Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hustle & Flow

Year 6, Day 211 - 7/30/14 - Movie #1,802

BEFORE: I admit it was a big thematic jump from "Captain America" to "8 Mile", so to make up for that I'm sticking with the rap theme - or is it hip-hop?  Again, I don't know the difference - I'm way off the reservation here, outside the comfort zone, but I'll transition to films about rock music (again) in a couple of days and then I'll feel much more at home.  Linking from "8 Mile", I'm rewarded for sticking with a theme, because Taryn Manning carries over, and I didn't plan that.

THE PLOT:  With help from his friends, a Memphis pimp in a mid-life crisis attempts to become a successful hip-hop emcee.

AFTER: I think this story was a little stronger than the one in "8 Mile", if I'm being objective about it, because I agreed a little more with the message.  No, not the one that says "it's hard out there for a pimp" or anything like that, I mean the one that says "everybody gotta have a dream", and that you've got to keep working at it until you achieve it.  I'm a little more comfortable with that than I am with "You only get one shot, so you better take it."

How many people, not just pimps and hos, feel like they're trapped in their jobs?  Or stuck in a career rut and unable to advance?  Sometimes it seems like everyone wishes they were doing something else, or would be happy if only they could skip a couple of steps on the career ladder.  Very few are able to do that, so progress sometimes feels like it's moving at a glacial pace.  So you count the number of years you've been at it (or, say, the number of conventions you've attended) and you watch that number increase, and after ten or twenty years go by, you feel like you've got to break out somehow - record that demo tape, write that screenplay, or maybe just pull up stakes and move to another company or another city because whatever's there, it can't be any worse than the current situation. 

I suppose there are two kinds of people, the kind that make those bold lateral moves, and the kind that just shrug and learn to abide the routine and its lack of progress - perhaps because they feel that there IS something worse than being a cog in the machine, namely being a useless cog without a machine.  Routine work, pimping or otherwise, is still good, solid work with guaranteed pay, right?  But I'm projecting.  I mean, I'm digressing.  I'm hear to talk about "Hustle & Flow". 

I still worry about the kids who will see this movie, though, and pick up on the subtext regarding success, namely that the path to success goes through drug dealing and prostitution, and then scamming an already established artist into listening to a demo.   I work in an animation studio, and every day we get e-mails from students asking us to take a look at their work, and there's just not enough time for my boss to view all of those films, or offer any constructive criticism.  Umm, "keep drawing?"  Yeah, that advice will get you far. 

In fact, the situation is such that any established artist (writer, filmmaker, musician, whatever) could be putting themselves in jeopardy by listening to a demo tape, or reading an unsolicited screenplay or novel draft.  If any of the songs on that tape or plot points in that screenplay seem similar to work that the artist later produces, he could be sued for copyright infringement, and the repetition of words or themes might not even be intentional.  While we were at Comic-Con, a young animator approached my boss and asked him to judge a short animation he had made, and showed it to him on a tablet.  He then asked me to take a picture of my boss watching the animation and text him the picture - and then two days later I realized what I had done.  If my boss should make a film in the future with a similar-looking character or even a similar idea, I'd texted him all the evidence he'd need to prove that he could have been influenced, however slightly, by watching that film.  Whoops...

So that's my NITPICK POINT of the night.  If you give someone your demo tape and they throw it in the trash, it doesn't necessarily mean they hate it.  It could just mean that they're savvy about copyright law and they don't want to get sued.  Other than that, I don't have much to offer about this film, it just kind of is what it is.

I guess I missed a lot of the backstory, because I didn't understand why DJay cut Lexus loose, or even whether he was Shug's baby daddy or not.  I mean, I do NOW, because I read the plot on Wikipedia - I just think the film could have cleared up a couple of these points. 

Also starring Terrence Howard (last seen in "Red Tails"), Anthony Anderson (last seen in "Kangaroo Jack"), Taraji P. Henson (last seen in "Larry Crowne"), Ludacris (last seen in "No Strings Attached"), DJ Qualls (last seen in "Comic Book Villains"), Elise Neal, Paula Jai Parker, Isaac Hayes. 

RATING:  5 out of 10 microphones

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

8 Mile

Year 6, Day 210 - 7/29/14 - Movie #1,801

BEFORE: I came back from San Diego last night - when you fly back from the West Coast, it's hard to not feel like you just lost a whole day of your life, thanks to the time zone thing.  Forget that, I just lost 5 days of my life selling DVDs and animation art - sure, there were fun times and I took a lot of pictures of silly people dressed as superheroes and cartoon characters, but I was also exhausted and mentally worn out.  Being surrounded by over 100,000 geeks got me to a point where I just didn't want to overhear any more pointless conversations - whether at the convention, or at a restaurant, or on the plane.  I want to go live in a cabin in the woods for about a week, but instead I'm just sliding back into my old routine in NYC, which seems less than ideal.

I'm starting a new chain, it's sort of a continuation of the one I did about famous singers, like Patsy Cline in "Sweet Dreams" and Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter".  We're just going to bust it into a rap direction.  Oh, and Anthony Mackie carries over from "Captain America: the Winter Soldier".  That was planned, not necessary, but why not?

