Logan


The claws are out.

(2017) Superhero (20th Century Fox/Marvel) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Richard E. Grant, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse, Rey Gallegos, Krzysztof Soszynski, Stephen Dunleavy, Daniel Bernhardt, Ryan Sturz, Jason Genao, Hannah Westerfield, Bryant Tardy, Ashlyn Casalegno, Alison Fernandez. Directed by James Mangold

 

The end of an era can be a cause for celebration, a cause for sadness or both. Hugh Jackman announced prior to the release of the latest X-Men Universe solo film that this would be his last go-round as Wolverine, a run that has lasted 17 years and nine appearances in the part, the most for an actor playing a single character. It’s pretty hard to imagine anyone else playing the role.

It is the near-future and mutants have been decimated; they are either dead or in hiding. Logan (Jackman), once known as Wolverine, is hiding in plain sight in a border town in Mexico. He drives a limo in the evenings; by day he drinks…a lot. His mutant healing ability has begun to fail him and the adamantium in his bones has begun to poison him; he’s dying. So too is Professor X (Stewart), the powerful telepath who is beset by encroaching dementia which sometimes leads to terrible psychic blasts that literally stop time. Logan takes care of his old mentor along with Caliban (Merchant), an albino mutant tracker with a severe allergy to sunlight.

Logan is approached by Gabriela (Rodriguez), a nurse who wants Logan to drive Laura (Keen), a little girl to a place in Canada. Logan’s heroic days are behind him though and he turns her down but events conspire to bring Laura and Logan together and put them on the run, chased by the ruthless Pierce (Holbrook) who works for the even more ruthless Dr. Rice (Grant). Logan soon discovers that Laura is a lot like him…a lot. She has his healing ability – and his claws. The secret behind who Laura is will send Logan on a last quest with Professor X and lead to a bloody climax in the woods just south of the Canadian border.

It seems almost impossible but the Fox X-Men movies of late…well, two of the last three of them – the R-rated ones – have actually been as good if not better than the MCU movies. Deadpool took comic book movies to the R rating with a thumb to the nose and a wink to the audience, whereas Logan is a much more serious affair.

Jackman looks a lot older than he actually is here; it’s not the years, Logan might say, it’s the mileage. Jackman makes Logan a bitter, battered man who has lost hope. He is still loyal to Charles Xavier, but has essentially retreated from a world that hates him. Logan has always been a cynical character but here Jackman makes it less a defense mechanism than surrender.

There aren’t a lot of familiar faces in supporting roles other than Stewart who lost more than 20 pounds to give Xavier an air of fragility. Keen acquits herself well in the very physical role of Laura, impressive for a child actress – heck, any actress for that matter. Former St. Elsewhere star LaSalle makes a rare screen appearance in a very memorable role of a farmer who befriends Logan with devastating consequences.

The tone is bleak, exceptionally so. In many ways it reminded me of a Western – other reviewers have compared it with some justification with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven although the filmmakers themselves seem to be purposely inviting comparisons to the classic Western Shane, clips of which play during the course of the film. Given the mainly Southwestern setting and the overall tone, it is justified in being classified a superhero Western.

In many ways, the movie is well-timed. The mutants of the comic books have often been used as allegories for any oppressed minority and in this case, one could argue that they are stand-ins for immigrants particularly of the Muslim variety. It is also very much outside the box; generally we see heroes at the beginning of their careers when they make it to the multiplex; here we see a hero at the end of his. I won’t say this is the best superhero movie of all time, but it certainly stands out in a crowded field these days. It’s not for everybody – this is not a movie for children or the squeamish. It is serious cinematic art and demands a whole lot from the audience, not the least of which is their grey matter. Not something, sadly, that many modern film audiences seem willing to give.

REASONS TO GO: Despite the carnage, the movie actually gives the viewer a lot to think about.  It plays a little bit like a Western.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Let’s face it; the violence here is pretty extreme and there’s a lot of it. There’s also plenty of profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie opened in 4,071 theaters in the United States, the most ever for an R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men: Days of Future Past
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Frantz

X-Men: Apocalypse


Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

Oscar Isaac strikes a dramatic pose.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Lana Condor, Olivia Munn, Warren Scherer, Hugh Jackman, Monique Ganderton, Rochelle Kooky, Ally Sheedy. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

Human history is full of the strong oppressing the weak. Sometimes the strong are that in name only; they have strength only in the will to seize power and wield it. Other times they have the strength of numbers. Power can come from many different sources.

In the world of X-Men: Apocalypse the oppressed are feared by the oppressors. Mutants are powerful but they are few in numbers; it is the non-mutants who fear what they can potentially do. Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy), once the most powerful telepathic mind in the world, sees things differently. He sees a world in which mutants and normals live harmoniously, in which mutants use their powers to protect those who have none. He’s established a school to teach young mutants to fulfill exactly that purpose.

