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Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past



The future is not set. There is no fate but what we erase for ourselves. This, paraphrased, is the theme of X-Men: Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer's triumphant return to the helm of X-Men after a decade. The phrasing, among other things, is borrowed from James Cameron's Terminator and Terminator 2, which Days of Future Past invokes in its opening scenes of a horrifying future (circa 2023, more or less, from the math we are given) where the mutant race has lost a war against humanity and their final solution robot weapons, the Sentinels. With "the worst of humanity" now in charge (details are sketchy), the future of Days of is an post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape of eternal night, huddled survivors trudging along like in a Macintosh commercial from 1984, the bones of the dead crunching under their boots, and omnipotent, shape shifting robots dropping from Borg cubes in the forbidding skies to massacre what's left of the ragtag mutant race. Is this really "winning" a war for humanity? Well, whatever wipes out those dirty, stinkin' mutants, one supposes. Taking place simultaneously in the future and in the past, but never actually in the present, fixing past mistakes is the order of the day in Days of Future Past, for the X-Men and for the filmmakers in charge of the X-Men movie franchise.

Borrowing its title and basic concept from the celebrated Marvel story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past is a gleefully comic booky X-travaganza. Things have gotten so desperate for the surviving X-Men in the dark future, including Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), that their only recourse is a desperate gamble: send the mind of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back through time fifty years to inhabit his pre-Adamantium, bone-clawed 1973 body (via superpowers we didn't know Kitty Pryde, who walks through walls, has. She must have evolved in the future.) For you see, as we learn through Xavier's wheezy X-position - which is the only way any X-Man in the dark future speaks if they have any lines at all - in 1973, the Sentinels program is developed by scientist Bollivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) to combat the growing mutant menace. Trask is murdered by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is captured by the government and experimented on. Thereby the secret of her shape shifting DNA is stolen and given to the Sentinels, who also evolved from clunky giant robots into adaptable killer mecha morphs able to combat any mutant's powers.

All Wolverine must do - and it's a mission all agree he's ill-suited for except that his mutant healing factor allows him as the only X-Man whose psyche can survive the rigors of time travel - is reunite the estranged young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to stop their equally estranged old friend from X-Men: First Class, Mystique, from carrying out her first murder and setting off the terrible and confusing chain of events that follow. Note that in the comics, it's Kitty Pryde herself who did the time traveling and future-saving, but c'mon, that's never gonna happen in an X-Men movie. Instead, poor Kitty is relegated to spend the movie perched above a prone Wolverine's head, her hands shooting time traveling energy into his temples, and whimpering from her mortal injuries whenever Wolverine has convulsions and slashes her with his Adamantium claws. No Kitty, we all know who the real star of the X-Men movie franchise is and if you doubt it, just have a gander at Hugh Jackman's buff, X-ploited bare ass when he awakens in 1973. 

Days of Future Past vividly recreates the early 1970s, post-Vietnam and taking place during the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, and has great fun portraying the look and hairstyles of that ghastly decade. Not unlike how Bruce Wayne turned out at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, we learn that in 1973, Charles Xavier has become a scruffy, Jesus-bearded recluse, holed up in his abandoned Wayne manor hating the world because Rachel Dawes died his lifelong (strictly platonic) best friend Mystique abandoned him and ran off with Magneto (who it's strongly implied she got magnetic with, if you follow). Xavier, a drug addict who can now walk via a magic formula that also suppresses his vaunted telepathy, is tended to by Alfred J. Pennyworth the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who refrains from giving him lectures about getting back into the world. (That's Wolverine's job.) As for Magneto, he is once again (although technically this is the first time) in a plastic prison, buried deep beneath the Pentagon after he was captured as the assassin of President John F. Kennedy. (Magneto protests his innocence, and the solution to the "curving" magic bullet theory and the X-planation as to why Magneto claims he instead tried to save JFK is the best gag in the entire X franchise.) If Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique can just overcome their respective bitterness and abandonment issues towards each other, they might just be able to save their own race.

