Reel Opinions

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West

In 2013, Seth MacFarlane proved that he had no place hosting the Oscars.  Now, just one year later, he proves he has no place serving as a leading man in a movie.  A Million Ways to Die in the West seems to realize this, so it surrounds his performance with an interesting cast that includes the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman.  That's Step 1.  The movie fails to reach Step 2, which is to give that cast something to do.

This is a lumbering and deadly dull vanity project that MacFarlane not only stars in, but also directs, co-wrote, and produced.  After the surprise smash success of his 2012 feature, Ted, the studio obviously gave him free reign to make any kind of movie he wanted.  As so often happens under these circumstances, the project seems to have gotten out of control.  Something tells me those reigns will be a little tighter the next time MacFarlane wants to make a movie.  As a comedy, it's largely charmless and seldom funny.  It tries to be "shocking" by showing us graphic close ups of sheep sexual organs, and the sight of a man violating another man's cowboy hat by dropping a load of the brown stuff inside it.  Again, I say that's Step 1.  A better movie would have thought of something clever or funny to do with these images.

The plot is set in a frontier town in Arizona in 1882.  Our hero is Albert (MacFarlane), a timid sheep rancher who hates the Old West, and can never seem to shut up about how much he hates it.  As the title suggests, the frontier is a dangerous place, with everything from wild animals to deadly anal diseases trying to kill you.  Albert does not belong in the Old West, and MacFarlane's performance does not belong in this movie.  He comes across as being too smug to be playing a mild mannered guy.  He looks and talks like a Hollywood power broker who just got out of a meeting, slipped on a cowboy hat, and wandered onto the set of the movie when the cameras started rolling.  His decision to cast himself in the lead role is a grievous misstep that the film never recovers from.

Early on, Albert is dumped by his girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), who leaves him for a mustached fop named Foy (Neil Patrick Harris, energetic here, but not given much to work with).  Albert mopes around a lot over his broken heart, until a mysterious new beauty named Anna (Charlize Theron) rides into town.  She takes an instant liking to the guy, starts working on building his confidence, and even teaches him how to shoot a gun, since it turns out she's a pretty skilled crack shot.  Of course she is, because Anna happens to be married to the meanest gunslinger in the West, Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson).  When Clinch rides into town and discovers someone has been getting close to his woman, he goes all out to challenge Albert to a gun duel.

A Million Ways to Die in the West tries to stretch out its flimsy premise with a number of celebrity cameos, the best of which has already been spoiled by the film's ad campaign.  This is a bad move on the part of the publicity department, as it ruins one of the few genuine surprises the film holds. The rest of the movie is torturously tedious, as it slogs through familiar territory of Albert slowly becoming more sure of himself, and falling in love with the beautiful Anna.  There are even long stretches where McFarlane seems to forget that he's making a comedy, and tries his luck at making a serious Western.  To be fair, the movie is beautifully shot.  But it's hard to care about that when there's little interesting going on in front of those picturesque landscapes.

There is some potential for laughs, but the movie kills it by repeating the same jokes and ideas over and over.  For example, the first time we're introduced to Albert's best friend, Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), and we learn that his prostitute fiance (Sarah Silverman) has sex with dozens of men every day, yet refuses to let her husband have sex with her until their wedding night ("because she's a Christian"), I smiled.  But the movie doesn't go any further than that with the characters, or the idea.  It just repeats the gag again each time we see them.  But the laziest part of the film is that it doesn't even really bother to go after the Western genre or its cliches.  The movie is really just a random series of gags and toilet humor set before an Old West backdrop.  The thing that made something like Blazing Saddles work is that it had a satirical target and an agenda.  It had something it wanted to poke fun at.  MacFarlane doesn't have a target, so the jokes seem aimless.

At nearly two hours in length, A Million Ways to Die in the West is not just a joke stretched too far, it's a joke that's not even funny to begin with stretched too far.  MacFarlane has done better, and will likely get the chance to do better again.  This feels like the kind of project where nobody bothered to stop and ask the guy behind it, "Are you sure this is such a good idea?"

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Friday, May 30, 2014


In Maleficent, Disney's animated Sleeping Beauty becomes the latest popular piece of fiction to go through a role reversal, in which we discover the story we thought we knew didn't go exactly as has been told.  Much like the novel and Broadway musical Wicked took the Wicked Witch of Oz and made her a sympathetic heroine, this movie takes the titular villain character from the earlier film, and tries to give her a complex personality that holds a lust for revenge, and a heart that is broken, but still in tact in some form.

