Film

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

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Director: Bryan Singer
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 131 min.

In a bleak future world, mutants are hunted by machines called Sentinels.  In the 1970s, scientist Bolivar Trask experimented on and dissected mutants in order to create the Sentinels.  He was assassinated by the shape-changing mutant Mystique, but ironically Mystique’s arrest gave the surviving scientists access to her genetic code which they used to perfect their lethal machines.  Now, Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, and the other mutants are facing extinction.  Their only hope is for Kitty Pryde to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to end the feud between Magneto and the Professor and convince Mystique to choose a better path.

If you are familiar with the X-Men comics, this is a very fun movie.  A bunch of characters make brief appearances (Quicksilver’s 15 minutes of screen time was absolutely the highlight of the film!) and there are some great inside jokes.  If you are not familiar with the X-Men comics, though, I suspect it will fall a little flat.  The intensity of the dystopian framing story depends on you having an emotional investment in the characters—and for the most part, the framing story drives the suspense of the plot.  But you get limited characterization of minor characters in this film (Quicksilver excepted).  I think that is something that is consistently a struggle in the X-Men movies:  so many characters, so little time.   Marvel has done a much better job of dealing with the Avengers by isolating them in origin stories—something that is more difficult if not impossible for the X-Men.

My gut reaction would be to recommend this film only if you are somewhat familiar with the X-Men characters and comics.  But I’d love to hear from folks who watched this film without any prior knowledge; let us know what you thought in the comments!

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

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Director: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time 143 min.

With the planet’s core on the verge of destruction, General Zod attempts a military coup to eliminate the foolish Council and preserve Krypton.  But Jor-El realizes that the planet is beyond saving.  He and his wife, Lara, have had a child—the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries.  Jor-El steals the genetic codex from the Genesis Chamber where other children of Krypton are created (each with a specific predetermined role in society).  As the coup rages outside, Jor-El and Lara send their son, Kal, and the codex in a small space craft destined for Earth.  General Zod is too late to stop the launch, but he kills Jor-El and vows to track down and eliminate Kal-El, who he views as a blasphemy against Krytpon’s ideals.

While Zod and his soldiers search the universe for Kal-El, Clark Kent grows up on a small farm in Kansas, struggling to hide his unique abilities, but unable to resist helping when he sees someone in danger.  He succeeds anonymity for over three decades, until a journalist named Lois Lane stumbles upon him in the arctic wilderness while investigating a frozen spaceship.  Clark is about to discover his past—and the world to discover its hero.

This film was an artsy, angsty reimagining of Superman. I loved getting all of the history of Krypton and the psychology of General Zod (and of Superman, of course).  But after the fall of Krypton, the plot was very slow moving for quite a while, and unfortunately the dialogue was not very well written.  (Let’s just say this film has nothing on The Avengers , Iron Man, or Captain America.)  That said, I enjoyed watching it; it was an interesting twist on the Superman story.  And I thought Henry Cavill and Michael Shannon were both quite good.  Still, if I had to pick a Superman movie to watch again, I’d definitely stick with 1978.

 

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

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Director: Ben Stiller
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114 min

Walter can’t think of anything interesting to say on his eHarmony profile that might catch the attention of his creative coworker Cheryl; his life is just too ordinary.  But in his imagination, Walter has incredible adventures—adventures like the ones photographed by the legendary Sean O’Connell for Life magazine.  For over a decade, Walter has worked at Life collecting and developing Sean’s negatives.  But when new management puts an end to the printed Life magazine, Sean sends Walter one last roll of film.  In a telegram to the management, Sean announces that negative 25 is the best photograph he has ever taken and should be used as the cover for Life’s final issue.  The only problem: Walter can’t find negative 25.  It seems to have been left out of the roll.  And Sean O’Connell has no phone and no permanent address.  The only clues to Sean’s whereabouts are the other negatives on the roll.  Inspired by his affection for Cheryl and a desire to live the kind of life he’s been dreaming about, Walter boards a plane to Greenland in search of Sean O’Connell and adventure.

I loved this movie!  I wouldn’t indiscriminately recommend it to everyone (it may be too artsy for some), but I thought it was hilarious and beautiful.  It felt to me like a cross between Office Space (1999) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004).  There was a lot of humor (witty, slapstick, and quirky), but the plot focused on Walter’s personal journey of self-discovery.  The filming style deliberately called the viewer’s attention to the camera techniques—which seemed appropriate for a film about photography.  If you enjoy kind of artsy films, but also like the type of humor in films like Office Space, definitely give this one a try!

