Tuesday, July 1, 2014


The soldier that Tom Cruise plays in “Edge of Tomorrow” (*** OUT OF ****) gets his butt kicked all over creation.  “Bourne Identity” director Doug Limon’s supercharged, imaginative, science fiction time-loop thriller synthesizes elements of “Starship Troopers” and “Source Code.”  Surpassing Cruise’s earlier desolation Earth outing “Oblivion,” “Edge of Tomorrow” differs chiefly in terms of story and setting.  Although “Oblivion” occurred on post-apocalyptic planet Earth, “Edge of Tomorrow” takes place before the apocalypse, with mankind desperately pitted against aggressive extraterrestrials with no compassion.  Lightning-fast, squid-like creatures called ‘Mimics’ have invaded Earth.  These invincible whirling dervishes with tentacles have been on the warpath now for the last five years, blitzing their way across the European continent, and advancing toward England without any sign of slowing down.  Predictably, Cruise lands on his feet in the middle of this catastrophic, life and death mayhem.  He doesn’t play the usual heroic character that he played in “Top Gun.”  This represents the first time Cruise has portrayed a yellow-livered skunk.  He goes from being a coward to a hero in an arc that is as entertaining as the film is exciting.  You can differentiate Tom Cruise movies by how often he gets his butt kicked.  Remember “The Last Samurai?”  Cruise had to grovel in that splendid fish-out-of-water spectacle set in Japan.  Usually Cruise doesn’t grovel.  His groveling, however, makes his subsequent acts of heroism all the more convincing.  Mind you, “Edge of Tomorrow” would still qualify as a good, solid movie even if Cruise weren’t getting kicked all over creation.  Mankind is poised on the brink of extinction as these insatiable aliens decimate populations.  The futuristic, 80-pound, exoskeleton combat suits that the soldiers wear looks as cool as the aliens are imitating.  Everything about “Edge of Tomorrow” looks great.  This isn’t a shiny, chrome-plated, sci-fi epic, but a tarnished, grungy-looking one.  Some of the performances stand out.  As Master Sergeant Farrell, Bill Paxton steals every scene that he has with his Southern-fried drawl, while Brendan Gleeson makes a curt supreme army commander and reminded me of Norman Schwarzkopf.  Last but not least, lean-muscled Emily Blunt is pretty hard-nosed and business-like as the pugnacious ‘Angel of Verdun.’  Alongside these fine performers, Cruise holds his own as a disgraced officer who redeems himself in the crucible of combat.

Oscar winning “Usual Suspects” scenarist Christopher McQuarrie and “Fair Game” co-scribes Jez and John-Henry Butterworth have adapted Japanese author Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill,” which came out in December 2004.  As a military public relations officer for the United Defense Force, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise of “War of the Worlds”) has never fired a shot in combat, but he does a commendable job as long as he is stationed far behind the lines.  Imagine Cage’s horror when UDF General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson of “Braveheart”) decides to embed him with ground troops as they storm the French beaches in a last ditch effort to thwart the Mimics.  Cage flatly refuses Brigham’s orders to follow the troops into battle.  Not only does Brigham order Cage arrested and demoted to buck private, but he also assigns him to join a first wave combat unit.  Although “Edge of Tomorrow” is a sci-fi saga, the beachhead scenes where Cage and his unit are flown into action against the Mimics is reminiscent of Spielberg’s classic “Saving Private Ryan.”  Like “Starship Troopers,” the soldiers are flown into combat and dropped from helicopter-style planes.  Once on the ground, the troops rely on their heavily armed battle suits to shred the Mimics with fusillades of gunfire.  The Mimics are slaughtering soldiers left and right until one of them smashes headlong into Cage.  Our terrified protagonist uses a mine to kill one.  When Cage kills a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic, the slimy critter douses him with its blood.  Incredibly enough, despite dying from the Mimic’s blood, Cage discovers that he gets another chance to live and fight again!  Essentially, like the Jake Gyllenhaal character in “Source Code,” Cage relives the first day over and over until he encounters another soldier, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt of “Loopers”), who experienced the same sensation when a large ‘Alpha’ Mimic killed her.  Before he meets Rita, Cage is killed several times in combat.  Meantime, each time that he dies, Cage awakens just as suddenly to find himself back at Camp Heathrow alive and well.  Director Doug Limon displays quite a bit of flair in handling the same scene over and over again.  Each time that Cage reawakens from his death, he devises new ways to contend with the Mimics.  Sergeant Rita explains to Cage that the same thing occurred to her at Verdun until she received a blood transfusion.  Eventually, as he relives the same day over and over again ad nauseam, Cage becomes so familiar with the turbulent events of that day that he can anticipate when and where the  Mimics will strike.  Before long, Rita trains Cage so that they become a dynamic duo, and they discover that the Mimics have a secret that makes them invincible.  When they try to convince their superiors, especially General Brigham, that they can destroy the Mimics, they are treated as deserters.
Although it boasts some fascinating as well as formidable alien adversaries, “Edge of Tomorrow” doesn’t emphasize horror so much as tension and suspense.  Meaning, you can watch it and not worry about leaving your lights on when you sleep for fear of nightmares.  Basically, it boils down to a crackerjack mission movie with Cruise and Blunt assembling up their own crew of misfits to destroy the aliens and save the day.  Director Doug Limon and his writers steer clear of romance in any way, shape, or form.  The single drawback to this otherwise atmospheric, first-rate actioneer is that the filmmakers don’t provide enough details about the invaders from space.  Nevertheless, watching Tom Cruise get killed dozens of times until he knows what to do is as stimulating as it is amusing.


