Welcome to August, the month when studios, having already fired off all their high-profile (not to mention high concept) summer guns, unleash what amounts to their second tier of releases, the stuff that doesn’t automatically trigger broad media attention, things with a more… “culty,” shall we say?… appeal, and things that are, let’s just say it, no durn good. However, since even the big tent-poles can now be somewhat inconsequential in their story-telling and quality (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, anyone?), it’s become less surprising that a dog-day release could have been just as welcome, if not more so, in the weeks preceding.
Such is the case with GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, a fun space adventure based on a Marvel comic book that racked up record box office in its opening week, and earns its goodwill in a number of ways. I take a look at the film in my latest review for Jim Freund’s HOUR OF THE WOLF — click on the player to hear the segment, or right-click on the title to download.
Time is, time was, time’s X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. There were clearly commercial reasons why the latest chapter in the X-MEN franchise had to be a time travel tale: Having previously flubbed the introduction of a new, younger Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the producers clearly wanted to recover a bit of the franchise’s mojo by bringing back the old band — namely Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen under the direction of Bryan Singer (plus Hugh Jackman) — while also trying to finesse the audience into a better appreciation for their replacements. The side benefit is that the time period decided upon for this film has interesting significance for the themes explored in the X-MEN universe. After my quick review of the surprisingly decent MALEFICENT, I turn my attention to what Singer has wrought. Click on the player to hear the review.
The most astoundingly okay movie so far this year – which is apparently all it takes to earn high praise these days
If you want to thrill to the excitement of an astoundingly, supremely, stupendously okay movie, then run – don’t walk – to a theatre showing X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. This film truly has it all: profoundly okay plot; jaw-droppingly okay action sequences; eye-poppingly okay 3D; superbly okay special effects; and amazingly okay acting. It truly is the most finely tuned okay movie of the summer season so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other film surpassing its okay-ness. On the other hand, if you prefer something more than okay, you should stay home and read the film’s reviews instead; there, you will encounter a staggering validation of director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe, an almost universal paen to the best that fantasy cinema has to offer. It seems that, in this case, being okay was not merely enough; it was far more than enough, earning accolades normally reserved for something good, or even great.
Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if the annual build-up to a season’s worth of summer blockbusters has been fraught with terrible disappointments. Sure, there was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but also there was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which was also okay. Even better was GODZILLA, which avoided the overblown bombast of most blockbuster fare. So why is X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST being fanatically embraced for being merely okay?
I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: Brett Ratner. The X-Men tribe has never forgiven Ratner for directing X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), or more precisely, the tribe has never forgiven the film for having been directed by Ratner, who is perceived as an outsider, a hack, who hijacked the franchise and ruined it. By embracing X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the tribe is embracing the return of their tribal elder, Singer, whose helming of the first two X-MEN films (2000’s X-MEN and 2003’s X-2: X-MEN UNITED) – helped elevate the movie franchise somewhat above the standard we had come to expect from cinematic comic book adaptations. (Anybody remember TANK GIRL? No? How about STEEL?).
The problem with film as tribal identifier is that actual quality is often overlooked; flaws that would have been scorned in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND are blithely overlooked in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. So let’s examine just how okay the new film is, flaws and all.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gets off to an okay start with an okay action sequence, set in a murky future when the X-Men are hunted down by Sentinels (essentially robots). There are some mutants who will be familiar to fans of the comic book, but their presence means little to anyone else, except insofar as we get to glimpse a variety of different superpowers. The most visually impressive of these is Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open portals in space through which she and her fellow warriors can leap.
I say “visually impressive,” because in terms of actual strategy, the power is rather useless. Rather than being transported to safety or some strategically appropriate place, leaping through a portal places someone only a few feet from where they were, and it becomes very quickly clear – to the audience, at least – that any blow struck, weapon thrown, or shot fired will simply follow the fleeing mutant through the portal and strike its target – which is what finally happens when these super-smart Sentinels finally figure out the obvious.
