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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Days of Tomorrow's Yesterday

The future and past collide in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past,' director Bryan Singer's third and the overall fifth installment (excepting the two 'Wolverine' spin-offs) of the popular 'X-Men' movie franchise he started back in 2000.  Based on Chris Claremont's storyline from 'The Uncanny X-Men' issues #141 and #142, which are among my prized comic book collection from the 1980's, DOFP is a variation on the science fiction trope of time-travel back to the past in order to alter the future and, along with the 'Dark Phoenix' saga, are two of the best X-Men stories of all time.
 
As we well know, a recurring theme of the X-Men is the fear and mistrust mankind reserved for mutants with powers.  Echoing the politics of discrimination throughout history, mutants are regarded by humans as a sub-species to be shunned and abhorred.  Out of this oppression arises the dichotomy between the philosophical approaches of Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, wherein one preaches peaceful coexistence and understanding while the other advocates extermination and violence.  Mutants who become the disciples of Professor X are the X-Men and those who follow Magneto join the militant Brotherhood of Mutants.
 
DOFP is the best of the X-Men movies so far in terms of storytelling.  Richly layered, complex and intelligent, the movie manages to engage and entertain us throughout.  Under Singer's capable direction, DOFP deftly switches gears between the dark dystopian future of 2023 when mutants and humans are ruthlessly hunted down to extinction by Sentinel robots and the groovy 70's of the Richard Nixon era as the Vietnam War draws to a close.  While we see many a familiar X-Men from earlier installments in DOFP, including both younger and older versions of Professor X and Magneto, the movie pays particular attention to the personal trials of Mystique, the blue-skinned shape-shifter played by Jennifer Lawrence whose role is pivotal to the story.  Compared to other recent Marvel movies, DOFP is also a welcome exercise in restraint and strikes the perfect balance between action and storytelling, possesses heart and humanity to spare, and doesn't stumble into the pitfall of being an extended commercial for the next installment, which is more than I can say for the previous Marvel movie I reviewed.   
 
Grade: A 
 
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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gojira: King of the Monsters and...... Box Office

Truth be told, the eagerly anticipated American reboot of the long-running Godzilla franchise had me a little worried.  After all, the previous attempt by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich to bring our beloved kaiju monster to the mainstream American audience was a dismal failure on every level and made 'Godzilla 1985' seem like a masterpiece by comparison.  That 1998 travesty's greatest sin wasn't its horrible plot or the laughable characters in it but that it deviated from Toho's Godzilla and turned our beloved 'King of the Monsters' into a giant velociraptor with no bearing whatsoever to the original.  They might as well have called it by another name.
 
It turned out that my apprehensions were unfounded.  Brit director Gareth Edwards' 2014 update is not only a faithful and respectful contribution to Toho's Godzilla canon but also an intensely personal and visceral viewing experience.  With the cutting edge visual effects that a $160 million budget can provide, never before had Godzilla been brought to life with such realism and immediacy.  While there is something undeniably endearing and nostalgic about the old-school, 'man in a suit' Godzilla we grew up watching, that doesn't mean we shouldn't appreciate if not fully embrace what modern technology can bring. 
 
Keeping both the (anti-)nuclear theme and ambiguous 'is he good or bad?' force-of-nature quality of the giant lizard monster, 'Godzilla 2014' maintained the spirit and style of the original.  Godzilla-philes might even recognize a reference to the original 1954 film in the Japanese scientist played by Ken Watanabe.  The creature designers also thankfully kept the classical thick-in-the-middle look of the original monster as well as his trademark "atomic breath" attack, but that didn't mean they can't exercise creativity elsewhere.  The MUTO's (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) are new creature designs that are cool, unique and frightening, and the climactic monster mash between Godzilla and the tag-team duo of MUTO's in downtown San Francisco is both unrivaled in realism and exciting to behold. 
 
Eschewing camp and cheesiness for realism and sheer destructiveness, 'Godzilla 2014' is apocalyptic in scale, serious in tone, suspenseful in a 'Jurassic Park' kinda way and a visual spectacle never before seen in the kaiju genre.  Sorry, but not even 'Pacific Rim' came close.

Grade: A
 
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Bad Fences

In movies like 'Knocked Up,' 'Pineapple Express,' 'Observe and Report,' 'Zack and Miri' and 'This is the End,' Seth Rogen has established himself as something of a lovable schmuck as well as a talented comedic actor.  Rogen did it again with his latest film, 'Neighbors,' in which he plays a responsible dad 'married' to Rose Byrne (if we're to believe that Katherine Heigl and Elizabeth Banks found him 'attractive' in previous movies, why not?).  His middle-class suburban American Dream with his hot wife and cute baby girl takes a turn for the worse when the house next door becomes the new frat-house of Delta Psi Beta, the 2014 version of Delta Tau Chi of 'Animal House.'  Led by pretty boys Zac Efron and Dave Franco (James's little brother), Delta Psi Beta becomes the Radners' worst nightmare after they betrayed their trust by calling the police instead of telling them to "keep it down" first.  Things escalate quickly and what we get is the best payback comedy since 'Revenge of the Nerds.' 
 
