Friday, July 11, 2014

SOMBER DAWNING: Despite Some Minor Flaws, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” Is A Marvel To Behold.

It’s rare when a fantasy-based film reaches a level of such sophisticated nuance it is on par with more reality based fare.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes achieves that rarified standard despite some very minor missteps.
 
Ten years have passed since the events of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).  In the interim, the human race is on the verge of extinction due to the Simian Flu (presented with brilliant yet chilling succinctness at the film’s opening). A relatively small colony of survivors living in the nature overrun ruins of San Francisco, led by survivalists Malcom (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), try to eke out a meager existence. Meanwhile, across the bay, a thriving simian colony exists, still led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising the role), and his “lieutenants” Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary) and Koba (Toby Kebbell). When a search party from San Francisco comes across the sons of Ceasar and Rocket (Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and Ash (Larramie Doc Shaw)), a misunderstanding occurs which sets of a chain of events which lead down the path to the inevitable conclusion that was presented in the original Planet of the Apes.
 
It has been said that the best science fiction has something to say; that it is allegorical to the prevailing concerns and issues that are taking place in real life. Where Dawn differs from most is that it is not heavy handed in terms of what is being critiqued (no doubt in part due to that one of the opposing sides is not human in the literal sense). Current foreign politics and affairs, LGBT rights issues, gun control, reactionary jingoism, generational disenfranchisement, tragedy engendered by fearful misunderstanding…all of these are represented…or maybe none of them.  The beauty of this is that this film boils down to the primal essence of all of these concerns…the need to survive; a need both sides share, but only a handful are forward thinking enough to understand that survival may only come from mutual cooperation…and that those few may not be enough to turn the tide.
 
For the first time, Andy Serkis is given top billing in a live-action film as a CGI character; and boy, does he earn it!  The motion captured, CGI rendered apes are a wonder to behold (though the CGI is far from perfect at times, especially when rendered in 3D). The film takes a similar route of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) by devoting much of its first act to represent the simian society.  Unlike the latter film, there’s no human in evidence and, in effect, no analogue for the viewer to identify with.  Serkis, in effect, has the Herculean task of making a CGI character identifiable, if not sympathetic. His performance in Rise is child’s play to what he does so beautifully here.  Cesar is now a family man with a sick companion Cornelia (Judy Greer, whose character’s name implies an ancestral connection between Cesar and Dr. Cornelius of the original Apes) and a rebellious teenager (Thurston). These family issues, and the leadership of the tribe, weigh heavy on Cesar’s shoulders and Serkis conveys it powerfully. Praise in this regard cannot be effusive enough.  He is the literal lynchpin of this film and if he did not work, the whole thing would fall apart.  Just for the sheer scope of the responsibility the actor bears in keeping this film together, Serkis should get an Oscar nomination. On the flip (human) side, Malcolm similarly shares Cesar’s situation.  His own son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is just as disconnected from his father in his own way, and initially unwilling to accept his father’s new lover, the medically capable Ellie (Keri Russell). He tries to keep the peace between the humans and the apes, but his partner Dreyfus fear and mistrust of the apes is a practically insurmountable stumbling block.
 
The only problem here is that this film’s 3D presentation is more three dimensional than some of the performances, which causes an odd disconnect between story and viewer at times to the extent that it quixotically lengthens the two hour screen time. In fact, Oldman is an actor of some respect and renown, yet the character he plays could essentially be played by anyone. There’s nothing here for him to really sink his thespian chops into. However, The Walking Dead’s Kirk Acevedo does stand out as a “racist” character that one would love to hate under normal circumstances; however the character’s motivations are so relatable as to make him borderline sympathetic (more on that in a minute). As does his simian opposite number, Koba (who you will recall as horrifically scarred ape who pushed Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) off the San Francisco Bridge), who bears an irrational hatred for humans; but, given the events of the first film, is also understandable. The journey of father/son reconnection is handled well in the end by both Thurston and McPhee, but for most of the film they are so annoying you’re left with the sense of wanting to slap them aside the head (which, given that they’re playing self-involved teenagers, is precisely the point). However, there are practically too many characters for even an accomplished director like Matt Reeves (Felicity) to juggle around and make three-dimensional.
 
The film is lavishly shot, with the set designers and cinematographers working together to create a believably rendered post-apocalyptic world. The City of San Francisco looks to have been assimilated by the practically tropical woodland that the apes inhabit. Michael Giacchino’s score evoking a sense of foreboding unease even as it emulates his Star Trek efforts at times; an unease that is also engendered by the tone of the story by scriptwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Mark Bomback.
 
Ostensibly, there are two characters that can be characterized as the story’s antagonists, but the real villains are “fear” and “mistrust”.  There are no true villains in the fictional sense.  That sets this film apart from others even as it undermines it. The inevitable battle between humans and apes is a sight to behold (after all, who doesn’t want to see apes riding on horseback armed to the teeth with deadly ordinance?). However, the geek power of the scene is balanced by the tragedy that underlies it. What would be an “Aw, YEAH!” moment in any other film is instead a moment of somber tragedy.  There is no joy to be found in the slaughter of innocents on both sides just to satisfy the jingoistic agenda of a very select few. In the end, this film is also about differences; or rather, the existence of similarity within difference.
 