Sharp-eyed viewers with brain cells that can access memories back to 2006 will marvel at the novelty of seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again playing Charles Xaviar and Ian McKellen, former friends turned rival mutant leaders – one peaceful, the other militant. What’s marvelous here is that Xaviar died in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. We knew he would return because, in a post-credits sequence, we heard his disembodied voice emanating from a comatose body in a hospital; however, it was a bit of a surprise to see the same old Xaviar back in the surprise post-credits sequence of THE WOLVERINE – a surprise that, we expected, would be explained in this film. But no, we just have to assume that when Xaviar beamed his mind into that body it took on all the physical characteristics of his old self, including both his mutant powers and his spinal cord injury. It’s a horrible continuity lapse, but that’s okay because it’s perceived as a bit of an f.u. to the events of Ratner’s film.
The next bit of okay-ness involves the plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In order to prevent this terrible future from taking place, the surviving X-Men need to send someone into the past. That someone turns out to be Logan (a.k.a., Wolverine), ostensibly because the character’s healing powers will allow him to make the life-threatening journey, which would kill anyone else, but mostly because everyone knows that Hugh Jackman is the real star of this franchise, and no one wants to sit through another X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, without him. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) will send Logan back in time – which is pretty impressive when you consider that this was not previously Kitty Page’s mutant power. But that’s okay, because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The rules of time travel are laid out well enough, but the logic conforms to standard screenplay myopia: in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event that will spur the Sentinel project into reality – Wolverine travels back to a time just before the assassination. Not, you know, to a time decades before, when he might prevent Mystique from turning to the Dark Side in the first place, because that would derail the whole time-lock plot device of desperately trying to reach her just before she can pull the trigger.
There is one nicely okay quality to Wolverine’s time-jump: selected for his physical resiliency, he really isn’t the right man for the job, which consists of convincing the younger versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr) to put aside the enmity and join forces to prevent the catastrophic consequences that will result from the assassination. A man of action rather than words, Wolverine struggle to play diplomat provide a few nice moments before the character is sidelined – because even though the filmmakers knew they needed to put him in the story, the story isn’t really about him.
It’s also well and truly okay seeing Xavier walking around and feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in self pity over the way things ended between him and Lehnsherr and Mystique.* Xavier’s disillusioned condition echoes the opening of THE WOLVERINE (2013), except that sequence set Logan on a character arc that the rest of the film would follow; in this case, Xavier’s state is just a temporary distraction, a plot device to give him something to do and to explain why he might be initially too weak to face off with Lehnsherr when the inevitable betrayal comes.
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know that, as the franchise’s icon villain, Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) will inevitably betray Xavier’s new-found trust in him, right? What you didn’t know was how soon it would happen and how stupid it would make Xavier and Logan look. But let’s set that aside and ignore it, because the film certainly does. But that’s okay, because X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is directed by Bryan Singer
Before friends-turned-enemies Xavier and Lehnsherr can become friends again, Wolverine and company need to break Lehnsherr out of prison. This leads to one of the few, exceptional scenes in which X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST exceeds being okay: Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaks Lehnsherr out of the bowels of the Pentagon in an amazingly photographed sequence that conveys super-speed by, ironically, slowing everything down. Giving new meaning to the phrase “bullet-time,” the scene plays from the fast-paced mutant’s point of view as he calmly weaves in between guards, dodging and deflecting bullets. In fact, the movements of everyone else are so slow that Quicksilver can barely be said to be dodging anything; it’s more like someone stepping off the sidewalk while noting a car headed in his direction from a block away. Why the sequence is almost as good as Hammy’s hilarious jump to hyper-drive in OVER THE HEDGE.
The only problem with this scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as a potentially invaluable asset to Logan and Xavier – he’s so fast he’s invisible to everyone else, including the dangerous Magneto – and yet they leave him behind because…well, just because they don’t want him around to solve the inevitable crisis we know is coming. If he can just flit around unseen and fix everything, where’s the drama? So script contrivance wins out. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The initial assassination attempt is thwarted, but that does not solve the problem, because Mystique is still out there, planning a second attempt. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST purports to dramatize the battle for her soul between Xavier and Lehnsherr, but since Lehnsherr’s solution to the problem is to kill Mystique, it’s a bit of a one-sided tug-of-war. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
So the film builds toward a second assassination attempt, this one involving both Trask and President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which also involves Lehnsherr lifting a baseball stadium and plopping it down around the White House. He’s also taken over the Sentinel prototypes (which were made of non-metal so as not to be subject to his power) by using his magnetic power to insert metal rods into them. The scene suggests Magneto has some previously unacknowledged clairvoyant power, since he is able to perform this metallic surgery at a distance, without being able to see inside the complex technological network inside the Sentinels. Quibbling aside, Lehnsherr’s plan to avoid a horrible future in which human fear of mutants has led to virtual extinction, is to assassinate the president on national television. The logic eludes me (unless the fact that the president happens to be Nixon is supposed to curry favor). But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed the film.