THE PLOT:  A young rapper, struggling with every aspect of his life, wants to make the most of what could be his final opportunity but his problems around gives him doubts.

AFTER:  I'm well out of my comfort zone tonight, maybe even more so than when I watched horror films.  I don't listen to rap, I've never paid it much mind - not in the 80's, not in the 90's, and not now.  And then rap gave way to hip-hop, and house music, and then trance and dub-step and countless other variations.  I sort of get beat-boxing, but when it comes to scratching and whatever else the DJ guy does, I've got no clue. 

So I'm starting way behind the pack tonight - perhaps there are some things in the story of this Eminem fellow that are universal - for example, coming from a poor background, and that's the same as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn's story, he just grew up in Detroit and not down South.  And there was domestic violence in his background, and I kept encountering that again and again in those movies about singers in the 1950's. 

I suppose this film lost me when it came to the "rap battles" - again, this is something that exists in a world that I don't travel in.  I'm familiar with celebrity roasts, sure, where people get on stage and make fun of each other, and it gets really personal, but it's also all in good fun.  This is two people getting on stage and trashing each other verbally, but it's also got to showcase clever rhyming.  When you think of poetry and poets, it's hard to think of an angry poet - even the beat poets of the 60's seemed like they were trying to enact social change and fight the system, but they weren't all nasty about it.

I guess I don't why understand why someone would get up on stage and allow the other person to tear them down in such an aggressive fashion - the main character here, Rabbit, comes out on top by using some of his time putting himself down, which then gave his opponent nothing to work with.  I guess that's an original solution - there's certainly nothing in "The Art of War" about falling on your own blade to win the battle, is there? 

The other problem here is that footage of someone trying to learn to rap, to come up with rhymes, is just not very interesting.  Neither is watching an author typing on a typewriter or computer keyboard - another thing that Hollywood shows us over and over, hoping that we'll be so enamored with the process we'll forget that it's more boring than watching paint dry. 

I have to take issue with some of the messages sent out here - if Mr. Eminem is going to put himself out there and show how he got his start, I fear the devil is in the details.  "Opportunity comes once in a lifetime"?  Wait, I thought America was the land of opportunity.  We've been raised to believe that if we concentrate and work hard, we'll succeed - telling the kids that opportunity only knocks once seems like it could discourage a lot of people.  "You only get one shot" - again, I worry about the kids, and what they believe after listening to the rap music, and I'm not sure this sends out a very positive message.  OK, kid, you had your shot, now you might as well work a menial job for the rest of your life, because you don't get a second chance. 

Also starring Eminem, Kim Basinger (last seen in "The Real McCoy", Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Pfifer (last seen in "O"), Omar Benson Miller (last seen in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), Evan Jones (last seen in "Gangster Squad"), Taryn Manning (last seen in "Cold Mountain"), Michael Shannon (last seen in "Man of Steel"), Eugene Byrd, with a cameo from Xhibit.

RATING:  4 out of 10 paintballs

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Year 6, Day 204 - 7/23/14 - (viewed on 4/29/14) - Movie #1,800

BEFORE: I've packed my bag, I'm ready to go, I'm standing here outside the door.  OK, not literally, but I always listen to the song "Leaving on a Jet Plane" (the cover version that played in the movie "Armageddon") before I fly to San Diego, so it's rolling around in my head.  This worked out very well, saving up a few extra superhero films, because I was able to concentrate on my packing list, and since I wasn't distracted by a movie last night, I'll arrive at Comic-Con with things like pants and socks.  Stan Lee carries over from "Thor: The Dark World", here he plays a security guard in a museum, and Chris Evans carries over as well.                           

THE PLOT:  Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Captain America: The First Avenger" (Movie #1,093)

AFTER: I needed to watch this film in April, because I watch the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." TV series, and they made direct references to the events seen in this film, and I had to see what all went down.  S.H.I.E.L.D. is the common story thread that unites all of the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man and Thor films.  Nick Fury has appeared or done a cameo in all of them as the Avengers team came together, and now they've decided to tear S.H.I.E.L.D. down.  I guess that means more work in the long run for the superheroes, protecting the Earth and all that, and putting this government agency back together for a second season.

In this film, Captain America and the Black Widow come face-to-face with the Winter Soldier, who's been a prominent character in the Cap comic books for the last few years.  If you don't know his identity, which was one of the worst-kept secrets in Cap's history, it means you're not current on the comic books - I won't reveal it here, but the movie doesn't take any chances and telegraphs it early on, so we'll all be caught up.  Let's just say it's someone from Captain America's past, which nails it down to exactly one candidate. 

This was a character who died (OK, comic-book died) decades ago, and as we all know, comic-book deaths are reversible.  Except for Spider-Man's uncle, and until recently, this character.  So some writer came on board the Capt. America comic a few years ago and got the memo saying you can't revive this character, and darned if that wasn't exactly what he set out to do.  From a storytelling aspect, we have series "Bibles" for a reason.  If you set out to break the story rules, please make sure you're doing it for the right reasons, and not just because someone told you not to, and you consider it a challenge.

