Monday, June 30, 2014

THEY CAME TOGETHER Is A Wet, Hot, Hilarious Comedy Classic


- Funny is funny, and good lord, THEY CAME TOGETHER is flippin' funny. Sure, comedy might be subjective, but for me, the comedic stylings of David Wain, Michael Showalter, and the rest of the crew from 90's comedy troupe The State hit the sweet spot. And if that sort of comedy floats your boat, then it's time to rejoice, for They Came Together is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Back in the day, The State was one of my holy pillars of comedy, alongside things like The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy, Conan O'Brien, Weird Al, and the films of Mel Brooks. The State helped mold my taste in humor, and helped fuel my love for out-there, absurdist comedy. The group then went on to have perhaps its greatest moment with the David Wain-directed, Wain and Showalter-written cult classic Wet Hot American Summer. Wet Hot is always hard to talk about, because people always want to assign *reasons* why great comedies work as well as they do. Wet Hot isn't a classic because it's a pitch-perfect parody, or because of any sort of message it has or anything like that. Nope, the movie is just funny as hell, and completely encapsulates and exemplifies everything that makes The State's brand of absurdist humor so hilarious. The writing is so smart and sharp - and the lines delivered so well by the talented actors - that the movie will be quoted and referenced from now until forever. Since Wet Hot, a bunch of members of The State collaborated on the movie The Ten, and Wain, Showalter, and Michael Ian Black starred in the short-lived Comedy Central series Stella (and then the latter two re-teamed for the equally short-lived Michael and Michael Have Issues). Wain has also gone on to direct two very funny, but slightly more mainstream-friendly films in Role Models and Wanderlust, in addition to his web series - Wainy Days - which he also starred in. Showalter released a pretty-good indie comedy called The Baxter. And Wain and others have been involved in the fantastic Adult Swim series Children's Hospital, which is very much in line with the style of humor that made The State such an influential sketch comedy show.

There's your short history lesson. But the context is important so that I can make the following point: THEY CAME TOGETHER is the best movie anyone from The State's been involved with since Wet Hot American Summer, and if you're a fan of The State, Stella, or Wet Hot, you seriously need to drop whatever thing you're doing at this very moment and go watch this film.

Here's the thing: THEY CAME TOGETHER is a much more overt parody movie than Wet Hot. It's a satire of romantic comedies, in particular the sort of formulaic, cutesy, schmaltzy moves that just kept coming down the Hollywood assembly line in the 90's and early 00's. There's less of 'em now (thank god), but the tropes are now so embedded in our collective pop-cultural consciousness that we all know the conventions inside and out. So yes, on one level, there will be people who enjoy the film primarily because of how sharply and cleverly it skews rom-coms. Not just in a broad sense, but on a micro-level. Wain and Showalter love micro-analyzing all the weird little nuances that we sort of accept as being part of a given genre. The stock characters, the way people talk, the plot devices that show up over and over again until they become, essentially, self-parodying cliches. They take what's already absurd about the genre and then crank up the absurdity to eleven. At the same time, as someone who's not really a fan of 90's-style rom-coms, and who would not normally be all that intrigued by a straight-up genre parody, I can vouch that THEY CAME TOGETHER is not a simple genre parody. Like Wet Hot, this is, more than anything, a movie that exists so that Wain and Showalter can have a forum for their weird wordplay jokes, wacky sight gags, and calculatedly hilarious randomness. So please, hold the phone, all you critics who talk about this film like it's the rom-com version of Scary Movie. No. Not even close. Yes, the premise of the film is based on genre-parody, and many jokes and characters are in direct reference to rom-com convention. But that, my friends, is only part of what the movie is all about.

In any case, let's back up for a minute and talk about the film's plot and structure. The movie opens on a dinner between two couples. One - Joel (Paul Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) - tells the other couple (played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper), the tale of how they met and fell in love. This serves as the movie's framing device, and on multiple occasions we cut back to the two couples for various interjections and digressions. The first four names I mentioned already give you a solid idea of just how fantastic the cast is. For one thing, Rudd and Poehler - both alumni of Wet Hot - are perfect in their respective roles. They both totally get the tone that Wain and Showalter are going for. Rudd in particular has become a master of doing the sort of mock-sincere comedic acting that this sort of movie calls for. And Poehler is similarly excellent. Meanwhile, their characters' backstory is a great little extended riff on typical rom-com types. Rudd's Joel works for a giant, soulless candy conglomerate looking to shut down its mom-and-pop competition. Poehler's Molly owns a small little candy shop where all profits inexplicably get donated to charity. So of course, they hate each other at first, even if it's all too clear that they're fated to fall for one another ... eventually.

There are so many great moments in this film - I was pretty much laughing constantly for the duration. Some of the funniest stuff in the movie comes from the interaction between Rudd and New Girl's Max Greenfield, as his freeloading little brother. Their melodramatic conversations are instant classics. Rudd also has great scenes with his group of supportive buddies, who he meets for basketball games that mix hilariously awful basketball playing with the espousing of various nuggets of wisdom and life lessons. Ken Marino is (as always) a standout as Rudd's brash, mulleted b-ball buddy. But Jack McBrayer and Keenan Thompson are no slouches. Michael Ian Black is also a scene-stealer as Rudd's asshole work rival. Nobody does smug d-bag like Black, and he cranks up the douchery to new levels here, to hilarious effect. Actually, the candy conglomerate where Rudd works is filled with funny folks. Micaela Watkins and Jason Mantzoukas pop up as co-workers, and then, Christopher Meloni ... Dude. How is a guy whose stock-and-trade is playing stern hardasses also this freaking funny? Meloni became a cult comedy icon in Wet Hot, and he's breathlessly funny here as Rudd's grandiose boss. I can't even talk about the character without spoiling a bunch of great jokes. Suffice it to say, the guy just owns it once again. Who else? Ed Helms is funny as a sad-sack suitor of Molly's, Zandy Hartig is excellent as Molly's glum sister, and Wain himself makes a great cameo that is too weird to even explain in writing. Speaking of cameos, the movie is jam-packed with them. I don't want to spoil anything, because some of the actors who pop up are just so wonderfully random and unexpected. I'll just say: there's a random "making-of-the-film" segment, *within* the film (shades of Children's Hospital) which features some great appearances. And then, towards the end of the movie, a very respected actor makes a totally insane appearance that is just weird, random, and awesome.

For the rom-com fans (or rom-com haters), there are tons of references - both broad and specific - to various films in the genre. Everyone from Woody Allen to Nora Ephron gets skewered, and I've already seen articles on Vulture and other websites that list out all the little nods to various genre staples. A lot of the parody isn't even specific to rom-coms though. Like I said, Wain and Showalter love to microanalyze the weird ways that characters talk and act in movies in general. And anyone who's followed their work will see the kinds of trademark jokes that have popped up in things like Stella and Wet Hot reappear. So yes, you can bet that there will be at least one random make-out sesh where one character dramatically whispers to the other something like "what are we doing ...?", and at least one diatribe that includes an absurdly long list of rhetorical questions. There will be random gross-out gags and at least one big, romantic profession of love that falls hilariously flat. In short, all the sorts of jokes that these guys deliver so well are here, and man, as a devotee of The State and all that came after, I couldn't be happier.

There's just a great feeling that comes with seeing the best in the biz do what they do best. I grew up on The State's humor, and because we only rarely get new material from the State/Stella crew working in tandem, THEY CAME TOGETHER couldn't be more welcome or more needed. In a world dominated by Apatowian improv-comedy, dramedy that is less about laughs and more about social satire, etc., it's infinitely reassuring to know that Wain and co. are (almost singlehandedly) carrying the torch for this sort of balls-to-the-wall, anything-goes humor. This is no mere nostalgia act though. The laughs I got from this movie were genuine, and they were big. As many great comedies as we've already seen this year, the laughs produced by They Came Together were the only laughs I had that were of the truly uncontrollable, deep-belly-laugh variety. This is the comedy that made me want to urge every friend I have to go see it so that we can immediately start quoting and referencing it. This is the comedy where friends who *did* see it are already incorporating its best quotes into everyday conversation. This is the stuff of comedy legend, people. I don't know if this is quite in the same hallowed league as Wet Hot. It doesn't provide quite the same concentrated burst of nonstop comedy perfection. But it's close. Very close. And I can only hope that Wain and Showalter keep making these movies and doing their thing. Because this is my comedy sweet spot, and nobody does it better.

