Saturday, May 31, 2014

Movie Review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past" by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch

In the second phase of his campaign to restore the X-Men franchise back to its former glory (phase one being 2011's X-Men: Mad Mutants, er...First Class) Bryan Singer personally helms this adaptation of the classic and much-beloved "Days of Future Past" storyline from the original comics.

In a stark and dystopic future all of mutant-kind have been identified, captured and exterminated by a horde of adaptive, man-made robotic watchdogs called the Sentinels. At the behest of Professor X and Magneto, Kitty Pryde uses her phasing powers to send Wolverine's consciousness back through time to 1973. His mission: to get the two arch-rivals to reconcile in a bid to thwart Mystique's assassination of the Sentinel's creator Bolivar Trask.

In The Wheelhouse 

Comic book and, more specifically, X-Men nerds will be all over this like Mr. Fantastic on Sue Storm during their honeymoon. The movie is also a must-see for anyone interested in watching a talented ensemble of actors preside over a brain-twisting time travel story with plenty of thoughtful plotting, solid dialogue, creative direction and colorful spectacle.

The Pros
  • Even though the original "Days of Future Past" storyline is only two issues long, Singer and his writing partner Simon Kinberg manage to flesh out and update the original plot without dragging in a bunch irrelevant mush. Instead of treating their previously-established X-continuity like an albatross around their necks, they took these limitations as a challenge to forge a new timeline. The manage to color within the lines and knit together a bunch of disparate plot threads while dispensing with the problematic ones. 
  • Notwithstanding the creative license provided by all those wacky mutant powers, the action scenes are incredibly colorful, dynamic and thrilling. Then when you throw visually compelling characters like Blink (Fan Bingbing) into the mix, these centerpieces become even more engaging. Believe it or not, this is one of the very few comic book movies that actually shows a team of super-powered heroes using their abilities in tandem to defeat a common foe. 
  • I'm pleased that the unexpected success of First Class gave the producers of this film enough clout to properly bankroll the epic scope of Days of Future Past. The flawless special effects, myriad of real-world locations and 70's era props and costumes look pretty durned convincing, even with l'il ol' Montreal standing in for Paris.  
  • Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer's scheme to inexorably link the X-Men's origins with real historic events and personages continues to pay dividends. Not only does this honor the original source material by respecting Magneto's concentration camp internment and the genesis of the original comic book back in 1963 but it also grounds these wildly fantastic stories in reality. Bonus points for the conspiracy-licious JFK mention, by the way.  
  • The principal actors alone make this film compulsively watchable. Logan, a.k.a. Hugh Jackman completes his journey from violent wildcard to responsible leader. Young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) presides over a tremendous character arc that sees him go from a self-pitying mobility addict to a selfless and resolute idealist. For this stage in Mystique's life, Jennifer Lawrence is a good fit: she's lithe, dangerous and passionate yet still betrays a hint of fragility and self-doubt. Peter Dinklage is also wonderful as Bolivar Trask. His casting and performance are both inspired, leading the audience to suspect that Trask's mindless goal of quantifying, curtailing and eliminating mutancy may be driven by a healthy dollop of self-loathing. I kinda wish Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy / Beast was more Kelsey Grammer and less Terry the Toad from American Graffiti but his Jekyll / Hyde take on the character is still kinda cool. Personally, I would have cast him as a young Scott Summers / Cyclops but that's my own personal hang-up. Finally, a subtle and nuanced performance by Michael Fassbender as Magneto keeps us guessing right up to the very end. I love the fact that the screenwriters had the cajones to remain true to the character's bleak world-view.  
  • The film is loaded with tons of insular comic book lore and geeky visual minutia. Since the film takes place back in 1973, Wolverine is pre-"Weapon X" here so he's still sporting bone claws and downright giddy whenever he passes through a metal detector. Having said that he still experiences a well-timed panic attack when confronted by his future tormentor William Striker, played here by Josh Holman. We also get some welcome appearances by Halle Berry as Storm, Omar Sy as Bishop, Daniel Cudmore as Colossus, Adan Canto as Sunspot, Booboo (!) Stewart as Warpath, Evan Jonigkeit as Toad and others that I wouldn't reveal if I was water-boarded. Bonus points: Shawn Ashmore finally gets to go full-on Iceman!
  • Like a young Jack White on a cocaine bender, Evan Peters of American Horror Story fame deserves special mention as Quicksilver. Blessed with a truly-memorable fight scene that showcases the proper creative application of top-notch digital special-effects, Peters sets the bar pretty darned high for any future incarnations of the character. I'm lookin' at you Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The gauntlet has officially been thrown down, my friend. 
  • Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Ellen Page are all great. In other news: bears are still shitting in the woods.
  • Just by its very existence, Days of Future Past justifies all of the venom and derision that's been heaped upon the brain-damaged head of X-Men: The Last Stand over the years. Instead of assuming that the audience has the attention span of a toddler at a portrait studio and cramming two (or even three!) completely separate plot-lines into one script, Singer and company pick one angle and go with it. In fact, the highest praise I can give to Days of Future Past is that it retcons the justifiably-loathed X3 right out of existence.
  • Bombastic and confrontational scenes between McAvoy and Fassbender contrast nicely with some great, smart introspective moments. Investing in quiet moments of character development like this pays off in spades when things go completely batshit nuts during the climax and large chunks of A-list real estate starts flying around.  

