“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

Coming in at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, I was excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. Although it’s not part of the Marvel Studios-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I have become obsessed with through Marvel’s Agents of Shield, this storyline is particularly famous in comic book lore, where Kitty Pryde sends herself back in time from a dystopian future to prevent that future from ever happening.

As featured prominently in the marketing campaign, the movie features both generations of X-Men: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play the older Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender the younger, and both have X-Men around them to form a large ensemble cast. The movie mixes time travel into the superhero formula to create the ultimate, contemporary sci-fi action movie. The movie is anchored by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who interacts with both timelines by being sent back from the future to the early 1970s to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the man behind the Sentinels, robots that destroy mutants in the future.

The movie works largely within existing plot elements and tropes, such as Wolverine’s amusement at life in the 70s and a “student becomes the master” relationship between Wolverine and a young Professor X. The animosity between a young Professor X and Magneto brings a nice human element to a genre often maligned for its lack of depth in hiding behind special effects.

The special effects were, of course, quite impressive. The future shows off a mix of new and familiar mutants to the movies, including Bishop, who can absorb kinetic energy and fire it out of his gun, and Blink, who can create portals for impressive combat tricks. A highlight in the movie is an appearance by the speedy Peter Maximoff, who we first meet when playing ping pong against himself.

Despite involving the large, ensemble cast, the movie is mostly set in the past, and it feels as though a major opportunity to feature Stewart and McKellen is missed. Rather than risk the confusion of time travel communication and heavier interplay between past and future selves, the future is basically a framing device for the story in the past. The script dodges an opportunity to explore the question, “If you could go back in time 50 years, what would you tell yourself?”

The past is set just around the end of the Vietnam War, and the ensuing events are large, political issues. Since the first X-Men movie, there has been a “humans versus mutants” theme, and set in a different and more fatigued world, the writers had an opportunity to not only situate the story in major world events but also to draw greater, more poignant lessons. If there were in there, however, I think I must have missed them. Let me know if you catch any of them.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though the 91% rating overhyped it for me. Although it stays close to well-established movie tropes, it is executed well and should keep you engaged to the end.

And beyond, since there is an after-credits scene to wait.

“Pacific Rim” Review

Before yesterday, I had never seen any giant monster disaster movies. GodzillaKing Kong, and other Kaiju never quite seemed appealing to me, but Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim seemed like a proper summer epic to see. In the trailer, giant monsters and giant robots beat each other mercilessly, and if that alone is enough to get you excited, you should enjoy the movie. Otherwise, you should probably pass since it doesn’t have much else going for it.

In the movie, Kaiju emerge from the sea to terrorize the world. In response, the world decides to build massive robots to fight back. These “Jaegers” require 2 people to join minds to control the robot together and beat down the Kaiju. Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a Jaegar pilot who suffers a major loss early in the movie and is called back into service several years later by his commanding officer (Idris Elba) when the situation becomes more dire. Assisting them are 2 scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) who try to understand the Kaiju in their own wacky ways. Continue reading ““Pacific Rim” Review”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review

Just over 4 years ago, JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek series with Star Trek, a movie made for the modern moviegoer with a young, hip cast. Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel and is again directed by JJ Abrams, who again takes the audience on another thrilling adventure with the crew of the Enterprise.

The film is centered around Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his pursuit of John Harrison, a rogue Starfleet agent played by Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock). After committing a terrorist act on Earth, Harrison flees, and the Enterprise is responsible for dealing with the threat. Pitching in are first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), medical officer Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), and more. Continue reading ““Star Trek Into Darkness” Review”

“Skyfall” Review

On the car ride home, a few friends and I were discussing a few random memories and some Bond trivia, most of which I was able to place or answer. It turns out that spending most of a winter vacation in South Carolina watching the 007 Days of Christmas and another summer watching a Bond film every day turns one into quite a Bond aficionado. Over 20 movies and almost 50 years, the series has changed quite a bit, and the latest installment matches the grittier tone of the last 2 Bond movies.