For the Winter Soldier, that meant crafting a back-story where he was put on ice (literally and figuratively) for a few decades, given a bionic arm and mind-wiped, then trained to be a master assassin.  Supposedly he's behind every big Soviet operation ever, right up to possibly assassinating JFK (wait, I thought Magneto did that - or did Magneto try to stop that?), or whatever we had going on in Central America in the 80's, not to mention Afghanistan.  All right, I'm willing to roll with it as long as you writers don't do anything else stupid like nullify Spider-Man's marriage.  Whoopsie...

But let's get to the Captain America film itself.  Some good stuff does happen here, and it seems like a mix between the last decade of Cap comics, mixed with the storyline from a S.H.I.E.L.D. limited series called "Secret Warriors", in which Nick Fury learns that the terrorist organization HYDRA has infiltrated his own organization, so the whole thing must be scrapped from within.

If you recall, I lauded the "Dark Knight Rises" film, gave it a "10" for doing essentially the same thing as this film - mixing 3 comic-book storylines together, simplifying the conflict while tying a bunch of things together - so why does THAT film get a "10" and this film gets its slightly lower score?  Well, it all comes down to the details - I could not find one fault with the last Batman film, and believe me, I tried.  Here I've got a couple of NPs that did end up affecting the score.  Namely:

NITPICK POINT #1: We've seen the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier before.  Destroying, or trying to destroy it, was a key part of the "Avengers" film.  Why are we covering the same ground here?  For that matter, why rebuild the helicarrier, which is essentially an aircraft carrier (aka emormous floating rock) in the sky - who approved this?  It seems to fall to earth and damage stuff like, every other week.  Can we all just agree that this floating deathtrap should not be airborne in the first place?

They've blown it up or crashed the thing so many times in recent comic-book history that I'm left with one conclusion - the various Marvel writers and editors do NOT talk to each other.  So they end up covering the same ground, again and again.  Case in point: Marvel did a storyline where Spider-Man appeared to die, but really just formed a cocoon and emerged with more spider-powers, then did almost the exact same story again just one year later.  (Look it up, one of them was called "The Other") 

Marvel Comics, I will repeat my offer - what you need is someone reading all of your books before they're published, someone with a great memory who can say, "No, you DID this storyline already" or "This is too similar to the Avengers storyline from 1995..." or "Haven't we killed Iron Man three times before?"   My services are available, I can keep all of your writers and editors in line.

NITPICK POINT #2:  Again toward the same point, there is a cameo in this film from someone important to the (upcoming) history of the Avengers - problem is, he's a mutant and he's also important to the history of the X-Men.  So, which is he?  The X-Men franchise and the Avengers franchise are at two different studios, so who gets to use this character?  Again, who's running the store here?  Who has the authority to decide this character's storyline?  In the comic books, he has the same problem - the X-Men writer makes him a hero, the Avengers writer makes him a villain, and the X-Factor writer says he's just misunderstood.  Gee, I wonder why. 

NITPICK POINT #3: Though for the most part I was impressed by the fighting depicted in this film - very true to the comics - some things do still cause me to wonder.  Why do villains insist on shooting directly at Cap's shield, when they should be able to figure out quite quickly that the shield is bullet-proof, and maybe NOT shoot at it.  Jeez, aim for where the shield is NOT, maybe?  Otherwise, you're just wasting bullets.  I mean, maybe they shoot at Cap and then he raises the shield in time, but that's not really what I witnessed - I saw a lot of people shooting right AT the shield.  Maybe it's the bullseye-like red and white stripes on it?

NITPICK POINT #4: Asking me to believe that the world's greatest spy organization has a large number of double-agents in its ranks - so, really, how can they be such great spies?  It's like thinking that half of the agents in the C.I.A. are also working for the KGB - who knows, maybe it's true, but you'd like to think that the number of double agents would be much lower, or that such an organization might have some way to check its own members before things got too far out of hand, no?

NITPICK POINT #5: The film takes a thinly-veiled swipe at the Patriot Act, or perhaps it's the NSA tapping phone conversations, or maybe even enhanced airport security - all recent situations in which U.S. citizens were forced to give up their freedoms in order to be (or feel) more safe.  If you take this notion to the extreme, you get the kind of plan that HYDRA presents as it works through S.H.I.E.L.D. - the theory being that the greater the global threat, the more power will be given to the agencies in charge of homeland security.  But there's a fallacy here if HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. are one and the same - if S.H.I.E.L.D. weapons are seen taking out targets, why on Earth would people rush to have that same organization protect them, or give that agency any more power?   The citizens in Dr. Doom's country, for example, are well-protected, but they're not anything close to free.  So, as soon as HYDRA launches their plan, I think they've pretty much shot themselves in the foot, unless I'm missing something.

"Nick Fury Jr." in the comics - stop trying to shoehorn the movie continuity into the comics I like.  If the Marvel movie universe can be different from the Marvel comic universe, then it's OK for the reverse to be true as well.  The films are adapted from the comics, you don't need to then adapt the movie continuity into the books.   (I have a feeling I'm going to be directing this same comment toward JJ Abrams in a year or two with regards to "Star Wars")

I will say that they did a darn good job of setting up the next Captain America film, ending on a note where he's got a clear mission ahead of him, while also setting up a solo film for the Black Widow and perhaps one for Nick Fury as well.  Plus, of course, there's the teaser for the next "Avengers" film at the very end. Which, again, as we've seen this week, really needs someone who thinks logically to approve or disapprove them. 