We quickly realize that despite all this time tossed mumbo-jumbo, little has changed and it's business as usual around here: the fate of the world and all mutantkind rests in the hands of Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine, the three oldest white males of the X-Men franchise. The X-Men and mutants in general are the most diverse cast of characters in comics, multi-ethnic and multi-national, but once more, in the movies, it's the old white dudes (granted, as their studly younger selves) who must save the world (from the mess they made.) But there's also Mystique, who is born blue, but mostly passes amongst the rabble as Caucasian knockout Jennifer Lawrence. In the dark future, many of the surviving X-Men are of minority descent: there's the Asian girl with the pink hair who creates worm holes (Blink), there's the big black guy (Bishop), there's the Native American guy (Warpath), etc. There they are, barely introduced so we hardly even learn their code names, marched on screen to fight Sentinels and be slaughtered gruesomely. They're not characters, they're cannon fodder. Even Academy Award winner Halle Berry as Storm suffers the indignity of having maybe two lines of dialogue before she gets massacred by Sentinels. When it comes time to free Magneto from the heavily fortified Pentagon in 1973, luckily Wolverine knows a (white) guy, the super speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who entertainingly steals the movie in Days of Future Past's most amusing and best set piece.

The most pivotal bromance in all of superhero comics - Xavier and Magneto - plays like that old fable "The Scorpion and the Frog." Despite how much Xavier wants to trust Magneto, Magneto always reverts back to his true nature, betraying his friend Charles because he hates and fears humanity and must assert the dominance of mutants "by any means necessary" (usually by forming a Brotherhood). This does lend us awesome spectacles, such as Magneto using his powers to lift a baseball stadium from its foundations and dropping it to surround the White House so he can terrorize the actor providing the worst impression of President Richard Nixon in a many a movie. Redeeming Magneto is a job for the future; the wizened McKellan's version of the Master of Magnetism ultimately finds that  heroic backbone when making the ultimate sacrifice to protect his friends from the Sentinels. But in the past, the crux of Days of Future Past is truly about redeeming Mystique and Charles Xavier learning to find hope again (echoing his first appearance in the first X-Men when he tells Magneto he is "looking for hope.") The true emotional stakes of Days of Future Past rest in the hands and charms of the First Class of McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence, plus Jackman, all of whom are heroically up to the challenge.

Indeed, despite its Days of Future gloom and doom, Days of Future Past is a hopeful movie about fixing past mistakes, in which Singer and his creative brain trust directly address the damage done to the X-Men franchise by substandard sequels and sorry spin offs while he was off trying to make audiences again believe a man can fly. By redeeming Mystique and stopping the Sentinels' creation in the past, Days of Future Past's reward for the X-Men and the audience is a new future where everyone is alive and well. The X-Men are all united in a warm, fuzzy, golden-hued new reality where the franchise's main players are happily X-isting at the Xavier School, including Storm, Rogue (Anna Paquin), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen)! Dropping the visual clue to what he's up to by showing a clip of Star Trek early on, Days of Future Past pulls a Star Trek reboot of its very own, except instead of setting up a new alternate timeline of the young, Singer reset the X-Men timeline to keep his aging original cast intact yet wipe clean their past adventures and tragedies. It's a clever franchise rejiggering, effectively making the maligned X-Men: The Last Stand by Brett Ratner null and void (but also seemingly eliminating his own stellar entries, including X2: X-Men United, still the best film of the franchise). So none of it ever happened? Or did only some of it happen? Only old Charles Xavier knows, and there might have to be an Apocalypse before he tells.

Saturday, May 17, 2014




"Let Them Fight!"

In Godzilla, though the big guy bears the moniker "King Of All Monsters" (according to cable news), we learn that like many of his Japanese-born brethren, Godzilla is really just a salaryman. He has a job, a difficult one, which we're not clear he particularly enjoys. Probably not. But he gets up in the morning, makes the long (And I mean long! Thousands of miles!) commute to work, clocks in, keeps his head down, does his job, clocks out, and goes home. No nonsense. All business. You have to respect a work ethic like that.

And yet, Godzilla is also a movie star. Director Gareth Edwards' Godzilla ought to have had a serious talk with his agent about just how much screen time Godzilla should have in a movie bearing his name. In Godzilla, it's surprisingly little. He owns the final act of the picture, but for a movie called Godzilla, the filmmakers sure kept Godzilla under wraps. Maybe during his long swims in the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla commiserated with the shark from Jaws about directors withholding the namesake stars of their own movies from audiences who paid to see them.