In “Skyfall”, Daniel Craig’s James Bond comes back to duty in poor mental and physical shape when MI6, the British intelligence agency, is itself under attack. Instead of dealing with international crises, Bond pursues a mysterious villain (Javier Bardem, known for No Country for Old Men) along with the help of fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and M (Judi Dench), leading him to trains, cars, subways, and more around the world.

The movie plays around with several different aspects of a traditional Bond movie, mostly for the best. Today, technology far outreaches our imagination 50 years ago, and the newer movies have done away with Bond gadgets in favor of technology itself. Q is portrayed as a geeky hacker who is more interested in decryption than new toys. This modernizing process fits well into the scheme of an intelligence agency, strange as it may be to see the pensive Bond breaking codes.

The story also engages Bond’s character more directly as his role as an agent is challenged. Just like our heroes, Bond ages, and his story brings up the usual questions about his ability to continue and his purpose in life. Despite knowing much about Bond’s personality and preferences in guns, vehicles, drinks, and other pleasures, we have rarely seen character development in him in the past. In line with the grittier feel, the past Craig-age Bond movies have emphasized his ruthless, tenacious, unquestioning personality, all of which we continue to see.

The violence continues as Bond mixes up with the usual henchmen with guns, fists, and more. The fights are brutal but an immense joy to watch, and the stunts show off much improved pursuit skills since Casino Royale. Expect the usual accents as well, with a few grim jokes and a bit more class from Bond.

Overall, Skyfall completes this trilogy of movies. Its action fits the currently popular grittiness best exemplified by the Bourne Identity, a similar set of movies. For the fans of the classic movies, you may continue to be disappointed with the new style, though you may appreciate the references sprinkled throughout. So choose to see it as you intended: whatever your expectations of it were, it delivers.

“The Dark Knight Rises” Review

Other than Pixar, I can ‘t think of anyone with as much pressure to deliver quality movies as Christopher Nolan. Since The Dark Knight was released 3 years ago, moviegoers everywhere have been anxious to hear how Batman would follow up the disaster he was left in.

Set 8 years after The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises (DKR) finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a shut-in, aged past his prime and unable to move beyond the events of his past. However, Bane (Tom Hardy), a physical and psychological monster, arrives in Gotham and forces Batman to come out of retirement. Along the way, Batman encounters Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) in several circumstances and receives some help from John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police detective.

The cast should remind you much of Inception as Nolan relies on the same core of actors from film to film. Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine maintain the same traits from the previous movies, and Gordon-Levitt and Hardy fit in well, though Hardy has little to show with a mask over most of his face. Hathaway  shows some versatility in her performance as the clever and self-serving Catwoman. Most of the character development is Batman’s, who continues to struggle with his 2 identities and how they have affected his life. Although other characters make important revelations, these are relatively predictable.

Despite the solid acting, the movie feels long at 164 minutes. Although The Dark Knight was also long, it had a significant action sequence in the middle that broke the movie into multiple parts. DKR, however, moves fairly slowly through the middle as the plot unfolds without much of the punch you would expect from a superhero action movie. It isn’t always exhilarating, but it should keep you interested.

When the action does happen, it is impressive. Batman has new vehicles for chase scenes including motorcycles and tanks, with the complementary explosions. Batman’s main hallmark is his non-lethal, hand-to-hand combat, and there are some brutal fights in combat. In combat, Bane provides a type of mirror match for Batman. Unlike the Joker, whose insanity provides a perfect foil to Batman, Bane is quite similar to Batman in most respects and represents what Batman might have been if he hadn’t turned away from the extremism of the League of Shadows in Batman Begins.

The comparisons to The Dark Knight are unavoidable and simply, DKR is not as good as its predecessor. This point, however, is no criticism as The Dark Knight set a high bar for movies and the series. DKR remains a great movie in its own right and caps off a consistently high-quality trilogy.

“Tron: Legacy” Review

Although I first played the Tron game in high school, I didn’t watch the 1982 movie until arriving at college. At that point, the technology, both in the movie and the special effects, were dated, and my friend Jordan and I laughed at the 80s culture. Even so, the imaginative take on the inner world of a computer was well-classified as neat. The updated “Tron: Legacy” pulls in today’s special effects to build out an even more incredible world with special effects and artistic design that should impress everyone.