Also starring Scarlett Johansson (last seen in "Hitchcock"), Samuel L. Jackson (last seen in "The Long Kiss Goodnight"), Robert Redford (last seen in "Up Close & Personal"), Sebastian Stan (last seen in "Rachel Getting Married"), Anthony Mackie (last seen in "Gangster Squad"), Cobie Smulders (last seen in "The Avengers"), Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones (last seen in "My Week With Marilyn"), Jenny Agutter, with cameos from Garry Shandling (last seen in "Iron Man 2"), Danny Pudi, Steven Culp, and the voice of Gary Sinise (last seen in "Snake Eyes").

RATING: 8 out of 10 reel-to-reel tape drives

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thor: The Dark World

Year 6, Day 203 - 7/22/14 - Movie #1,799

BEFORE:  I'm watching this one current tonight, the last movie I'll watch before I pack up for San Diego, and tomorrow I'll post the last comic-book "catch-up" movie from the spring (Gee, I wonder what it will be...?) before I leave.  I'm in luck, because Stan Lee carries over from "Amazing Spider-Man 2", he played a guest at Peter Parker's graduation in that film, and tonight he has a cameo as a patient in a psych ward.  That guy sure gets around...

THE PLOT:  When Jane Foster is possessed by a great power, Thor must protect her from a new threat of old times: the Dark Elves.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Avengers" (Movie #1,144)

AFTER: I sort of forgot that the first "Thor" film made a bold statement about Asgardians, as it sort of depicted the nine worlds of Norse mythology as actual worlds, like different planets, which logically suggests that the Asgardian gods aren't gods at all, just regular old space aliens.  Powerful aliens, but still just aliens.  Then I dove back into the comic books, where the gods are gods, and the nine worlds act like different dimensions, not planets.

The god/alien references are continued here, as we see the Dark Elves for the first time on film, and they attack Asgard + Earth with spaceships.  If you remember, this was the plot that I said SHOULD have been in the "Avengers" film - it would have made more sense for Loki to invade Earth with elves than with the Chitauri (or whatever those things were called).  The elves also shoot lasers, which is another affront to comic book customs - this would be a bit like cowboys fighting aliens (Oh, wait, I saw that film too...) 

The nine worlds are lining up in some kind of convergence - which sort of goes against the first film's depiction of them as different planets - unless those planets are the nine - sorry, eight - planets in our solar system, there's no way they could "line up".  And if they're different dimensions, how is it that different dimensions are lining up, exactly?  Someone's got to pick a horse here - what are the nine worlds and how do they move around in relation to each other?  I thought they were all linked by a giant tree - so what gives?

There was a time, back in 1987, where a rare alignment of planets in our system were supposedly lining up, I think 6 out of the 8 planets appeared in something akin to a straight line, and this was called the "Harmonic Convergence".  This was supposed to usher in some era of great understanding, or else it was going to be the start of the last era, the 25 years leading up to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012.  People gathered in so-called "power centers" around the globe, meditated and sang songs (I'm guessing), and waited for either a wave of good feelings, the end of the world, or at least an alien invasion.  The moment came and went, with no change in the human condition whatsoever.  Any change in awareness or consciousness was either imaginary or had to be chemically induced, so basically it was just another ordinary day in the very silly 1980's.

But in this film, as the Asgardian worlds line up, this causes spatial anomalies all over London (what a coincidence, this just happens to be the city that our main human characters are all in...) where objects are seen to disappear and re-appear, or travel between Earth and Svartalfheim.  The veil between worlds is at its thinnest, so of course that's when Malekith the Dark Elf will make his move.  This is, of course, junk science at its best - if this is truly a thing, why don't Surtur and Ymir also attack at the same time, from the worlds of Muspelheim and Niflheim?

Anyway, it's good to know that no actual science was harmed in the making of this film.

Thor's been in the news this week, because Marvel's announced that the real Thor will be taking a break, and he'll be replaced by a female Thor.  Actually, they haven't said whether this will be a random woman stepping in, or Thor getting a magical sex change - either one is possible.  Hey, they made Loki female for a while a few years back, anything can happen, it's magic.  Plus Marvel desperately needs more female readers (or are they just trying to excite the male fans by giving Thor boobs?).  Also, Captain America's going to be black for a while, and Wolverine's going to be dead.

Before anyone freaks out, please bear in mind that these are comic book stories - nothing is real, and nothing is permanent.  A new writer signs on to each book every few months or so, and changes everything around - then the next writer decides to either keep that storyline going, or erase everything the last guy did and start over.  You think they reboot movie franchises too often?  Try reading the comics.  Superman, Batman, Captain America, Green Lantern, Flash, Spider-Man - they've all "died" at one point or another and writers found ways to bring them back, some more clever than others.  This week the press is also going ga-ga over the "death" of Archie - but no reporter managed to point out that this was both a publicity stunt, and a future-set "imaginary" story. (Umm, all of the stories are imaginary, let's try to remember that.)  Adult Archie will die at some point in the future, but the adventures of teen Archie will continue.  And since he's never shown any signs of aging in the last 50 years, I guess he'll never get old enough to die, now, will he?

