X-Men Days of Future Past

I was lucky enough to slip away and catch X-Men Days of Future Past the other day.

X-Men Days of Future Past

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Rated PG-13

The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants.”

Finally! I was beginning to give up hope for the summer season. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 wasn’t, Godzilla was barely in his own movie, and Neighbors was just plain boring. X-Men Days of Future Past is a wonderful start to the summer.

Bryan Singer returns to direct this, having left after the first two installments (i.e. the good ones). I would rate this one as between the first and second one in quality, with X-Men 2 being the adamantium standard for the franchise.

Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) was exactly what you don’t want. As with Spider-Man 3, the powers that be decided that more was better (and I don’t mean more quality). Sure, comic book fans got their first looks at The Beast, Angel, Juggernaut, and Ratner’s version of the Dark Phoenix saga but it was all amped up to 11. They threw in more characters, more battles, more explosions and somewhere along the way story, character development, dialogue, and sense flew out the window.

X-Men: The Last Stand was at least better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) which was basically The Last Stand with a single X-Man and a quarter of the budget. The Wolverine (2013) overcorrected by making it all about the story and turned the Frank Miller comic into a snoozefest. The best scene in The Wolverine is the post-credits sequence alluding to Days of Future Past.

Matthew Vaughn, a writer on Days of Future Past, was handed the directorial reigns for X-Men: First Class (2011), an interesting reboot of the franchise. The story is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, necessitating younger versions of the X-Men. I am sure this allowed them to save enormously as instead of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, etc., we got a talented cast of newcomers.

Michael Fassbender is amazing as younger Magneto. James McAvoy is quite good as young Professor X, in spite of the magnetic Fassbender. A pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence is also excellently cast as Mystique. First Class has a few problems but is overall quite solid.

Days of Future Past is wonderful though not without its flaws. It assumes that you have at least seen X-Men 1, 2, and First Class. If you have not, you’ll have some catching up to do. Even with that knowledge, there are a large number of new mutants whose stories we are not given. We just see them in action periodically.

The movie belongs to Magneto, Wolverine, Professor X, and Mystique and the story keeps the focus squarely on them. Other mutants are in various supporting roles, with good roles for Beast, Kitty Pryde, and several surprises along the way.

While there are plenty of action sequences in the film, Singer underplays them. The focus is always kept on the story and the action sequences often develop the storyline. I did not find any of the fights to be showstoppers but all are good.

The reason Days of Future Past is so good is the overall story and the interactions between the main characters. Many of the post-modern mutants are not developed at all, just shown in combat. Many of the surviving First Class are not present here at all. Yet the story is full and rich and once again we are treated to multiple characters who see the same problems but have vastly different approaches to resolving them.

The acting is exactly what you would expect from accomplished veterans Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, and relative newcomers Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, and James McAvoy.

There is a single post-credit scene at the very end of the credits. It apparently sets up the next movie without featuring any of the known characters. In my opinion, it isn’t worth staying through the credits. Still this is far better than Amazing Spider-Man 2’s coda which was a scene from this movie.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day – Jekyll Centurion In The Grey Bruges

Well no green beer for me this year but I thought I’d highlight some films from my favorite Irish actors.

The Grey

 

The Grey (2012) – Rated R

After narrowly surviving a deadly plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, a band of oil riggers must battle the elements — and a pack of wolves.

Obviously, Liam Neeson kicks serious butt. He currently stars in Non-Stop which was a lot of (nonsensical) fun AND The Lego Movie (as Good Cop/Bad Cop) which was even more fun. While I enjoy his action movies, The Grey is not actually the survival story the trailer would have you believe. Instead it’s a wonderful existential treatise on life and death disguised as a survival movie.

Jekyll

Jekyll (2007) – TV-14

In modern-day London, Dr. Jekyll’s last living descendant believes he can control his dark side, but a secret society has other plans for him.”

James Nesbitt is a favorite Irish actor of mine, mostly for this British miniseries. He is just fine as Jekyll but the first time you see him as Hyde, you’ll be hooked. He currently stars as Bofur in The Hobbit movies.

In Bruges

In Bruges (2008) – Rated R

After a job goes wrong in London, two hit men are ordered to lay low at a bed-and-breakfast in Bruges, Belgium, until their boss contacts them.”

In Bruges features two of my favorite Irish actors. When he isn’t getting into trouble, Colin Farrell is quite the charmer and Brendan Gleeson is always good, usually better than his material deserves. In Bruges is absolutely hysterical, an understated gem from the folks that made Seven Psychopaths (also hysterical)

Centurion

Centurion (2010) – Rated R

In 2nd-century Britain, a famed centurion and a handful of Roman soldiers try to survive behind enemy lines after Pict tribesmen decimate the platoon.”