The shenanigans are far more silly, and the pandemonium far more preposterous in the farcical “21 Jump Street” parody sequel “22 Jump Street” (*** OUT OF ****) co-starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.  Several actors from the original opus reprise their roles in this side-splitting sequel.  Mind you, even Rob Riggle, who played dastardly Mr. Walters, the H.F.S. drug dealer whose penis got shot off, shows up with David Franco as his cell mate in a prison scene.  Schmidt’s mother and father turn up, too.  Of course, since original TV “Jump Street” headliner Johnny Depp suffered multiple gunshot wounds in “21 Jump Street,” he doesn’t come back.  Rarely does a remake have the nerve to liquidate the leads from the show that spawned the remake.  Nevertheless, comedy is a genre that evolves with each generation.  Meantime, “21 Jump Street” co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do their level best to bring audiences up to speed after a two-year hiatus.  They rely on the television rehash convention where a narrator informs us what ‘previously’ happened.  Audiences are treated to a condensed version of “21 Jump Street.”  When they aren’t delivering funnier jokes and staging bigger Keystone Cops action set-pieces, Lord and Miller ridicule the formulaic conventions of sequels in general as well as “22 Jump Street” in particular.   Lord and Miller also explore the bromantic relationship between the two protagonists in greater depth.   Indeed, while “22 Jump Street” adheres to the blue-print plot of its predecessors, our heroes’ new college-oriented assignment, the beefed-up, $50-million budget, and the clever end credits constitute some of the most imaginative comedy you’ll ever see.  One of the most outrageous gags features “Neighbors”comic Seth Rogen in a droll cameo near the end of this crackerjack comedy of errors.
Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are not actually attending a traditional college when “22 Jump Street” opens.  Indeed, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube of “Friday”) told them at the end of “21 Jump Street” that they were going to college because they had grown too old to pass as teenagers in high school. Instead, they have been assigned to monitor internet communication at an on-line university.  Specifically, they must listen for either suspicious keywords or phrases that might serve as code words for potential crimes.  Our heroes learn about a meeting time and location at the docks.  Remember, Schmidt and Jenko are not brainiacs.  The professor states the location in no uncertain terms during his lecture.  Like they did in “21 Jump Street,” Schmidt and Jenko find themselves outnumbered by the opposition.  Schmidt masquerades as a laughable Mexican. The Ghost (Peter Stormare of “Armageddon”) and his henchman have a tractor-trailer load of contraband exotic animals.  Predictably, Schmidt tangles with a large pink squid.  This idiotic moment makes you want to laugh because comedian Jonah Hill is clearly doing all the work with his ersatz squid.  If you’ve seen horror icon Bela Lugosi wrestling with an obviously bogus rubber octopus in Ed Wood, Jr.’s “Bride of the Monster” (1956), you can truly appreciate what makes this scene such a howler!  Afterward, our heroes struggle to stop The Ghost,” but this wily opponent eludes them with ease.  The truck stunts in this scene get “22 Jump Street” off to an adrenaline-laced start.  Naturally, Schmidt and Jenko make big buffoons of themselves, while Ghost escapes. 
Our heroes wind up in Deputy Chief Hardy’s office to face the music.  Hardy (Nick Offerman of “We’re the Millers”) assigns them to 22 Jump Street, and they find themselves reunited with the profane Captain Dickson.  The new office is located across the street from a church with a Korean Jesus.  Schmidt and Jenko must find the villains behind a new synthetic drug called WhyPhy.  According to Dickson, WhyPhy is a mixture of Adderall and Ecstasy with something else.  You focus for the first couple of hours and then you party like never before and then you die. The only clue that they have is a photo of the student who bought the drug and later died using it.  Schmidt and Jenko start hanging out with likely suspects.  Jenko acquaints himself with two football players, Zook (Wyatt Russell of “Cowboys & Aliens”) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro of “Grown Ups 2”), who belong to a fraternity.  Meantime, the athletically challenged Schmidt attracts the attention of an art major, Maya (Amber Stevens of “The Amazing Spider-Man”), when he performs slam poetry.  Gradually, Schmidt and Jenko fall out of touch with each other, and this creates friction between them.  Jenko has taken up big time with Zook and joins the college football team.  These two are literally wired into each other because Jenko is always where he is supposed to be to catch Zook’s passes!  Eventually, our frustrated heroes consult Mr. Walters (Rob Ripple) about the best strategy for ferreting out the WhyPhy suppliers.
Happily, “22 Jump Street” never takes itself seriously and never loses sight of its origins as a sequel.  “21 Jump Street” should be best remembered as the first buddy cop movie to address the relationship dynamics between male partners.  “22 Jump Street” pokes fun at Schmidt and Jenko, and our heroes have to endure a droll counseling session with a shrink. The African-American twins Keith & Kenny Yang (The Lucas Brothers) who live across the hall from them in the dorm will keep you in stitches with their antics.  Similarly, Mr. Walters’ prison scenes are hysterical.  Our heroes experience some changes themselves, particularly Schmidt.  Schmidt loses his virginity, and the real surprise is the identity of the girl’s father.  Jenko indulges in malapropisms. He says ‘anals’ when he means ‘annuals.’  Instead of saying carte blanche, he says “Cate Blanchett,” He also uses Parkour to shimmy up any edifice.  I didn’t laugh as often at “21 Jump Street” so “22 Jump Street” took me by surprise.  Not only does it live up to its predecessor with its goofy “Saturday Night Live” sketch-type humor, but “22 Jump Street” also surpasses the original.  


