“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

The ‘X-Men’ are easily one of the most intriguing and interesting superhero teams in comic book history. It’s been a long time since those awesome stories have actually resonated on the big screen. The franchise over the last four years has gone downhill into routine action shlock. Thankfully, Brian Singer has returned to deliver one of the best ‘X-Men’ movies ever made based on one of the most memorable stories. You know how some comic book fans will often talk about their favorite sagas and how those would make the best films, but would probably be muddled in production? This is the first comic book film to finally get the formula right and it’s a more than welcome presence for the genre.

The future for the ‘X-Men’ is a dark and depressing time as mutants are hunted down and murdered by the robotic Sentinels. Able to adapt to any superpower and outnumber their opposition in numbers, the few remaining mutants struggle to hide and survive. Notable regulars Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Paige) are a few of the remaining mutants from the old guard. Their last hope is to travel back in time and undo the events that led to this dismal state.

Using Kitty Pride’s unique time-traveling ability, Wolverine is sent back to 1973 to undo the crucial moment in history that set off a horrific chain reaction. The Sentinels were developed by Trask (Peter Dinklage), but did not receive the proper funding and attention until Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders the President of the United States. To prevent this assassination, Wolverine rounds up the old gang that includes Xavier, Beast, Magneto and Quicksilver for a brief prison break of Magneto. At the same time while Wolverine is desperately trying to change history, his friends in the future are tragically trying to keep him in the past before the Sentinels end them all.

Explaining to everyone in the past what will happen in the future is easy for Wolverine. The tough part is attempting to change the minds of those who act on their fears to prevent catastrophe. Xavier has shut himself off from his telepathic abilities, Beast is ashamed of his abilities, Mystique is entirely driven by revenge and Magneto seems to think he can handle all of this with no regard for others. Therein lies the challenge not just for Wolverine, but for all the characters to grow as better or worse individuals who will shape the world with their actions. So, essentially, it’s Back to the Future with much more epic consequences.

This is the first ‘X-Men’ film Bryan Singer has directed in at least a decade. His last film was ‘X-2: X-Men United’, the only ‘X-Men’ film I actually enjoyed. Now he’s blown the rest of the franchise away with this pitch-perfect direction of the classic comic arc. What makes his effort so different and so effective is how much Singer holds back. He never inserts more mutants or action sequences than what is needed to make the film work.

Early in the film, Mystique saves a group of mutant soldiers from being experimented on by Trask Industries. I was almost positive these mutants were going to be thrown into a large scale sequence later on. To my surprise, they serve their purpose of just establishing the climate of mutants for this era. The final confrontation of the film is the showdown we were prompted for, but it’s a rather genius scene for how Magneto plans to be the victor. He traps the area of the White House by lifting a sports stadium to create a perimeter. It’s a smart use of his mutant powers and still manages to feel epic in scale. It’s a far cry from when Magneto moved the Golden Gate bridge for the silliest of reasons.

Quicksilver, despite his short appearance, manages to steal the show with his comical personality and speedy displays. The scene where he disables a room full of security guards from shooting down our heroes is both stunning, clever and a whole lot of fun. He’s much needed smile in a story that’s mostly gloom and doom. Also, if you’re familiar with Quicksilver’s family ties, there’s a brilliant little easter egg in the dialogue.

While there are a handful of fight scenes, hardly any of them felt pointless or drawn out. It helps that there was a main goal for which all these characters were fighting towards so that everything is kept in focus. Mystique, for how many fights she gets into, isn’t just being an atypical villain. Her mission is clear and she wastes no time saving her kind and wiping out the threats. It’s that added depth to the characters and their plight that makes the fights that much more entertaining.

What I love so much about Singer’s script is that he manages to maintain the overall story of the original content, but still make it balanced and work within a movie. By focussing the movie entirely on Wolverine, Xavier, Beast, Magneto, Mystique and Trask, we’re given plenty of opportunity to explore these characters and their ambitions. Trask, in particular, managed to be one of the most unique villains I’ve seen in a comic book movie for how three-dimensionally defined he ended up being. The man doesn’t really want to kill all mutants for revenge, but has a genuine desire for safety and the study of mutants. He’s a villain who truly doesn’t see himself as one at all.

