Sunday, June 1, 2014

2014: May

With the start of the blockbuster summer movie season, the first new film I saw was Amazing Spider-Man 2 directed by Marc Webb. When Spider-Man (2002, Sam Raimi) came out, I had already been familiar with the character from being an avid comic book fan. I enjoyed the film and it's sequel Spider-Man 2 (2004, Sam Raimi), but when I revisted the films as I grew older I did find them to be somewhat cliche and typical in their stories and structures. I questioned if this was just a side effect of growing up and trying to reflect on films that were popular when I was younger. Then again I do have to remember that Sam Raimi directing Spider-Man was akin to having Bryan Singer direct X-Men or Christopher Nolan direct Batman or Joss Whedon direct The Avengers. At least the first three were helping to set a precedent and style for the superhero/comic book movie market explosion that would occur throughout the 2000s and into today. I suppose in other words, I take their quality for granted. That being said, without a doubt, I hated Spider-Man 3. It was too messy a film to say the least. One that tried to say a lot and not very well. I only can remember it as the movie that Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) had to solve his problems by dancing while fighting as many special effects as he could.

Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb) showed some promise, but I did ultimately have some issues with it. Peter Parker was no longer a bullied kid, but he stuck up for others in his civillian identity, he enjoyed skate boarding, and wasn't as socially awkward as one expected. He was no longer the nerd that could finally be accepted by being himself, a showman, when he was saving the world. Not only that, but the villain was a giant visual effect. I was enjoying scenes where Rhys Ifans was playing Curt Connors as opposed to a giant lizard walking around. Plus, web swinging lost the awe captured in Sam Raimi's film and instead felt like a giant videogame.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 sadly continues all that I disliked about the first film and leads to me viewing the second installment as a continuation towards a bad direction. The villian, Max Dillon a.k.a Electro (Jamie Foxx), is also just a pure visual spectacle with weak motivation. Foxx feels like he's in a slapstick comedy and just look at the scene where he talks about Spider-Man baking him a birthday cake. Hee says corny lines throughout ("Time to light the candles", "Call me... Electro") and he isn't all that dissimilar from Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze. The other villains are played by other great actors like Dane DeHaan who sadly seems too laid back to play a villainous Harry Osborn and Paul Giamatti with a hammy russian accent who for some reason stops terrorizing the city of Manhattan in the final scene to allow Spider-Man to rescue a little boy even though he was content with killing cops (and why the hell did that woman have her kid at a bank robbery shootout?). The film has a great cast (Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone included), but I have a problem with films that try to ground the characters in a world and reality that we should recognize and then subvert that with corniness and ludricous character development as if picking which moments should be tragically serious and which should be part of a  fun popcorn adventure without caring whether or not to transition properly from one moment to the next.

Ranking of the Spider-Man movies...
1. Spider-Man 2
2. Spider-Man
3. Amazing Spider-Man
4. Amazing Spider-Man 2
5. Spider-Man 3

Ranking of Marc Webb's movies...
1. 500 Days of Summer
2. Amazing Spider-Man
3. Amazing Spider-Man 2

The second major action film of the summer was a welcome surprise, frankly because it wasn't much of a sci-fi action film, but more of a sci-fi drama. Gareth Edwards (who directed 2010's Monsters) delivers a Godzilla film with few missteps despite some weak character development. The film has an eerie feeling of realism. What if a giant pre-historic lizard monster that is taller then most buildings decided to climb out of the Pacific ocean. What the fuck would we as a society do? How would we react? This feels like if Spielberg emerged for the first time in the 21st century era of filmmaking and decided to combine Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. We have a monster that is unstoppable with government organizations attempting to solve the problem by deconstrucing conspiracy theories and forceful military combat.

Aaron Johnson is somewhat dull as a soldier named Ford Brody and just about every plot involving his wife played by Elizabeth Olsen feels only to be included for the semblance of presenting a rounded and realistic character without ever going beyond that. Bryan Cranston is excellent as Ford's father Joe who exemplifies many of the themes that this film wishes to express to its audience. The rest of the cast also isn't too shaby- Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, and the Juliette Binoche. That is something I do enjoy about blockbusters these days, the star power they attract through the realism and grittiness of the stories that are being updated or brought to life. It adds such a great level of credence to the premise. We see these characters reacting to Godzilla and the other monsters' destruction and much of the cinematography from Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, Anna Karenina) is from lower P.O.V. shots. Alexandre Desplat, similar to selecting McGarvey, is another mature choice who combines a variety of styles to lead to some fantastic musically inclinded climactic moments in various scenes (is he the closest we have today to John Williams if not in style but in his ability to blend in with whatever film genre he wishes to bestow his talents on... I mean his resume just gets better and better).