It is a different world than what Magneto (Fassbender) sees but with good reason. The Master of Magnetism is powerful, but was unable to prevent the deaths of his parents at Auschwitz, nor could he protect his wife and daughter while he lived in anonymous exile in Poland (methinks Magneto should stay away from Poland, where Auschwitz is also located, because horrible things seem to happen to him there). He is ripe for being swayed over to the dark side of things.

Enter Apocalypse (Isaac). He may or may not have been the first Mutant, but he is certainly among the most powerful. In his day, he had been worshipped as a God and in fact ruled Egypt as a living God, a despotic tyrant who was eventually ambushed by those who opposed his rule and buried under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid, knocked unconscious before he could change his psyche to the body of a younger man (which is how he remains immortal). His long slumber has been interrupted by misguided followers of his cult and now he’s back in the world, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

In his day, the mutants ruled the normals but that’s not what is happening in the 1980s. It is the height of the cold war and new wave, an era in which the mutants are regarded with suspicion after what happened in the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Apocalypse always has a personal guard of four powerful mutants whose powers are enhanced and in this case he chooses Storm (Shipp) with powers over the weather, Psylocke (Munn) who can hurl telepathic daggers and Angel (Hardy) with wings of steel that can hurl steel projectiles.

In the meantime, Mystique (Lawrence) has chosen to remain in her human form and is recruiting new mutants to the Xavier School, including the telepath Jean Grey (Turner) who has the potential to be even more powerful than Xavier himself, Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) who can teleport and Scott Summers (Sheridan) who can shoot incredibly strong force bolts from his eyes. Along with Hank McCoy (Hoult) – the ever-loving Beast and resident scientist for the group – and Havok (Till), Summers’ brother whose force beams come out of his chest, and Quicksilver (Peters), a super-speedster, the school is full of very powerful and dangerous kids which attracts the attention of Col. Stryker (Helman) who has a mutant experiment of his own going at Alkili Lake.

Now we’re setting up a potential battle – Apocalypse who wants to destroy the world and repopulate it with mutants who would be the only ones strong enough to withstand the destruction, and Xavier who wants to save the world. Each has their own team; Apocalypse with the Four Horsemen, Xavier with the X-Men and they will duke it out with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Of course, the plot is fairly endemic to most superhero movies especially this year when it is the third of three different movies from three different studios all with superheroes battling one another. While critics have been decrying the similarity of the plots, there are subtle differences in each that for my money make them all different takes on a similar but not identical theme.

Here the theme has to do with the oppression of minorities and whether it is the responsibility of those with power to protect their own at the expense of everyone else, or to protect those who need it. The latter is a crucial question in the four color world of superheroes and one which does get repeated fairly regularly in the cinematic world of superheroes as well; as was said in a certain webslinger’s movie, with great power comes great responsibility.

As summer blockbusters go, it has plenty of spectacular action and amazing visuals which is what one looks for in a hot weather diversion. Unfortunately, the movie also has what has proven to be a superhero movie killer on many occasions recently; too many characters. I only touched on the main characters here and there were many others involved in the film, like Wolverine (Jackman) who shows up in a memorable cameo appearance in Jackman’s penultimate appearance as the character.

This is based on a classic comic story arc which is one I was actually familiar with as it was written while I was still collecting comics. The Apocalypse of the comic books was, in my opinion, much more of a villain than he is here and certainly much more dangerous, even though Isaac turns in a pretty strong performance despite the layers and layers of make-up. The Apocalypse of the comics was simply evil and didn’t really have an agenda beyond ruling the world; here, he has a philosophy which is supposed to give him motivation but ends up as unnecessary clutter. There’s a lot of that here, including the Wolverine appearance.

The producers of the X-Men franchise have said that this will conclude the trilogy started in X-Men: First Class in 2011. They have established several new young versions of some of the more beloved characters in the franchise. Where they will go with them is anybody’s guess but you can be sure there will be plenty more X-Men action coming in the future from Fox, for whom this franchise has been a gold mine.

This isn’t the weakest entry in the X-Men franchise but it’s certainly not the strongest. I think some judicious trimming of the number of characters as well as the plot itself (the movie clocks in at well over two hours) might have been beneficial to the final product. Singer has always had the best grip on the X-Men universe of any of the directors who have tackled it. Hopefully whomever inherits the reins will improve on this film which is merely decent.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the visuals are spectacular. It does give the First Class trilogy a nice definite conclusion.
REASONS TO STAY: Feels bloated and overpopulated with characters. Apocalypse felt far more dangerous in the comic book edition than he did here.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of superhero action and destruction, some brief strong language and a scene that is sexually suggestive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Oscar Isaac’s voice was recorded with three different types of microphones, and then melded together to create the voice of Apocalypse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fantastic Four
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Keeper of Darkness

Captain America: Civil War


Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

Captain America in an All-American studio apartment.