With a story that jumps between two timelines, it seems like it would be easy to get lost. But the script manages to keep things leveled and focussed while at the same time not wasting a moment. That’s a rather impressive for a film with so many characters, even if only a handful get the most screentime. But even the primary characters never felt overused. With Wolverine being the one sent back in time to save the future, you’d think he took center stage. To my delighted surprise, he really only serves his purpose for setting the plans in motion and then literally leaves the stage.

While the plot is perfectly conceived for a time travel film, it’s the characters that really give the movie such value. We’re given a small group of characters that we can follow and understand rather than just a smattering of simple heroes as previous ‘X-Men’ films tended to be. Sure, we are still introduced to a large collective of mutants, but most of them only fulfill their purpose for the establishing environment, tone and urgency. As a result, even the smaller roles don’t feel wasted.

This is the ‘X-Men’ film every fan has been waiting to see and it delivers on all fronts. It’s that one dream production that every comic book reader talks about, but figured they’d never see. Thanks to Brian Singer’s skillful and tight direction, ‘Days of Future Past’ ends up being not only the best ‘X-Men’ film, but easily one of the best comic book movies ever made. Expect this film to be talked about years later as the perfect comic book film adaptation. One can only hope this talented vision rubs off on the future tsunami of superhero films.

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Review

The sequel to ‘Captain America‘ is the shot in the arm superhero movies needed. While other films of the genre struggle to write in heroes and villains for a modern audience, ‘The Winter Soldier‘ is aware of exactly what it wants to be. It ends up being the only Marvel movie out of Disney that not only has a tight and intriguing script, but has a lot to say about our world’s security and how it can get the best of our trust. And the best part is that it still manages to get away with adding in more heroes and villains to an already exciting political thriller.

Trying to find a purpose for his place as an unfrozen hero in the 21st century, Steve Rogers continues working for Nick Fury of the secretive S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Continuing to don the Captain America suit, he ends up dealing with hostage situations and taking out terrorists. However, when he discovers that Black Widow and Nick Fury have been keeping information from him on his missions, Rogers begins to have severe doubts about the level of security and trust within the organization. The upcoming deployment of three massive Helicarriers doesn’t thrill him too much either.

Steve’s doubts are rightfully justified when a high level of corruption and assassinations start taking place within S.H.I.E.L.D. Trusting no one, Steve ends up on the lamb with crucial data that reveals an insidious plot leading to the rebirth of the long-dead menacing group, Hydra. And just in case wave after wave of secret Hydra agents armed to the teeth wasn’t enough of a challenge, Captain America must also deal with the mysterious and powerful Winter Soldier. This won’t be an easy fight as the Winter Soldier can match the star-striped hero’s power and has an emotional edge when his true identity is revealed.

Who would’ve thought that Anthony and Joe Russo, the two guys behind ‘Community‘, could deliver such a bracing thrill ride. These boys don’t waste a frame or a shot. It really embodies the whole atmosphere and complex nature of a spy film while still continuing the story of a soldier soldier frozen in time. For a film that features an old talking computer and cyborg soldier, ‘The Winter Soldier’ manages to be well-grounded conspiracy thriller that takes all the correct and exciting routes you’d hope it would take. The paranoia and fear of the underground Hydra organization infiltrating SHIELD feels very real and incredibly gritty.

This is due mostly in part to the action sequences which are beyond words. With Captain America hopping and skipping around wide sets while Falcon zooms through the sky, there is quite a bit going on in these scenes. And, for the most part, they’re not just excuses for flashy CGI (though it does look pretty cool when those Helicarriers ascend). When Nick Fury is assaulted by Hydra agents early in the film, it’s an attack that is hard and fast with no punches pulled. Hydra presents itself as a real and seemingly unstoppable threat especially with the Winter Soldier going toe-to-toe with Captain America. The fight scenes between these two are so brutal you feel every punch.

That’s not to say there isn’t any room for fun. The opening sequence in which Steve Rogers dashes around a captured boat taking out terrorists left and right really brought a smile to my face. It’s a scene packed with plenty of fun takedowns and witty one-liners that gets the movie off to an enthusiastic start. The two directors do get a little crazy with the shaky-cam effects, but that’s understandable given how much is going on. In the scene where the Helicarriers are in the air firing wildly in all directions, you really do want to see the entire area of carnage.