  • In their mad quest to redact X3 it looks as if the events of the first two X-Men flicks were also "Bobby Ewing-ed" into oblivion. This endows upon me the mutant power of UNCONTROLLABLE RAGE. 
The Bottom Line

Ever since Bryan Singer made the mistake of throwing over the X-Men franchise to produce the slavishly-unmemorable Superman Returns, it seems as if he's been on a one-man crusade to set things to rights. Thanks to an engaging, tight and well-groomed script, I'm pleased to report that Singer has succeeded in fixing the time line in more ways then one.

  Tilt: up.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Movie Review "Godzilla" (2014) by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch

"A massive, ancient creature fueled by radioactivity wakes up and then proceeds to make life complicated for anyone within driving distance of the Pacific Ocean. Godzilla guest stars."

The Wheelhouse

If you're allergic to bad dubbing or if you roll your eyes at the sight of a dude dressed up in a giant rubber lizard suit stomping HO-scale buildings into matchsticks, then you'll probably be more predisposed to this take on the subject matter. Conversely, if you're discriminating enough to require real, three-dimensional human characters to identify with in a two-hour long film about giant monsters wrasslin' with one another, then you can consider this time well-spent.

The Pros
  • The film kicks off with a genuine sense of gravitas thanks to the presence of high-caliber actors like Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe. When the ball gets passed off to the young-un's, a bulked-up Aaron Taylor-Johnson (of Kick-Ass fame) rises to the occasion as an engaging, self-assured and highly-capable lead. Pity his on-screen wife Elizabeth Olsen spends most of her screen time in the shadow of special effects 'cuz she's pretty darned good as well.
  • Monsters director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting partner Max Borenstein exhibit a palpable level of respect for Godzilla and his sixty-year cinematic lineage. Beyond references to 1954, Bikini Atoll and Dr. Serizawa, a portion of the film actually takes place in Japan. A Japan seemingly over-run with gaijin, but Japan nonetheless.
  • I was worried about the monster's new appearance since the toys and preliminary art made the "Big G" kinda look like a club-footed, flabby-limbed "Person of Wal-Mart". Although I still prefer the more traditional 1954, Godzilla 2000 or All Out Attack designs, this new version certainly succeeds at depicting our scaly hero as a truly colossal, shambling juggernaut of brute force instead of some scrawny, jut-jawed overgrown iguana. 
  • Speaking of ol' G.I.N.O., this new film takes deliberate steps to avoid the arrogant mistakes made by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin back in 1998. This is the Godzilla fans were expecting to see back then: a clumsy, lumbering, invulnerable force of nature. The producers also do justice to his iconic roar and his, shall we say, ranged attack. In fact, the few times in which Godzilla busts out his most famous party trick it results in a sincerely thrilling stand-up-and-cheer kinda moment.      
  • The special effects are both special and quite effective. The scenes of devastation in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Waikiki and the fictional Janjira are all completely convincing. The monster battles are creatively staged and convey a primal fear of titanic power. Our highly-vaunted weapons of mass destruction come across as comically inept and the on-screen physics they're subjected to feel disturbingly genuine. It's a damned good thing that the special effects guys got this right because if it looked fake, things would quickly become surreal, abstract and, ultimately, disengaging.  
