Saturday, May 31, 2014

Draft Day

As I've mentioned in some of my previous reviews, I'm a pretty big fan of sports movies. Two of my favorite films of last year were 42 and Rush, which featured sports I don't even follow that closely. However, with Draft Day I had a feeling I wasn't going to get the same level of quality I've enjoyed with previous films in the genre. Not only did it feel like a cheap Moneyball rip-off (which is probably my favorite sports movie ever), but the trailers made me think of a TV movie rather than a theatrical event.

It's draft day and Sonny Weaver Jr. has a difficult decision to make. His team (the Cleveland Browns) have been given the seventh pick in the draft, but he's facing a lot of pressure from the team's owner to make a flashy selection that might not necessarily help his team in the long run. With a subtle threat that his job is weighing in the balance, Sonny proceeds to make a seemingly fool-hardy trade with the Seattle Seahawks that would give them the first pick in the draft, though giving away his next three first-round picks in the process. Though many Cleveland Browns fans and employees are thrilled with the gutsy move, Sonny begins to wonder whether the draft's top prospect is truly worth pursuing and faces a dilemma as draft time ticks closer and closer.

I think I was thrown through a loop when I went into the theatre by assuming this story was based on true events. However, it's pretty clear from the get-go that this entire scenario is completely fictitious, making it a lot less impactful than its true-to-life contemporaries. It also forfeits the immediate concession the audience usually makes when it comes to cliched or predictable melodrama in sports films by not being based on real life. Since this is all something a screenwriter came up with to entertain a mass audience, it makes the story a lot less interesting and also kind of baffling as to why they chose to make this movie in the first place.

Draft Day has all the dramatic weight of a fantasy draft, with outrageous plot twists and mind-numbing character motivations that even decent actors are unable to successfully portray. While I've seen them do good work in other films, almost the entire cast (with the exception of Dennis Leary and possibly Chadwick Boseman) is completely flat. Kevin Costner saw a bit of a career resurgence with Man of Steel, but here he's kind of boring. They attempt to give him some contrived character arc with the recent passing of his father, but none of it really works. Don't even get me started on the ridiculous relationship between him and Jennifer Garner. Neither one of them seems like they're attracted to the other, and from the moment they appeared on screen I was shocked that it wasn't a father-daughter dynamic rather than a romantic involvement between the two actors.

Despite the dull characters and laugh-worthy attempts at drama, some of the trade talks in this film were actually entertaining. Don't get me wrong, it's not done half as well as in Moneyball, but there's still some general satisfaction from the wheeling and dealing portrayed in this film. Part of the reason I'm being a little more gentle with my star-rating this time around is the lack of pretense about what Draft Day is setting out to accomplish. While the general lack of ambition is admittedly kind of a problem, it also allows me to give it a slight pass for doing what it apparently was trying to do. All the storylines more or less pay off in the end, and the overly-Hollywood ending is somewhat satisfying as well.

Also, apparently this movie is rated R, which I wasn't aware of until I began writing this post. There is one F-word, but other than that it's really quite tame. I doubt you'll even notice a difference between this and any other PG-13 movie in terms of its content.

Other than that, there's nothing overly offensive about this film that would warrant me hating on it entirely, but its blandness and ultimately its pointlessness make this film an eye-rolling workout. Draft Day isn't a terrible film, but it doesn't justify even a discounted ticket price to see theatrically. If you're going to see it (and I'm not sure I recommend that you do), wait until it comes on TV or Red Box if you're really determined. I give Draft Day two and a half stars.

DRAFT DAY is rated R for brief strong language.

**What did you think of Draft Day? Am I too harsh or too forgiving? Let me know in the comments below!**

Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

After the enormous success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I didn't think it was possible for another superhero film this year to reach the incredible highs of the latest from Marvel Studios. While, I did put this film above Captain America 2 in my most anticipated films of the year list, I also didn't expect Cap to deliver quite as well as it did at the time I wrote it. With all that in mind, I tried to keep my expectations for X-Men: Days of Future Past as tempered as possible (which was difficult considering how impressive the trailers were - see below). While it was impossible to escape some of the plot details, I almost think my experience was benefited from the information I gleaned from marketing and the various news sources I peruse on a regular basis.

In the year 2023, humanity is on the brink of extinction as terrifying robots called Sentinels have all but wiped out the mutant population. The last group of survivors have devised a method for short-term survival from their attackers by sending one in the group a couple of weeks into the past to warn the rest. However, there are fewer and fewer places to hide, and they are eventually joined by high-ranking X-Men such as Charles Xavier, Storm, Wolverine and even Magneto. As a last-ditch effort to save human and mutant kind, Professor X devises a plan to stop the extermination before it ever begins by sending Wolverine into the past to prevent an assassination attempt on the creator of the Sentinel program back in 1973.