The attempt is largely successful, thanks mostly to the efforts of the film's star, Angelina Jolie.  One only needs to see the publicity photos of her in costume to know that she has the look of the character down perfectly.  But when you actually see the performance, it all comes together.  She is mesmerizing here, giving her dialogue more weight and context with her calm yet commanding presence than the script probably intends.  It's the kind of performance that you associate an actor with, and I'm sure it will create a number of new, young fans for Jolie.  Considering that this is her first major role in years, it marks a wonderful and much overdue return to the spotlight.  Jolie is also credited as an Executive Producer, so I don't know if she was attached to the project early on, or if she came on after it started development, and helped spearhead it.  Whatever the case, her involvement was a brilliant move.

The Maleficent portrayed here is different from the one made famous in the animated film.  Yes, she still makes her dramatic entrance at the ceremony celebrating the birth of the Princess Aurora.  And also like before, she places a curse upon the child that on her 16th birthday, she will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel, and fall into a "sleep-like death".  In fact, that whole scene is almost recreated word-for-word from the 1959 movie.  But this picture allows us the pleasure of seeing what happened before that.  In the opening moments, we see Maleficent as a small girl (Isobelle Molloy) with large, graceful wings upon her back.  As the child flies high over the kingdom of fairies and other mystical creatures that she calls home, we also get our first glimpse at the uneven special effects work.  Some of them, such as when young Maleficent takes flight, are breathtaking.  Other effects shots, such as some of the creatures and fairies that also inhabit the enchanted woods, veer more to the side of the uncomfortable "Uncanny Valley", and just don't look quite right.

We learn that Maleficent's forest kingdom is separate from the ones of humans nearby, and that no mortal has set foot within the woods for years.  That all changes when a young boy named Stefan (Michael Higgins) wanders within, and is charmed by the graceful fairy child.  Over time, the two grew close, and a romance between the two formed.  But, as he grew older, Stefan (now played by Sharlto Copley from District 9) became corrupted by greed and ambition, and stopped visiting Maleficent.  When he returns one day quite suddenly, it seems that he wants to rekindle his relationship with the fairy Maleficent.  However, he drugs her and cuts off her wings in an attempt to prove himself worthy of the throne, and strong enough to fight against the mystical creatures that most of the humans fear.  Stefan is crowned king, and Maleficent, in a bitter rage over the loss of her wings, plots her revenge, leading to the famous scene.

From here, Maleficent takes some interesting changes from the story we know.  When the cursed Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) is sent to live in a cottage in the woods with three absent-minded fairies acting as her guardians, Maleficent finds her quickly, and begins to watch over her.  Aurora mistakes her for a fairy godmother, which creates a complex relationship between the two.  Over time, Maleficent grows attached to the young girl, and begins to regret her own actions.  In another unique twist, Aurora's father, King Stefan, slowly drifts into madness, obsessed with revenge.  It adds a darker element than we might expect to the film, but not so much that the movie will frighten young children.  Both of these plot points are intriguing ideas, and I truly wish the movie had taken more time to fully explore them.  But at only 95 minutes, there's just not enough time, unfortunately.

This is tied into the biggest problem I have, which is that it feels like large chunks of the film are missing or edited out in order to give it a leaner running time.  Watching the movie, you can't help but feel that it was originally much longer, especially since some ideas or character motivations don't make as much sense as they should.  With so many bloated summer blockbusters pushing past two hours, this would normally be pretty admirable.  But, in all truthfulness, this is the rare instance where I actually wanted the movie to be longer.  In its current form, it flows very well, and an added half hour or so would not only help explain some things, but would have only deepened the story it was trying to tell.  While it hasn't been edited to the point that the story is incoherent, it still feels incomplete in some way.

Still, there is a lot to enjoy here, outside of Jolie's lead performance.  The fantasy world is quite well-realized by first-time director, Robert Stromberg, and is one of the few recent cinematic fantasy worlds that doesn't feel like it was ripped off of Peter Jackson's interpretation of Middle Earth.  The twists that this film adds to the story we know are quite successful and fun to watch as they unfold.  And even if they could have been fleshed out more, they're still compelling.  Also compelling is the dark and appropriately menacing tone of the film.  Even if the character of Maleficent has been softened somewhat, there is still a very sharp edge, one that portrays a power that could be unleashed at any moment.  While there are moments of comic relief (mostly supplied by the three tiny fairies that act as Aurora's guardians), the movie does take itself seriously enough that older teens and adults can enjoy the film.