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not a standard, feel good summer blockbuster. It’s a film that takes risks, and does so with laudable, beautiful presentation.  While it does have some yawn inducing (i.e. boring) spots, it is a triumph in filmmaking, building on the world presented in Rise. For all its fantasy, it’s rooted in very real problems. Don’t expect any cheers or a pat resolution. This film serves as a sobering indictment of the consequences of allowing fear, antipathy, and hate to rule the day.

Friday, June 27, 2014

BABES, BOOMS, BOOZE, ‘BOTS…BOREDOM. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” Edges The Franchise Closer To It.

Within the first ten minutes of Michael Bay’s Transfomers: Age of Extinction, an ancillary character says something to the effect of “sequels and reboots are all a bunch of crap”; a metatextually line of acknowledgement that, in Michael Bay’s hands, can either be taken as a challenge to belie the statement or as serve a “f*** you” to the audience as he’s about to fling it at you like a pissed off caged monkey. The film, and I term it loosely, is more latter than former.
 
Taking place five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), the Transformers, both Autobot and Deceptacon, are deemed unwanted aliens and are systematically hunted down by a government agency run by rogue CIA agent Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer) with the help of an alien robotic force led by an entity called “Lockdown” (Mark Ryan), whose mission is to find the gone-missing Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). In the meantime, a down-on-his-luck, single father inventor named Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), discovers Prime's remains and finds himself, his daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her race car boyfriend Shane Dyson (Jack Reynor) drawn into events that involve…
 
…remember that analogy about monkeys above? Well, that’s kind of what the plot feels like. After the relatively poor performance of the previous installment (in comparison to the first two that preceded it), there was a need to up the ante on this one.  While Ehren Kruger is credited with writing the film, the narrative is so disjointed it barely holds itself together as such.  It’s as if someone took a monkey, gave it poo with plot ideas written on them, flung it against the wall, and saw what stuck which, given what’s packed in the overlong running time, seems like everything. That’s the whole tragedy in this film.
 
One of the major rules of storytelling (never introduce an element if it is not intended to be used, a rule especially espoused by Alfred Hitchcock) is violated many times. There are some really good ideas, one of which never before explored in the entirety of the “Transformer” “mythology”, and those ideas are built up. However, there is never a payoff on any of them. There is more a pastiche of “wouldn’t this be cool if…” than an actual cohesive, linear storyline.  Now, directing actors have never been Bay’s strong suit; but at least in his previous films his characters had a sense, however thin, of consistency. In Extinction, character motivations change at a moment’s notice to a simian head scratching degree. Mark Wahlberg would be a welcome addition to the franchise solely for the fact that he’s NOT Shia LeBeouf. However, he is certainly the most enthusiastic and sympathetic member of any Transformers film. His character is the relatable anchor for the human point of reference; despite being a gifted tinker, his inventions never work and he is due to lose his home. In that role, he works. The only other human performance worthy of note is John Turturro stand-in Stanley Tucci as a blatant Steve Jobs rip-off who is out to destroy the Transformers for his own purposes.  His character is completely disjointed, but at least his over-the-top histrionics make for entertaining fare. The rest of the cast are nothing more than the usual Michael Bay stock cut outs characters (the "hot girl", the "rebel boyfriend", the "homicidal muscle", etc.) that do their jobs adequately for the purposes of what passes for a film. The CGI is perhaps the best this series has seen, despite some weaknesses in translation to 3D.  However, I can honestly say that for the first time in a Transformers movie I could identify which robot was fighting whom with each ‘bot having a look as distinctive as their personality.
 
However, this is a Michael Bay party, and he’s brought his usual testosterone-jacked bag of tricks:  Ascending point-of-view car exits, babes in short shorts that would make Catherine Bach blush, sssslllloooooowwww-moooooooo, hardware (military and otherwise), booze, Steve Jablonsky’s staccato military rhythms, product placement galore, and the boom, Boom, BOOM! But much like the lens flare in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek production, the elements are so overdone here Extinction comes across as a parody of a Michael Bay production; some moments so obviously pandering that they are groan inducing caricature. The movie could have been significantly improved if Bay hadn’t seemingly fired his editor as the action sequences go so long that by the time the “money shots” are arrived at, one is either past caring or just relieved that it’s finally over. More and more is thrown into the ramped up battle scenes, with John Goodman’s “Hound”, Ken Watanabe’s “Drift”, John DiMaggio’s “Crosshairs” and Robert Foxworth’s “Ratchet” reminding us that this movie is ostensibly about robots in disguise is really a study in machismo excess (everybody’s running around chasing a “seed”…yeeeeaaaah….)…not that there’s anything wrong with that if it weren’t so disjointedly blatant. As far as I’m concerned, so long as Peter Cullen continues to voice Optimus the character itself can do no wrong. But even actor and character are slaves to the story. By the time Optimus gets to his own “money shot” of riding the Dinobot “Grimlock”, among others, the movie has gone on for so long the viewer is left too confused about the shenanigans to care. Situations, motivations, and locations all jump around to such a leap frog extent that it feels like someone tried to condense all six Star Wars films into a two hour plus running time. When one says that an episode of the original Transformers (1984) cartoon was better executed in story and presentation than a big-budgeted, big screen adaptation, there’s a problem.
 