My Grade: A

Thursday, June 26, 2014

22 JUMP STREET Is More of the Same, But Totally In On the Joke

22 JUMP STREET Review:

- Much has been written about the comedy sequel. Historically, most simply just aren't that good, and many critics and commentators have tried to understand why that is. Essays and think-pieces ponder the nature of comedy and joke-telling. "Comedy is all about surprise and novelty," so therefore a sequel inherently loses what made the original compelling. "Since all the obvious jokes have already happened in the first film, a second one is just a broken record." "There's too much pressure to repeat what worked in the first film, and the result is that a sequel feels played out," etc. All true, to an extent. But really, none of that is impossible to overcome with great jokes and smart writing. Good comedy sequels are possible, and they do exist. And 22 JUMP STREET is one of them.

What's interesting is that directors Chris Lord and Phil Miller, and their team of writers, seem semi-obsessed with not just making a sequel, but with this very *idea* of sequels. After the massive creative success that was The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller are now established as guys who take ideas that shouldn't work, but make them work - with a quirky sensibility that tends to explore the film's concept at a meta level. Okay, so 22 JUMP STREET may not be an obvious film to go that route with, but hey, neither was The Lego Movie. And neither was the original 21 Jump Street movie. The pair took a reboot idea that felt unnecessary and pointless and made it its own thing, and basically made fun of the very concept of pointless reboots. In turn, 22 Jump Street is filled with jokes about being a sequel, about the nature of sequels, and many fourth-wall-breaking gags that are fully self-aware that we're watching a sequel that could and maybe should, inherently, suck. What this means is that for every moment in the movie that could feel cliched or contrived, Lord and Miller are able to coat it with a very heavy dose of self-aware, self-referential humor.

And that helps 22 JUMP STREET feel light, breezy, and in on the joke. What makes it work is that the writing is, mostly, very sharp. And, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are once again at their best, perfectly pulling off the big, silly, and self-aware tone that the movie is going for. The two are, again, a fantastic and very funny odd couple. Hill is one of the best at doing tightly-wound comedic schtick, and there's a line in the movie that hilariously sort of sums him up: "you look like a 30-year-old 8th grader." It's that mix of child-like innocence and past-his-years neuroses that makes the dude so funny. As for Tatum, I still find myself surprised at just how good his comic timing and delivery is. I wouldn't mind seeing him stick to comedy, because while he's been solid in his more dramatic roles, he seriously kills it in these movies.

The leads are also accompanied by a very, very strong group of supporting actors. Of special mention is Jillian Bell (Workaholics) as an uptight antagonist who becomes Hill's nemesis. Bell is so great on shows like Workaholics and Eastbound & Down - it's great to see her get a prominent role in this movie. Some of the best scenes in 22 Jump Street are her and Hill playing off one another. Ice Cube is also back and very funny as Hill and Tatum's gruff, hard-ass of a boss. Rob Riggle and Dave Franco return with brief but funny cameos, and Nick Offerman pops up to deliver some meta/funny dialogue as only he can. Amber Stevens is pretty solid as a love interest for Hill (though seemingly way, way out of his league). Peter Stormare is the one who feels just a little bit wasted as the movie's Big Bad - seemingly a little too reigned-in and run-of-the-mill considering that he's Peter freaking Stormare.

One random but cool casting thing in the film: Tatum's new-found best bud is a long-haired dude-bro played by none other than Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell. Crazy! The guy looks like his dad, and is actually really funny in this in his scenes with Tatum. We need a father/son action-adventure movie asap. John Carpenter, if you're reading this: make this happen.

Now, what I will say is that all of the meta-jokes and self awareness about the pratfalls of sequels only go so far. Because the fact is, jokes aside, a lot of the movie is in fact basically repeating the plot of the original. Yes, it's covered up by the fact that it's joked about and referenced in the movie's script. But even so, the movie does at times have a been-there, done-that feel. Hill and Tatum, as goofy cops Schmidt and Jenko, are sent undercover to pose as college students and bust a deadly designer-drug ring. Once again, the two have to re-acclimate to a life they're many years removed from, and find their way with their new peer groups. In the first movie, the twist was that Hill became a cool-kid, while Tatum was more of an outcast. Here, Tatum's Jenko joins the football team and joins a frat, while Hill's Schmidt feels he's losing his friend to new teammates and frat-brothers (don't feel too bad for Hill though - he inexplicably shacks up with Amber Stevens, whom he meets at a comically-pretentious poetry slam). But yes, many of the jokes wear a bit thin, and sometimes the movie does seem to forego the more clever and witty humor for cheaper stuff. Meaning, as much as the movie tries to poke fun at the dude-bro jock culture embodied by Jenko and Wyatt Russell's character, it also tends to embrace it and aim some of its jokes squarely at that demo. It makes fun of those sorts of low-hanging fruit jokes, but it also doesn't always shy away from them.

One thing with Lord and Miller though - even with comedy, they are never just point-and-shoot directors. In similar fashion to this summer's Neighbors, they make their comedy very cinematic. And they do big action very well - providing the film with some legitimately pretty-awesome chase scenes and shoot-outs.

So what it all boils down to is that 22 JUMP STREET is a very funny movie, but it's almost like all the crazy jokes, big action scenes, and meta-references are there to not-so-subtly distract you from the fact that, at the end of the day, the movie *is* sort of pointless. I guess one way to look at it is that if they are going to make 22 JUMP STREET, they might as well do it in this anything-goes, "we're in on the joke" sort of manner. And you might as well get inventive, creative, outside-the-box guys like Lord and Miller to put what could have been a painful exercise in pointless sequel-making through their funhouse filter of crazy. And yet, how good can a movie really be if it feels like no one *really* wanted to make it, and is just doing everything in their power to then rag on the concept in a self-deprecating, funny way? It's funny - the best and most clever scenes of the whole film may be the post-credit "what-if?" teasers for future sequels, in which every extreme iteration of the franchise is played out - from vet school to rabbinical school. It's hilarious because it's Lord and Miller just dumping all over the whole concept of the never-ending, stretched-past-its-prime franchise. And yet, it's also a reminder that, as funny as these guys can make 22 Jump Street, it's probably also high time that they made the movie they want to make, that they are passionate about, that can be its own thing and not *need* to rag on itself in order to work. In the meantime though, there are far worse - and few funnier - ways to spend a summer night at the movies.

My Grade: B+

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Comics You Should Read: SILVER SURFER


I was always a DC guy. But Marvel's new rebooted SILVER SURFER series is so awesome that even the non-Marvel Comics readers out there need to give it a look, asap. The great thing is, it's not really connected to any other Marvel books, so no additional reading or knowledge of the character is required to jump in. In fact, I knew little about the Surfer other than what I could vaguely recall from the old 90's cartoon series, and I'm doing just fine. But here's the thing ...

THE ART by Mike Allred. Holy cow. You may or may not be familiar with Allred, a cult-favorite whose unique style mixes Jack Kirby-inspired boldness with Alex Toth-inspired sleekness and 60's animation-esque grooviness. Clean yet hyper-trippy and psychedelic. In short, Allred's style is a 100% perfect fit for the Surfer and the retro-cool, ultra-imaginative story being told here.

THE STORY. About that story. Writer Dan Slott is writing a trippy, funny, cosmically groovy story for the ages. Basically, he's created a brand new status quo for the Surfer. In a nutshell, the first three issues of the series see the Surfer, aka Norrin Radd, coaxed into a cosmic quest by a being who claims that the life of the Surfer's greatest love is at stake. Radd reluctantly accepts the dangerous mission, only to find that the person whose life is in danger - a quirky earth-girl named Dawn Greenwood - is someone whom he's never met. The new series' first story arc pairs Radd with Dawn, and the result is a funny and whimsical odd-couple that is also oddly romantic - in both the classical and modern sense. Dawn, a small-town girl who never dreamed she'd leave her home, let-alone her planet, greets the Surfer and all the weirdness that comes with him with an endearing mix of disbelief and playful humor.

Dawn is a fantastic new character. Sure, she falls just a bit into the manic pixie dream girl stereotype, but I suspect that over time she'll become more fleshed-out. Already, she's displayed a real knack for heroism in the face of over-the-top danger.