I really enjoy Liam Cunningham in everything. Lately I’ve caught him as Davos in Game of Thrones but that obviously isn’t on Netflix. Netflix does stream Centurion, in which Liam has a supporting role. Not only that but it has Michael Fassbender in a starring role. In spite of that, the movie is stolen by Dominic West as General Virilus and Olga Kurylenko as Etain.

 

The Counselor

The Counselor is currently in theaters

The Counselor

 

The Counselor (2013) – Rated R

A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

Are you really that cold?” – “The truth has no temperature.

One Line Review: Go see The Counselor for the incredible dialogue or avoid it for the rampant misogyny..

I love Ridley Scott. Many of his films are groudbreaking examples of their genre. Alien was a great horror movie that not only spawned five sequels and a prequel but also changed the way films were made. Blade Runner has yet to be equaled. Black Hawk Down is easily the best movie about modern warfare (post-World War II) ever made. Thelma & Louise is one of the best of sadly only a few female buddy movies. Gladiator is a beautiful film about ancient Rome with terrific battle sequences. Yet each of these movies have almost nothing in common with each other.

Even his misfires are provoking. Kingdom of Heaven is fantastic if you watch the director’s cut. Prometheus is gorgeous if flawed from having to shoehorn in the Alien mythos and a few other things. Ridley Scott brings Michael Fassbender over from his virtuoso performance in Prometheus.

It goes without saying that Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy is a fantastic writer. Both Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz have previously appeared in McCarthy adaptations (No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses respectively). McCarthy’s writing is very dark and dense, not making popularity easy. The Counselor is the first script he has written for a movie.

That script is the best reason for recommending this movie. McCarthy’s dialogue is fantastic, weaving in archaic terms (donnybrook) with clever turns of phrase and tonal shifts. The entire script is a morass of moral ambiguity. The plot revolves around a drug deal gone bad in which most of the characters are involved in some way and that’s it.

There are so many things to applaud about McCarthy’s script. We are dropped right in the middle of the story with little to no exposition. You have to pay attention just to keep up with what’s going on. He does follow the gun on the mantelpiece drama rule as two early exposition statements ultimately bear fruit. Our protagonist is only ever referred to as Counselor.

Thankfully Ridley Scott has lined up a fantastic cast. Michael Fassbender is the titular Counselor, a lawyer involved in a drug deal presumably in part to finance a huge diamond engagement ring for his fiancee. Laura, the fiancee is played by Penelope Cruz and is arguably the only ‘good’ character in the film. Javier Bardem (Reiner) and Brad Pitt (Westray) play associates in the drug deal. Cameron Diaz is Malkina, Reiner’s girlfriend.

We never meet the heads of the cartel who set up the deal though many associates make an appearance. There are a few niggling problems with the script in the form of questions that you will have after the film is over, I’m not sure whether that was McCarthy’s intent or if some scenes got chopped, though I will say that McCarthy practices an economy of exposition.

Lots of guest stars pop-up throughout the movie. An uncredited John Leguizamo and Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) conduct some business. Ruben Blades does some wonderful pontificating. Goran Visnjic appears as a banker. Rosie Perez has a juicy minor role as Ruth. All of the actors handle their roles and the rather eclectic dialogue well except Cameron Diaz. On the other hand it is hard to tell whether she dropped the ball or her role is simply horrible.

While I love McCarthy’s plotting, morality, and dialogue, I have to say that a lot of it comes off as misogynistic or filled with 12-year-old-boy syndrome. Also his characters pontificate endlessly, which is reasonable for one or two characters but not for all. That said, I am very much looking forward to what he does next.

People Watch: Look for beautiful Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones) in a brief but vital role.

 

Aliens Attack! Prometheus Edition

Prometheus infuriates me. The more I think about this movie, the madder I get.

Prometheus (2012) – Rated R

“A team of explorers discover a clue to the origins of mankind on Earth, leading them on a journey to the darkest corners of the universe. There, they must fight a terrifying battle to save the future of the human race. “

First off let me state that I will keep most plot points as vague as possible since much of the enjoyment of this movie is from how it unfolds.

Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is the nominal star here as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. She does a fine job and has a good physicality as our Sigourney Weaver replacement.

She is overshadowed at every turn by the real star of the film. Michael Fassbender has an incredibly playful turn as our resident android, David. Every time I see Fassbender, his performance is completely different from the last movie and makes me look forward to his next gig. Equally impressive was Charlize Theron as corporate boss Meredith Vickers. She was tough, in charge, and yet made you question her motives.