By now, everyone's sort of figured out that they need to stay until the VERY end of the credits when watching a Marvel film - this is probably the only post-credits scene this week that makes any lick of sense.  At least one of them does, I think the other one sets up "Guardians of the Galaxy", which opens next week. 

Also starring Chris Hemsworth (last seen in "Star Trek Into Darkness"), Natalie Portman (last seen in "Everyone Says I Love You"), Tom Hiddleston (last seen in "Midnight in Paris"), Anthony Hopkins (last seen in "Hitchcock"), Christopher Eccleston (last seen in "Elizabeth"), Idris Elba (last seen in "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance"), Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi (last heard in "Tangled"), Rene Russo (last seen in "Tin Cup"), Jaimie Alexander, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Alice Krige, Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Bridesmaids"), with cameos from Chris Evans, Benicio Del Toro.

RATING: 6 out of 10 prison cells

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Year 6, Day 202 - 7/21/14 - (viewed on 5/20/14) - Movie #1,798

BEFORE: It's May 21 as I write this, which means I'm deep in the middle of season finales - tonight the final episodes of "Survivor", "Law & Order: SVU" and "American Idol" all air at the same time, and I can only imagine this bunch-up was caused by the mid-season delay that was due to the Winter Olympics.  I can't possibly watch all of this TV at once AND catch up on "The Amazing Race", so I've circled the wagons and disabled Twitter and all other social media so that I won't see any spoilers.  Impossible, perhaps, because the identity of this season's "Idol" winner is going to be mentioned absolutely everywhere tomorrow, but I may maintain ignorance of some of the others and at least act surprised.           
                
Linking from "X-Men: Days of Future Past", I'm guessing and hoping that Stan Lee carries over with his Hitchcock-like cameos.  EDIT: Umm, no he didn't, because for some reason he wasn't in "DOFP".  But he still works as the link, because he was in the first "X-Men" film, along with Halle Berry and Patrick Stewart, etc.
        
THE PLOT: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of super villains against him, impacting his life.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "The Amazing Spider-Man" (Movie #1,491)

AFTER: Speaking of spoilers, it's going to be difficult to discuss this movie without mentioning them, but I'm going to try.  This is another good reason to delay the posting of my review for two months, because if you haven't seen this one by mid-July, well then you're not a true fan and I won't be ruining anything.  Especially the big death scene...

I'm speaking, of course, of the death of the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" trilogy.  There was a chance, however slim, that the actions depicted in the first "Amazing" movie could have taken place between the Maguire/Raimi origin scene and, let's say, the first flirtations with attractive neighbor Mary Jane Watson.  I'm sure if I go back I can find some passage-of-time scene and say, "OK, look, suppose we assume that a week passes between THIS scene and THAT one - we can just imagine that the battle with the Lizard takes place then, and we're all good, right?"  But after "Amazing 2", that just isn't possible any more.  Too many contradictions between that trilogy and this one (assuming this will be a trilogy, it could be a quadrennial or a quintessence or whatever).

Let's start with the Green Goblin.  Norman, not Harry.  He died in the first Maguire/Raimi film by being impaled on a goblin glider, as it should have happened.  After all, this is how he died in the comic books (the first time, anyway - then he got better).  He wasn't ravaged by disease - being the Goblin shouldn't be a hereditary shortcoming, like anemia or something.  Yes, he should be insane, but chemically insane, from ingesting a toxin that he designed.  Giving the Goblin an incurable disease makes me want to feel sorry for him, and I'd rather not do that.  It seems like a quick, cheap way to get the plot from point "A" to point "B".

This movie makes an attempt to explain what happened to Peter Parker's parents - something the comic-books did a terrible job of bungling, first saying they were spies, then saying they were still alive, then saying THOSE people were robots or clones or something - it was a huge mess.  It's easier and better to let them rest in peace (don't even get me STARTED on clone Gwen Stacy...) but if you have to dig into their past and put it on display, this movie didn't do the worst job of it.  (Again, that would be the evil robot/clones that somehow didn't set off Peter's danger-sense.)   There's an attempt to close the circle here between Richard Parker's genetic research, the bio-electricity of various animals (including spiders, of course, but also eels and such), and the bite that infected Peter.  Which makes a kind of forced sense, but also generates a staggering, staggering coindence.

Now we've got Electro - who, before his transformation, seems more than proto-nerdy, he's super-ultra-nerdy, like autistic or something.  Again, this goes toward making me sympathetic toward Electro, which is a weird way to go.  Can't a villain just be a villain?  This is what dragged down "Spider-Man 2" and "Spider-Man 3" in the Maguire trilogy, trying to make me feel sorry for Doctor Octopus and Sandman.  One was being controlled by his tentacles (because that's a thing?) and the other was just misunderstood.  Oh, he's got a daughter?  Well, by all means, go ahead and rob that bank, don't let me stop you.  Give me a break.

The "Avengers" movie didn't have this problem.  Loki was a VILLAIN. He wasn't just misunderstood, he was bent on destroying the world with his evil actions.  Thanos?  Villain.  Dr. Doom?  Villain.  Red Skull?  Villain.  What is it about Spider-Man that he attracts these borderline cases, people who are being controlled by a drug, or got changed by some lab experiment, so that everything that comes after is somehow not their fault?  So, it's the chemicals talking?  The chemicals are mugging that woman or robbing that armored car?  It's a slippery slope toward a world where no one is ever responsible for their actions.

