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.

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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Cloud Atlas

Year 6, Day 199 - 7/18/14 - Movie #1,795

BEFORE: Getting back on track for Comic-Con - as John Lithgow from "Cliffhanger" was also in "New Year's Eve", and so was Halle Berry (last seen in "Perfect Stranger").  Yeah, I wish I could have put all the Halle Berry films together, but then I couldn't have had the three Bruce Willis films all in a row.  It's a constant trade-off process.

THE PLOT:  An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.

AFTER: OK, let's just get this comment out of the way right off.  WTF?  What the HELL did I just watch?  I mean, I knew it was going to be weird and outside of the box, but this is just... where the hell is the box?  What did you guys do with the box?  It's like this film tore up the box into tiny pieces and built a little abstract sculpture out of it...

OK, I've vented and I feel a little better now.  Let's treat this like what it is, which is a bold, innovative new approach to storytelling.  Once in a while, a film like "Memento" or "Sin City" or "Pulp Fiction" comes around and messes with the narrative form in some way.  (I'm also big on "Slaughterhouse Five" myself...)  There are 6 stories here, and the film has a running time of almost three hours - and they cut quite liberally between the different stories, which represent 6 different time periods - past, present and future.  Oh, and the same main actors appear in all of the stories, only they play different characters, representing different classes, races and genders.  If you're an actor and you get offered a set of roles like this, you'd probably take it just for the challenge alone, and the fact that it represents a unique experience.

The only other way I can describe this properly, if you haven't seen it - it's kind of like channel-surfing through 6 films at a time.  In this hyper-fast ADHD world, maybe this is just what today's audience wants.  Then again, maybe this would really piss you off, because you're made to watch just 5 minutes or so of each storyline before you're shunted away to one of the other 5 storylines.  There are some clever edits here, they may cut from one event in one storyline to a similar event or motif taking place in another year.  Which SHOULD piss me off, because it makes it seem like these 6 storylines are happening simultaneously, when by their very definition, such a thing is impossible.  All of the past events are past, and the fates of those characters have been determined, long before the story taking place decades or even centuries later even gets started.

This is NOT time-travel - but the events are all connected in a loose-fitting way.  If there's any time-travel involved, it's something akin to the omniscient camera being wherever and whenever it needs to be, in order to tell the story that the directors want, in a particular (or random?) order, to achieve the desired effect.  And what IS that effect?  In the end, this becomes like a giant filmic jigsaw puzzle, where you can only see the individual pieces at any given time, and you may not be able to see the whole picture until all of the pieces are in place.

Let's say you took 6 of your favorite movies - for argument's sake, lets choose "Amistad", "Amadeus", "The China Syndrome", "As Good As It Gets", "Blade Runner" and "Avatar" (this is a loose approximation of films and plotlines that nearly match the time periods represented here...) and imagine that you cut up all of those films into little clips, and strung them all together (while still maintaining the proper narrative order for each film).  Or maybe if youo put those films into a 6-disc changer and hit "shuffle play", and the DVD player was able to jump between all the different chapters in the films.  That's not entirely accurate, but it's close.

For a while, my BFF Andy was saying that he had an idea to cut together clips from three famous Hollywood Christmas films, creating the ultimate holiday movie, "It's a Wonderful Christmas Carol Miracle on 34th St."  I don't know if he was putting me on, or if it would even be possible to arrange scenes from those films into a semi-coherent narrative, or if that would only result in a confusing mess.  Either way,  I'd still like to see the plan for that.  That's sort of what's taking place here.

What's astonishing is that "Cloud Atlas" isn't more of a confusing mess.  To some degree it is exactly that, a huge confusing mess - but if you are able to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream with it, there MIGHT be a larger work of art here - and I'm thinking along the lines of a Picasso or a Jackson Pollock - that's visible or even intangible.  Is there a larger point being made here? 

If so, it's one of those things that you'll never see by looking directly at it.  It's very bright, like looking at the sun, so you have to look sort of in its direction, or shield your eyes somehow.  To paraphrase it, because I think that's the best that I can do, it's sort of about rising up, battling the powers that be, or the conventions that are somehow keeping people down, and that's a noble cause in any era.  This is why I don't think that the dates of the segments are an accident - in 1849 the issue is slavery, in 1936 it has to do with gay rights as well as taking credit for creating music, in 1973 it's fossil fuels vs. nuclear power, in 2012 it's people being abused in a nursing home, in 2144 we're back to slavery (only with Korean clones/replicants this time) and in the post-apocalyptic future, nomadic tribesmen are threatened by a group of crazy cannibals.

