Thursday, May 29, 2014

Go Back to the Future in X-Men: Days of Future Past

      Time travel can be a slippery slope in modern film entertainment: for every great usage of it (like in the low-budget Primer or the stylistic Looper), viewers then get a couple duds that are filled with WTF moments that can leave you scratching your head. So I can see why you would be skeptical of the new X-Men film, Days of Future Past (the title itself is kind of stupidly confusing)--Travelling back in time to re-shape the future is a major plot point. But somehow, it totally works. By bringing back Bryan Singer, who created the first two (good) X-Men films, and sending the fan favorite Wolverine back in time to a story involving the younger versions of characters that we met in X-Men: First Class, Days of Future Past is top-tier summer entertainment: incredibly fun, exciting, and full of wonderful acting, especially for a comic-book film.
     The plot of Days of Future Past is seemingly intricate, with dozens of characters from multiple time periods intersecting and having their paths shaped by the events of the past and the future. But credit goes to a tight script and Singer's direction: everything is laid out in a natural and exciting way, and confusion never sets in. Though the ending is a bit predictable, the film is no less satisfying because of it. Here are the basics: in the future, mutants and humans who like mutants are segregated into work camps, slaves to the machine. These big and bad robot mofos that can adapt and use any mutant's ability (called Sentinels) are crushing the last of the mutants to bits, hunting them out like predators. A small band of mutants is surviving due to an important ability: projecting a person's consciousness back in time to warn them of incoming danger. This small band eventually meets up with our known heroes, namely Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine, and they all team up, deciding to send Wolverine's consciousness back to 1973 when an incredibly fateful moment for mutant plight occurred.
       This incredibly fateful moment deals with the blue, shape-shifting Mystique (America's girl, J-Law) assassinating the future creator of the Sentinels, Dr. Boliver Trask (Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage). She gets captured, and the Bad Guys use her mutant DNA to make the Sentinels incredibly powerful. Wolverine goes back to stop Mystique from this fateful decision that changes the course of history. But first, he must enlist the help of the younger Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) who instead of being friends, like in the future, are mortal enemies after the events of First Class. There's a line in the previously mentioned Looper that deals with the complexity of explaining time travel: "We'd be here all day making diagrams with straws." The beauty of X:Men: Days of Future Past is that it doesn't need any explanation. It moves forward and backward in time with an organic symmetry full of fun scenes.
     There wasn't a moment in Days of Future Past that lacked entertainment. Many scenes leave you incredibly excited: the opening of a dystopian future and the ensuing mutant vs Sentinel battle that sets the film's tone extremely early. The breakout of Magneto from a maximum security cell underneath the Pentagon (Quicksilver [Evan Peters] is the star here, as he moves much faster than a speeding bullet). The assassination attempt on Dr. Trask. Though Matthew Vaughn did a good job with the sort-of-reboot of the X-Men universe with First Class, it's nice to have Singer back in the director's chair (though his real-life controversy isn't clearly isn't good) . His love of the characters and source material is obvious, his set-up of key scenes admirable. And when your comic-book film is filled with great actors (Fassbender, Jackman, McAvoy, Dinklage, Lawrence, among others) who are adept at showing every emotion, it just adds to the overall experience.
     X-Men: Days of Future Past makes some other recent comic-based films look like total child's play (e.g. The newest Spiderman). It balances over a dozen characters, and though some mutants get significantly more screen time than others, you still feel as though you spent your movie money wisely. The villains, if you could even call them that term, have motivations that contain a complexity far more real than the typical world domination. And though the plot was sometimes a bit predictable, the fun-factor exceeds any specifics or questionable plot points of the time-travel story. It's super superhero summer entertainment.     (A-)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla: A "Meh" Monster Movie