And responsibility is what Spider-Man should be all about.  Doesn't it follow that with great power comes great responsibility?  If that's true, how do we explain Venom, Rhino, Kingpin, etc. who all have great power and act in destructive, selfish ways?  Ah, OK, only the heroes are expected to use their power responsibly, that's what sets them apart.  I feel like we're maybe on the cusp of something here, but this movie never really gets around to vocalizing it - like, what separates the good people with power from the bad people with power?

In fact, Spider-Man comes close to giving up his responsibility, not once but twice in this film.  "I'll leave New York?" - New York without Spider-Man?  Unthinkable - if only something would happen that will  change his mind and keep Peter Parker in the Big Apple.  You can't give up the power, Petey, and you can't give up the responsibility.  If you do, bad things might happen.   

The Spider-Man story is also about loss.  Responsibility and loss are intertwined - loss of his parents, loss of Uncle Ben, loss of Mary Jane (another character who died in the comics, really, she was dead dead dead, her plane blew up, and five years later some writer just said, nope, she wasn't on that plane.  Really?  And in the 5 years after she narrowly escaped death, she just...never phoned?), loss of Peter + MJ's child (again, don't get me started...), loss of Capt. Stacy, loss of Jean DeWolff, do I need to go on?  It's humanizing because we all have experienced loss, or we all will, and Peter Parker is just like us, only with webbing.

Recently (OK, two years ago) in the comics Spider-Man adopted a "No one else dies" mantra, meaning that he was tired of people close to him being killed by super-villains, and I think there's something human about this, too.  I'm surrounded by people bringing up small children these days, and if you're a parent, starting each day with a resolve to make sure your kids make it through the day seems like a smart strategy, even if you don't vocalize it every day.  We all want the people close to us to live forever, or as long as possible, but how realistic is that?  We can take positive steps each day in that direction, but since the life expectancy of everything over time is zero, we can maintain this for a week, a month, a year but at some point the hourglass is going to run out of sand.

So to anyone who might question, "Why did this movie have to end THIS way?"  Well, because that's the story of Spider-Man.  If it weren't for the spoiler rule, I could quote you a particular issue of Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) and you'd see that the part of this film you've got an issue with is actually the MOST truthful and faithful depiction of Spider-Man's life, and everything else is window-dressing.  "Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy."  Forget the electric eels and the pumpkin bombs, this is what moves Spider-Man's story forward. 

I'll be interested in seeing where the story goes from here - do I take the cameos seen in this film and just extrapolate the next plot?  Spider-Man teams up with the Black Cat to take down the Spider-Slayers?  And when will we SEE J. Jonah Jameson again?

NITPICK POINT: I know there are very strong reasons for wanting to update Aunt May's character.  And casting Sally Field in place of the previous actress goes a long way - but making her a nurse-in-training?  This is an odd career choice for a woman of her age.  I know you can't just have her staying at home making wheatcakes around the clock, but the new direction is clunky also.  In the comic books she volunteered at a soup kitchen, and this is more in line with her character.  Plus, if she and Peter are barely getting by financially, how is she paying for nursing school?  This just doesn't compute. 

NITPICK POINT #2: There's a very forced teaser for "X-Men: Days of Future Past" that got shoehorned in here, midway through the closing credits.  While I applaud the different distribution companies working together (even though they can't quite agree on who Quicksilver + Scarlet Witch are), this seems quite out of place here.  For starters, the ASM films seem to be happening NOW, and the clip with the young Mystique would seem to be taking place 30 years in the past.  So, how does that relate to Spider-Man's current situation?  Not at all.  If I want to REALLY do Marvel's job for them, should I suppose that Wolverine's time-traveling changes affected the timeline, erased the Tobey Maguire films and made the Andrew Garfield storyline possible?  Seems like a stretch...

Starring Andrew Garfield (last seen in "The Social Network"), Emma Stone (last seen in "Gangster Squad"), Jamie Foxx (last seen in "Collateral"), Dane DeHaan (last seen in "Lawless"), Sally Field (last seen in "Where the Heart Is"), Campbell Scott (last seen in "The Amazing Spider-Man"), Embeth Davidtz (ditto), Paul Giamatti (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Colm Feore, Felicity Jones (last seen in "Hysteria"), B.J. Novak (last seen in "Reign Over Me"), Marton Csokas.

RATING: 6 out of 10 police barricades

Sunday, July 20, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Year 6, Day 201 - 7/20/14 - (viewed on 6/29/14) - Movie #1,797

BEFORE: As I write this it's June 29, I've got three weeks to go before Comic-Con break, and naturally I'm thinking about how I'm going to get there, what I'm going to pack, what autographs I may need to track down.  I don't need to worry about falling behind on my movies (other than the week I'm going to miss) because this is the first of THREE comic-book films that I crammed in this spring and summer, in between the daily movies.  I wrote the reviews without posting them, because I figured that the few days leading up to my San Diego trip, my head's sort of already there, so having reviews I could just post would be a potential time-saver.