There are other monsters in Godzilla that get considerably more screen time. They are called MUTOs -- Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, though one of them can fly and is no longer terrestrial, which the movie is quick to point out. The MUTOs are giant insects, like skyscraper-sized praying mantis that collapse skyscrapers when they land on them. We learn, via a haphazard info dump, that the MUTOs and Godzilla have been on Earth longer than humans, from a time when the Earth was far more radioactive. The MUTOs have been living underground where the Earth's core is more radioactive, but now they're awake and stomping around the Pacific Rim looking for nuclear missiles and other sources of radioactivity to feed on. The MUTOs are in fact Mr. and Mrs. MUTO and the Mrs. is quite with child. If they're allowed to successfully procreate, they will spawn a terrible army of MUTOs. Thankfully, Godzilla, the Alpha Predator, has risen to prevent this from happening.

How does Godzilla, who has lived deep in the bottom of the Earth's oceans since 1954 when the Japanese and Americans "tested" nuclear weapons in the Pacific to kill him, know the MUTOs are now on the surface? And why does he come to stop them? Only Godzilla knows for sure, and he's not talking. Left to speculate is a shadowy organization called Monarch that has kept the secret of Godzilla hidden for 60 years. They're lead by Ken Watanabe, Godzilla's biggest fan, although everything he "knows" about Godzilla and Godzilla's motivations are really just fanboy speculation. Watanabe, normally a charismatic and interesting actor, is afflicted with Ben Affleck in Argo syndrome -- he just stands around in every scene, mouth agape, almost in a catatonic state, seemingly pained to recite what little dialogue he is given. His big moment is when he convinces US Military big wig David Strathairn that Godzilla is really the only thing that can stop the MUTOs. "Let them fight!" Watanabe demands. Well, who's really gonna stop them from fighting?

The most interesting person in Godzilla is Bryan Cranston, a nuclear scientist stationed in Japan who lost his wife in a tragedy in 1999. That tragedy was caused by one of the MUTOs being awakened and attacking the power plant looking for sustenance, which the Japanese government covered up. Cranston's buff soldier son Aaron Taylor-Johnson (soon to be Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron) must carry the torch for the family when Cranston checks out of the movie, killed when the MUTO contained in the power plant reawakens and smashes everything. When Cranston and his ability to deliver entertainingly unhinged monologues leave the movie, so does any real human interest. Taylor-Johnson, unfortunately, is a dead zone of charisma, as we watch him rejoin the military and perform incredibly dangerous missions to stop the MUTOs, nearly dying several times. He does get face time with each and every monster in the movie, and they all take a moment to stare at him, as if trying to reconcile how he can be the same nerdy kid who wore green spandex and called himself Kick-Ass? Taylor-Johnson has a pretty young wife back in San Francisco, Elizabeth Olsen, who is a nurse and has little to do except abandon their son so he can be placed in mortal danger on a school bus when Godzilla strolls by the Golden Gate Bridge. The main reason to separate the family is to have them touchingly reunite in the end, a feel good moment thanks to Godzilla.

One thing Godzilla does well is use the monsters and the devastation they bring as a metaphor for our collective fears today. The original Japanese Gojira movie in 1954 made Godzilla a blatant stand in for Japanese fears of nuclear annihilation in the wake of the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years prior. Edwards fills his Godzilla with imagery of tsunamis, superstorms leveling coastal cities, nuclear power plants being destroyed. The US Navy seems to have jurisdiction over everything regarding Godzilla and fighting MUTOs; no other world government gets involved. When Godzilla surfaces, his massive spinal spikes piercing the water, the Navy proudly sails their aircraft carriers and battleships alongside Godzilla. They also shoot at Godzilla constantly, but Godzilla doesn't care one way or the other if the humans are for him or against him. Godzilla doesn't find the humans or their problems that take up most of the movie's running time particularly interesting. Besides, Godzilla has a job to do.

Godzilla's job is to fight, and though the movie plays coy with showing the fights -- teasing the monster-on-monster action via news footage or using Cloverfield-like man on the street perspectives before vision is obstructed -- the final act of Godzilla finally lets us see what Godzilla can do, although the fights are pretty brief, considering. Once we witness him in fully in action, we see Godzilla is kind of bottom heavy ('fat' is what some unkind Japanese fans have called him.) Indeed, how much radiation is down there in the Earth's core for Godzilla to feed on that he put on so much weight? Godzilla does use his ample girth to his advantage, fighting sumo-style when slapping the MUTOs around. The numbers game works against Godzilla, but soon he rallies, using his spiky prehensile tail and his Atomic Fire Breath to finally defeat Mr. and Mrs. MUTO. (He kills Mrs. MUTO by blowing Atomic Fire Breath right down her gullet.) Amusingly, Godzilla takes a page from Ric Flair and Flair Flops face down after the fight, exhausted.