Dan Slott is doing great things here. He's mixing the sort of boundless imagination that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby originally used to conceive the character with a self-aware, self-deprecating humor that fans of modern alternative superhero books (like, say, Matt Fraction's Hawkeye) will dig. And that Allred art - oh man. No one else draws quite like him. The mix of cosmic trippy-ness and cartoon expressiveness is unmatched.

I can't wait to see where this one goes. It will be interesting to see how Slott maintains the delicate balance of humor and adventure and romance that he's established so far. But I'm inclined to think that this will be a ride well worth taking.

READ IT IF YOU LIKE: Kirby weirdness, Allred art, Dr. Who, humor, romance, trippy cosmic space/time stuff

Friday, June 20, 2014

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 Is Overstuffed, But Still Soars


- The first How to Train Your Dragon was, at the time of its release, a new milestone for Dreamworks animation. It was not only the best Dreamworks film to that point, but it was one of the absolute best movies of 2010 - a gorgeously-rendered animated adventure that had both epic action and a strong emotional core. The first film works great as a standalone feature, but with its success, franchising was, in all likelihood, inevitable. And hey, who didn't want more Dragon action? I know that I was pretty psyched to revisit the world of the first film, and the promise of the series expanding towards an even bigger and crazier mythology seemed filled with potential.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 mostly succeeds in its mission to expand the world of the original and serve as the middle chapter of a trilogy in which the stakes are set to be continually raised. Certainly, the filmmakers have upped the ante from a visual perspective. Few if any movies can match the sheer visceral thrill that seeing the original in 3D on the big screen provided. But Part 2 tops it. See this one in 3D and on the biggest screen possible. It's a total roller-coaster ride, with some of the most dazzling imagery ever seen on film, and a you-are-there sense of immersion that is unmatched. As in the first film, the dragon-riding scenes contain aerial acrobatics that, in 3D and on a big screen, provide a true thrill ride experience. But in addition, the sequel contains scenes in which the screen is just swimming with sensory-overload-inducing visuals. Scores of dragons flying in formation, gigantic screen-filling creatures whose size and scope will shock you, and eye-catchingly exotic locales that beg to be explored.

The movie justifiably spends a lot of time dazzling us visually. But because of all the time and energy spent on those big moments and action set-pieces, the plot feels rushed. What messes with the narrative momentum is that the relative simplicity of the first movie is thrown out in favor of a big, messy, sprawling story that looks to retrofit a Star Wars-style epic onto the world of How to Train Your Dragon. A lot of it works as exciting spectacle. However, some of the big, emotional character beats feel rushed, and numerous characters feel shortchanged, in the interest of packing in as much epicness as possible into the film.

The plot picks up five years after the events of the first movie. Hiccup - still sporting Jay Baruchel's nasally voice - is now older and kewler (he has leather armor and a flame sword!), and spends his days riding around on his faithful dragon Toothless, mapping out new lands in the fictional fantasy world where he resides. At home, on the island of Berk, dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony (after the events of the first film), and all seems well. Hiccup's greatest worry is whether he wants to accept the responsibility of taking over leadership of Berk from his father, Stoick (again voiced by Gerard Butler). However, on his journeys, Hiccup comes across a seemingly nefarious band of bandits led by the charismatic Eret (Kit Harrington, aka Game of Thrones' Jon Snow), who warn of a great evil coming - an ancient evil named Drago who has the power to control dragons and bend them to his will. It seems that Drago is amassing a Dragon army and has Berk firmly in his sights. Hiccup's efforts to halt Drago's attack take a detour though when he meets a mysterious Dragon Rider named Valka, who lives on a hidden dragon sanctuary. As it turns out, Valka - voiced with new-age earthiness by Cate Blanchett - is actually Hiccup's long-lost mother, which leads to an emotional reunion with not only Hiccup, but with Stoick as well.

And so, as you can see ... the plot thickens. Big time. There is A LOT going on here, and not all of it adds up, exactly, to a satisfying whole. Probably the most well-realized aspect of the plot is the story of Valka and her reunion with Hiccup and Stoick. As with the original, the underlying theme of family is really what gives the movie its emotional core. And just as with the original, this storyline is more sophisticated and moving than what we'd typically see in a family-friendly animated film. Even amidst all the spectacular dragons and action, the film's single best moment might be a nostalgic dance shared by Stoick and Valka. Don't be surprised if you get just a bit misty-eyed during this wonderfully-realized scene. In fact, the Valka-Stoick stuff is so good that you wish there was a lot more of it. But the movie sort of gives them their moment and then rushes forward, eager to get to the giant battles with Drago and his kaiju-sized Alpha Dragons. Don't get me wrong, the Alphas are friggin' awesome. But the movie loses some of its emotional undercurrent as it goes, getting too caught up in simply presenting us with the visceral rush of dragon-on-dragon combat.

In similar fashion, the movie's many subplots come and go so fast that they barely make an impact. Hiccup's relationship with his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) is there, but there's not much too it other than a few scenes that basically remind us "yep, they're still a couple." There's also some very funny moments centered around Hiccup's friends - Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and twins Tuffnut (T.J. Miller) and Ruffnut (Kristin Wiig). But the best and funniest little subplot here - Ruffnut's hopeless infatuation with Kit Harrington's roguish Eret - never gets much in the way of resolution or satisfying closure. Eret himself is a bit problematic. He goes from adversary to ally at the drop of a hat, and he doesn't quite feel fully-formed as a character. His presence in the movie is a constant reminder of just how jam-packed the film is with plot and characters. Every time I saw him, I had to stop and ask myself "who's this guy again, and which side is he on?" Meanwhile, there's no question what side Drago (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) is on. But as a Big Bad, he's sort of meh. The most interesting thing about him is his ability to mind-control dragons, which leads to some exciting and nail-biting moments where Hiccup is pitted against a Drago-controlled Toothless. But as a character, he really is undercooked - and visually, he feels sort of generic as well. Suffice it to say, if this is meant to be Dragon's attempt at Star Wars-style epicness, Drago is no Darth Vader.

All that said, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2's best moments are so good that it's easy to put all of those issues to the side. When the movie soars, it really soars - literally and figuratively. It's action scenes and visuals are universally stunning, and its best character moments - the reunion with Valka, Toothless trapped under Drago's nefarious influence - are fantastic. This is a franchise that is willing to go to some surprisingly dark places, and some of the events of this film are shocking - the kind of stuff that will leave kids (and probably many adults) gasping. And again, give all the credit in the world to writer/director Dean DeBlois, who again has set a new bar for visuals in animated films. DeBlois is also attempting something tricky here - trying to turn How To Train Your Dragon into a true epic fantasy franchise. He stumbles just a bit with this sequel, but there's enough that he gets right here that, regardless, I absolutely can't wait for the next chapter.

My Grade: B+

Thursday, June 19, 2014

MALEFICENT Afraid to Embrace Its Evil


- As a kid, I loved Halloween (still do), and I loved Halloween TV. I guess I grew up in a golden age of Halloween TV specials, where every October all of the networks would unveil kid-friendly programming that was delightfully spooky. One of the specials that I still think of with nostalgic affection was the Disney Halloween Special, that aired each year on ABC and The Disney Channel. In this special (hosted by The Magic Mirror), spooky shorts were intermixed with segments that highlighted all of the classic Disney villains, shining a spotlight on their most depraved acts of evil. The best of these segments was the one devoted to Maleficent, the iconic big bad from Sleeping Beauty. Even as a kid, it was clear: Maleficent was the bilest of villains, the queen of evil, the horn-hatted she-devil who you most definitely did *not* want to mess with. It's funny - Disney is known for kid-friendly fairy tales, but there has always been a real dark side to their animated classics. Disney villains have a long history of upstaging Disney heroes. And a lot of us, I think - myself certainly included - became Disney fans less so because of the whimsy and wonder, but more so because of Disney's dark side: evil queens, dastardly pirates, witches, ghosts, beasts, monsters, magic, and yes, Maleficent.

And so, I was actually really looking forward to the MALEFICENT movie. One of Disney's most iconic villains in her own movie? Perfectly cast, with Angelina Jolie in the title role? This could have, should have, been awesome. As it stands, the movie has its moments. There are glimpses of greatness, and some fantastic visuals. But something seriously got lost along the way. The same Disney that once gleefully corrupted my young mind with its Halloween Special is now, it seems, afraid to walk on the dark side.

