Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Despite a somewhat gimmicky plot device used to gather the casts of both sets of "X-Men" films - that is, the original cast featuring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as well as the actors playing their younger selves, including James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, from more recent entries - "Days of Future Past" is a mostly fun summer spectacle movie and certainly better than the major studios' other releases so far this season, such as "Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Neighbors" and "Godzilla."

In this latest "X-Men," which is the seventh of a series that has included three original films as well as a reboot and two spinoffs, the original team of super heroes (Stewart, etc.) are somewhere off in the future battling gigantic robot-like creatures known as sentinels that have laid waste to the planet.

The sentinels, so we are told, were first created in 1973 by a man named Trask (Peter Dinklage) in 1973 as a means to destroy mutants, who he believes to be dangerous. A complete rundown of the film's plot would threaten to take up the entire length of the review, so suffice it to say that one of the superheroes - Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) - must travel back in time and link up with a drug addled Charles Xavier (McAvoy), spring Magneto (Fassbender) from a high security prison and prevent an assassination courtesy of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).

The whole ripple effect theory is put into motion, meaning that whatever Wolverine and pals do in the past will change the future. He is chosen to lead the mission back in time, by the way, due to his ability to heal quickly.

As I've said, "Days of Future Past" is a bit heavy on the exposition and the film's storyline feels, at times, a little gimmicky - or, rather, an excuse to gather together all "X-Men" past and present into one film. And much like other comic book films of its type, there's not quite enough humor to lessen the complete self-seriousness of it all.

That being said, this latest film is a cut above most of the other comic book movies of late, although I have yet to see the mostly lauded "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." In fact, this latest "X-Men" is better than most of the others in its series. And, thematically, this franchise is a bit more interesting than other superhero movies because the mutants' plight can be a stand-in for any number of ideas, which have more recently been set against historical backdrops.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the annual onslaught of comic book based movies can get a little tiring, especially since so many of them are narratively, thematically and visually indistinguishable. So, it's refreshing to see one that's trying a little harder than the rest. This is one of the good ones.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: Cold in July

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
Jim Mickle's "Cold in July" is a grim and gripping little low budget thriller that is set in the late 1980s and recalls the work of John Carpenter, right down to its pulsating score.

This is one of those types of films that begins in one place and ends up in a completely different one by the culmination of its story and one of the joys of watching the picture is having no idea where it might go from one minute to the next. There are, however, times when the motivation of the film's lead character could be called into question, but no matter. This is not a movie aiming necessarily for realism.

The film, which is set in Texas in 1989, kicks off with family man Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall, of "Dexter") sort-of accidentally gunning down a burglar in his home. Upon visiting the funeral of the man, whom he feels guilty for killing all the while gaining the appreciation of his fellow neighbors, Dane finds out that the dead man has a recently released convict father, Russel (Sam Shepard, exuding menace), who makes some pretty veiled threats to our hero before actually prowling around his home and taunting his family.

But then, a curious thing happens. During a visit to the police station to speak with detectives, Dane notices the name of the man he thought he'd shot in his home next to a picture of a completely different man on a wanted notification posted to a bulletin board. I won't go into details here, but Dane and Russel - along with the ex-con's wily pal named Jim Bob (a shit kicking Don Johnson) - end up joining together to take on a group of sadistic men, one of whom happens to end up being Russel's actual son, who are involved in a snuff film ring. It may sound like a stretch, but I'm obviously omitting some details here.

Plus, as I said, "Cold in July" doesn't purport to be some sort of true crime story - it's straight up pulp, and a bloody one at that. Mickle's previous films were the western vampire picture "Stake Land," which had its moments but ultimately did not work for me, and "We Are What We Are," the remake of the not particularly convincing Spanish film of the same name. He comes into his own with his latest film, which shows great promise for future endeavors.

"Cold in July" is, if nothing else, a trashy good time - and I mean that in the best of ways. It's a solid example of a genre film done the right way.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The first American-made "Godzilla" of the 21st Century (there have been five - yes, five - Japanese-made chronicles of the massive lizard's reign of terror since 2000) is decent enough, although I sorta wanted to like it more than I did. On a technical level, it's pretty impressive. On a human level, well, not as much.

