses on character development.

The success of the previous films (even at their worst) relied on the effort put forth by the filmmakers to take a B-movie concept with mostly action stars and attempt science fiction or comment on society.  Genisys is neither honest nor successful in that venture.  The whole project appears to suffer from bad intentions, which appears to be the desire to proliferate a story once thought of as complete back in 1991.  It suffers from poor marketing decisions, such as the baffling choice to showcase the film’s one big twist in the theatrical trailer.  It suffers from a constant need to shed what we already knew (and loved) about the story just to get a new direction, and thus new films.  Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the films have progressively been worse, even as they’ve promised to take the material in newer, darker, and more exciting directions.  It’s a patchwork quilt of a franchise, constantly changing actors, scenarios, and stakes to fill whatever the plot needs.  Now, these new caretakers have made it a Transformers clone- unintelligible special effects, paper-thin characters, grand but dumb ideas, and “inconsequential consequences”.  You’ll find none of the tense, almost horror-film tendencies and tones of the early films here, none of the realistic, brutal, physics-accessible fight scenes we know and love.  In Genisys, you’ll get only easy, lazy moments meant for broad appeal.  That just sucks.

It would be silly of me to suggest that the Terminator franchise actually mattered beyond a reference to what James Cameron’s career has become, or the prescient undertones warning us about artificial intelligence.  They don’t matter- but like many, many others, I harbor an unreasonable, deep-rooted affection for this property.  The strong desire of Megan and David Ellison of Skydance Productions to ‘reboot’ or ‘reset’ this franchise’s timeline is wholly unnecessary, for even the weakest of the previous films (Salvation) attempted continuity of tone and character.  Genisys is the worst possible outcome, ignoring Rise of the Machines and Salvation for no reason other than lazily succumbing to popular opinion.  It stands to reason that if your story asks us to ignore the events of two entire films because of their supposed poor quality, yours should exceed that quality, or at least be replacement level.  That’s not the case here.  One of the most exciting, tense, groundbreaking, enjoyable franchises of the modern film era has been reduced to lazy cliches, substandard effects, inaccurate call backs to what we already experienced, and a clean PG-13 sheen.  It’s the apocalypse, sponsored by The Sharper Image.  How depressing is that?

Film Review- ‘Cinderella’ (****)

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Ah, to be the belle of the ball.
Ah, to be the belle of the ball.

Cinderella  **** (out of 5)

Starring: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Derek Jacobi, Stellan Skarsgard, Nonso Anozie, Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger, Ben Chaplin, Haley Atwell, and Helena Bonham Carter

Written by: Chris Weitz (screenplay), based on the children’s tale Cinderella by various authors

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

 

We have all seen this film, in one way or another, at least a hundred times over.  How I could possibly get excited for, and then decide to pay for, a retread is beyond logical comprehension.  However, trailers for director Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Cinderella hinted at a serious side.   For that matter, Branagh’s involvement alone was enough to take it seriously, and the film upholds my faith.  The film is honest and quite earnest, sweet without being saccharine, and heartfelt without being corny.  That, in and of itself, is a compliment to all involved.  For all of the wallet fleecing they engage in, Disney seems to be aiming higher with their live-action re-imaginings.  While they may not be necessary, it is at least refreshing to think that they want to make quality films whilst fleecing your wallet.  Cinderella never felt like a fleecing; in actuality, it is one of, if not the, best film of the year thus far.

Lily James (Downton Abbey) stars as the titular character.  She may not actually be a natural blonde, but make no mistake- she’s very much a natural Cinderella.  We’re introduced to her as a little Ella, as her parents (Ben Chaplin & Hayley Atwell) raise her in a gorgeous country cottage.  Her parents instill in her a great deal of kindness, and she exudes the type of grace and beauty one would expect from such tutelage.  As fairy tales are wont to do, this all begins to go awry.  She loses her mother (Atwell) to death as a child, leaving her father lonely for many years.  When Ella is all grown up, her father makes the difficult choice to move on and marry, as he discovers a widow (Cate Blanchett) and her two daughters (Sophie McShera & Holliday Grainger).

