Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: Maleficent

Release date: May 30, 2014
Running time: 97 minutes
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Imelda Staunton, Sam Riley
Who to see it with: Someone hoping for a slightly dark, but still family-friendly fairy tale


Maleficent is a live-action re-imagining of Disney's Sleeping Beauty told from its villain's perspective. This time, you see a young Maleficenta fairy happy to spend her days flying around a lushly animated fairy kingdom—go down a dark path following a betrayal by a meaner King Stefan, an event altering the reasoning for the cursing of the king's daughter Aurora. Angelina Jolie, creepy facial makeup, and the script make Maleficent menacing yet fun and darkly witty. As teenage Aurora, Elle Fanning is pleasant as the naive princess raised in the woods by three goofy pixies (Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville), though the roles of anyone other than Maleficent pale in comparison to Jolie's.

The un-Disney-like dark fantasy approach is smartly twisted, but the writers fail to provide a convincing narrative. Evil Maleficent, a newly dark Stefan and ignorant Aurora provide the story with two villains and a helpless damsel in distress. To give the audience someone to root for, Maleficent quickly changes from a self-proclaimed child-hater into an anti-villain whose icy heart begins melting after a brief close encounter with her cute target. The scenes developing the pair's bond are sweet, but Maleficent's transition from villain to conflicted fairy godmother is too abrupt. This isn't helped by the strange tone of the central conflict. Stefan may be a thieving jerk, but his actions don't justify Maleficent's newly well-intentioned but still unjust plans for the princess. The colorful ending is jarring considering what happens during the violent climax, one full of the great special effects found throughout the movie but lacking the cleverness of the story's earlier twists. It's nice to see a blockbuster with little filler but a longer length might have resulted in improved character and plot development.

Maleficent is a visual treat and Angelina Jolie carries the movie with her hot/cold performance as the popular villain; awkward character and tonal shifts weaken the cleverly dark premise.


Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Release date: May 23, 2014
Running time: 131 minutes
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
Who to see it with: Comic movie lovers or anyone that liked First Class.


What do you do when you have two popular X-Men story lines, one from the original series that went off the rails in the end, and the other from a surprisingly good prequel? Combine the two threads, obviously, and what you get is another surprisingly good X-Men movie and a perfect way to kick off the summer. In Days of Future Past, Wolverine (Jackman) travels back in time to stop a series of events that lead to creation of the deadly sentinel program. In order to do that, Wolverine must attempt to get Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) to work together at a time when they despised each other. 

With a plot line that aims at preventing the apocalypse, you can expect an epic story. There is an overarching sense of dread that permeates the story, and the events in both the past and present are especially apocalyptic. The plot jumps back and forth between the past and the present, with the events of the past theoretically determining the outcome in the future. This past / present dichotomy does provide some nice tension in the film, and gives you a chance to see some more mutants using their powers, but it doesn't necessarily make sense. But, then again it's a movie about mutants who can travel back in time, so I can forgive some temporal issues. 

Most of your favorite characters are back from both the original X-Men and First Class, and the new mutants that are introduced are fun to see and great additions to the already large Marvel roster. I especially liked Quicksilver, who has one of the most enjoyable action sequences in any of the Marvel movies. The special effects are top notch, as usual, and although there is a lot of CG, it is very well done and not instantly obvious. There are also some good callbacks to the previous movies that will have fans smiling. But, all in all, the movie is just fun; it's fun to see the various comic book characters on the big screen and the movie has a nice blend of action and humor. Overall, Days of Future Past is a worthy sequel to the surprisingly good First Class and a great way to kick off the summer movie season.

Watch it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Release date: May 16, 2014
Running time: 123 minutes
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Bryan Cranston
Who to see it with: Giant monster lovers


It's been almost exactly sixteen years since the release of America's last production featuring Japan's best-known giant monster. (Godzilla 2000 was imported from Japan for a brief theatrical run.) Unlike the 1998 film, in which scientists and soldiers battled the creature, Godzilla has more in common with the series' films that pit the beast against similarly sized opponents. Conspiracy theorist Joe Brody (Cranston) and his soldier son Ford (Taylor-Johnson) join together to investigate a suspected cover-up of a nuclear meltdown's real cause, ultimately bringing them face-to-face with a seemingly unstoppable, radiation-seeking MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). The appearance of another creatureone that, while destructive simply due to its huge size, seems primarily interested in fighting the MUTOleads two scientists (Watanabe, Hawkins) to propose a controversial alternative.

Godzilla presents its story of humans dealing with giant, fighting monsters in a very grounded, restrained manner. You see very little of the title character until the final act. Earlier appearances by the creatures are often brief, shrouded in darkness or presented through distant perspectives, like news footage of one fight feels like a bit like a tease. More attention is paid to the less interesting humans' reaction to the madness. There's more restraint than expected in a summer blockbuster, giving the less frequent, more spectacular scenes a greater sense of anticipation and satisfaction. The sense of scale is awesome—even when the creatures are off-screen, the shots of their massive caves and trails of destruction make their presence felt and really make the humans seem puny in comparison.