The film was directed by Gareth Edwards, whose feature debut, "Monsters," was a great recent example of a solid sci-fi epic on a modest scale. "Godzilla," on the other hand is a behemoth, filled to the brim with CGI effects - pretty good ones, though - as well as an A-list cast and a two-hour-plus running time.

On the one hand, it's great that the filmmakers have drawn together such a fantastic cast of wonderful actors, including Walter White himself - Bryan Cranston - as well as Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, the always wonderful Sally Hawkins ("Happy Go Lucky" and "Blue Jasmine") and, in the lead, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who played John Lennon in "Nowhere Boy" and - oh hell, if you must make me mention it - Kick Ass.

On the other hand, it's a major shame that these great thespians are given little to do other than shout out expository dialogue for two hours. Cranston gets the most with which to work, portraying a scientist whose wife died during an "accident," of sorts in the Philippines in 1999. Mostly, he rants and raves in the order of a conspiracy theorist, but Cranston - who's so good at his craft - brings the right amount of gravitas and pathos to the role.

Binoche's screen-time nearly amounts to a blip, while Hawkins and Watanabe - two other scientists - merely stand around looking concerned and Strathairn, who portrays a general, gets little to do other than bark out orders. Olsen gets the thankless role of the worried wife and mother who stands around looking shell-shocked when she's not crying into a telephone.

So, it's Taylor-Johnson who has to carry the film and although he doesn't do a bad job as Cranston's military son who must try to travel from Japan to Hawaii and then San Francisco to save his family from several large marauding mutant beings - one of which is Godzilla, the other two being possibly Rodan or something similar enough - he is given little to do other than act stoic and dodge explosions.

That being said, the explosions are handled well as the special effects are pretty top notch for this type of spectacle, despite that they are, perhaps, in overabundance. And Godzilla looks great, better than he's ever looked in a film, to be honest.

I won't get into the plot because, well, there's little to say other than: giant lizard and two winged foes emerge from the deep, wreak havoc on cities and humans react accordingly.

All in all, it's not a bad summer movie, but I wouldn't say it's that much better than any of the other big studio cash-grabs - the comic book spectacle of "Amazing Spider-Man 2" or the high concept raunch comedy "Neighbors" - we've seen during the past few weeks. "Godzilla" is content with being perfectly average. If you're OK with that, then proceed as you will.

Review: Ida

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.
Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida" is set in 1962 - and appropriately as the film looks and feels like some sort of long-lost European art film from that era. I mean that as a compliment.

At 80 minutes, the picture is brief, but packs a massive - though emotionally muted - punch. This is a movie that tells a horrific story, but many years after the fact, leaving its characters to piece together its tragic details.

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a young Polish nun who is nearing the date when she will take her vows. Raised at an orphanage operated by her church, she has seen little of the world and had few life experiences. She learns that she has a distant aunt, Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who was a former state prosecutor during the show trials of the 1950s, and decides to seek her out.

Wanda is not one for affection and is a fan both of the drink and the one night stand. She grudgingly agrees to rehash the past with her niece and tells Anna that her name is, in fact, Ida and that her parents, both of whom died during World War II, were Jewish.

The two women set out on a mini odyssey to find a man whom Wanda claims can give them information on where Anna/Ida's parents lived, died and were buried. They come into contact with a Catholic family living in the countryside who have some secrets to hide. I wouldn't dare give away the revelations that slowly trickle out during the course of the story, but suffice it to say they make for a stunning story of identity discovery.

The film, which was shot in black in white, is visually gorgeous and the performances, although purposefully subtle, are strong. "Ida" is a small film that had not been preceded by much fanfare and played at only a few smaller film festivals. It is now being revered by most critics and rightfully so. It's the type of wonderful discovery that comes along once in a while and becomes a surprise hit via word of mouth. I doubt those who seek it out will be able to shake off this haunting little film.

Review: The Immigrant

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company
With "The Immigrant," James Gray (director of "Two Lovers" and "We Own the Night") has made his best film to date, a visually gorgeous, remarkably acted and very powerful tale of a Polish woman who, with her sister, attempts to enter the United States at Ellis Island in 1921.

The picture acts as a counterpoint to all those tales you've heard about those sailing from far-away lands, ending up in the U.S. and achieving the American Dream. This is not one of those stories.

Marion Cotillard gives one of her finest performances as Ewa, whose sister is kept in a hospital to be treated for tuberculosis while she herself is nearly deported after an official deems her of "low morals" and questions why she is not traveling with a man.