All in all, Transformers: Age of Extinction is a poorly designed robot; some parts work, others are mismatched and grind like nails on chalkboard. The sad fact is it really is like visiting monkeys at the zoo.  The cute monkey will fling the poo at you with disdain, but the audience will still shell out the money to watch not realizing they’re essentially paying for the privilege of being shat on.

Monday, June 9, 2014

MALEFICENT IS LESS THAN MAGNIFICENT: Angelina Jolie's Performance Saves The Film From Crashing Down Upon Its Revisionist Foundations [MINOR SPOILERS]


Put succinctly, Maleficent is Disney’s Man of Steel.
 
That’s not necessarily a good thing.
 
The most curious aspect about the release of Disney’s live action feature Maleficent, directed by first time director Robert Stromberg and starring Angelina Jolie’s cheekbones with supporting assist by Angelina Jolie, is the missed opportunity of rereleasing 1959’s Sleeping Beauty on DVD. Upon viewing the movie, it is crystal clear why the action did not take place.  Clearly, Disney has jumped upon the revisionist bandwagon to such an extent that it has employed that most insulting and lazy of fictional tropes: Everything you know is WRONG.
 
Given the Maleficent’s character design (as well as that of the castle) and the fact the film carries the distinction of being Disney, there’s a reasonable inference that the film was to tell the story of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty from Maleficent’s point of view.  Nothing could be further from the truth. The studio subverts its own 1959 animated presentation to such an extent it is barely recognizable, turning one of the  most (if not the  most) deliciously, unrepentant villains in Disney’s Pantheon of Evil into a vengeful but sympathetic anti-heroine; one barely recognizable from the source material.  Now, the 1959 film is by no means 100% faithful to its source material either (with permutations too long to summarize here), but this is a unique take in that Disney is revising its own "history"; interesting, if not satisfying.
 
In this retelling, Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy (pre-teen); Ella Purnell (teen); Angelina Jolie (adult)) is reimagined as a good fairy that protects the kingdom known as “The Moors”, a land that is populated by fantastical, supernatural beings that abuts a human kingdom in an uneasy truce. When young Maleficent is called upon to see to a thieving human boy Stefan (Michael Higgins (pre-teen); Jackson Bews (Teen); Sharlto Copley (adult)) who has trespassed into the “The Moors”, they strike up an unlikely friendship that becomes something more. Upon adulthood, Copley betrays her in his quest to become king. Violated and disillusioned, Maleficent becomes vengeful, hard, and aloof.  Years later, when the married King Stefan presents his daughter Aurora, the uninvited Maleficent arrives to invoke the infamous sleeping curse, albeit in circumstances altered from the original Disney film.
 
Most everyone knows the story of “Sleeping Beauty” (at least, the Disney cinematic version).  But here, this is less a fairy tale for adults and more of a study of cultural inversion. There has been a trend since the early 90s in pop culture media to have the hero become the villain and vice versa.  Both Wicked and Oz: The Great and Powerful show the Wicked Witch of the West in a more sympathetic light. In the world of comics, both Doctor Octopus and Lex Luthor have supplanted their respective super-heroic foes by becoming effective heroes in their own right. Both the Dark Lords of the night and the Sith have become tragic pawns in the name of love, with Van Helsing and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively, represented as unsympathetic antagonists. General Zod isn’t “bad”, he was just, to borrow from Lady Gaga, born that way, etc. Regardless, the above-mentioned characters retain their now-somewhat-muted villainy. Maleficent goes one step further.  She herself is completely reimagined to such an extent that she goes from “villain” to “violated victim” and “anti-hero”, bringing a logical (and in the wake of the recent events in Santa Barbara, California, a decidedly uncomfortable) justification for her actions, and it changes the story into something other than “Sleeping Beauty”. The names remain the same, but the characters and motivations are so different as to render them practically unrecognizable; that it could have conceivably been its own story without affiliation to the source story. It further pushes a theme introduced in Disney’s latest animated release, Frozen, regarding the notion that a “one true love” does not necessarily mean romantic love. Conspiracy theorists would have a field day with this film regarding the advancement of hidden agendas, given how some of the characterizations play out.
 
The question remains as to whether or not Maleficent is a good film on its own merits. The answer is, like so many other recent films, it's a lustrous moving painting that reveals its flaws upon further scrutiny; a mixed bag as a film proper.  The story penned by no less than seven credited screenwriters, which gives credence to the old adage of “too many cooks.” For example, a few events that take place within the story, including the climax, requires the viewer to fill in a few blanks for themselves from inference without providing sufficient pre-established cues to justify them (an example involves a Deux Ex Machina in the climax).
 
It's not hyperbole to say that without Angelina Jolie there would be no live-action Maleficent. While her physical disposition makes her the perfect actress, it is her innate intelligence and bearing that make it work. As the pre-betrayed Malificent she is serviceable. It's when the character goes to the dark side that she allows herself to gleefully relish the role with dry, witty, cheeky acerbity. Her comedic timing is impeccable, and it's only near the end where she raids Michelle Pffeiffer's fetish closet does her performance hit a sour note. In truth, she is really the only reason to watch this film; she manages to make the incongruous motivations of the character plausibly work. It's certainly not for the slipshod special effects. Half the time they're a work of picturesque artistry.  Others, the digital effects are so cheesily obvious (even in 2D) it's a wonder how the Disney studio allowed its name to be attached to the project; most egregiously with the three fairy godmothers, all of whom look like Gollum's little sisters. Instead of magical, the CGI renders them grotesquely.
 
