Hope… and Mutants!

In my preview of 2014 movies a few months ago, I said that X-Men: Days of Future Past was probably my most-anticipated movie of 2014. And now, having finally seen the film, I can say that it’s a hell of a movie.

A word of warning:  I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the new movie as much as I can, but there may be spoilers for earlier movies in the series. I don’t think that’s too big of a deal, since the first X-Men movie came out all the way back in 2000, but since people are super-sensitive about spoilers these days, consider yourself warned.

Days of Future Past is based on an X-Men comic series from the 80’s involving time travel and multiple timelines.

x-men dofp comic cover

Right off the bat this presents problems for any attempted adaptation. Time-travel stories are incredibly difficult to pull off convincingly, and messing around with previously-established continuity in a popular film series is an equally risky proposition (just look at Spider-Man 3. I’m still pissed about how stupid that whole “a different guy really killed Uncle Ben” thing was).

Days of Future Past (I’m going to call it DOFP from here on out) is the seventh X-Men related movie since the original was released in 2000 (by comparison, since 1978 Superman has had only six movies). There’s a lot of previously-established continuity from the previous six films that DOFP has to deal with, and one of my biggest questions going into the new movie was how well director Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies but hasn’t directed one since, would pull it off.

Well…he succeeded. Mostly.

x-men dofp poster

But let’s step back for a second and take a look at the plot of the new movie. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants and humans who carry mutant genes are hunted by Sentinels, vicious mutant-exterminating robots with the ability to adapt to fight mutants with different powers. A small group of mutants is able to evade the sentinels thanks to Kitty Pryde, who is able to project a person’s consciousness back in time to deliver warnings to past versions of themselves.

They meet up with Storm, Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto and decide to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to inhabit his body in 1973 to try to prevent the war with the Sentinels from ever happening in the first place. Wolverine is chosen because his healing factor allows him to be the only one whose mind would be able to withstand the stress of being sent back in time such a long way. Once back in 1973, he seeks out the young versions of Professor X and Magneto in order to enlist their help in preventing the apocalyptic future.

Whew. I may have left out a few details, but without giving too much away, that’s the plot setup in a nutshell. If any part of that confused you, then this movie might not be for you. DOFP is very much a comic-book movie in that it assumes a lot of familiarity with the stories that preceded it. Little time is spent setting up the plot, as the movie starts, the world is in chaos. No time is spent recapping the events of the previous movies, which ultimately works to the movie’s advantage.

Most of the movie takes place in 1973, with periodic interludes to the future. So for all of its futuristic trappings, one of the biggest movies of the year is also largely a period piece.

x-men dofp wolverine prof x

One of the most enjoyable things about 2011’s prequel X-Men: First Class was how it had fun adapting historical events to fit within its fictional universe. DOFP also has a lot of fun with this, and I’m sure there are references to historical events that a kid like me who was born in 1988 probably wouldn’t notice, but someone who grew up in the 70’s probably would.

I’m also okay with this because it lets Jennifer Lawrence wear 70’s outfits, which, as she so capably demonstrated in American Hustle, is something she does extremely well.

x-men dofp jennifer lawrence

Lawrence plays shape-shifting mutant Mystique, aka Raven Darkholme, who is crucial to the plot. Her assassination of the lead designer of the Sentinels and subsequent capture by the US government are the events that lead to the apocalyptic future, and are subsequently the events which Wolverine must enlist Professor X and Magneto to help prevent from happening in 1973. It’s fitting that Lawrence plays a shape-shifter, since she’s something of a shape-shifter herself. I mean really, is there any role this woman can’t play?

The movie is tremendously well-cast all around, which is particularly impressive considering the sheer number of characters.

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Full-Cast-Photo

I count seventeen in the picture above, and there are even a couple who aren’t pictured there. Given the sheer number of characters and the movie’s epic scope, I think it’s really nothing short of a minor miracle that the movie works as well as it does. This could easily have been a train wreck, but for the most part it works like gangbusters.

A good part of this, I think, is due to the movie’s running time. The movie runs a brisk 131 minutes, which I think is just about perfect. It seems like a lot of blockbusters these days have bloated running times, frequently in excess of two and a half hours. And while I don’t have a problem with long movies per se, I admire the makers of DOFP for keeping the film at a reasonable length. There’s easily enough material in the story for a two and a half hour-plus movie, but Bryan Singer clearly realized the movie just didn’t need to be that long. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, with a minimum of excess. Everything in the movie feels like it belongs in the movie, which gives it a very streamlined sort of feel.

There are sacrifices, however. Some of the characters don’t get much to do except have cool fight scenes, and while I also don’t have a problem with cool fight scenes, it would have been nice to learn a little bit more about some of the characters, especially the ones in the future storyline who hadn’t appeared in any other X-Men films.

