Category Archives: review

Review: X-Men – Days of Future Past

x-men-days-of-future-past-patrick-stewart-and-james-mcavoy

You could say the X-Men franchise has been “hit or miss.”  The first and second movies were quite good (though I don’t think the first one ages as well…I guess it did come out in 2000…).  The third one was a train wreck.  The spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was horrible.  The sequel, The Wolverine wasn’t too bad, and the 1960s era reboot, X-Men: First Class, was alright, but I wasn’t floored by it like some people were (despite having some big-name actors, including James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Michael Fassbender).  Critically, the direction of the franchise was set with the first two movies, both directed by Bryan Singer.  He moved on after those two films and entrusted the franchise with other folks, many of which didn’t take the care he did with the story and characters.

Which brings us to X-Men: Days of Future Past.  The fact that this movie exists at all is mind-boggling.  Singer returns (and even retains the music and similar opening title sequence he used in the earlier two movies), the cast from the original trilogy of movies returns (including Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and more), and they merged this cast with the new “first class” from the 60s era reboot, as this film relies heavily on time travel.  With the effects and pedigree of actors (let alone sheer number of them, some without lines, even), it’s a wonder they did it in a $200 million budget.

I kinda wish they’d explained how they brought back Professor X from the dead after the third movie…but whatever…

The movie begins in the future, with the original X-Men cast fighting a losing battle against the Sentinels, oversized robots designed to seek and destroy mutants and mutant sympathizers.  It’s effectively a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as the Sentinels have destroyed much of civilization in their quest.  Knowing their end is near, they hatch a plan to use Kitty Pride’s powers to send the consciousness of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to a pivotal moment in history, where they believe the Sentinal threat stemmed from.  As Wolverine doesn’t age like “normal” humans, it was a convenient way to have Jackman play both his older and younger self, bridging the gap between the old cast and new cast.  Wolverine does his best to “bring the band back together,” 10 years after the events of X-Men: First Class (so, now 1973), in order to prevent history from continuing on the course we saw in the beginning.

Overall, I thought it was a strong showing: definitely better than many of the other X-Men outings in the last 14 years (though probably not as good as the first two, in my book).  The action sequences were somewhat infrequent, the story slowed a bit in the middle, and I definitely had to suspend my brain from thinking too hard about the consequences of time-travel (…’cause, yeah…it don’t work that way…).  The acting and effects were all quite good, as expected, and I felt like all of the actors (and there were many) fit together remarkably well.  Granted, there were too many actors to keep track of, but I was in enough awe that I was seeing them all up on the same screen that I didn’t care.

Compared with previous X-Men movies, or even other comic book movies, this one got pretty dark at points.  Singer did his best to make “the future” seem bleak, and he succeeded.  Some of the original cast of X-Men were killed off by Sentinels in pretty gruesome ways.  It was just pretty shocking to see it happen time and again, especially after seeing many of these characters in movies for the past 14 years.  It was a bit unsettling, which I didn’t expect going in.

Finally, they ended the movie in such a way that it could serve as a good “swan song” for the original X-Men cast.  I highly doubt they’re going to let Hugh Jackman leave the Wolverine role (as, like Robert Downey, Jr and Iron Man, no one else can play that character), but many of the other actors are showing their age.  I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but they’re getting older and can’t pull these characters off for much longer.  This movie takes place “in the future,” so it was an easy sell this time.  I’m glad the next film, X-Men: Apocalypse, will focus on the younger cast, though I’ll miss the original crew.

Let’s put it this way: I’m glad that this is the last time I see Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, rather than X-Men 3.

 

Review: Godzilla

Godzilla...SMASH...

Godzilla…SMASH…

There’s something about classic monster movies that I like. Can’t really place it, to be honest.  They aren’t particularly scary (just a dude in a large rubber suit, frequently…), but for people at the time these movies were popular 60+ years ago, they were probably terrifying.  Godzilla is perhaps the most enduring of franchises, undergoing multiple evolutions and reinventions over the decades, for better or for worse.

This new interpretation of the franchise was set up to bring us into the summer’s blockbuster season: big cast, big effects, big destruction, the works.  It does a pretty good job of playing off the original movies, where nuclear testing in the South Pacific leads toward ancient monsters waking up from a slumber lasting millenia.  Brian Cranston stars as a scientist running a nuclear power plant in Japan back in 1999, one that is summarily destroyed when some “thing” causes a melt down.  He spends the intervening years between then and now working on his conspiracy theory of what was responsible.  His son, a survivor of the catastrophe, doesn’t believe him, but soon learns the truth as he and the rest of the military chase the beast(s) across the Pacific to San Francisco.  As the previews indicate, Godzilla is not the only monster the movie will deal with, and when they finally fight near the end of the film, the results are pretty spectacular.

