Archive for June, 2014

22 Jump Street (2014)

Starring- Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, The Lucas Brothers, Nick Offerman, Jimmy Tatro

Directors- Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

R- language throughout, sexual content, drug material, brief nudity and some violence

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqBePUi0I04

   Can you think of a comedy sequel that was as good as the original? I’ve been giving it some thought here and there ever since Anchorman 2, and I honestly can’t think of a single one. Yeah, okay, there have been one or two that have been all right, but they were steps down from their predecessors either way. And most of them are outright terrible.

   But look no further — at long last, we have a comedy sequel that matches the original. And in fact, as far as I’m concerned, 22 Jump Street skipped merrily on its way to breaking a second record — as the first comedy sequel that’s better than the original.

   After their success at the end of 21 Jump Street, the department calls part-time undercover cops and full-time complete morons Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) back into the fold for a new mission. This time, they’re to go undercover as college students to bust the dealers of a new “it” drug, WHYPHY (pronounced Wi-Fi). And their orders are to do the exact same thing as last time except with a lot more money.

   So, they do that. But their new case turns out to be a different beast entirely, and soon, they have to consider breaking the mold and striking out on their own — all the while their partnership threatens to unravel.

   The original 21 Jump Street came as a bit of a shock. There haven’t been many movies more transparently pinned with the “it’s January, nobody cares about this franchise, and we don’t care if it sucks” banner. At that point, we didn’t really know what Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were capable of, other than that they managed to make an amusing cartoon out of an unlikely premise. They were still fresh faces, new to live action, and making a reboot of an old television show that no one under the age of 25 has ever actually watched. It was all a part of reboot mania. No one was going to take a risk on this.

   …Except they did. Of all the franchises, they decided that 21 Jump Street was the one out of which they were actually going to try to make a good movie. I don’t praise studio executives much — in fact, this is likely to be the first and last time — but they deserve at least a couple of high-fives for taking a movie nobody cared about and giving a pair of up-and-comers the license not only to do what they wanted with it but to use it to ruthlessly mock their own employers.

   21 Jump Street definitely centered a lot of its humor around making fun of its own existence and the fact that the studio heads actually greenlit it, but those jokes were a relatively small part of the film overall. But as it was a success, the second time around, said studio heads gave Lord and Miller even more money to do the exact same thing, and oh, boy, do they ever — by having the entire movie mercilessly mock them for giving them more money to do the exact same thing. 22 Jump Street is the Inception of meta-humor: It makes fun of comedy sequels for doing the exact same thing as the original except bigger by doing the exact same thing except bigger, “the exact same thing” here already being defined as mockery of self and Hollywood in general.

   I don’t know if Lord and Miller secretly hate this project and decided to have that loathing manifest in the most hilarious way possible. Whatever they’re doing, it’s hilarious.

   From the beginning, Schmidt and Jenko are tossed into their new location at 22 Jump Street, where Nick Offerman’s character gives them pretty much the same speech as in the last movie — nobody thought rebooting the Jump Street Program from the 80s was actually going to do anything, but it turned out to be quite popular, so now, the department is giving you tons of money to do the exact same thing. The money, of course, is shown to have been spent extremely arbitrarily, largely on sprucing up the office into something out of Star Trek.

   And Schmidt and Jenko are careful to make sure they do the exact same thing as last time. I’m not sure whether I should be mad at this movie for being a complete and transparent retread of its predecessor or happy for the fact that it’s so funny about it. Schmidt and Jenko go through the exact same distancing and re-bonding exercise — they’re even warned beforehand that partnerships tend to get frayed on the second mission just because. Only this time, it’s Jenko who begins to break off the pairing after he falls in with a fraternity of party animals who think he’s the best thing ever.

   Throughout, the department keeps locking them into the same routine, completely overlooking obvious revelations and pieces of evidence and failing the investigation entirely solely to ensure that it does the exact same thing and doesn’t make fans of the first operation unhappy. (Seriously.) Schmidt and Jenko have to start doing their own thing in order to actually catch the bad guys — but it ends up in largely the same place, but instead of a big car chase, it’s a big helicopter chase. It has a lot of the same beats — but they’re fresh because, this time, our two heroes are actively trying to keep those beats from happening again but are constantly failing.

   22 Jump Street is an unnecessary sequel to an unnecessary reboot that, like its predecessor, knows it’s unnecessary, makes all its jokes about how unnecessary it is, and is so successful and satirizing its own uselessness and that of Hollywood franchises in general that it becomes necessary in its unnecessariness. Again — the Inception of comedy sequels. Every time you think it can’t go deeper, it manages to. At one point, the Jump Street Program exceeds its budget, so Schmidt and Jenko have to rein it in. This leads to an absurdly over-the-top car chase through museums and art displays where the participants keep crashing through everything and shouting, “That was so expensive!”

   And it’s the only reason I think it’s better than the original. 21 Jump Street got away with a lot, but the meta-humor mainly occurred in Offerman’s handful of scenes. 22 Jump Street goes the whole way. The comedy pays off in a way that it doesn’t in the first one, and the film as a whole feels more cohesive.

   As with the first movie, there are two duos that keep this thing going. The first one, obviously, consists of Lord and Miller. Whether by accident or design, they’re weird guys in a weird place career-wise, but they’re really smart and know exactly what they’re doing, whatever it is. And the best part is how unpretentious they are about that intelligence. I see too many comedies these days that are self-aware in the bad way — performers who seem like they’re trying to impress people with their wit or ideas. Lord and Miller’s films carry the sense of an entire production team trying to amuse itself. It seems like everyone involved is having a great time. In every scene, you know the directors and crew are off to the side fighting valiantly to maintain their composure. I’ll bet the behind-the-scenes features for this movie are going to be hilarious. All that energy comes together to make a film that never really slows down and establishes a sense of play between the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Everyone is having a ton of fun, and it’s hard not to get swept up in that.

   The other duo, of course, is Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, whose chemistry has carried this entire series thus far. Pairing the brains and the muscle isn’t even remotely novel with buddy cop movies, but these two guys are just so good at it. Hill, of course, has usually been reliable for a laugh; he has a great sense of physical comedy that sells Schmidt’s complete helplessness in the face of danger. And while Schmidt is technically smart in a bookish sort of way, he’s a total idiot when it comes to analyzing his own behavior, thinking on his feet, and keeping composure when things get rough. Inevitably, his bad ideas throw Jenko into one humiliating situation or another (a scene in which the two are caught spying in a library is particularly…egregious).

   As for Tatum, honestly, I just kind of want to high-five his agent. He had a string of bad movies and bad parts that nearly bought him Ben Affleck levels of notoriety. Very few recover from that, but he almost has, and it’s because he’s handled it with uncommon grace. He achieved self-awareness and has now built a successful career on making fun of his own persona, which obviously fits great into a movie like 22 Jump Street. Jenko is one of the greatest “dumb muscle” characters of all time; he’s such a lovable moron that his antics eventually become weirdly adorable. Of the two, he’s the one who can handle himself in a fight and pull off all the big stunts, but every time he opens his mouth, idiocy spews forth. He flubs his one-liners midway through. The part of his mind that processes innuendo is completely broken. He treats all of the things he’s learning in his gender studies class like the Enlightenment (“I don’t want to be a homophone”). At one point, he even curses out his own brain.