  • The film is actually reasonably well-plotted and contains a few unexpected and welcome revelations. Above and beyond pulling a Janet Leigh on us, the script side-steps the sort of plot pitfalls that most modern Hollywood blockbusters thrive on. Just when it looks as if we're going to re-live that hoary old trope of "moronic military versus the beatific scientists", something miraculous happens which completely alters our expectations. Words can't describe how refreshing this is to me.
  • Although I'm not particularly crazy about the M.U.T.O.'s design, the creature's ability to deliver an electromagnetic pulse is a brilliant new concept which results in a few memorable and scary moments.
  • Gareth Edwards brings some tremendous artistic flourishes to the film. I really appreciate the creative and visually-arresting main title sequence, the use of György Ligeti's "Requiem" during the H.A.L.O. drop and the the low-angled shots which really help to convey the sheer size and scale of these creatures. Also, taking a cue from the original 1954 film, there are some truly inspired moments of sound design here. Compare and contrast Godzilla's bladder-shaking roar with the minimalistic noise of only tracer fire during his big reveal in Hawaii.  
The Cons
  • How 'bout this neat n' tidy little exchange of redact-alicious dialogue: Dr. Serizawa: "In 1954, we awakened something." Vivienne: "All of those nuclear tests in the Pacific? Not tests." Dr. Serizawa: "They were trying to kill it." Y'know, if it wasn't so damned brilliant I'd feel compelled to hunt down screenwriter Max Borenstein and kick him right in the cubes for fictionally excusing America's real reason for setting off atomic bombs all over the South Pacific during the 1950's. It might seem inordinately clever to exonerate your country like this but it also completely and totally dismantles the original film's social commentary if not its entire raison d'être. Hey, Max, just because you can do something clever it doesn't necessarily mean that you should.
  • The harrowing early scenes at the Janjira nuclear power plant bring to mind the still-painful Fukushima disaster. This would have a been a perfect opportunity to inject some much-needed social commentary into the film but, alas, the possibility is quickly dispensed with and it's right back to the action.  
  • Even though it's Godzilla's name on the marquee, he comes off as a second banana here. Scroll back up and re-watch the trailer again. Go ahead, I'll just wait here. Okay, didja watch it? Wanna know a little secret? Most of the destruction you see in the trailer wasn't actually caused by Godzilla. And that's just lame. 
  • Americans are creatively bankrupt compared to the inspired lunacy of Japanese monster makers. The M.U.T.O.'s, I.E. the unfortunate and unexpected real stars of the film, look like a boring amalgam between the Cloverfield monster and the critter from Super 8. Fans hoping to see a wildly-original, bat-shit crazy design like Gigan, Biollante, Destoroyah or King Ghidorah will likely be disappointed.
  • Because of all the bait-and-switch emphasis placed on the M.U.T.O.s, the first quarter of the film comes across as needlessly muddled. Honestly, looking back I still can't tell you exactly what origin story belongs to what monster and who exactly did what. 
  • Look, I'm all for a slow-burn lead-in to our boy's big reveal but after the third or fourth fleeting glimpse of Godzilla, this technique really started to get on my nerves.  
  • In the original Showa series it took about five or six films before Godzilla went from "wrath of God" to defender of the Earth. Here it happens within the space of two hours. Sorry, but I like my Godzilla more heel then hero. 

The Bottom Line  

Despite all my belly-achin', Godzilla is a surprisingly well-made flick. The direction is tight, the cast is excellent, the special effects are top-notch and the script respects the original concept while striving for do something different.

It's a refreshing palate-cleanser that makes amends for that Kaiju-sized celluloid turd that got dropped on our collective heads back in 1998. Regardless of the film's flaws, at least the creature up on the screen can be identified as Godzilla.