Once again, the Russo brothers stun me with a script I wouldn’t expect to be so grand and layered. For one, Steve Rogers is the most interesting of the colorful characters not just for how he attempts to adapt to modern culture, but also how he tries to comprehend the new state of security. He’s wary of SHIELD’s restrictions and the need for more weapons when trust and communications are placed on levels. Even with all his super-soldier powers, the man still feels helpless when there are so many forces at work behind the scenes that he ends up flexing more of his brain muscles to unravel the corruption.

This turns the film into more of an espionage thriller than your standard superhero film. It takes so many twist and turns that there never is a dull moment as you get to play the guessing game of who is working for Hydra. There are so many secret plans and weapons revealed in the epic climax I can’t even begin to describe the exact events within a few sentences. It really is a masterfully crafted dance of shocking realizations and pulse-pounding action you just have to see to appreciate.

But the most admirable part of the script is that on top of this great story, the Russo boys manage to write in the hero of Falcon and the programmed villain Winter Soldier. I was especially impressed with the development of Falcon, a character that appears in the comics as a little goofy and basic. But they actually give him a solid, modern redesign and a believable place within the story so he’s not just shoehorned in. Winter Soldier didn’t seem like too hard of a character to integrate, but it’s still pretty cool how the Russo’s didn’t compromise on the sci-fi tech of old-world Hydra. All this makes for one of the most effective balancing acts for a superhero movie I’ve ever seen.

‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ is everything an exciting superhero movie should be and then some. Mixing the intrigue of an espionage thriller with the big-budget action sequences and heroic elements forms one of the most enjoyable film concoctions to come out of Marvel Studios. It’s not only one of Marvel’s best movies; it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made.

“Night Moves” (2014) Review

In the quiet drama of ‘Night Moves’, Jesse Eisenberg plays an extreme environmentalist who teams up with two like-minded individuals who conspire to destroy a hydroelectric dam. His two companions are Peter Sarsgaard as the veteran hippy of the group and Dakota Fanning as the feisty, but dedicated player somewhat new to this operation. They secretly acquire all the tools they need and silently carry out their sabotage. While they are successful at destroying the dam, the resulting damage manages to kill one singular camper near the area. All of the players break contact with each other and try to keep their mouths shut, but the murder lingers on the minds of Eisenberg and Fanning. Couple that with the crippling realization of how much of a difference they may actually be making with their actions.

These are very rich and deep characters so well-defined that we see can clearly read the mental fury pulsating through the three leads. They’re not just passionate college kids either. They are hardcore environmentalists that live on communes off the grid. These three are so committed and dedicated to the cause of crippling human sources of pollution that they’ve close their minds off from questioning any of their motifs. Perhaps they’ve gone so far down the rabbit hole they’re afraid to look back at any point. The film eventually hits on that moment of hesitation that brings things into darker realm, but it doesn’t play out as a Mexican stand-off or everybody getting caught. Instead, the film leaves us with an uneasy feeling lodged in the heart of Eisenberg’s character about how easy it is to lose sight in passion.

‘Night Moves’ is directed by Kelly Reichardt with a somber and eerie tone. Most of the film follows around Eisenberg silently as his mind does mental somersaults coming to grips with his fears. It’s the fear of paranoia, the fear of trust and the fear of humanity. He delivers a fantastic performance as does Fanny and Sarsgaard as focused group of terrorists. The film is also incredibly well shot as in an unforgettable moment when the trio is nearly caught while working under the cover of night. We see the car lights coming from high up on a hill as if we’re looking up directly at them with the characters. We feel the same tension and unclear nature of their perspective. It echoes that of a Hitchcock film which draws intensity from the long-shot unknown.

It’s brilliantly shot with great locations, it’s dreamlike in its surreal nature and gives the actors plenty to do when there is hardly any dialogue on the page. This is a very well-done piece of filmmaking that gets inside your head and never lets you go. It’s a very worthy purchase.

