Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past Review

(dir. Bryan Singer)

20th Century Fox

“Are we destined to destroy each other, or can we change each other and unite? Is the future truly set?”

     The X-Men franchise has had its share of ups and downs. At 14 years, Fox’s band of merry mutants (as they were almost known) is the longest running superhero franchise. Over the years it’s been through creative shakeups, behind the scenes controversies, dwindling box office returns, and continuity errors. The history of the film franchise isn’t so different from the comic series it’s based on, which has also faced its own share of creative issues and convoluted histories. After the negative response to X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class rejuvenated the series with a younger cast and a 60s setting that brought something new to the superhero genre. Vaughn instilled a sense of fun that had been mostly missing from Singer’s more serious and post-Matrix influenced films. As interesting as X-Men and X2 were with their political and social commentary they feel somewhat dated, given how far the genre has come. With X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to the franchise he started and with a bigger budget and a better handle on the universe. He gives Vaughn a run for his money with the best X-film yet.

     Days of Future Past begins in a dystopian future in which mutants have been rounded up into concentration camps and are executed by mutant hunting robots called Sentinels. In order to prevent the creation of the Sentinels, Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan) and the rest of the X-Men decide to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back to his younger body in 1973 to help prevent the creation of the Sentinels. There, Wolverine brings together a disillusioned and drug-addicted Charles Xavier and a government-wanted Magneto to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels. There’s a lot going on in the story, but the film wastes no time jumping in and works under the assumption that you know these characters and don’t need much rehashing. It’s not a film for newcomers to the series, but it’s a rewarding experience for those who’ve followed the franchise.

     All of the returning actors are more than comfortable in their roles. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are true standouts once again as they continue to reveal the flaws of men so convinced and enchanted with their own ideologies that they are inherently fallible as leaders. And the new actors playing the group of X-Men in the future do well with the few lines they’re given. Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask is convincing as a man who would execute an entire species to achieve peace amongst humans, though he is somewhat underutilized given his considerable talents. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is given a standout scene and a memorable personality, especially given his brief screen time. It’ll be interesting to see what Joss Whedon does with the character next summer.

     As exciting as it is to see familiar faces from the original X-Men series (Iceman, Kitty Pryde, Storm, Old Magneto and Professor X) they aren’t the focal point of the film. The scenes in the future amount to about twenty minutes of screen time. It’s an exciting twenty minutes that’s well-spaced throughout the film, but the franchise is definitely more focused on the cast introduced in First Class…and Wolverine, because he’s Wolverine. There’s no doubt that Hugh Jackman excels at playing the role, but the original trilogy focused more on him than the rest of the X-Men, making the films seem like they should be retitled: Wolverine and the X-Men. Days of Future Past isn’t really a team film, in the 1973 there are no X-Men and in the future they are more survivors on the defense then a team actively working towards Xavier’s dream. What’s interesting is that in this film, one that lacks a true team of X-Men, Wolverine is finally allowed to support the other characters instead of being the primary character in which the plot and resolution must revolve around. Mystique’s actions define what the future will be and it is her choices that are the most important in the film. It’s refreshing to see that a female character who started in the “sexy henchwoman role” becomes the one whose choices have the most impact and change the direction of the franchise.

     Perhaps what’s most surprising about the film is the amount of restraint Singer and screenwriter, Simon Kinberg show. Superhero movies are well-known for attempting go bigger with each subsequent installment—more action, more characters, more special effects. And while the film has no shortage on characters, the film doesn’t become overstuffed with unnecessary cameos. The time-travel elements and its effects are grand in nature but handled in a way that’s easy to follow and places more attention of characters than special effects.  The action sequences and climax are not the biggest, but Singer achieves a level of tension missing from many big-budget films in that the stakes feel real and in a series that’s 14 years old he proves that anything can happen. It’s a film that will keep you guessing and no character ever feels completely safe.

     X-Men: Days of Future Past opens up an infinite amount of possibilities for the franchise’s future. While a number of the continuity errors and some frustrating lingering questions (such as a Xavier’s resurrection) aren’t addressed, by the end of the film they’ll matter a whole lot less (stay after the credits for a look at what’s coming next). The X-Men universe is crazy, colorful, and messy, and while Singer previously eschewed the craziness and the color to avoid the mess, this time he moves closer to the X-Men established by the comics while still highlighting the social and political issues that drew him to the characters in the first place. He leaves a little bit of a mess behind him, unable to fully do damage control on the films he didn’t have a hand in, but the final film and results are well worth it.  It took a trip to the past for Singer’s X-Men to finally find its footing and modernize itself enough to secure the franchise’s future.

Grade: A

Friday, May 16, 2014

Godzilla Review

(dir. Gareth Edwards)

Warner Bros./Toho

“The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.”

