Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Review

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past gets a lot of things really right, but still does not quite bring the X-Men franchise up to the same level as The Dark Knight Trilogy or recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films (such as The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

In an attempt to bridge the X-Men films of the early 2000s with (the initially intended reboot) X-Men: First Class (which sees many of the characters as their much younger selves), Days of Future Past employs a time travel narrative to send Logan (Wolverine) back in time (or his consciousness) to warn young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherrr of the dangerous path Raven (Mystique) is on; one that will see the world destroyed by Sentinels (giant robots that initially target mutants but then begin rounding up and/or killing all of humanity). Director Bryan Singer (who directed the first two films in the franchise) returns to the helm (after First Class writer-director Matthew Vaughn bowed out). Singer changed a lot of the elements of Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman’s initial story so that he could again bring back his original cast. The results are a mixed bag.

A lot of what Singer does with the film is fantastic. He certainly has a love of and flare for the characters and what they can do. The action scenes, especially those in the future, are phenomenal, exciting, and get at a lot of what is really cool about seeing the X-Men using their powers as a team to combat an enemy. The new mutants introduced in the future (particularly Bink) are also very well done, though with limited screen time. It might be nice in a future installment of the franchise to again see these characters (if that is even possible now). The style of the film is also very good, as Singer takes full advantage of the 1973 setting and juxtaposes it against the future visually. Though he makes a brief appearance as well, Peter Maximofff (Quicksilver) is also a lot of fun and steals his scenes. Again, Singer does a great job with the X-Men themselves and showcasing their abilities in a very entertaining and visually impressive manner. It terms of its visuals and action scenes, Days of Future Past is the most thrilling and absorbing of the franchise to date. These elements alone also create what is ultimately a strong comic book film, but the film also has a lot of issues that do hold it back.

The first thing that strikes the viewer as the film ends (something that is often tricky with time travel narratives) is that if the X-Men in 1973 do succeed in altering the future then every other X-Men film (other than First Class) is thus rendered irrelevant in terms of their stories affecting how the characters mature and grow in the future. Essentially by Singer bringing the two franchises together as one, he has erased his own films from the X-Men timeline as well as last year’s The Wolverine (which does not seem very forward thinking by Fox). Yes, those films can still exist on an alternate timeline, but they are still nonetheless greatly devalued. It just seems that it may have been better served to just leave the two sets of films separate as unrelated entities instead of forcing them together. The Days of Future Past story very easily could have been told solely with the original cast or with the new cast. Bringing the two casts together, while cool, ultimately seems to inflict more harm on the franchise than good (though, to be honest, the franchise was in tatters anyway thanks to a few poor films and timelines that make no sense).

This leads to the next point. The film suffers from Wolverine fatigue (and this may just be my own bias), as this is his sixth appearance as the lead character in an X-Men related film (plus he has a cameo in First Class). Fox does not seem to trust the franchise being able to succeed without him (and maybe they are right), and thus he is thrust into the narrative, ultimately not really serving any purpose other than being a plot device, spending most of the film just standing around as a bystander to the real action and drama. This issue also stems from Singer’s need to merge the two sets of films. Because Wolverine does not age (or ages very slowly), he is the only choice as the character to have his consciousness sent back in time (as he will look the same in 1973 and 2023). The comic book version of Days of Future Past features Kitty Pryde sending her own consciousness back in time to her younger self. Had the two sets of films remained separate, it would have been interesting to see a richer, fully fleshed out Kitty Pryde interact as a much needed leading female character (as really, Mystique is the only female character of substance), sending her consciousness back from the Sentinel-ravaged 1970s to the 1960s (say before Magneto is implicated in the assassination of JFK leading to the US government asking Trash to build his Sentinels to deal with the mutant problem). As is, this film, like almost all the X-Men films, sort of just becomes another Wolverine film; although, his character serves no purpose once he informs Charles Xavier of the impending doom of all mankind (which happens in the first act; and thus he stands around for two acts doing nothing important or interesting – he is not so much a character, but something that allows the plot to move forward).

First Class takes place in 1962 and Days of Future Past takes place in 1973 and the plan is for X-Men: Apocalypse to take place in the 1980s. This creates another issue. Ten or eleven years pass between the events of First Class and Days of Future Past and yet the narrative picks right back up as if only a small amount of time has passed (a couple of years maximum); not to mention that the characters have clearly not aged ten years (as it has only really been three years since First Class). The jump forward in time seems to have only been done so that Singer could feature 1970s style elements and include the setting of the Vietnam War, but the setting does not actually matter to the narrative and thus feels like an unnecessary choice (that logically makes less sense once one actually thinks about the fact that ten or eleven years passes between the two films – which means Erik Lehnsherr has been sitting in that cell for at least nine years and Raven has not been able to find and kill Bolivar Trask in the same amount of time; when Lehnsherr gets out of the cell it seems as if he has only been in there a short while and it seems as though Raven is just now on the hunt for Trask; basically, the timeframe just does not seem to make narrative sense and is not supported by what is shown on screen). This is a case of style over substance (which usually does not make for a better film).