But at the same time, I don’t think that the lack of development of some of the supporting characters hurts the movie very much. The characters the movie spends the most time with are the characters who are most important to the story. Halle Berry’s Storm, for example, has maybe three or four lines of dialogue, but she’s not very important in the overall scheme of things, so it doesn’t really matter.

From a storytelling perspective, the whole movie is a study in what is important to the plot versus what isn’t. What I mean by that is that there are quite a few unanswered questions in this movie that frustrated me a little bit, but, as with the less-important characters, they don’t hurt the movie too much overall. Spoilers ahead.

For example: How is Professor X alive in the future when he was obliterated in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Magneto have his powers in the future when he lost them in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Wolverine have his metal claws back in the future when he lost them at the end of The Wolverine? No explanations are given for these questions, which I’ll admit frustrated me a little. Even just a few lines of dialogue would have sufficed. But ultimately, I was able to forgive these minor annoyances once I realized that they didn’t really matter. It’s enough that these things are the way they are, how they came to be isn’t really important.

These quibbles certainly don’t keep DOFP from being a really great movie. The acting is solid across the board, the special effects and action setpieces are exciting and look fantastic (I saw the movie in 3D, which was really fun) and the movie ends on a very hopeful and positive note. It left me with a hopeful feeling, and there’s never a bad time for that. It balances exciting action with genuine emotion and heart, although it might be a little confusing for anyone not familiar with previous X-Men movies. Still, this is easily one of the best entries in the series, and it’s that rare kind of summer blockbuster which is extremely entertaining and will also stay with you after it’s over. There are some aspects of the ending in particular (that I won’t spoil) that I am still pondering nearly a week after seeing the movie. The movie does have flaws, but they don’t prevent it from being a smart, sleek, finely-crafted piece of summer entertainment.

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The Return of the King

Confession time: when I was a kid, I loved Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie. Please don’t judge me too harshly, I was only ten when it came out and that movie was pretty much geared toward 10-12-year-old boys.

Sure, now that I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, I realize that the movie was pretty lousy. It didn’t really feel like a Godzilla movie, it just took a giant lizard monster and stuck it in New York to cause mayhem and destruction. If it hadn’t been called Godzilla, it could have been just about any generic movie monster. And there was that whole dumb subplot with the Godzilla babies, the less said about which the better.

So yeah, in retrospect, it was a pretty bad movie. But I was still cautiously optimistic about the idea of a new Godzilla movie. The first teaser trailer got me genuinely excited. I loved the vibe of apocalyptic doom the trailer had going on, and how it teased the big guy himself without showing too much.

Godzilla teaser poster

It also had a good cast and an intriguing director. The movie was directed by a fellow named Gareth Edwards, whose only previous directing credit was a low-budget indie called Monsters, and I’m always intrigued when Hollywood gives a big franchise to a relatively new director.

I was excited about Godzilla all last week, and when I finally saw the movie in 3D on Friday, I am happy to say that I came away happy.

Pacific Rim was one of my favorite movies last year, and it helped me realize just how much I enjoy the sight of giant monsters and/or robots duking it out amongst crumbling cities.

Pacific Rim was one of the most purely entertaining movies I saw in 2013, and the new Godzilla isn’t quite as much fun.

This is not to say that it’s a bad movie, however. The best way I can think to describe it is that, if Pacific Rim was The Avengers of monster movies, then Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is the Batman Begins of monster movies: darker, grittier, more intense, maybe not quite as much fun, but still really good in its own right.

Godzilla-new-poster

Edwards takes a Spielberg-esque approach to the film, in that, much as Spielberg did in Jaws, he keeps the titular beastie off-screen for much of the film, to the point where the big guy almost seems like a supporting character in his own movie.

This is a little frustrating at times, since there were a few moments when the camera pulled away and I thought “No! I want to see that!” But limiting the title character’s screen time has the effect of making every one of his appearances have a lot more impact. Every time the G-unit shows up, his appearance feels like it has weight and significance, and isn’t just an opportunity to indulge in state-of-the-art special effects.

And the effects are awesome. Godzilla himself looks fantastic, and I never had a problem suspending disbelief whenever he appeared.

He’s also a hell of a lot bigger than in previous incarnations, which leads to city-leveling destruction (Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco are all thoroughly owned. The poor old Golden Gate Bridge seems to be a frequent casualty in monster and disaster movies. I’m pretty sure it bit the dust in Pacific Rim too).

Godzilla size

It’s also no great spoiler (since it was in the trailers) that Godzilla battles a few other massive beasties in the movie. These are called MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. I won’t spoil too much about what they are or what they’re up to, except to say that the movie spends almost as much time developing their story as it does Godzilla’s.

