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Friday
May232014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The “X-Men” movie franchise has had a bumpy ride. It started off strong, but then stumbled with “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006 before hitting its lowest point with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009. It has been on a steady upward swing ever since and once again found its footing with 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.” But the newest film, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” is on a whole other level. This is easily the best “X-Men” movie to date, a wildly entertaining, perfectly acted, visually stunning comic book movie that reaches levels few other comic book movies have. The buzz so far this year has been all about the latest “Captain America,” but after sitting through this, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the early 70s, a doctor by the name of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) had a grand plan. Due to what he saw as an inherent danger to the human species by mutants, he proposed the creation of robots called sentinels that could sniff out mutants and exterminate them. The plan was initially turned down, but after his death by the hands of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the government moved forward with it by utilizing Mystique’s DNA, which allowed these sentinels to adapt to the powers being used against them. Now, nearly all mutants, as well as regular humans who have the dormant mutant gene in them, have been wiped out. Only a select few remain, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). One of the remaining mutants, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), has the ability to transport someone’s consciousness to the past, allowing them to alter history to their liking. The process can be damaging to one’s brain the further back in time one goes, but luckily, Wolverine has regenerative abilities and volunteers to take up the task. With time running out, he is transported back to 1973 to try to convince the younger Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor X (James McAvoy) to help him stop Mystique from killing Trask and, thus, ending the mutant/human war before it begins.

It sounds complicated what with the constant back and forth and jet-setting narrative that jumps from New York City to Moscow to China to Vietnam to Paris to Washington, DC and back again, but it never is. “Days of Future Past” is a brilliantly constructed film, a cohesive whole in every way. Not once does it hit a narrative lull or forget to follow up on side stories. It takes dozens of characters, from both the past and present, and juggles them all flawlessly, with characters disappearing only after their narrative usefulness has concluded. No single character is included as fan service, but rather because they are necessary to tell the story at hand.

The beauty of it is that “Days of Future Past” never sacrifices story for spectacle. Everything that makes the X-Men characters great is intact here, including the overall themes of tolerance, acceptance and doing right to others despite the wrong they may do to you. In today’s world of rampant homophobia and other forms of bigotry, the X-Men have never been more relevant and “Days of Future Past” benefits from a setting where such bigotry was more commonplace and where America had just been on the losing end of an unpopular war. Because of the latter, the call to war against the mutants seems less like a necessity than it does a need to retain political legitimacy, to show the people of America that the country is still powerful. Despite its historical setting, the film works today by highlighting increased political tension that leads to unrest, a tension that exists today and seems to only be getting worse.

Even if you took away the terrific story and thought provoking themes, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” would be a mesmerizing film, thanks to some of the most mind-blowing superhero action ever put to screen. In particular, one scene focusing on Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is guaranteed to be one of the best, most exciting and funniest moments you’ll see all year. From the moment the film begins, a high bar is set with its action, but instead of dropping off until the slam-bang finale as many films do, it actually gets better as it goes on. Aside from some needless 3D effects, the visuals are astounding and really bring these scenes, and the overall world, to life. Director Bryan Singer, coming off of a two film slump with “Valkyrie” and “Jack and the Giant Slayer,” has never been better. The things he manages to pull off and the control he shows over what would in lesser hands be a cluttered mess makes this his single most impressive endeavor to date.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a special movie. Even those who are finding themselves diagnosed with superhero fatigue after the onslaught of films we’ve been given over the last few years will find their interest reinvigorated after this. Singer does with this what Joss Whedon tried to do with “The Avengers,” but failed: he skillfully juggles each character, giving each important player just enough screen time to make them narratively relevant, and creates a meaningful story amidst the insane action. You could even argue that whereas each of the Avengers were primarily off doing their own things in that film (Iron Man flying around the buildings, Thor fighting his brother on top of one, Captain America fighting baddies on the ground, etc.), the X-Men use their powers in tandem, as a singular group fighting a common enemy, not as multiple heroes spread across a large area, which gives them more of a dynamic in the otherwise hectic action scenes.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” sets a new standard for superhero movies. It reaches about as close to perfection as is possible and is guaranteed to be one of the best of the year. X-Men fan or not, you’re going to want to see this one.

X-Men: Days of Future Past receives 5/5

Friday
Sep202013

Prisoners

While I can’t speak from firsthand experience, I imagine the greatest fear anyone can have is the potential loss of a child. Nothing must be scarier than knowing that your kid is somewhere out there, perhaps kidnapped by some lunatic, not knowing if he or she is alive or dead. It’s with this notion that we come to this logical conclusion: movies about child abduction are extremely difficult to watch. They emotionally drain you and make you feel a certain kind of despair that is unrivaled in movies with differing stories. This week’s “Prisoners” is no different. It’s not fun, but it’s gripping and, despite some stumbles here and there, it tackles interesting themes that deviate from your typical abduction story. This is definitely one to see.

Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) are a happily married couple who have two beautiful children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). They’re also best friends with a couple who lives nearby, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), who also have a couple of children, Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). While together one day, Joy and Anna wander off. When the parents realize they’re not around, they desperately search and try to find them, to no avail. They quickly enlist the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help them find their child. But Keller has his own agenda. Convinced they were abducted by local oddity Alex Jones (Paul Dano), he kidnaps him and tortures him with the hopes that he’ll reveal where the two girls may be.

With that set up, “Prisoners” blurs morality, that line between doing what is necessary and doing what is right. It never necessarily asks the viewer to pick a side, but it makes them understand the desperation in Keller’s actions while also showing them the ugliness that such actions entail. What is morally correct is never in question—clearly he should not be torturing this man—but whether or not his actions are justified will surely split viewers. And that’s the beauty of “Prisoners.” It tackles the complexity of morality while also encompassing a number of other heavy themes, including coping with grief, vigilantism, acting on emotions in the face of doubt and condemning those with absence of proof. When Keller jumps in his truck early in the movie and the man on the radio quotes scripture about how all men are “born of sin,” you’ll quickly realize that “Prisoners” is not going to be an easy watch; it will indeed make you wonder what you would do in the same situation.

Those are the most interesting aspects of the movie, as, unfortunately, the mystery behind who has the children isn’t the most compelling. Too often, objects are focused on so blatantly that their importance is too transparent and given the film’s thematic complexities, the obvious narrative direction was certainly not going to be the one the movie took. Thus, it’s fairly easy to figure out who has the kids. If you’re unable to figure it out, the motive behind this mystery villain is so utterly ridiculous, so ruthlessly absurd, so hilariously asinine that it comes dangerously close to turning an otherwise believable and tense film into a joke, so you may find yourself not caring anyway. Without ruining anything, the finale is such an obvious promotion of religion that if you took the curse words and some of the more egregious violence out of the rest of the film, you could pass it off as Christian. While religious movies are not inherently a bad thing, the angle feels out-of-place, almost like it was plopped in by a writer who wanted to say something about it, but had no idea how.

But while the whole reasoning behind the mystery is laughable, the film is nonetheless exceptionally well made. The understated score brilliantly builds ample amounts of suspense, the direction and cinematography are solid, with establishing shots that, deliberate or not, feel eerily like POV shots, and the majority of the performances are fantastic. While Gyllenhaal’s character is oddly written and portrayed with rapid, violent blinks, Hugh Jackman knocks it out of the park. This is the rawest, most powerful performance he’s ever given, to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him nominated for an Oscar come awards season.

With that said, and despite the good performances, many of the characters are throwaway. Maria Bello’s character is mostly useless after having a nervous breakdown early on, sleeping away the rest of the movie and never doing anything substantial until the end, while the older kids are more or less the same. And even with a runtime of over two and a half hours, certain ideas aren’t fleshed out, though that’s not entirely surprising given the large amount of them on display. What ultimately makes the film work, however, is that the characters, when not sidelined at least, feel like real people. These families are beautifully established very early on, so you’ll care about what happens to those kids not simply because they’re kids, but because you’ve invested yourself in them. “Prisoners” is not the most solid movie in the world, nor is it subtle, but what it lacks in those areas, it makes up for with enough punches to the gut and haunting moments to last a lifetime.

Prisoners receives 4/5

Wednesday
Dec192012

Les Misérables

The worst type of movie is the one that fails to live up to expectations. Usually when this happens, the movie itself is far below what it could and should have been. Usually, the standalone trailer is astonishing, managing to hit a range of emotions in a short two minutes, while the movie itself, when fleshed out to feature length, completely misses the mark. Rarely, however, does a movie fail to live up to expectations and is still as good as Les Misérables. It would be somewhat of a stretch to call it one of the greatest musicals ever made—it’s not even one of the best movies of this year—but its narrative grandiosity, lush visuals, assured direction and phenomenal performances from a terrific ensemble cast make it more than your ordinary film musical. Les Misérables deftly crafts unparalleled moments of beauty and awe, conveying true emotion around themes of love, loss and hardship that will cause all but the most hardened viewers to sympathize with, and maybe even cry for, those fighting onscreen.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862 (and adapted into a stage musical in 1980), Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who has spent many years as a prisoner and slave for stealing bread, overseen by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film begins, he is finally released from his imprisonment, but is put on parole for the rest of his life. If he breaks it, he will be hunted down and captured. Rather than heed that warning, he breaks parole anyway and starts a new life as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the town he has chosen to settle in. One day, he runs into Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-employee of his who was fired from his factory and is now selling herself to make ends meet and support her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After tragedy strikes Fantine, Jean decides to adopt Cosette and raise her as his own, all while he hides from Javert’s relentless pursuit. Many years pass and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), is all grown up and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of a revolution.

Les Misérables isn’t like your typical musical. It’s not full of flamboyant choreography or energetic numbers that are cut to resemble a music video. Instead, it’s very reserved. The camera more often than not settles on close-ups and rolls without cutting, the performers singing their numbers in one take. This lends terrific weight to a film that relies almost entirely on the emotional fragility of its viewers. When the actors sing these songs, pouring their hearts and souls into them, and you are so close that you see every twitch in their skin and tear forming in their eyes, it’s impossible not to feel something. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and, perhaps due to this single moment in a nearly three hour long film, likely to win her an Oscar.