Although he scrapped the original cast for a company of fresh faces, “Transformers” director Michael Bay has changed little else in this sci-fi, fantasy franchise about Hasbro’s enormous, shape-shifting, alien robots that exist to smash each other to smithereens.  Cast as an entirely different character from Shia LaBeouf’s twentysomething Sam Witwicky, Mark Wahlberg portrays a paranoid, single-parent father in the third sequel of Paramount’s “Transformers” franchise.  Wahlberg isn’t the only newbie.  Five-time Emmy winner Kelsey Grammer of “Cheers” skulks around as a sinister CIA spook, while chrome-domed Stanley Tucci behaves like a Victor Frankenstein-style inventor in league with the notorious Grammer.  For the record, I rank the original “Transformers” marginally above “Dark of the Moon,” followed by “Age of Extinction,” and then “Revenge of the Fallen.”  “Reindeer Games” scenarist Ehren Kruger, who penned the two previous “Transformers” tales, assigns everybody, Man and Transformers alike, with more than enough onerous tasks in this fourth installment to rival “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” with its colossal Windy City apocalypse. Inevitably, everything culminates in a larger-than-life smackdown between the Transformers with collateral damage galore.  Furthermore, Bay and Kruger have anted up some other surprises.  Not only do the Dinobots appear, but also mankind miraculously manages to manufacture Transformers in their research laboratories.  Naturally, you’ll have to channel your inner adolescence to appreciate the fanciful heroics and outlandish mayhem that this PG-13 blockbuster delivers with predictable regularity throughout its bladder challenging 165 minutes.  Whereas the previous “Transformers” outings were essentially screwball comedies about titanic toys using major cities as arenas for their pandemonium, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (*** OUT OF *****) doesn’t consciously strive to be as absurd as its predecessors.  The hare-brained antics of Shia LaBeouf and his dysfunctional family were more amusing that anything Wahlberg and his teen daughter with her rally race car driver boyfriend dream up.  Indeed, the quirkiest character in “Age of Extinction” doesn’t survive the first hour.  Meaning, “Age of Extinction” isn’t a Looney Tunes extravaganza. 