Really, it's the older teens and young adults who really seem to be the main market for Maleficent.  Not that kids won't find enough to like.  But I think the complex spin that Jolie gives to the classic Disney villain here is going to surprise a lot of people, and that they're going to be sucked in by more than just the visuals.  This is ultimately what saves the film from becoming just another forgettable summer spectacle.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Railway Man

Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man put me through a wide range of emotions.  I was involved, heartbroken, angry, and ultimately joyous as the film drew to a close.  This is a wonderful film based on a true story so good, I'm surprised it wasn't adapted into a movie sooner.  At least it has now, and the wait has most certainly been worth it.

Colin Firth stars and gives a riveting performance as Eric Lomax, a meek and quiet man whose main love in life happens to be trains.  But then, one day, he meets a woman (on a train, naturally) who opens his heart for the first time.  She is Patti (Nicole Kidman, charming and fragile here), and there is an instant connection.  The opening 15 or 20 minutes of the film is fairly lighthearted, and if you knew nothing about the film walking in, you might think you were watching a charming British romance story.  Little by little, however, Patti (and we the audience) discover that Eric is hiding and battling some very powerful personal demons that stem from his time as a POW in a Japanese prison camp, during his time as a young man in the British military in World War II.

At first, Eric refuses to share any of his story with his new wife, wanting to leave the past behind him.  But he keeps on being haunted by hallucinations of his former tormentors, and even strikes out violently at innocent people.  As Patti digs into her husband's past by speaking to some of his former military friends who were in the camp along with him, the film's second plot begins, and we flashback to when Eric is a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine).  When he and his fellow soldiers are captured during the height of the war, they are sent by train to a prison camp in Thailand.  There, they are faced with brutal working conditions by the Japanese soldiers who run the camp.  In order to keep up the morale of his fellow prisoners, Eric gets the idea to build a radio out of stolen mechanical parts, so that he can listen to broadcasts from the BBC about the progress of the war.

Eventually, the radio is discovered, and the Japanese soldiers believe that it is a device that Eric and his fellow prisoners are using to communicate with the enemy.  Eric tries to tell them that the device can only receive signals, not send them out.  The prison guards do not believe him, and force him to endure a variety of different tortures in order to get the answer they want to hear out of him.  These scenes are harrowing and brutal, and it brings forth a tricky question for us, the audience, once the flashbacks end, and we return to the main story - What do we want Eric to do when he discovers that his main tormentor from the camp is still alive, and living a happy and normal life?  How does Eric want to confront this when his past is literally standing right in front of him, and most importantly, how do we want him to confront it?

The Railway Man forces us to face Eric's pain and torment head-on, so that when he sees the man he associates with his anguish leading a group of tourists on a tour of an attraction, we feel just as enraged as he must at first.  The man in question is Takeshi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), and when the two men do finally meet face-to-face, it does not take Takeshi long for him to remember who Eric is, and what he has come for.  The tension in these final scenes are some of the most palpable as I have found in any film so far this year.  When the movie does arrive at its outcome, it is tricky, and in the wrong hands, could have been deadly.  But Teplitzky finds the right tone, and ends things on just the right note.  I can't really go into any detail, risk of spoiling the ending, but I will say that your enjoyment and suspense will probably be determined by not following the true story of Eric Lomax too closely before watching the film. 

This is a story that easily could have been told through heavy melodrama, and while there certainly are some moments of that, the performances of all the actors really do ground the film in a sense of reality.  The movie really does keep on finding the right tone just about all the way through, so that we are never taken out of the story.  There are also some seriously heartbreaking, yet subtle moments, such as the sequence where we see the young Eric being rescued, returned home a celebrated hero, and then finds his loving mother waiting for him, only for a quick cut to reveal that it was all a dream.  We later learn that when Eric was eventually actually rescued and returned home, his mother was already dead.  This sequence in particular uses little to no dialogue, and is told pretty much entirely through imagery.  It's a powerful moment in a film filled with many.