(2016) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Daniel Brűhl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman, Marisa Tomei, John Kani, John Slattery, Hope Davis, Alfre Woodard. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

 

In this post-911 world, we often have to consider the importance of security versus freedom. How much power do we allow our government to have? Is it worth giving up our freedom to be protected? And when does it stop being worth it?

Following the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron the Avengers have continued to operate without the guidance of Tony Stark (Downey) a.k.a. Iron Man but they still continue to clean out the remnants of Hydra and travel the globe to stop threats of terrorism and barbarity. They are on one such mission to stop Crossbones (Grillo) from obtaining a biological weapon. They do stop the former SHIELD agent turned supervillain but at a staggering cost.

The nations of the world can no longer stand idly by while their citizens are reduced to collateral damage. They sign a treaty known as the Sokovia Accords (named for the fictional country that was decimated by the Avengers battle with Ultron) to put the Avengers under United Nations control, only sent on missions approved by the Security Council.

Stark has put his pen to paper and signed already and expects his good friend Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America to do the same but to Stark’s shock, Rogers refuses. He feels that the Avengers will not only function less effectively as the tools of bureaucrats and politicians, but that without self-autonomy, more lives will be lost than saved.

It’s not an easy question and not everyone falls on the same side. The Avengers eventually become two different teams, at war with one another. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes (Stan) – a.k.a. the Winter Soldier and Cap’s friend from pre-World War II Brooklyn has had the mind control that was implanted into him by Hydra used to send him on a rampage that ends up with a high-profile murder. T’challa (Boseman) a.k.a. The Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, rich in minerals (including the rare vibranium that is what Cap’s shield is constructed out of) and technology, vows to take down Barnes and execute him. Cap can’t let that happen as it, strictly speaking, isn’t Bucky’s fault.

So it is friends against friends, the U.S. government against the Avengers, Iron Man against Captain America. No matter what, this won’t end well and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be changed permanently as a result.

This is in some ways the most complicated and thought-provoking film in Marvel’s history. It does tackle a subject that has real world ramifications and comes up with no easy answers – it also doesn’t cop out either, which is to the filmmaker’s credit. When those who ask why the Marvel films are so much more popular than the DC films (at least currently), the simple answer is that Marvel is making better movies. With the exception of some of the Batman films (by Messrs. Burton and Nolan) Marvel’s movies are more interesting, have more character development, and quite frankly are more fun to watch.

Civil War is a little bit darker in hue than the majority of Marvel’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s set in Gotham. There are no real villains in it for one thing – yes, there is a character named Zemo (Brűhl) who shares a last name with old Marvel villain Baron Zemo who was a Nazi mad scientist and a Hydra operative, but this Zemo is actually in a lot of ways a sympathetic character who has reasons for his madness. And the conflict between Cap and Shellhead are between two heroes doing what they believe is right.

Downey in fact steals the film from Captain America; he is tortured by the damage he has done as a superhero and as a man. His relationship is tanking and he believes that the world would be a better place if the Avengers accepted some oversight and accountability. His anguish not only at what he has caused to occur but in the conflict with his friend Cap is palpable. Downey is an Oscar-nominated actor and this is by far his best performance as Iron Man yet.

The action sequences have to be at the core of any superhero film and they are spectacular here. There’s a fight at a German airport that may go down as one of the best in Marvel history and it utilizes the talents of many of the supporting characters and a couple of new ones, including the previously mentioned Black Panther but also the brand new Spider-Man (Holland). Holland may be the best Spider-Man yet (sorry Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) and acquits himself well both as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker. Based on the snippet of him and Aunt May (Tomei) in this film, I am much more interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming next year than I already was.

All of the characters here other than a few who have little more than cameos are shown to be quite human and as humans are, imperfect. This makes the superheroes more relatable to everyone. Who hasn’t had relationship troubles, or felt like they didn’t belong, or chafed at having their autonomy taken from them, or mistrusted authority, or agonized over inventing a self-aware robot that nearly wiped out the human race? Okay, maybe not the last one.

The plot here is dense and for those not really immersed in the Marvel Universe, it may all be too much. In many ways, this is the first Marvel film I felt that it would be actually advantageous to have seen all of the ones preceding it in order to understand it better. It can still stand on its own, but I have to admit that the more you know about the MCU, the easier this will go down. There are also a whole lot of characters here and their relationships and motivations may not be clear to everyone. I suppose that’s just a byproduct of having so many films in the MCU now.

The Russos have shown themselves very capable directors. While I don’t think this film quite measures up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier in terms of quality, it’s damn close. The brothers have been handed the reins to the next to Avengers films and this one shows that the franchise is in safe hands.

REASONS TO GO: Great battle sequences. Excellent debate starter (security vs. freedom). Portrays the heroes as fallible and human.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too much plot and character. Occasionally confusing, particularly to casual viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of superhero violence, action and mayhem, more than you can shake a stick at.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At 2 hours and 27 minutes long, this is the longest Marvel movie to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: My Love, Don’t Cross That River

Deadpool


Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

Deadpool is knocking the movie industry sideways.