The plots over all three of the original X-Men films revolve around Xavier and his X-Men trying to stop Lehnsherr (Magneto) and his Brotherhood. Charles believes in mankind as a whole (that they are good) while Lehnsherr fears what man will do to the more evolved mutants and thus wants to preemptively strike against them (he believes they are bad). First Class was interesting because for most of the narrative, Xavier and Lehnsherr work together. In Days of Future Past the audience is again shown a united Xavier and Lehnsherr in the future, but once the narrative reverts back to 1973, the film quickly once again becomes an X-Men versus Magneto story, which has become somewhat tiresome as they are all essentially the same (as depicted on film at least). Thus, the narrative of this film plays as mostly uninteresting. Xavier and Lehnsherr do the same dance yet again while Wolverine stands off to the side marginally involved. Only Raven has an interesting character arc, as she must decide if she is ruled by her hatred of humanity (stemming from her own insecurities about being a mutant) or if she can mature into someone who can hope that one day mutants will be accepted in society (it is a battle within her between Xavier and Lehnsherr’s ideologies). The other prominent character is Hank McCoy (Beast), but he is not really given anything to do dramatically (other than have a few angst-filled looks aimed towards Raven). The rest of the X-Men are either included as plot devices (like Kitty Pryde and Wolverine) or to make cameo appearances.

The film’s villain (if he can be called that, as the villain quickly really becomes Magneto) Doctor Bolivar Trask is also not really given much to do dramatically. He basically just wants to make weapons that kill mutants and also experiment on mutants, presumably solely because they are different. His character is sadly fairly thin and lacks substantial motivation.

The narrative overall being essentially the same as the three original X-Men films leaves the film dramatically a little uninteresting, despite the great visuals, style and action. Wolverine sort of being the main character but having no dramatic arc or purpose after completing his mission in the first act also greatly hampers the overall narrative. Thus, the film feels very slow in a lot of moments. It may even feel tedious, which is strange because there is again so much to like and it is very entertaining and spectacular overall visually. The big issues with the film all stem from it having a poor narrative structure (even though Days of Future Past is one of the best X-Men stories in comic form). The choices Singer and his creative team make end up hampering the film (and franchise) for seemingly not very good reasons. Yes, it is cool to see the original cast and new cast in the same film, but the cost is a film that is not nearly as good as it could have been and a franchise that has now mostly been made pointless (as the events of all the films other than First Class have now been erased from the current timeline, unless you are Wolverine and remember everything but know nothing about the new timeline you are in thereby making any Wolverine moments between 1973 and 2023 pointless from a character perspective as the Wolverine that wakes up in 2023 is not the same as the Wolverine that exists between 1973 and 2023 – hooray time travel narratives!!!).

While this review does seem to feature quite a bit of complaining on my part, I want to reiterate that Days of Future Past is a good, fun film overall. It is easily the second best X-Men film to date (just behind First Class) and comes very close to being a great film; it just cannot overcome its many narrative shortcomings. My complaining stems from my love of the X-Men and desire to see them get a truly great film (or set of films). I do have high hopes for X-Men: Apocalypse but also have some concerns. Chiefly, I am not sure jumping forward another ten years is going to work for the narrative (as it certainly does not in this film); plus the film is rumored to again include time travel elements (as Apocalypse narratives in the past often have), which could make the resolution of this film moot (as this film has done to most of the past X-Men films). I am also sort of bummed that we could not see Xavier and Lehnsherr’s characters develop more fully as young men in the 1960s (which is probably America’s most interesting and turbulent time period, and also one that works quite well as a mirror to the mutant struggle with its civil rights struggle). But oh well.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Days of Future Past is director Bryan Singer’s ninth and probably his best film to date (as I have said many times before, I think The Usual Suspects is vastly overrated). As stated in the review, Singer does a marvelous job with the action and the X-Men themselves in terms of showcasing their powers. The action set pieces take center stage as the film’s greatest achievement. It is too bad that Singer could not have also devised a stronger narrative structure to support his remarkable visuals and grand spectacle. That said, I am looking forward to seeing X-Men: Apocalypse and what Singer does with it.

Composer John Ottman brings back a lot of the musical score and themes that he did for X-Men 2. It is particularly recognizable in the future sequences. For the 1970s scenes, however, I did miss the great score and themes that Henry Jackman brought to First Class and wrote for the characters. It is too bad that they could not be incorporated as well. The score during the 1970s is very forgettable and is often overshadowed by the era-specific soundtrack. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does fantastic work on the film. The change in look and style between the future and 1970s is dazzling. I also enjoyed the look of old film stock when TV feeds and character hand-held camera footage are used. Production designer John Myhre also does very strong work. The future is mostly just rubble in darkness, but his style choices for the 1970s are very fun and cool. In particular, I like Bolivar Trask’s office.

Overall, the cast is very good; most of whom only have very small roles. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are both great reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto. They feel right at home and can convey so much without much screen time. Even though I think the film would have been better off if Singer had not brought the two series together, it was really cool to see them again. Ellen Page plays Kitty Pryde (also reprising her role from X-Men: The Last Stand); and while she mostly serves as a plot device (the one who transfers Wolverine’s consciousness back in time), she does bring some dramatic weight to the role. Peter Dinklage is wonderful as Bolivar Trask. The character is underwritten and somewhat sidelined as an afterthought, and yet he still brings a lot to the character, creating a man who hates the mutants maybe because of his insecurity about his own looks. Like Page, Dinklage brings dramatic weight to a fairly thin character.  Evan Peters has a ton of fun with Peter Maximoff and his scenes almost (or do) steal the film. Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy is fine, but his character is almost nonexistent in the narrative. Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Raven and benefits from having what is probably the film’s most interesting character arc. The role takes advantage of Lawrence’s strengths as an actress, such as her immutable will and charisma. Michael Fassbender is again brilliant as Erik Lehnsherr. He is able to convey the complexity of his inner struggle without dialog maybe better than anyone else in the main cast. He also carries himself wonderfully, displaying the sheer force that Magneto can be. James McAvoy is good has Charles Xavier because he delivers a character that truly does care about humanity and has deep moral feelings; but unlike Stewart’s interpretation, McAvoy is a bit more sharp witted and playful. Hugh Jackman turns in his typical Wolverine performance, but does not really benefit from a narrative that sidelines him dramatically for most of the film (even though he has the most screen time).