Unfortunately, the focus of the film is on the humans and how they deal with the monsters.  The director, Gareth Edwards, is a relative newcomer, yet did a good job “teasing” the reveal of Godzilla until the latter portion of the film.  Though I appreciate that aspect of the movie, it also meant that it took a long time before we really saw Godzilla himself.  We saw the other monster, but not the one headlining the movie.  Once he finally showed up, we got to see monster-on-monster fighting that all too rarily shows up in major motion pictures (aside from the mostly great Pacific Rim last year).

In the end, I enjoyed the movie, but felt it dragged quite a bit in the middle.  It started off pretty good and really “stuck the landing” by the end, yet the middle tried going the route of “character drama” without having any truly compelling characters to care about.  They weren’t bad, per se: I just didn’t care.  So, it’s a good rental, for sure.  I’m not mad I spent money on it in theaters (though I thought the 3D was largely unnecessary…), but I could understand waiting a bit to see it.  Worth seeing, but not worth going out of your way.

Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I was never a big Captain America fan.  It was a comic series that debuted in 1941, in a time far removed from anything I could relate to.  He was Marvel’s All-American Hero, able to both compete with DC’s Superman and serve as a rallying cry for America’s involvement in World War II.  Spider-man was a lot easier for me to identify with: a teenage superhero that was just as concerned with saving the city as he was with finishing his homework.

As such, I skipped this character’s first outing on the big screen, 2011′s Captain America: The First Avenger.  By most accounts, it was actually a pretty good movie.  Not great, but solid.  Having watched it twice since its release, it’s still kinda low on my totem pole of comic book films.  However, after a series of pretty impressive trailers, and The Avengers, I gave the new movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a shot.

In short?  It was good.  Really good.  Arguably The Dark Knight good.  When I make that particular comparison, I mean that the film transcends “comic book movie” tropes and instead offers a good film for a larger audience that doesn’t have to rely heavily on its comic book roots.  Winter Soldier is far closer to a movie like The Bourne Identity than anything else, with choreographed hand-to-hand action sequences, elaborate car chases, and a character evading capture from his own organization after it’s taken over from within.

The plot vacillates between a focus on the titular Winter Soldier character and the bulking up of S.H.E.I.L.D. to use predictive surveillance to eliminate threats before they emerge.  The latter has relevance to our current political climate and its handling of the NSA and other spy programs, and it’s interesting that they looked at this theme at all.  However, the movie ultimately descends into typical comic book fare, leaving the spy program focus somewhat hollow.  They never quite commit to either story line.  That isn’t to say the plot is bad, but that some additional focus, or a choice between the two themes, may have served it better.

The generally strong story is also held up in large part by the action set pieces.  If you were to watch Iron Man or Thor, you’d be looking at a green screen for the majority of the movie.  In The Winter Soldier, you’re mostly looking at Washington, D.C. and Cleveland (…made up to look like D.C…).  You don’t see Captain America flying through the sky, firing beams from his hands: he just punches and flips and throws dudes through the air.  Granted, with super strength and agility…but really, it’s closer to a martial arts film at parts than it is to a traditional comic book movie.  It makes for a nice change of pace from other recent endeavors.  That said, the end of the movie ends up going full-on comic book freak show, with lots of spectacle and a series of engineering decisions that could only possibly serve as a set-piece, rather than anything practical.  Also, I saw it in 3D and, while it didn’t detract from the experience, I didn’t feel it was really necessary.

Another thing worth mentioning is its integration with Marvel’s Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. television series, currently airing on ABC.  The series itself was slow to start, but its most recent episode took place during Winter Soldier, so we see what else was happening at the same time, and also how it ties in with the events of the film somewhat directly.  It’s synergistic planning on Marvel’s part, but ratings for S.H.E.I.L.D. have been lacking and may not be renewed, yielding the potential for this unique feature of the Marvel Universe to be short-lived.

Ultimately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was pretty great.  I think I’d still keep The Dark Knight up their above it as the best “mainstream” comic film (as it never quite embraced its comic book-ness like Winter Soldier eventually does), and The Avengers as my favorite comic movie of all time, but this one was quite strong.  Definitely worth a look.

Review: RoboCop

John Kinneman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)

Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman in RoboCop (2014)

Options for decent movies are few and far between in late-February.  The next big crop comes up mid- to late-March, but we’re in the doldrums of movies that came out in December with the Christmas rush, and other Oscar hopefuls that get a late release in hopes of generating some buzz.  The “good” sci-fi movies also get saved for the summer blockbuster season, so it’s rare to find a “good” one released in early February.  In many ways, this year’s reboot of the RoboCop franchise may not even be that movie, as it’s had a mixed response, critically.

That all said, I should also point out that  despite the zeitgeist of the time, I didn’t grow up a fan of RoboCop.  It wasn’t exactly a “kid friendly” film, though I’m sure there were many in my elementary school that had seen it.  I didn’t get to see it until college, well after I’d been exposed to far, far better special effects.  Ketchup-style fake blood and stop-motion robots just didn’t do it for me, though I could at least appreciate that, for 1987, it was probably pretty cool.