Much of the emotional impact comes from the fact that, unlike most movie musicals that pre-record their songs before shooting, the actors are singing the songs in real time, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. There’s no lip-synching present here and the turmoil of the characters comes through tenfold because they’re singing in character, not in some studio behind a microphone. It’s a tactic that is brilliantly used by director Tom Hooper, who, if 2010’s remarkable The King’s Speech is any indication, knows how to maximize the effect his movies have on an audience.

Despite the tragic story that unfolds and the many deaths that accompany it, Les Misérables has some lighthearted moments that come mostly from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Their presence is ever welcome in the sea of sadness, but there’s too little of them and they end up overshadowing some of the other, bleaker moments, if for no other reason than because they’re more upbeat. This discrepancy between these two different styles is indicative of the film as a whole, in that certain sections aren’t as interesting as others. Very few movies of this length have the ability to maintain viewer attention and with a gap of songs that range from breathtaking to flat out boring, Les Misérables doesn’t pull it off.

It’s still a wonder to behold, though, and its final scene, despite some lags in the narrative, packs a punch that wasn’t paralleled in any other movie this year. There has been a lot of hyperbole when expressing opinions of it in recent months, however. Some are saying it’s one of the best musicals (or even crazier, one of the best movies) ever while others are saying it’s overwrought, overlong and manipulative. Neither of those extremes are accurate. Les Misérables is neither great nor terrible, but it’s effective and rousing and, provided you can sit still for almost three hours, absolutely worth a watch.

Les Misérables receives 4/5

Friday
Oct072011

Real Steel

Remember Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, that game where two people fought plastic robots in a ring? Remember how if you landed a punch that was just right, the robot’s head would pop up? If you do, you’ve experienced Real Steel, albeit in a lesser form. Granted, the movie is actually based on a short story by Richard Matheson that precedes the primitive game, but for all intents and purposes, this is that game in movie form and they’re both about equal in emotional depth.

Set at some point in the future, Real Steel exists in a time when human boxing has become obsolete. The public’s need for more carnage couldn’t be satisfied by pitting two flesh and blood people against each other anymore, so the sport evolved to robots. Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a past fighter, suffered from the switch and now works as a small-time promoter with low-budget robots. Due to his stubbornness, all of his robots are eventually destroyed, which means he can’t earn the money to pay back those he owes. One day, he learns that an old girlfriend died and his son, Max (Dakota Goyo), is now his responsibility. Uninterested in the kid, he sells her to his aunt and uncle for $100,000, but first he must keep him for a couple months while they travel out of country. During that time, the two find a robot named Atom who proves more resourceful than expected and, through their mutual interest in robot fighting, they slowly begin to bond.

Real Steel thinks it’s giving viewers something different, but this is nothing more than your typical underdog story. It just replaces humans with robots. It follows the exact same narrative path of countless other movies, to the point where you can accurately predict how each scene will play out. Tossed into the mix is a melodramatic tale about a father who comes to appreciate his son, complete with a variation on the tired father-realizes-what’s-important-and-shows-up-at-dance-recital ending. All in all, the film tries to tell three or four different stories, but all are derivative.

Derivativeness can be okay with strong characters, but few are found here. For starters, Charlie is an unlikable loser. He’s selfish and arrogant and he abandoned his son many years ago. When he has the chance to reconnect with him, he doesn’t want to. His greed causes him to blackmail his uncle into paying him for the kid. He neglects and yells at Max and threatens to make him sleep outside. He doesn’t care at all about the well-being of his kid. When he saves him from falling off a cliff at one point in the movie, you get the distinct impression he’s more worried about losing his promised money than Max losing his life. And that moment where he begins to find appreciation for his son? The moment he starts making him money. Shallow doesn’t begin to describe Charlie and his emotional transformation isn’t developed enough to convince us otherwise.

Seemingly to make up for the lack of interesting human characters, there are some lame attempts at giving Atom a personality, hinting that he may be more than just a machine, like in one scene where he stares at himself in the mirror, but these emotionless mechanisms prove to be less interesting than the ones in Transformers, which I thought was impossible. Slight turns of the head are supposed to have some profound meaning, but come off as laughable amidst characters like Tak Mashido (Karl Yune), who, with his outrageous spiky hair, looks like he stumbled in from the set of a live action Dragonball Z production.

As if watching two men beat each other senseless couldn’t get any less interesting, this movie goes ahead and takes the humanity out of it. It’s hard to care about the outcome of the fights because, in the end, these are faceless robots. Unlike more traditional underdog stories, the human characters aren’t training to achieve success. They aren’t putting their bodies on the line and fighting through the pain. They’re merely tinkering with some wires and then playing a live action video game. The fights are still undeniably fun to watch, but once the outcome of the championship presents itself, you’ll realize you wouldn’t have cared had it gone the other way instead.

Real Steel receives 2/5