Continuity with the previous films is a mess (a problem with the previous X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well), but we’re not supposed to worry, because Logan’s trip back to 1973 will reboot the time line anyway (so that the new, younger cast can take over, a la 2009’s STAR TREK), erasing all of the events seen in the previous X-MEN films. You might think fans would be a bit ticked off about this, but apparently not – because it erases the reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, so fuck you Brett Ratner – and if that means erasing Singer’s X-MEN films and the far superior THE WOLVERINE, so be it. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; after all; besides, the alternate timeline gives you license to kill off major characters, whom you can then easily resurrect in the new version of the future. But that’s okay because Bryan Signer directed the film.
Anyway, you get the idea. Lots of stuff happens; some of it is fun; most of it is okay; but the tribe loves all of it, regardless. Any why not? It’s an okay movie. But nothing more than that. It’s better than the abysmal X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the almost as bad X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It falls short of X-MEN and X-2: X-MEN UNITED – and far short of THE WOLERVINE. Ironically, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is just about on par with the unjustly reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – another flawed film with enough good stuff in it to be okay.
[rating=3] A mild recommendation FOOTNOTE
Xavier can walk because he’s taking a drug that inhibits his mutant powers. His mutant powers have nothing to do with his inability to walk – his powers are genetic; his paralysis the result of a bullet wound at the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – but that’s okay, because…well, you know.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg; story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Mathew Vaugh, based on the Marvel Comics characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Kinklage, Evan Peters, Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen. 131 minutes. PG-13.
To be perfectly blunt about it, big studio blockbuster releases typically don’t fail as spectacularly as THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. Oh they can be bad, but a comforting buffer of test screenings, focus groups, top-level executive intervention, and directorial and editorial wisdom tend to at least modulate them into some form of narrative coherence. Watching them isn’t akin to witnessing a trained chimpanzee trying to explain quantum physics.
Between the two super-villains, the romantic troubles between conflicted super-hero Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and his ambitious girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), the ongoing corporate espionage/missing parents story-arc, a new will-Spidey-share-his-blood-for-a-dangerous-but-possibly-lifesaving-procedure subplot, the ever-present exploration of the with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility theme (featuring a guest appearance by Denis Leary as Dolefully Glowering Ghost), Paul Giamatti in a tragically wasted role, and somewhere on the order of 23 discreet endings, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is one astoundingly awful mess. This is BATMAN AND ROBIN-grade disaster, so stunningly bad that the Cinefantastique Online team of Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons get a little giddy trying to suss out what went wrong. Click on the player to hear the show.
Well, they can’t all be NOAH, but then again, they all don’t need to be VAMPIRE ACADEMY, either. On the spectrum of the Marvel Comics franchise films, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of the Raimi SPIDER-MANs (oh, okay, the first two SPIDER-MANs) or Whedon’s THE AVENGERS, but doesn’t crater out anywhere near the THOR or (shudder) FANTASTIC FOUR efforts. Filing my review for Jim Freund’s HOUR OF THE WOLF, I was happy (relieved, even) to note the not inconsiderable pleasures of this new chapter in the chronicles of America’s most patriotic superhero, even if I also feel duty-bound point out the ways it could have been better. Click on the player to hear the review.
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And so commences the Marvel Onslaught of 2014. Four movies, three studios, and more opportunities for the true believers to nudge each other knowingly when Stan Lee makes his expected cameos, even though your great-great-grandmother could probably recognize him by now. That said, there are far worse ways to kick off this flood than CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, a well-mounted, surprisingly well-acted (hey, you’ve got Sam Jackson and Robert Redford in there), and all-around entertaining actioner that finds the stalwart Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) facing a test to his WWII-bred notions of right and wrong as he finds himself suddenly at cross-purposes to his masters at S.H.I.E.L.D and confronting a formidable assassin called the Winter Soldier.