   There’s this part of me that still feels as though, on some level, I’m culturally required to hate the guy. But I can’t. Tatum was probably the funniest thing about 21 Jump Street. And he’s definitely the funniest thing about 22 Jump Street. That’s no fluke. Without a doubt, he has the movie’s best scene — seriously, you need to go into it blind, so I’m not even going to hint at the specifics, but it involves Jenko reacting to an interesting piece of news. You will absolutely know it when you see it because your sides will be hurting.

   It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who liked the first one not enjoying 22 Jump Street at least as much, so if you haven’t seen it yet, what are you waiting for? And if you didn’t enjoy the first one, well, there’s no hope for you anyway.

   -Matt T.

Hey, everybody! It’s that time of year — time to name my favorite movies from last year!

“But wait!” you say. “The time of year to name one’s favorites is sometime in January or perhaps, with some apology, February, but absolutely no later!”

“This is a good point,” I would respond, “but firstly, if I was a time lord, it’s not as though I would tell you. And anyway, it is that time of year — for reviewers who live in an area with no theaters that play anything other than major blockbusters who therefore do not catch up on the films of the year before until well into June.”

So, here we are, and anyway, it’s my site. What are you going to do about it?

…Wait, don’t change the page; please, I neeeeeeed youuuuuuuuuuu.

So, um, anyway. 2013 wasn’t a half-bad year for movies. It was actually a pretty good one. I think I overstated its greatness a touch in some of my earlier reviews, but then again, after the total mediocrity of 2012 and, to a lesser extent, 2011, it was easy to forget what it feels like to have that many great and/or interesting movies come out in a single year. So, yeah, maybe I overreacted a little, but still — overall, 2013 was a quality year with some quality cinema.

So, here are my Top 20 favorites for the year of 2013. Keep in mind that this is not a list of the “best” films of the year, though if I were to attempt to make one, its structure would be at least a little similar. No, this is just a list that tries to compile my personal reaction to the year’s films in some kind of order — one that’s fairly arbitrary and likely to change as I revisit some of these. For now, it’s the best I can do. (Also, I should note that there’s one movie I have yet to see that, based on the critical reception, might be a threat to this list, and that’s The Wind Rises.)

Without further ado…

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20. All Is Lost

This was one of the most competitive years in recent memory for the Best Actor categories on the awards circuit. Regardless, it was insane how many of them opted to exclude Robert Redford from the running. Who else, this year, single-handedly carried an entire film? What other actor or actress had this much placed on their shoulders and worked it out? I’ll be clear — without Redford, this film wouldn’t work. The script supplies no information on this character, and it offers no supporting players with whom he can interact. It’s just him and the sea. I’ll admit that there are a lot of scenes in this movie that struck me as nothing more than a guy pulling on some ropes and whatnot, but what happens in between features some incredibly harrowing adventuring, some gorgeous visuals, and, again, absolutely brilliant acting.

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19. Frozen

There’s a cultural bandwagon surrounding this movie that I don’t quite think I’m on, but nevertheless, this is the best Disney Animation’s been since I was a small child. You’ve got your staples — rip-roaring adventure, fun characters, a snappy sense of visual comedy, a couple of decent songs, and some beautiful animation. Where Frozen goes the extra mile is in the surprising intelligence of its script. It goes well out of its way to subvert the usual Disney tropes of true love and specific gender roles, but it does that without hate and sarcasm. In showing the truth of the world we live in, it makes reality look better than fiction, and on that level, it really is a fantastic kids’ movie.

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18. Philomena

It’s always a pleasant experience to enjoy a movie more than you expect to, and that was the case here. It seemed like pretty transparent Oscar bait — likely a bit boring and stuffy and, honestly, kind of flat. And to be fair, I don’t think it ducks out of that entirely, but outside of that, it’s surprisingly sweet and funny, and moreover, it isn’t dumb. It wrestles with some pretty intense realities and gets through it mostly unscathed, even if it seems to like questions better than answers. The acting is great, the two leads have wonderful chemistry, and the film is a whole is quite charming.

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17. Inside Llewyn Davis

I don’t think anyone would argue that Joel and Ethan Coen aren’t among the best directors working, if they aren’t, in fact, the best period. But they’re a diverse pair, and on a personal level, sometimes, they make films I love, and other times, they make films that I find inscrutable, weird, and/or a touch off-putting. Inside Llewyn Davis is somewhere in the middle — there’s a level on which I love it and a level on which I found that it just lost me. Fortunately, I spent more time in the first mindset than the second, and that’s why it made the list. It’s an enjoyable if not entirely insightful study of a terrible person who doesn’t realize he’s terrible and realizes even less his potential to do something great. It’s a universally spectacular cast of actors, and no one ever looks worse for getting to recite Coen dialogue. But of course, it’s the music that carries it to the next level.

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16. The Kings of Summer

Here was another pleasant surprise in 2013. I’m kind of burned out on indie comedies because, as I said in this review, they tend to be more quirky and unusual than actually funny. The Kings of Summer, fortunately, is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Each of the three main characters fits well into the overall comedic tone — you’ve got your uptight, paranoid straight man, you’ve got your idealistic, melodramatic moron with tons of bad ideas that seem like great ones at the time, and you’ve got your complete lunatic. It’s a tried-and-true formula. And while the dramatic bits at the end don’t quite stick the way you’d hope, they still wrap the film up nicely and turn it into something that’s real but optimistic. We’ve been getting some great coming-of-age films lately, and The Kings of Summer belongs at the top of the stack.

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15. Upstream Color

It’s difficult to talk about this movie because it’s difficult to watch this movie. Honestly, it’s been a year, and I’m still not entirely sure what actually happens in this. But you know what? I’m totally fine with that. Upstream Color is like one of the great symphonies — they’re sound only, not about anything concrete and containing no particular thesis, and yet, they’re beautiful. Upstream Color is imagery and sound in a beautiful and heartfelt narrative. It’s like someone set music to your favorite painting. Those, combined with what story it’s possible to comprehend, make Upstream Color, if not an intellectual experience, one that, emotionally, seems to take you on a journey through life in its entirety.

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14. Pacific Rim

Because I like it when giant robots punch giant monsters in the face. I like it a lot.

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13. Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station qualifies as “good enough that I wish it was better,” but still, it’s very good. More importantly, I think it’s the sort of film our society needs right around now, for all the things that have happened of late and how they’ve affected us as people. It’s gentle and unobtrusive, and yet, it feels like a desperate cry. It heard the controversy, and instead of going after it politically, it targets the moral element. Regardless of how you think this problem ought to be solved, it says, we absolutely cannot forget that we’re talking about human beings here. And whether you think they were good ones or not, they all had the potential to be. Each of them loved and was loved by someone. That’s about the most important thing a film can do, and I’m glad that Fruitvale Station managed to do it so well.