Elle Fanning is sufficiently beguiling as Aurora, the unwitting pawn in the film's game of vengeance. She's acts as quasi-foil for the titular character and manages to build a credible relationship with her. It’s their revamped relationship that becomes the focal point of the film. While the onus of the burden of the film’s carriage falls on Jolie’s shoulders, Fanning assists in carrying the weight quite nicely.
 
Sharito Coplay, as King Stefan, manages to lose all the crazy charm he displayed in The A-Team for just plain crazy. His performance is disjointedly interesting, if bordering on one-note, as it’s left for the viewer (again, via inference) if his descent into madness is due to conscience, fear, or both. His performance is inconsistent and perhaps that was the intent. However, like the story beats, the relationship dynamics are filled in by the viewer via inference. Unfortunately, this compromises the dynamics between protagonist and antagonist so that when they finally, inevitably meet in the climax, the result is not as satisfying as it should have been.
 
The less said about Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple as the ersatz “Fairy Godmothers”, the better.
 
Special note must be made to actor Sam Riley who plays the anamorphic Diaval, who provides a much needed balance and reason to the film. Given all the subtextual misogyny the majority of the male characters portray in this film, he provides the one example that, gosh darn it, not all guys are bad (but then, it’s an easily obviated argument given that Diaval is a crow transformed into a man, not vice versa, and thus a magical creature, not a true man). Actor Brenton Thwaites is just window dressing as the ineffectual Prince Phillip.
 
James Newton Howard's score tries to be a mix of Disney Classic and vintage Williams and it works for the film, even if there isn't one particular melody which stands out.
 
The film will undoubtedly be a hit and does have a few things going for it. It’s a lush production with a strong feminist foundation and does provide positive messages regarding true love and strength of character. Yet it would have been more risky, daring, and interesting to portray Maleficent as the character in the original Sleeping Beauty. However, here Disney plays it safe, leading to a transmogrification of character that defangs Maleficent both in film and in person. In trying to explain the magic, the producers have done nothing but totally undermine it.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“EDGE OF TOMORROW” WILL LEAVE YOU ON THE EDGE OF YOUR SEAT.

If you were to ask someone “what would you get if you crossed Groundhog Day (1993) with Mecha Anime[?]”, one of the most unlikely responses you’re liable to get is “a kick-ass Tom Cruise vehicle”; yet that is exactly what you get with Edge of Tomorrow.
 
Based on the Hiroshi Sakurzzaka novel ”All You Need Is Kill”, the story takes place, in what is implied through the use of real life cable news anchor cameos, to be the near future.  A race of aliens, known as “Mimics” (due to their ability to copy and anticipate military battle strategies), have overrun and decimated most of Europe.  However, despite their seeming invincibility, a series of successes effectuated by Special Forces solider Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) bolster the war effort to the extent that a final assault to eradicate the threat once and for all is planned.  Self-aggrandizing, cowardly advertising executive Major William Cage (Cruise) is ordered by General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to film the battle at the front lines. When he tries to charm his way out of said duty, he is forcefully subdued and sent to the front lines as an infantryman and falsely identified as a deserter, much to the delight of J-Squad infantry unit leader Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton, whose presence, along with the set-up of J-Squad, heavily recalls Aliens (1986)). Terrified and way out-of-depth his depth, Cage is killed within five minutes upon arrival at the battlefront; but not before kills a rare, large blue-alien known as an “Alpha”.  Upon his death, he “resets” back to the present day. The character is well named as he is “caged” in a Ragnarokian time loop as time resets itself upon his death(s).*  It’s not until he saves Vrataski’s life that Cage begins to unravel the mystery of his condition and use his newfound power to aid in the war effort.
 
The advance trailers for the film depicted a bleak dystopian future, filled with the oppressive, hopeless desolation that has become the hallmark of modern sci-fi actioners. However, what sets this film apart is that it balances the proceedings with a healthy sense of humor due in no small part to Doug Liman’s direction and Cruise, who’s given the opportunity to poke fun at his own acting clich├ęs (a scene where he repeatedly flashes his pearly-white chompers is especially amusing) and makes the humorous most of the film’s “videogame reset” conceit (thus preventing the trope from becoming tiresome). Eventually, he defaults into his “dependable action-hero” persona, but he is effective in this playing-against-type turn.  In any event, the film shows that Cruise still has a few more “action hero” years left in him.
 
The film’s true star, however, is Emily Blunt, the resident "Valkyrie" who makes “The Angel of Verdun” a compelling, complex character; she is both dangerous and vulnerable all at once, and Blunt and Cruise share a great give-and-take dynamic. Credit must be given to Cruise in the fact that he knows when to dominate a scene and when to let his costar shine, which Blunt does. In their respective roles, both Gleeson and Paxton are stubbornly gruff, but Paxton is (in a rare case) especially entertaining; almost stealing every scene he appears in. 
 