The Cinefantastique Spotlight crew of Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons are no little grateful that THE WINTER SOLDIER goes down as easy as it does, but are in accord that there were ways it could have been much better. We compare notes in this latest episode — click on the player to hear the show.
Thor: The Dark World is not the worst superhero movie ever made, but it may be the most convenient. How convenient is it? Well, let us enumerate:
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) wields a magical hammer that is powerful enough to wipe out legions of enemies when necessary but not quite powerful enough to defeat the villainous elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) except after a protracted climax. Somewhat convenient for the screenwriter.
The “aether” – the evil force used by the villain – is not powerful enough to protect the villainous elves from an onslaught in the prologue, but it is devilishly hard to defeat in the third act. Rather convenient for the screenwriter.
After capturing the aether in the prologue, the soldiers of Asgard supposedly hide it in a place where it will never be found, but it turns out that to find it, all you have to do is look. In fact, Thor’s mortal girlfriend and all-round great scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is able to find it without even looking for it. Very convenient for the screenwriter.
Unhinged scientist Erik Selvig has some sci-fi gizmos that he claims can stop the negative effects of the alignment of worlds that is the plot’s MacGuffin. Extremely convenient for the screenwriter.
Perhaps sensing that #4 is too convenient, the screenwriter later has Selvig doubt his equipement will work: it was designed to detect gravitational anomalies, not create them, he abruptly opines at a crucial moment. In spite of this, Jane is able to manipulate the effects – zaping elves out of our world and into one of those aligned with Earth – by spinning a dial on a little black electronic box that looks like something you could buy at Radio Shack. This is convenience taken to the ultimate power.
Is THOR: THE DARK WORLD entertaining enough to make you suspend disbelief and overlook this convenience? Well, it ups the ante on the de rigueur superhero plot: the film is about the end of not only this world but the entire universe. Pretty exciting, huh?
Well, no. Not unless you think the sight of a long-haired blonde guy swinging a slightly ridiculous hammer is exciting. Helmsworth is an engaging on-screen presence, but Thor is a bit of a second-rate superhero. He underwent his entire character arc in THOR (from irresponsible lout to noble warrior), which leaves little left for the actor to do with the character this time, except express some mixed feelings about ascending to his father’s throne. (Because swinging a hammer on the battlefield is suitable for a superhero; sitting on a throne is not.)
But wait, there is depth of character in this movie. For instance, Thor’s sneering brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is not only sardonic, smug, and sinister; he is also very annoying. Selvig isn’t just smart; he’s crazy (apparently the aftereffect of his encounter with Loki in THE AVENGERS, but really just to give Stellan Skarsgard something to play). And Jane is not just beautiful but…well, smart – we know this, because she can spin that dial on the Radio Shack device.
And not only is their depth; there is also comic relief, thanks to the quirky supporting characters. The question: What does “comic relief” mean? Is it:
Humor used to diffuse possible laughter at the wrong moment, by giving viewers the “right” moment to laugh.
An attempt to be funny, that isn’t.
If you picked Answer #2, you probably just got through watching THOR: THE DARK WORLD.
The film’s few good moments revolve around the relatively low-key family drama. The plot contrives to get Thor and Loki working side-by-side after (SPOILER) their mother (Rene Russo) is killed, fueling their mutual desire for revenge. (END SPOILER). Lokis’s shtick is getting a bit worn-out by now, but his scenes with Thor actually generate some interest, as Thor admits he wishes he could trust his brother, and Loki responds, “Trust my rage.” The script carefully avoids going too far with the reconciliation, finding just the right note and bringing the narrative thread to a satisfying conclusion.
Which turns out to be a problem, because the film is not over at that point and must continue with that whole universe-in-peril thing, even after our interest in the character interaction has been satisfied. With no drama left to fuel the film, THOR: THE DARK WORLD relies on rote spectacle – which is not quite spectacular enough to sustain the movie all on its own (though the aether effects are pretty cool).