In the original movie, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to hack the mainframe at ENCOM (perhaps best thought of today as Microsoft) and ends up being transported to the Grid, the inner world of the computer, with its primary residents as programs and has battles with light cycles and gladiator games using thrown discs. In this movie, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) goes into the Grid almost 30 years later to find his dad who disappeared mysteriously when he was young. There, he finds an equally oppressive world as the one that his dad has faced and tries to find a way back out with his dad. That said, the plot isn’t compelling. A son searching for his father is a classic, which isn’t inherently bad, but it doesn’t have any depth. The parallels between the Flynns are emphasized, and the steps are somewhat predictable.

The acting was solid. Hedlund as Sam had the right temperament to be placed in the Grid and avoids the confused awe of a Keanu Reeves Neo and the overdramatic enthusiasm of Shia LaBeouf in “Transformers.” Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn well, mixing the expected wisdom of a fatherly figure with just a little cool you would expect from Bridges. Michael Sheen’s role as a program adds a little whimsy to change the pace, and Olivia Wilde fits into the movie as well.

As to be expected, it looks great. The visuals largely reflect the same style as the original movie, yet work far better with the updates to computer-generated graphics. Whether it’s the gruesome “derezzing” of a program shattering or a look across the landscape, the Grid and its inhabitants should thoroughly impress. Even though the digital world lacks the organic detail and richness of a Pandora, you should feel just as immersed into its foreignness. I saw it in 3-D (though not IMAX), which was subtle, like many other recent 3-D movies. Spring at it if you get a chance, though don’t worry about missing too much if you have to watch a regular showing of it.

The most notable fact about the movie is how seriously it takes itself. My moviegoing buddy, Trey, asked me before the movie if we might see references to any internet memes, and I knew that there wouldn’t be any. Just like the original, this movie throws out computer jargon and plot points without acknowledging what a stretch some of it is. At times, the dialogue comes out heavy-handed in trying to emphasize the significance of certain ideas, and even these are somewhat predictable. Overall, it’s worth watching if you think you’ll enjoy seeing the instantiation of the world of Tron. Otherwise, there’s not much to go for.

“The Last Airbender” Review

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Before heading out to the midnight premiere, my friend Leland emailed out a warning about the movie: 10% fresh on rottentomatoes.com . Admittedly, the fresh rating is often somewhat harsh, though having watched the movie, I’m still surprised: that means there was even 1 in 10 critics who liked the movie.

“The Last Airbender” is based off of “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a Nickelodeon cartoon show that ran for 3 seasons. Set in a world based on a blend of traditional East Asian mythology, “benders” manipulate the four elements (earth, air, wind, and fire) to battle using martial arts and magic. In the movie, Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) of the Water Nation find Aang (Noah Ringer) frozen under the ocean. Soon, Prince Zuko (Dev Patel), exiled from the Fire Nation, finds them on his quest to find and capture the Avatar, the one being who can use all 4 elements and threatens the tyranny of the Fire Nation, to restore his honor. Soon, Aang, Katara, and Sokka are on a quest to go north so that Aang can learn water bending.

Usually I take the 2nd paragraph to give a plot synopsis for context: explanations make more sense when the central idea is in place. This particular synopsis, however, I feel gives a much different context. The movie suffers from what I call the “Wolfram MathWorld” effect: the content only makes sense if you already understand it in advance, making it very close to useless. Fans will see parts of familiar episodes along the way, yet without the actual story of the episode, the events end up being meaningless. Newcomers will be blown through a series of apparently trivial events, often briefly explained in advance by a voiceover that makes you wonder why the scene would ever need to be shown.

Don’t worry, though, as none of the scenes last very long anyways, which also helps to quickly move on from gaping plot holes. Although the TV show was best-known for its goofy and clever dialogue, a large portion of the script is just exposition, often in scenes less than 5 lines long. The quick cuts never truly develop the characters, and instead of enjoying the subtleties of Katara’s overbearing nature and Sokka’s jester-like insight, you instead get the sense that they’re both far braver than intelligent and only along for the ride.