Summary & score: X-Men: Days of Future Past is both a fantastically impressive X-Men film and a narratively disappointing one. 7/10

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Movie of the Week – The Last Metro

This week’s movie: The Last Metro (1980)

In Nazi occupied Paris during WWII, Marion Steiner, an actress married to a Jewish theatre director, tries to keep her theatre going putting on a new play, while also keeping her husband hidden within the theatre.

The film is written and directed by French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut. The Last Metro is not as critically lauded as say The 400 Blows, but along with Day for Night it is my favorite of his films (coincidentally, both films are about the struggles of putting together a production). Truffaut worked with composer Georges Delerue, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and production designer Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko on the film. The aesthetics of the film are top notch.

The cast is very good, featuring an ensemble lead by Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu.

The Last Metro is not a particularly well-known Truffaut film, but I would argue one of his best (it is also one of the last he directed, dying a few years after its release). There are multiple reasons I love it. For one, it is about putting on a theatre production, and all the difficulties that come with that, allowing us to see behind the curtain (something I always find intriguing). And second, it also has a great WWII spy undercurrent to it, which is fantastic. Everything feels heightened because at any moment the Nazis could burst through the doors and spoil everything. This is a must for fans of WWII era dramas and those, like me, who love films about theatre and moviemaking.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and VideoOn-Demand

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Godzilla (2014) – Review

Review: Godzilla is visually striking and features a few very compelling moments, but overall is quite disappointing, pulled down by a fairly terrible script. The film is about engineer Joe Brody and his family. Joe works at a nuclear power plant in Japan that melts down due to a presumed natural disaster, killing Joe’s wife. Fifteen years later, Joe is still searching for answers, believing that the plant meltdown is being covered up and that something else entirely is responsible. Meanwhile, Joe’s son Ford has moved on from the tragedy and has his own family in San Francisco. Ford must come to Japan, however, after his father is arrested trespassing on the site of the old plant. Joe convinces Ford to come with him one last time to search the site for answers. Once there, they discover something profoundly terrifying. This is a film about a giant monster after all.

Godzilla is very polarizing for me (the film, not the character). On one hand, I found it to be mesmerizing aesthetically, often thrilling me with its fantastic visual spectacles and the best score of 2014 so far. But on the other hand, the characters and script are just plain awful. Sadly, despite very impressive visuals, this is just not a good film.

Director Gareth Edwards seems poised to deliver a classic monster movie, delaying Godzilla for most of the film’s first two acts, seemingly instead to focus on building strong characters.  The problem is that his characters are paper thin and their emotional exchanges are laughably clich├ęd and contrived. The scenes involving the human characters are mostly unwatchable, especially when they attempt to convey some sort of emotional exchange. Edwards never takes the time to give his characters any real character attributes or character-centric moments to involve the audience on a deeper emotional level; they are all hollow shells that just blankly say poorly written lines of dialog. The audience could care less about any of these human characters. They are essentially pointless; and yet, they take up most of the screen time. Thus, Edwards structuring the film to delay Godzilla’s appearance for a large chunk ends up hurting the film overall as the first half plays very slowly (due to the lousy characters).

It is as if Edwards devoted all his time and effort into making sure the visuals and the action involving Godzilla worked, forgetting that for the film to exist outside of being just pure spectacle he also needs strong characters at its core that the audience can care about and invest in, which in turn allows the drama and action the play bigger. Clearly, the human characters were an afterthought, only included at the last minute with little effort taken because someone told him he could not have a film without human characters (pure speculation).

But even with all that said, Edwards gets the visuals completely right. Once Godzilla gets involved and the action ramps up, the film actually becomes fairly interesting, as the viewer is thrilled by the pure ambiance created by the smoky, overcast, dark, foreboding cinematography and the brilliant thunderous and sort of spooky score. The atmosphere created is wonderful. And then Edwards introduces the monster and is able to pull off the epic imagery with panache.

After being bewildered by just how bad the characters are in the film, I found myself entranced by the film, enchanted by the striking images and atmosphere Edwards employs in the second half. The characters themselves are still pointless, utterly, but the visuals take over carrying the film.

At the end, one might even call the film satisfying – but that is completely dependent on one’s expectations for what the film should be or aspire to be. For those looking for something that is pure spectacle featuring a massive monster engaging in grand terror and destruction then this film will probably work quite well, as essentially that is all it does well. For those, however, looking for a complete narrative film with strong characters, Godzilla will be a letdown. Again, even with its tremendous visuals, it is just not a good movie. But, and this is its saving grace, it does entertain once it gets going.