When the dark monster rises from his well-deserved nap, Godzilla merely stomps back across the ruined San Francisco to the ocean to make his long commute home, his job done, oblivious to the cheering throngs of humans who hilariously call him "Our Savior." Godzilla needs no thanks. He's a watchful guardian, a silent protector. And like any salaryman, he must merely do his job. Which begs the question, how does Godzilla blow off steam after work? Does he hit up the bars and strip clubs like his fellow salarymen? Someone should follow Godzilla down to the deep ocean trenches to parts unknown; maybe CNN should send Anthony Bourdain to see where Godzilla hangs out after work. Now, that would be a really interesting Godzilla movie.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2



The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wants to be all things, altogether, all at once, all over the place. Overflowing as equal parts comic book superhero epic, Saturday morning cartoon, night time soap opera, romantic comedy, wink wink we-can-top-it do over of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and  at times feeling like a bombastic big screen attempt at Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark on Broadway, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a sprawling assault on the Spidey senses hellbent on overdoing everything.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, alternating between charming, quippy, and mopey as he attempts to balance his exciting and dangerous superheroic life as Spider-Man with his on-again/off-again it-was-never-really-off-until-oh no-it-really-is-off-now! relationship with brainy blonde cutie Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone. Peter's got a lot of things going on, zipping around an unbelievably dangerous, explosion and car crash-prone New York City fighting ridiculous amounts of crime, all set to a synthesized score by Hans Zimmer and The Magnificent Six (including Pharrell) that sounds like off-brand Vangelis. While saving the day, Peter is haunted by the stern, disapproving frown of  the ghost of Gwen's late father Captain Stacy (Dennis Leary). This leads a guilt-ridden Peter to break up with Gwen, in the old superhero cliche of thinking that will keep her safe, but it only means Peter ends up stalking her from the tops of skyscrapers as Spider-Man while Gwen goes to work at her day job at Oscorp, the evil conglomerate that spawns all of his super villain adversaries.

One of those very adversaries is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a meek, pathetic, lowly Oscorp electrical engineer who hero worships Spider-Man. In a typical Marvel science-gone-amok accident, Dillon falls into a vat of electric eels, which not only repair his gap teeth but transform him. Don't you know? He's Electro, a being of living electricity who can reconstitute his physical form out of lightning complete with boxer briefs for his electric junk. He later somehow acquires a super villain suit that hilariously has a lightning bolt straight from Harry Potter's forehead emblazoned on it. Electro is shockingly powerful (sorry) enough to zap all the juice out of Times Square, but none of that electricity adds extra voltage to his brain. Those seeking an ingenious super villain plot need look elsewhere; Electro's got nothing going on besides wanting to kill Spider-Man and rule New York "like a god." ("A god named Sparkles?" is one of Spider-Man's better digs at Electro.) Peter and Gwen, respectively the number two and number one science geeks newly graduated from Midtown Science High School, proudly combine their knowledge of eighth grade science to defeat Electro and save New York City (as well as, excessively, two airplanes about to collide in mid-air that none of the heroes or villains are even aware of).

Meanwhile, prodigal son Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), a boy billionaire who wins the No-Prize for Marvel's Most Ghastly Comb Over, arrives back in town to inherit Oscorp from his evil dead father Norman (Chris Cooper). Harry's got no brains either; he promptly loses his father's company to scheming lawyer Colm Feore, as he's too distracted by trying to find a cure for his other inheritance, a disease that's quickly killing him. That cure, he learns, is Spider-Man's blood, which Peter is unwilling to donate, fearing it'll turn Harry into some kind of super villain monster. He was right about that. With Electro's help, Harry is able to procure the secret formula Peter's dead scientist father created, and sure enough, it turns Harry into the Green Goblin. This time, there's no Transformers-like mask for the Goblin, DeHaan's impish face with the appropriate amount of prosthetics and makeup complete the Green Goblin's grotesque visage. Despite not seeing each other since they were 10, an afternoon of bromance bonding made Peter and Harry best friends again, but all that quickly flies out the window like so much Gwen Stacy.