“The Amazing Spider Man 2” Review

This new ‘Spider Man’ may be a reboot of the movie series, but it seems to have the same problems as the old one. Namely, it’s come down with a bad case of sequel-itis we’ve seen previously in ‘Spider Man 3′. After opening up a new world with the first film, ‘The Amazing Spider Man 2′ is just in too much of a rush to cram in as much as possible. The final result is a bloated film with just too many yarns that hardly build or culminate. It’s never a good sign when a movie over 2 hours long still feels like you’re only getting have the story.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) continues to web-sling around New York as the titular hero. Despite the promise he made to the late father of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), he does his best to maintain a relationship her. Of course, the fear of losing her causes his relationship to fluctuate as new baddies arise from within the mysterious Oscorp. The sketchy corporate giant is at it again this time developing the villain Electro (Jamie Foxx) as well as the Rhino (Paul Giamatti) as a bookend throw-away experiment. All this is going on under the radar of Harry Osborne, seeking a cure for the horrific disease that claimed his father. As Harry tries to reconnect with his childhood pal Peter Parker, he starts uncovering the horrifying mysteries of his family’s company and begins to fight back against the corruption in his angst. Meanwhile, Spider Man struggles with trying to find a way to save everyone with disastrous results.

Much like the last film, this sequel manages to tap into some of the adventurous nature of the web-slinger, but never fully capitalizes on it. Just when we think Peter has found some joy in his life, it’s quickly snatched away by tragic villains or unfortunate incidents. It’s all well and good to throw some tragedy into the mix to give Peter a higher mountain to climb, but this film just piles way too much on to our protagonist. The climax of the film is so incredibly dark that it almost seems inappropriate to end it on such a high note. The segments involving The Rhino feel like they’re from another movie; a much more fun movie where Spider Man can deliver more bits and fight some entertaining villains. That’s the kind of a film I want to see as opposed to everyone around Parker falling down dark holes. If I want a somber hero’s journey filled with grim, I’ll watch Batman.

At over two hours, this is a Spider Man movie with too much going on that’s never really explored enough. There’s an opening sequence involving more secrets of the Parker family, but that is hardly ever developed past that scene. There’s some interesting mechanics to the unstable psyche of Electro, but, again, it feels like we’re only given half the story. What made the first ‘Amazing Spider Man’ so engaging was that there was one central villain with an organic progression to his descent. There’s just nothing to latch on to in this film. It just feels like a series of introductions for Sony’s forthcoming ‘Sinister Six’ movie. Movie’s should not be promos or commercials for better ones to come, regardless of being a bridge or not. The final result is a messy collection of Spider Man yarns. All the elements are there given how perfect Garfield and Stone are on screen, but they deserve far better arcs than the disjointed ones presented in this superhero story.

“Godzilla” (2014) Review

What can you expect from a Godzilla movie? The legacy of Japan’s top giant monster has had several interpretations. The mean, green machine has been the horrific creation of science gone wrong, an opponent in giant monster wrestling matches and even a hero of the people. So which route do you take? Well, this 2014 remake managed to find a way to make Godzilla the hero of the day without turning the film into a campy kaiju wrestling match. So, just to get the initial question out of the way, this is a much better film than Roland Emmerich’s 1996 disaster of a Godzilla flick. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it helps to know our country managed to do Godzilla right.

I really dug how the first act of this film keeps Godzilla aloof. We don’t even mention the iconic monster for that section outside of some quick shots from a distance in the opening credits. All we’re really told is that something is moving underground and causing havoc in the form of massive earthquakes. More importantly, we see the real human consequence of these attacks. A nuclear plant is attacked where scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) loses his wife to a dangerous radiation leak. Many years later, Joe’s son Ford (Aaron-Taylor Johnson) has joined the military service and made a family for himself. Meanwhile, Joe stays in Japan as a conspiracy theory nut stalking the quarantined disaster area of the plant. He ropes his son into his investigation where the two uncover the Japanese government has been secretly keeping a giant monster contained. And it just woke up.

The monster is dubbed MUTO and consumes energy like candy in addition to setting off EMP waves. The unstoppable creature plows through anything and can make jets fall from the sky with his abilities. The MUTO travels from Japan all the way to America to find his mate concealed by the US government. Once they meet, they plan on getting busy and having a kids with an ill-equipped military standing in their way. So where is Godzilla in all this? He’s our triumphant savior who steps in to beat the snot out of these two uglies honing in on his turf (the planet Earth). He has one brief skirmish with one of the MUTOs before the grand two-against-one brawl. And while it seemed like there was a lot of useless build up to that point, the final fight ends up being one of the best Godzilla matches of all-time.