(2016) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano, T.J. Miller, Brianna Hildebrand, Stefan Kapicic (voice), Michael Benyaer, Karan Soni, Leslie Uggams, Rob Hayter, Greg LaSalle, Hugh Scott, Donna Yamamoto, Kyle Cassie, Taylor Hickson, Randal Reeder, Jed Rees, Style Dayne, Aatash Amir, Chad Riley, Emily Haine. Directed by Tim Miller

We’re all used to the ponderous superhero movies with tons of special effects as we see how the hero went from a young nobody to being a powerful and charismatic hero, saving the world (or at least New York) from threats that even Schwarzenegger at his best couldn’t overcome.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is an ex Special Forces vet with 41 kills to his credit. These days he makes a living by being a bad guy taking out worse guys, as he puts it. He hangs out in the St. Agnes School, which is really a bar where mercenaries hang out awaiting assignments and the bartender Weasel (Miller) is Wilson’s best friend.

Then Wilson meets Vanessa (Baccarin), a cocktail waitress and hooker who agrees to go out on a date with him and eventually, the two become a couple. But when things are going good, fate has a way of laying the smack down on us. Wilson is diagnosed with terminal cancer. While drinking away his troubles, he is met in the bar by a recruiter (Rees) for an experimental medical program that can cure Wade’s cancer but also give him superpowers. With nothing to lose, he leaves Vanessa’s bed in the middle of the night and heads for the clinic (which is more like a warehouse) overseen by psychotic scientist/super villain Ajax (Skrein) who hates his given name of Francis. The process which it takes to cure Wade is a brutal one and an excruciating one.

When he escapes the compound after Ajax and his super-strong minion Angel Dust (Carano) – whom Wilson describes as a less angry Rosie O’Donnell – torture him with a modified hyperbaric chamber, Wade is disfigured and pissed off. Donning a costume with a mask so nobody can see his face, he adopts the name Deadpool after a pastime at the bar, and goes on the hunt for his nemesis.

In the meantime, the X-Men in the form of Colossus (Kapicic/LaSalle) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Hildebrand) are trying to recruit Deadpool for their team although ‘pool is far too focused on getting revenge to bother with saving the world. Not that he’s against saving the world, as long as he gets the girl, puts the bad guys into the ground and has plenty of chimichangas afterwards.

Reynolds has been trying to get this made for six years, ever since the unsatisfying appearance of the Merc with a Mouth in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Fox has been resistant to the idea of doing an R-rated superhero movie and for once, the filmmakers got their way and I’m sure the executives at Fox are happy that they did. The movie has been a phenomenal success; already some pundits are talking that it will force the industry to rethink the entire release concept of tentpole blockbusters.

I don’t know if this will eventually be that kind of game-changer but it is excessively entertaining. As has been noted basically everywhere, the tone is irreverent (the opening credits proclaim the movie was directed by “An Overpaid Tool” and has similar credits for most of the cartoonish opening) and the main character often addresses the audience directly, or makes references to the fact that he’s in the movie as when he tells Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus that they are the only two X-Men he ever sees despite living in a huge mansion: “I guess the producers couldn’t afford any more X-Men” he says snidely.

Reynolds was born to play this role. He has the right amount of attitude and the right amount of physicality and somewhat importantly, the right amount of looks. He’s also willing to take a bit of a right cross to the career jaw and make fun of his own image even as his movie is lampooning the genre and Marvel in one fell swoop. Reynolds is engaging and even though his character is violent, annoying and a little bit psychotic, he ends up carrying the audience’s interest throughout.

The rest of the cast is for the most part pretty much unknown although Baccarin, best known for her stint in Firefly, makes for a fine love interest, Carano (a former MMA fighter) a mostly line-less henchwoman and Skrein a suave villain who gets annoyed whenever his real name is used. While Skrein isn’t the most charismatic man to hit Hollywood ever, he nonetheless fulfills the role of an urbane British villain nicely.

I think overall the movie captures the spirit of the comic book pretty well, which is good news for fans. If there are any sticking points it’s that the movie slows down a little near the end when it should be building momentum, and the excessive gore and profanity may be a little much for those sensitive for such things. And parents, please do NOT bring your kids to this. Unless you feel comfortable dropping the F-bomb in front of them regularly and exposing them to scenes of heads being sliced off of their necks, this isn’t meant for kids. I don’t know how many people have to say this however many different ways – and I still see idiot parents bringing their six and seven year old kids to the movie. Get a flippin’ babysitter if you want to see it that badly.

In any case, this is the movie we asked for, it’s the movie we deserve. It’s fun and while I get the sense that Fox kind of hedged their bets with the budget, it’s clear that there will be lots more Deadpool goodness in our futures. And that suits me just fine.