“Transformers: Age of Extinction” takes place four years after the monumental battle of Chicago in “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”  Just as they suggested in the previous “Transformers” epic that NASA embarked on lunar exploration simply as a ruse to locate a crashed Cybertronian spacecraft on the moon before the Soviets, Bay and Kruger fantasize that the dinosaurs disappeared as a consequence of aliens exterminating the massive creatures with extreme prejudice.  Bay and Kruger waste no time introducing the Dinobots, and the scene in the Arctic where mankind has discovered a Dinobot fossil is eerie.  The next thing we know we’re in Texas.  The new protagonist in “Age of Extinction” is Cade Yeager.  A crackpot inventor who operates a fix-it service, Cade is a nice guy who wouldn’t swat a fly.  Cade and his partner Lucas Flannery (T.J. Miller of “Cloverfield”), a surfer dude out of water, are inspecting a movie theater that the owner wants to renovate when they spot a big-rig truck covered with debris.  Cade buys the rig with Lucas’ cash, and they haul it back to his barn.  Cade plans to strip it for spare parts.  Imagine Cade’s surprise when Optimus Prime (original “Transformers” voice-over artist Peter Cullen) changes his shape.  Cade is floored.  Not long afterward, a Top Secret commando outfit nicknamed ‘Cemetery Wind,’ that tracks and destroys Autobots and Decepticons alike, show up at his door.  Since the devastating battle of Chicago, the President has dismantled the combined Autobot & Pentagon operation to mop up stray Decepticons.  Furthermore, the administration has placed a bounty on all Transformers good or evil.  Lucas freaks out at Optimus Prime and alerts Cemetery Wind.  Sadly, Lucas is not prepared for the Storm Trooper tactics of James Savoy (Titus of Welliver “Mulholland Falls”) who resembles a shark in sunglasses and commands Cemetery Wind.  Savoy musters more villainy based on his menacing facade and this propensity for violence than his scheming boss, Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammer), who belongs to the Central Intelligence Agency.  Attinger has recruited a brilliant inventor, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci 0f “The Hunger Games”); to conduct experiments on Megatron’s severed head.  Attinger wants Joyce to create a man-made line of Transformers, and Joyce possesses the genius to make it happen.

My trifling objections with “Age of Extinction” lay with the new cast and the change of atmosphere.  Basically, I’ll watch Mark Wahlberg in just about anything.  He makes consistently interesting movies.  Moreover, Wahlberg radiates greater charisma than Shia LaBeouf.  Unfortunately, Wahlberg plays a largely colorless character.  He worries constantly about his teenage daughter, Tessa Yeager (Nicola Peltz), and struggles to keep her on a short leash.  Naturally, Tessa hates his micro-managing parental skills.  Imagine Cade’s surprise when he learns that Tessa has been dating an older fella!  Jail bait-looking Nicola Peltz makes a poor substitute for somebody as drop-dead sexy as Megan Fox.  Mind you, Fox is no Meryl Streep, but she was built for the “Transformers” franchise.  Tessa Yeager exists so Cade will fear for her welfare.  She serves as the resident damsel-in-distress.  As Tessa’s reckless boyfriend Shane, Jack Reynor brings little to the action aside from his driving skills that a stunt double performed.  The stunts that Shane’s daredevil character pulls are impressive, but little about Shane’s one-dimensional character is as impressive.  Neither Kelsey Grammer’s rather ho-hum villain nor Stanley Tucci’s deluded inventor overshadow the memory of the insane shenanigans of John Turturro’s Agent Simmons in the first three “Transformers.”  Nobody takes over the roles that Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox and Tyrese Gibson as USAF Tech Sergeant Epps created.  Remember, the military is excluded from “Age of Extinction.” 