What I mean is - and I say this without spoilers - is that Maleficent is at its best, predictably, when Jolie is allowed to go full-evil and just tear the house down. But oddly, surprisingly, the film only goes there on precious few occasions. Mostly, it seems intent on recasting the character as a hero, as someone who takes a brief detour to the dark side, but who is ultimately a force for good rather than evil.

That central disconnect - the desire to both have fun with Maleficent's villainy but also never truly let her be the villain - pretty much tears the movie apart at the seams. And the glimpses that we do get of the character at her worst (aka her best), make their fleetingness that much more frustrating. Why take one of the coolest and most flat-out evil-seeming Disney villains and make her a hero?

Again, the movie has a couple of things going for it that really do make this one a frustrating example of a movie that could-have-been-great. Like I said, Jolie is great. No one else could have played this part as well. She's got the look (her already severe features augmented with CGI - hello, razor-sharp cheekbones), she's got the voice down, she nails the dark humor in the script. And what's interesting is that Jolie manages to make Maleficent an interesting and even quasi-sympathetic character *even when she's clearly playing the part of the villain.*

I also think that MALEFICENT has some really, really impressive visuals at various points in the movie. Director Robert Stromberg has spent much of his career as a matte artist, and it shows. The best moments in this film, visually, are those that essentially function as living, breathing matte paintings. Scenes of the fairy kingdom from which Maleficent hails, populated with all manner of flora and fauna, are often stunning. Where Stromberg falters a bit is with the big action. The big army vs. army scenes, lifted wholesale from films like Lord of the Rings, feel choppy and a bit unnecessary. And a lot of the action just feels a bit flat. Stromberg's direction, for whatever reason, seems most effective in the smaller and quieter moments. The scenes meant to be big and epic don't quite pop as much as they should, nor do they always seem to convey the proper sense of scale that the movie is going for.

But really, the biggest issues lie with the script. The story gets off to a promising and intriguing start - showing us a young Maleficent in her magical realm, and revealing her first encounter with a human boy, who's wandered over from the much less-magical neighboring kingdom. We watch as the two form a bond, and then see that bond severed as the two grow older. The boy, trying to make a name for himself, takes advantage of Maleficent's trust in him, and betrays her in order to impress his king and grab power for himself. It's not a bad way to kick things off, but things get messier from there.

Eventually, the boy himself becomes king, and as an adult he's played by District 9's Sharlto Copley - who seems woefully miscast. I'm a big fan of Copley, but he excels at playing offbeat characters with a screw loose. His character seems to demand a sort of grim gravitas that Copley doesn't really pull off. In turn, the story eventually gets to the plot of Sleeping Beauty, with some great sequences in which a scorned Maleficent curses Copley's newborn daughter to fall into an eternal sleep when she gets older. All of that is cool - it's the Maleficent we know and want from the classic animated film. But then, things start to go off the rails a bit. We flash-forward as the now-teenaged princess, Aurora - played solidly by Elle Fanning - lives in isolation with her "aunts," three fairies who have pledged to help the King and his daughter, and to keep her away from harm. The fairies, played by Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, and Juno Temple, provide occasional bouts of whimsy and comic relief, but there's a little too much of them, and they're a little too one-note (especially considering the talented actresses playing them). We never truly care about them as more than window-dressing. Additionally, the f/x used to make them seem diminutive are a bit questionable, with their heads looking glued-on to CGI bodies. In any case, this is where the movie seems to wholly forsake the idea of Maleficent as villain. She becomes less menacing by the minute. She forms a motherly relationship with young Aurora, and basically, she goes soft. The jarring transition is sort of augmented by Sam Riley as magical crow/human creature Diaval. Diaval, acting as Maleficent's sidekick, is basically a totally good dude. By virtue of him spending time with Maleficent, it's like a big fat signpost that reads "the badass has been watered down."

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and for the increasingly benevolent Maleficent to again break bad. But oddly, it never happens, and the movie just sort of limps along with its title character as a generic do-gooder, who just happens to wear devilish black horns and bears a name that screams "evil."  I'm not totally sure how a Maleficent movie would work in which she's all-out evil. But I think there's a way to make her sympathetic and more fully fleshed-out without also making her into the hero of the film. I also don't buy the argument that, because this is *her* version of the story, we must take the events of the film, as told by Maleficent, with a heavy grain of Rashomon-style salt. The movie does nothing to imply that the version of events we're hearing may not be the "true" version.

MALEFICENT is an enjoyable film - parts of it looks fantastic, and Jolie crushes it. Flaws aside, it's a perfectly serviceable fantasy film and a nice movie to watch in order to escape from reality for a bit. But it is, ultimately, flat and somewhat lifeless, and I've got to think that the root cause is a script that refuses to embrace the character's true darkness - intent on subverting the iconography to little gain, rather than truly having fun with it. Has Disney lost its bite? Is the studio that so often, somewhat subversively, touts the evilness of its villains afraid to give its biggest and baddest a true showpiece? MALEFICENT seems like a spoil-sport, a movie that won't let us fully enjoy taking a detour to the dark side.

My Grade: B-

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

OBVIOUS CHILD Is Vital, Fresh, Winning Comedy


- Obvious Child is a genuine surprise. It's a must-see for comedy fans - one of the funniest films in a long while. And really, to me, that's reason enough to run out and see it. But, there's so much more to like about this one. It's a female-written, female-directed, female-starring comedy. And that is awesome. As a comedy fan, I look at it this way: what we're getting here is a movie that's not only funny, but funny in a particular way that we don't typically see at the movies. It's got a unique voice - that of writer/director Gillian Robespierre. I was lucky enough to see a screening of the film that was followed by a Q&A with Robespierre and star Jenny Slate, and Robespierre is clearly one to watch. She's smart, sassy, and just plain funny. And now, I can't wait to see what she does next.

OBVIOUS CHILD is sort of self-mockingly billed as an "abortion comedy," but the fact is that it happens to be a very funny-yet-sweet look at a young woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. The rom-com twist is that, as it turns out, the guy whom she had a drunken one night stand with may actually be a great match -- if only the relationship between the two hadn't gotten off to such an awkward and life-altering, consequence-bearing start. The young woman is played by one-time SNL cast member Jenny Slate, who was infamously booted from the show in her first season, after accidentally dropping an f-bomb on live TV. Since then, Slate has found success in animation, with her own webseries, and as a recurring guest star on shows like Parks and Recreation and Hello Ladies. But this is Slate's big breakout role, no question. As the film's protagonist, Donna, Slate plays arguably a version of herself - a twenty-something woman living in New York, struggling to make a living while doing stand-up gigs at a divey bar. Slate is fantastic in the film. Her comic timing is amazing, but there's also a realness and even a darkness to the character that's appealing and keeps things feeling grounded. Through Donna's stand-up, we see her pour out her frustrations in a way that she can't in the rest of her life, and the results are both funny and oftentimes bleak.

Slate also works very well with Gaby Hoffman, playing Donna's best friend Nellie. The two have excellent comic chemistry together, and the women are even funnier when paired with their friend Joey, played to hilarious effect by comedian Gabe Liedman. Their banter is often side-splittingly funny, and yet, again, there's an undeniable feeling of authenticity in terms of how these friendships are portrayed.

Donna's one-night-stand and potential love interest is played by Jake Lacy, most familiar as the new guy who wasn't Clark Duke on the final season of The Office. But Lacy is also quite good here, bringing the same sort of understated, solid-dude personality and humor that he had on The Office to this film. His character, Max, seems like an odd match for Slate's quirky comedienne Donna ... at least at first. But they have an opposites-attract chemistry that works.

The film's also got some of its key supporting roles filled out by familiar faces. The always-great Richard Kind plays Donna's doting dad, and Polly Draper does a fine job as her less amiable, stern mom, Meanwhile, David Cross pops up for some very funny bits as a sleazebag comedian acquaintance of Donna's.

A couple of key things here. One is that the movie essentially is, for all intents and purposes, a romantic comedy. But it's not a formulaic Hollywood rom-com in the slightest. There is much more to Donna (and Max, for that matter), then *just* the prospect of romance. And what romance there is is handled in a way that never panders or feels overly cheesy. It's all very low-key, and always emphasizing comedy and authenticity first. The fact that this is an indie film, and the specific vision of one creative mind - as opposed to written and created by committee - certainly helps. There will be no eye-rolling here. This is a romance that's actually engaging, and one that doesn't just feel paint-by-numbers. In fact, I was never quite sure just where the movie would take it.