On a side note, Edwards seems to be highly influenced by Steven Spielberg. There are a number of moments that feel like they are carbon copies of similar moments across Spielberg’s films. Particularly, Edwards utilizes “The Spielberg Face”, especially when it comes to using children to employ the dramatic device; though, I will say that Edwards uses it much less effectively. Even worse, Godzilla ultimately feels like a remake of Jurassic Park, mirroring many scenes and thematic and stylistic elements (but with far weaker characters). Everything somewhat shamefully copies everything else in filmmaking generally, but I kept thinking that the two paralleled each other very closely throughout, as if I were watching a updated version with slightly better visual effects.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Gareth Edwards has made two feature films, both of which focus on large monsters making landfall engaging in carnage and creating dread among human inhabiting the areas. His first film Monsters somewhat feels like it could be a sequel to this Godzilla film, as Godzilla introduces monsters to the human world, while Monsters is about humans living in a world also inhabited by monsters. They are similar in many ways, but what sets them apart is that Monsters feature reasonably good characters while Godzilla has terribly underwritten characters, and thus its seems as if Edwards has taken a step backwards as a filmmaker. But that said, I look forward to seeing what he does with Godzilla 2, as again his visuals were rather good.

The wonderful aesthetics are thanks to the collaborations with the great group Edwards worked with on the film. Composer Alexandre Desplat delivers a phenomenal score given the genre and style of the film (here is the full score; it is honestly far better than the film it is in). It has a great chilling power to it, often sounding as if it were written for a horror thriller or ghost story. It is spooky and very fun; and, I like the Japanese influences and accents as well. I will be surprised if it is not among my three favorite scores of the year when all is said and done (Desplat already gave us the fantastic The Grand Budapest Hotel score earlier this year as well, which I also loved). Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography perfectly sets the mood working in dark and gloomy tones. There is a scene in which paratroopers deploy through the clouds which is just visually astonishing and kind of beautiful. Owen Paterson’s production design does a good job grounding the film in reality, even though it often feels ridiculous (the sheer spectacle of watching Godzilla traipse through a city is kind of just as hilarious as it is mesmerizing). Designing sets that feel and look obliterated must have been fun. Overall, the film being as good as it is in moments (not overall) is thanks in large part to the work of these three.

It is hard to say that any of the actors are good in Godzilla as it is not really true, but it is not their fault. The script is one of the poorest of this year so far. They do their best. David Strathairn plays a typical military man type, while Juliette Binoche plays Joe’s wife who has the tough task of making the audience feel something (unsuccessfully) by dying in the first five to ten minutes of the film. Ken Watanabe plays a scientist who just wants to see Godzilla flourish, while Sally Hawkins plays another scientist who follows his lead completely (neither serves any purpose except maybe for some exposition). Bryan Cranston plays Joe, a crazy person who is vindicated while also wearing a horrifically terrible wig. Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays Ford, a military man who is fed up with his father being a crazy person. Ford finds Joe being obsessed by the tragedy that claimed the life of his wife (because that seems unreasonable), believing that it is being covered up, annoyingly tiresome, as he has moved on. Elizabeth Olsen plays Ford’s wife Elle, and like Ford she too has no personality or character whatsoever. These actors have all been very good in other things, but here with Godzilla they are basically being paid to kill screen time until Godzilla shows up (as presumably the budget could not pay for two hours of Godzilla smashing stuff) with little care given to actually creating fully realized characters of any kind.

Summary & score: Godzilla is everything one could hope for in terms of being a grand monster movie. There is just one hitch; it is not a very good film in every other regard. 6/10

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Neighbors (2014) – Review

Review: Neighbors is a funny R-rated comedy, but fails to aspire to anything more ambitious, interesting, or compelling. The film is about Mac and Kelly Radner, a young couple who has recently purchased their first home and had their first child. Life seems good. Everything changes, however, when a fraternity purchases the house next-door, constantly having wild parties and otherwise making life almost unbearable for Mac and Kelly. They have no choice but to engage in an escalating war of pranks in the hopes of getting the frat kicked out of school.

At face value, Neighbors is basically a film about warring generations: young college kids just looking to party and have a good time versus adults in their early to mid thirties (who still think they are young enough to lead the same lifestyle as the college kids, but old enough to have responsibilities and horrible hangovers to know that they are really just adults now and need to grow up). Director Nicholas Stoller tries his hand at a few broad jokes about the generational gap, but really the film does not quite capitalize on all the humor potential apparent in the narrative setup. More so, the film goes out of its way to undertake jokes that reference pop-culture, aim to shock, and of course pratfalls (because who does not like physical comedy – I wish I had not already seen the airbag jokes in the trailer though; they would have played so much better without the trailer spoiling them). Overall, the film is very funny – more or less checking all the boxes for modern R-rated comedy.

That said, the film never really tries to be anything more, which is fine, but the audience never really cares about any of the characters. What works really well about the best comedies is that not only do they make us laugh but we also feel absorbed in the story. Here, the story is an afterthought, merely existing as a way to allow the filmmakers to move from one joke to the next. The plot serves the jokes instead of the jokes supporting the overall narrative. Mac and Kelly are likable characters, and the supporting cast is made up of funny and enjoyable characters, but the narrative is very weak, and Stoller never gives the audiences moments to invest in Mac and Kelly – everything is just a joke, while the plot and characters (for the most part) are very thin. There is no real drama or emotion, which ultimately leaves the film feeling unsatisfying overall, even with the laughs.