REASONS TO GO: A fun romp throughout. Stays true to the spirit of the comic book.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore and profanity may upset the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod ohmygawd! Do not take your children to this movie. If they’re under ten chances are it will be too much for them. There’s a TON of f-bombs, gratuitous violence (always the best kind), and some graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Became the first R-rated film to open with more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Kung Fu Panda 3

Guardians of the Galaxy


Just don't call him Rocky...it pisses him off.

Just don’t call him Rocky…it pisses him off.

(2014) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper (voice), Vin Diesel (voice), Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro, Laura Haddock, Peter Serafinowicz, Christopher Fairbank, Gregg Henry, Josh Brolin, Alexis Denisof, Tomas Arana, Lindsay Morton. Directed by James Gunn

So what makes for a great summer movie? Is it spectacle? Over-the-top action? Bigger than life characters? A mix of comedy, pathos, drama and action? A movie that puts you in a place where you can relax and forget all your cares?

Marvel Studios, the cinematic arm of Marvel comics, has been dominating the summer market ever since they broke out with Iron Man back in 2008. Since then, it has been one blockbuster after another as they have successfully created a shared cinematic universe in a similar fashion to the one they developed for their four color division, keeping audiences invested in the goings on and eagerly anticipating the next film in the franchise. This year has been particularly successful for the Marvel brand, not merely in box office (although that is the bottom line for most studio sorts) but also by delivering what are arguably the two best films in the brand both in 2014.

After Captain America: The Winter Soldier utilized a ’70s-style political thriller as a kind of framework for a superhero movie that had repercussions across the Marvel cinematic universe (and greatly affecting the TV series Marvel Agents of SHIELD) the House of Ideas has taken a bold move; to center on a little-known group of heroes in a space opera setting that is the final stand-alone installment in Marvel’s Phase 2 before next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.

 

Peter Quill (Pratt) is an adventurer and thief who used to live on Earth before being abducted by a group of outlaws named The Ravagers on the night his mother (Haddock) passed away from cancer. Did I mention that the Ravagers are a group of aliens led by Yondu Udonta (Rooker)? Quill has more or less broken away from the gang and is on the deserted, lifeless and ruined planet Morag. As he jauntily dances his way through the ruins he eventually finds a nondescript orb, using high tech to capture the artifact in a nod to the Indiana Jones movies.

Turns out he’s not the only one who wants the Orb. A renegade Kree named Ronan the Accuser (Pace) needs the Orb which hides a devastating secret. He’ll stop at nothing to get it and sends Gamora (Saldana), an adopted daughter of Thanos (Brolin), a malevolent figure who has designs on ruling the galaxy. Ronan is merely insane, akin to a religious terrorist who means to impose his version of morality on the Galaxy which begins with exterminating the planet Xandar, home of the Nova Corps who have signed a treaty with the Kree’s ancient enemies the Skrull as well as with the Kree themselves. Ronan will not tolerate this and needs the Orb to exact his version of justice.

Yondu also wants the Orb to get the massive pay day that’s being offered for it but Peter is making his own deals these days, so Yondu sets a bounty on Peter’s head. A pair of disreputable bounty hunters, a genetically modified raccoon named Rocket (Cooper) and a humanoid tree named Groot (Diesel) who only speaks three words and in the same order every time – “I Am Groot,” want Peter and the Orb so that they can get paid.

 

Then there’s Drax the Destroyer (Bautista) who doesn’t want the Orb or Peter – he wants vengeance on Ronan who murdered his entire family. When he espies Gamora battling Peter for the Orb, he figures he can start moving his way up the ladder by sending Gamora to the sweet Hereafter. However, since all of this is transpiring on Xandar, the Nova Corps arrest the whole lot of them and send them off to prison.

Gamora reveals that she intends to betray Ronan and keep the Orb from him permanent-like as the Orb conceals one of the Infinity Gems, an artifact of immeasurable power that can level planets and wipe out civilizations. Quill, normally the most mercenary of men, grows a conscience but figures that the five of them can escape from this inescapable prison, avoid Ronan and is henchmen Nebula (Gillan) who is also one of Thanos’ adopted “daughters,” and Korath (Hounsou) a fearsome fighter. If they can keep from killing each other while they’re doing it, so much the better.

James Gunn is an inspired choice to helm this film; as previous movies on his resume like Slither and Super showed, he has a quirky sense of humor and a stylish visual sense. One of the things he utilizes to full effect is a group of songs from the 60s and 70s that Peter has collected on the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 1 which his mother gave him prior to her death and is his sole link with his life on Earth. The tape (which is available for download or on CD) has some amazing songs that have a certain cheese factor but are actually all pretty damn catchy, ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede and  “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum (the latter two both classics for different reasons). It’s one of the most engaging soundtracks in recent years.

This is a galaxy that may be far, far away but there’s an awful lot that’s familiar about it too. Part of the reason for that is that Gunn takes the time to develop all of his characters. It isn’t just Quill and Gamora, the two leads, who are given personalities, but all five of the Guardians and to a certain extent, some of the villains as well – Yondu, Ronan and The Collector (del Toro) all become defined, fleshed-out characters that everyone in the audience will root for – or against as the case may be.