She ends up being rescued by one - a man, that is - but soon ends up regretting it. Bruno Weiss (a terrific Joaquin Phoenix), a producer of burlesque shows and pimp, agrees to vouch for Ewa and provides her with a place to stay, though she soon learns for a steep price.

Although given to fits of rage and unruly behavior, Bruno is not a violent man - at least, not toward Ewa, whom he seems to grow to care for, despite his exploiting her. Instead, he plays on Ewa's vulnerability - her sister's well-being - by convincing her that the money she earns from turning tricks will eventually be able to pay for her sister's admittance into the country.

Gray does a fabulous job of capturing the look and feel of the Lower East Side of the 1920s with a visual style that is reminiscent of Sergio Leone's masterpiece "Once Upon a Time in America" and the the first half of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather Part II." The details of the film's period look are amazing, right down to the theater where Bruno's burlesques are held and the cramped apartment that Ewa shares with Bruno and several of the other women who work for him.

Then, in walks Emil (Jeremy Renner) - or, Orlando the Magician - a relative of Bruno's who is the exact opposite, possibly hinting at a romantic interest or even savior for Ewa, who confesses her sins in a church confessional, but admits to a priest that she'll first "burn in hell" before not having the money to pay for her sister's recovery. His entrance leads to further complications for Ewa - namely, jealousy on Bruno's part - that threaten to bring her stay in the U.S. to an end. On the one hand, she wants to flee from Bruno, but Emil might seem a bit too good to be true.

Those critical of the picture will likely draw attention to the fact that Ewa's concerns are all played out in the form of melodrama, which is completely true. But that doesn't take away from the movie's emotional resonance, hypnotic power and lush visuals. Melodrama is often viewed as a semi-disreputable genre, much like horror and science fiction once were. But when done correctly, as it is here, it works. And it certainly does not detract from the story, which isn't based on a true case as far as I'm aware, though it may as well have been.

The film's opening shot is of the Statue of Liberty surrounded by mist and its final shot alone is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. This is a great movie and one of the year's best.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Review: Palo Alto

Image courtesy of Tribeca Film.
It's difficult being a teen in a world of creepy adults. That's one of the thoughts that ran through my head while watching Gia Coppola's debut, "Palo Alto." Another was the old adage about youth being wasted on the young.

To her credit, Coppola does a pretty decent job of capturing the way youths talk amongst themselves, view adults and use humor to hide feelings. For better or worse, I thought to myself while watching the film that this was the way teenagers often sound.

The filmmaker takes some visual, musical and editing cues from her older cousin, Sofia Coppola, who has become one of cinema's best chroniclers of the lives of young people. One of the problems I had with "Palo Alto" was that while its portrayal of teenagers was pretty spot-on, the filmmakers do little to distinguish it from other films of this genre. It often feels too similar to Sofia Coppola's work or other recent films about youth, such as "The Myth of the American Sleepover."

On the other hand, the cast is up to the task. Emma Roberts is particularly convincing as April, a young woman drifting through school who gets involved with her soccer coach (James Franco in a creepy role), while Jack Kilmer - son of Val, who is also present here as April's stoner stepdad - excels as Teddy, a talented artist with two strikes against him after a drunken driving accident. There's also Teddy's friend, Fred (Nat Wolff), a reckless boy who steers his friend in the wrong direction and mistreats young women, and Emily (Zoe Levin), who allows boys to use her.

There's little in the way of story here, which is not a bad thing as the film takes a naturalistic approach to the material. Rather, the film seems to float through a few weeks in the lives of these characters as they plan their futures or, in some cases, fail to do so.

Coppola clearly has talent, especially with actors, so I wouldn't be surprised if her second feature surpasses this one. "Palo Alto" is often lovely to look at and has a dreamy end of summer feel to it, but it ultimately comes off as too stylistically familiar to slightly better pictures of its type to make it stand out. It's the type of film that I could almost recommend.

Review: Neighbors

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
* Note: I couldn't find any publicity stills of "Neighbors" that didn't feature the title and "In Theaters May 9" slapped across them, so I'm stuck with this one. It doesn't look great, but alas.