This is the kind of film you usually see around December, when all the big award hopeful movies hit theaters.  The fact that it's being released this early in the year most likely means that the studio has little faith in it.  That's a shame, because this truly is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and uplifting film that puts you through the emotional ringer.  When you walk out, you not only want to read Eric Lomax's autobiography that inspired the film, but you also can't help but wonder how you would handle things in his situation.

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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Moms' Night Out

I really don't want to be too hard on Moms' Night Out.  It's been made with the best of intentions, and the movie never outright offends.  Heck, I almost want to applaud the film's directors, the Erwin Brothers, for trying something different.  We've had a lot of Christian-centered dramas lately, but this one wants to be a madcap comedy that delivers its faith-based message in a less heavy-handed way.  Unfortunately, an overall lack of energy works against whatever good will it creates.

The template for the film's premise is obviously the 80s cult classic, Adventures in Babysitting.  Or, if you want a more recent example, look at Date Night with Steve Carell and Tina Fey.  Just like those films, this one centers on a small group of characters who are out on the town, and everything that could go wrong ultimately does.  Those movies worked because of their escalating situations they put their characters through.  This is exactly where Moms' Night Out falls flat.  The adventures that the three moms at the center of the film have are just not crazy or exciting enough.  They go to fancy restaurants, shady tattoo parlors, and even end up spending the night at a police station, but nothing really happens to them at these places.  It also doesn't help that none of the three main moms (and a fourth young mom who joins up with them along the way) are all that interesting to start with.

Our lead mom is Allyson (Sarah Drew from TV's Grey's Anatomy), an overworked mom with three unruly kids, and a husband (Sean Astin) who genuinely loves her, but seldom is there to help out, since he travels a lot for his job.  Allyson writes a "mommy blog", where she gets to vent about her frustrations and thoughts on motherhood.  This allows her to write such nuggets of wisdom like, "If at first you don't succeed, have a piece of cake, and then try again".  Regardless, Allyson still feels like she is trapped in her life.  She desperately needs a night out, and arranges that she, her best friend Izzy (Andrea Logan White), and the wife of the local pastor, Sondra (Patricia Heaton), hit the town, while their respective husbands watch over the kids for the night.

The night kicks off with the three friends arriving at a trendy restaurant, where they think they have a reservation, only to be turned away by the snooty woman working at the check in desk.   Next, they head to a nearby bowling alley, where the moms get wrapped up in the cause of a young mother who works there named Bridget (Abbie Cobb).  It seems that Bridget has left her baby in the care of a friend, only to have that friend leave the tyke behind with a biker named Bones (country singer Trace Adkins) who works at a tattoo parlor.  They track down Bones, but he doesn't have the baby either.  The remainder of the night turns into a mad dash to find the missing baby.  As for the husbands, their adventures with the kids involve a Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant, a trip to the hospital, and an unruly pet bird that's escaped from its cage.

Moms' Night Out should be energetic and frantic, but its far too mellow for that.  It's like the movie is constantly afraid to truly cut loose.  There are some potentially funny situations, but they either don't quite come together, or they seem muted.  If you're going to make a movie like this, where things get increasingly manic, you can't really hold yourself back.  And that's just what the screenplay constantly does.  This movie's idea of a gag is to have the pastor's wife get caught holding a bunch of beer bottles that she was clearing away, so that someone sees her holding them, and automatically assumes there's some kind of scandal.  The moms (who are supposed to be close friends) never quite form a tight on-screen relationship.  As for the husbands, they're the sitcom types who suddenly become incompetent around children the very second the women aren't around.

The one character in the film who does stand out, and works as the film intends, is the character of Bones, who gets more involved with the situation of the missing baby as the night goes on.  Trace Adkins' performance finds the right approach of low key humor, as well as genuine emotion.  When he gets to deliver the film's moral and faith-based message to Allyson in a late scene, he sells it without being preachy or hitting the audience over the head.  Bones is the one character who grabbed my attention, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he is not written as a cliche, and actually possesses a personality.  This proves that the writers do know how to make a likable character, they just chose not to with their main ones, for whatever reason.

Moms' Night Out is worth the occasional chuckle, but it's not very memorable, and never quite builds to what it could have been.  Maybe the family-friendly tone kind of holds the movie back.  This should have been a lot crazier and much more raucous.  But at the same time, just because the movie wants to be for families and teach a moral lesson at the end, that doesn't mean it has to be so bland.