On the abortion issue ... it's both front-and-center in Obvious Child, but at the same time, understated. This isn't a political movie in an overt sense. And to me, that's a welcome move, because it means that the film isn't bogged down with trying to bend over backwards to present all sides of the abortion issue. From early on, Slate's Donna decides to have an abortion, and the will-she or won't-she question isn't really even a question. Yes, there is trauma, and doubt, and even some heartache about the decision. But the film deals with it all in a way that's heartfelt and earnest, but never preachy or overwrought. It is what it is. The real crux of the issue is not the abortion, but what it represents - adult responsibility that the still-finding-her-way Donna may not be quite ready to handle. That's what makes her relationship with Max so interesting. Donna is the classic Gen Y'er who views everything as transient and impermanent. Max endearingly confesses that he can't wait to be a grandpa.

The movie's humor and heart come together pretty wonderfully, and everything is elegantly directed by Robespierre to feel both naturalistic and emotionally-charged. There's a Judd Apatow-esque vibe of sweetness-meets-raunchiness, but as Apatow's films have felt increasingly removed from reality, OBVIOUS CHILD feels vital, fresh, and of the here-and-now. Robspierre, Slate, and everyone else involved in the film have really created something cool and unique with this one.

My Grade: A-

Monday, June 16, 2014

THE SIGNAL Is a Flawed But Admirably Ambitious Sci-Fi Mystery


- THE SIGNAL falls squarely into that fun category of movies where, sure, it's a bit flawed, but watching it, you can't help but think: "yeah ... this director is going places." With THE SIGNAL, the good and the bad is that the movie veers wildly across the map from a plot and tonal perspective. This means that the film is a very odd, sometimes random-seeming genre mash-up that doesn't do any one thing well enough to truly be great. It also means that what starts out as a creepy, Twilight Zone-esque sci-fi mystery goes to some very unexpected and very fun places. What seems to be a small little indie sci-fi story ultimately goes BIG, and, with limited budget, director William Eubank crafts big-hero action scenes on par with the latest from Marvel. Yep, THE SIGNAL has some real ambition that isn't apparent from the outset, and with it Eubank makes his mark as a guy who has the chops to out-do the big guns of sci-fi action at their own game. As messy a movie as this is at time, there are moments that gave me the same sort of thrill I got from other movies that unexpectedly ramped things up eleven - movies like District 9, for example. No, THE SIGNAL isn't in that movie's league, but it does have those moments where I got a giddy rush from seeing just how far the director was pushing things.

The film begins as a sort of road-trip mystery story about three young hacker friends in search of the source of a mystery signal that seems to have targeted them. Nic and Jonah - and Nic's girlfriend Haley - follow the trail of the mystery signal to a remote cabin. Then ... things get pretty weird. I don't want to spoil too much, since a lot of the movie's M.O. is to leave you in a constant state of guessing where this is all going, and wondering "umm ... WTF is happening?" Suffice it to say, the movie quickly and drastically shifts gears, as the three friends find themselves prisoners in some sort of strange medical facility, where they are tested on and subjected to seemingly nonsensical questions by an enigmatic warden (played with creepy stoicism by Laurence Fishburne). Then, things get even weirder, as we learn more about the tests being conducted on the three friends, and what those tests are turning them into. The movie doles out information only sparingly though, clearly going for that Twilight Zone-esque sense of mystery, and clearly leading to a classic Twilight Zone-esque final twist.

Mystery-box storytelling has been all the rage in TV for years now, since Lost jump-started it as the de facto mechanism for any and all high-concept series. But at the movies, this sort of deliberately-paced sci-fi storytelling is still a rare breed ... though it's been making a comeback in recent years. Moon was probably the best mystery/sci-fi film of the last several years, though other indies like Primer, Coherence, and The Signal have added to the growing list of interesting sci-fi gems. For me, someone raised on The Twilight Zone, I love these sorts of stories, and even when they don't 100% work, I still like any film that can leave me feeling pleasantly disoriented and eagerly awaiting the next big reveal. THE SIGNAL's greatest strength is that it does a nice job of creating that intriguingly disorienting vibe and leaving you chomping at the bit for more clues as to just what-in-the-name-of-Ray Bradbury is goin' down.

But where the movie falters is that, like many of these kinds of stories, it doesn't all pay off in a way that's 100% satisfying. I'm not criticizing the movie's ending in particular, more so the fact that the ending doesn't have a good-enough build-up to make the final twist feel earned. Point being, the ending of this film could have been almost anything, and each ending would have felt just about equally valid. The film is so hung up on keeping you guessing that it doesn't properly lay the groundwork for each new revelation. And so, it feels a little too much like Eubank is throwing darts at a dartboard rather than crafting a well thought-out story that completely holds up in retrospect.

The leads here do a solid job. Brenton Thwaites is a capable lead as Nic, and Olivia Cooke - who I've become a fan of from her work on Bates Motel - is really good at doing creeped-out and paranoid.
Beau Knapp is also a highlight as third-wheel Jonah, the geeky friend who has many of the movie's biggest holy-$%^& moments. And Fishburne, as mentioned, is pretty much the perfect actor to play the sort of all-knowing mystery man role he plays here. The actors are each saddled, unfortunately, with their share of groan-worthy lines - which I think is symptomatic of the movie's plot being sort of haphazard. Because there's such a need to keep things murky for so much of the film, there can be that weird disconnect where it feels like the characters aren't reacting naturally to what happens, and not asking the right questions.

While the plot does seem a bit thrown-together at times, THE SIGNAL really feels like a showcase piece for Eubank as a director. In the first third of the movie, he gives you teen horror and gives it to you really good. In the middle third of the film, he does mind-trip sci-fi and also sort of nails it - creating a paranoid, ominous vibe that sucks you in. And then, in the final third of the movie, Eubank goes big, delivering blockbuster-style sci-fi action on a surprisingly huge scale - smartly mixing big emotional beats with satisfyingly bone-crunching action that had me thinking "Marvel, call this guy up asap."

So no, THE SIGNAL may not go down as a new science fiction classic. But there is a lot of raw potential in the DNA of this movie, and it may just signal (see what I did there) the arrival of a new director to watch. You've got to admire its ambition.

My Grade: B

Friday, June 13, 2014

EDGE OF TOMORROW Is This Summer's Blockbuster To Beat


- EDGE OF TOMORROW is the best blockbuster movie of the summer so far. Brilliantly-scripted, directed, and acted, it's an uber-satisfying sci-fi action thriller that takes full advantage of the possibilities inherent in its premise. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt both bring their A-games in the lead roles. Cruise puts a new twist on his typical ultra-intense and hyper-competent action movie persona, and Blunt fully establishes herself as a real-deal badass for the ages. Meanwhile, director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) returns to film after an extended stay in TV, and completely knocks it out of the park. This is the best thing he's ever done, by far.

What's so cool about EDGE OF TOMORROW is that it takes its Groundhog Day-style do-over premise and melds it with the logic and experience of playing a videogame. In that way, there's a weird kinship between this film and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which also applied videogame logic and methodology in its storytelling.

In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Cage, who begins the film as a snotty PR man working for the military, whose job is essentially to push the military's message out to the public via press conferences, talk show appearances, etc. The military needs all the good PR it can get. In this near-future earth, the planet has been invaded by a horde of conquering aliens called Mimics, whose liquid-metal bodies dart around a battlefield like out-of-control buzz-saws. The humans' new united army is not faring all that well in the battle, and they're gearing up for one last stand - an epic battle that aims to take the fight to the Mimics, all-or-nothing. One of the great heroes of the military effort is Emily Blunt's Rita, affectionately known as "The Full-Metal Bitch." Rita and the rest of the military wage war in mech-like combat suits, stomping around the battlefield adorned with all manner of mechanized heavy artillery enhancements. Cage, however, finds himself unexpectedly ordered by commanding officer General Brigham (the always-great Brendan Gleeson) to head to battle. This big last stand is an all-hands-on-deck deal, and Brigham orders Cage to fight. Cage tries to object, but when he attempts to get out of Dodge, he's forcibly taken to the central army base and inserted by his gruff supervising Sergeant (an over-the-top Bill Paxton) into a ragtag unit of misfits and losers. Soon enough, Cage is on a nightmarish battlefield, fending off Mimics, unable to even properly operate his mech suit or weapons. And then ... he dies.

