Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) Is Numerous Layers Of Attempted Undoing

In a desolate future where all that remain of average humans and mutants are on the losing end of a horrific war versus a machine enemy, the final battle will be decided by way of time travel. With the last remnants of mutated humans fighting the same final stand time and again due to Kitty Pryde(Ellen Page)'s ability to send minds back a few minutes before the same assault annihilates them all. It is here that the finally re-allied pairing of Charles Xavier(Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Sir Ian McKellen) posit that the only chance at averting this dire outcome, is by sending someone far earlier, to 1973. A time when one single event undertaken by a fellow mutant, sets the entire Sentinel apocalypse in motion. The catch? The only mutant left that could possibly handle such an intense trip back into his younger body, is the ever volatile Logan (Hugh Jackman).

It takes an often absurd amount of effort to undo the past, but what about a past series of wayward films nearly a decade in the maintaining? This question penetrates beyond the mere plot of Bryan Singer's directorial return to the long-troubled X-Men film franchise in what is one of the more unusual cases of course correction I have ever witnessed. Taking on the classic time travel story originally published in 1981, elder cast meets young in a tale of redemption spanning several decades as the rift between humans and mutants reaches apocalyptic proportion. Again, it is no mean feat to undo a few simple choices made nearly ten years ago, but Singer and company give it a daring go at it (to marginally successful results).

Even more than an ambitious journey for a filmmaker with numerous levels of past deeds to be undone, DoFP features one of the more challenging storylines of the franchise. And as such, does a mostly effective job of juggling character and story. The lynchpins of the tale being that of the now-fractured relationship of past Charles and Erik (James McAvoy and a still riveting as iron, Michael Fassbender) now at its most strained since the aftermath of the events of First Class. With the two old friends turned rivals over their philosophies leaves Erik imprisoned deep beneath the Pentagon, and Charles, now a drug-addicted recluse, Logan's mission to inform them of future events makes for a great deal of the film's juice. The need for both old friends to rejoin forces in the name of stopping someone very close to them from killing the man responsible for setting events in motion. The man in question, being noted scientist, Bolivar Trask(Peter Dinklage). The man who will implement the Sentinel program, an army of humanoid machines capable of identifying and destroying mutants with frightening accuracy. But once the mission is well in motion, it becomes quite clear that even more than events that can be altered, it is in tattered bonds between mutants that might prove to be the most difficult to sway. Especially when it is the strained heart of Mystique/Raven(Jennifer Lawrence).

Course correction might be at the heart of the piece, but as a time travel piece, it is far more interested in what truly drives the series; character drama, and social concern. And while the film at times finds itself a little bogged down by an already overwhelmed cast, it at times feels uneven in tone, and unable to center its emotional drive where it needs it most. What we get in terms of the soap operatics lies mostly between MacAvoy and Fassbender, who again deliver some of the series' best work. And once again, there is great use of the ever reliable Jackman as a beast-man, ever at odds with his own nature in a situation that could completely derail at his expense. And while a great deal of the film makes good with this within the first hour, it also finds itself relatively lost in a cacophony of twists and specious cartoon logic that almost threatens to undo the remaining running time. An underlying concern for the unspoken for veterans in wars of the past rings its head numerous times as a new thematic wrinkle. Sadly, this angle finds itself underutilized, even as a majority of the film is set amidst the Vietnam conflict.

 One element here that almost cripples a lot of the film's aims to be one of global and temporal scale, is an often excessive sense of stylized history, occasionally flirting with pure camp. One could almost argue that this is an effect of the previous films taking on a number of bizarre shifts over the years. What DoFP does in a very interesting way, is pay lip service to the series as a whole, and attempt to override all the troubles that have dogged the series, perhaps since the original 2000 debut. Having come through years of self-conscious comic book adaptations, this is also a fully "out" rendition of the X-Men films. In a post-Avengers world, it's hard not to look back and see just how panicked the studio must have been about presenting such larger than life characters to the screen. It took a decade and a half to reach where we are today, and with our characters desperately seeking a way to undo the mistakes of the past, we are at last able to see a more embracing vision of the universe.

The one place that I couldn't reconcile with the film, sadly is with the lack of feminine characterization. It's difficult enough to buy the wobbly logic of sending Logan in the stead of Pryde who was the story's original time traveler back to the past. But to not grant us enough insight into the mind of Mystique, who's entire agency in the story makes for the film's most important internal conflict is more than a missed opportunity, it's an almost fatal omission. Lawrence milks her role for all that its worth, but a little more on why she is so driven to commit her world-altering act would have done the film a great emotional service. Considering the best X-films contained with them a special feminine power integral to the spirit of the piece, it is sadly diminished here.

So in all, Singer's return to the franchise that made him into something of a divisive figure in fantasy filmdom is both a welcome and overburdened success. While it in no way undoes years of bad ideas, it does make for a sweet and occasionally thrilling apology. The world of the cinematic X-universe has been largely a dysfunctional one. It's with a surprised heart to express that for all its issues, Days Of Future Past carries with it a weight that helped bring the era of the superhero to fruition. Still a shame that this return to form came in the visage of a boys club reunion.

Oh, and the movie world's grander introduction to P. Maximoff, also known as Quicksilver(Evan Peters)? Possibly the film's biggest, happiest surprise.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Gareth Edwards' Godzilla (2014) Is Crushingly Average

Will it ever be enough?