Gareth Edwards takes a much different approach to Godzilla than any other director. Similar to what he did with his previous film Monsters, Edwards teases us with the giant monsters. You don’t see Godzilla almost an hour into the film and when you do see him it’s very brief. Godzilla shows up in Hawaii to fight one of the MUTOs, but you only see some quick news segments. Do we get a CGI disaster fest when a MUTO plows through Nevada? Nope, we only get to see the aftermath. It gets to the point where you start fuming over the lack of giant monster money shots. But, I assure you, it’s well worth the wait for the climactic clash.

The slow burn by Edwards keeps the plot interesting by only giving you a taste of the action here and there. The excuse of a human story used to get to the giant monster fights is pretty average for a disaster flick. It gains our attention right away with the whole conspiracy angle, but is swapped in the second act for delivering a nuke to the creatures. Thankfully, by that point, you’re more invested in keeping an eye out for these monsters and the quick shots of carnage they unleash. The good news is that while this is your standard tropes of the epic disaster genre it doesn’t feel as lazy or forced as Roland Emmerich’s vision of making every human comic relief.

Watching this new Godzilla gave me the satisfying experience I expected along with the new vision was hoping to see. All you need to know is that Godzilla is back, he looks great and has finally gotten the movie remake he deserves. Would you believe that American audiences would be cheering for Godzilla in the theater when he unleashes a mighty roar? It’s one of my favorite moments to be in a cinema with a crowd. Edwards may not have completely started from scratch for the Godzilla franchise, but he’s done right at making a pleasing movie for fans and newcomers alike.

“A Haunted House 2” Review

‘A Haunted House 2’ is the biggest middle finger of a sequel I’ve ever seen. It refuses to take any new chances, try out new material or even write something different. The term rehash would be too kind in describing this “horror satire” which struggles more than any other film of this sub-genre for a laugh.

Marlon Wayans returns as the overly-talkative protagonist once again thrown into a creepy house where haunted hijinks ensue. The plot plays out as a direct sequel with his character dumping his previous love interest for a new white wife. I mention she’s white because his character will not shut up about how taboo it is to have an interracial relationship. Even though she tries to reassure him that it’s not a huge deal in the 21st century, he keeps harping on it. Here is a perfect opportunity missed for comedy as Wayans could’ve been seen as a backwards man alone in his misconceptions of the world he bases on stereotypes. Sadly, he is entirely justified by the usual tired and often racist depictions of different races in this picture.

The horror parodies are nothing all that special. There’s a running satire of the plot from 2012’s ‘Sinister’ with the killer from that film failing at his murders and getting assaulted by his victims. It’s mildly amusing as a sort of revenge against horror films, but then again this is nothing new for the sub-genre. The longest running joke involves the creepy doll from ‘The Conjuring’ which Wayans has a strange love affair with. This is a film where for five minutes we watch Wayans go off on an inanimate object and have sexual relations with. I never once cracked a smile during these scenes as they just never seemed to end despite the quick-cut editing style. That’s an even creepier thought to imagine there is more footage of Wayans making out with a wooden doll. This is the cry of someone who desperately needs a writer since he clearly can’t handle improv comedy.

The cherry on the top of this awful mess is the heavy racism. Wayans has written an extremely backwards world where Mexicans are gardeners, white people refuse to even acknowledge black people and African Americans are depicted either as gangsters or drug abusers. Needless to say, this is not biting or challenging comedy. Most of the film just seems to be improv from Marlon Wayans flopping around set with his loud and often annoying mannerism. The result is a film that is unfunny, tired, offensive and just not an enjoyable experience making it one of the worst films of 2014 by far.

“Blended” Review

Adam Sandler’s new romantic comedy Blended is a cliché and formulaic romp with that touch of Sandler’s juvenile wit. To his credit, this film isn’t anywhere near as offensive as his earlier works like That’s My Boy, but that’s hardly a glowing recommendation. I guess I’m just pleased that there was nothing heavily racist, sexist or foul this time around. That still doesn’t excuse the tired comedy and sitcom level writing for this feature film.