Both the visual effects and cinematography are top notch; a gritty realism permeates each frame despite the fantastical nature of the elements.  Like last year’s Pacific Rim, it is an anime come to life; however, one that is slightly more convincing and, dare I say, compelling. The aliens are disquieting, tentacled monsters reminiscent of the robots in the Matrix films, and the battle suits are sufficiently convincing. Christopher Beck’s score is by turns pulse pounding and insidious, effectively highlighting both the action and the suspense.
 
The script, by Dante Harper (uncredited), Christopher McQuarrie, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, is surprisingly clever, catching the viewer unawares with certain revelations via dialogue throughout the film.  If there’s any weakness, it’s in the third act, where the lighting and editing make for a more muted visual experience.  Some might find the ending a bit pat but, given the bleakness in most summer blockbusters to date, it’s rather refreshing.
 
A clever script, heavy action, humor, and solid performances blend to make Edge of Tomorrow better than it should be. It is a highly enjoyable film that carries dramatic heft but does not take itself too seriously, and one that merits big screen viewing. You’ll LIVE through the action, you won’t DIE of boredom, and you’ll want REPEAT viewing.
 
 *Special thanks to Ian Morris for the analogical assist.

Friday, May 23, 2014

DAYS OF SEQUELS FUTURE: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Guarantees the The X-Men’s Cinematic Future

Admittedly, 20th Century Fox’ X‑Men franchise (including the spin-offs) has been somewhat floundering in quality since Bryan Singer’s departure from directorial duties after 2003’s X-Men 2. Some have been quite good (The Wolverine) and others…not so much (X-Men: The Last Stand). So much so that a “soft” reboot in the form of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) was necessitated. Bryan Singer himself has taken a few hits, both professionally (Valkyrie, Superman Returns) and (in recent days) personally. However, X-Men: Days of Future Past ushers in a return to form for both the director and the franchise.
 
The story begins in the not-too-distant future wherein mutants are being systematically slaughtered by giant robots known as “Sentinels”, who were conceptualized in the early 1970s by a millionaire industrialist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) for the sole purpose of their eradication. When Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates him for his slaughtering of mutants in the name of science, it sets of the chain of events that lead to the true “last stand” of Homo Superior.  In a last desperate bid for survival, the few remaining mutants, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan), devise a plot to send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past in order to prevent Mystique from succeeding in her task. However, in order to do so Logan will have to engage the help of the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively); no mean feat as, given the events chronicled in First Class (2011), the two men couldn’t be any further apart ideologically or emotionally.
 
In a sense, Days of Future Past is Bryan Singer’s Star Trek: Generations (coincidentally starring Patrick Stewart) as he has to juggle elements and casts from two iterations of the same franchise and balance them out.  For the most part, he succeeds where Generations failed. While Hugh Jackman is the ostensible star, every main character is given equal weight; an impressive undertaking as he served only as a producer of First Class and, thus, had not worked with the new cast in a directorial capacity until now. Yet, the film feels like he’s deftly handled those characters this entire time. Given that the bulk of the film takes place in the past, much of the returning regulars from the previous X-Men films, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore),  and Rogue (Anna Paquin), get the short shrift in screen time. But in their case, quantity does not equate to quality as their characters, and newcomer to the franchise Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, are pivotal to the story in their own ways, as is scene stealer Evan Peters as Quicksilver, the fastest mutant alive. A super speedy smart-ass, he practically owns the movie in just one stellarly-rendered scene that borrows from the climax of the animated film Over The Hedge (2006). 
 
As far as the main players go, the performances are indeed sublime. The real life bromance between McKellan and Stewart adds to their characters’ relationship in the future and heightens the contrast of said relationship of their younger selves. The contrast between the young and old is powerful. McAvoy’s Xavier is self-loathing and depressed, while Fassbender’s Eric Lehnsherr, while still duplicitously arrogant, is much more conflicted and unsure. The tension between them, the hurt and longing, is practically palpable. Interestingly enough, Hollywood’s current “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s performance makes one forget that she is the second actor to play the live-action Mystique. As the villain of the piece, Peter Dinklage is rather…ordinary; not that that assertion is an indictment. As Trask, he is Americanized Tyrion Lannister in a polyester business suit; a study in charismatic banality, providing contextual logic to his monstrous actions (only in one moment in the film does his performance seem to slip into "Simon Legree" territory; a hiccup in an otherwise interesting turn). Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast is given much more to do this time around, with the producers having taken a page from Marvel’s The Avengers, to give McCoy the appropriate “hulk out” moments (though not nearly as satisfying).
 
Hugh Jackman has come a long way since he first donned the Adamantium claws. What’s always interesting about Jackman is that despite the amount of times he’s played the character he always seems to find a new facet to explore.  This time, Logan is the guide instead of the guided. He must mentor the self-destructive Xavier. Despite having the experience and knowledge of Xavier’s history, he is as unsure as the young Xavier is. It is a unique and unfamiliar position for the character to take and Jackman evinces this superbly.
 