Taking the viewpoint of characters trying to survive the potential end of the world in a summer blockbuster (where we don't even glimpse a full view of the monster until what feels like the halfway point and even then its only for a bit) is a risky and artistic decision that I think works in this film's favor. Despite a lack of unique characters, it's certainly my early favorite film of the summer movie season.

Ranking of Gareth Edwards' movies...
1. Monsters
2. Godzilla

Since I already talked about my familiarity with the Spider-Man films, let me do the same for easily one of the most unique corners of the Marvel Comics universe. I actually saw the first X-Men film (directed by Bryan Singer and released in 2000) before I was familiar with the characters, but by the time X-Men 2 (2003, Bryan Singer) came out, I had read a great many of their adventures in trade paperbacks collecting the individual issues. Come to think of it, I view the first two X-Men films like I viewed the first two Spider-Man films. I liked them when they came out, was slightly disillusioned with them later, but now I sort of realize their place in this sub-genre's history. I didn't hate X-Men 3 (2006, Brett Ratner) as much as I did the third Spidey installment, but X3 still felt like a weaker version of the first two films and just not as coherent in presentation and character. Many scenes felt like the director and screenwriters were just trying to present as many shocking and franchise-altering moments as they could without caring about the emotional reaction this should've generated in the other characters so that they could continue to sustain themselves into other adventures.

The first solo-character spinoff, Wolverine (2009, Gavin Hood), was horrendoulsy constructed and was just a hodge-podge of the character's comic book history that never amounts to much of a decent narrative. X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn) was easily the best film of the franchise, finally combining great acting, story, and spectacle and was the first X-Men film that I found genuinely moving and emotionally involving. The Wolverine (2013, James Mangold) was also a step in the right direction by focusing more on the character of James "Logan" Howlett (Hugh Jackman) and being sure to include as much drama and mystery that Jackman could play off of while still being a very entertaining genre film.

Bryan Singer has now returned to the franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. He has chosen to combine the cast of Vaughn's film with the casts of his films (although to be fair, the previous trilogy's actors certainly have lesser screentime). He focuses on many of the themes and relationships that Vaughn introduced, but still goes back to the main idea behind the X-Men's first appearance in Stan Lee's work in the 60s. They are no different than any minority group who are only persecuted for being different. It's a brilliant metaphor in many ways and so many great comic book writers have found unique and ever-changing ways to exemply this. The acting (especially by Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman, Evan Peters, and Peter Dinklage) is superb and almost seems like it needs little direction allowing Singer to introduce some set pieces that touch on my issue with most superhero and action films. You have to include them as part of genre expectations, but less and less do I find them to be as interesting or as purposeful as just witnessing the characters interact.

A great X-Men film, but even with the great performances, the characters' arcs might feel expected and predictable. Still, an incredibly enjoyable experience despite some narrative flaws (how is Professor X alive in his own body again? doesn't a new timeline as endearing as it might seem sort of feel neglectful to five previous movies?).

Ranking of the X-Men movies...
1. X-Men: First Class
2. The Wolverine
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
4. X-Men 2
5. X-Men
6. X-Men 3
7. Wolverine

Ranking of Bryan Singer's movies...
1. The Usual Suspects
2. Apt Pupil
3. Valkyrie
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
5. X-Men 2
6. X-Men
7. Public Access
8. Superman Returns
9. Jack the Giant Slayer

*I also watched The Normal Heart. Very good new TV movie directed by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, American Horror Story) about the early days of the American AIDS crisis in the homosexual community. Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, and Joe Mantello all have incredibly moving scenes. A great drama that might feel emotionally distant at times by combining political ramblings and personal and romantic relationships... although when those moments work (see Joe Mantello's monologue scene), the film is quite touching.

*I've been doing a mini sci-fi movie marathon based on movies I haven't seen (or at least not seen in a while) on Netflix. I watched Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise), and The Brother from Another Planet (1984, John Sayles). All three had some great commentary and are great examples of different styles of filmmaking. I also re-visited Planet of the Apes (1968, Franklin J. Schaffner) and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, Nicholas Meyer). Apes is along the lines of the others I just mentioned while Trek II feels like a reboot of the energy for the franchise that was lost in Wise's 1979 film. In a sense, Meyer's work comes across as a surprisingly tightly constructed sci-fi thriller.

Rankings for 2014...
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Noah
3. The Normal Heart
4. Godzilla
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
7. Amazing Spider-Man 2

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