It’s hard to know how good the acting is working with such poor dialogue, but the actors seemed to generally miss the spirit of their characters. Patel as Zuko ends up being angry instead of conflicted, and Ringer ends up swinging wildly between being childish and outraged instead of refreshingly naive. The use of close-ups, however, never truly show any emotion from the characters and instead have that campy sort of suspense from Captain Kirk. A ton of over-the-shoulder camerawork with the speaking character also makes me believe that none of the dialogue was delivered believably.

Even beyond plot and characters, one might hopefully find entertainment in the visuals and action: in a world of elements flying wild and martial arts experts sparring, there are many opportunities to distract from the more purely cinematic qualities of the movie, yet even these disappoint. 3D effects were used minimally, and the style of bending never gave rise to a furious melee. Instead of tentacles of water flailing about to ward off flamethrowers, you’re instead treated to a few dance moves as the elements are invoked, leading to a slow and somewhat predictable attack and parry.

Often, the most successful movies today have something for everyone, whether that’s mixing adult humor in dialogue with cute animals or mixing a romantic sub-plot into a war scene. A step below that is the movie that narrowly targets a single demographic, whether a romantic comedy or a stoner film. And below that is “The Last Airbender,” which manages to do wrong by any potential moviegoer. For newcomers, I’m so sorry you sat through it. For the fans of the show, I implore you: remain in blissful ignorance of how M. Night Shyamalan could have completely misunderstood what made the show good.

“Sherlock Holmes” Review

Classic culture constantly updates itself to remain relevant to popular culture. From Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to “PLAY!“, a symphony that plays video game music, all types of entertainment are bridging that gap between classy and cool. One might wonder how to take the analytical, perceptive, cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes and make him successful again in today’s culture. Well, quite simply, take the parts of people that haven’t changed much and play them up. Holmes can use his acuity to setup an attack on a foe as vicious as that in Batman Begins or The Bourne Identity. And I think our love of Superbad and Napoleon Dynamite shows that we love awkwardness and bromances more than ever.

The general plot follows a classic detective setup: Holmes and Dr. John Watson apprehend Lord Blackwood at the beginning of the movie in the midst of a occult ceremony and have him hanged 3 months later. Soon after, however, Blackwood apparently rises from the grave, and Holmes must investigate Blackwood’s resurrection and stop a plan in action. Along the way, he meets Irene Adler, an American thief working for a third-party and odd love interest.

Though the movie is just over 2 hours long, you won’t get bored watching Holmes jump from scene to scene. Like many crime dramas today, the movie runs through a series of scenes played out in live-action, only to have Holmes come by later and put together more parts of the scene from details around the room. The action involves all the fisticuffs and explosions you could want and keep the movie moving through potentially slow points. Although somewhat formulaic, the setup stays fresh through moody scenery and Holmes’s insights.

We, of course, crave deep characters on top of an engaging plot, and the cast delivers. Having once been a House watcher, I’m familiar with the portrayal of Holmes-inspired characters, but Robert Downey Jr. plays the original with perfect strangeness. He fights scrappy, exhibits hilarious antipathy and scorn for others, and ribs and toys with his assistant Watson at every turn. Jude Law, playing Watson, plays the foil against Holmes. For his own development, Watson is engaged and planning to move out, beginning a tug-of-war between his desire to move on with his life and his knowledge that Holmes very much needs him. Mark Strong as Lord Blackwood is suitably sinister, though his character isn’t particularly interesting. Similarly, Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler isn’t prominent enough to make her relationship with Holmes anything more than an amusing side note.

Just like many of the series reboots we’ve seen recently, Sherlock Holmes isn’t quite your classic Sherlock Holmes, but what you remember probably isn’t the best part of it. Maybe the action is rawer, and maybe subtlety gives way to cinematic epicness, but the essential cleverness and methods are all there. It won’t make you think very hard, but I give it the slow head nod for having been a lot of fun.