I just wish he'd actually been on-screen a little bit more.  

      Tilt: down.


Monday, May 19, 2014

Movie Review: "Gojira" (1954) by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch

By peppering the South Pacific with H-Bombs, asshole Americans dislodge a colossal, prehistoric, pissed-off mutant dinosaur with atomic breath from its underwater habitat. How pissed off is he? Have you ever taken a cold shower? Well multiply that by about a hundred; that's how pissed off this guy is.

The monster, known in local legend as "Gojira", warms up by destroying a huge chunk of the Japanese shipping fleet and then wanders onshore where he kicks the shit out of Tokyo and lights everything on fire. When conventional means of destruction (tanks, fighter planes, electricity, sarcasm) fail to destroy the creature, the human protagonists must convince a tortured scientist to use his secret doomsday device on the creature, knowing that tragic results are inevitable.

The Wheelhouse

Anyone with a still-intact inner child will probably dig this flick. How can you go wrong with giant, fire-breathing, radioactive lizard with atomic breath? Fans of 50's era monster-on-the-loose type movies will also be predisposed to this one. 

On a deeper level, if you've only seen the crappy North American edit (a.k.a. Godzilla: King of the Monsters) which shoe-horned footage of Raymond Burr into the film and atrociously re-dubbed all of the Japanese cast, then you owe it to yourself to see this version instead. Bonus points: the original director's cut also features a strong anti-nuke message and calls out the indiscriminate testing of atomic weapons.

The Pros
  • The film's sound design is terrific. As soon as the credits roll we get Akira Ifukube's iconic score punctuated by Godzilla's trademark roar, which, interestingly enough, was achieved by rubbing a resin-covered leather glove across the strings of a double bass and then under-cranking the playback. It's a profoundly discordant and unsettling auditory experience and it really sets the tone for the entire film.
  • Shot in moody black and white by cinematographer Masao Tamai, the film feels atmospheric, oppressive and dire; kind of like a living nightmare.
  • The cast might not be perfect but they're still quite appealing. Akira Takarada is kinda wooden as Ogata, but he's still a solid generic hero type. Momoko Kōchi is sweet and earnest as Emiko and despite the fact that she quickly gets annoying (see "Cons" below), at least her character is integral to the plot. Takashi Shimura is great as Dr. Yamane. At first he's enthusiastic and amazed by the discovery of Gojira and keen to share his knowledge about the creature. But when it becomes clear that everyone wants the monster dead, Shimura takes on the disposition of someone betrayed. Finally, Akihiko Hirata is great as the twitchy and sweaty Dr. Serizawa. The script puts the character in the worst imaginable place and Hirata sells this to the hilt.
  • Gojira gets a very nice little build-up. After plenty of tantalizing references to missing links, radioactivity, giant footprints and trilobites we get a brief glimpse of him about twenty-one minutes in and then another short appearance about ten minutes later. Finally the full-out rampage happens around the forty-three minute mark. To me this structure actually kinda hints at the monster's mindset. Sure, the "Big G" sinks a few ships; but you would too if you just got explosively evicted from your Mariana Trench hidey-hole. He only goes totally Battra-shit nuts after the military tries to give him a depth-charge enema. 
  • I can't help but emphasize the surprising levels of social commentary at work here. The original director's cut of Gojira isn't the same mindless, disposable atomic-monster-on-the-loose movie which was clogging up American drive-in theaters at the time. Quite the opposite; the film actually feels like the therapeutic diary of an entire country ravaged by horrible memories. Keep in mind, Gojira was lensed just six short years after suffering a devastating twin nuclear attack. To make matters worse, in 1954 a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru, was horribly irradiated by fallout from an unexpectedly-large nuclear weapons test on Bikini Atoll. Since the Japanese were already painfully aware of the devastating effectiveness of the H-Bomb, they probably couldn't fathom why the Americans were still chucking them around like frozen yogurt coupons. Gojira's message is abundantly clear: if we keep poking Mother Nature in the eye with a pointy stick, eventually she's gonna wake up and stomp a mud-hole in our collective asses. 
  • Just like the monster, the Oxygen Destroyer itself gets a pretty scary and effective introduction. When Dr. Serizawa inadvertently stumbles upon this "Pandora's Box" of a weapon he's so horrified by its potential destructive power that his first impulse is to destroy it. It's almost as if screenwriters Ishirō Honda and Takeo Murata were trying to show us what Robert Oppenheimer and company should have done with The Manhattan Project. And with our own modern society still wresting with big issues such as cloning, artificial intelligence, drones, genetic and technology modification, climate change, privacy issues and the emergence of new super-bugs, the real story of Gojira is just as timely today as it was in the 1950's. In other words: just because science and technology can do something, it doesn't necessarily mean that it should.
  • Even though Odo Island and Tokyo get stomped into oblivion by the equivalent of a wiry Japanese dude in a giant rubber monster suit, the destruction, damage and loss of life is depicted with the utmost respect and horror. Director Ishirō Honda's atmospheric slow pan across the destroyed city-scape of Tokyo brings to mind the still-raw images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During Gojira's devastating attack we see scads of people getting crushed under falling debris and charred alive by the creature's fiery breath. In one heart-rending scene a mom clutches her two children close and tries to re-assure them that "It'll all be over soon!" and "We'll be with your daddy!" Yeeeesh, that's some depressing shit right thur. In the aftermath we see countless shattered bodies, bloodied victims laid out on stretchers and children wailing over their injured parents. Add in a creepy and mournful choir of singing girls and you've got one of the most somber and intense giant monster movies ever made. 
  • Serizawa's quandary is pretty meaty stuff for a film that's often maligned as a cheesy creature feature. Eventually it pays off in a tragic finale that's downright Shakespearean.
  • For the most part, the model work and full-sized monster suit look pretty good. The special effects are aided somewhat by the murky black and white photography. To this day, my favorite photos of Godzilla are promotional stills from this first film:     