If things go according to plan, the last few movies before this one have starred Halle Berry and/or Ian McKellen (yep, carrying over from "Apt Pupil") - which is sort of a perfect lead-in and an excuse to post this one first.  Generally I've been very against pulling this sort of thing, seeing films without blogging them, because in a way I'm messing with the timeline of my chain.  But since this film appears to be all ABOUT messing with the timeline, I figure that makes it OK. 

THE PLOT:  The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "X-Men: First Class" (Movie #1,100)

AFTER: Any long-time fan of the X-Men should already know what "Days of Future Past" is all about - it's based on a storyline from the comics, from the early 1980's, just after Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat) joined the team.  In the comics, her adult self from a dystopian future in which mutants were corraled and slaughtered by Sentinels (giant mutant-hunting robots) is sent back to inhabit her teenage body to get a message to the present-day X-Men, which tells them to stop the assassination of Senator Kelly, who's a proponent of anti-mutant legislation.  This puts them in a delicate spot, because if they keep him from getting killed, he'll probably pass more anti-mutant legislation, but if they allow him to get killed, the anti-mutant paranoia will kick into high gear, and bring about the worst possible future.

The first "X-Men" film already dealt with Senator Kelly, and the character of Shadowcat wasn't enough of an audience draw, so this film had to change up the storyline a bit.  Instead it's audience-bait Wolverine who's sent back in time to send the message (which makes sense because he's been alive a very long time, plus his healing factor might help his consciousness survive the trip) and instead of Sen. Kelly, the X-Men have to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels.  See?  It all fits - this is a rare case where a film adaptation demanded changes, and the changes all work.  (for the most part, I'll get to the ones that don't in a bit.)

This is also a de facto sequel to "X-Men: First Class" - the original plan was to make a direct sequel ("Second Class"?) but a director change prompted them to combine that storyline with the "Days of Future Past" idea.  So we get to see Prof. Xavier and Magneto in 1973, 11 years after the mutant Cuban missile crisis, with the X-Men scattered, Magneto in prison and Xavier without his powers.  Old Wolverine's mind in young(er) Wolverine's body has to motivate Xavier, free Magneto and put a team together to stop Mystique.  (this was all in the trailer, I don't think I'm giving anything away here...)

This was also an opportunity to fix some of the continuity bugaboos that have crept into the franchise over the years, with different directors on each film, different casts and no one (apparently) minding the store, mistakes are bound to creep in here and there.  For example, Prof. Xavier was injured in "First Class" by a bullet, losing the use of his legs.  But when he's seen, years later, in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", he can walk.  "Days of Future Past" goes well out of its way to suggest a solution for this contradiction, providing both a way for Xavier to re-gain AND re-lose his ability to walk.  It's a long way to go, but at least it does try to correct a mistake.

Some mistakes, however, are never addressed at all.  Xavier was essentially DEAD at the end of the last X-Men film set in the present-day, and then popped up again in the post-credits scene of the next film, without any explanation.  How did he survive?  Your guess is as good as mine, but at least this sort of thing happens all the time in comic-books, each writer just leaves it for the next one to sort out.  You kind of have to get used to everything happening in "story time", where everything that's supposed to happen just kind of happens, and everything eventually sorts itself out.  Sure, it's a cop-out, but that's what sells comic books and movie tickets.

So this film manages to re-unite most of the X-Men, nearly every major character appears in one of the two time periods - either the 1973 past or the 2023 future.  (It's funny, in the original 1980's comic, the dystopian future took place in 2013, the year they started filming this...)  But, as you might imagine, I still reserve the right to call shenanigans:

NITPICK POINT: This film also serves as a sequel to "The Wolverine" (as well as sort of a prequel to "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", but I digress) - that film was presumably set in the present (or at least sometime after "The Last Stand") and definitely NOT in a world threatened by Sentinels.  So the tiny bit in that film with Prof. X and Magneto contacting Wolverine for help now makes no sense - unless they were contacting for help with something else, in which case, why include it?

NITPICK POINT #2: And this has to do with all time-travel movies, really.  If the mission (sending Wolverine back) is successful, then the Sentinels will be stopped, they won't slaughter mutants, and there won't be a problem that requires sending Wolverine back - so they won't.  In which case they don't send Wolverine back to fix things, and Trask will be shot, and the Sentinels will be built, and then they'll be right back where they started, right?  Time loop.  This is why you can't travel back to 1963, for example, to keep JFK from being shot - because if you're successful, you'll also change the timeline and remove the reason for traveling back, which means you won't go, and then he'll get shot.  So the only real time-travel stories that WORK are the ones where someone is unsuccessful, or they travel back to prevent something and end up causing it to happen instead. 

NITPICK POINT #3: Another common problem with time-travel films - the events of the past and the future are intercut here, almost as if they're happening at the same time.  But by their very definition, that's not the case. One's in the past and one's in the future, you can't just cut between them like they're just happening on opposite sides of town!  If I send a time-traveler back to 1963 and he spends a year there trying to fix things, I don't have to wait a year for him to come back, he could just arrive back a few seconds after he left, even though he spent a year in the past.  I guess for some reason the time-travel here is all based on Wolverine's experience, so I have to allow for that, but I shouldn't have to.  For some reason the future X-Men all have to wait around and protect Wolverine's body while things are taking place in the past, even though that makes no sense - they've already happened.