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During a recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel's talk show, Adam Sandler more or less admitted that most of his recent films are essentially paid vacations for himself.  Hey, I don't blame the guy.  I can see the appeal in shooting in exotic locations, and he's probably smart to exploit the opportunity.  But is it too much for me to ask that the film contain an actual plot and interesting characters, so it doesn't feel like I'm watching highly paid actors on vacation?

Blended doesn't try very hard to hide that it essentially is a holiday for everyone involved.  It's harmless I guess, but it's also very dumb and not that fun to watch.  The movie re-teams Sandler with Drew Barrymore, whom he worked very well with in two of his previous films - 1998's The Wedding Singer, and 2004's 50 First Dates.  They still show some on-screen charm here, but it is drowned out by the fact that they are barely playing characters here.  We basically are watching Sandler and Barrymore goofing around in Africa.  Their characters stay in a hotel suite that nobody could afford, unless you are a movie star like they are, tour picturesque landscapes and ride on ostriches.  Along the way, we are supposed to be delighted that they are growing closer together, and gradually fall in love.  I found myself not caring much, because the movie was too busy acting as a travelogue, rather than building a genuine relationship between these two characters.

When we first meet Jim (Sandler) and Lauren (Barrymore), they are on a disastrous blind date where it is obvious that they are completely wrong for each other.  The scene feels awkward, because it forces Jim to act like such a jerk for no reason.  Not only does he pick a Hooter's restaurant for their date spot, but he also drinks Lauren's beer when she's away in the bathroom.  We know that Jim is not really like this, since they're obviously going to get together by the end of the film.  Turns out Jim is a nice guy.  He even later on reveals a sentimental reason as to why he picked Hooter's as their date spot.  Why he didn't choose to tell Lauren this on the night of the date itself is total contrivance, as is the reason behind his sentimental attachment to the restaurant.  Anyway, Jim is a widower with three girls, and Lauren is divorced from a cheating slimeball (Joel McHale, who is funny on TV, but never seems to be funny in movies) and is raising two young boys.  The date ends badly, with the two vowing never to want to see each other again.

But fate (and the hokey screenplay they're stuck in) keeps on bringing them together.  Through circumstances too complicated to explain, both Jim and Lauren's families ultimately wind up taking the same luxury African vacation, staying at the same resort, and even the same room.  The parents resist any kind of connection with each other, but wouldn't you know it, they actually kind of like each other's kids.  Jim teaches one of Lauren's boys how to hit a baseball, while Lauren gives one of Jim's daughters a beauty makeover, and begins to bond with his youngest daughter.  Before long, Jim and Lauren are bonding with each other as well.  This should be sweet, but in all honesty, I was never able to detect much of a heart behind the film.  Romantic comedies depend solely on the notion that we want to see the two main characters get together.  But since Blended never gives a reason for Jim and Lauren to get together, other than they're lonely single parents, I found myself not really caring about the inevitable outcome.

That doesn't exactly mean that Sandler and Barrymore are bad in their roles, or have no chemistry together.  On the contrary, they're quite likable.  But nice is the only thing these two have going for each other this time around.  The past two movies they starred in together, they were able to create likable relationships that carried through the films.  Here, they seem to be going through the motions, trying desperately to rekindle their past cinematic spark, but not quite hitting the mark.  The jokes that they are given to work with do little to help.  They mostly revolve around pratfalls, or cute comments by the kids.  Speaking of the kids, one of the more curious running gags is that whenever Sandler's youngest daughter wants something, she suddenly talks in a very deep, evil-sounding voice.  Why, you may find yourself asking?  The movie never explains.  It's just a very odd moment that makes no sense.

Blended obviously wants us to fall in love with it and its characters, but it doesn't make the slightest effort to allow us to do so.  It seems to think it's enough to just coast by on the chemistry of the two stars who created a likable connection two times before.  Should Sandler and Barrymore team up again, I'm all for it.  Just spend less time picking an exotic location to shoot, and more time doctoring the script.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

So, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the third Marvel Comics film we've had in a little over a month.  Could this lead to some possible over-saturation, and in turn to audiences being burned out on superheroes?  I hope not, because X-Men, simply put, is a blast.  The first summer blockbuster that truly fires on all cylinders.  Not only that, it's probably the first movie of the summer that I'll still be thinking about when Fall rolls around.

If Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a 70s paranoia thriller ramped up as a modern day event movie, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a garden variety, just barely passable "superhero flick", then the latest entry in the long-running saga of Marvel's mutants can best be described as an intelligent Sci-Fi story that is brilliantly executed with a complex but not bewildering plot, as well as a genuine interest in the ideas its premise brings forth.  While it does have its big action set pieces, many of them are laced with a certain grim certainty, rather than the roller coaster action we might expect.  The stakes are high this time around, and the movie is smart to treat it as such.  The battles are cold and sometimes terrifying, not escapism, while the plot is gripping and often intense.  Will this hurt the film's chances at the box office, and turn off those looking for some escapism during their Memorial Day weekend?  I hope not.

The plot kicks off in a bleak and desolate future (Is there any other kind of future in the movies these days?), where mutants and their human allies are hunted down and mercilessly slaughtered by massive robots called Sentinels.  The film's opening battle sequence between a small band of the X-Men against the towering destroyers sets up the tone the rest of the film will take.  The heroes seem to be fighting a useless battle.  The machines can adapt and change their abilities, and we see the heroes not only fighting to survive, but failing as well.  There is, however, one last hope.  The wise Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) comes up with a plan to send one of the X-Men back into the past, and hopefully prevent the Sentinels from being made.  The man chosen for the job is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).  He subconsciously travels back in time to 1973, in order to unite the younger Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and have them work together for the cause of saving the future.

The mission centers around the shapeshifting mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who during a fateful day in this timeline will murder the inventor of the Sentinels, Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage).  Little does she realize, her actions will only result in her capture, and scientists experimenting on her mutant abilities in order to make the Sentinels as powerful as they are in the future.  So, the goal is to prevent Mystique from killing Trask.  The problem that arises is that everyone has a different view on how it should be done.  Xavier would like nothing more than to bring Mystique back to his side, and work together to build a better future.  Magneto, however, sees the only option being that Mystique must die in order to change the course of the future.  With Wolverine trapped in the middle, trying to sort everything out, it's clear that his mission will be not just about saving the future, but also in getting these two powerful minds that stand beside him to see a common means to the goal.

To call X-Men: Days of Future Past complicated, maybe even convoluted, would be correct.  But the movie never gets bogged down in explaining itself, as an inferior Sci-Fi story built around time travel would.  Much like last weekend's Godzilla, I appreciated the dire and appropriately serious mood that the movie tackles its situation.  This movie handles it much better, though.  Unlike the giant monster film, I actually cared about the characters at the center of the story.  Of course, it helps that these characters and the actors playing them have had 14 years and 5 films (not counting the two Wolverine spin offs) to build and develop.  One of the neat tricks this entry pulls off is how it kind of brings the entire series up to this point together.  There are not only throwbacks, but also some surprise cameos for fans to look out for.  Given that one of the main purposes of this film is to bring the whole series together, it's only fitting that the original director, Bryan Singer, return.

Most importantly, Singer and his screenwriters are not just making a standard "good vs. evil" storyline here.  Everybody has some logical motive behind their actions, even the scientist who builds the Sentinels in the first place.  What's interesting is that the movie tries to see every side of the action, so we can sympathize with just about everyone who plays a major part in the story.  Not only does this make for a more interesting comic book movie, it generally makes for a better and more thought out one.  Don't get me wrong, this approach wouldn't work for every comic book movie.  I don't exactly want to delve into the deep thoughts of the Green Goblin when he's launching pumpkin bombs at Spidey, for example.  But here it works, because the X-Men have always been about tolerance, acceptance, and seeing the situation from all sides.  Those who stand against the heroes have just as much of a reason to fight as they do.  I think this simple ideal comes across strongest here than it ever has.

Even if I do feel the film ran a little long, this is still the best entertainment I've seen so far this summer.  It not only manages to hit just about every note right, but it even manages to fix a few wrong notes that some of the past films hit.  That's one nice thing about time travel plots - You can change things from past entries that did not sit well with fans.  I truly hope this movie doesn't get overlooked during this blockbuster season, and that audiences aren't feeling bombarded by superheroes already.  Days of Future Past is truly a must see in an early summer that has largely been disappointing.

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Saturday, May 17, 2014

Million Dollar Arm

As Million Dollar Arm started to play out, I was enjoying myself.  I found Jon Hamm to be a likable Hollywood lead, and I was looking forward to seeing where his character and his story would go.  A little over an hour into the film, I found myself still waiting for the story to grip me.  By that time, the reality was starting to sink in that this was going to be a very by the numbers "true story" film that had some charm, but largely was written to be as cliched and as inoffensive as possible.