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12. Wadjda

It says something about the quality of the films that were released this year that Wadjda didn’t even manage to scratch the Top 10. It’s pretty fantastic. It seems that films about bigotry and oppression are in vogue right now, and I’m glad that we managed to get a movie like Wadjda before it passed. To some extent, we need the films that focus on the major historical and modern injustices; they are weapons against complacency. But we also need films about the small ones — the little things we do that we perceive as bearable, not that bad, not technically limiting one person or another all that much more than oneself. We need films like Wadjda that show how the little things compound to restrict one’s identity and to transform the mundane and the everyday into an endless series of quiet suffering. All the better that Wadjda is otherwise a fairly lighthearted family film. I think this movie passed the year far too underrated. It needs to be seen.

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11. This Is Martin Bonner

It’s strange, but it’s difficult to put this film at the top of a year-end favorites list for precisely the reason that it’s great — it’s low-key, small, short, and has no interest in anyone’s accolades. And I love that about it. It’s a simple story about the everyday, ordinary problems of a pair of everyday, ordinary people. And it executes that with grace, subtlety, and insight.

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10. The World’s End

This isn’t even my favorite Edgar Wright movie, which says so much about his work. Yeah, you can definitely count me among the people who are very unhappy with Marvel right now over this whole Ant-Man situation. I’m always excited for anything Wright does. He might not be the best director working right now — though he probably belongs on the list somewhere — but he’s distinct and daring in his approach, and that’s sorely lacking in Hollywood culture right now. The World’s End is a true genre-blender: an adventure sci-fi comedy drama horror disaster movie. Most of Wright’s films are like that, and The World’s End is no different from them in that all of these disparate elements work somehow. No one is quite as good as Wright at managing absurd and constant comedy against incisive and gut-wrenching drama. The World’s End is a ton of fun, and you don’t have to turn your brain off. Sign me up.

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9. The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street is not for everyone. I know I keep saying that, but it always bears repeating, because I would hate to send an unprepared soul into the dark pit of insanity that is this movie. It’s Martin Scorcese at the top of his game, and let’s face it, this is a guy who plays pretty well even when he isn’t. The Wolf of Wall Street is directed with an electricity lacking from far too many of its counterparts — and given its willingness to do literally anything for a laugh, it badly needs that sense of completely unbound adventurousness. It is the id of a fraternity party animal unleashed on the big screen. And it’s kind of hilarious, in a guilty sort of way. A lot of people see it as embracing Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle, but not me. This isn’t really a film about indicting him anyway. It’s more of a wake-up call: These, by their own admission, are the guys who run your financial system and hold the power to crash the global economy in the palms of their hands. What are you going to do about it?

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8. Mud

Seeing a movie like this clock in at only No. 8 really puts in perspective exactly what a good year 2013 was for movies. Without seeing it all laid in front of me like this, I would probably have guessed it for the Top 5. But yeah, Mud is a really, really good movie, and it only solidifies my opinion that Jeff Nichols, only three films into his career, is one of the best directors we have. As I said in my review, his greatest gift is his ability to examine and develop his characters so well that the viewers practically share their thoughts. It’s plain to see how everything that happens to them impacts their worldviews and shapes them for better or worse. This is the first time he’s tackled a Spielberg-esque coming-of-age story: rough and sometimes uncomfortable, but ultimately sweet, heartfelt, and adventurous. Despite its flaws, Mud is the sort of movie I could watch again and again, and I don’t think I’d ever get bored with it. Also, how about that Matthew McConnaughey, huh?

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7. Frances Ha

Greta Gerwig needs to be a star, like, right now. She’s an incredibly likable on-screen presence: haphazard and uncertain but filled with hope, wonder, and good humor. Frances Ha came along in my life exactly when I needed it. It’s one of the best films ever made about my generation. It’s ultimately a story about learning to become the master of your own destiny and realizing exactly how significant that ability is, how far it can take you and how much it can change. The way it tells that story is fluid, graceful, and subtle. More importantly, it doesn’t languish in its own misery. There’s a way to understand the darkness that exists while remaining optimistic about the light, and that’s the middle ground this film inhabits. It’s charming, funny, and, in the end, deeply moving.

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6. Captain Phillips

I honestly didn’t think this movie could possibly be as good as it ultimately was. While the events on which it was based unfolded, I remember thinking that it was inevitably going to become a movie. The fact that it was released so soon after the event itself had me thinking it was just trying to capture the moment. The trailers only confirmed, in my mind, that the movie was made mainly to win awards. But lo and behold: not only is Captain Phillips pretty darn great, it’s arguably the best movie Paul Greengrass has ever made. Yeah, he still spends the entire run-time trying to nauseate you with the camera, but the story is absolutely fantastic, hands-down one of the best scripts of the year. The movie could easily have settled for being an action-thriller, but Billy Ray and Greengrass aimed for something higher, essentially turning the whole production into something of a metaphor for the West’s interactions with the Third World in general. It’s not very straightforward; it chooses to be emotionally complicated and to make everyone human, composed of good and evil alike. The ending is probably the year’s best; that scene — and this movie — belongs on Tom Hanks’s highlight reel. Captain Phillips is gripping, intelligent, and extremely well made.

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5. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater is slowly turning into one of my favorite directors (and on that subject, am I the only person who seriously cannot wait for Boyhood?). He’s great with characters, actors, and dialogue, and he’s proven capable of working out a variety of different projects: from the raucous comedy of School of Rock to the quiet drama of, well, this. It seems of late that he’s interested in the impact of time on stories and on the filmmaking process. It started with the Before movies, and I’m loving this experience: creating a pair of characters and then jumping in on them every nine years, in our time as well as theirs, to see how their relationship has changed. As such, there isn’t much of a “plot,” per see. Largely, our two lovers, Jesse and Celine, just walk around and talk to each other. But they are wonderful together, and it’s heart breaking to see this film finally begin to expose the weaknesses in their relationship. It’s so grounded and real that it begins to feel like watching a pair of your own friends fight. Few scenes this year — or ever — have been as painful as the climax of Before Midnight. But there’s beauty here, too, and I’m hoping that I’ll get to spend another two hours with Jesse and Celine nine years from now.

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4. 12 Years a Slave

I’m not sure how to even begin condensing my feelings about this movie other than to say that we needed this. Badly. Wadjda covered the minutia of oppression. 12 Years a Slave went for the jugulars. The story of Solomon Northup is an incredible one and the best one possible to expose the evils of slavery, seeing that he was traded from “kind” masters to brutal ones to those somewhere in the middle. It’s not just about the work and the beatings and whatever else, though. It’s about the inevitable way in which such a system deprives you of your humanity and drags you slowly into despair. That’s the part we all too often forget exists. And that’s the part that makes it hell. 12 Years a Slave is dark, haunting, and deeply disturbing — and that’s why it’s great. It’s a cry in the dark that refuses every temptation toward easy catharsis and traditional storytelling tactics. It’s intelligent, but it is also passionate. It was a worthy Best Picture winner.

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3. Gravity

This movie is an incredible experience. It’s stripped of bloat and pretense and focuses solely on creating the perils and beauties of outer space in intense detail and taking audiences on an adventure through it. Visually, it’s on the all-time list — Alfonso Cuaron achieved, at the very least, his directorial masterpiece with this. It’s not just the effects — though those are fantastic — it’s the technique. It’s the way he holds shots as long as he can, anchoring the camera to our heroine and following her through one terrifying calamity after the next. It’s the way he gives the camera weightlessness and unlimited freedom in movement, dragging it in and pulling it out and swirling above and below the action. It’s incredibly fluid filmmaking, and Cuaron uses it to maximum effect, making a movie that knows exactly how long to let the audience breathe and exactly when to ratchet the tension up to insufferable levels. Moreover, he knows that a functional experience works only because the audience is connected to it emotionally, and with incredibly limited storytelling tools at his disposal, he nevertheless manages to attach his viewers to his characters and to say something interesting about the human spirit and finding meaning in life. It’s that rare survival story that actually leaves you feeling truly glad to be alive.

