Sunday, May 25, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" redeems the past

Time has gone by fast. My top two most anticipated movies of the summer have come and gone, and they were both amazing. Here is my review of the second one (the other was "Godzilla"). I remember really becoming an X-Men fan in 2003 around when "X2" came out in theaters. At the time, it was probably the best superhero-film out. It had good acting, good writing, and a sense of mystery because of the Weapon X flashbacks and the Phoenix teaser at the very end. I wanted the next one to be awesome so badly. Too bad it wasn't because Bryan Singer made the boneheaded decision to direct "Superman Returns" instead of the third "X-Men" movie. The result was a double-feature crapfest that most fans don't want to forgive not forget. Well fans, "X-Men: Days of Future Past" will make you both forgive AND forget "The Last Stand."

The aforementioned movie was based around X-Men's most beloved story arc of all time: The Dark Phoenix Saga, a story so beloved that it's #1 on my greatest comic book stories of all time. If that's #1, then Days of Future Past is probably #2 in Chris Claremont's unprecedented run on the series. Well, they basically took a shit on #1 with its screen treatment. And then they redeemed themselves with #2. They redeemed the shit out of themselves.

The storyline may sound familiar, but at the time it was written, it was ahead of its time for several reasons which are discussed in that comic book storyline post. Basically, it's a dystopian future not unlike the one portrayed in "Terminator 2." Mutants and the humans who support them get rounded up in concentration camps while those who resist are exterminated. By machines called sentinels. The X-Men are one such faction actively resisting the sentinels' oppression, but to do so they must be careful because those things literally cannot be stopped. They're like an entire army of terminators on steroids. So one day, Professor X gets tired of jumping from safehouse to safehouse and decides to do something about it. One member of the team, Shadowcat, somehow has the ability to transfer a person's consciousness back in time to said person's younger body. So they do it with none other than Wolverine in an attempt to prevent an assassination that will literally screw everyone over. Hijinks ensue.

The most common praise of the first 2 X-Men movies was their dark, cerebral tone along with well-developed characters. In contrast, #3 kind of felt rushed in an attempt to sacrifice plot and characters for pants-shitting moments (it didn't succeed ... ok it kind of did in some aspects but mostly not). DOFP returns to the glory days of the original movies while retaining the breakneck pacing and wit that "First Class" had. And actually, the humor is quite strong with this one, but it manages to still be rather dark and serious. It's a good balance, and that's part of what makes it such a strong movie.

The acting is also extremely top-notch for a superhero film. Literally everyone involved does an outstanding job. Special praise goes to Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and of course, Hugh Jackman since those are the main players (also of note: he may be the time traveler, but DOFP actually does not at all focus too much on Wolverine). Evan Peters also did a good turn, stealing every scene he was in despite not being in the movie for all that long. I know the acting was good because this was the most emotional X-Men movie yet. This was the polar opposite of "First Class." Especially with Professor X. When the man actually drops an F bomb in anger, you know he's not a happy individual. And if you saw "First Class," you'd know why. Either way, DOFP does an extremely good job at picking up those pieces of that break-up. The acting in the future scenes was about as good as you'd expect from the cast of the original movies, but the focus here is on the newer cast members. However, the scene in which Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy meet onscreen is a must-see and arguably the highlight of the film from an acting standpoint.

The effects were also top-notch. From the way they handled Quicksilver's speed to Magneto using a stadium as his personal mothership, everything was just mind-blowing. And the Blink portals in the future. Holy shit. Iceman using his abilities like never before? I need a new pair of pants. The sentinels were good, too. The past ones were kind of ho-hum robots, but the future ones were genuinely frightening and a legitimate threat to the X-Men. Think of them as, yes, an army of T-1000s. Everything was just so well-done, but I wouldn't expect anything less after hearing what the budget was. Hell, even the way they implemented the iconic theme music from "X2" was just awesome. When a movie's theme music playing in the title crawl gets my adrenaline pumping and makes me want to start yelling the way I do when the Texas Aggies enter Kyle Field, I know I'm in for a hell of an awesome ride.

But the reason for DOFP's perfection to me is as much what it accomplishes as it is the content of the movie. Like I said, the third movie was bad, and coupled with a disappointing Wolverine first solo outing, that left a bad taste for a lot of fans. And then look at what Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. accomplished. One managed to win a freaking Oscar, and another made the first shared cinematic universe that actually worked. While I don't think anyone is going to be winning Best Actor here, the performances were certainly a high enough caliber. But what it truly accomplished, without too many spoilers is a case in which a movie actually erased the continuity of a previous film and possibly established not one, but several potential alternate continuities in a franchise. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that usually only gets done in actual comic books. I won't say how, but it did. It's incredible. If I recall from an earlier post, Fox put all their cards on the table for DOFP because they wanted to compete with Marvel and Sony. I think it's about to pay off. The balance of humor and seriousness is good, the performances are extremely strong and most importantly, the bad taste from "The Last Stand" was literally wiped out.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" gets a 10/10. This is the X-Men movie I wanted immediately following "X2." It took Bryan Singer and Co. 11 years to make that happen, but they made it happen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Godzilla" review: The king has returned to us

I don't remember if I put "Godzilla" at #1 or #2 on my top 5 most anticipated movies of 2014 list. Either way, it was at the top. Having been a fan of the big guy pretty much my entire life, I've seen pretty much everything starring Godzilla. I even liked the atrocious Roland Emmerich remake that came out in the late 90s because I was a 7-year-old at the time who didn't know any better. I still respect that sense of nostalgia that the movie gives me, but in hindsight, it was a steaming pile of radioactive crap that stinks worse than anything the titular character could probably ... defecate. So when they announced a reboot of the remake, I was cautiously excited. But still excited because dammit, it's Godzilla!