First, a warning.  If you're unfamiliar with Seth Rogen comedies of the 'Judd Apatow' school, you should know that they can be R-rated raunch-fests that are offensive, degrading and politically incorrect.  If your sensibilities are easily offended, AVOID THIS MOVIE AT ALL COSTS!  However, if you enjoy feeling a bit guilty while laughing your ass off, 'Neighbors' might just be the ticket for you.  We're all entitled to our guilty pleasures.
 
Yes, 'Neighbors' is raunchy, offensive, degrading, irreverent and just plain wrong, but it is also riotously funny.  Rogen played the same schmuck as he usually does in Mac, but Rose Byrne's Kelly is a housewife whose transformation from a loving and caring mother to a scheming, vicious She-Devil is quite the revelation.  Zac Efron is the 'Rico Suave' party animal with perfect abs while Dave Franco absolutely shined as his second-in-command and ambiguously gay 'Robin.'

Grade: A-
 
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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Webb of Mediocrity

There was a time in my days of youth when I couldn’t get enough of Spider-Man.  I watched the cartoon series with the catchy theme song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8GLoDHZMZQ every day after school, and not only did I read ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ comic but also its spin-offs ‘Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man’ and ‘Web of Spider-Man.’  It’s easy to like Spider-Man because his alter ego is an unassuming underdog we can’t help but root for.  Peter Parker is a high school science nerd who overcame adversity and ended up with the hot girls (Gwen, Mary Jane, Felicia Hardy), right?  He’s the ‘Archie’ (not Archie Bunker) of superhero-dom.  And while most superheroes come off as serious and a bit stiff, Spider-Man’s sense of humor and wisecracks are a welcome breath of fresh air.  Even so, I cannot recommend the utterly sterile, depthless and vacuous mess that is ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2.’
 
TASM2, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to 2012’s tepid ‘The Amazing Spider-Man,’ is a study in contrast.  Over its bloated 2 hour, 22 minute length our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is mostly either: (a) battling one of the many villains featured in the movie or (b) sweet-talking to his on-again off-again girlfriend, Gwen Stacy.  As a result the film is unevenly paced, with mind-numbing, loud, sense shattering set-piece scenes of CGI overkill when Spidey is battling his foes punctuated by glacially slow periods of doe-eyed puppy love between Andrew Garfield’s Peter and Emma Stone’s Gwen.  The famed writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci crammed too many characters and threads into the movie, as Peter not only had to save NYC from the ravages of Electro, the Green Goblin and Rhino but also reconcile the demands of his heart with the dying wishes of Gwen’s father (Denis Leary), reconnect with his beloved Aunt May (Sally Field) and solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance when he was little.  Jamie Foxx’s talents were wasted as the bioluminescent blue freak Electro, and his transformation from a shy and socially inept outcast who owed Spider-Man his life to a hater with anger-management issues seemingly at the flip of a switch (no pun intended) was unconvincing.  Dane DeHaan, as Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, did a better job than James Franco from the Sam Raimi version, with his young David Bowie looks and the quiet intensity of Christopher Walken.  Paul Giamatti played the Rhino with a manic glee, but there’s otherwise little of note in that one-dimensional character.
 
Not surprisingly, director Marc Webb, whose only directorial effort is the wistful and quirky rom-com ‘500 Days of Summer’ before he took on the new Spider-Man franchise, is more at home with chick flicks than mega-budget action blockbusters.  The romantic scenes between Peter and Gwen are genuine and heartfelt (Garfield and Stone being real life boyfriend and girlfriend didn’t hurt to say the least), while the action sequences suffered from being overloaded with CGI and rendering us insensate with their been-there-done-that rote repetitiveness.  I mean, really, did we actually even think for a second that our agile web-slinger wouldn’t somehow gracefully weave and dodge through those lightning bolts Electro’s hurling at him with his ‘amazing’ acrobatics?  And how many times do we have to see NYPD squad cars get flipped over and slammed into the ground before we start yawning in sheer boredom?  Much of the movie is nothing more than ‘wink, wink’ teasers for upcoming movies in the Spidey-verse to fanboys, including the ‘Sinister Six’ movie Sony Pictures recently announced along with the 'Venom' spin-off (http://variety.com/2014/film/news/sinister-six-and-venom-movies-to-be-released-before-amazing-spider-man-4-1201156518/).  Oh lookee here, Felicia Hardy 'The Black Cat' (Felicity Jones) is Harry Osborn’s personal assistant!  And check this out y'all, Harry just walked by the cool gear of ‘Doc Ock,’ ‘Vulture’ and ‘Rhino’!  Enough already.
 
Grade: C+
  
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