No, you need not have seen the earlier “Transformers” trilogy toplining Shia LaBeouf to appreciate this entertaining reboot.  The best “Transformers” movies boast a multiplicity of shape-shifting robots, and the fourth “Transformers” movie meets the quota and then raises the bar.  Happily, quiet moments are few and far between in “Age of Extinction,” and the battling robots make the third sequel worthwhile escapism.

Sunday, June 8, 2014


Seth MacFarlane’s half-baked horse opera “A Million Ways to Die in the West” (** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a saddle-sore saga.  This lowest common denominator sagebrush satire boasts low-brow bowel humor, highly offensive language, and gory death scenes.  Despite all these unsavory elements, this western spoof emerges as fair at best and routine at worst.  Sporadically funny jokes and gags cannot conceal the conventions and clich├ęs.  The first problem is the trite Alex Sulkin, Wellesley Wild, and Seth MacFarlane screenplay.  Recently, I watched an Eddie Albert comedy “The Dude Goes West” (1947) that covered similar ground with greater success.  MacFarlane and his co-writers rant about the deplorable conditions governing life on the frontier in the 19th century American west.  The hero and the heroine hate the west.  This revulsion of all things western neither distinguishes MacFarlane’s movie nor makes its humor any funnier.  The only place where “A Million Ways to Die” breaks ground is with its raunchy R-rated jokes.  Some of the jokes hit, but most miss. Some jokes are so vile they might gag the guys in the “Jackass” movies.  Indeed, MacFarlane gets away with a lot in this lame oater, especially during the opening “Gunsmoke” showdown.  The good jokes are really good.  One of the best turns out to be badly told but this serves to accentuate the humor.  The second problem is most of the dialogue sounds like stand-up, comic routines.  Some standup comedy routines are better than others.  The best gag concerns Old West photography.  The running joke is nobody smiles in a photograph in the 19th century.  Nevertheless, the grinning photo attained the status as an urban legend.  Those who aren’t appalled by MacFarlane’s infantile as well as scatological sense of humor will no doubt want to roll in it like a dog in its own feces.  “A Million Ways to Die in the West” struggles to emulate “Blazing Saddles,” deliver dialogue like “Deadwood,” and show off like “Faces of Death.”

The setting of “A Million Ways to Die” is the town of Old Stump in the Arizona Territory in the year 1882.  Our pusillanimous sheep farming protagonist, Albert Stark (Seth MacFarlane of “Ted”), sinks into a state of depression after his schoolmarm girlfriend, Louise (Amanda Seyfried), dumps him for a snotty lothario, Foy (Neal Patrick Harris of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”), who owns a mustache shop.  No, nice-guy Albert doesn’t sport a mustache.  Louise left Albert because she classified him as too cowardly.  During the opening Main Street showdown, Albert drops his six-gun in the dust rather than shoot it out with another gunman.  Later, Albert challenges Foy to a duel.  Meantime, a mysterious woman, Anna (Charlize Theron of “Monster”), shows Albert how to handle a hog-leg.  Anna, as it turns out, is the wife of notorious outlaw Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson of “Taken”) who eventually decides to shoot Albert for flirting with his wife.  Basically, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back, but takes up with a different girl describes the storyline.  An imbecilic subplot concerns the romance between a hard-working saloon prostitute, Ruth (Sarah Silverman of “Evolution”) and a timid male virgin shoemaker (Giovanni Ribisi of “The Mod Squad”) who has agreed not to have intercourse with her until their wedding night.  Albert and his friends emerge as likeable, sympathetic characters, while Foy, Clinch, and his henchmen are as repulsive as rattlers.