I grew up on Godzilla. Those films were one of my early ventures into science-fiction and the character was instrumental in my exploration of film. Gareth Edwards understands what makes the character and world he inhabits so special and enduring and it’s clear that movie is being directed by a fan. He successfully captures the realistic threat and fear of nuclear power alongside the inherent absurdities of giant monsters that were present in the original Toho series. Edwards manages to do this without the cynicism evident in post 9/11 blockbusters and his previous film Monsters, and creates a summer movie that has echoes of Spielberg’s work in the 70s and 80s.

The marketing for this film has been pitch perfect and the trailers withheld a number of story surprises that are best left to be experienced in the theatre. So with that being said there are significant plot details that I will leave out of this review. Much of story centers on human characters, specifically Ford Brody (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), an explosive ordinance disposal technician, who is pulled into a secret government project by his father Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Joe is conspiracy theorist, who for the past 15 years has been collecting evidence that the power plant explosion that killed his wife was not a natural disaster. Ford and Joe are enlisted by scientists Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) to deal with the threat of an escaped research project. Ford is faced with serving his country while trying to make it back home to his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and his son.

From the story description you would be correct to assume the film focuses more on the human characters than the titular Godzilla. But the human characters are well-written for the most part and though their stories are not entirely original they work well within the scope of the film. The acting from the leads is solid across the board, with Cranston and Watanabe getting the best lines. Aaron-Taylor Johnson isn’t a traditional leading action hero which added an interesting layer of realism to his character. Elizabeth Olsen does well capturing Elle’s panic, though she (along with Sally Hawkins) could have used more to do. The only other quibble about the script was that it followed in the tradition of having a few poorly written, over-expository lines for the military personnel to say unconvincingly.

Though some critics have complained about how long it takes for Godzilla to show up, I believe the pacing and focus on the human characters works extremely well. Beyond naming his main character Brody, Gareth Edwards influence from Jaws is evident. He withholds a full shot of the monster for as long as possible in order to create a truly earned finale. Because of this, Edwards avoids the issue of last summer’s Pacific Rim, where the best battle happens too early in the film, leaving the finale to feel like more of the same. The film pulls back just enough to ensure that the climax really was worth wanting for.

Beyond story and pacing, the film is truly a technical marvel. The atmosphere of the film is mesmerizing and haunting. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is simply beautiful and the shots of ruined cities, quarantined homes, and abandoned vehicles on the highway are likely to be some of the best shot settings you’ll see this year. The score from Alexandre Desplat is striking without becoming distracting or heavy-handed in its emotional cues. There are shades John Williams as well as touches of 2001: Space Odyssey within the soundtrack that are effectively chilling and capture the sense of adventure and massive scope of what’s unfolding. And finally the creature effects and motion capture are stunning. Godzilla looks like Godzilla should and is fully expressive. We’ve come a long way from men in rubber suits. I’d suggest you see the film on as large a screen as possible to catch all the details that were put into this.

In terms of its overall quality, Godzilla feels like a direct result of the blockbuster era that Christopher Nolan helped usher in: a big budget studio production that allowed for the artists to truly go after their goal with minimal interference. It’s a film that pays off and one that begs for a sequel but stands on its own as well. By the time the film reached its well-earned finale there was clapping and cheering from the audience, evidence that Godzilla is back and remains King of the Monsters.

Grade: A+

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

(dir. Marc Webb)


“You're Spider-Man, and I love that. But I love Peter Parker more.”

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the sequel to the 2012 reboot, is an entertaining albeit messy start to the 2014 summer movie season. The story picks up a little while after the first movie with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) graduating from high-school and struggling to balance his responsibility as a costumed hero with his relationship with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone). Peter’s personal life and responsibilities become more complicated by the rise of Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx) and the return of his childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan). Coupled with these plot points is Peter’s search for the answers behind his parents’ deaths.  

There’s a lot the film gets right—Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is the most comic-accurate interpretation of the character on film. He’s even more comfortable in the role than he was in the last film and completely captures Peter’s awkward charm and Spider-Man’s clever wit. Emma Stone shines as Gwen Stacey and while her chemistry with Garfield is evident she has enough screen presence on her own to make Gwen an interesting character in her own right. Webb smartly avoids using Gwen as a damsel in distress and makes her a fully realized character instead as simply an object of Peter’s affection. Marc Webb has a great feel for romantic relationships and the same touch he brought to 500 Days of Summer is evident in this. Ever since the days of Stan Lee, Spider-Man comics have contained soap-opera elements. Many of the best Spider-Man comics are ones focused on Peter’s relationships and supporting cast, as opposed to his villains and battles. But it’s the villains and battles that make for a summer blockbusters and this is unfortunately where the film becomes a mixed bag. 