The X-Men: Days of Future Past screenplay by Simon Kinberg, (very loosely…I repeat, VERY LOOSELY… based on the comic book storyline of the same name by writers Chris Claremont and John Byrne) coupled with the editing from Singer’s partner-in-crime John Ottman allows for a film that is mostly tight. There are a couple of set up scenes that almost Tarantino-esque (meaning, goes way too long), but they are few and excusable. The time travel theories used in the film are plausible for the story logistics (so long as one does not dwell on them too much). Ottman’s score, as usual, does justice to the film but is eminently forgettable out of context. The special effects are top notch, though 3-D does call attention to some of its weaknesses but it’s not too distracting. Some die-hard X-Men fans may scoff at the design of the Sentinels themselves, but as rendered in both the past and the future they are appropriately menacing.
 
Singer plays fast and loose with continuity, both in terms of history in general and the X-Men films in particular.  However, he does have an eye for detail and a sense of pop culture kitsch of the era (one to particularly humorous effect), and does a good job of tying in some subplots from the previous films, thereby placing First Class and this film firmly into the fold. For anyone who had issues with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (and those numbers are legion), let’s just say that this film offers vindication.
 
The film, however, is big...nay, epic...in scope; arguably as much as Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. As the film progresses, it gets bigger in visuals, in scope, and in stakes, building to a resounding crescendo. Despite the change in directors, the sense of anything-can-happen begun in First Class is continued here; especially as the film rushes to its conclusion. And what a finale it is. Singer’s direction is so tight that it literally ratchets up the suspense. Many of the people who will view this film will be more than familiar with the story upon which it is based. However, it is a testament to his skill that despite this, the viewer catches their breath waiting to see how these things play out.  If only Singer had brought this sort of deftness to Valkyrie and Superman Returns. Singer’s predilection towards themes of isolation, segregation, and persecution are on display here, but here they’re tempered with a sense of family. At least to this reviewer, for the first time the characters feel as though they are part of a larger family. Without that feeling, this film would not be as potent.

It’s been a while since I have seen Singer’s previous X-Men films but I can say that I was not as invested in these characters cinematically until this particular film. Despite the fantasy, the film is anchored in very relatable, human emotion. The fans will enjoy the little Easter eggs that pepper the film and the game of “name that mutant” that goes with it. For the non-fans, there is enough action, suspense, and emotion to satisfy. In whole, this is a film on par with Marvel’s The Avengers. The torch has been passed between the original and new cast (though expect to see Jackman as Wolverine in a film or two to come), and with this film, the future of the X-Men franchise on film is practically assured.
 
Sorry, Marvel Studios.

Friday, May 2, 2014

OH, WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE: "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" Thrills Despite a Disjointed Presentation [MINOR SPOILERS]

When Marvel Comics produced the first issue of “The Fantastic Four” in 1961, it heralded a change in comic book storytelling. No longer did each story exist in a vacuum but, as in real life, events in one story would have consequences in another with subplots being carried over the course of months in myriad issues. This soap-operatic tone was not only perfected in, but was an integral part of, “The Amazing Spider-Man” from the late sixties into and through the seventies (which included the 1970’s introduced companion title, “Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man”). It was a comic filled with teen angst, mystery, romance, and tragedy (and, oh yeah, super-heroics and costumed super-villains). In this sense, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 truly is a comic book come to life. From the manner of storytelling to the character voices and the visuals, the film is a homage to that era of Spider-Man comics even as it tries to work within modern storytelling aesthetics.
 
Coming off the heels of the last film, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is standing in sundry crossroads: whether to continue find out what happened to his parents Richard and Mary Parker; whether or not to honor his vow to the late Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary) to stay away from his daughter Gwen (Emma Stone). In the meantime, Peter’s old childhood friend, Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), returns from exile and discovers that he is dying from a rare genetic disease inherited from his father, Norman (Chris Cooper). Meanwhile, a quintessential, emotionally unhinged “nobody” named Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), who was saved by Spider-Man, becomes the victim of an industrial accident at Oscorp that leaves him forever changed. During all of this, Gwen grows weary of Peter’s on again/off again inner struggle and calls off their relationship.
 
If that’s a lot to digest, that’s because it is.  The problem here is that Webb and screenwriters Alex Krutzmen, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pikner, and James Vanderbilt are trying to condense storylines that would take at least a year to tell in comic book form into a two hour, twenty-two minute run time (thus making an argument that what works in one medium may not work in another).  While the film is enjoyable, it's extremely disjointed. Webb tries to balance comic book aesthetic with real life. This film implies that such a balance is indeed delicate because at times the movie strays too far one way or the other. Jamie Foxx, an extremely capable actor, falls way too far into caricature in his first few scenes though he more than makes up for same when he assumes the mantle of the super-villain “Electro”. DeHaan plays Osborne as if someone had saved Jack Dawson from the Titanic, transported him through time to the present, dyed his hair, and gave him crazy pills. This DiCaprio-lite interpretation of Osborne is just as distracting as Foxx’ overacting and takes one out of the picture. The same can also be said of star Garfield at times, as the tics and mannerisms he imbues Peter Parker with are maddeningly overdone. Also in evidence is a German mad scientist caricature reminiscent of Dr. Kaufman in Tomorrow Never Dies or John Glover’s turn as Dr. Jason Woodrue in Batman and Robin. Assuming arguendo that the intent of the film is to homage that era of comic book storytelling, these characterizations are arguably spot on in keeping with that era. However, Webb is also trying to keep things “real” and, as such, the combination of these two styles are discordantly jarring. The script makes a couple of head scratching leaps in logic in order to keep the story going, but for the most part they’re not distracting enough to remove you from the action. Unfortunately, the "too many villains" syndrome in these type of films doesn't help matters here. However, given how broadly drawn (pun intended) these villains are it's almost forgivable; almost.
 