 

Pratt, who has mostly been known for supporting roles but made some career headway in Parks and Recreation, establishes himself as a lead movie star here. He’s funny, but also handles his action sequences with aplomb and when the time comes for him to be heroic, handles that aspect nicely. He has a great deal of screen presence and seems comfortable being the film’s center. While Saldana’s chemistry with Pratt isn’t as incendiary as I would have liked, the rest of the crew all come off pretty well.

The characters of Rocket and Groot are just as real as the flesh and blood actors is; there is a moment near the very end of the film when Rocket lets down his guard and we see his pain in a very real way. It is one of the most moving moments of the film alongside of young Peter mourning his mother. I think it isn’t unfair to say that the two CGI characters very nearly steal the film. One of the moments I loved most in the movie is Groot getting absolutely medieval on a bunch of Ronan’s thugs, beating the holy crap out of them to the point of overkill, then turning to Peter – a.k.a. Star-Lord by the way – and giving him a sheepish grin that had the whole theater in stitches.

I don’t often give perfect scores to summer movies but this is one that is getting one. This is as entertaining a movie as I’ve seen in years. I’m not big on going to see a movie more than once in theaters – there are only a very few that I’ve done that with – but as I write this, I’m getting ready to head down to the IMAX 3D theater at Pointe Orlando to see it a second time, this time in 3D IMAX. So you still want to know what makes a great summer movie? Just watch this.

REASONS TO GO: Great balance between humor and action. Spectacular visuals. Career-making performance by Pratt. Rocket and Groot work so much better than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: You don’t like sci-fi, you don’t like superheroes, you don’t like Marvel or you don’t like movies in general.

FAMILY VALUES:  Sci-fi action and violence and a little bit of harsh language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Diesel recorded all of his dialogue in a number of languages including Spanish, Mandarin and French so that the same voice can be heard in every version.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Serenity

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sex Tape

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Smile and the world smiles with you.

Smile and the world smiles with you.

(2014) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Omar Sy, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit, Mark Camacho, Zabryna Guevara. Directed by Bryan Singer

In the modern era of Superhero films, each franchise faces a particular problem – each succeeding entry in the franchise needs to be bigger and better, the stakes higher in order for the audience to continue to flock to the multiplex to see them. That is why, in my opinion, studios choose to go the reboot route rather than continue on with existing casts.

Bryan Singer may not necessarily subscribe to that theorem. He took the cast members of the X-Men: First Class reboot of the popular mutant superhero series and blended it with the original X-Men cast of his era and created a time-travel epic that carries the torch for both series’ nicely.

In a dystopian future, mutants have been all but eradicated as well as a good chunk of the human race. The Sentinels, giant robots with organic elements and an artificial intelligence that allows them to adapt to the various powers of the different heroes they fight, have become so powerful that not even the X-Men of the future can best them. The only humans left are those who agree with the agenda that mutants must be wiped off the face of the planet, using those who remain as slave labor.

Making a last stand in a Chinese temple are the remaining X-Men: Professor X (Stewart), Magneto (McKellen), Storm (Berry), Wolverine (Jackman), Bishop (Sy), Colossus (Cudmore), Shadowcat a.k.a. Kitty Pryde (Page), Blink (Fan), Sunspot (Canto) and Warpath (Stewart). They know that it is inevitable that the battle will be lost. They have only survived because Pryde has developed a plan in which she sends one of their members consciousness back a day to warn the rest that an attack is imminent so they can be elsewhere when the attack comes.

Professor X proposes that they do something similar but long-range. He has pinpointed the problem back to an event in 1973 – one in which weapons scientist Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), an anti-mutant hater of epic proportions, is assassinated by Mystique (Lawrence), the shape-shifting chameleon who was once the close friend of Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and later became the ally of Eric Lensherr (Fassbender) a.k.a. Magneto. She was later captured and her DNA was used to make what was already hard-to-defeat giant robots into nearly unbeatable sentient machines. The assassination also turned public sentiment against the mutants.

Sending someone back forty years is nearly impossible however. Pryde points out that “the human mind can only stretch so far before it breaks.” However Wolverine with his mutant healing power is the only one who can survive the trip. So it is that Mr. Cheroot first and Ask Questions Later is sent back to the Disco age where he will be given the monumental task of convincing the younger Xavier to try and find Mystique and stop her from her appointment with Trask.

Wolverine knows full well that it will take both Xavier and Lensherr to talk the headstrong Mystique who is angry and wounded over the deaths of several friends in Trask’s experiments on living mutants to discover what makes them tick. However, this is no walk in the park assignment. Xavier is bitter and angry over being shot by his old friend. He was paralyzed in the incident but a serum that Hank McCoy a.k.a. Beast (Hoult) developed allows him to walk and numbs the pain but also blocks out his powers. Xavier is just fine with that and really doesn’t give much of a flying you-know-what for the future but at last his conscience kicks in and he agrees to help Wolverine.