The thing about "Neighbors" is that it's funny enough - if not quite the onslaught of hilarity that you may have heard it is. Yes, it's funnier than a majority of the comedies that Hollywood will dish out this year, which isn't saying a whole lot. On the laugh-o-meter, it comes nowhere close to "Bridesmaids," the gold standard of the past few years, but it's slightly better than the extremely overrated "The Hangover."

I admit to having laughed out loud on several occasions - one particular moment involving a ceiling fan was particularly guffaw-inspiring - and had a good enough time during the film. But reading some of the reviews, you'd think that the critics who watched this film had stumbled upon some long lost reel of Buster Keaton.

In other words, the film is clever enough without breaking any new ground or distinguishing itself from the pack. It follows the story of that 30s couple you likely know who always talks about how old they feel. Here, they are played by Seth Rogen, the everyman of stilted adulthood, and Rose Byrne, who gets to show off her comedic chops and nearly steals the show from all the boys. They have a young baby girl on a nice quiet neighborhood in California. That is, until a rowdy frat house moves in next door.

The fraternity's president is played by Zac Effron, who is given more opportunities than Taylor Lautner in any given "Twilight" film to show off his enviable abs. Other frat brothers include Dave Franco, who can perform a magic trick of sorts with his... well, moving on. There's also Christopher Mintz-Plasse, whom we are told has a sizable... yes, moving on again.

Rogen and Byrne decide to attempt to be "cool" with their new neighbors, bringing over a complimentary joint and asking them to keep it down. Effron's frat boy asks them to call him first if the house gets too loud, rather than calling the police. But once that promise is later broken, the couple and the frat boys engage in a tit for tat that gets increasingly out of control.

"Neighbors" engages in the same outrageous bodily function-type of humor that you'd expect from this kind of film. But what makes is slightly more engaging and likable than others of its type is that its characters are developed a little more than you'd typically find in a raunchy comedy and that none of them are flat-out bad people. In fact, a bromance, of sorts, between Rogen and Effron before things turn ugly adds a sweet nature to the proceedings and a few good laughs as they compare Christian Bale and Michael Keaton's Batman.

The jokes come a mile-a-minute during the movie and while some are pretty funny (that aforementioned ceiling fan during a fight sequence that's pretty all-around funny), others fall flat ( a series of celebrity impressions that ends in one that's a little in bad taste). All in all, "Neighbors" works well enough, but I'd say it's too early to proclaim this the comedy of the summer.

Review: Devil's Knot

Image courtesy of Image Entertainment.
Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot" is a respectfully done - although containing one quite shocking moment - feature film version of a story that has been told through numerous documentaries at this point - that of the horrific 1993 murders at Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas.

For those unfamiliar with the case, which was chronicled in Joe Berlinger's "Paradise Lost" documentaries as well as Amy Berg's "West of Memphis," three young boys disappeared and were later found bound, naked and mutilated, leading investigators - through botched police work - to arrest teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The young men, who spent nearly 20 years in prison before being released in 2011, were targeted primarily because two of them rebelled against their Bible Belt town by listening to heavy metal music, dressing in black and purporting to worship Satan.

In the film, Reese Witherspoon plays the religious mother of one of the murdered boys, while Colin Firth plays an investigator who thinks something is fishy about the police work involved and begins working for the attorneys representing Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

The first half of the film recreates the young boys going missing, the search and, finally, discovery of their bodies, which is presented in a sequence that is sure to shock some. Much of the rest of the picture is a courtroom drama, during which evidence continues to stack up that should exonerate the three suspects and, perhaps, incriminate a few others. But those familiar with the documentaries made about this case know that the trial became a witch hunt and the police appeared intent enough on finding a scapegoat for the murders to satisfy the town, rather than actually solving the case.

The performances in the film are all pretty good and the subject matter is compelling enough to keep viewers interested. But the problem with "Devil's Knot" is that its story has been exhausted through the four documentaries made on the case and that it doesn't necessarily bring anything new to the table.

One of Egoyan's fascinations has long been the way a tragedy affects a small town. His 1997 masterpiece "The Sweet Hereafter" is a solemnly haunting tale of how a school bus crashed completely unraveled a tight knit community. "Devil's Knot" aims to do the same and while its subject matter is compelling, it's all been done before and more successfully in the documentary format. We learn nothing new about Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, whose characters are the thinnest of any in this picture, and the filmmaker's decision to focus primarily on their trial, excluding virtually everything about the suspects' 20-year struggle to clear their names, mutes some of the story's power.