The narrative structure too is very weak. The first two acts are actually fairly well done, but what brings down the narrative overall is its third act. Stoller wraps up the film seemingly very suddenly without a sense of real resolution. The film asks the audience to also care about the main frat characters and then leaves them out of the ending. Teddy, the frat president and nemesis of Mac and Kelly, is given a very vague and wholly unsatisfying conclusion as well. The film feels like it just ends in the middle of the third act, the audience left feeling like there is something missing.

The main narrative arc for Mac and Kelly is rather unsubstantial as well. They start out as new parents, not ready to accept their new life as responsible caregivers to their child and give up the fun life they knew before of hanging out with friends and going out at night. After the ordeal with the frat, they have come to terms with their situation and feel satisfied with their new life as parents – basically, before they wanted to go out and party with their friends, but now they do not. This is far from a transformative revelation, likely one that will be see them revert back to the urge to get out and go out in a couple weeks (or even days), as it is only natural. And if not, is it not a little sad to suggest that once we have kids we should be satisfied with a life in which we go to work, come home, never go out, and never interact with other people in social situations? But really none of this matters; the plot is just a jumping-off point. The point of this film is to laugh at jokes, nothing else.

Neighbors is really about Mac and Kelly. It is their narrative, but the film also sort of tries to be a college frat comedy as well, utilizing many of the classic troupes of the genre (hazing pledges, wild parties, students who seem to only care about their fraternity and never go to actual school, kooky members of the frat, and a struggles against a Dean that wants to quick them off campus – it pretty much just tries to throw everything in). Thus, in trying to make his comedy more than it is, Stoller loses his ability to devote time to his characters (which in the end makes this a throwaway comedy); instead, he is just trying to create a comedy genre mash-up to garner laughs for the sake of laughs.

Stoller wants to film to be a frat comedy, a generational war comedy, and an adult coming-of-age comedy, but just sort of scatters elements of all these narrative types without committing to a fully cohesive and engaging story. Neighbors is funny and thus achieves its goal, but the laughs are hollow as the narrative never fully feels compelling or interesting and there are not enough character moments to create characters the audience can invest in or care about.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Nicholas Stoller has a very good comedy track record with the very good comedies Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and The Five-Year Engagement, but Neighbors is his weakest film to date. Jason Segel provided Stoller with good material for his best films, but here the script and characters are just too thin. Hopefully, Stoller and Segel will work together again in the future, as they collaborate very well together.

Michael Andrews provides a serviceable score, but the film’s use of its soundtrack completely overshadows it. Brandon Trost’s cinematography is fairly straightforward, but there are a few instances that allow him to light in a more interesting manner (mostly involving the party scenes). Julie Berghoff seems to have some fun with her production design, especially in her design for the fraternity.

The cast works fairly well overall. There are a few very funny small roles. Notably Lisa Kudrow, Craig Roberts, Jerrod Carmichael, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Dave Franco, Carla Gallo, and Ike Barinholtz are all good in small supporting roles. Zac Efron is okay as Teddy, but there does not seem to be much to the character. Most of the time, Efron just feels like an excuse to have someone who looks good shirtless. Rose Byrne is very funny as Kelly and is the best part of the film. She feels believable as her character, while bringing enough energy and timing to also bring the biggest laughs. Seth Rogen is funny as well, but he somewhat lazily seems to just be playing himself.

Summary & score: Neighbors is funny, with a few big laughs, but there is not much more to it than that. 6/10

Monday, May 19, 2014

Movie of the Week – Judgment at Nuremberg

This week’s movie: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

The film is about the Nuremberg trials following the end of WWII, specifically the trial of four Nazi judges charged with war crimes.

Director Stanley Kramer followed up his great legal drama Inherit the Wind with another legal drama focusing on social and moral questions, making what are probably his best two films. He worked with composer Ernest Gold, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo, and production designer Rudolph Sternad.

The strongest aspect of the film, however, is its strong performances. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell (who won an Oscar for his work), Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, and William Shatner highlight the great ensemble.

Judgment at Nuremberg was nominated for eleven Oscars including Best Picture, winning two. It is one of the great legal dramas in film history, relying on great performances (from its fantastic cast). The politics of the film are also interesting. When the Nuremberg Trials began there was a need for someone to blame (with most of the Nazi high command committing suicide or fleeing in the final days of the war), while most of the German population professed that they did not know to the horrifying extent what the Nazis were up to (specifically, they claim to have not known about the concentration camps and mass murder), something that has always felt more or less untrue. The German people were suddenly not Nazis, condemning the political party even more fervently than the allies; and thus, known and convenient members of the party would take the fall for an entire country. Yet, in the late 1940s, the Soviet Union was beginning to assert its power a bit more, bucking its partnership with the other allied countries. Fear of communism and what the future held began to greatly overtake the distain felt towards Germany as a whole. The allies needed Germany to be strong and partner with them against the Soviets more than they needed to punish a whole country and its people (the effects of the Treaty of Versailles on Germany and their direct correlation to the Nazi Party taking power also well in the minds of many). Thus, there was a change during the trials. Germany was forgiven and even accepted as a friend among the allies – all easily accepting the position of throwing blame on a few Nazis and believing that most Germans were not party members and did not know or play a role in the murder of millions (although, to that point, many international, US included, companies are probably just as complicit; for example, IBM designed and did in-person maintenance on machines used to count the prisoners collected at the concentration camps; and, Coca Cola creating a new product, Fanta, so that it could continue doing business in Germany after removing its main brand when war was declared). Forgiveness is the best step forward, but it is interesting to see a complete attitude change on the basis of fear, beginning the Cold War. Judgment of Nuremberg is worth checking out for fans of war dramas and legal dramas.