Marvel’s Avengers Movies Ranked: Update

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I’m back from a trip overseas, and you know what that means:  hours and hours of airplane movies!  In the wake of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World, I rewatched a bunch of the Marvel movies and added the new ones to my ranking.  So check it out!  And stay tuned for more movie posts this week.

In other news, Orphan Black comes back on Saturday night.  I won’t get to watch the premier in real time because it’s Easter (so no spoilers!) but I’m excited for the new season!  Sci-fi fans, if you haven’t checked it out yet, do it.  It’s awesome.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

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After Agent Romanov’s secret spy mission jeopardizes a hostage rescue operation, Captain Rogers begins to lose faith in Nick Fury’s leadership.  When Fury divulges SHIELDS  latest secret project–three deadly aircraft carriers that will circle the globe preemptively eliminating “threats”–Rogers loses faith in SHIELD altogether.  Captain America is ready to return to civilian life.  But the game changes when a bleeding Fury shows up in the Captain’s apartment after being chased down by an assassin.  Before the assassin finishes the job, Fury presses a flash drive into Rogers’ hand and warns him “trust no one.”  Suddenly, Captain America finds himself on the run as SHIELD leader Alexander Pierce calls on a manhunt, claiming the Captain may be withholding information about Fury’s death.  Meanwhile, Romanov recognizes the description of Fury’s assassin as an opponent she has met before: the elusive “Winter Soldier.”  Rogers and Romanov team up to decrypt the flash drive and discover the SHIELD traitor’s identity.  But the secrets they uncover run far deeper than they expected.

THIS MOVIE WAS SO AWESOME!  One of, if not the, best of the Marvel Avengers movies so far. (I would have to rewatch them all to really judge where it falls.  Valid excuse to do this? I think yes.)  Very well written story–funny and exciting.  More action/suspense than the first Captain America, though significantly less personal growth and development for the characters.  Like the first Captain America movie did with the standard underdog-becomes-hero plot, this second installment also worked with a classic trope (hero-turned-fugitive) and executed it just as beautifully.

This is a very significant film for the Marvel film/TV Universe.  If you are planning to watch “Agents of SHIELD” tomorrow, try to catch this film tonight.

LAST VEGAS (2013)

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When one of four elderly friends announces that he is getting married (to a much younger woman), two of the group decide that this is a perfect opportunity to get away from their monotonous routines and have a bachelor party in Las Vegas.  They convince the fourth to join them, although he is still in mourning for the loss of his wife, who passed away several years ago, and has never forgiven Billy (the groom) for skipping her funeral.  As the four friends hit the casinos, they must work through friendship tensions and come to terms with the reality of aging.

Basically this movie is Grumpy Old Men meets The Hangover.  I saw it on a plane, and it was entertaining.  Most of the humor arises from the situation: a bunch of old guys in Vegas.  But there is a little bit of a philosophical side to the film, as the characters look back on their lives, think about where they are now, contemplate their own mortality, etc.  Funny, a little bit sweet—but definitely not in the same caliber as many of the comedies that De Niro, Kline, Freeman, and Douglas have done in the past.

SAVING MR. BANKS (2013)

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Director: John Lee Hancock
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 125 min

With her finances in a desperate state, eccentric English author P.L. Travers finally must consider doing the unthinkable—selling the rights to her novel, Mary Poppins, to the American animator Walt Disney, who has been pestering her about it for twenty years.  But Mrs. Travers will not sign the contract unless she is sure the film will meet her standards.  First and foremost, it cannot involve any animation, and it certainly cannot be a musical.  (Mary Poppins would never, ever sing!)  Mrs. Travers flies to Los Angeles to meet with Walt and his writing team, and while the Disney crew struggles to please the demanding author, Mrs. Travers struggles with the painful memories that the story stirs.

I couldn’t stop smiling after watching this film.  It was funny, nostalgic, and overwhelmingly heartwarming.  Emma Thompson was perfect (as usual).  I was surprised at how little the real life “Mary Poppins” figure appeared in the back story, but I suppose that was somewhat the point; the aunt was not really Mary Poppins, and the story wasn’t really about Mary Poppins (at least not in the author’s mind).  So the focus on Helen and her father makes sense.  And while some of the subject matter was a bit dark, the film as a whole was not heavy.  It was sweet and touching—and funny.  It was a very good script; I laughed a lot.  I highly recommend this to anyone who grew up loving Mary Poppins, and/or anyone who likes based-on-a-true-stories about the lives of eccentric people (and has seen Mary Poppins at least once).  I loved every minute of it!