However, due to a strange set of circumstances that I won't reveal here, Cruise's Cage becomes possessed of a unique ability: when he dies, he essentially travels back in time to a fixed point (in this case, it's the moment when he is first dropped off at the army base), and respawns, videogame-style. When he comes back, he maintains all of the knowledge of his previous "life," and his challenge lies in applying what he learned before dying, to ensure his survival in the next go-round. Soon though, Cage learns that it isn't only his survival on the line. His unique power allows him to use his knowledge of what's to come to warn the military about the futility of the battle ahead. And as it turns out, Rita is aware of Cage's ability, and has been manipulating events in order to fully exploit it to help win the battle against the Mimics. The stakes are high. There is a ticking clock on Cage's ability to respawn, and so he needs to do everything he can to give humans the advantage in the war's looming endgame.

All of this plot-resetting could have easily become tedious and repetitive, but it's handled so cleverly that it actually becomes thrilling. Cage's actions increasingly deviate from their original path from life to life, and seeing Cage essentially piece together the puzzle of what he has to do to change the tide of the battle is fascinating. Moreover, since Cage starts out as sort of a wimp - a pencil-pusher comfortable in front of a TV camera, but totally out of his element in a fight - seeing him gradually transition to a full-fledged badass (under the guidance of Rita) - brings with it a sort of satisfaction that we rarely see in these sorts of movies, where heroes tend to be born and not made. Cruise is excellent in the film - he's always great in these sorts of high-intensity action roles, but this one really stands out since it takes him the entirety of the film to fully become "Tom Cruise: Action Hero." At first though, he's just a guy who's in way over his head. And Cruise does that part of the role as well, if not better, than when Cage is at the height of his powers later on.

Emily Blunt flat-out kicks ass as Rita, who is one of the best female characters in an action movie in quite some time. Rita feels fully-formed - she has a clear inner life separate from her relationship with Cage, and it's her planning, smarts, and badassery that actually drives the plot's forward-momentum for much of the film. Rita is, for most of the film, the one guiding Cage's life-to-life strategy, formulating the game plan as to how he can use his ability to make a difference and course-correct. Blunt previously showed her action chops in Looper, but this is a whole new level of awesome. I actually think that, aside from the wow-factor of seeing Blunt in a high-tech combat suit wielding helicopter-blade weapons, this is some of the best acting I've ever seen from the actress. Her Rita is a fierce, driven, extremely capable soldier who is quite simply a fantastic and memorable character. If you remember one thing from Edge of Tomorrow, it will likely be Blunt as the "Full Metal Bitch."

Blunt and Cruise also work really well together. What's nice is that the film acknowledges some chemistry and builds a meaningful relationship between the two, but romance is not a central aspect of the story. These are two soldiers with big things at stake, and so the bond that builds between them happens organically, and is more complicated and nuanced than in a typical star-crossed Hollywood romance. This again contributes to the strength of Blunt's character - her partnership with Cage is a key element of the story, but the personal relationship isn't what's driving the story. Their shared determination to save the human race is the driver, and that means that the stakes are never undermined by the need for the dramatic kiss or what have you (see: Superman and Lois making time for a dramatic lip-lock as Metropolis burns around them in Man of Steel).

What's also surprising is that amid the darkness and bleakness of this futuristic, war-torn world, the movie still makes time for a lot of lighter moments, and even humor. The movie is actually really funny and witty at times. There's some great playful banter between Cage and Rita. Bill Paxton's corn-fed Sergeant Farell is consistently entertaining-as-hell and funny. And Noah Taylor's Dr. Carter, the slightly-mad scientist who teams with Cage and Rita to discover the alien adversary's weakness, is also a lot of fun. Point being, EDGE OF TOMORROW is far from the grim slog that some of the trailers made it out to be. It's actually a really fun and audience-pleasing ride that balances out its darker moments with good old-fashioned Summer Blockbuster entertainment.

To that end, Doug Liman tears the house down with his direction on this one. The movie moves along at an always-exciting, rapid-fire clip. And the big action set-pieces are some of the best of any sci-fi blockbuster in years. Again, a lot of the reason these scenes work so well is because of the way they're built up. We're not just seeing sound and fury, we're seeing action that continually shows us Cage learning from past mistakes and improving his combat abilities and survival skills. Sure, having already lived out certain moments, he gets to play god and anticipate an adversary's move before it even happens. But more than that, he is self-upgrading, acting out a real-life process of videogame-esque leveling up. And that is thrilling to watch.

The movie perfectly captures the risk/reward process of playing through and advancing through a videogame. Of learning from failures and evolving until one is truly the master of the game - fully in control of its mechanics, able to anticipate obstacles and navigate through challenges with ease. In turn, the videogame-style structure, as in Scott Pilgrim, becomes a way of looking at life. Live, die, repeat, win. Our days, our hopes, our struggles, in microcosm. EDGE OF TOMORROW tells a great story, but the underlying smarts of how that story is presented is what makes it so impressive. Even those who've never played a videogame will, I think, get caught up in the rush of "okay, what now?" logic puzzles that the film invites us to live out alongside Cage and Rita. It all feels so fresh, presented in such a novel way, that I want to say that this is the flat-out best sci-fi action film since District 9. It seems like bland marketing may have hurt this one at the box-office, but the fact is that the movie is one of the more unique and original action blockbuster films in years. Go see it - THIS is the big movie to beat this summer.

My Grade: A

Thursday, June 12, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Is The Best and Biggest X-Men Film Yet


- The Bryan Singer-directed X-MEN films were huge in their day. Rarely had we seen beloved comic book superheroes adapted for the big screen with so much seriousness of tone and purpose. Despite some clunky moments, these movies generated an excitement for comic book-based films that had not been seen since the Tim Burton Batman days. And yet ... I don't know if those movies 100% aged well, at least in my own mind. As much as the X-Men films took their characters seriously, there was also a sort of self-hating dullness to the films that now feels dated next to the colorful, comic-book roots-embracing Avengers films. Singer's muted colors, workmanlike black leather character uniforms, and eschewing of beloved comic tropes in favor of realism (reportedly Hugh Jackman had to beg Singer to let Wolverine call someone "bub") was a mixed blessing. It was, likely, what was needed to erase the day-glo nightmare memories of Joel Schumaker's abhorrent Batman films. But the X-films also felt like a bit of a letdown to those raised on the colorful sci-fi soap-opera of the 80's and 90's cartoons and comic books.

But lo and behold, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is Singer's most sci-fi, most over-the-top, and most epic X-Men movie by a mile. It fully embraces its plot's time-travel wackiness, and revels in comic book-style action scenes, high-concept sci-fi imagery, and a sense of anything-can-happen fun that previously eluded this franchise.

Loosely based on the classic Chris Claremont / John Bryne comic book story from the 80's, the new movie sees Wolverine sent back in time from an apocalyptic present (a grim, black-sky dystopia in which the few surviving mutants wage a hopeless war against the all-conquering robotic Sentinels), to the swingin' 70's ... in hopes of preventing disaster. As in the comics, Professor Xavier believes that if a pivotal assassination attempt planned by Mystique were to be thwarted, then it would prevent a chain of events leading to mass public anti-Mutant sentiment, and thus the creation of the Sentinels. But unlike the comics, where Kitty Pryde sends her older-self's consciousness back in time to inhabit her younger self's body, the movie version has franchise favorite Wolverine make the timestream trek. Since Wolvie doesn't age (theoretically), it makes sense that he'd be the one to go back. Plus, in the movie, it's explained that only Wolverine and his healing powers can withstand the mental toll of the process, which is, it seems, now one of Kitty's abilities (so she can phase through walls, and *also* transfer people's minds back in time - random).

But the great thing about the whole set-up is that it gives Singer and co. an excuse to have a dream-melding of his original X-cast with that of Matthew Vaughan's well-regarded X-Men: First Class prequel. That film was a breath of fresh air, bringing talented actors like Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence into the fold. Once again, these three are huge spark plugs, and help to cover some of the weak spots that existed in the supporting cast of Singer's original lineup. And it's also just a lot of fanboyish fun to see the old and young versions of Professor X and Magneto in the same film. In particular, Patrick Stewart gets some great moments with McAvoy as his younger self. And let's face it, any excuse to bring back the legendary duo of Stewart and Ian McKellan is cause for much rejoicing. They quite simply rule (and as great as Fassbender is as a younger Magneto, he still can't match the sheer gravitas of McKellan in rage-mode).