Let me just start by saying this movie completely blew my mind from the opening shot of the incredibly dark vision of the future. We see several powerful mutants ruthlessly destroyed by the seemingly unstoppable Sentinels, but luckily they are able to transport themselves back to before the attack began in order to give them a little more time to find a better hiding place. It does a fantastic job of establishing the danger of these monstrous robots, while also setting up the premise of time-travel for the remainder of the story. Not only that, but the devastating depiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which mutants are branded and hunted to the brink of extinction totally pays off the metaphor shown in the first scene of the original X-Men over 14 years ago, where young Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto) is separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp. Thankfully the movie doesn't maintain this level of darkness and thematic gravitas, but it's a great place to start this ultimate X-Men crossover.

As this story takes place in the 1970s, we're obviously dealing with the characters from X-Men: First Class, which (until very recently) was my favorite X-Men film. This cast is so talented that I never once find myself wanting to see their older counterparts, even in the most dramatic scenes. Michael Fassbender is so commanding as the younger version of Magneto that I almost forgot about Ian McKellen at times. His twisted logic and merciless nature make him a terrifying villain, but he also brings enough humanity to the role for audiences to share Charles's incessant hope in the ultimate redemption of his former friend. The two characters contrast nicely in their philosophies, and it's actually Professor Xavier who I find myself connecting with the most as the film progresses. His journey of accepting the responsibility of his powers is incredibly meaningful, culminating in a fantastic scene between James McAvoy and the older Patrick Stewart.

There are also a lot of tremendous supporting characters in this film, such as the blue-skinned Mystique (played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence). While normally a functional character whose powers are merely a conduit for more important demonstrations by Magneto, this time Mystique is given a pivotal role in the film. In fact, some of the most tense moments involve her specifically, and its her struggle between Professor X and Magneto that fuels her somewhat desperate actions. But with all these returning players, it's incredible that they managed to bring in a new mutant who may be the most entertaining and likable of the bunch. Quicksilver, a mutant with super-speed, could have easily been a cheesy, ridiculous character (which many predicted based on the early marketing materials), but amazingly his brief time on screen has some of the best moments in the entire film. I feel a little bad for Joss Whedon after seeing this movie, as he will be featuring the same character (with a different actor) in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. I'm sure it will end up being okay, but this is certainly a tough act to follow.

Like many of the other X-Men films, this has a very dense plot with many twists and turns before leading to a well thought out and extremely tense climax. This franchise has a way of upsetting the status quo of superhero films (in a good way) by constantly bringing the unexpected. Much of the credit has to go to director Bryan Singer, who also directed the first two X-Men films. His focus on complex characters brings a whole new dimension to what could easily be a schlocky action film franchise. The relationships are complicated, and the metaphors and philosophies are expertly woven into the story. As much as I enjoyed other superhero films like Avengers and Spider-Man, Singer touches on more thought-provoking and even culturally significant subject matter that most in the genre have neither the confidence nor the skill to achieve.

The whole symbolic meaning of going back in time to change something is also reflected in Professor Xavier's character arc. His unyielding hope that the people around him are not lost or beyond help, but that they can change for the better is a powerful message and one that I think I needed to hear. It's always great when a movie brings something a little deeper than you were anticipating, and this one certainly did that. Apart from the incredibly well-done visual spectacle of the action set pieces, this is a story where the character interactions are on par with if not even better than the mind-blowing effects.

It's pretty obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed this film, but how much did I enjoy it? Well, it's easily the best film I've seen so far this year. It's also the best of the X-Men franchise, and is even in the running for my favorite comic book movie of all time (at least in the top 5). However, it should be said that this isn't a film for children, so I would definitely think twice before bringing anyone under the age of ten or so. There's a lot of violence, and the future Sentinels are so scary that I almost got a little spooked after the film, wondering whether they were about to pop out of the darkness in my back yard. Stay after the credits as well, though you might not understand what it means (hint: search for "Apocalypse (comics)" on I completely loved this movie and I give it a very solid four stars.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language

***What did you think of X-Men: Days of Future Past? Is it the best in the series or an overrated jumble of characters? Let me know in the comments section below!***

Saturday, May 17, 2014


To be honest, there are few things that have been as fascinating to me in my childhood as Godzilla. I have very vivid memories of devouring books about the history of the original Japanese films starring the king of the monsters, and even found myself enjoying the Roland Emmerich version back in 1998. Before people completely revolt against me for this, I have to admit that I was 11 years old when I first saw that movie, and going back to it now has completely turned me against it. Especially in the wake of this film, the '98 version is seriously embarrassing by comparison. It wasn't always a given that the 2014 film of the same name would be good, however, particularly after audiences have been so soured by the property since the last attempt to bring it to the big screen. Not only that, but another massive monster movie was released by Warner Bros less than a year ago (Pacific Rim) which I quite enjoyed. I'll definitely highlight the differences in tone and quality of these two movies as I continue, but first here's a brief introduction.