Although best known as the creator of the respective animated series “American Dad” and “Family Guy,” not to mention his previous blockbuster comedy “Ted” with Mark Wahlberg, MacFarlane must have been gambling that he could resurrect a moribund franchise with his impertinent humor.  Westerns have not performed well at the box office since the early 1990s, and even then the genre was riding on borrowed time.  After John Wayne died and Clint Eastwood got too old plains, westerns have never regained their former grandeur.  Disney’s “Lone Ranger” tanked last summer, and only AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” on television has survived with any success.  The Jeff Bridges “True Grit” remake and Quentin Tarantino’s slave saga “Django” are the sole examples of successes.  Nothing about MacFarlane’s approach to the genre justifies its use.  He looks out of place himself with his hopelessly clean-scrubbed, Shoney’s Big Boy looks.  Aside from his profanity, MacFarlane plays the same tenderfoot that Bob Hope, Eddie Albert, Gary Cooper, Don Knotts, or Tim Conway have done in earlier movies and television shows.  Neil Patrick Harris usually steals the show no matter what the material, but he makes only a minor impression with his Snidely Whiplash villain.  Unfortunate Amanda Seyfried has little more to do than bulge her beautiful eyes and swish an umbrella.  Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson wander through their roles.  Colorful cameos by the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Jamie Foxx, and Bill Maher prove more stimulating.  “A Million Ways to Die in the West” could have been a million times better.


Those immersed in all things Marvel, particularly Twentieth Century Fox’s “X-Men” film franchise, should scrutinize “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (**** OUT OF ****) several times for its larger-than-life spectacle, global adventure, and sterling performances.  Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two “X-Men” outings and scenarist Simon Kinberg of “X-Men: The Last Stand” bring the popular Marvel franchise full circle.  This time around fans can savor the best of both worlds, with the original cast in the futuristic scenes while their youthful counterparts flesh out the flashbacks.  Furthermore, Singer and company spring some audacious surprises and provide a whole new future for the franchise.  Clearly, Singer and Kinberg hold “The Matrix” and “Terminator 2” in high regard because they take cues from these seminal science fiction films.  Indeed, as this elaborate time travel tale takes place, some characters suffer from shortage of screen presence for a variety of reasons not altogether clear.  Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Fame Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, Anna Paquin, and James Marsden don’t garner the amount of screen time reserved for Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence.  Nevertheless, they make an indelible impression in spite of their respective brevity.  Of course, if you missed either “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) or “X-Men: First Class” (2011), you may have trouble keeping up with both the plot and characters.   Singer and company splice in scenes from earlier “X-Men” epics to refresh our memories when allusions are made to certain characters that do not appear in “Days of Future Past.”  Although it lacks a villain as deliciously despicable as Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, this striking ensemble superhero saga eclipses “X-Men: First Class” in virtually every respect.

Comic book fans should prepare themselves for some major surprises.  Singer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” shares selectively with issues 141 and 142 of Chris Claremont & John Byrne’s “The Uncanny X-Men.”  The “Days of Future Past” comic book appeared in print January thru February of 1981.  Originally, Kitty Pryde plunged back in time in the graphic novel rather than the Wolverine in the film.  Moreover, some villains in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants are conspicuously AWOL, notably The Blob and Avalanche.  Meantime, the assassination plot remains intact, but the individual marked for death differs.  The assassin’s target is no longer a politician, but an eminent research scientist who wants to eradicate all traces of mutants.  The Sentinels show up and pose a threat not only to the mutants, but also mankind, too.  Despite these changes, Singer and Kinberg have created an exciting, imaginative, but acerbic opus.  The “X-Men” movies have always been a notch above the other Marvel film properties.  We learn that President Kennedy was a mutant and Magneto tried to save his life.  Singer and company depict President Nixon as a buffoon and excoriate the government for the debacle in South Vietnam.  For those who enjoy “X-Men” movies simply as an avenue of escapism, the political commentary may be as extraneous as it is pretentious.  Meantime, we have a movie that isn’t strictly devoted to urban renewal.  The Marvel film franchises at Walt Disney emerge as hollow-minded crowd-pleasers by comparison.  They shun any form of political commentary.  Singer takes “X-Men” seriously, with a smirk every now and then to keep us poised on our collective toes.  Interestingly enough, despite its fidelity to “X-Men: First Class,”  “Days of Future Past” unfolds after a gap in time has occurred since its predecessor.  When we last saw Magneto, he had assembled his own team.  Some of those members met with calamity between “X-Men: First Class” and “Days of Future Past.” 