Lawrence's Mystique is also a huge focus here. Rightfully so, I think, given how talented of an actress Lawrence is. And the actress does a fine job of making the character into more than just a badass in leaves-nothing-to-the-imagination blue body paint (though she is that, too). Here, Mystique is sort of the pendulum at the center of the eternal morality play being waged between Xavier and Magneto. To stand up for Mutantkind through peace and understanding, or through blunt force and aggression? The issue is forced by Peter Dinklage's Bolivar Trask, an anti-Mutant crusader and father of the Sentinel program. Future Xavier and his fellow X-Men know that Mystique's attack on Trask would lead to his Sentinels getting funding and eventually decimating the planet, Skynet-style. And so the fate of the future lies largely in Mystique's vengeful blue hands.

Singer populates the film with some of the most ingeniously shot set-pieces he's ever put to film. The biggest highlight comes thanks to the newly-introduced Quicksilver, a laid-back speedster who performs dazzling light-speed feats all while chilling to hippie rock on his slightly anachronistic headphones. Played by American Horror Story's Evan Peters, Quicksilver is one of the best new additions to the cast. And his big showpiece set piece - in which he makes quick (but seen in slo-mo) work of a room full of armed assailants - is emblematic of what makes this movie better than all other X-movies. It's fun, dazzling, funny, and fully embraces the potential of the character's powers. Singer also gets some good mileage out of Nicholas Holt's Beast, who gets to shine both in his geeky scientist guise and in his ass-kicking Mutant form.

The combination of Singer's seemingly reinvigorated direction with a surprisingly lean, mean, and effective script by Simon Kinberg makes the movie work in a way that it probably shouldn't. There's a lot going on here, but Kinberg's script ties everything together in a very digestible way that mixes plenty of solid character and emotional beats into the big sci-fi tapestry. Yes, Wolverine serves as our central character, but the movie soon morphs into a great Xavier / Magneto story that also feels like closure, of sorts, to this entire chapter of the X-Men cinematic saga. That said, the time-travel conceit allows for the kind of big, comic-bookish stuff that we really haven't seen before in the mainline X-movies. We get teams of X-Men fighting off legions of invading Sentinels in a Matrix-esque future. We get big, world-ending stakes. We get an anything-can-happen set-up in which all bets are off - with time-travel shenanigans going on, favorite characters can die at any time, maybe even on multiple occasions. And of course, the movie introduces a concept very familiar to comic book fans, but perhaps a bit of a revelation for newbies - the idea of the retcon. Basically, the time-travel hijinks give Singer and Kinberg the ability to selectively, retroactively undo a few choice developments from previous X-Men films (cough*3*cough), wiping the slate clean for future installments, but also just sort of leaving the house (or manor, in this case) in order.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST really surprised me. Going in, I was weary of yet another X-Men movie, and weary of yet another film in which Hugh Jackman's Wolverine takes center stage. I wanted Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde to get some love, and for the franchise to move in a new direction more in line with The Avengers and other Marvel studios films. I wanted the bright colors and melodrama of the comics and cartoons. Well, this one may not have bright colors, but it did capture the bigness and craziness that made The Uncanny X-Men the biggest thing since sliced bread in the 80's and 90's. It's a fun movie, plain and simple, and has about everything you could ask for in an X-Men/First-Class passing-of-the-torch film. There are nice callbacks to the previous movies, as well as some nice stage-setting for stories yet to come. This is pretty much the ultimate Brian Singer X-Men movie, both keeping what worked about the older films but also addressing some of the issues. I'd still like to see the X-films take a different path after this one, but this is a film that elevates the franchise as a whole.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, June 5, 2014

GODZILLA Is King of All Monsters, But Is He King of All Movies?!


- I was so looking forward to GODZILLA. A few months back, at Wonder-Con in Anaheim, I saw director Gareth Edwards speak. It was clear that - in addition to being humble and self-deprecating - the guy was passionate about this film, about Godzilla, and about the legacy of the character and the film franchise. This was also a guy who seemed poised to deliver the Godzilla movie that we'd all been waiting for. I don't hate the 90's Emmerich version as much as some, but that movie was a goofy thrill ride when, clearly, the Godzilla character demands darker, epic, and more mythological treatment. And man, the footage that we saw at Wonder-Con seemed to promise just that. We saw a massive, insect-like creature emerge from the darkened ocean - hordes of screaming people fleeing in terror. Then, a giant leg stomped on the beach, and it was clear that the insect creature was about to meet its match. The camera panned up gracefully, and there, before us, was Godzilla in all his glory - taking a form that both paid homage to his man-in-suit origins, yet looked spectacularly badass. This. Was. Godzilla.

But maybe I should have been a bit worried all along. Edwards made his mark with indie creature-feature Monsters, which garnered a cult following and minor critical acclaim for the way it created a feeling of ominous dread and scale even with a barely-there budget. And yet ... I watched Monsters when it came out a few years back, and it left me pretty cold. I admired its ingenuity, but I also felt nothing for its characters, who I found to be whiny and inhuman-seeming. I put all of those doubts out of my mind though prior to GODZILLA. I mean, this was the return of the King of All Monsters. Who cared about the puny humans that might happen to populate the film?

As it turns out though, human characters are pretty important, even in a GODZILLA film. Especially when you consider that Edwards expends so much effort centering his story around his human protagonists. In many ways, his biggest inspiration here is Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park. Edwards looks to create a JP-like sense of awe and wonder in his film by grounding it in an all-too-human POV. But there's a coldness in these characters, a blandness, similar to what I saw in Monsters. I mean, in Jurassic Park, characters from Alan Grant to Ian Malcolm became instant fan favorites, because they were bursting with personality and life. They were colorful, distinct. We cared about them. Godzilla, meanwhile, is saddled with good actors playing non-characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is our hero, Ford Brody. But I guarantee you won't remember that name when the film is done. He's a military guy whose main character trait is being the military-guy-with-the-heart-of-gold. I've enjoyed Taylor-Johnson's work in the Kick-Ass films. I know he can do way better than this. I don't even really blame him ... he's given pretty much nothing to work with. This is even more true for Elizabeth Olsen. She was Oscar-worthy in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Here she is playing Generic Wife. David Straitharn is Generic Military Officer. Ken Watanabe is Generic Scientist. At least Watanabe is given a couple of super-badass lines to say (the movie could really use a heavy injection of badassery). I guess it's not just badassery that I was looking for. It's emotion.

The huge bulk of the movie's emotional core comes, not surprisingly, from the great Bryan Cranston. Cranston plays Taylor-Johnson's dad, who, as we see in a riveting opening flashback sequence, was once a nuclear scientist charged with maintaining safety at a Japanese nuclear plant. His wife, who also worked at the plant, was tragically killed in an accident, and now Cranston has become obsessed with finding out what really happened that day. The movie's best scene is actually in this flashback sequence, as Cranston makes a desperate bid to save his wife's life, but ultimately, tragically, comes up short. Cranston kills it here, and helps GODZILLA to open on one hell of a high note.

But as the movie flash-forwards to the present, the focus shifts to Taylor-Johnson, and things start to go off-the-rails. Here's the thing: I'm all for restraint in this type of movie. I admire that Edwards takes his time in revealing Godzilla, and that he builds and builds the tension until, finally, all hell breaks loose and this finally becomes the Giant Monster Movie that everyone was expecting. It's an admirable tactic, in theory. The problem though is that all of the other, non-Godzilla stuff in the movie is sort of weak. Taylor-Johnson's character isn't interesting enough to carry the film, and he and his mini family drama with Olsen and their young child is uninteresting and carries minimal emotional weight. The characters who do show some promise - i.e. the team of Watanabe's Dr. Ishiro Serizawa and Sally Hawkins' Vivienne Graham - are given the short shrift.

When Godzilla finally makes his formidable presence known, the movie takes on new life. All of the giant monster stuff in this movie is pretty damn awesome, and Godzilla, as mentioned, looks great. Godzilla is, far and away, the best character in the movie. In fact, he feels more fully-realized than just about any of the humans. This is a Godzilla who is sort of a weary protector of humanity. Woken up from his long dormancy, he goes about the business of laying the smackdown on all other monsters with head-down efficiency, even though those unappreciative humans he's out to help tend to just devise ways to kill him. I really like that there's a character in the film - Watanabe's - who quickly advises the military types about Godzilla's proclivity for helping humans. And I like that not everyone immediately thinks he's insane. But again, Godzilla is a great character as portrayed here. His face is surprisingly expressive, as is his body language. He has real personality, even while also being a gigantic, awe-inspiring monster. Kudos to the creature-designers for really nailing it.