And it’s a good story, too. It incorporates a lot of the nuclear fears that were a big part of Godzilla’s origin story and which were largely glossed over in the 1998 version. It pays tribute to 1954’s classic original Godzilla while still putting its own spin on it.

The human characters, unfortunately, aren’t quite as captivating as the giant monsters. They’re not unlikable or anything and I generally didn’t have a problem rooting for them, they’re just kind of bland. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Elizabeth Olsen do what they can, but their characters are kind of thinly written (Coincidentally, both actors will be in Avengers 2 next year, playing brother and sister instead of husband and wife).

The supporting cast fares better, with Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as the tormented father of Taylor-Johnson’s character, whose wife was killed in a nuclear reactor meltdown under mysterious circumstances. Also present is the great Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (Inception) as a scientist tracking Godzilla and his ilk. I would have liked to have seen more of him and of Monarch, the mysterious organization he works for, but there was plenty of other stuff going on in the movie so I didn’t mind too much.

Godzilla bridge

And, despite Godzilla himself being kept in the shadows for much of the film, the movie is action-packed. There are numerous close calls and tense encounters, all of which are characterized by palpable suspense and top-notch effects work. The HALO jump sequence showcased in the trailer I linked to above was a definite highlight, and probably my favorite scene in the movie.

It’s a harrowing, heart-pounding sequence, and it puts the viewer right there in the middle of the action. The incredibly ominous soundtrack and striking visuals make the scene feel like something out of Dante’s Inferno, a descent into a creature-filled hell. It’s one of the most intense and memorable scenes I’ve seen in 2014 so far.

Godzilla jump

The movie did a really great job of capturing what it would actually feel like to be a tiny, puny human in the middle of a giant monster attack. The sense of scale of the monsters is really impressive. Humans are used to being the most dominant species on the planet, and this movie did an incredibly convincing job of turning that on its head.

The epic final monster battle, while it takes a while to arrive, is well worth it. Edwards clearly understands the need to reward viewers’ patience, and he does so in spectacular fashion with a city-demolishing final battle that showcases the big G in all of his immense, terrifying, fire-breathing glory. It’s a great sequence, and it really differentiates itself from other, similar movies.

In Pacific Rim, for example, the biggest action sequence takes place in the middle of a brightly-lit, rain-drenched city, full of vivid neon colors. By contrast, Godzilla’s final battle takes place in a city darkened by EMP blasts, and much of the light comes from the fires raging throughout the city. Again, think of the bright colors of The Avengers versus the darker color palette of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

Godzilla is the granddaddy of giant monsters, and Gareth Edwards’ film pays fitting tribute to his legacy. At the end of the movie, as the great beast returns to the briny deep from whence he came, I found myself itching for more.

And more is coming, because the G-unit stomped the competition on his opening weekend, proving that people still like giant monster movies, and that the name Godzilla still carries weight. Hopefully Edwards will be involved in the sequels, since the guy clearly knows what he’s doing.

One of my first posts was about the original Godzilla, which is a movie that still retains much of its original power, so check that out if you’re interested. The Criterion Collection edition is well worth picking up, it even has cool packaging that unfolds into a little pop-up Godzilla.

Godzilla criterion

On an unrelated note, yesterday, May 18, marked the two-year anniversary of my first blog post. Since that first post I’ve gotten more than 2,500 total views, which to me is mind-blowing. It still kind of amazes me to think that there might be people out there who are actually interested in what I write, so to each and every one of you I just want to say thank you very, very much.

Here’s to two more years! Thanks so much everybody!!

The Second-Best Spider-Man 2

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero films ever made. It’s also one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve ever seen. It’s smart, funny, sweet, and has some really great action sequences. The special effects hold up really well despite being ten years old (man that makes me feel old) and Dr. Octopus is one of my favorite cinematic villains.

spiderman 2 poster

Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is pretty enjoyable, but definitely not as good as Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

the-amazing-spider-man-2-poster

Admittedly, it would be pretty difficult for anyone to ever make a better Spider-Man movie than Raimi’s penultimate Spidey flick. Raimi himself proved this with his own Spider-Man 3, and we all know how that turned out.

Much has been made of how really unnecessary it was to make more Spider-Man movies so soon after Raimi’s. It was only five years between the release of Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 and Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man (by contrast, it was 19 years between the release of Superman 4 in 1987 and Superman Returns in 2006).

But Spider-Man is the only superhero Sony has the rights to, and with other superhero flicks making big bucks at the box office, there was pretty much no way they were going to just sit on an extremely valuable license that already made them tons of money in the past (Spider-Man 3 did set box-office records, after all).