“Days of Future Past” unfolds 50 years into a dystopian future.  Menacing robots known as ‘Sentinels’ have dominated mankind.  Everything lies in ruins.  The skulls and skeletons of millions of mutants and men litter the barren landscape.  The Sentinels are implacable foes.  These towering robots have been programmed to eliminate all mutants with extreme prejudice.  A lesser group of X-Men, led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page of “Whip It”), have managed to evade the Sentinels, but they realize they are living on borrowed time.  They retreat to a camp in remote China.  Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) wants Kitty to project him back in time, so they can rewrite history and avert the rise of the Sentinels.  Wolverine (Hugh Jackman of “X-Men 2”) volunteers to time-trip back to the 1970s, so he can contact the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto.  Wolverine is the only X-Man who can travel that far back in time.  His body can adapt to the hostile conditions of time travel.  As it turns out, the Sentinels are the pride and joy of their inventor, Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage of “Game of Thrones”), who has captured and tortured mutants..  Somehow, he managed to capture, torture, and kill most of Magneto’s gang after the Cuban missile crisis.  Trask approaches Congress about his Sentinel project, but the politicians refused to fund him.  Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence of “The Hunger Games”) plans to murder the diminutive Trask at the Paris Peace Conference to prevent him from launching his Sentinel program.  Coming from the bleak future, Wolverine confronts both a reluctant Xavier (James McAvoy of “Atonement”) and a treacherous Magneto (Michael Fassbinder of “Prometheus”) about the necessity of thwarting Mystique from assassinating Trask. 

Despite its two-hour plus running time, “Days of Future Past” neither wears out its welcome nor bogs down in a labyrinth of complications.  Singer and Kinberg conjure up considerable tension and suspense.  They keep throwing obstacles into the path of our heroes so that Wolverine and company have to struggle against incredible odds.  Indeed, the box office triumph of this “X-Men” escapade has already prompted Twentieth Century Fox to green-light a sixth installment, “X-Men: Apocalypse.”  You should linger and patiently watch the end credits for a glimpse of the awesome adversary who awaits our mutant heroes in the next outing.  Don’t skip “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”

Monday, May 26, 2014


Believe it or not, although the Japanese made their landmark monster movie “Godzilla” in 1954, Hollywood beat them to the punch with “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.”   Adapted from a Ray Bradbury short story published in “The Saturday Evening Post” magazine, “Beast” concerned a prodigious prehistoric amphibian awakened from hibernation by atomic bomb blasts.  Wasting no time, the scaly leviathan wended its way to New York City where it wrecked havoc on a heretofore unparalleled scale.  Even before “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” Hollywood had made a 1925 silent-era movie “The Lost World” where a dinosaur on the loose rampaged through London.  Anyway, about a year after “Beast” came out, the Japanese released “Gojira,” and the Toho Company went on to exploit its radioactive creature for every cent it was worth.  Godzilla stomped Tokyo to smithereens, and the film proved so profitable that Hollywood reedited it to accommodate American actors and changed the title from “Gojira” to “Godzilla.”  Afterward, Hollywood entrusted the gigantic monster genre to the Japanese.  Meantime, Toho has churned out at least 28 Godzilla epics over a 60 year period and coined millions at the box office with their man in a rubber suit.  Eventually, rival Japanese studios produced Godzilla knock-offs; the chief example was the titanic turtle “Gamera” that breathed fire. 