Getting Lensherr aboard is slightly more difficult. He is being kept in a metal-less prison hundreds of feet below the Pentagon – apparently he’s been blamed for the magic bullet that killed JFK – but Wolverine knows a guy. That guy is Peter Maximoff a.k.a. Quicksilver (Peters) who has superspeed and the attitude to match.

Of course, once they free Magneto he turns out to have an agenda all his own and now the clock is literally ticking – in the future, the Sentinels are approaching the temple where the remaining X-Men are holed up and Wolverine’s consciousness hangs in the balance.

This all sounds very convoluted and it is. I have deliberately left the individual powers of most of the different X-Men unexplained – it would just take too long. The issue I have with movies like this is that we get literally a dozen or more different characters most of whom are given short shrift or split screen time with a younger/older counterpart. When you have a cast that’s chock full of actors who’ve received Oscar consideration (there are eight of them), something’s got to give. Poor Halle Berry (who won Oscar gold) has almost no dialogue and only a couple of minutes of screen time although to be fair, Berry’s pregnancy prevented her from taking part in the movie as much as the producers would have liked. Anna Paquin (who also won an Oscar) gets no dialogue and less screen time than it takes to read this sentence and yet she gets star billing. Ah, the magic of Hollywood credits.

Despite this, the movie flows surprisingly well and those actors who do get more than a few moments of screen time make the most of it. McAvoy in particular does well with his self-medicating and self-loathing Professor a far cry from the suave and confident Professor X of his counterpart Patrick Stewart. We see the road that Xavier is taking towards the compassion and wisdom his character becomes known for and it’s rather fascinating. Jackman as well continues to make Wolverine his own and while it’s hard to make something new out of a character he’s played seven times, Jackman manages to accomplish that.

The supporting cast is pretty stellar and Dinklage is a superb villain. His Bolivar Trask doesn’t see himself as a villain but rather the facilitator who unites mankind against a common enemy. His enmity against the mutants is somewhat surprising considering that as a small person, Trask is himself an outsider within society. It’s a multi-layered role and a villain worthy of a broad canvas such as this.

As you’d expect the battle sequences are plentiful and well-done. The Sentinels are fearsome creatures that have expressionless faces that are all the more terrifying for their mechanical blankness. Lots of things get blown up real good, and there are plenty of fists, fur and energy beams flying through the ether, not to mention flames, ice and the occasional claw.

A warning to those unfamiliar with the X-Men comics; there is a lot that goes unstated in the film that may not make sense. For example, the Wolverine in the ’70s has bone claws and in the future, claws of metal. That’s because the metal infusion that changes the nature of his weapon doesn’t take place until later on in time. In fact, the man responsible, Stryker (Helman) makes an appearance as an ambitious Trask operative here – he’d be played by Brian Cox in X2.

What really saves this movie is the plot which is complex and intelligent. Some often snipe at comic books and the movies that are based on them for being dumb and loud, but this is certainly not the former (and only occasionally the latter). Some thought was given to the mechanics and ramifications of time travel. The movie also made a good effort in re-creating the time period. Just as First Class was something of a superhero Bond movie, this is a lot like a superhero conspiracy movie, complete with Tricky Dick, the military-industrial complex and lava lamps.

This is the kind of entertainment that is synonymous with summer and a perfect fit for a year which has been thus far an improvement over last summer. The X-Men have always been some of the most interesting of comic books with some of the most compelling themes in the art form. The apocalyptic vision of the future here however is nothing compared to what is to come in the next installment of the series which is teased in an extra scene following the credits.

REASONS TO GO: Some sensational action scenes. Riveting storyline.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters; may be hard for non-fans to keep up with all of them. May not make sense to those unfamiliar with the comic.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of comic book action and violence, some suggestive material, brief nudity and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the comic storyline the movie is based on, it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time, not Wolverine. The change was made for continuity reasons – in the 1970s Pryde wouldn’t have been born yet, whereas Logan is ageless and would appear exactly the same in both future and past.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Terminator 2: Judgment Day

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: A Million Ways to Die in the West

The Amazing Spider-Man 2


Spider-Man goes electric.

Spider-Man goes electric.

(2014) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Dane DeHaan, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Chris Cooper, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Marton Csokas, B.J. Novak, Michael Massee, Louis Cancelmi, Felicity Jones, Max Charles, Sarah Gordon, Jorge Vega, Bill Heck, Helen Stern, Kari Coleman. Directed by Marc Webb

It is inevitable that when a superhero shows up, eventually a super-villain will as well. With great power comes great responsibility but also comes great angst and great greed as well.

Despite Peter Parker’s (Garfield) a.k.a. Spider-Man promise to stay away from Gwen Stacy (Stone), daughter of the police captain (Leary) who died in the first ASM film, the feelings between the two are so strong that they can’t stay away from each other, at least until Peter starts seeing disapproving visions of her dear old dad and the guilt forces him to break up with her. Or she gets tired of all the on-again, off-again stuff and tells him to take a hike.