Fifteen years prior to the events of this film, a massive meltdown occurs at a nuclear power plant, causing the entire facility to collapse in on itself and the whole area to be quarantined. In the present day, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who was working at the plant on the day of its destruction, is convinced that something else was the true cause of the explosion. He recorded highly unusual sonic waves just before the incident that were apparently communicating back and forth, and drags his son Ford along to investigate the deserted section of the island where his records are being kept. They soon realize that no radiation even exists that would justify such an evacuation, and he retrieves his data disks from their old house just as police officers detain the father and son. Taking them back to a new research facility, a similar phenomenon occurs as the day of the disaster when a radiation-fueled cocoon of sorts begins to hatch, unleashing a winged beast who proceeds to destroy the containment and immediately takes flight in search of radioactive nourishment.

That may seem like a lengthy plot intro, but truthfully it only encompasses the first fifteen minutes or so of the story. Needless to say, this is a pretty dense film with a lot of interesting sub-plots and original explanations for the creatures we see. If you haven't seen any trailers or clips of this film before going to the theatre, it will probably be a shock to find out that Godzilla isn't the primary threat in this story. Though humanity is still completely at the mercy of the gigantic lizard, he doesn't appear too intent on attacking humans per se. It's a really interesting concept for the creature, and it actually makes the audience care more about the titular monster. In fact, though he doesn't get a ton of screen time, Godzilla is actually one of the most interesting characters (if one can say that) in the movie.

Though the human characters tend to get overshadowed in films like this, director Gareth Edwards does a fantastic job of focusing on the terror of giant monsters from a human perspective. Most of the destruction and mayhem is shown from their point of view, which makes it a lot easier to get invested in their plight. Having said that, a lot of the credit needs to go to the actors, particularly Bryan Cranston, who does an incredible job bringing out the audience's emotions in the limited time his character is on screen. Elizabeth Olsen also has a great performance as the wife of Ford Brody in what could be a totally throw-away part. She's the main reason we even care about the main character, as her reactions to the extreme circumstances forced upon her are completely relatable. The weak spot in the cast is unfortunately Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays Ford, the somewhat bland explosive disposal technician. Though he is fairly integral to the plot, his straight and emotionless delivery tends to underwhelm compared to his fellow cast members.

Now, as for the comparisons with last year's monster movie Pacific Rim, this is taken far more seriously and is more straight forward in its approach to introducing the conflict. While Pacific Rim focuses entirely on interesting ideas that don't entirely pay off as well as pure adrenaline and spectacle, Godzilla seems to be hitting on a more thematic level with parallel relationships between almost all of the characters, both human and otherwise. What I like about this film is that it's more of a reimagining of the original 1954 Japanese film than a remake of the 1998 disaster. It doesn't take a campy approach to the material, and one character's reverence for the massive creature is particularly telling of the tone that's being set. That same character explains later in the film that nature must restore balance when things get out of control, which is what Godzilla is ultimately there to do. This film explores the relationship between mankind and nature in a fascinating way, and whatever failings the human characters may have, I feel the film totally succeeds with the themes it chooses to tackle.

I was really anticipating this film (see my top 14 list here), and though the trailers are intentionally misleading about the plot of the movie, I walked away just wanting to see this film again. There's so much to absorb with Godzilla, both visually and intellectually that one viewing isn't quite enough. Who would have predicted that? It's ultimately one of the better films I've seen this year and I'm excited to see what becomes of this franchise in the future. If you like monster movies, disaster movies, or are a fan of the iconic lizard, I definitely recommend this film. It's heads and tails above the previous incarnation and it pays homage to the classic films that made Godzilla such an icon. I give this film a solid three and a half stars.

GODZILLA is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Andrew Garfield is back as the titular web-slinger in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but surprisingly I wasn't extremely hyped for it. I thought the original film was pretty good (see my review here), but I didn't know where they were going to take that story that we hadn't already experienced in the original trilogy directed by Sam Raimi. However, when Sony began to unveil their plans for a supervillain team-up, I started to see some promise in the upcoming blockbuster. It was comforting to see director Marc Webb return the project, as well as Emma Stone and Sally Field, but it was even more intriguing to see the new cast members that had joined the team (Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, etc.). However, with sub-par reviews appearing on Rotten Tomatoes, I really didn't know what kind of Spider-Man film I was about to get.