The early portion of the story that builds Joe and Ford's relationship provides a solid emotional foundation, but once the military begins pursuing the creatures the plot mostly serves to string together massive, special effects-filled events. Aside from Joe, the characters have little to do other than speak the usual action/disaster story dialogue and run from their fearsome tormentors. Fortunately, the great special effects and the impressive direction make up for the average, sometimes boring characters. Brief glimpses of innocent bystanders running to safety sometimes seem unnecessary, but they stop the longer sequences from becoming tiring, tedious special effects showcases. Godzilla's plot and human characters are nothing special, but its cool visuals and effects impress more than most blockbusters'.

Watch it.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: Locke

Release date: April 18, 2014 (UK)
Running time: 85 minutes
Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels
Who to see it with: Fans of road trips


Locke is a showcase of Tom Hardy's acting ability. It follows Ivan Locke on a one and a half hour emergency road trip to London. Locke has a great job, happy family, and is well-respected by those around him. All that changes in this slowly-paced, one and a half hour journey. Hardy is given the task of carrying the entire movie. He has help from the various supporting actors who call in to move the story along, but the common thread through all those conversations is Hardy. There are a few monologues, and they're inserted to give you a little more insight into Locke's past. 

Much like Locke's character--an even-keeled, respected, non-risk taker--the movie moves along at a steady, if slightly slow pace. Throughout the film, Locke talks about having to stay at the speed limit and it feels like the film does the same. Hardy embraces the character of Ivan Locke, and plays him perfectly, but it's not amazingly interesting to watch an unemotional, reserved person talk for 85 minutes. The character is fascinating at first, and he's such a different person from what you'd normally see (I was surprised by how interested I was in his talk of the intricacies of construction and concrete), but over time I wanted him to progress. I guess it's a testament to Hardy's acting chops that the few times Locke does get pushed to the edge, the sheer surprise hits you, but those moments are few and far between. For the most part, other people seem to be emotionally reacting around a cold, calm Locke. 

Locke is also the definition of low budget. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it definitely shows in the overall product. The entire film takes place in Locke's car, with shots of the freeway and the night road peppering in views of Tom Hardy's head from various angles. You don't see any of the other characters, only hear their voices. Locke doesn't stop or interact in person with anyone else, just moves along on his journey. Plenty happens around him, and it's reflected in the phone calls, but the film itself moves along at a measured, speed limit pace. What saves this film is Hardy's interesting character and pure acting ability. However, it's an interesting film where not much happens.  

Rent it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Release date: May 2, 2014
Running time: 142 minutes
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Colm Feore, Sally Field
Who to see it with: Fans of comics and/or angst-ridden romance


Following the end of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter (Garfield) and love interest Gwen Stacy (Stone) are together again, but the haunting final wish of Gwen's father has made their relationship frustratingly on-again, off-again. Peter's difficult choice between keeping his lover or saving her by staying away is a lot to handle, but his plate becomes even more overcrowded when he has to deal with Max Dillon (Foxx)—an Oscorp employee who life dramatically changes following another radioactive Oscorp accidentthe return of wealthy old friend Harry Osborn (DeHaan), and his continuing research into the fate of his parents.

The best aspects of ASM—Spider-Man's wisecracking attitude and his relationship with Gwen—are back. Pete and Gwen's jokey conversations and complex circumstances make for one of the better comic film relationships, though the up/down nature of their emotions and interactions sometimes change abruptly. Other elements are good but somewhat unsatisfying. Jamie Foxx's pitifully nerdy character is fun during the brief time before his transformation. An early action sequence makes good use of Max's quirks, but afterward he loses much of his personality and is mostly utilized for nifty special effects and a couple of okay action sequences. Garfield and DeHaan's friendly banter makes their friendship feel believable, but the later events of Harry's arc sometimes feel convenient or underdeveloped. I'm thankful that Paul Giamatti makes little more than a cameo appearance as Russian criminal Aleksei. His character adds little to a story that has more than enough complications.

Maybe the filmmakers felt that the various plot threads could not stand on their own or would work better as part of a single film, but the ways that they combine can feel rushed or unnecessary. A few events, rather than feeling like natural developments, seem included primarily to set pieces in place for the two upcoming films. Despite this, the hints, familiar comic names and major developments make me interested in where the story will go from here. And ASM2 is generally faster-paced now that the original's slower origin story, possibly too fast because I wouldn't have minded more time with some of the characters. The following films should similarly benefit from ASM2's laying of groundwork. The Amazing Spider-Man 2's tortured romance and numerous villains are affecting and fun, but each would have benefited from a more focused plot.

Rent it.