Trailer: Here
Available on: DVD

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Top 100 Films of the 20th Century – Part 15: 35-31

Rank: 35
Title: Blade Runner
Release Year: 1982
Genre: Sci-Fi Action/Mystery
Director: Ridley Scott
Plot Summary: Rick Deckard is a blade runner, hot on the trail of four replicants who stole a ship in space and have returned to Earth to find their creator. Deckard is charged with terminating the replicants, as they have broken the law and are very dangerous.
What Makes It Special: Blade Runner masterfully blends the hard-boiled detective and sci-fi genres, creating a film that is both visually striking and profoundly engaging. It is a film that has seen multiple cuts (I personally like Ridley Scott’s Final Cut the most) and started many debates regarding the meaning of the film and whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant as well. Blade Runner offers sci-fi fans everything the genre promises to be (visually and philosophically), coming together with beauty, intellect, and emotional depth.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 34
Title: Sunset Blvd.
Release Year: 1950
Genre: Film-Noir/Drama
Director: Billy Wilder
Plot Summary: Somewhat desperate for work, screenwriter Joe Gillis is hired by aging former silent cinema star Norma Desmond to write her a new film that will hopefully rejuvenate her career.
What Makes It Special: Sunset Blvd. takes film-noir in a different direction. Usually, it is a style used for mysteries and detective films, but here Billy Wilder uses it to create a sense of faded glory that has stripped away everything revealing a monster (Norma Desmond). The cinematography is wonderful with a stark contrast between its blacks and whites, accentuating the noir style. The film also features one of cinema’s grandest performances, as Gloria Swanson’s Desmond overwhelms each scene. As the drama plays, Joe Gillis finds that he is not some much a guest or employee of Desmond’s but rather that he is a prisoner that she has lured in and trapped forever in her mad, dark world. This is especially a gem for cinephiles, as it features cameos from some of cinema’s greatest silent film era stars and filmmakers.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 33
Release Year: 1968
Genre: Western
Director: Sergio Leone
Plot Summary: A ruthless assassin working for a railroad baron sets his sights on a beautiful woman. He kills her family to claim her and her land for himself; however, a mysterious stranger with a harmonica teams up with a notorious desperado to help her, setting up a showdown.
What Makes It Special: Once Upon a Time in the West is a fantastic epic spaghetti western, featuring all the iconic troupes the genre is known for as well as one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores. The western genre is all but dead today, but grand films like Once Upon a Time in the West saw it at its artistic height. This is a must-see for all fans of the genre.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 32
Release Year: 1959
Genre: Screwball Comedy
Director: Billy Wilder
Plot Summary: Joe and Jerry are two Chicago musicians who witness a mob hit. In a frantic attempt to escape the mob’s clutches, they pretend to be women, disguising themselves and joining an all-female band on its way to Florida. Complications arise when Joe finds himself falling for a ukulele player in the group named Sugar Kane Kowalczyk and Jerry is pursued by a millionaire (who really does think he is a woman). All this and somehow the mob has still tracked them down.
What Makes It Special: Some Like It Hot is a bit of a throwback to the 1930s. Billy Wilder brings back the screwball comedy style, creating wonderful hijinks and laughs using the classic ploy of men dressing up as women (my first film experience of this was Nuns on the Run, but there are many instances). The film is infectiously funny, succeeding on the pure comic genius of Jack Lemmon and his chemistry with Tony Curtis. Marilyn Monroe is also at her best in the film. Comedy has seldom been funnier or better done in cinema.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Rank: 31
Release Year: 1955
Genre: Horror/Drama
Director: Charles Laughton
Plot Summary: Harry Powell shares a cell with Ben Harper where he hears how Harper hid $10,000.00 he stole somewhere on his land. Powell is released from prison and Harper is hanged for his crimes. Powell makes his way to the Harper homestead to find the money. He takes advantage of Harper’s gullible widow, but the two young children are reluctant to tell him where the money is hidden.
What Makes It Special: The Night of the Hunter is one of the most artistically compelling films in cinema history. It plays like a nightmare, with scary almost fantasy imagery and Robert Mitchum is brilliant as the murderous villain Harry Powell, who uses charm and religious fanaticism to trick and deceive all around him. The great actor Charles Laughton only directed one film, but what a film he made. The noirish cinematography and production design alone are magnificent. The Night of the Hunter is a strange and special film, the likes of which cinema will probably never see again.
Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

TV Series of the Month – Treme

This month’s TV Series: Treme (2010-2013).

Treme follows an ensemble of characters who try to put their lives back together in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The show is also about the city of New Orleans, its culture, politics, and music.

The HBO series is created by Eric Overmyer and David Simon. Simon previously created the HBO series The Wire and the miniseries Generation Kill. Overmyer worked with Simon on The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. Anthony Bourdain also works on the show as a writer (helping with the restaurant/food service oriented storylines).