Sandler and Drew Barrymore both play single parents with multiple kids who are somehow able to have such easy jobs as being a closet designer and working at Dick’s Sporting Goods. I’d love to know which retail position there allows you to afford such a large house. Not only do they apparently have enough to support their families, but apparently enough to whisk themselves away to an African vacation for seemingly no reason! But they just happen to end up together at a couples themed family resort where the reluctant parties have to share a romantic suite. Thus begins their African adventure where Sandler and Barrymore learn to connect with the kids and each other through some painfully written resort activities intended to be romantic.

Blended was actually shot in Africa in which we are treated to some beautiful locations, but the movie fails to take full advantage of that. Why would go to all the trouble of filming in Africa with real animals when the film resorts to computer generated monkeys to play musical instruments. Come to think of it why would you even want to have computer generated monkeys playing music in the first place? I guess it’s just a-typical of Sandler’s blend with his trademark sight gags and verbal wordplay. And of course it just wouldn’t be a Sandler film without some potty jokes.

Sandler and Barrymore are decent as the cute couple we know that will end up together, but the rest of the characters are all gimmicks and cartoon characters. The kids are okay actors, but they only really serve one purpose to push to the two leads together and then just sort of disappear. Several of Sandler’s usual troupe of actors pop up as well for some moments of awkward and ineffectual bits. Terry Crews keeps popping up as the singing narrator that everybody can see and hear. The first two times it happens is mildly amusing. The fifth time it happens is tedious. After all these attempts at making the film funny, ‘Blended’ tries to turn itself around by making the relationship more emotional for the kids. But since it doesn’t play this card until the third act, you feel nothing for this new development so late in the game.

What perplexes me most about this movie is just who is its target audience. It’s far too childish for a romantic comedy and too adult to be a family comedy. I can only assume that it was intended for young adults and college kids to see on a date night. But, I don’t know, I’d like to think that those audiences are smart enough to know that this film is bland, tired and not challenging or entertaining enough for what they want out of a movie. It’s not the worst film Sandler has ever made, but it’s far, far, far, far far away from being a film I’d want to come back to again.

“Under the Skin” Review

Under the Skin is the type of film that is simple enough to describe in its story, but maddening to comprehend in how it was presented. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien living in the skin of a human body. She is not a creature that specifically has plans of world domination nor is she particularly seen as a frightened child curiously trying to understand Earth’s culture. Johansson’s character is more perplexed about her identity and examination of human beings from a silent mental analysis. She wants to learn more about the human race and how she herself can or cannot mend herself into the folds of its fabric.

The very first shot pulls back from an iris as we hear the female voice struggle to pronounce and enunciate the English language. She sounds out simple words slowly and in repetition to get it just right. After her presumable motorcycle assistant hauls a female body out of a ditch, the setting switches to a sterile, white plain where the nude figure of Johansson’s character strips down the dead woman who looks exactly as she does. Though now concealed in clothing, she knows that there will be others who may discover her secrets. Her identity as Laura must be flawless less her alien presence be discovered.

For the entire film, Laura drives around Scotland in white van talking to various men with the motorcyclist not far behind her. Some of these men are simple strangers, some of them are violent punks. One of which is a lonely man with the disfigurement of neurofibromatosis (a series of facial tumors of which the real actor is afflicted with).

What follows is a dance of temptation and examination as she lures in men to her flesh. The world literally turns into a black canvas as she strips and the men follow doing the same. The farther the men progress, the deeper they literally sink into the inky black below. It’s eerily quiet in these moments with a piercing, lone violin on the soundtrack. We see little of what actually happens to these men once they are sucked under into the dark void. All they leave behind is a floating sheet of shed male flesh that wavers and contort. The mind reels at just what is trying to be said about sexuality or the perception of sexes.

What I found most intriguing about the movie is that it’s a jigsaw puzzle that never ends. You watch it once and think you have it all pieced together for what is being said. But then you watch it a second time and notice something new in the visuals. Maybe its message is less about man’s fear of the opposite sex, but a woman’s physical repulsion to the fragility of sexual congress. Or perhaps those scenes of dark intimacy seem to suggest an indescribable separation between the two sexes. Or maybe Laura’s journey is meant to symbolize the mutating morality and mortality of humanity. Or is it really saying nothing at all?