Don't get me wrong, I have no delusions that every movie needs to be a masterpiece of originality in order to work.  I have enjoyed many a movie that I have been able to predict its plot point by point.  All I ask is that the characters are at least likable, and that the writing show a bit of spark or intelligence.  Million Dollar Arm has plenty of likability, but the script and the story its trying to tell never engages.  That's because its been written completely by the book of the underdog sports movie formula.  It never once diverts from the norm, and buries its potentially gripping story underneath a lot of forced charm and cliches.  For whatever reason, the filmmakers did not trust that they had a fascinating sports story, and instead try to make it like every other movie just like it.  This is the film's fatal flaw, and what ultimately prevented me from fully enjoying it.

Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a down on his luck sports agent who just lost his last big potential client, and now faces financial ruin unless he can come up with a brilliant idea.  While flipping channels between a cricket game and a TV talent show, J.B. has a brainstorm - He will fly to India and host a contest called "Million Dollar Arm", where they will hold open auditions for cricket players who can pitch fast enough to possibly play in Major League Baseball back in the States.  In India, he enlists the help of a grumpy old talent scout (Alan Arkin, who more or less has the lock on "grumpy old men" roles these days), and after countless tryouts, he selects two possible candidates - Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma).  He brings them back to the States, where they can be trained by the noble coach Tom House (Bill Paxton).  Tom has his doubts that he can shape these two young men into professional baseball players in less than a year, but seeing that this is a sports movie being released by the Disney Studio, the audience doesn't exactly share his concern.

I liked all of these characters, and I really wanted to know a lot more about them, but that's just where this movie goes wrong.  It never truly allows us to get to know these characters.  What do the two potential ballplayers from India think about being uprooted from their homes, leaving their families, and training for a game they know little about?  This movie doesn't much care.  Heck, here's an even better question - What do they think of America?  Aside from a couple cute and contrived scenes where they mess around with technology and discover pizza for the first time, the script largely leaves it up to our imaginations.  We don't even really get to see their progress in playing baseball, as they seem to play entirely by how the script determines they should.  If they're supposed to play bad, they can hardly seem to throw the ball.  If they're required to play good, they're suddenly throwing fast balls that would make any professional pitcher envious.  These characters are completely at the mercy of the plot, and react as they are expected to.

The character of J.B. also goes through a radical change, going from a cold cynic who only cares about business deals, to becoming a much warmer personality who tells his two prospects not to worry about making it to the Majors, and just have fun.  Jon Hamm plays the character well enough, and he's more than capable of carrying the film.  Once again, the fault lies in the script, which refuses to make him a relatable or interesting individual.  His change in attitude feels cold and calculated, as does the romantic subplot he shares with the woman who lives nearby his home (Lake Bell).  Everything he does and says is in the service of the predetermined plot.  Nobody in this movie says anything that isn't important to moving things along, and nobody is allowed to have a thought unless it is related to the story at hand.

Why do this?  The movie has a lot of potential for working as a fish out of water story, first when J.B. is visiting India, and then when he brings his two potential clients home.  This could have been interesting, or at least led to some genuinely funny or heartwarming scenes.  Instead, everything feels plotted and mechanical.  I wanted to fall under this movie's spell, I really did.  I wanted to fall in love with these characters, and have my heart leap or sink with each victory or defeat they come across.  But, the movie's reluctance to stray from its rigid formula prevented me.  The real life people that these characters are based on obviously have fascinating stories to tell about their experiences together.  Why not exploit this, instead of giving us a generic feel-good movie?

Million Dollar Arm, I must be honest, did manage to work with me up to a point.  It was only when we were  a good hour into the film, and I realized I still knew next to nothing about these people that my heart started to sink and never recover.  This is a film that easily could have been uplifting and heartwarming, if only the filmmakers telling it believed in the story, rather than in making just another assembly line product.

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Friday, May 16, 2014


The last time Hollywood tried to turn Godzilla into a big summer event movie, it was 1998, and audiences were rightfully not impressed.  Rather than repeat the mistakes of that film, director Gareth Edwards has given us a movie that pays homage to the earlier entries in the series, and offers enough genuine thrills to work.  Just don't put too much thought into the film, ignore the mostly ineffective human cast, and focus on the giant battling monsters, and you're pretty sure to have a great time.