Like most HBO shows, Treme features a wonderful cast (full of HBO alumni). It stars Khandi Alexander, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, Melissa Leo, Lucia Micarelli, Clarke Peters, Wendell Pierce, Steve Zahn, Michiel Huisman, India Ennenga, Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, David Morse, Lance E. Nichols, Jon Seda, and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. It also featured some good guest stars and lots of musician cameos.

Treme is probably at its best when it takes its viewers inside the music of New Orleans, exploring all that the city has to offer (both in terms of genres and venues). I also enjoyed its look at the food and politics of the city as well. Creator David Simon is very good at putting together ensembles and stories that both engage the audience and inform them. The series led me to visiting the city myself (something I will continue to do on a regular basis, as it is a very fun place with fantastic food). The series lasts three full seasons with season four acting as a shorter wrapping up of the characters' stories. While it is not among the elite HBO dramas, Treme is very good and well worth checking out.

Trailer: Here
Available on: Blu-ray and Video On-Demand

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) – Review

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 accomplishes essentially what it sets out to do (be entertaining and move the story forward), but it lacks any real meaningful punch (even though it does try quite hard). The film follows the events of The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) still struggles with why his father and mother left him as a young boy. This loss is only compounded by his Uncle Ben dying, which leads Peter to break-up with Gwen, believing that she will be safer if she is away from him (he both cannot lose her like he feels he has lost everything else in his life and he made a promise to her dying father to leave her alone). Meanwhile, Harry Osborn has returned to New York to take over Oscorp in the wake of his father’s death, reconnecting with Peter and renewing their friendship. Also meanwhile, Oscorp employee and electrical engineer Max Dillon leads a life of solitude, feeling invisible to the world. During one of Peter’s many patrols as Spider-Man, he rescues Max (and Max becomes obsessed with Spider-Man). Things start to get complicated and fall apart when Max has a devastating accident turning him into Electro. His mind is warped and he believes Spider-Man has betrayed him in some way and he seeks vengeance, as well as power over all those who ignored him his whole life. Peter’s relationship with Harry too becomes frayed when Harry believes that Spider-Man’s blood is the key to helping him ward off the same genetic disease that killed his father, now present in him; yet, Peter is reluctant to help, thinking it will cause more bad than good. And finally, Peter’s relationship with Gwen continues to be complicated. He wants to keep her safe, but their connection is so strong that he cannot seem to stay away.

This review will contain spoilers so see the film first if you do not want to be spoiled. The concern, initially, with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was that there were too many characters and thus the narrative would be too complicated and muddled – characters not being given time to develop. Director Marc Webb does do a decent job, overall, managing his many characters and the narrative (considering that the script is pretty terrible). He keeps the narrative moving forward more or less with only a few moments that feel slow. The main issues with this film, really, end up being the same issues that the first had, only compounded. The motivations of the characters all feel very forced and contrived as if they are merely plot devices instead of natural and organic. Things seem to happen for no good reason. Character emotions explode without necessary development. The audience is only ever told that the characters feel or are a certain way, but it never takes its time to show the audience why, as thus the audience is never really emotionally invested in the characters or the story.

The biggest offender of this is again the main villain. Max Dillon/Electro is very poorly developed. Basically, he is just a crazy person who suddenly has access to great power. This is all fine and well, except he takes up a big chunk of the film; and, Webb tries to imply that there is some emotional connection between Spider-Man and Dillon and that Dillon does have a redeeming humanity to him, yet none of it works. He is just incredibly boring, nothing he does means anything to the audience, and his whole narrative just wastes everyone’s time. I think he was only included to allow for more cool action sequences involving a flying blue man.

All that said, Electro’s narrative could be forgiven if only Peter and Harry’s relationship worked. Electro is more or less just a henchman by the end anyway, easily dispatched without anyone caring. One of the key elements to this whole film, and maybe the whole series depending on what happens next, is Peter’s relationship with Harry. Webb forgets that cinema is chiefly a visual medium and that viewers need to be emotionally engaged to really care about what is going on. He only ever tells us in regards to Peter’s relationship with Harry. There is no time to develop Harry as a character, so things just escalate because the need for more action sequences demands it and no one is all that interested. The audience needs to feel and see that Peter and Harry are good friends, that they really do mean something to each other. That way, when Peter decides not to help Harry, his heartbreak and the weight of Peter’s decision is palpable and resonates with the audience. As it is now, these decisions exist merely to push the plot forward and really have no actually emotional fortitude (when they really should). Peter having to fight his “best friend” should mean something to the audience and not just exist as mindless spectacle. Harry is also criminally underdeveloped (because so much time needed to be spent on Max Dillon for some reason).

In the first film, Gwen and Peter’s relationship was not particularly managed all that well, succeeding mostly on the chemistry and strength of the actors. This is again mostly true, except this film goes for a very big emotional moment between them and it sadly falls a bit flat. Their relationship is all over the place. Peter is torn between what he believes is his responsibility and his feelings for Gwen. It is clear from their chemistry (despite how hard the script tries to make the audience not like them) that they cannot really bare to be apart; although, Gwen seems to be trying to move on, but Peter cannot let her go (even though he tries). Peter also seems to treat the relationship very one-sided. Everything is about him and not Gwen. Fans of the comics know that Gwen is a doomed character and I applaud Webb for actually going through with her full narrative arc (as most Hollywood films would have side stepped it in some way – for example, in the MCU a character has died in each of the last four films, a character whose death emotionally affects the main characters of the film, only to be brought back and revealed as not actually being dead). This is a transformative moment for the series and for Peter as a character, and yet for the audience it is sad because a character and actress they like is gone but the full devastation that Peter feels is never fully transferred, and thus the moment is wasted. Stemming all the way back to the first film, their relationship is just never really developed in a manner that creates a strong emotional connection with the audience; and so, this film is hollow and nothing more than spectacle. This is something that Webb must get right with Peter and Mary-Jane Watson in The Amazing Spider-Man 3.