This is the type of artistic film that is enough to drive a viewer mad. It’s a rubix cube that keeps changing colors and shifting directions where the easily frustrated will chuck it at the wall in anger. For that reason, I completely understand why many would hate such a film as it was booed at the Venice film festival. Critics were divided. Some called it laughably bad while others hailed it as one of the best films of the year. It should be clear from its inclusion on this list where I stand as I tend to favor a film that challenges its viewer with subtext. I don’t claim to get the movie because the thrill of the entire experience is trying to comprehend its meaning.

The key to this whole experience lies in Johansson’s acting. The blank look that many criticize her for plays to her advantage. Her character is one that internally struggles to comprehend the body she occupies and the environment it lives in. After a brief sexual encounter, she immediately leaps out of bed to shine the lamp on her genitals. She is both frightened and amazed at the sensation and change in her physical form. Later on, she simply stares at her naked form in a mirror, slightly moving various muscles to see how they all work. She is infatuated with the human form in a way that appears both curious and mysterious. It’s a startling vision of an outsider’s eye on the human race in how we seem and communicate with others.

The last form of Laura’s true alien form is one of creepiest sci-fi moments I can think of in the last decade. Johansson sits in a snowy forest slowly peeling back the exposed skin from her head. Ripping off the flesh exposes her true alien form that appears black. Her last moments in the film find her cold, vulnerable and in pain.

Most of the time we have aliens in movies they come down for one of two reasons: they either want to say hello (E.T., Starman) or they want us out of the picture (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). We’re never revealed Laura’s true intention for this journey in a human body. Perhaps her race is intelligent enough to not presume too much about Earth before revealing their true forms either start a dialogue or start invading. Maybe they picked up our transmissions of various alien invasion movies and decided to go ahead cautiously with exploring humanity.

This is an elusive piece of movie art I find endless infatuation for its evocative and quiet tone. The best movies in my mind are the ones that present something visually challenging and leave you questioning the picture long after the credits have rolled. If I were still in college, it’s the type of film I’d stay up until 4am arguing with my roommate over various theories until we start dissecting the picture frame-by-frame.

For that very reason, I can only recommend the movie with a disclaimer. Those who are seeking some simple entertainment of an alien discovering Earth culture will be sorely frustrated to the point that they shout “what the hell was that?”, stop the movie and forget about it. But those who want a piece of cinema art that dares you to define it will whisper “what the hell was that?”, rewind the movie and watch it endlessly. Any movie that can leave audiences that divisive and perplexed is just damn good moviemaking in my book.

“Batman: Assault on Arkham” Review

The villains of Batman tend to be much more intriguing than the title hero and now a handful of them have been given their own animated film. But rather than admiring their pathos, this film is more a Dirty Dozen deal. The villains are not spruced up to be more redeemable protagonists and are instead given the reluctant rouge angle. They’re all still evil characters, but just evil enough to be likable for the rather violent mission forced upon them.

The secret government organization known as Suicide Squad takes in villains and offers them a chance to shave off some time from their prison sentence. In exchange, they must complete a secret mission for the government. If they fail, being captured won’t be an issue as the explosives attached to their necks will explode. And, naturally, these missions are not voluntary. The group selected for this mission includes the keen-eyed assassin Deadshot, the witty Captain Boomerang and the overly eccentric Harley Quinn among others. Their mission is to break into Arkham Asylum and take out the recently captured Edward Niggma. But once the group starts questioning the reasons behind the secret murder, they try to stay one step ahead of Suicide Squad supervisor Amanda Waller. And with The Joker running loose inside the asylum and Batman hot on their trails, they’ve got their work cut out for them in addition to dealing with the security.

While the villains we follow for this story are mostly B and C listers of the DC Comics roster, they’re still very fun to follow in a darkly comedic way. It helps that the film is setup with this tone similar to that of a 1970’s mercenary ensemble feature. I was reminded of those 1980’s mercenery ensemble pictures if not for the music and editing than for the slick introductions given to our key players. The manner in which they proceed to carry out their tasks while retaining their despicable behavior is incredibly entertaining. I guess I was just more impressed that film did not dial back on the villainy. This is a group that while reluctantly working together still will not hesitate to kill one of their own if they can get ahead. There is just enough backstory given to Deadshot where we identify with him the most and hope he’ll make it out alive.