The question that rang through my mind thirty minutes into Legendary Pictures' grand leap into the world of classic kaiju. Edwards' first major studio release, featuring TOHO's grand reptile winds up being less a narrative on our current world, and rather indicative of a studio system hobbled by legacy. This is in no way out to belittle what indeed appears onscreen, but for a piece designed to reintroduce the King Of The Monsters to a new generation, it does very little to impress beyond mild expectations. Worse yet, it plays as a half-baked allegory for more recent events in a way that never comes to any fruition. Outside of focusing on by-the-numbers, personality-deficient americans, the film never finds itself out of second gear. While it is much closer in aim to the G films of decades past, the end result is the equivalent of tasting a bottle of the most expensive water imaginable, and being unable to distinguish it from tap.

Beginning in 1999, a Japanese nuclear plant's US supervisor (Bryan Cranston) becomes a widower after strange seismic activity seems to herald a disaster, rendering what remains of the facility and the surrounding plant town as quarantined. Meanwhile, somewhere in the Philippines, a research team led by Professor Serizawa(Ken Watanabe) have just stumbled upon an unearthed and fossilized giant skeleton, along with a pair of massive egg pods(with one freshly opened). In the years after the incident, Joseph Brody(Cranston) has become something of an obsessed man, convinced that the public story regarding the plant incident is pure cover for something else. Having just recently been arrested back in Japan near the quarantine zone, Brody's now grown son, Ford (now an explosive ordinance disposal expert in the US Navy, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is tasked with heading overseas to retrieve him. Only daddy Brody's ravings about a cover-up turn out to be true, and something horrific and HUGE is being watched over at the old nuclear facility grounds. It is here, that both parties are brought together due to a now unstoppable threat to humankind.

And perhaps there is only one force of nature capable of ending the terror.

So, yes..Despite the ad campaign that front-loaded often harrowing scenes of destruction and even human casualties, this is more a collective homage to fifty years of TOHO's once-great-nightmare-turned signature superhero. And perhaps it needs to be said up front that for all that will be typed here regarding the film, it is also great leaps beyond the 1998 Roland Emmerich film. Without resorting to nearly as much disinterest in the source material as that film, what remains is something more akin to playing the needle perhaps a little louder than necessary. The groove Edwards' finds himself in, is largely due to both Max Borenstein's underwhelming script, and his own inability to lend the film a sense of dramatic pacing. (This is not the first time. His previous, the indie surprise, MONSTERS, suffers from falling into a comfort zone with characterization, not playing enough with the elements at hand.)  Everything that seems to happen onscreen is often borne out of utility rather than by character, and as such we spend too much time coasting through the film. And even though the story goes out of its way to build up toward our first look at Gojira in all his glory, the impact is largely diminished due to a severe lack of dramatic tension. Matters just happen, and this happens with great efficiency throughout.

Also not delivered as advertised, is the performance of Cranston who ends up merely being a story leaping point, rather than the central character. His casting almost feels stunt-y considering what we're left with. Taylor-Johnson is never given any real meat as the young Brody. And his family is granted even less. With Elizabeth Olsen as Elle, Ford's doctor wife, and Carson Bolde as his young son, we are merely given the semblance of a contemporary family caught in the middle of this avalanching crisis. One could argue that many a human character in a Godzilla film has been perfunctory to the monster on monster action, but to see these characters be less than simple ciphers in such a large production is a little disheartening. It even goes so far as to make the entire affair feel small, and lacking in any sense of real awe.

Think of it. A Godzilla film of this size and potential magnitude, it barely registers.

On the surface, Edwards' piece does dish out some terrific images, and the final battle royale between King G and the insectoid MUTO creatures is fun on an artistic level. Alexandre Dusplat's effective orchestral score is relatively memorable. But for all the talk of this being a Godzilla piece with greater emphasis on the humans at ground level, it all rings terribly distant and hollow. This was a golden opportunity to make a film equivalent to the original Ishiro Honda classic. An environmental horror tale. An emotionally stirring hymn to civilization's hubris in the face of nature, delivered with heartfelt potency. A chance to place us at the heart of a truly difficult dilemma concerning the fate of the world, and science's role in it. But all we get is a middle of the road redux, lacking in horror, character, or even fun. If there is anything thematic to glean from all of this, is that the piece lands on the idea that nature settles its own issues. Problems arise when we are never given enough illustration of this point, nor enough evidence aside from the expected destruction to back up this mode of thinking. Even Watanabe's portrayal of Serizawa is never given enough coverage for us to see his ideas as having any kind of greater merit. While the surface is at times captivating, there seems to be very little percolation beneath it.

About the only genuine response evoked by the film (outside of the occasional cheer for our hero) was during a gag when young Brody's little son exclaims that the monster battle happening on the news is that of "dinosaurs". That's a very real, and wonderful piece of humor that resembled what a real film can do when breaking a sweat. But far too often, this one feels like a series of occasional sprints. And for all the respect it pays to the past, and to Yoshimitsu Banno's original IMAX 3D concept from over a decade ago, there is something that simply doesn't work about forcing American characters into such a mythology. In a post-Pacific Rim world, we should be much better than this.

So, I ask again..Will it ever be enough?

One would like to say yes. But perhaps we need to wait another fifteen years?