Spider-Man’s villains for the most part are firmly rooted in their 60s origins and lack the readily apparent allegorical nature of Batman’s rogues. They are mostly scientists or petty crooks given immense abilities. As a whole they all represent the idea of power without responsibility. Both Raimi’s films and Webb’s have struggled with villains--differentiating them enough to be interesting, modernizing them enough to transcend their inherent cheesiness, but mostly they always feel like plot devices meant to complicate the real story--Peter’s personal and romantic life.

In the film Electro is made into yet-another nerdy scientist, whose beef with Spider-Man comes from the fact that he feels ignored and invisible. Jamie Foxx takes away all possible subtly the character could have held and makes Max Dillon into a caricature of a socially inept nerd. When he becomes Electro he brings a compelling gravitas to the character but the motivations for the character feel rushed and underdeveloped in order to make room for Harry Osborn’s transformation into the Green Goblin. Dane DeHaan conveys Harry’s sense of entitlement and desperation wonderfully but unfortunately his storyline is also rushed and seeded with conveniences to quickly keep things moving. With an extended cameo from the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) it would be easy to say that the film contains too many villains. But that isn’t the problem (after all Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was full of villains). The problem is that it seems the villains are primarily being used to set-up future installments instead of fleshing out the themes of the current film. And from the amount of lines and scenes used in the trailers that were not in the final cut, it seems that this film (like the first one) suffered from too much studio involvement.

But despite mismanagement of the villains the film succeeds in capturing the tone of the comics and is an overall improvement of Webb’s last film and of many aspects of Raimi’s series. In terms of sheer spectacle, the film completely succeeds. The special effects--web-slinging, wall-crawling, spider-sensing, and the whole works--are the best of any Spider-Man film. Ultimately it’s the emotional core Peter and Gwen that makes the movie and it’s impossible not to root for them. While it’s not perfect, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 feels closest to a true Spider-Man movie, just one that’s still learning how to be truly amazing.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Oculus Review

(dir. Mike Flanagan)

Relativity Media

“I’ve seen the devil, and he is me.”

            Mirrors can be terrifying. Reflections can reveal things we didn’t know were there, or draw attention to the things we’ve chosen to ignore.  Oculus relies on reflection-- the reflection seen in mirrors, self-reflection, and memory. The film follows Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) in their attempt to prove the antique mirror known as Lassar Glass is responsible for making their father murder their mother. Tim, recently released from a mental institution, attempts to rationalize their family’s misfortunes. Kaylie, on the other hand, is convinced, to the point of near-madness that the mirror is to blame. What follows are two storylines: flashbacks to Kaylie and Tim’s childhood and their first encounter with the mirror, and the present timeline where Tim and Kaylie struggle to define what is real as the mirror manipulates their perception.

Oculus is a smart film that relies more on narrative tricks and unsettling imagery than jump scares. Despite its R rating, the film as a whole is not particularly gory, which makes the scenes that are all the more unsettling.  The supernatural manifestations in the film are effectively chilling and even if they aren’t particularly different from what’s come before, the apparitions in this film provide a refreshing break from the exorcisms the horror genre has over-exposed over the last few years. For the most part, the story is rooted to a single location, the house where Kaylie and Tim grew up. Despite the external largeness of the house, Flanagan makes the house feel small as the action plays out inside, creating a sense of claustrophobia. This aspect, along with the supernatural-driven madness, makes the story feel reminiscent of The Shining at times (Stephen King’s novel moreso than Stanley Kubrick’s film) though this is merely a point of interest, rather than detraction.

 Where the film is most effective in its creation of suspense is its non-linear structure. Oculus blends flashbacks with the present narrative so the present-day characters are frequently encountering younger versions of themselves as they make their way through the house. The two narratives are kept separate enough to follow without creating any lasting confusion. It’s a wildly interesting way to play with the film’s theme of reflection and ensures the few jump scares that are in the film are really earned. It’s a technique that will likely be repeated in future releases.

Despite its originality, the film is not without its flaws. The beginning of the film is slightly hampered by a lengthy exposition on the history of the Lassar Glass and Kaylie’s plan to confront its evil. It’s necessary information but for a film that uses visuals in such interesting way there could have been a more successful way to deliver that information (though a number of the previous Lasser Glass-related incidents described could surely set-up riveting sequels/prequels.) Kaylie’s possible insanity is introduced early in the film, but dropped a little too quickly once the action ramps up. The possibility that the mirror brings out something in people that exists right under the surface seems to be touched upon but isn’t fully explored. Oculus is working with a lot of ideas and while all of them are interesting, some are not exposed to their terrifying potential.

Oculus is one of the more unique horror films in the past few years. Its experiment with narrative form brings something new to the genre. Mike Flanagan is definitely one to watch.

Grade: B+