The question becomes, in each era, what's it going to take for an individual to rise up and revolt?  Even if that revolt is largely personal or theoretical, what's it going to take for you to fight the powers that be?  There's a very telling quote somewhere in here that says, "we see ourselves only through the eyes of others" - and isn't that the very nature of fiction?  We see the stories of other people, and we take them in, and we draw from them, and we use them to define ourselves.  And what do we see in those stories?  Well, they're probably not going to focus on the boring days, the days where nothing happened - they're going to be about revolt and revolution, or the days we decided to get up off our asses and DO something about our situation.

Plus there's another principle at play here, something as elusive as water running through your hands - it's the realization that our actions DO have consequences, sometimes ones that reach far beyond our own lifespans, and that's a very easy thing to forget on a daily basis.  Every moment is a chance to change the future - acts of kindness can have effects that we can't see, ones that could even impact future generations. Meanwhile, crimes or acts of savagery may seem more prevalent, to the point where they become part of the daily grind, essentially background noise, but eventually there comes a tipping point where right-thinking people have had just about enough of that, thanks.  And then we create these ripples through our actions that have the potential to resonate for years to come - if we're doing it right, that is.

The film falls just shy of defining this process, whether you call it karma or schadenfreude or whatever - maybe if you define it, you kill it.  Maybe there's no proper word for the way the universe works, because none of us can truly see it or be able to properly understand it, so how could we possibly define it?  Since none of us know what's outside the scope of our pathetic knowledge, why did we, as a society, let a small bunch of religious nutcases try to define concepts that they couldn't possibly understand?  How do we know that we all aren't just essentially bacteria living on a giant organism called Earth?  Or we're all just ants in an ant-farm, or exhibits in an alien zoo or just brains in a lab somewhere?

But I digress.  You may just want to watch this to see the same actors taking on different roles (a handy visual guide is provided during the end credits, so you can see who played who in each scenario...)  Some of this probably is very controversial, since a black woman played a white woman, and several Caucasian actors played Asian roles, with make-up altering their eyes.  If blackface is wrong, then whiteface (and "yellowface") should also be wrong - unless you consider this an exercise in challenging stereotypes.  (Nope, still wrong on some level.)  I remember years ago when the actor Jonathan Pryce got cast in the Broadway production of "Miss Saigon", and was going to wear make-up that altered his eyes.  Oh, the Asian Actors Union had a field day with that - why couldn't they hire an ASIAN actor to play a (half-)Asian character?  Well, they hired the guy for his singing and acting ability, not the shape of his eyes.  If you want racially-blind casting, it's got to go both ways.  If you want Asian actors up for non-Asian parts, what's wrong with going the other way?  Besides, the character was Half-Asian, so what else can you do?  (Nope, still wrong on some level.)

When it's all over and the jigsaw puzzle is completed (I'd stop reading here if you want to truly experience this for yourself, with no spoilers.  Seriously, stop now and I won't mind a bit.  This could be a very personal journey of understanding for some people and I don't want to influence it...) and you can see the big picture, some of the patterns are clear.  You might realize that each of the film's 6 feature actors is essentially the focal point of one of the segments, and the other actors are woven in and out of their stories.  An actor might be the star of one segment, and a background player in another.  What's curious is that each of the 6 central characters has a similarly shaped birthmark - so if there's any nod here toward rebirth or reincarnation, or history repeating itself, it's among those 6 souls.  You might think that the 6 characters who look like Tom Hanks are meant to be the same soul, but that's just one interpretation - it ain't necessarily so.

I did pick up on something of an agenda - it's no secret that Lana Wachowski, one of the directors, was born Larry Wachowski, so I think that does put something of a spin on this, especially when you see male characters played by women and vice-versa.  And if there's one letter I have trouble comprehending in the LGBT acronym, I freely admit that it's the "T".  (How do you KNOW you feel like a woman trapped in a man's body?  How do you KNOW you'll feel better if you get the surgery?  And if gender is arbitrary and just a social construct, then why do you feel the need to change it?)  But maybe that's something I'm reading into this, I fully understand that there are many ways to interpret this film, one of which might be to write it off as a big, confusing mess and then continue to ignore it.