Now, as far as being a comic book come to life, the visuals are just, with perhaps a small bit of pun intended, “amazing”. While a 3D viewing will compromise the integrity of the CGI, the film is stunning to look at.  The cinematography of New York City (where the film was entirely shot) is lovingly rendered.  The web-swinging sequences are a joy to behold, and one scene at the commencement of the climactic battle between Spider-Man and Electro wherein the visuals are practically ripped from the comics.
           
What truly elevates this film are the leads.  Some would consider their real life relationship an acting “cheat”, but the chemistry between Garfield and Stone is the film's real hook.  Despite various missteps in his performance this time around, Garfield gets the essence of the Spider-Man character; most especially in the quieter moments such as one involving a bullied child.  As Gwen Stacy, Stone proves to be a formidable partner to both Parker and Spider-Man. She imbues Stacy with a subtlety that is, at certain moments, almost heartbreaking to watch. While their dialogue together is more quip than actual heart to heart, it’s what Stone and Garfield communicate behind their words, the energy between them, that sells their relationship (both on-and-off screen); sincerity in a world of fantasy. However, theirs are not the only performances that stick with you.  In one small yet pivotal scene, Sally Field reminds the world why she is an Oscar-winning actress. Dennis Leary, who cameos as the foreboding specter of Captain Stacy, says more with a look than some actors do with five pages of dialogue. And Paul Giamatti has a grand old time hamming it up as the Russian “Rhino”. Yes, another caricature; but he’s having so much fun with what little he’s given to do you just don’t give a damn and go with it.
 
Hans Zimmer ostensibly takes over the musical duties from James Horner, though he leaves the heavy lifting to “The Magnificent Six” (comprised of Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr, Michael Einziger, Junkie XL, Andrew Kawczynski and Steve Mazzaro). However, to his credit he does continue certain motifs, if not the actual orchestrations, established by Horner: an adaptation of Spider-Man’s theme, quiet piano for the romantic moments between Peter and Gwen, a schizophrenically comical yet dangerous theme for Electro, etc. However, it’s replete with the bombast Zimmer is known for. However, here it’s appropriate. It’s a diverse score that combines modern rock with quasi-classical movie scoring, providing a tone that matches the film in more ways than one.
 
Certain story arcs come full circle. Just like in the comics, this film features themes of the “sins of the father”, duality, identity, super power fantasies made manifest, and tragedy; heaps of tragedy. Those who have followed Spider-Man lore know to what I’m referring.  But there are also themes of redemption, paying it forward, inspiration, hope (hope that is inspired, not deceptively implied in an alien symbol), and most importantly, fun.  For all its strum and drang, despite the tragedy that is a hallmark of the character, the character of Spider-Man is one of fun, and while he’s in costume Garfield captures that essence in quip and mannerism beautifully.
 
This new franchise is a divisive one as it rewrites/reimagines stories and relationships both established in the Raimi and the source material. There will be some who will hate this film simply on that basis. However, on its own merits, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an uneven affair in terms of performances, story beats, and logic. However, for the most part, its pros far outweigh its cons.  Certain questions are answered, more are raised (for the inevitable sequel). Certain story arcs come full circle. While the details may be debated, the heart behind it cannot be. The Amazing Spider-Man is a mess but a highly enjoyable one and merits a big screen viewing.

 

Friday, April 4, 2014

AMERICA'S WINTER WONDERLAND - "Captain America: The Winter Solider" is a Film That Epically Restores Faith in Fictional Heroism

 

As dusk gives way to dawn, the opening bars of Alan Silvestri’s “Captain America Theme” mournfully yet heroically play as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) goes on his morning run.  This opening scene acts as subtle foreshadowing of the themes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, which essentially asks the question: “Whatever happened to Truth, Justice, and the American Way?” Evidently, the concepts jumped ship to Marvel Studios for this film is arguably the best of all the single Marvel action hero movies to date.
 
The story takes place three years after the events of 2012’s Marvel's The Avengers. During that time, Steve Rogers has become a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative under the guidance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Partnered with Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. “The Black Widow” (a stunning Scarlett Johansson), he is assigned to what he considers ethically questionable missions. However, when Nick Fury is implicated in a conspiracy to compromise national security, Rogers goes rogue. He must try to ferret out the truth while figuring out the mystery of “The Winter Soldier”, a cybernetic assassin who has targeted not only Fury, but the Captain himself.
 