NITPICK POINT #4: This concerns Quicksilver, the best new character introduced in this film.  He was so helpful to the X-Men for just one sequence, and then just sort of gets discarded.  If his powers were so great and helpful, why not keep him around?  See also my review of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", which I watched before this film, but which I'll post a couple days later.

OK, so time is a circle, or a Mobius strip, or a parallelogram or whatever.  I should just try to relax and enjoy it, because there was still a lot to love about this film.  New characters, old fashions, many things got explained or over-explained, clever twists and in a fashion similar to "Star Trek", the timeline got changed so that the next set of films can proceed in whatever direction it wants to.

Also starring Patrick Stewart (last heard in "Ted"), Hugh Jackman (last seen in "Scoop"), James McAvoy (last heard in "Arthur Christmas"), Michael Fassbender (last seen in "Prometheus"), Jennifer Lawrence (last seen in "X-Men: First Class"), Halle Berry (last seen in "Cloud Atlas"), Nicholas Hoult (last seen in "Jack the Giant Slayer"), Ellen Page (last seen in "To Rome With Love"), Peter Dinklage (last heard in "Ice Age: Continental Drift"), Shawn Ashmore, Evan Peters, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Josh Helman, with cameos from Anna Paquin (last seen in "Finding Forrester"), Famke Janssen (last seen in "The Wolverine"), James Marsden (last seen in "The Notebook"), Lucas Till, Kelsey Grammer.  (Damn, no Stan Lee cameo?  This could present a problem...)

RATING: 9 out of 10 senators

Apt Pupil

Year 6, Day 200 - 7/19/14 - Movie #1,796

BEFORE: Linking from "Cloud Atlas", Halle Berry was also in "X-Men" with Ian McKellen.  This will be important tomorrow.

THE PLOT: A boy blackmails his neighbor after suspecting him to be a Nazi war criminal.

AFTER: This is one of those "battle of wits" films, because not much action takes place, but the high-school student and the ex-Nazi take turns getting the upper hand, and this continues throughout the film, with the stakes raising until the game is over. 

I'm not sure I bought into some of the concepts, namely that a teen could recognize an ex-Nazi from 50-year old photos.  Or the unlikely coincidence that he'd just happen to have access to the photo of the exact Nazi who's living in his town.  For that matter, how did he first KNOW that the old man on the bus was an ex-Nazi - it couldn't just be from the similarity to an old photo, could it?  Because people's faces do tend to change over the course of 5 decades.

Also, would forcing a war criminal to talk about what took place during World War II assuredly re-awaken in him the desire/need to kill?  I'm not sure that this is a completely logical progression.  If you believe that such a person would be trying his best to forget what happened, this would include giving in to such urges.   (Now, equating the horrors of high-school gym class with the showers at concentration camps, THAT I can get behind...)

I just read the plot of the Stephen King short story this was based on, and there are some key differences (especially the ending).  However, I can see why the filmmaker made the choices that he did in altering the plot points.  In a way, less is more, and I think some plotholes were covered over, but unfortunately a few new ones were made at the same time.

NITPICK POINT: The grades of the lead character dip, affected either by his fascination with Nazi culture or due to all the time he spends listening to war stories - and then once he's blackmailed into studying (that's a weird message to send out to the kids), he ends up as class valedictorian.  Perhaps this was a very small graduating class, but in the high school I went to, if you got a single "B" instead of an "A", you'd be out of the running for valedictorian.  There's an attempt to explain this with the guidance counselor offering to talk to his teachers about discounting his midterm grades,  but I still think this would be a case of "too little, too late".  By the time you get your 2nd semester grades, aren't they part of your permanent record?

I had a variation on my recurring high-school dream after watching this - sometimes watching a film set in a school drags up long-buried memories of my own.  This one was a bit different, however - in the dream I went back to my old school, and even though they'd almost completely rebuilt the place since I attended, I still knew how to sneak backstage while rehearsals for a class musical were taking place.  (For some reason, the part of the drama teacher/lead actor was played by Denis Leary)  Some kid came on stage with a giant pet rat he had brought from home, and this brought the production to a halt.  I stepped out of the wings, picked up the rodent and brought it to a seat in the audience, allowing the rehearsal to continue.  For the next few hours I bounced around backstage, solving problems with various costumes and props, and I found that my experiences as a film producer all came in extremely handy when fixing things on the fly, and afterward Denis Leary wanted to shake my hand and thank me for saving the play.

From here on, I can sort of coast into Comic-Con - I saved up some extra films during the last couple of months, so now I only need to watch 1 new film in the next four days.  This frees my mind up to concentrate on packing my luggage and making sure I've got all my paperwork in order. 

Also starring Brad Renfro, Joshua Jackson (last seen in "The Mighty Ducks"), David Schwimmer (last seen in "Madagascar 3"), Bruce Davison (last seen in "Six Degrees of Separation"), Elias Koteas (last seen in "The Thin Red Line"), Joe Morton, Ann Dowd (last seen in "Compliance")

RATING:  4 out of 10 swastikas