Setting the narrative flaws aside for a moment, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 does feature a few very good action scenes. I particularly enjoyed the prologue scene, detailing what happened to Peter’s parents. It is probably the most engaging scene in the film. Although, it too is problematic, as it further disconnects the audience from Peter. Because Peter’s search for the truth is one of the central elements to the series, the audience should discover things as Peter discovers them. Telling the audience information before Peter knows just deflates his discovers dramatically and emotionally.

The best aspect of the film is its tone. Webb really does a good job getting the tone and visual style right, carrying over from the first film. It feels like a Spider-Man film, which is probably the most important aspect for creating an enjoyable experience (I just wish that more care was also taken with all the characters).

The film sets up the future of the series well too. In many ways, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more of an origin story than the first (but, this also lessens its ability to function as a standalone film – something all the best super hero films do well, including Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2). It sets up Sony’s Spider-Man universe, laying the groundwork for The Sinister Six. Plus, the events of the film really propel Peter Parker into the hero becomes in the end. Before this, Spider-Man was sort of just for fun (in a sense, it is all just a game) without real dire consequences, and thus not as heroic. Now, Peter must move forward having experienced loss directly because of his actions as Spider-Man and with greater villains who know how to hurt him in a more personal way. And thus, there is promise that despite the first two entries being letdowns (in comparison to the original Spider-Man Trilogy and the high standards that those films, or two of them at least, and The Dark Knight Trilogy set for superhero films) the future of the franchise is ripe with potential and may yet produce a good to great film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Marc Webb was a gamble when he was hired to direct The Amazing Spider-Man, having only previously helmed (500) Days of Summer and a few music videos. It seemed like a savvy choice at the time; and while Webb has done okay with the franchise two films in (somewhat tripped up by awful scripts and character development, but as the director that is still mostly on him), I would not be opposed to Sony changing things up for part three (even though that seems very unlikely, as both films have succeeded at the box office). It also seems that Sony and the Spider-Man producers have still not learned the lesson that if the film is going to have many characters it needs to have a very strong narrative structure balancing each character appropriately. This is was the flaw of Spider-Man 3 (among many others, including Sony and company thinking they knew better than Sam Raimi) and it has continued to carry over to each film since. The writing is just substandard and that desperately needs to change going forward (but will it? Probably not considering these films are all very successful monetarily).

The Amazing Spider-Man 2, however, is visually magnificent. Cinematographer Daniel Mindel and production designer Mark Friedberg have created a world that is vibrant with color and yet still grounded. It is playful yet rooted in a world that the audience can relate to, very much capturing the spirit of Spider-Man the character. Composer Hans Zimmer created a super group to score the film, primarily featuring Johnny Marr and Pharrell Williams. I cannot decide if I liked the score or not, though. On one hand, it is bombastic and exciting in all the right ways, accentuating the action and drama of the film. But on the other hand, some of the choices feel odd and there seems to be a lack of an iconic theme for any of the characters (something superhero films should have). There is really almost nothing to like about Electro in the film, and the score connected to his character may bare part of the responsibility (though a very small part) as it just does not seem to fit at all (both in terms of fitting the character and the tone of the rest of the film and its music).

Even though The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems to treat its characters as secondary elements of the film, the actors who play them are all mostly good (in the face of having to work with clunky dialog and little to no character development). That said, many good actors are wasted (maybe none more so than Felicity Jones, who basically just shows up as a bookmark, so that everyone can come back to her in a future film in the series). Paul Giamatti and especially Chris Cooper are very good with limited screen time. Dane DeHaan is also very good as Harry Osborn. His character is paper thin (despite being a crucial element to the film universe) and yet DeHaan brings so much to him. Harry is privileged and entitled, but with major abandonment issues. In some ways, he is a cracked mirror reflection of Peter Parker. Jamie Foxx does his best with Max Dillon, creating a very nerdy crazy person. But he, like the script and director, never really invites the audience to care about Max in any way, shape, or form. Foxx is a good actor, but there is nothing to like about Electro. Emma Stone is good again as Gwen Stacy. She is very charismatic and that translates very well for the audience, doing a lot of the narrative’s work for it. Regardless of her character’s development, Stone’s charm is enough to make her likable and engage the audience (at least superficially). Andrew Garfield is also again good as Peter Parker. His version of Peter Parker has a lot of fun as Spider-Man and seems to have a strong moral grounding, but the complications of his personal life as Peter wear him down. He does not seem to know what he wants exactly (but who does). His chemistry with Stone is the best aspect of the series so far. It is sad that there will not be more from these characters together as their story never really got going in any real meaningful way (despite what the films might have you believe); but at the same time, I am interested to see how Peter grows as a character in the wake of the tragic events and how his relationship develops with MJ. Emd of spoilers.

Summary & score: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is all flash and no bang – that is to say, it looks wonderful, has some good action, but again seems to miss the mark when it comes to creating characters that the audience can care about in any real way. 5/10