 

THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG (2013)

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I rarely blog sequels, but since I defended Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit installment, I feel obligated to comment on the second part of The Hobbit.  Or whatever it is you want to call that ridiculous thing I watched yesterday…

The Good:
The dragon animation was awesome.  Also, Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice is simultaneously sexy and soul-crushingly terrifying.

The Bad:
Pretty much everything else.

Naively, I defended part one of The Hobbit trilogy.  “It’s not an adaptation of The Hobbit,” I thought.  “It’s a prequel to LOTR, bringing in material from the Appendices and The Fellowship and the Sillmarillion!”  And for part one this was true.

But wiser people said “What will they do in Part 2 and 3?  Where will they get the content?”

Naively, I thought, “Maybe their adventures in Mirkwood will lead us to a new understanding of the elves with bits of the elf history that was alluded to in the LOTR films but much more detailed in Tolkien’s writings.  Maybe we’ll see Aragorn kidnap Gollum, or form the Rangers, or just generally do all of the awesome stuff he does before the start of the Fellowship.  Or maybe we’ll get to see the start of Aragorn and Arwen’s relationship and finally come to understand why on Middle Earth he would prefer her over Eowyn!”

But no.

Instead we get 2 hrs of stuff that was not even alluded to in the books with maybe 30 minutes of content that was loosely based on events from the book.  Very loosely.

And here’s the kicker it wasn’t even a good film.  Maybe I can accept that it was a terrible adaptation (although really, I can’t, because the LOTR films were such good adaptations and should have been much, much more difficult to get right). But it was also completely useless as a stand-alone film.  There was absolutely no story arc.  The company traveled several miles, fighting orcs pretty much non-stop; they got to the mountain and fought the dragon for a bit; and then the movie ended.  There was a lot of action, but nothing was achieved and no characters were developed–except for some minor characters who were barely mentioned in the books or completely made up for the film.  

And it kills me because I know that Peter Jackson can do story arc.  I think the adaptation of The Two Towers was brilliant.  He took a book which has no real climax, consisting as it does of two largely unrelated adventures told in separate halves of the book (no offense to Tolkien–his story arc is really more in the entire three book work as a whole).  But by entwining the stories together, Jackson created a powerful story arc.  He even helped assuage the utter, agonizing, boringness of two hobbits hiking across Middle Earth for hundreds of pages (at least a little).  Another great example of his good story arc sense in the LOTR films is his choice to end The Fellowship with Boromir’s death and Frodo and Sam striking off on their own while the rest of the company follows the trail of the kidnapped Merry and Pippin.  Tolkien splits this content between the end of the Fellowship and beginning of the Two Towers–he doesn’t care about the story arc in the individual books and instead lets them run together.  Peter Jackson saw the superior breaking point, completing the collapse of the Fellowship in film one and setting us up for the new quests in film two.

And as for character development, look what Jackson did with Aragorn in the LOTR films.  In the books, most of Aragorn’s development as a character has occurred prior to the start of the plot.  He comes into the Fellowship holding the sword of Elendil proudly and takes command of the quest.  He goes into every battle confident of victory, and he always wins.  He is the triumphant battlelord/king of Medieval lore.  But Jackson makes some bold changes in his adaptation.  He takes away Aragorn’s sword, makes him self-conscious, full of guilt, and reluctant to command.  Jackson gives charge of the quest to Gandalf, even giving the wizard a bunch of Aragorn’s lines (notably, it is Gandalf, not Gimli who wishes to travel through Mordor and Aragorn who cautions against it and predicts Gandalf’s death).  But gradually, Aragorn gains confidence.  The battle of Helm’s Deep is not just a pit stop on the road to victory, but the turning of the tide when King Aragorn comes into his own.  These are pretty big changes, but they are purposeful.  They create a story that is a little bit different from Tolkien’s, but powerful and more accessible and inspiring to a modern film audience.

So I ask you, Peter Jackson, where was all of this brainpower when you were doing The Hobbit?  Here was a chance to create an awesome prequel trilogy for your Academy Award dominating masterworks and instead we experience Star Wars prequel-esque let-down.