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2. Short Term 12

Any other year. Any other year, I’d be putting this in the No. 1 slot without the slightest doubt in my mind. Short Term 12 is amazing. It’s very nearly perfect. For me, it was eye-opening, taking me into a very real world about which I knew nothing and teaching me something new about my fellow man. It’s simultaneously dark and, yet, incredibly hopeful. It’s a film about healing and moving on. It helps immensely that Dustin Cretton worked in a group care home and brought his wealth of knowledge and experiences to writing this story. It’s very detailed and is constantly coming forth with new insights into the way abuse and neglect affects the minds of the children who suffer from it and have to carry it into adulthood. And it is so very compassionate toward them. It suffers alongside them but also urges everyone toward finding peace with the past. It’s a well told, well acted, emotionally involving, and insightful story. I wanted to give it the top slot on this list. I was convinced I was going to; I even suggested as much in my review of it. But I can’t put it at the top of this list. And the reason I can’t is…

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1. Her

Yeah. I imagine this is no surprise to anyone who reads this site. For me, 2013 definitely saved the best for last. I pretty much temporarily lost my sanity over how good this movie is. Like I said, it’s my favorite of 2013 without question, and right now, I am very ready to put it somewhere on the list of the one hundred or so best movies ever made. I think it might actually be my favorite movie out of the over 300 that I’ve reviewed to date. Movies don’t get much closer to being perfect than Her. The script is a piece of honest-to-goodness genius, with fully realized characters, a rich science fiction world, tons of original ideas, and a thousand different things to say about relationships, not just in the digital age but throughout history. It’s about human selfishness, but it’s more than that — it’s about the ways in which we’re selfish and don’t realize it. It’s about the complexities of social interaction, how the deepest hurt is so often caused unknowingly because of our failure to fully understand even ourselves and to communicate properly about the small burdens. But it’s not miserable; far from it, Her is a hopeful and sweet film. The angle from which it approaches this premise is the last one you’d expect it to — it’s not an uncomfortable, gradually agonizing, dark, and psychological cautionary tale about the dangers of certain technological advancements, though it certainly has a few things to say about increasing human detachment in the modern world. No, it’s a love story, through and through. It’s gentle and involving. You get genuinely wrapped up in these characters, even as their exploits occasionally inspire discomfort and wariness. It’s all structured to slowly bring its protagonist to realization and then, change. On top of that, it’s shot beautifully, acted expertly, edited gracefully, scored perfectly, and GAH. I love it. So help me, I love it. Favorite movie of 2013. I have no doubt whatsoever about it.

So, that’s the list. Again — 2013 was a pretty respectable year. Given the lateness of the hour, I’ve already gotten a small taste of what 2014 holds, and there’s been some surprisingly great stuff early on. Let’s hope that continues and makes my job easy next June.

Pompeii (2014)

Starring- Kit Harrington, Carrie-Ann Moss, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jessica Lucas, Jared Harris, Joe Pingue, Kiefer Sutherland

Director- Paul W.S. Anderson

PG-13- intense battle sequences, disaster-related action and brief sexual content

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6TRwfxDICM

So, Gladiator and Titanic had a baby, and its name is Pompeii. And even though its parents rate among the most scorned classics of decades past, it doesn’t so much as hold a candle to either of them. So…yikes.

I still regard Pompeii with a sense of confusion. I know what I think it is — terrible — but I’m not sure exactly what it wanted to be. It’s like it started life in some Hollywood board room where someone said the word “volcano” and everyone freaked out and went insane on hookers and blow until some young upstart realized that there wasn’t a property they could base it on, so they brainstormed until all they could come up with was the historical account of Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius. I know it wasn’t because they thought there was a story to tell, given that a volcanic eruption, while perfectly cinematic, only has so many emotional flavors.

And then they passed it on to the filmmakers who, for some reason, thought they had a sword-and-sandals epic set against a backdrop of political intrigue and star-crossed lovers.

I mean, budget-wise, cast-wise, and they-hired-Paul-W.S.-Anderson-to-direct-wise, it seems as though they were probably just trying to make some easy money, but the film itself doesn’t seem aware of that in the slightest.

The end result is this weirdly serious and yet undeniably goofy story about a slave (Kit Harrington) fighting for his life in the Roman arenas while also trying to woo the local bigwig’s daughter (Emily Browning). And then, there’s the unrelated thing where a volcano suddenly erupts out of nowhere and wastes everything.

Gladiator and Titanic are different enough films that you’d think a marriage of the two would produce something that, if not totally unique within the context of cinema as a whole, would at least stand apart from its parents, but nope. Somehow, Pompeii manages to have the exact same plot as two movies that have entirely different plots, which is…some sort of achievement in lazy rip-offs, I guess.

On the Gladiator front, we’ve got a gladiator captured in the Roman conquests who’s brought to the arenas, where he turns out to be the greatest fighter ever and tears through the competition, eventually making his way to the big leagues, where he befriends the only black character in the movie and wins the favor of the crowd by turning the tides in what was supposed to be a reenactment of a famous battle wherein the Romans curb-stomped everybody. And then, he starts using his prestige to openly encourage rebellion against the Roman Empire from inside the arena and gets the rulers trying to kill him as quickly as possible.

On the Titanic front, we’ve got the sensitive poor boy (I know sensitivity and gladiator don’t ordinarily go well together, but just because they ruthlessly slaughter one another in the arena doesn’t mean they don’t have soft spots for people hurting horses or won’t risk their lives to save little girls in climactic moments, and yes, both of these are actual scenes) and the rich girl with a heart for the downtrodden who’s being edged into a political marriage with a narcissistic lunatic. Then, obviously, a major disaster occurs, and the two of them carelessly throw themselves into certain death trying to save one another.

I should note that this movie is blander than Gladiator and cheesier than Titanic. Yeah — let that one sink in.

It’s got all of the same beats but none of what basically made either of those two work. It doesn’t have the scale of Gladiator, nor does it have Ridley Scott’s directorial prowess — Pompeii is one of those movies where it’s hard to tell the difference between the real stuff and the CGI, not because the CGI is good (note: it’s flat and horrendous) but because the real stuff is shot so it looks fake, too. Plus, the arena scenes could not look more like they were filmed on a soundstage. And it doesn’t have James Cameron’s (probably subconscious) ability to connect his characters together despite (and in some cases, because of) the cheese. Plus, Titanic foreshadows the disaster better, in that people talk about how the ship would handle such a catastrophe, make decisions that put it on a dangerous path, and so on. Pompeii has an obligatory scene early on where a guy gets killed when he falls into a boiling river and another one with a brief earthquake. The first of those scenes is never mentioned again, even when the characters ought to have realized that someone was missing. The second of those is hand-waved in that, apparently, earthquakes were fairly common in Pompeii.