Sorry, but my boy looks totally bad-ass with those beady silvery eyes and that gnarly, radiation-scarred hide.

The Cons
  • A lot of the performances can be characterized as "over-ripe" or downright stilted, occasionally resulting in some inadvertent laughs. For example, Emiko bawls at the drop of a hat. Cripes, she even freaks out when a few fish get killed. She must be real drag when you take her out for sushi.    
  • Some of the model work is so chintzy that it kinda devalues the decent script. In one shot, Gojira's fiery breath ignites an entire city block and when the explosive charges go off underneath the set the miniature buildings bounce up off the floor like little cardboard boxes with painted on windows and doors. A few seconds later two "fire engines" (I.E. a pair of Tonka trucks) crash into a wall during a laughably fake-looking scene. 
  • The stock footage used for the large-scale military operations looks decidedly out of place when spliced together with the original footage.
  • There are some really odd moments of dead silence on the soundtrack. Although the cool n' creepy effect it produces is pretty jarring the whole things smacks of a huge technical fuck-up. 
  • As intriguing as the Serizawa sub-plot is, it's pretty turgid stuff for modern audiences to slog through. And even though I appreciate that the film was made w-a-a-a-a-y before Hollywood's current obsession with homogenized story structure, there isn't really a lot of hot monster action. After Gojira's big rampage about two-thirds of the way through the film all we're left with is endless scenes of destruction and a metric shit-ton of exposition. In fact, we only get one more fleeting glimpse of the "Big G" right at the end. 
  • Depending on whether we're seeing just the head, the upper torso, the legs or the full body, Gojira alters his appearance more often then the "Real" Housewives of Miami. In some shots he looks totally bad-ass and in others he looks like Kermit the Frog on a meth bender. 

The Bottom Line

I think the concept of Gojira / Godzilla is a great one, but the idea was probably just slightly ahead of its time. As a result, Godzilla's been in more shitty movies then Adam Sandler.

But this first film is pretty decent. If you're interested in the new Godzilla movie then I highly recommend that you check this one out. Just remember to seek out the original Gojira and avoid that bastardized Perry Mason abortion like a size four-hundred foot-stomp.