At least the CGI dragon was cool. . .

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012)

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Director: Rich Moore
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 101 min.

As I was blogging Frozen (2013), I realized I never blogged Wreck-It Ralph!

In the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr., Felix is always fixing things, getting medals, and partying it up with the rest of the game’s characters in his penthouse.  Wreck-It Ralph, on the other hand, lives by himself in a pile of garbage—literally.  In their support group meetings after the arcade closes, the bad guys from other games are always encouraging Ralph to embrace his badness and be happy with who he is.  But on the 30th anniversary of his game, Ralph decides that he can’t take being the bad guy anymore.  He is determined to win a shiny gold medal so that the other characters in his game will be forced to accept him.  So Ralph infiltrates the science fiction war game Hero’s Duty in an attempt to win a medal for defeating the evil Cybugs.  But when his plan goes wrong, he and a rogue Cybug wind up in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed racing game, and Ralph’s only hope to win his medal back is to help a sarcastic young Vanellope—a “glitch” in the game—to sneak herself into the race against King Candy’s orders.  Meanwhile, Felix and the Hero’s Duty commander, Calhoun, have followed him into the candy world to get Ralph back and exterminate the rogue Cybug before both of the games are declared Out of Order.

Wreck-It Ralph was definitely one of my favorite things that Disney has done lately.  First, it has the “Toy Story” appeal factor—how fun to imagine what arcade game characters do when the arcade closes!  Second, the animation was really cool.  The style of the characters varied depending on the era and animation of their video game.  Third, this movie is hilarious for kids and for grown-ups.  Bad guys anonymous? Homeless Q*bert?  Obscure reference to the Konami Code?  There is a lot for adults to love.  Add to that a great cast of voice actors and a solid message about being yourself and true friendship, and you have a great family film!  I highly recommend it!

FROZEN (2013)

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Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time 102 min.

Princess Anna loves playing with her big sister Elsa, especially when Elsa uses her magic powers over ice and snow to transform the Great Hall into a winter wonderland.  But one night when the sisters are playing, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with her icy powers.  Their parents rush Anna to the magic trolls, but in order to save her life, the trolls must remove all of Anna’s memories of her sister’s power.  The king and queen decide that to prevent future accidents, they will shut their family off in the castle while Elsa grows to control her powers.  And so Elsa and Anna grow up isolated from everyone else—and from each other.

After a shipwreck claims the lives of both King and Queen, the time comes for Elsa to ascend to the throne.  Anna, who has grown up very cheerful and idealistic, is thrilled for the opening of the palace gates and the chance to finally meet some new people—maybe even her True Love.  Elsa, on the other hand, is terrified that she will not be able to control her powers.  Sure enough, in the middle of the Coronation Day ball, when Anna announces that she intends to marry a prince that she just met, Elsa loses control and reveals her icy secret.  Decried as a witch, Elsa flees into the mountains, accidentally plunging the land into an eternal winter.  Determined to save her sister and the kingdom, Anna hires a slightly grumpy ice salesman, Kristoff, and his reindeer to take her on an adventure to find Elsa.

I enjoyed this film a lot; it was funny, and the music was great (Idina Menzel does Elsa’s voice!).  But I don’t think it was as good as Tangled or Wreck-It Ralph, largely because of the pacing.  The opening was great with their childhood and growing up apart—very powerful storytelling that brought tears to my eyes. But once the actual adventure started, everything felt very rushed.  I think part of the problem was that the “eternal winter” lasted like one day… And although a major theme in the film is that “love at first sight” is not as genuine and powerful as slowly-grown relationships, the Anna-Kristoff relationship develops over one night—not much better than Anna and Prince Hans.  And they spend most of their time together frantically driving from one point to the next: from Arendelle to Elsa’s castle, away from Elsa’s castle, to the trolls, back to Arendelle, away from Arendelle again–there’s a lot of motion crammed in there, making everything seem rushed.  So again, I enjoyed the movie, laughed a lot, and have had the songs stuck in my head for a week now, but I don’t think the storytelling was as solid as the Disney greats like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King—or even the more recent Tangled. 

I would definitely point out, however, that this is a much better movie for the easily frightened child than many Disney films.  There is briefly an abominable snowman, but otherwise no really scary monsters/villains.