     I didn't expect to enjoy last year's Pacific Rim: I can't say that big-budget monster movies are especially my thing--giant creatures smashing each other in the full glory of CGI hasn't been enough to make a movie great since I was 10 or 12 years old. But Rim was a great surprise. Director Guillermo Del Toro injected enough excitement and humor into the picture to make it one of last year's more entertaining films, full of vibrant color and creature fights with actual tension. So it only makes sense to compare this year's big Monster event, a re-imagining of Godzilla, with Del Toro's clearly-made-with-love movie that is still fresh in some movie goers' minds. It doesn't really compare: the 2014 version of Godzilla focuses far too much on uninteresting and uninspired human characters, has a tendency to cut the camera away when something cool is about to happen, and contains massive monster battles that simply lack excitement. It arrives with a yawn rather than a roar.
     Obviously the quality is far superior than in the 1998 embarrassment directed by disaster-porn master Roland Emmerich, but that isn't saying much--not many films are considered worse. At least in this one we get former Walter White Bryan Cranston (who portrays Joe Brody) as a nuclear power-plant operator in Japan who loses his wife in a freak accident. 15 years later, he's gone a little bit wacko in his conspiracy theories and his son (Kick-Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson) must travel back to bail him out. Things don't go as planned, and Joe Brody begins to look like he's the only one who knows what he is talking about.
     The human aspects of Godzilla suck. There's nothing new or original, nothing with enough emotion for you to care, and no characters that make you pine for their plight. You might say: "Who cares about the humans? The movie's called Godzilla. We're here for the Monster fights." That's all fine and damn dandy, but in the two-hour run time of Godzilla, there is precious little destruction other than the climax, except for the occasional shot that cuts far too quickly back to humans running around in disarray. Maybe the film-maker is building anticipation for the finale, which admittedly is cool (a group of soldiers jumping from 30,000 feet to deal with a nuclear device in the middle of a destructive monster battle). But it's too little, too late.
     Speaking of the film-maker, director Gareth Edwards (who previously only directed 2010's Monsters [a fitting title]) clearly has a knack for dealing with special effects on a massive scale. The obliteration of San Francisco is impressive and realistic enough. The titular creature is almost a good guy, going against two massive Alien-esque monsters that feed off of radiation sources and then mate to make massive amounts of world-destroying atrocities. I just wish--by these late minutes in the film--that I cared more about the fate of humanity at this point rather than itching for it to be over, complete with the only two love interests reuniting in the demolished city, the music sweeping in stereotypical fashion.
     Godzilla isn't a bad film. But it isn't good, either. Both this year's Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier were far better displays of making entertainment with dozens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars injected into the their respective budgets. Above all, 2014's Godzilla just isn't fun. There weren't enough moments that brought a smile to face or butterflies into my belly (or any at all, really). It's typical movie-studio summer weekend placement: a massive and intriguing marketing campaign that leads to a movie that's all safe with no lasting stimulation.     (C)

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Spinning a Web of Confusion with The Amazing Spider-Man 2

       If you weren't tired of the character Spider-Man after the atrocious third installment of the Tobey Maguire trilogy, surely you must be close now. We're already on the second movie of the reboot series with director Marc Webb and star Andrew Garfield (who is 30 years old), and though the first film had a few fresh approaches, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers from that notorious illness that many other comic-book sequels have experienced: too many villains, too many plot lines, too much annoyance. Sure, it has awe-inspiring visual effects and CGI. And some of the smaller moments between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) inject some needed sweetness and chemistry (probably because they're a couple in real life). But these moments are not enough to overcome the murky plots and the (seemingly) dozens of villains.
     The film starts with an exciting and tense flashback plane sequence where Peter's parents are flying out of town with secret and important information. Much of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is downhill from there. Spidey still patrols the city, taking down bad guys (the first being a way-too-over-the-top Paul Giamatti). Unfortunately, it seems like he's also a failed stand-up comedian, spouting out extremely unfunny one-liners before shooting people with his white sticky stuff. Him and Gwen are now officially a couple, but if you remember the first film (which you probably don't), her dad's (Denis Leary) dying wish was for Peter to stay the hell away from Gwen--to protect her by leaving her. Peter thinks about this a lot, and he even sees visions of Leary all over town giving him threatening glances.
      But the real threat lies with a few different aspects of the Oscorp company: Peter's childhood friend, Harry, has taken over the corporation after the passing of his dear old dad, but he's inherited the same disease that could lead to his demise too. He thinks a dose of Spidey's blood could cure him, and he'll do anything to try and get it. There has also been a major accident at Oscorp: an under-appreciated employee named Max Dillon (Jaime Foxx) has fallen into a tank of experimental electric eels, becoming a powerful villain named Electro who can harness the power of the entire city's electrical grid. Our red and blue hero has a lot in his web. Too much, and the film suffers because of it.
     The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has absolutely incredible special effects. The dazzling colors and action flash across the screen like a theme park ride. But top-notch CGI just simply isn't enough anymore. If this film had been released 10 years ago, you'd hear non-stop praise about it. But since Hollywood effortlessly puts out visual splendor (usually bypassing a cohesive and exciting story) on a weekly basis--especially during the summer movie season which this film signals the start of--it has become less of an event and more the norm. The visuals that a big-budget blockbuster provide just aren't enough (except for last year's Gravity) anymore.
      This Spider-Man is also too long. It's one of those films with a few false endings, and by the time it's actually over, you wish it had been over 15 minutes ago. If The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is any indication, this summer is going to be full of unoriginal blockbusters that look like a million bucks but feel like only a dollar or two. And in a couple of years, when The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is announced, I'll meet that news not with a smile but with a shrug of the shoulders.     (C)