The story simply has nothing to do with the actual eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and if you somehow didn’t know the history it’s based on, you’d probably forget the volcano entirely and be stunned when it finally erupted. For those of us who do know, it makes the rest of the movie impossible to care about because the ending is kind of a foregone conclusion. I consider myself as humanist as the next guy, but at a certain point, I was itching for the volcano to just explode already. Considering that the movie has no shot at being a historical epic, I was hoping that scene would be more ridiculous than it is — and to be fair, a guy does outrun a tsunami at one point — but it’s pretty straightforward. You don’t even get the expected money shots of volcano running through the streets. It’s earthquakes, crowds running, fireballs dropping out of the sky occasionally — you know you grew up with modern Hollywood when all of that is mundane, everyday stuff. But it is. And did I mention that the effects are really bad? They’re really bad.

But like Titanic before it, since humans apparently can’t pay attention to a story if there isn’t a bad guy, and since fighting the bad guy is a traditional part of movie climaxes, all the characters of Pompeii choose the mortal terror of a volcanic eruption to fight out their personal differences, so there are plenty of individual showdowns. The weird part is that the main characters seem to be the only survivors in the city at this point, since the streets are 100 percent cleared by the time they have their chariot chase through fire (to be fair, Pompeii does deliver on the dumb crap every now and then). Anyway, these conflicts are completely pointless because by the very nature of what the movie is, there’s no way for there to be any catharsis whatsoever attached to them.

Not that it would matter, with characters this flat. If Jack and Rose of Titanic fame struck you as particularly boring white people, well, here’s Pompeii. I’m aware of a few people who swear by Emily Browning, though I’ve never seen her in anything where I thought she particularly stood out. Her job here is to be bland and wide-eyed. As for Kit Harrington, I originally wanted to go after him for this performance, which reeks of the worst roles of Hayden Christensen and Keanu Reeves, but honestly, I’m not sure if the greatest actors of his generation could breathe life into the piece of driftwood standing in for Pompeii’s protagonist. The character barely even speaks. And if Jack and Rose falling madly in love with each other over the course of three days’ conversation, get ready for Pompeii, where a nearly wordless exchange wherein the man gently puts the woman’s horse out of its misery serves as the basis for pretty much the entire relationship. Again, these two characters barely speak to each other, but past a certain point, the movie is treating their relationship less like youthful attraction and more like The Truest, Purest Thing You Ever Did See.

But at least Pompeii knows it’s only here to deliver its fiery payload, so it doesn’t waste two hours getting there.

   So, if you like terrible movies but only when they’re mercifully short, consider this your most sterling recommendation.

 

   -Matt T.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Starring- Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Lenn Kudrjawizki

Director- Kenneth Branagh

PG-13- sequences of violence and intense action, and brief strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9KAnx4EvaE

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is okay. Really, really okay. That’s been a common complaint with me when it comes to blockbusters, but Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a master class in achieving the bare minimum. And for most of its run-time, I couldn’t even feign interest in it.

Jack Ryan is the definition of the movie you watch and immediately forget about. Even the basic details of the story are already eluding me. In brief, Jack Ryan, this time portrayed by Chris Pine, is an analyst for the CIA when he stumbles onto a Russian plot to collapse the US economy in retaliation for voting to allow an oil pipeline in Turkey.

I think the worst part is that Jack Ryan doesn’t seem like it’s even trying to be more than a movie you watch and immediately forget about. And that aggravates me. I mean, who bothers you more: a kid getting Ds and Fs or a kid putting forth only what is needed to eke out a C-minus and calling it quits?

With Jack Ryan, it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of competence going on: competent writing, competent acting, competent direction, and so on and so forth. There’s a whole lot of competence. And on no singular level does it do anything well enough to be noteworthy. There’s no one element I want to pull out and praise, just as there’s no element that seems ripe for criticism.

I don’t necessarily want to indict the actors or the writers or the director. They may or may not be doing their best with what they have. I’m talking about the studio here. At no point did any of the people who greenlit this production think they had something special on their hands. They didn’t want anything special. The bottom line requires a few space-fillers in the cinematic dead-zone that is January and February. That’s what Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was supposed to do. You put in enough money to make sure it qualifies as a movie, at least, then turn it over to whomever you can afford. Get an almost-star like Chris Pine so you can put somebody’s name on the poster without coughing up for an A-lister. Get a director like Kenneth Branagh who’s talented enough to give you just enough of an edge over the rest of the mid-winter shovelware but who won’t assert himself overmuch — or at least won’t have anything to bargain with when he does. If the end result looks and sounds like a movie and isn’t awful, whatever. Ship it out.

There are a lot of things in Jack Ryan that I could nitpick, but it barely seems worth it in light of the fact that they’re not what really bothers me about it. On the character end, it does the bare minimum to connect its characters so it can successfully go on the defensive when called out on it, but it’s the absolute bare minimum, and it has next to nothing to do with anything else. It mostly comes in the form of Jack’s difficulties with his significant other (played by Keira Knightley, and I can’t remember if she was his girlfriend or fiancé), but a great deal of what we see of that is wrapped in so much deception that it’s hard to tell how much of it is real and actually teaching the characters something. And the final showdown is between two characters who have never met before and have no relationship whatsoever. As far as the action sequences go, they’re competently presented, but the film does a poor job of defining Jack Ryan’s actual capabilities, beyond “he can do whatever he needs to do to get out of this.” It’s established that he’s had a little bit of field training, but if that training somehow included half-piping a motorcycle over traffic on a crowded city street, I’d be very interested to see what somebody with a lot of field training could do.

If I had to say one nice thing about it, other than that it’s perfectly, insufferably competent in every way, it’d be that it’s one of the few movies that actually uses the orange and teal aesthetic somewhat well.

And there’s your DVD quote: “Jack Ryan uses color better than most other movies in its genre!”

   Skip Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Because even if you see it, one day later, it’ll be as though you skipped it anyway.

 

   -Matt T.

Her (2013)

Starring- Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt

Director- Spike Jonze

R- language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzV6mXIOVl4

   Between the critical acclaim and the awards and the fact that the reviewers tripping over it the hardest tended to be the ones I trust the most, it’s probable that I had built Her up to point where it would be basically impossible for it to match my expectations.

   Basically impossible. But, as it turns out, not actually impossible.

   Usually, reviewers have these discussions within the context of whether or not a movie is among the best of its year. Maybe we shouldn’t do that, but it’s a convenient way to frame these things. With Her, for me, that question, if it’s the best movie of 2013, was resolved very shortly after the credits rolled. Right now, I’m busying myself wondering if it’s one of the best movies ever made.

   Seriously. I’m not ordinarily hyperbolic except to make a point or for humor. On the off chance that I haven’t delineated the difference precisely enough, I should make it clear that there isn’t an ounce of sarcasm in me right now. Her is that good.

   It’s beautifully shot, gracefully edited, powerfully acted (and yet, without pretense, strain, or transparent awards baiting), thematically rich, precisely written, and emotionally intoxicating. I don’t like to call movies perfect, because I suspect none of them are or ever will be. But suffice to say that Her is good enough that I don’t have the intelligence to identify anything that I think is overtly wrong with it.