It may sound strange writing this, but Batman and Joker are the weaker links of this movie. The Dark Knight manages to pull off shreds of good detective work, but his master plan for infiltrating the Suicide Squad could be seen a mile away and wasn’t all that surprising when it was revealed. The twisted love triangle between Joker, Harley and Deadshot was not as strong acting as a setup for the third act showdown. Joker manages to get in some mildly amusing bits, but nowhere near as entertaining as the relationship between Killer Frost and King Shark or the sly wit of Captain Boomerang. This group manages to hold their own in this thriller of bad guys working for people are far more worse.

While ‘Batman: Assault on Arkham’ does have a thriller angle to uncovering the secrets of the Suicide Squad program, it’s much more enjoyable for its bombastic directing. It’s ruthlessly violent, scandalously sexual and a clever script to boot. This all manages to come together in a fun, almost campy appeal to prisoners breaking into a prison. It manages to be vastly different from DC Comic’s previous direct-to-video animated films which all seem to follow a similar template. For being so wildly different, I can’t help but recommend such a movie even with our title character missing for half the film.

“The Wind Rises” Review

The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki have always been one step above the competition in animation and storytelling, humbling even the best directors at Disney. So you can imagine my excitement and sadness to discover that The Wind Rises will be his final film. Even though this isn’t the first time he’s made this announcement since all the way back in 1997, this latest animated feature seems to have all the signs of a final curtain.

Unlike Miyazaki’s other features, The Wind Rises takes place in a realistic time focusing on the real life of World War 2 fighter plane designer Jiro Horikoshi (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This is not a war movie, however, as it mainly focuses on Jiro’s dreams and aspirations of designing planes. Air combat does appear in his dreams, but most of his visions are that of speaking to famous plane designer Caproni (Stanley Tucci). In his dreams, Jiro discusses his career aspirations with Caproni as the two of them float and walk along various aircraft in flight.

This continuous inspiration helps fuel Jiro’s desires for becoming a top-notch aircraft designer. Not even the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that mostly decimated his school could hold him back. All Jiro could think about was how to make a design soar faster and better, despite limited materials. He spends most of his lunch breaks in college looking at fish bones trying to find the perfect curve for his masterpiece of engineering. While every waking moment seems to be obsessed with his craft, he still manages to find time for love when he crosses paths with the beautiful Nahoko (Emily Blunt). And though they spend most of their lives separated by tragedy, their romance stands the test of time.

It should go without saying that the latest film from Studio Ghibli is nothing short of a masterpiece. The animation completely wraps you into the setting with lush green landscapes and bold aerial visions with a painterly quality. The musical score composed by Joe Hisashi matches the majesty of the visuals. I don’t honestly find this to be one Ghibli’s best productions, but even their lesser films are still a massive cut above the rest. There really is nothing like them, even for a film as down to earth as The Wind Rises.

It’s clear why Miyazaki chose such a story for his final film. He identifies with Jiro’s desire for perfection and getting the most out of one’s life. This makes The Wind Rises one of his most personal films that honestly feels more like an examination of how Miyazaki recognizes his lifetime than an analysis of Jiro Horikoshi’s legacy. He inserts several elements from his previous films that captured the wonder of imagination and the human spirit.

That’s not to say that the story of Jiro doesn’t stand well enough on its own. It’s amazing to watch both his career soar and his love for Nahoko develop. Though I must admit we spend much more time inside Jiro’s head than we do with his love interest. This makes the romance feel a little rushed and slightly inorganic given the large amount of time the two spend apart. Uneven as it is, the moments where the two connect are touching and overflowing with emotion more than any other animated couple I’ve ever seen.

At one point Jiro is invited to Germany to examine various aircraft and is thrilled with the experience though heavily censored by officials. As I said, this is not a war movie so you won’t hear much mention of the Nazis or tension with the United States. This is a more personal look at one’s life during rocky times in the background.

If the film had to be classified, it would have to be a romance. This is for both the tragic love story between Jiro and Nahoko as well as Jiro’s passionate obsession with perfection. In one of his visions, Caproni tells Jiro that he’ll only have ten years in the sun. After living through a decade of triumphs and failures, the icon of Jiro’s dreams asks if it was worth it. He agrees as he watches his designs soar off into the sunset. It’s a fitting final scene and a wonderful way to remember one of the greatest animation directors of all-time.