I wasn't too excited when they revealed production details. The director was this dude Gareth Edwards who I've never even heard of up until now. The actors weren't cast until last year, but now that I've seen the movie, none of that matters. Forget that Gareth is a director with one very low budget indie film to his name. I honestly could have given less of a shit if another actor other than Heisenberg aka Bryan Cranston was cast. It's about the monster. And folks, they got this one right.

If you're at all familiar with the Godzilla character, especially the original 1954 movie, the plot shouldn't be too complicated. I mean, this isn't exactly "Inception" we're dealing with here. Giant monster awakens, destroys city, goes back to the ocean, repeat. The only difference here in either a bit of homage or continuity screwing, they decided to tie "Godzilla" to its earlier predecessor. Only at the beginning of the movie I think they woke him up with nuclear testing then tried to kill him with more nuclear testing. Or something along those lines. The logic of trying to kill something radioactive with more radiation makes less sense than the actual plot point.

So then we fast forward to the late 90s when Heisenberg is working at a Japanese nuclear plant (on a side note, I took 2 years of Japanese in college, and Cranston's Japanese spoken lines actually are not bad for a non-native speaker here). He's some sort of head honcho, and under his watch the plant gets destroyed by an earthquake, and his wife dies. Then he goes crazy, but not in a Walter White sort of way. Or at least everyone, including his US Navy EOD tech son thinks so. Only he's not because it wasn't an earthquake. It was a completely new monster called a MUTO (massive unidentified terrestrial organism). Long story short, it awakens because some dumbass decided to build a nuclear power plant on top of the resting place of a creature that feeds off radiation. He then decides to go get laid. And then somehow Godzilla wakes up as well and decides that he has the MUTO munchies, and our plot kicks off from there.

The biggest difference between this and its late 90s predecessor is the treatment of the source material. As much as "Independence Day" was a mega-hit, it was still a B-movie at its heart. Sure, you can call "Godzilla" a B-movie as well, but only after he was turned from scary-as-hell atomic bomb metaphor into a Saturday morning cartoon-type hero. When Emmerich made "Godzilla" in the late 90s, well, I'd say he probably got drunk and made the movie after watching "Jurassic Park" one too many times because that's what it ended up like. A cheap ripoff of a sci fi classic. Gareth Edwards on the other hand seems to have nothing but utmost reverence for the source material. Although it has a monster fight in the spirit of the campier outings, "Godzilla" in terms of overall tone is much closer to the 1954 original. It's dark, serious and a metaphor for the arrogance of mankind and the destructive power of nature. Ironically, the whole dark metaphor thing was what Godzilla was originally intended for. In that sense, you can argue that "Godzilla" is the "Batman Begins" of its franchise in the sense that it's taking a character who was originally intended to be dark and serious and returning him to those roots, after way too many campy cheesefests. In fact, news broke today that they're already at work on a sequel. So then it could become the "Dark Knight saga" of its franchise and return. I'm OK with that.

The acting was ... about as good as you expect in a movie about giant monsters. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is passable but not spectacular as the leading man. Elizabeth Olsen doesn't do much other than provide occasional eye candy and gaze meaningfully at the camera. The clear standouts are Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, and even between those two Cranston stands out more. Ken Watanabe isn't given much to do other than play the part of the really philosophical sounding Asian dude (I'm Asian in real life so I reserve the right to make stereotype comments). Cranston's performance, while somewhat brief, is very reminiscent of his best moments in "Breaking Bad." It's a good anchor for the rest of the film. But at the end of the day, an anchor is a small part of the ship. Crucial, but small.

The most praise goes to the way the monster battles are handled. To those expecting "Pacific Rim"-styled action, well, this is not really that. As I said earlier, "Godzilla" has more in common with 1954's "Gojira" than any other movie in terms of its tone. The monster battle does happen, and when it does, it's executed perfectly. But it's not totally what the movie's about. Most people probably have never seen the original, and in it I think Godzilla himself only had like 17 minutes of screen time. And up until the monster battle, Godzilla himself is treated like the shark from "Jaws." He's more of a presence. And it works very well here. If he were to be revealed early on and paraded around for the whole 2 hours, the movie itself wouldn't have been as satisfying. But as with "Jaws," once the titular monster is revealed, you'll shit your pants because the build-up was damn well worth it.

So to sum everything up, "Godzilla" for me hits all the right notes and restores a character from campy cartoon hero to the unstoppable force of nature he was always meant to be. It's not "Pacific Rim," so don't go in expecting that. Otherwise ...

9.5 out of 10