Peter is also haunted by the death of his parents, dad Richard (Scott) who once worked for the evil Oscorp empire, and mom (Davidtz) whom Peter remembers only fragments of. He finally confronts his Aunt May (Field) about them. May, who sometimes comes off as too saintly in both the comic and the first film trilogy, actually acts with a completely understandable anger – wasn’t she there for him? Wasn’t her love enough?

He’s also busy taking care of things in New York City, including taking down a crazed Russian mobster who will eventually come to be known as the Rhino (Giamatti). His best friend Harry Osborne (DeHaan) returns to town as his diseased and despotic father Norman (Cooper) lays dying, leaving Harry to pick up the pieces, take over Oscorp and fend off the scheming Donald Menken (Feore) who has an agenda of his own. Harry also discovers that he may soon share his father’s fate and only the blood of a certain Spider-Man might contain the clue that can cure him.

On top of that there’s a new super-villain in town. Mild mannered Max Dillon (Foxx) who develops a man-crush on Spidey after he saves him from being hit by a bus has a terrifying accident as he is shocked by high power lines and falls into a tank full of genetically altered electric eels which leave him badly burned but with the ability to shoot electric charges from his hands and eventually turn into living electric current.

Max, now going by the name Electro, has felt ignored and marginalized all his life. He is tired of being invisible (which ironically becomes one of his superpowers) and now that he can cause so much carnage feels vindicated that people can “see” him now and his freakish appearance is a small price to pay. He also feels betrayed by Spider-Man, his buddy who forgot his name.

All this leads to a pair of climactic battles as betrayals lead to rage which leads to a tragic confrontation that will alter Spider-Man’s life forever. Which is essentially how the second installment in any superhero franchise tends to go.

The second film in the Sam Raimi Spider-trilogy turned out to be one of the best superhero movies ever. This one, sadly, falls more into the category of the third Raimi movie which was sunk by too many supervillains and not enough memorable characters mainly because the film doesn’t get to develop them too much other than Foxx’s Electro and even he doesn’t get a whole lot of background.

What does get some background is the romance between Gwen and Peter which is a double-edged sword. Some of the most natural sequences in the movie involve those two and the banter between the two of them reflects the real-life romance that has developed between Stone and Garfield, eerily reflecting the real-life romance between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst that developed in the first Spider-trilogy. However, spending as much time on the romance as Webb does tends to mess with the momentum of the film, creating awkward breaks between action sequences and a sense that Webb is trying to make a movie that is all things to all audiences. Columbia execs have a history of becoming too involved in the Spider-Man films and I get a sense that studio interference may have occurred here as well.

Webb shows some deft touch with the action sequences and his vision of Electro is nothing short of amazing, worthy of a high-profile superhero franchise such as this one. One sequence in which Electro disappears into an ordinary electric outlet to go and wreak havoc is so well done that it looks as if it could have actually happened. That’s excellent effects in my book.

The character of Gwen Stacy doesn’t work as well for me. Stone described her as the “brains” of the operation which is a bit of a departure from the comic book in which the nerdy Peter, one of the first true science geeks, was capable of being the strategist but it is Gwen who comes to his rescue time after time by figuring out solutions to problems Spider-Man is having and incredibly, as an intern at Oscorp in biochemistry for whatever reason has learned how to work the electric grid of New York City which Oscorp runs. That part doesn’t ring true at all and took me right out of the film. I don’t mind smart women in movies but make her realistically clever please.

Garfield however continues to impress as both Parker and Spider-Man. In the latter role he has the fluid movements that make him look just non-human enough to be different. In the former role, he isn’t quite as brooding as he was in the first film (until near the end) but he certainly shows the inner conflicts that come from wanting to do the right thing but knowing that doing so could potentially put those he loves in danger. Some critics have groused about the smartaleck wisecracking that Spider-Man does, but that is part of the comic book personality of the character and is Parker’s way of coping with his own self-doubt.

This isn’t the sequel I was hoping for. I’m a big fan of Webb and I like the way Garfield plays both Peter and Spider-Man. I was hoping after the unnecessary second origin movie in ten years for the character that they might take Garfield’s strong performance in the title role and build on it. To some extent they do but their ambitions exceed the realistic here and they wind up making a movie that is a bit of a mess. It’s still plenty entertaining and has all the thrills, action and emotions that you need to make a great summer blockbuster, but they also failed to learn from Raimi’s mistakes. It’s worth seeing for the action, for Garfield and for some of the emotional sequences but the movie is nonetheless very flawed.

REASONS TO GO: The Electro sequences are amazing. Some emotional high points.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and subplots. The flow of the film doesn’t quite work. Logical issues.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of superhero violence and peril, plus a brief scene that may be disturbing for the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first Spider-Man movie to film in New York City where the series is set – it is also the largest production to date to film in the state of New York.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man 3

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Words and Pictures