If you manage to sit all the way through the end, you will be treated to two of the worst “yes, there will be a sequel” moments in recent memory. The first is a simple “surprise” twist in which (SPOILERS) Loki turns out not to be dead, having someone replaced Odin (Anthony Hopkins) on the throne (which come to think of it, is extremely convenient, but let that pass).
The second is one of the Marvel Comic Book movies traditional post-credits (or in this case, mid-credits) sequences, in which two of Thor’s friends place the aether in the hands of a character named The Collector (a slightly over-the-top Bencio Del Toro). Now, if I were a Marvel Comics fan, I’m sure I would know who The Collector is, but you know what? I’m not, but it doesn’t matter, because I know exactly everything I need to know about the Collector, and so will you when you see the movie, which is two things:
Thor’s comrades trust The Collector with the aether.
Thor’s comrades should not trust The Collector with the aether.
Loki makes occasional comments about Thor’s lack of intelligence. If Thor okayed this plan, then Loki certainly seems to be right. (END SPOILERS)
Whatever its flaws, I don’t to give the impression that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is an absolute disaster. It’s not egregiously stupid; it’s simply dull. It’s loaded with special effects and action, but it’s all rather lifeless. The end-of-the-universe scenario never builds up any suspense, and Eccleston, though he strikes a menacing figure as Maleki is never given enough to do to create the towering portrait of evil that would dramatically energize Thor’s quest to defeat him. But at least the Thor-Loki narrative thread is worth unwinding. Too bad it’s twisted up with all the overblown blockbuster nonsense. At least it’s mildly intriguing to note that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is a superhero movie in which the superheroics are the least interesting element. The character interaction outshines the effects. If only the filmmakers had realized where the film’s true strength was… Update: By the way, I forgot to mention that THOR: THE DARK WORLD is in 3D. Draw your own conclusions. THOR THE DARK WORLD (Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Studios: November 8, 2013). 112 minutes. Rated PG-13. Directed by Alan Taylor. Screenplay by Christopher Yost and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, from a story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby. Cast: Christ Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Jamie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenon, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Alice Krige.
Take THE WOLVERINE (Hugh Jackman) out of his standard setting, plunk him down in Japan, give him a lovely heiress (Tao Okamoto) to protect, another lovely young mutant sidekick (Rila Fukushima) to join in battle, and no end of yakuza and ninja to fight, and what do you get? A unique and exciting opportunity to catch up with a character in the aftermath of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and travel through his turmoil as he rediscovers his heroic nature? Or a scenario that holds considerable promise for putting a distinctive character in a setting that ideally contrasts his nature, but that never quite exploits the opportunity? Come join Cinefantastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons as they explore this second attempt to give one of Marvel’s most beloved characters a film worthy of his stature.
Also: What’s coming to theaters next week.
Norse gods are such buttinskies,.. Syfy wants to take 12 MONKEYS to series… Bill Plympton salutes those CHEATIN’ hearts…
From the luxurious Cinefantastique Online studios in NYC, Dan Persons brings you up-to-date on what’s happening in the world of fantastic film & TV.
It’s felled the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. It’s a more daunting foe than Lex Luthor, Bane, and Magneto combined. It is, of course, the third installment of a superhero franchise, and now it’s time for comicdom’s snarkiest hero to face the figurative music in IRON MAN 3. With Robert Downey Jr, Don Cheadle, and Gwyneth Paltrow returning to their roles as, respectively, Tony Stark/Iron Man, James Rhodes/War Machine (here redubbed Iron Patriot), and Pepper Potts/Pepper Potts (somebody’s gotta stay in civvies), plus Ben Kingsley donning a bin Laden beard and a Hugo Weaving/Agent Smith drawl as the politically-incorrect terrorist the Mandarin, and with direction by pop-ironist Shane Black, can this third go for the power-assisted crime fighter break film’s most notorious curse? Turns out Cinefanatastique Online’s Steve Biodrowski, Lawrence French, and Dan Persons form a decidedly mixed jury on that front, differing on whether IM3 is one of the best comic book films to come around in a while, is just solid if undistinguished entertainment, or is an affront to all right-thinking fans of Marvel’s steeliest superhero. The conflict will be resolved with a massive, twenty minute fight scene, heavily enhanced with CG. (No it won’t.)
Plus: What’s coming to theaters next week.