The new family comes together in the cottage, and there the problems begin.  Ella’s stepmother is indeed cruel to her, but her motivations are different from we’re accustomed to.  Sure, her daughters are spoiled brats that treat Ella like a servant and not a sister, but they have motivations as well.  This is where the film takes off.  By grounding the wicked stepmother and giving the “villain” true reasons for her actions, we don’t sympathize with her, but we understand.  The stepmother and Ella are not inherently opposite people, but they have had inherently opposite experiences.  The stepmother sees a great deal of herself in Ella, and naturally, is jealous of her youth, optimism, and beauty.  Ella knows nothing but to “be kind and be courageous”.  This sort of interplay may be what drew classically trained professionals in Branagh and Cate Blanchett to the project.  The Shakespearean angle of this story, with dreams unrealized and the dynamic of the fractured family must have been just complex enough to interest them.  It may help that Blanchett is nothing short of amazing in almost every film she’s in.

I want to be completely fair to what Branagh and crew have accomplished, for Cinderella is so accomplished that it belongs in the top tier of period dramas and romances like Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre before it.  Everything from the costumes, set design, and the brilliant score from Branagh regular Patrick Doyle are top-notch, and made this thirty-something male viewer feel comfortable and moved in a world normally reserved for the fairer gender.  To that point, other reviews for this film have given the proverbial ‘finger wag’ to Disney for seemingly moving backwards in the urgent race for narrative gender equality.  With Frozen, and apparently everything following, all women must be independent and never wont for a prince or male, if I’m to believe some of the goofy reviews for Cinderella.  The prince in this film (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones”) not only is completely enchanted with Ella, but pursues her in such a way that he’s but a respectful buffoon in her presence.  I’m not sure how that translates to Ella being subservient or desperate.

Lily James has created a Cinderella performance that allows for the fantastical and still grounds her confidence in a realistic fashion.  There’s nothing wrong with the romance in this film, and shame on other critics for trying to dig something up that simply isn’t there.  I applaud all involved for their efforts with Cinderella, and they should be quite proud.  What seemed at first like a simple Disney cash grab is actually far more realized and mature than I, or anyone likely imagined it would be.  This new version should be the new ‘standard’, if there needs to be one, for all ‘Cinderella stories’ that came before and will likely follow.  Maybe I am up for more live action ‘re-imaginings’ from Disney.

Film Review- ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1’ (*1/2)

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I know all there is to know about the Crying Game...
Now I know all there is to know about the Crying Game too.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1”  *1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci

Written by: Peter Craig & Danny Strong (screenplay), based on the novel Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS**

Film criticism, I think, must take into account a film’s intent, whether or not it aligns with your personal wants and needs.  I also recognize the legions of ‘Hunger Games’ book fans, and acknowledge that I have not laid a hand on any of them.  Your passion for the material is noted.  Understanding that, I find that reviewing films like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 to be an absolute chore.  I am clearly not the audience, and I’m required by fans to show reverence for the source material, yet I still ask that the film achieve something greater than its’ source material.  This is film, cinema, movies; this is the stuff of our dreams, and should leap off the screen and be remembered.  It shouldn’t simply be the narration of a book that aims to please (at its core) a younger audience that at times can barely comprehend what they are feeling.  For me, this latest sequel is just that- a meaningless narration, a non-challenging exercise of pre-packaged capitalism, simply collecting the money we have been pre-programmed to hand out.  It doesn’t need or aspire to work for a greater creative purpose, and thus exists as an empty enterprise.

So, like a lamb to the slaughter, I sat down to the film with zero optimism, waiting for the inevitable uninspiring yawn to spew forth.  As with Catching Fire before it, Mockingjay bores its’ audience, simply presenting a long series of rote, expected scenes and set pieces rife with artificial feelings, standard speeches, and meaningless treacle about absolutely nothing.  Nothing happens in this film, or at least nothing of importance.  I am responsible for my own misery here, as I fully understood what I was getting into, but ultimately, we’re all responsible for this type of drivel.

Collectively, we seem to yearn for the simple, uncomplicated storytelling and easy narratives brought forth by young adult material, but therein lies the problem with it.  At best, it is unnecessary, easy to digest, always establishing the next film, promising to pay off in the end.   At worst, it is irresponsible.  Here’s what I mean- the basis of the “Hunger Games” story centers around the idea of children murdering each other for the enjoyment of the elite.  Not only is that awful from a moral standpoint, it automatically brings to mind a dark, bloody sensibility, and in order to take it seriously, I’m requiring that the films at least be brave about the very subject the story is based on.  The closest thing to that level of responsibility any of the “Hunger Games” films have presented is a slightly macabre scene in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) stands over what amounts to a mass grave of still smoldering District 12 residents.  Everything else is “teen-sheened” for that nice, PG-13 gloss.  That these films need to be rated PG-13 speaks to their inherent ridiculousness.