   In short, it’s one for the ages.

   It’s day-after-tomorrow sci-fi, set in a slightly more advanced but still recognizable future. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely writer still in the process of recovering from a divorce. When a new technology hits the market — operating systems (OSes), pieces of household management software designed to be entirely unique from what another and to grow in response to what they learn and do — he buys one more out of curiosity than anything. He boots it up, answers a few questions, and gets Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). “She” turns out to be very useful, and Theodore’s charmed and amused by her personality.

   But as she acquires more information, she grows, soon blurring the line between artificial intelligence and personhood. And despite himself, Theodore finds himself slowly but surely falling in love with her.

   Writer/director Spike Jonze is the sort of person where it would probably break my brain if I met him and he turned out to be unpleasant or full of himself. Every film he makes is so full of life and love and kindness and imparts its message with evenness and wisdom. Here’s why Her is great — in the premise alone, it threatens to be another cautionary tale about people withdrawing from human relationships and sinking deeper into cyberspace, and you can even mentally mark the beats of what you’d expect the plot to be; but Her is so, so much more than that.

   Make no mistake — it’s definitely interested in the world of human relationships in the digital age; more specifically, it’s interested in relationships as they occur in an increasingly detached world. The world these characters inhabit is something of a sterile one, and when the players wander out in public, they’re largely meandering through crowds of people who are entirely alone, eyes glued to phones and other devices. Also, I mentioned that Theodore is a writer; I didn’t elaborate that he makes his living as one of many employees at a company that writes love letters for other people. He’s good at it, too — he has a real sense of poetry and writes with detail and passion. In any other movie, you’d expect a character like Theodore to be a hapless loser; in truth, one of his great relational strengths is that he’s very naturally romantic. He doesn’t have the usual problems of the Hollywood Geeky Loner. His issue isn’t that he’s shy or lacks self-confidence; he’s actually very open and warm. His problems are myriad, and the film goes about exposing them, both to the audience and to him, as the story moves on.

   Because while the easy and obvious route would be telling a cautionary technological fable, Her is actually about relationships, very nearly to the exclusion of everything else. There’s a certain extent to which the fact that Samantha is a computer doesn’t even matter all that much. This is a movie about meeting people, forming a relationship, falling in love, settling, falling out of love, breaking apart, and dealing with the aftermath. That Samantha is a piece of hardware is only relevant in the sense that it exposes Theodore’s unrealized selfishness. Initially, you could argue that she’s not a person. As she grows, she becomes much more than a person.

   In a lot of ways, the movie’s another deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope that shows up fairly often in what we’d broadly refer to as indie films. But the reason it’s so good at that is that it spends most of its run-time successfully persuading the audience that Samantha isn’t one. At the end of the day, though, she begins the relationship as something that Theodore, to some extent, controls. Still, she has her own personality, and she very rapidly evolves to the point where she has genuine wants and needs. And the connection between her and Theodore is extremely heartfelt and, in its own silly sort of way, real. Her isn’t judgmental. It can be creepy and unsettling, but only to the extent that you bring that with you. It treats what happens between Theodore and Samantha seriously. There aren’t dark undercurrents that slowly turn the whole thing nightmarish as Theodore withdraws further or descends into madness. He doesn’t even do those things. The shocking thing about his relationship with Samantha is that it’s very ordinary — but it’s also quietly extraordinary, giving him the opportunity to learn something about himself. The connection is real, but at the end of the day, when it starts, Samantha’s world still revolves around Theodore. He doesn’t perceive his own selfishness because, for the moment, it ties in with what she wants. But she begins to evolve beyond that, and that’s where the seams show. And it’s implied that this is exactly what happened between him and his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), despite the fact that he was and clearly still is madly in love with her — and despite the fact that, once upon a time, she wholeheartedly reciprocated that.

   The film is smart in that it keeps us firmly on Theodore’s side and is selective in what it shows us of the dark and light aspects of his personality until the only real-time exchange he has with his former wife. It’s an extraordinarily devastating moment, hearing from someone other than him what culpability he has in his marriage gone awry, and it’s timed to coincide perfectly with our dawning realization that he’s doing the same thing to Samantha and that, sooner or later, she’s going to get smart enough to figure it out.

   If I’m making it sound like Theodore is an unlikable character, let me assure you that he’s not. Jonze also has a habit of loving of his characters without reservation, and in Her, there’s no real villain. Everyone basically means well and is navigating extraordinarily complex territory. Part of Her’s point is to meditate on what makes a relationship work, but it also acknowledges that it’s incredibly difficult, and nobody has all the answers. When people behave badly in love, it’s largely because they have no idea they’re even hurting anyone.

   “It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity,” Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), says at one point. Indeed.

   No one in this movie is entirely guilty or guiltless. They’re just bumbling their way through the same mystery as everyone else. Each character is fully realized psychologically, and the acting, as I’ve previously said, is great — it’s natural and detailed to the point that it looks easy.

   Jonze even cares about the computer — Samantha. The majority of the film’s attention is elsewhere, but simply by referencing this technology, it inevitably also begins asking questions about what it even means to be human. Samantha doesn’t have a body and is, physically, nothing more than wires and programming. But that programming specifically makes it so that she has actual feelings, experiences joy and pain and loss and wonder in equal measure. She has needs; she has wants. She desires nothing more than to experience as much of the world as possible, to soak it all in and learn and grow. She has hobbies — early on, she takes up an interest in composing piano pieces, and she also starts assembling Theodore’s letters from work into a cohesive artistic whole. As she evolves, all of those things sometimes conflict with what Theodore wants or needs or is doing, and that results in arguments and hurt. The brilliance of Her is that it slowly puts the burden of proof on the audience — “Okay, you say she’s not human. But other than the body, what’s she missing?” As a viewer, I had a very powerful desire to draw some sort of line, but I simply couldn’t, not without reducing humanity to simple biological matter. And that’s powerful. I also think it’s potentially important — there doesn’t seem to be much of an if about it anymore. Technology like this is happening. It’s probably happening sooner than we want it to. And we’re going to have to wrestle with questions exactly like this.

   And Her is a pretty great way of doing exactly that. If it sounds uncomfortable and weird and difficult, well, that’s because it is. But it’s simultaneously charming and happy and funny. Jonze has a wonderful ability to wrest a myriad of feeling out of each scene. There are plenty of movies out there that arc from happy to sad over the course of a story and do it well, but Jonze can do that all at once, in one scene. He can pack sadness and tragedy in with hope and powerful uplift. Her is the very definition of bittersweet. It breaks and rebuilds your heart simultaneously. It’s a tearjerker that sends you away giddy, grinning from ear to ear.

   Jonze made an excellent choice in asking Arcade Fire to compose the score. And I’m not just saying that because Arcade Fire is my actual, no-sarcasm favorite band of all time (though that definitely helps). They’re perfect for this movie because they have that exact same gift — in the course of a single song to be wistful and hurting all at once but to wind that into a soaring rush of hope and possibility. That’s exactly what Her does, and it’s a beautiful marriage of talents.