And at the end of the day, I think that's what we've got here - a big, confusing mess, but when you take a step back from it and look at it when it's done, somehow it's got flashes of brilliance to it.  To really appreciate all of the connections between the stories, it definitely demands multiple viewings, even though it clocks in at nearly three hours.  Go figure.

I wonder if, at some point, it makes sense to watch the 6 stories one at a time, starting with the oldest and working forward in time.  Something akin to the "Godfather Saga" cut where the flashbacks were all put into proper linear order and you could really trace the rise of Don Corleone, without it being interspersed with Michael's story. I'd be curious to see if the 6 individual stories could each stand on their own, or if it's really the non-linear storytelling device here that elevates the entire project.

Also starring Tom Hanks (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), Jim Broadbent (last heard in "Arthur Christmas"), Jim Sturgess (last seen in "One Day"), Hugo Weaving (last seen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"), Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw (last seen in "Skyfall"), Hugh Grant (last seen in "The Remains of the Day"), Susan Sarandon (last seen in "Cradle Will Rock"), Keith David (last seen in "Where the Heart Is"), James D'Arcy, David Gyasi, Xun Zhou.

RATING: 6 out of 10 journal entries

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cliffhanger

Year 6, Day 198 - 7/17/14 - Movie #1,794

BEFORE:  Now it's Stallone's turn to carry over.  Let's keep the big, dumb action movies coming, because it is summer, after all.  What better time to watch a movie about climbing on snow-covered mountains?  If I just sit really close to the air conditioner while I watch this, it'll become an interactive experience, right?

 THE PLOT:  A botched mid-air heist results in suitcases full of cash being searched for by various groups throughout the Rocky Mountains.

AFTER: I didn't mind this one nearly as much as I thought I would.  I initially added this to the list just because I was looking for another movie to burn on the DVD with "Daylight", and now it ends up as part of a chain, and a link to tomorrow's film.  It's almost like my lizard scheduling brain knows what to do, even if it's by accident.

I wonder if the crashed plane in "Expendables 2" was a reference to this film - even though the prizes within the planes were different, both were accessible only by a constantly changing time-coded lock.  I've never seen that device before in a film, and now here it is, two nights in a row. 

A lot of expressive ham-acting tonight from one of my favorite actors, John Lithgow.  I guess someone felt they had to make up for Stallone's lack of expression by getting Lithgow to over-compensate.  Or maybe that's just the character, someone delusional enough to think that getting ahold of 100 million dollars would be tantamount to world domination.  Not in 1993 dollars, anyway.  His character here seems about as clueless and hyper-dramatic as Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films, which is somewhat unfortunate.  Sometimes less is more, guys.

NITPICK POINT: Something's bugging me about the money.  3 cases containing $100 million, in thousand-dollar bills?  It would take 1,000 bills of that denomination to equal $1 million, and therefore 100 times that to equal $100 million.  So 100,000 bills.  I think that stack of money would be larger than you think, and wouldn't fit in three cases of that size.  Plus they state that the money is uncirculated, and couldn't be spent.  So then why is so much care taken in transporting it, and why does the villain want it?  They sort of explain this by saying he has the "resources" to properly spend the money - which would be what, exactly?  How come he can spend the money but nobody else can?

NITPICK POINT #2: They set this up by showing a failed rescue attempt, wherein a climber's girlfriend is stranded on a remote mountaintop, and they try to rescue her by helicopter.  She's expected to enter the helicopter by going hand-over-hand while hanging from a wire going straight across.  Since she was an inexperienced climber, why couldn't they just make the helicopter a little lower, turning the level line into a zip-line?

Then again, I don't know much about rescue operations, mountain climbing, or any survival skills for that matter.  Maybe that's for the best - an experienced person would probably find many more N.P.'s than I did.  (Besides, lowering the helicopter might have sent her sliding right into the copter blades, for all I know...)

Of particular note is the vast number of times that someone in this film, hero or villain, is trying to sneak around or do something quietly, and ends up either screaming or firing a weapon, or both.  No one seems to understand the concept of stealth, plus it is avalanche country - every loud noise you make could be a huge mistake.

Also starring John Lithgow (last seen in "Ricochet"), Michael Rooker (last seen in "Tombstone"), Janine Turner, Rex Linn (last seen in "Wyatt Earp"), Ralph Waite, Leon, Caroline Goodall, Paul Winfield (last seen in "Presumed Innocent"), Max Perlich.

RATING: 5 out of 10 tracking devices