One of the interesting aspects of the story is how it treats Godzilla almost like a natural disaster.  Humanity can prepare and issue warnings all it wants, but when the big guy comes stomping into town to battle some giant insects that are also wreaking havoc on major cities like Las Vegas or San Francisco, there's very little people can do.  The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of the tiny people running away at the feet of the giant monsters.  Therefore, Godzilla and the monsters he fights largely remain a mystery to us.  Godzilla is described by one character as an "alpha predator", who emerges whenever some kind of radioactive monster shows up to disrupt the balance of Earth.  Of course, in order to restore that balance, he has to level most of the area he's trying to save.  In one priceless shot late in the film, we see Godzilla making his way across a city to the ocean, with the media dubbing him a hero, and savior of the city.  All I could notice was the fact that Godzilla was heading right for a densely populated roadway.  We don't get to see if he just walked through all those cars making their way across, or if he was polite enough to step over them.

Another interesting aspect is that we don't actually get to see the lizard until about an hour or so of the film has passed.  The movie does a good job of building suspense, and creating a certain sense of menace in its early moments, so there's at least something to hold our interest before the giant monster battles we've paid to see start to flare up.  In the film's prologue, set 15 years ago, a nuclear power plant in Japan is under siege from mysterious tremors that are too regular and frequent to be earthquakes.  An American couple working at the plant, Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) investigate the situation, and after a particularly tragic outcome for many working at the plant, Joe makes it his personal mission to uncover the conspiracy of what exactly happened at the plant that day.

In the present, the Brodys' now-adult son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself in a similar situation.  But this time, it goes beyond bizarre tremors.  A massive insect-like creature referred to as a MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) is unleashed in Japan, and begins to make its way toward America, where another similar MUTO has risen in the deserts of Nevada.  As the military scrambles its men, a stone-faced Japanese scientist (Ken Watanbe) warns that it won't be enough, and is the first to point out that there is already a third creature that has been awakened by the presence of the MUTOs.   That would be Godzilla, of course.  The scientist's recommendation on what they should do?  Let Godzilla handle the giant bugs, and stay the hell out of his way, more or less.

Of course, the military doesn't listen.  Of course they try to battle the MUTOs on their own.  And of course, they also try to attack Godzilla when he rises from the ocean depths.  The military is never allowed to be smart in a giant monster movie.  We get a couple human-related subplots while all the giant monster action is going on, mostly involving Ford and his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young child.  Sadly, outside of Bryan Cranston's character and performance, I never really felt emotionally involved with any of the human characters.  None of them annoyed me, really.  The actors are simply given little to work with.  At least they are adept at reacting to the monsters battling each other, which really is the most important job they have.  Speaking of the characters, I am grateful that everybody does take the impending threat of the monsters seriously.  There is no "comic relief" character spouting one-liners to lighten the mood for the audience.  For this, I am grateful.

I actually enjoyed the serious and somber mood that Godzilla creates.  It doesn't once try to be campy or cute, and it more or less comes across as a natural disaster survival film, with giant CG monsters in the middle of it.  I understand if the idea of the approach makes you laugh, but the movie pulls it off.  The monster battles themselves are spectacular, and clear enough to see, even though the film does unfortunately choose to shoot most of its big action sequences at night, or in the middle of pouring rain.  Most of all, when we do see Godzilla in action, or even just moving, he looks and feels right.  In the 98 film, he was just a generic and very uninteresting CG creature.  Here, the filmmakers have found a way to modernize his look, while at the same time, making him look like a natural upgrade from the earlier design.  He is an impressive sight.

Some viewers and critics complain that you don't get to see enough of Godzilla in the movie, and while it may be true, I do think the movie hides him in a skillful and tactful way.  It creates a sense of awe and mystery during its build up, and when he finally is revealed, we are genuinely excited.  Show him too much, and he loses a lot of his power.  Show him too little, and we become bored or restless.  I think the movie reaches the right balance between build up and pay off.  The problem with a lot of recent creature movies is that once the monster is revealed, the filmmakers push him in our face, losing much of the wonder and mystery.  This didn't happen for me here.

Could Godzilla have been improved?  Most definitely, particularly by giving it a stronger human cast of characters.  Still, we come for the giant monster fights, and I don't see anyone being disappointed in that regard.  It may not be perfect, but it has plenty of energy, and quite a few thrills too.

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