Of all the characters in Marvel’s current cinematic staple, Captain America is the hardest sell to the sensibilities of a modern audience. In terms of what he represents (in scope if not in power), he is Marvel’s analogue to Superman (a character who had to undergo a considerable darkening in order to become palatable to today’s moviegoers). And like Superman, as different as dark is to light, so are the Captain’s Great Depression ideologies regarding trust, honor, and heroism to the realities of modern warfare. In truth, “terrorism” in all its forms has become the default raison d’etre for these types of films. As The Hunger Games, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, and even Divergent can attest. It’s no longer enough for a bank robbery or a mad scientist scheme to be a reasonable call to super-heroic action.  Yet here, the results of those concerns are plausibly presented. All the opposing political rhetoric regarding national security is in bas relief here, with the Marvel Universe’s S.H.I.E.L.D. organization taking the place of the NSA. The film begs the question whether someone as out of time (and touch) as Steve Rogers has a place in this era, and not just in reference to dealing with “the enemy”.
 
Speaking of dealing with the enemy, it is violent endeavor here. The film is all technical spy spectacle; a throwback to the spy thrillers of the post-Watergate 1970s (made all the more apparent by the presence of Robert Redford as head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Alexander Pierce, a character’s whose ideologies run in contrast to his turns in All The President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor), while embracing the violent excesses of the modern spy genre with frighteningly plausible shades of Minority Report thrown in for good measure. However, its presentation cannot be faulted for its excesses. Unlike the aforementioned Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, where the majority of the fight scenes were obscured through camera slight-of-hand, the fight scenes here are beautifully choreographed in such a way as to be distinct, yet somehow seem naturally, brutally spontaneous.  The special effects are mostly done in the “old school” style, with as little CGI as possible, but rendered in such a way as to be “old school” in the best sense of the term; a throwback to the days when the term “star destroyer” was something to be marveled at (no pun intended). The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also play S.H.I.E.L.D. interrogators in the film), loosely based on the works of comics scribe Ed Brubaker (who also cameos in the film), is tight and practically uncontrived. The film’s 136 minute running time moves breezily, deftly giving poignant heft to even the quiet moments, of which there are many. This is still, after all, the story about a man who just happens to be a super-hero forced to live in a world he never made, holding on to values and ideals that have become outmoded. This contrast is made especially clear in the film’s score. Silvestri’s theme is only given respectful acknowledgement, showing to lyrically remind us what Captain America stands for. However, when Henry Jackman’s score kicks in, it shows a marked thematic contrast; expressing acoustics more representative of the modern era. But remarkably, unlike his X-Men: First Class effort, this score balances heroism with the discordant sounds he attributes to The Winter Soldier himself (which is somewhat reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s theme for The Joker in The Dark Knight). The score is in turns claustrophobic, discordant, jarring, yet rousing, emotional, tragic and heroic and used effectively to highlight each scene’s atmospheric intent.
 
I’ll say it here. Chris Evans IS Captain America.  He owns the role the way Sean Connery did James Bond; Robert Downey, Jr. with Tony Stark; and a certain other Christopher who came to epitomize another red and blue clad hero. His body language embodies the character in such a way that one believes what comes out of his mouth, no matter how hokey or schmaltzy it may sound in this day and age from someone else’s.  With two previous films under his belt, he’s made the role his own, making the character as, if you’ll excuse the term, bad ass as any in Marvel’s staple. Of course, his is not the only performance of note. The Russos have managed to make CA:TWS an ensemble piece; each member of the supporting cast are fully realized in their own right.  Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is given more depth and pathos than in any previous offering. In fact, he’s the lynchpin to much of the proceedings. Jackson imbues world-weariness upon Fury not seen before; Jackson makes the audience feel his character’s turmoil regarding S.H.I.E.L.D. and his place in it. As Black Widow, Johansson continues to redefine the expectations of the female protagonist. She is Rogers’ equal, in some ways her superior, yet she evidences a vulnerability also not explored before on film; managing to sell it without compromising her character’s strength and integrity.  Newcomer to the franchise Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson (a.k.a Marvel’s answer to Hawkman, The Falcon) elevates his character from its 70s blacksploitation roots into a force to be reckoned with, being the one individual who still believes in Captain America even when all hope seems lost. The chemistry between Evans and Mackie feels naturally right. You buy it.  In his film performance, MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre makes perhaps one of the lamest characters in all of comicdom, Batroc the Leaper (don’t ask), into a major threat.  Of special note are the aforementioned Robert Redford and Sebastian Stan as The Winter Soldier. To say anymore would reveal too much (if one hasn't read the comics, that is). However, Stan while says very little his body language speaks volumes. The filmmakers understand that all the best villains are used judiciously. For those who want the Soldier to have a lot of screen time will be sorely disappointed. However, what he does when he’s on the screen MORE than makes up for it.
 
To say any more, such as analyzing the themes of identity, duality, and paranoia, would reveal too much of the film and it is with great restraint that I hold back.  Yes, "restraint", because the movie is just…that…GOOD.  It’s a movie that makes pure, unadulterated, and unapologetic heroism epic and “cool” again, continuing the restoration of wonder and adventure that have been a hallmark of Marvel’s most recent films; and it does so with the right blend of pathos, action, and humor. In short, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (or, as Anthony Mackie once humorously put, Avengers 1.5) is a cinematic triumph. It has everything anyone could ever want in this sort of film. In a sense, it serves as antithesis to Man of Steel, showing that one does not have to completely compromise character integrity to fit modern sensibilities. This is one of those rare films I give my highest recommendation.
 
P.S.  Be sure to look closely for a particular tombstone. Not all Easter eggs are Marvel related. ;)