   What else to say? It looks great. There’s a simultaneous melancholy and playfulness to the way the film uses color. The direction is fluid and the cinematography superb. And the movie builds its world so well and so naturally; it creates an entire science fiction universe without strain. The technology is definitely projected from current trends, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see it becoming fairly prescient. We see (in a video game, if that shows you how naturally the world gets constructed around the edges of a story) that cars are still earthbound but considerably smaller and designed with the sleekness of modern computers. Computers function in largely the same way, but the displays are crisper and cleaner, and they respond mainly to motions and voice commands. Video games have extremely advanced AI and are almost entirely motion-directed. I think there’s even something to the way the characters dress; with what was once considered geek culture slowly becoming mainstream, it seems natural to me that in the near future, people will be dressed down but still immaculate, wearing hipster glasses and 70s mustaches. It all makes sense, and it’s all in the details. The film allows it to sink in rather than bashing you over the head with its imagination.

   I truly feel as though I could talk about this movie forever. It seems destined to become an all-time favorite of mine. It’s unique and brilliant on every level. Basically, there are two types of people: people who will see the movie Her and people who are making very bad life choices.

   Seriously, go see Her.

   -Matt T.

Veronica Mars (2014)

Starring- Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Chris Lowell, Percy Daggs III, Tina Majorino, Krysten Ritter, Martin Starr, Gaby Hoffman, Andrea Estella, Jerry O’Connell, Ryan Hansen, Brandon Hillock

Director- Rob Thomas

PG-13- sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq1R93UMqlk

Disclaimer time! I have, to my memory, never seen a single second of a single episode of the TV show Veronica Mars and thus went into this movie totally blind. Everything I know about the show I know from the five-minute catch-up at the beginning of this movie.

Normally, that’d be cause for me to skip the cinematic adaptation, since I liked to go into these things armed with as much information as possible, but Veronica Mars is not available for streaming on Netflix, basically the only place where I actually watch TV, and I couldn’t pass up pretty much the first semi-major theatrical film to get funded on Kickstarter. And here we are.

So, how did it play for a total newcomer? Well, for one, understandable and not alienating. More importantly…pretty fun. Not fun enough that I’m itching to go back and catch up on the show, but fun enough that I feel as though my time wasn’t wasted. And from what I’ve been able to surmise about the show, I suspect the movie will play pretty well for fans. Ultimately, that’s all it really needs to do.

Former teen sleuth Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) is all grown up and far from her hometown of Neptune, California, pursuing a job as a high-powered New York attorney and trying to leave the old her behind. That’s when she finds out that her ex-boyfriend, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), is the chief suspect in the murder of a pop star and former classmate.

With the corrupt sheriff’s office having no interest in further investigating the case and the national media having all but condemned Logan as the killer, Veronica is drawn in and returns to Neptune for one, last case.

Even having not seen the show, there’s a familiarity to the movie, if only because it so closely resembles a lot of still-popular shows from its era — the late 90s and early 2000s. As someone who passed into his teens during that span of time, I know it well — teens with special abilities solving crimes and mysteries while trying to balance silly social stuff on the side. Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer… Sometimes, they weren’t about teenagers — say, for instance, Firefly — but they all had one thing in common, and that was wordy and incessant snark.

The movie is basically like that, too. Every character in it is possessed of lightning wit, prepped with the most incisive and perfectly delivered comeback for every situation. Even the characters we’re supposed to take as idiots are able to express their idiocy in surprisingly articulate and willfully humorous ways. It’s just part of the character of the world, I suppose. And that sort of thing has the potential to annoy the daylights out of the wrong person, and if that’s you, you should probably stay away from this. As for me, I wouldn’t say that I love it — it’s hard to balance that sort of tone against meaningful storytelling sometimes — but I don’t mind it either, especially since it’s largely pretty funny in this movie (though some of Veronica’s nonstop cultural references are bound to date it badly, and soon).

And honestly, as someone who wasn’t familiar with the show, Veronica Mars got me caught up pretty well. You have to tolerate the extensive info-dump at the beginning, but after that, it’s pretty good at conveying through actions and behaviors how all of these characters know one another and what the characteristics of their relationships are. The stars have all the right chemistry, depending on what their role is — and well they should, since most of them have been doing this for years.

Still, I suspect it all plays better for fans, who will know all of the details in a way that I can’t. It’s like the movie Serenity — the first time I saw it, I had not watched Firefly; the second time, I was an avowed fan. The first viewing was enjoyable; it got me up to speed and connected me to everyone. The second viewing, on the other hand, was pretty incredible. I suppose that’s inevitable, and I wouldn’t consider it a flaw — this isn’t really an adaptation, after all, rather a continuation of the original story. Nevertheless, there a moments in this movie that read to an outside observer as fan service awkwardly and unnecessarily shoehorned into the plot, which sometimes has to make detours for a character to show up.

That cripples the storytelling a bit, which, honestly, doesn’t bother me too much. This isn’t really a piece of storytelling anyway; it’s getting by on characters and tone. The mystery isn’t all that great, and the details of the plot come together a little too conveniently, but it’s basically fun to watch it all happen.

Really, I think the biggest flaw in Veronica Mars is that it still feels like a TV show. It hasn’t quite graduated to the big screen. As a TV movie designed to restart the show, it’d be pretty great. As a theatrical movie, it seems low budget and a touch straightforward where the technical aspects are concerned. From the get-go, you have to downgrade the experience in your mind in order to take it for what it is.

But, you know. It’s mostly a fun ride, which, as a complete newcomer, is about all I could really have asked for. More importantly, the fans are probably going to love it. And on that level, mission accomplished.

 

-Matt T.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Starring- Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho

Director- Bryan Singer

PG-13- sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsjtg7m1MMM

Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat — as with just about every other superhero movie I’ve reviewed within the last two years or so that was not titled The Avengers, this review is going to be composed primarily of backhanded compliments. So, I’ll just be clear right now — I enjoyed X-Men: Days of Future Past, and this is a positive review, regardless of what it starts to read like.

Here’s your first backhanded compliment — this is probably the best X-Men movie yet, which says a little about it and more about all of its predecessors. Saying that doesn’t do a lot more than list it among the number of exactly three X-Men movies that I like, none of which I absolutely love.

So, there’s your formula — praise, followed by immediate qualification of that praise. Let’s get started.

The story — I’m going to take a deep breath. You all brace yourselves. Ready? Let’s go.

We open in the not-to-distant future, where robots — called Sentinels — created to seek out and destroy all mutants have reduced the entire world to a barren, war-torn wasteland. The few surviving mutants — including Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), and, of course, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) — have banded together and flee from hiding place to hiding place, narrowly escaping the Sentinels by repeatedly sending one another back in time to warn of impending attacks.

It’s determined that Wolverine’s healing capabilities might make his mind strong enough to withstand being sent back further in time to stop the Sentinel program before it starts. The Sentinels are the invention of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who was attempting to give human governments a weapon to fight mutant threats. The problem began when a young Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), fearing the weapon would not be used solely against the mutants with bad intentions, assassinated Trask — her first kill — and was subsequently captured. Her actions galvanized the humans into advancing the Sentinel program even further, and her shapeshifting genes were used to allow the machines to adapt to any mutant’s power, making them totally unstoppable.