I thought The Amazing Spider-Man was a surprisingly good movie. It gets a lot of hate from certain corners of the internet, but I honestly think that much of that is due to the fact that it didn’t really need to be made in the first place. Maybe there wouldn’t be as many haters if Raimi’s films had never been made, since they’re (mostly) so good that any other Spidey movies would inevitably be compared to them and be found lacking in some respect.

Oh, well. This new Spidey series isn’t going anywhere, since it already made about $100 million in its opening weekend, so we might as well get used to it.

ANYWAY, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is not as good as Sam Raimi’s first Spidey sequel, but it’s still pretty enjoyable. It does suffer from a bit of Spider-Man 3 syndrome, since there is an overabundance of villains and subplots, some of which inevitably don’t really go anywhere and end up feeling extraneous.

Take, for example, the mystery of what happened to Peter Parker’s parents. We find out what happened to them in the first scene of this movie, and Peter himself later discovers the truth behind his parents’ mysterious disappearance. That’s fine and all, I’m okay with Peter having some closure, but to me the whole subplot felt like the writers’ way of tying up a loose plot thread from the previous film. The whole thing doesn’t really have much bearing on the rest of the plot, and to me just felt kind of pointless. I also couldn’t really buy that (spoiler alert I guess, although this was in the trailer) Peter’s dad had this Secret Subway Car of Science that nobody had found for like 15 years or however long.

Now that I think about it, the real backbone of the movie is the relationship between Peter and Gwen Stacy. I am okay with this, because it’s a strong central relationship for the movie to focus on. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are charismatic actors who have really great chemistry together, and I found it easy to root for them, just as I did in the first film.

The fact that I’m in love with Emma Stone may or may not have had something to do with that, I’ll admit.

Emma-Stone-Image

As with the first film, I found the Peter/Gwen relationship to be more compelling than the various villains and their stories.

One of the main antagonists is Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who certainly looks cool but his character arc is pretty lame and the way he gets electric powers is extremely contrived (he’s an electrician who falls into a vat of electric eels at Oscorp, because for some inexplicable reason Oscorp has vats of electric eels generating power, because I guess that makes sense? They seem to have a knack at Oscorp for making stuff that gives people superpowers).

Foxx is a really great actor and it’s a shame his character arc is so dull. The special effects that turn him into Electro are pretty great, (if very reminiscent of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen) and the crackling bolts of electricity he shoots at Spider-Man look mean and powerful.

They also updated his look, which is a good thing because in the 60’s comics he looked like this…

electro comics

And in the movie he looks more like this…

electro movie

Which I think counts as an improvement. In some ways, at least.

Also in the movie is Harry Osborn, played by an actor named Dane DeHaan, best known for a low-budget superhero flick called Chronicle, which I never saw but heard good things about. He plays a pretty good Harry Osborn, although he’s maybe just a bit too slimy. He and Peter were childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in years, though their story doesn’t resonate as much here as it did in Raimi’s films. This isn’t too surprising, since the Peter/Harry relationship was one of the central elements of all 3 of Raimi’s Spidey flicks, and in the new movie it’s reduced to just a couple of scenes.

It’s also not too much of a spoiler to say that Harry eventually becomes the Green Goblin, though he only appears in full-on Goblin mode for one scene late in the movie, and is dispatched fairly quickly so that more important plot events can occur.

There’s also Paul Giamatti as the Rhino, who in the movie is basically a thug with a Russian accent and a suit of pointy armor that shoots missiles. He’s barely in the movie at all, so he hardly even counts as a character. On the one hand this is a shame, since Paul Giamatti is a great actor, but on the other hand it’s a blessing in disguise because the last thing the movie needs is another subplot.

rhino-sp

So yeah, the movie has plenty of issues. Nothing resonates on an emotional level as much as it did in previous Spidey flicks (except for one major emotional gut-punch late in the movie, which I was suppose was inevitable if you’re familiar with the comics as I am [I’ve read a LOT of Spider-Man comics] but still hit me pretty hard).

It’s overstuffed, although overall I think it works better than Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 did. The movie has four credited screenwriters, and I wish they could have made the plot a bit more coherent.

But the special effects and action sequences are top-notch, and few things are better for sheer popcorn-fueled summer thrills than watching your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man soar effortlessly through crowded city streets. It’s a perfectly enjoyable movie, despite its flaws. It’s well-acted and full of eye candy. It’s just a shame that the plot feels so patched-together.

For future installments (and there WILL be future installments, regardless of whether or not there really needs to be) I hope the filmmakers will remember that you don’t need an overabundance of villains and subplots to make a good superhero movie. The plot of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 was pretty simple when you get right down to it, and didn’t need any more than one really strong villain in order to be compelling.

Ah, well. The new movie is still enjoyable enough, kind of like cotton candy – nice while it lasts, but ultimately doesn’t really leave much of a lasting impression.

COMING SOON: The Return of the King.