So what happens in Mockingjay?  I already said ‘nothing’, but I suppose there are technically ‘things’ that ‘happen’.  If you’ve seen Catching Fire, you know that Katniss went and shot for the stars (literally), bringing down the whole arena and ending the games.  She is rescued by the rebellion of ‘District 13’, and in the process is separated from Peeta (Hutcherson).  I literally have no idea if Katniss has romantic feelings for he or Gale (Hemsworth), brotherly feelings, or if they both just represent something that she loves.  I’m sure a fan can tell me.  Peeta is alive and sending mixed messages through broadcasts from the capital, appearing to work for President Snow (Sutherland).  Is that the case?  Has he been brainwashed?  Should the rebellion rescue him?  Does this inspire other questions about the film’s lack of sensibility?  Is Katniss so darned important to this ‘rebellion’ that it’s ok for her to enter war zones? What’s a ‘Plutarch Heavensbee’?  Can bees and dogs really smell fear?

That is the unfortunate, ridiculous place that my mind wanders to after watching Mockingjay (or any of these films, to be honest).  I get lost trying to keep track of the silly rules and foundations that this type of film lazily constructs because they don’t have the capacity to provide the entire book’s narrative setup.  Perhaps the filmmakers assume most of their viewers will fill in the film’s gaps, but I cannot do that.  I wonder- how did the Harry Potter films (the argument against my distaste for YA fiction) accomplish what they did?  Did the whimsical nature of magic allow us to forget the occasional awkward stalls and poor pacing, or was the source material just that rich?  I’ll just leave that question out there.  I know the answer.

Unfortunately for her, Lawrence appears even more lost than I am, and certainly out-of-place.  Her involvement in Mockingjay is summed up in an odd series of scenes where she observes something, then shudders in fear, then bawls.  I wondered where the strong young woman from the first film was- the leader, the reason I bothered watching any of these in the first place?  The idea that her character may or may not suffer from a form of PTSD is highly plausible, but then I contrast that with the world these people are living in.  Isn’t she already familiar with devastation, loss, and subordination?  These seem like new concepts for a population that supposedly has endured 75 years of abuse.  I’m confused, aren’t you?  Lawrence does her best to bring some emotion to the role, but she’s better than this film.  Most of these actors are.

No one is more aware that I’m not the audience for this film than I, and I’m honestly reticent to be so harsh to what others love so much.  Mockingjay, however, is the among the worst kind of movies in my eyes, simply there to perpetuate itself without the responsibility of being wort its’ cinematic weight.  As opposed to good film, which would elevate the source material, this plays like a bored narrator, content to feed the audience exactly what it wants.  Lionsgate, never content with their library of mediocre franchises ready to excrete on the public, has what they wanted- a large pile of money to bathe in.  Congratulations.

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.

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- ‘Thor: The Dark World’ (**1/2)

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"Soon, all of this apparently abandoned world will be yours to rule, son."
“Soon, all of this apparently abandoned world will be yours to rule, son.”

‘Thor: The Dark World’  ** 1/2 (out of 5)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Jaimie Alexander, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Anthony Hopkins

Written by: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, & Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Alan Taylor

**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**

It wasn’t that long ago that I remember the deep feeling of appreciation for Marvel as they delivered on their promise.  After all, “The Avengers” was the Hollywood rarity- a film that audiences were asked to be patient for, and for all intents and purposes, the hype was well-justified.  Going forward, we know “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” is coming in 2015, and “The Avengers 3” in 2018.  These immense upcoming films will follow the same pattern as the first, in that a series of individual films will set up the events to culminate in the team-up.  I’m fine with that, but I do require Marvel to maintain their focus with these solo efforts.  “Thor: The Dark World” is a very good looking movie that doesn’t pay off in the most disappointing way- it doesn’t respect its own audience, and thus becomes a huge missed opportunity for Marvel.

If you’ve seen “Thor” and “The Avengers”, you know that the ‘Bifrost’ and ‘rainbow bridge’ were destroyed, Loki (Hiddleston) is going back to Asgard and prison, and that Thor (Hemsworth) returned to Earth, but without visiting Jane Foster (Portman).  These issues will need to be addressed in this film, and they are (mostly).  After “Thor” made a big deal about the destruction of the Bifrost and its implications, nothing is said about how it was repaired in such short time (2 years).  I suppose that is of little consequence in the big scheme of events.  Loki still plots away in his Asgardian prison cell, apparently not humbled by his convincing defeat.  He still feels entitled to a throne (any throne will do).  The astrophysicist Jane Foster, as Heimdall (Elba) tells us in the first film, still searches for a way to reach Thor through the path of science.  For as little time as they had together in the first film, clearly the Prince of Asgard and the Earth-bound, mortal scientist formed a strong connection- something this film doesn’t spend enough time extrapolating.  These characters will do anything for each other, but I’ve struggled to buy into their bond; after all, they haven’t been on a single date, haven’t shared their feelings or intentions to each other, and haven’t shared a bed (that we’re aware of).  Other than a few longing glances, what is it about these two characters that make their actions believable or justified?