Tilt: fifty meters straight up, yo.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Movie Review: "The Thing" (2011) by David Pretty

The Elevator Pitch 

The Thing is the altogether-unnecessary prequel to the classic 1982 sci-fi / horror film. Finally, we get an answer to the thirty-year old question that no-one wanted to ask: what exactly happened to the ill-fated Norwegian research team in their first encounter with the shape-shifting, body-hopping alien menace? 

The Wheelhouse

Fans of John Carpenter's hollowed remake might be tricked, as I was, into watching this garbage. Gorehounds might come sniffing around but will probably end up drifting away in abject boredom. Essentially, if you don't give a shit about such trivial things as pacing, build-up, mood, tension and character development then you might find this flick vaguely distracting.

The Pros 
  • Some of the film looks like it was shot on location and the cold, isolated, desolate setting still makes for the perfect horror picture milieux.
  • The movie does feature a few surreal and ambitious body-warping creature effects which would have been nigh-impossible to produce back in the early 80's. Some of them are actually pretty grotesque, perverse and stomach-churning.
  • Despite being cursed with an uninspired script, Mary Elizabeth Winstead gives a highly-capable performance. She's tough, smart and resolute; almost to a fault since most normal human beings, present company included, would be completely catatonic with fear after witnessing some of this crazy shit. Cripes, even Ellen Ripley had to be work herself up to confronting the Alien. Joel Edgerton is also fairly decent and I love that he spends most of the first half of the film playing second banana to Kate. 
  • Every once in awhile we get shades of the sustained terror that made the original so great. In one of the film's few original moments, the creature's inability to replicate metal is parlayed into a nail-biting sequence involving an impromptu dental check-up.
  • It's pretty obvious that great pains were taken to replicate the environs and visual tone of the original film.
The Cons
  • The hellish, unexplained state of the already-trashed Norwegian research station was the perfect creepy set-up to Carpenter's remake. Going back in time to explain exactly what happened to the camp is about a boring as showing Darth Vader as a little kid. Oh....oh wait...
  • The dialogue is flat, unmemorable and perfunctory.
  • Not two seconds after the Thing in question breaks loose, the characters start doing supremely stupid shit. Despite the fact that an eyewitness actually watched the creature STRONG-ARM ITS WAY OUT OF A MASSIVE CHUNK OF ICE AND THEN TEAR ITS WAY THROUGH THE FUCKING CEILING, they all decide to split up into pairs and look for it, armed only with pointy sticks, flashlights and sarcasm.
  • There's a blatant disregard for already-established continuity. In Carpenter's film, the Norwegians are clearly shown using seismic charges to break through the ice to get to the Thing's space ship. In the prequel they find it in a pretty ice cave like a convenient episode of Adventure Time.
  • Like all prequels, we pretty much know exactly what's going to transpire. In essence the film is the equivalent of watching a two-hour self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Rob Bottin's original visual effects might not have been quite as agile but they're a helluva lot more slimy, tangible and gory. In this one the creature alternates between looking like a Disney-animated Hieronymus Bosch painting or a stagnant, plasma-covered plate of Alaskan King crab.
  • At least Carpenter's version gave us a few quiet, idiosyncratic character moments to ponder before all hell broke loose. Here the monster wakes up within the first thirty minutes and all we know about the characters is that Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Kate is GOOD, Ulrich Thomsen's Dr. Halvorson is BAD, Joel Edgerton's Sam Carter is a milquetoast KURT RUSSELL and everyone else is Thing-bait. 
  • The cynical and greasy fingerprints of committee marketing are all over this script. By the already-established dictates of prequel continuity, the entire cast should have been Norwegian but instead three out of the four lead characters are American.
  • Screenwriter Eric Heisserer assumes that the audience won't be interested in a tense, low-key yet timely parable about modern paranoia and de-humanization. Instead the film kicks off with a needlessly boorish and cartoony scene in which the scientist's snowcat suddenly plunges through a gap in the ice and discover the alien ship. The whole thing is capped off with the typical bullshit Hollywood ending that would be more at home in Predator 2.

The Bottom Line 

If you're a fan of John Carpenter's original masterpiece then you may want to check out this curiosity. Then again you might not 'cuz it'll probably end up pissing you off royally.

           Tilt: down.