Review: The Double

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Richard Ayoade's sophomore feature, "The Double," is certainly a step up from his debut, the overly quirky "Submarine," but it's still missing something.

There's much to appreciate in the film, which is based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky novel, if you can believe that. The picture often looks great and its cinematography and art direction feel as if they should be in a Jean Pierre Jeunet or Terry Gilliam feature.

And Jesse Eisenberg gives a strong performance - or two - as the titular character and his doppelganger, who shows up and wreaks havoc on his life. In the film, Simon James (Eisenberg) is an intelligent young man who works in an office straight out of "Bartleby" with a slightly oppressive boss (Wallace Shawn) and a girl (Mia Wasikowska) with whom he is smitten.

We first meet Simon on a subway. He is sitting in his seat when a man, whose face we never see, tells Simon that he is in his seat. Our protagonist, being a shy and meek individual, appears ready to protest, but instead gives up his seat on the nearly empty train.

One day, a new employee named James Simon (Eisenberg) - who, obviously, looks exactly like Simon - shows up at work and begins stealing Simon's thunder by pilfering his ideas, schmoozing up to his boss and making passes at his love interest. The film becomes more Kafka-esque as it goes along until Simon begins to contemplate murdering his dead ringer nemesis.

On a surface level, "The Double" works - it's great to look at, the performances are solid, it's often funny and is intriguing. So, it's a shame when the film ultimately does not add up to much. This is, of course, not a criticism of Dostoevsky's work, but rather how the filmmakers use his material.

A much more effective study of the same type of story is Denis Villeneuve's "Enemy," a creepy thriller starring Jake Gylenhaal that was released earlier this year. That film also played with themes of identity, but much more successfully, and included an unforgettable finale. "The Double" carries you along well enough during its short running time, but ultimately this existentially dark comedy leaves you questioning what its creators are attempting to convey.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The issue with "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is not that it doesn't do its thing well, but that it's entirely too familiar. We've seen it all before.

To be fair, this sequel has a few decent action sequences and some decent interaction between its characters - that is, when they are not surrounded by explosions in the background or villains firing upon them.

The picture starts with a prelude that discloses the fates of Peter Parker's father (Campbell Scott) and mother as they attempt to keep the top secret project on which they were working out of the hands of Norman Osborn (Chris Cooper).

When we catch up with Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), he is battling baddies on the street - in this instance, a demented Russian gangster played by Paul Giamatti - and running late for his graduation, at which girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) is given the valedictory speech. Peter will spend much of the film sulking over not knowing his parents' fate.

But since this is a comic book blockbuster, new villains are introduced and much mayhem is wreaked, rather than spending much time on the actual life of its protagonist and those close to him. So, this time around we have a nerdy scientist (Jaime Foxx), who turns into a electricity-wielding maniac after a freak accident as well as Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), an old friend of Peter's who returns to take over his father's company before being transformed into the Green Goblin.

There are high flying battles over the skyscrapers of Manhattan as Spider-Man fights Electro, who can hover through the air via electricity, and the Goblin, who zips around on a flying contraption. Meanwhile, back down on earth, Peter is feeling guilty for having promised Gwen's deceased father (Dennis Leary) not to put his daughter in harm's way, leading to a rift in the couple's relationship.

In one of the film's more satisfying sequences, the indispensable Sally Field (who plays Aunt May) tells Peter what she knows about his parents' fate in a scene that earns some genuine emotion. In several others, Peter and Gwen flirt via witty banter before taking a serious turn to discuss their relationship. It's in these scenes that "Spider-Man" comes alive.

And it's not that the rest of the film fails - it's competently shot, features some well executed action sequences, etc. - but we've seen most of this before. Comic book movies are beginning to look and feel too similar to be able to distinguish one from the other and their story lines are becoming increasingly simplistic as their special effects sequences become more elaborate. For example, in Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" films, the friendship between Peter and Harry Osborn was better introduced than it is here, so it was a bit more significant when Harry (then played by James Franco) then turned to the dark side.

So, while this latest "Spider-Man" is a far cry from a bad movie, it falls pretty short of amazing. It's an average entry into an increasingly overstuffed genre.