Dr. Foster is working out of London in this film- luckily for her, that happens to be the EXACT location (Tanzania was apparently too remote) of a magnificent quantum space event is taking place.  The ‘Nine Realms’ of the universe are all aligning at once, and this ‘convergence’ apparently allows for easy travel amongst the many branches of existence.  As the movie tells us, an artifact of a sinister nature (of course) was hidden a long time ago during the last convergence, and wouldn’t you know it- our favorite senator from Naboo (oops, wrong film) stumbles upon it.  Literally.

This artifact, designed by Malekith (Eccleston) of the ancient race of beings known as Dark Elves, looks exactly like angry Dimetapp to me.  According to the movie, it’s darkness…as a weapon.  So, Dr. Foster gets ‘infected’ by this substance, and becomes slightly dangerous to others. Except Thor.  On top of that, the dormant Dark Elves are reawakened across the universe by Jane’s interaction with the gooey Robitussin.  I’m still confused by these things, but this film isn’t interested in explaining away that kind of logic.

Thor, who has been busy restoring the chaos caused by Loki’s misdeeds in “The Avengers”, does return to Earth once he can tell that Jane is in danger, and whisks her off to Asgard once he realizes that Earth doctors can’t help her.  Odin (Hopkins) doesn’t like her there, Sif (Alexander) still yearns for Thor and doesn’t like her there, and no one, Dr. Foster included, stops to talk about or revel in, the fact that Asgard has its first human visitor, and that she’s the first human to travel past the Moon (unless you count Tony Stark’s brief burst through a wormhole in “The Avengers”).  On top of that, Jane doesn’t appear to have any great side effects from having the Cough Syrup of Darkness coarsing through her veins.  She isn’t quarantined, and then, unsurprisingly, the Dark Elves come to Asgard looking for their ancient weapon.

Doesn’t it seem like a grave misstep by the all-powerful Odin and the mighty Thor to have this weapon in the heart of their kingdom?  Granted, Thor does have a plan to save her, but by then the Dark Elves have come a calling on Asgard, with technology that is at least 9,000 years old but makes the modern Asgardian defense seem obsolete.  That perfectly encapsulates the problems with this movie; we’ve established a feasible, grounded-in-reality ‘Thor-verse’ to work with, and this film just craps all over those very rules.  I also wondered where the entire population of Asgard was…the first film gave us a bustling, populated kingdom, but when Dark Elves attacked, I only remember seeing soldiers and royalty.  Did I miss something, or did the filmmakers get lazy?

I should counter by saying that this isn’t a bad film- it is earnest, and funny at times.  It simply seems to have forgotten its audience as well as what made the other films in the ‘Avengers’ pantheon work, which is what bothers me.  After sitting through five set-up films before “The Avengers”, producer and Marvel film chief Kevin Feige should know better than to allow a film like this to go through- one that treats the established audience like amateurs.  It’s a rushed, heavily edited (it appears), logic-defying action spectacle that lacks the emotional resonance of the first film and defies the established logic we were used to.  Is it possible that there is a better edition of this film out there, or that director Alan Taylor (of ‘Game of Thrones’ fame) had a grittier, longer version in mind?  With the film clocking in at 111 minutes, and with rumors about studio-directed reshoots earlier this past year, I can’t help but wonder if those interested in dollar signs saw a bleaker, longer film at first and got scared enough to ask for changes (or mandate changes).  I’m clearly speculating, but if that’s the case, shame on them.  Shame on them anyways for giving us an inferior film.

*Note: the mid-credits scene we’re used to seeing now in Marvel films looks ahead to next August’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”.  Benicio Del Toro, nearly unrecognizable as 80’s pop star Eric Carmen, gets “Hungry Eyes” for the infinity stone that Sif and Volstagg (Stevenson) have delivered to him for protection.  

*Another note: Benicio Del Toro is playing The Collector, an alien who collects extraterrestrial objects and creatures.  He is not playing Eric Carmen, but looks remarkably similar to him. 😉