The franchise consisted of 3 movies, a TV show, a cartoon, and countless toys.  I suspect many fans of the character would have preferred that only the first movie existed, as just about everything after it was generally bad.  That first movie, though, was prescient for its time, discussing such themes as militarization of law enforcement, drone warfare overseas, and corporations taking over the government and suppressing The People.

Perhaps 2014 is a really good time for a re-boot.

This new version of RoboCop includes similar characters, but is a pretty different movie, to my mind.  This version of Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman, who is largely unknown besides starring in cult-favorite The Killing) is a devoted family man in the near future, and incorruptible cop in Detroit that makes an enemy out of the leader of a local crime ring, who swiftly takes Murphy out with a car bomb.  Severely injured, his only hope is to have most of his body replaced by machine parts, “free of charge” by OmniCorp, which is run by Raymond Sellars (played by Michael Keaton).

Sellars is only doing this, though, because he wants his androids on the streets of the US.  To replace police officers.  His robots are already overseas fighting our wars for us, so “saving the lives of cops” (i.e. bit fat checks from local and state governments…) is his next venture.  What he needs, however, is a “human face” on his cold cyborg army, so “upgrading” Murphy is his way of making it happen.

This movie, as compared with the original, focuses far more on the human element.  The point at which we cease to be human and start to be machine.  Murphy struggles with having control over his own body, as OmniCorp can shut him down remotely at any time.  They can control how much personal decision-making can be applied in any given situation (i.e. whether to be more like a human cop, or more like an efficient, cold, robot).

On this front, I think the movie largely succeeds.  It is more of a “thinking man’s RoboCop,” which sets it apart from the previous outing.  It takes the original source material and updates it for our modern age, complete with a Glen Beck-style news anchor (played by Samuel L. Jackson) asking whether US Senators are “pro-crime” for not subscribing to Sellars’ world-view.

In the end, the acting was fine.  The writing was fine.  The effects were pretty good, but not spectacular.  There were a few pretty obvious moments when we switched from “dude in costume” to “that’s a CGI dude…really obviously…”  The original movie had quite a few bloody action scenes, and while this one certainly had its share, they were mostly shootouts, which can get a little boring without some hand-to-hand combat and explosions to back them up.

I thought it was good, but not great.  A solid rental, but I’m glad we saw it in the regular theater rather than spending extra for IMAX.  Some good ideas, but could have been more.

Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

Everyone here could beat me up.  Even the old woman

Everyone here could beat me up. Even the old woman

Thanks to a set wonderful grandparents, Brooke and I took the opportunity to offload the kids for an afternoon so we could go see a movie.  We’ve both read the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy (Brooke’s read the first one more than once…), but we didn’t see the first movie in theaters.  Of the three books, the second one, Catching Fire, was my favorite because, while it still included “The Games” like the first did, and the associated action set pieces, it also brought the larger conflict of the world into the story with more political dealings.  All three books really put their focus on the character of Katniss Everdeen at the expense of showing the reader the rest of what’s going on everywhere else in the world (i.e. they’ll refer to events but won’t show them to you; it’s all second-hand).  The second book, and especially the third, start to open that up quite a bit more, yielding a bit more interesting storytelling, in my opinion.

We both thought the first movie did a good job of balancing the content from the source material with the special effects needed to make your money back in theaters nowadays.  Thankfully the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, continues in that vein.  I haven’t read the book for a few years, but we both agreed that, while there were definitely a few things left out, most of the key story beats were present, and even the ending was nearly identical to the book.

The story this time out centers on Jennifer Lawrence‘s character, Katniss, and how she has dealt with being one of two Victors of the 74th Hunger Games, held each year between the 12 Districts of Panem (in a future-ish version of the United States where the government collapsed, leaving a reorganization of, well, everything…).  Because of the way the previous movie/story ended, the President of Panem, Snow (brilliantly played by Donald Sutherland), seeks revenge upon Everdeen for stirring up conflict between the Districts: conflict that could lead to revolution and his own downfall.  He and his cronies devise a special 75th Hunger Games that pits the previous winners from each District against each other yet again, thereby setting up a reason for us to return to the Games for a second movie/story.

The movie’s about 2.5 hrs long, so it does feel like it drags a little bit during the first half.  Having read the third book, however, I didn’t mind it because what some folks would see as “filler” is really “foundation” for the third story (and the next two movies…which, as is the trend nowadays, are both drawn from the final book, split in half…).  In that vein, there have been a few reviews out there that appear to criticize the movie for being a bit slower than the first one.  Again, I feel, this stems from those that haven’t read the books and haven’t seen events in their full context.  When we saw the movie, the woman in front of us saw the ending and was genuinely surprised that, apparently, “there’s going to be another one.”

To us, having read the books, we thought it was pretty good.  The action was fun, the effects were still as good or better than other major motion pictures pull off, the acting is as good as one would expect (especially from an Academy Award winner…), and it’s still cool to watch a pretty good read play out on the big screen without dramatic changes.  It’s pretty important that you see the first movie before this one (well duh…), but if you’ve got the time to read the books, I think you’d get more out of it.