For some reason though, Edwards never lets the movie just become the all-out monster vs. monster battle royale that it seems to want to be. He literally cuts away right in the middle of giant monster-fights to check in on the much-less-awesome dramatics of his not-so-great human characters. Once or twice, I'll accept. Build the tension, right. But eventually, I found myself getting actively annoyed with the movie. GODZILLA is exchanging blows with a giant mosquito monster, and we care about anything else at that moment? Show us the fight! Edwards has a bad habit of undercutting the momentum he's deftly built up. The hot air gets let out of this balloon way too often, and it becomes frustrating.

Especially given how fun and cool some of those big fights are (when we actually get to see them). I do think that Edwards's tendency to shoot things from a human level adds something to the proceedings. There is that sense of awe and wonder as we see these creatures appear, destroy, and battle, that, again, both pays homage to the fun of the Toho originals, but also feels like something new. My one complaint: as great as the Godzilla creature-design is, I wish that the other monsters were equally as memorable. They do feel a little blah as compared to the fantastically-realized Godzilla.

I think I enjoyed the idea of this GODZILLA a lot more than the actual execution. A dark, mythic, huge-scale parable that took the material seriously? Yes, please. All of the trailers for this film had me utterly convinced that it was going to kick all manner of ass. But as I sat through it, the sort of darkly clinical coldness that was evident in the trailers never faltered or broke. The result is a movie whose execution oddly mirrors its own narrative: in the film, Godzilla gets little love from the fearful humans, and on a meta-level, the movie just won't cede the spotlight to its true star, instead force-feeding us half-baked Spielbergian character drama that totally underwhelms given the awesomeness that we know is occurring just off-screen. I'm not asking for some Michael Bay-esque f/x orgy. I'm just saying that if you're going to do the slow-burn, than that burn had better be interesting, and it had better result in a worthwhile payoff. GODZILLA is well worth checking out, if only because its best moments - that superbly-crafted Cranston opening, the big reveals of Godzilla and the other monsters (or "mutos" in the film's vernacular) - are really, really good. But the rest feels less like necessary narrative and meaty character drama, and more like plain ol' filler. I get it, lots of people are inclined to love this movie because it "gets" Godzilla and does right by the character. And that it does, and for that it deserves much credit. But doing right by a character does not, in and of itself, a great movie make. This one re-establishes Godzilla as The King of All Monsters, no question. But it is not, sadly, The King of All Monster Movies.

My Grade: B

Monday, June 2, 2014

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST Is Rapid-Fire Comedy That (Mostly) Hits the Mark


- I know that Seth MacFarlane's humor isn't for everyone. Honestly, it works for me about 60% of the time, and bombs the other 40%. To me, MacFarlane deservedly gets flack for going to the pop-culture reference well way too much, treating the mere reference to some beloved or not-so-beloved piece of pop ephemera as a joke in and of itself ("Hey, remember The Goonies?"). And there is some of that in his first feature-film starring vehicle, A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST. But those who slam the movie just because they've jumped on the MacFarlane-ain't-funny bandwagon are selling the film way short. The fact is, the movie is pretty consistently hilarious, and not only that, but there's just a great overall production sensibility at work here. The movie is shot well, looks great, and has an excellent score. It's a labor of love from a guy who clearly has a soft spot for movie Westerns. What MacFarlane needs most is an editor. Someone to cut out the jokes that cross the line from funny to just poor taste, that are ill-advised. MacFarlane walks a tightrope - a lot of times, you sort of see what he's going for, but he gets lazy and doesn't really give us a true joke around some of the low-hanging fruit material. But when he's on his game, and really sets up and pays off jokes well, you've got to give the guy credit - he is capable of creating material that, at its best, is funny-as-hell.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE follows MacFarlane as Albert, a meek sheep-farmer in the Old West. Albert is despondent after his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) breaks up with him, but he quickly has bigger problems to deal with when he runs afoul of Louie's new boyfriend Foy (a hilarious Neil Patrick Harris). The mustachioed Foy challenges Albert to a shoot-out that the hapless Albert is doomed to lose. His only hope lies with a strange woman who's come to town - Anna (Charlize Theron) - a crack-shot gunfighter who is, unbeknownst to Albert, married (against her will) to the ruthless outlaw Clinch (Liam Neeson). Soon enough, Albert has to deal not just with Foy, but also with the stone-cold Clinch and his gang - even as he develops feelings for Anna.

The story here is really just a backdrop by which to satire the absurdly kill-or-be-killed nature of the Wild West and Western movies. MacFarlane's Albert is pretty much just a Seth MacFarlane proxy - a modern, self-aware, slightly-neurotic guy who would probably be much happier in our modern world of iPhones, self-help, and online-dating than he is in the surival-of-the-fittest Old West. The big joke here is just how easy it is to die in the West - if some disease or other random natural danger doesn't get you, then some asshole with a gun most assuredly will. In the movie, people get crushed by giant blocks of ice, get burned to a crisp by faulty camera-flashes, and get gored by runaway bulls. And shot. A lot of people get shot.

I think some will just inherently dislike, or not get, the way that MacFarlane has his Old West characters speak with a mix of period-appropriate dialogue and 21st-century slang and self-referential humor - with MacFarlane's Albert pretty much playing the part of a dude from 2014 who all but wakes up and finds himself in the 1880's. But the aesthetic lends itself to some really funny moments. That said, MacFarlane as a live-action actor isn't the most magnetic on-screen personality ever seen. His distinct voice is great for animation, but his mannerisms and facial expressions seem not-quite-expressive-enough for comedy, save for the sorts of deadpan sarcasm that characters like Brian the Dog on Family Guy are known for. That said, MacFarlane is what he is, and his character here is fine for what it's meant to be. He doesn't need to be Gene Wilder, and the character doesn't demand it.

Like I said, some jokes fall flat because they aren't really jokes. Cameos that are just there for the sake of producing a quick WTF-worthy moment. Race jokes that don't say anything except reinforcing played-out stereotypes. But luckily, those sorts of whiffs are the exception and not the rule. There are a ton of very, very funny gags. And the supporting cast is filled with A-plus players like NPH, Sarah Silverman, and others who knock their lines out of the park. Silverman as a prostitute saving herself for marriage (but only with her fiance, played to great comedic effect by Giovanni Ribisi), is a scene-stealer. And Neil Patrick Harris just owns every scene he's in, culminating in his big musical number, "The Mustache Song" which is an instant-classic. MacFarlane, on Family Guy and other projects, has always had a real knack for funny and catchy comedic songs, and this one, too, is really great.

Personally, I'm a fan of rapid-fire film comedies, and I dig what MacFarlane is trying to do here. The obvious comparison is Blazing Saddles, although Million Ways has, of course, a much different sensibility and aesthetic. And yet, the DNA here is definitely semi-shared with the likes of Mel Brooks, the Zucker Bros., etc. What MacFarlane does that reminds me of Brooks is that he really does pay homage to the genre that he's parodying. Like I said, the film has a lot of great shots and moments that tip the ol' hat to classic Westerns, and it really does look pretty fantastic and cinematic for a comedy. And the score is really excellent - a big, broad, Disney-fied version of a classic Western score - totally catchy and memorable.

Overall, I consider A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST a win for Seth MacFarlane and team. There are a couple misfires in the movie that will give ammunition to his detractors, but there are so many jokes that kill that, for me, I came away happy that we've got this comedic voice doing these kinds of comedies. And I hope that we see more from MacFarlane like this. The guy can be frustrating, because it feels like he's not great at reigning in his worst comedic instincts, so you have to take the good with the bad. But let's face it, most comedies of this ilk - even the great ones - have some jokes that miss the mark. But ultimately, I was laughing pretty damn consistently through the duration of the film, and was really impressed with the sharpness of the vast majority of the jokes. All of the fun Wild West trimmings didn't hurt either. I say ignore the critics on this one - if you dig Family Guy, Ted, or other MacFarlane-created comedy, you will find a lot to like here.

My Grade: B+