Peter Parker has finally come to understand his identity as Spider-Man, risking his life every day to protect the people of New York. On one such occasion he rescues the put-upon electrician, Max Dillon, who instantly forms an obsessive adoration for the hero. Max feels invisible to everyone, and relishes every moment that someone remembers him. However, after a disastrous accident at the Oscorp lab where he works, Max is transformed into a blue monstrosity called Electro, feeding on electricity and becoming more powerful by the second. Meanwhile, Peter is struggling with his decision to break his promise to Captain Stacy by continuing to date his daughter, Gwen, and sabotages their relationship in a moment of guilt. However, during a brief moment of reconciliation, Peter must leave Gwen to swing into action as Electro begins to suck all the electricity from Times Square and inadvertently puts hundreds of lives in danger.

I had to cut myself off at that point, because I don't want to get too far into the plot and spoil something important. Let me just take a moment to quash a terribly misconstrued criticism of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - there are NOT too many villains! This isn't Spider-Man 3 (thank goodness) where multiple unconnected characters come together under terribly contrived scenarios. Really, there are only two villains in this story, and both of them are actually quite sympathetic for a good part of the film. The third villain everyone seems to be counting is merely teasing what is to come, as he only has about five minutes of screentime. Don't prejudge this movie by its trailer (as many critics on Rotten Tomatoes seem to be doing), but give it a chance to tell the story. It's a good one. This is a very dense movie with lots of interconnecting relationships and complex characters, and I actually think it's really well done.

As to be expected, the visuals in this movie are absolutely incredible, with some of the coolest Spider-Man action ever portrayed in film. The only issue I have with it is the 3D (which I rarely enjoy as it is), as it always seems to call attention to the CGI and making it seem out of place, rather than integrating it smoothly with its more realistic surroundings. Having said that, some of the swinging scenes with Spider-Man diving from ridiculous heights really made me feel like I was on a roller coaster at times. His fight scenes with Electro are other-worldly and quite beautiful, even if they do take a little too much from the Matrix at times.

Speaking of Electro, I found Max Dillon's character to be a little pathetic at times and clearly by design. We are meant to feel sympathy for the guy, forgotten by everyone and put down by his superiors. He's sort of an accidental villain in some ways, though his eventual turn for the worst is surprisingly satisfying in its evolution. A lot of that can be attributed to Jamie Foxx, who does a great job of creating a character who's both relatable and frightening. His scenes are also where some of the coolest music is brought into the film, with ground-shaking electronic beats and schizophrenic chants underlining the dangers of his expanding power. I've said it many times, but I think Hans Zimmer is easily the best composer working today. With an eclectic group of collaborators, he took one of the weakest elements of the previous film and made it a great strength with his work in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Some people may not enjoy it as much as I do, but it's certainly more memorable than James Horner's rather lackluster score for the last movie.

Andrew Garfield completely owns the character of Spider-Man at this point, and I think I'm finally ready to say that he is much better than Tobey Maguire ever was in the role. He not only sells the snarky, smack-talking superhero we all know and love, but his relationship with Emma Stone's Gwen Stacy is far more believable than anything Maguire and Kristen Dunst were able to develop over the course of three movies. Their love story is one of the primary focuses of this film, and it's a crucial element to Peter's evolution into the man he has to become. There were genuinely touching moments in this film, and I couldn't believe how invested I was in their relationship.

Another important relationship in this film is between Peter and Harry Osborn, played brilliantly by Dane DeHaan (Chronicle). Something about his eyes and his thin face give him such an innately creepy vibe that he has no trouble selling the audience on his dark side. However, I appreciated seeing a side to Harry that we never saw in the previous movies that actually gave him a legitimate reason to turn against Peter and become such a terrifying foe. There's also a great symmetry between Harry and Peter, particularly between their relationships with their fathers. Not only do we finally get some answers about Peter's parents, but we get a unique backstory about Norman Osborn and the inescapable inheritance Harry receives from him. The result is a satisfying conflict that will surely bleed over into future installments.

While I really did enjoy this film quite a bit, there are a few things that I wasn't crazy about. Electro's motivations are a little thinly explained, and the resolution of his character is also slightly underwhelming. It's difficult to talk about it without going into spoiler territory, and I definitely think the movie is good enough for you to experience it for yourself, regardless of whatever minor qualms I had with it. The final scenes by themselves are worth the price of admission, so I feel confident that you won't be sorry taking a chance on this film (regardless of what the unenlightened critics say).

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 might be the best Spider-Man movie yet and is probably the best non-Avengers Marvel film since X-Men: First Class. This is a very underrated superhero film and will most likely end up somewhere on my top ten list for the year when it's all said and done. I'm excited for where the future sequels and spinoffs will take us, but I'm almost as excited to see this movie again. I give it a solid three and a half stars.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action/violence