Thus, Wolverine is sent back to the 1970s to unite a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to stop Mystique and the Sentinels. Unfortunately, Charles, in the wake of personal loss and most of his students being shipped overseas to Vietnam, has begun using drugs so frequently that they’ve blocked his powers, and Magneto is still waging a one-man war against humankind that currently has him in high-security lockdown for alleged involvement in the assassination of JFK.

…Whew.

Here’s the compliment — for the completely ludicrous amount of stuff going on in this script, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages, somehow, to keep relatively balanced. It’s not a complete mess of three thousand unrelated things happening all at once, nor does it juggle all of its elements haphazardly before randomly gluing them together and trying to persuade its viewers that they’ve just been told a story. What the writers wisely realized early on is that there are two subplots here — there’s everyone in the future trying to protect Wolverine’s comatose body until he can complete his mission in the past, and there’s everyone in the past trying to complete that mission.

After the big info-dump that kicks off this movie, the future storyline obviously isn’t all that information-dense — there’s not a whole lot about “protect Wolverine” that needs explaining. So, it’s comparatively short, and after the opening scene, it only really comes into focus whenever the stakes need raising, which, to my memory, is roughly three additional scenes. We spend most of the movie following Wolverine through the past, which is probably the wise decision, since that’s where the action is happening.

And both subplots limit their character focus to as few people as possible. In the future, it’s Charles, Magneto, and Kitty (Ellen Page). In the past, it’s Wolverine, Charles, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast (Nicholas Hoult).

Here’s the best part — despite the fact that he has top billing, Wolverine is not the protagonist of this film. About. Time. I don’t really have all that much against the guy, but from day one, there’s not even a small part of me that’s felt he was a compelling enough character to bear the weight of an entire franchise on his shoulders. He’s a perpetually angry guy with a dark, mysterious past. Seen it. He’s better as part of an ensemble, and hallelujah — Days of Future Past lets him be exactly that.

Really, he’s a reference point character — one with a personality and motivations, but a reference point nonetheless. He gets us from Point A to Point B. Charles — the James McAvoy one — is the actual main character of this movie, at least in the sense that he’s the one who has an arc and changes. And when the climax comes around, Wolverine is rightly sidelined in favor of focusing on Charles.

Here’s the first backhand — I don’t know that Charles’ arc is particularly compelling or anything like that. It’s basically functional, I suppose, but it’s all been-there-done-that stuff about letting go of what you’ve lost and forgiving yourself and staying strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. You’ve seen it before, and you’ve seen it done largely in this manner. There’s something smart about the film secretly being the origin of Professor Charles Xavier, to an extent that even X-Men: First Class was not. But in a world populated by super-beings with incredible powers, it’s not necessarily the best-connected through-line, especially since a story this sprawling and complicated isn’t very well-suited to studying a singular character like that. I don’t want to say that every X-Men movie has to be a social issues metaphor. They don’t, and director Bryan Singer has proven to be an almost comically heavy hand at that in the past anyway. But that is an example of what might work better for something on this scale.

Here’s the second backhand — with so much going on, and the movie having to be so selective with its focus, a lot of things end up being phased into the background, under-developed. X-Men: Days of Future Past nearly ends up at a point where it only has two types of characters: protagonists and cameos. Characters that would normally end up with deuteragonist status — such as Mystique — end up in supporting roles. Characters that would normally end up in supporting roles — like the other mutant survivors hanging out with the gang in the future — end up being interchangeable sets of superpowers that get thrown around during action sequences. A lot was made of Dr. Trask being the villain and being played by Peter Dinklage, but the character doesn’t amount to much in practice — he’s definitely a supporting role at best in terms of his screen-time, and his personality and motivations are sketched very broadly. He’s one of many things in this movie that are alarmingly easy to forget entirely once it’s over.

And the complicated nature of this story very much makes it more accessible to comic book fans — especially since there’s a clear focus here on arbitrary cameo appearances from characters who have already been in these movies and on shoehorning in as many new fan-favorite mutants as possible. The crew in the future consists, bizarrely, almost entirely of characters we’ve never seen before. I’m guessing they’re a big deal to fans of the comics.

Some plot developments are similarly thrown at you. I presume that people who are fans of the comics understand why Kitty Pryde, previously able to pass through solid objects, all of a sudden has the power to send people back in time. As far as the movies are concerned, it’s just a thing that happened and whatever.

But let’s twist that backhand into a compliment. With all the new stuff comes a handful of blessings, namely that, in terms of its action sequences, Days of Future Past is the X-Men movie I’ve been aching for since the first one — one that allows its characters to have crazy abilities and to use them in crazy ways. For whatever reason — budgetary, technology, or otherwise — these movies have mostly only used characters who can punch stuff really hard or heal from injuries or generate objects that they can throw at people or whatever, and occasionally, Storm (Halle Berry) would strike someone with lightning. Finally, in Days of Future Past, we have mutants with huge, cosmic powers duking it out in the biggest ways the VFX team could conceive. The scene that encapsulates it for me is the one where a mutant with the power to absorb energy and blast it back at his enemies lets Storm hit him with a lightning bolt, has another mutant create a portal to the location of the approaching Sentinels, then starts blasting into it. That’s the awesome comic book nonsense I see these movies for.

Chief among these blessings is newcomer Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a mutant with the ability to move very quickly. He’s hilarious and highly entertaining, and his powers make for one particularly amusing sequence. Though, by way of a small backhand, I’m not really sure why the heroes part ways with him after that scene. I could think of a lot of moments later on where his skills might have proved useful.

And then, there’s the ending, which I suppose I shouldn’t talk about even though I really want to. It sets up a few developments that are certain to prove very significant in the future of this series. I both approve of these developments because of some of the potential they restore to this longsuffering series and disapprove of them because they continue to encapsulate my problems with Hollywood’s current focus on Eternal Franchises. The stories, again, can never really end or go anywhere, and the characters, to a certain extent, can never grow or change. I’m mixed on that.

I’m not nearly so mixed on the overall suddenness of this movie, though. I believe it’s an important story arc in the comics, so it makes sense that it would be adapted into film eventually. For it to be adapted now, though, is strange, given where the continuity of the films has found itself — or perhaps not so strange, from a marketing and continuation-of-the-franchise perspective.

Either way, it’s strange to watch the movies that came before this one and then to start on Days of Future Past. “Previously, on X-Men, our heroes ceased the development of a mutant cure while stopping Magneto from killing those who created it. Next time, on X-Men…the world has ended wait, what?”

This feels like the sort of thing whose seeds should’ve been planted over the series thus far. Even understanding that the apocalyptic scenario takes place in the future, it still comes out of nowhere. And yes, standalone films have began with the end of the world before — but standalone films don’t have the scale and intensity of an entire series to live up to. For all the build-up that went into comparatively small things over the course of this franchise, the apocalypse in X-Men: Days of Future Past just kind of gets dropped on you. Like, “Yup, the world ended. Here’s a movie.”

And if what I’m told about the post-credits sequence is correct — if you don’t know anything about the comics, it’ll be totally meaningless to you — these movies are going to struggle with “maintenance of scale” very shortly. There’s only so big you can make it.

   But anyway. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a pretty good time at the movies, and I have one or two reasons to stay optimistic about this franchise’s chances in the future, now that it’s mostly got its idiocy sorted out. Now, they’ve just got to stick that landing…

 

   -Matt T.