Only those who are completely unaware of the forty year old classic Spider-Man story or haven't had the comic book nerds in their life already spoil it for them will be shocked at the ultimate fate of sweet Gwen Stacy. Prior to the emergence of the Green Goblin, which signals curtains for Gwen, the brightest point of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is the snappy banter and natural chemistry between Stone and Garfield. Despite an uninspired, plodding script punching everyone concerned square on the nose, Garfield and Stone do their best to bring an electricity to the material that even Electro can't generate. Peter's primary concern isn't the super villains out for his webbed head, it's the threat of Gwen moving to England to attend Oxford. Peter's grand breakthrough as a boyfriend is choosing to move to England with Gwen ("they have crime in England!") Alas, none of that is to be, as the Green Goblin throws a pumpkin bomb in the happy couple's plans. Competently staged as an homage to Gwen's demise in the comic book by falling from a great height, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 trades the infamous sound of Gwen's neck snapping for the violent slam of her head on the concrete ground. Losing Gwen/Emma Stone, the best thing in the movie, is tragic and heart-wrenching, and not just to Peter. Expected or not, inevitable it may be, no more Gwen in these movies sucks. It just plain sucks.

Far more shocking than Electro (I know, that's two now) is The Amazing Spider-Man 2's bizarre homages to past Superman and Batman movies. Spider-Man's stopping an armored car robbery by a mouth-foaming Russian mobster played Paul Giamatti is staged to have the same kind of Keystone Cops city-in-constant-chaos verve as the opening comedic scene of Richard Lester's Superman III. As for Batman, rather than drawing inspiration from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight as the previous The Amazing Spider-Man was accused of, director Marc Webb seems to have gone in the opposite direction and pulled from the reviled Joel Schumacher Batman movies. A visit to sad Max Dillon's home is just one Flaming Lips song away from outright mimicking seeing Edward Nygma's Riddler cave in Batman Forever. During a Times Square confrontation between Electro and Spider-Man, Webb goes full Schumacher mixed with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Giamatti, who later shows up at the denouement of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in battle armor as the R.H.I.N.O., trades actually having a character for cartoonishly cackling like Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Two Face. Spider-Man's New York City even has its own version of Arkham Asylum, with an evil scientist character so over the top, he would be at home trading cold puns or plant jokes with Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin.

In no rush to move the story along, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has Peter bounce from web-swinging romantic comedy with Gwen to tearful revelations with his hard-working Aunt May (Sally Field, a trooper) to uncomfortable male bonding with Harry to finally learning the truth about his missing parents and the secret of his father's scientific research into radioactive spiders. This mystery subplot about Peter's secret origin is something only Peter Parker finds particularly interesting but has been the unwelcome backbone of two Amazing Spider-Man movies. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 even opens with a prolonged action sequence of how the Parkers died in a plane crash that couldn't end fast enough and would have been best left out of the movie altogether. All the while, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 busily name drops J. Jonah Jameson (neither seen nor heard), and squeezes in a walk on for Felicity Jones as "Felicia," who may one day become the Black Cat but for now, enjoy her two empty scenes. Curious that  Shailene Woodley appearing as Mary Jane Watson was completely excised; surely there was room enough for MJ like there was for everything else, including a random little boy in a Spider-Man costume who faces down the R.H.I.N.O. until the real Spider-Man appears. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will likely swing away with the No-Prize for the most interminable second act of any Marvel character movie, its bloated script trying the audience's patience with attempts at universe building that should make Iron Man 2's reviled second act seem like it's Iron Man 1

In the end, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sets up the rise of the Sinister Six in a spinoff no one is asking for. The Green Goblin remains at large and Easter eggs are lobbed for the arrival of Spider-Man's deadly foes like Doctor Octopus and the Vulture. We still have Peter Parker as our hero, and Andrew Garfield is our best Spider-Man wearing the best Spidey suit yet, but now we're left without his better half to look forward to. As intent as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is on instilling Hope to the citizens of New York City, with The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and 4 already announced, true believers fear that Peter Parker's troubles - and ours - have just begin.

Bye, Gwen. We'll miss you.