In 1998, “Independence Day” director Roland Emmerich helmed the first American “Godzilla,” but it took too many liberties with the Toho legend.  First, Big G lost his incendiary breath.  Second, Big G resembled a Komodo dragon.  Emmerich and co-scenarist Dean Devlin rewrote Godzilla’s origins.  Comparably, “Godzilla” (1998) sold only half as many tickets during its opening weekend as “Monster” director Gareth Edwards’ ambitious, second American reboot of Big G.  Unlike Emmerich’s “Godzilla” that synthesized spectacle and slapstick, Edwards and “Seventh Son” scenarist Max Borenstein have shunned humor in favor of catastrophe.  The new “Godzilla” (*** OUT OF ****) doesn’t embroil lame-brained amateurs, but grim-faced scientific and military types.  Indeed, this “Godzilla” treats the Toho icon with genuine respect and dignity.  This time around Godzilla isn’t searching for someplace to lay its eggs.  Instead, Big G has embarked on its own crusade to defend mankind and thwart a couple of nuclear-age behemoths that want to lay their eggs in San Francisco.  Ironically, Big G wins the battle of the monsters, but he doesn’t garner as much stomp time as he did in Emmerich’s “Godzilla.”  You’ll have to wait patiently about an hour for Big G to show up.  Nevertheless, Godzilla makes a dramatic entrance, and he dominates the action for the last half-hour.  Edwards’ straight-forward version of “Godzilla” eclipses Emmerich’s comic version.

Most of the amusing “Godzilla” movies from the 1960s & 1970s pitted Big G against two enemies, and the new “Godzilla” adopts the scenario of the outnumbered hero.  The battle scenes between Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) are thoroughly invigorating.  Unfortunately, the two biggest drawbacks to Edwards’ largely entertaining “Godzilla” are its dreary, one-dimensional humans who clutter up the action and the bland MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) monsters that resemble gargantuan mosquitoes that walk on their knuckles like gorillas.  A cast of familiar faces cannot compensate for their sketchy characters.  Mankind isn’t half as interesting as Godzilla, especially when he tangles with the MUTOs in a world class smack-down brawl.  Ironically, Big G appears to get the short shrift.  “Godzilla” isn’t so much about the monsters as the spectacular collateral damage that Godzilla and two airborne giants wreck on mankind.  The destruction, or perhaps urban renewal, matches the wholesale mayhem of the “Transformers” trilogy and Marvel’s “The Avengers.”  Traditionally, filmmakers have employed Godzilla as allegory for the appalling consequences mankind has paid for tampering with our environment.  Essentially, Godzilla has always been the cultural embodiment of global warming.

The action unfolds in 1954 when the military detonates atomic devices at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in a futile effort to destroy Godzilla.  We catch a glimpse of Big-G’s heavily spiked back emerging from the depths as the explosions erupt.  Later, a nuclear power plant in Japan collapses, and the radioactive ruins become the equivalent of Area 51.  Janjira Plant Supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston of “Drive”) watches in horror as his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche of “The English Patient”) dies when the reactor blows up.  Afterward, the government quarantines the collapsed plant, but Brody suspects the government is orchestrating a cover-up.  Meantime, Joe's son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Savages”) grows up, joins the Navy, and specializes in explosive ordnance disposal.  He marries Elle (Elizabeth Olsen of “Oldboy”) who is nurse in San Francisco.  Naturally, they have a son Sam (Carson Bolde).  Fifteen years after the Janjira disaster, Joe hasn’t recanted his crazy theories about a cover-up.  The authorities arrest him for trespassing in his old home in the quarantine zone.  They escort him to meet two scientists, Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Graham (Sally Hawkins), who have established a secret facility within the Janjira ruins.  All hell breaks loose a second time, and a colossal, winged reptile materializes. 

Clearly, the last thing director Gareth Edwards wanted for us to do is snicker at his “Godzilla” reboot.  Not only does he want us to take Godzilla seriously as a monster, but he also wants us to take the movie “Godzilla” seriously.  This new “Godzilla” shares little in common with the-man-in-a-rubber-suit “Godzilla” franchise.  If you haven’t seen either “Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla” (1994) or “Godzilla vs. Megalon” (1973), you haven’t seen some of the vintage “Godzilla” entries that challenge your suspension of disbelief.  Edwards draws on Steven Spielberg’s classic “Jaws” as a template for both the presentation and the pacing of this impressive, beautifully lensed, two hour plus CGI monstrosity.  Like the 1998 “Godzilla,” the new “Godzilla” rewrites the creature’s origins.  Despite the outlandish sci-fi fantasy elements, the visual effects make everything appear believable.  The spectacle of destruction in Japan, Hawaii, Las Vegas and San Francisco is stunning.  Altogether, Edward’s “Godzilla” breathes new fire into a old franchise.