The rest of the cast is good but largely wasted. Guy Pearce is Peter Weyland, the head of Weyland-Yutani, hidden under much age makeup. Idris Elba is Captain Yanek who has a small but integral role. Both actors clearly have scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

The acting is probably the only aspect of this film that I didn’t have quibbles with.

Ridley Scott directed two of the greatest science fiction films ever made: Alien and Blade Runner. Both created vibrant, realistic worlds where it was clear that the story being told was just one of many that could be told. He also recreated, to marvelous effect, the worlds of ancient Rome (Gladiator) and the Middle East during the Crusades (Kingdom of Heaven) as well as the greatest film ever made on modern combat, Black Hawk Down.

I was ecstatic when I heard that he was finally returning to the world of science fiction, and that it would be an Alien prequel no less. Next to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, Prometheus was the film I was most looking forward to this year.

Prometheus has many great scenes but it has an equal number of clunky ones. The first hour is a fairly effective science fiction epic. Here are a number of things that bothered me to distraction:

* As Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out, Meredith Vickers (Theron) states in the film that they are a half billion miles from Earth, which would only put them just past Jupiter.

* A minor character comes to Dr. Shaw and has a major expository speech to sum up and move the plot forward. The problem with this is that that character not only has no knowledge of what he’s saying but also has no particular reason to be saying it to Dr. Shaw. More than one scene must have been cut.

* The first scene in the film is completely superfluous and doesn’t make sense in the larger narrative as the information is reused later. I can only think they used it because it looked cool.

* The final twenty seconds of film are absolutely shameless and again have no context within the narrative. It actually smacks of post-production tampering.

* Either the screenwriting was terrible or a heap of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Never mind, the answer must actually be both. Characters act with knowledge that they don’t appear to have and then ignore really important information that is right in front of them.

* After a particularly devastating attack, there is no discussion among the remaining crew and no real handling of it. It seemed as if the scene was spliced in from another movie.

* Characters consistently make decisions dictated by the script rather than reality.

* Lots more but it would involve spoilers

In spite of all of the above, the movie is definitely worth seeing. It is just infuriating because it could easily have been a masterpiece. Acting is fine (Rapace, Elba) – great (Fassbender, Theron), the special effects and scenery are amazing, and the plot is pretty decent.

People Watch: Look for Patrick Wilson in a brief cameo as Dr. Shaw’s father.

Streaming Michael Fassbender

If you love him so much, why don’t you marry him? After catching Fassbender on the big screen twice in the same week, he has another film starting today Shame, his second collaboration with director Steve McQueen.

Shame (2011) – Rated NC-17

“Thirtysomething New Yorker Brandon is outwardly reserved, but inside is seething with an overwhelming sexual addiction. When his tempestuous and much-loved younger sister invades his life, Brandon struggles to escape his self-destructive behavior.”

I thought I’d end the week with some streaming Fassbender recommendations.

Centurion (2010) – Rated R

“In 2nd-century Britain, Roman fighter Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the lone survivor of a Pictish attack on a Roman frontier post. Eager for revenge, he joins the Ninth Legion — under General Virilus (Dominic West) — and journeys north on a mission to destroy the Picts. Writer-director Neil Marshall’s rousing sword-and-sandals adventure also stars Olga Kurylenko as the beautiful Pict warrior Etain.”

I discussed this film at length after the first ActionFest but the gist is that this is a fun action film. Fassbender is the star but Dominic West steals every scene he is in. It does suffer from a few flaws but the cinematography and location shots are wonderful, the violence is brutal, and villains lie on both sides.

Hunger (2008) – Not rated

“Acclaimed visual artist Steve McQueen makes his feature film debut with this gripping drama (and Independent Spirit Award Best Foreign Film contender) that depicts the events surrounding a hunger strike staged by a group of IRA prisoners during their 1981 incarceration in Britain’s Prison Maze. Led by IRA volunteer-poet Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), the strikers waged their six-week-long protest in an attempt to be acknowledged as political prisoners and to improve the prison’s conditions.”

This is a very powerful film (regardless of your politics) with perhaps Michael Fassbender’s best performance. That said this is by no means a fun film. This is a very dark, depressing film – both tonally and thematically. If you want enjoyable – stick with Centurion.

Blood Creek (2009) – Rated R

“When a family agrees to host an occult-obsessed Nazi scholar in their West Virginia farmhouse prior to World War II, they’re transformed into his undead slaves and must kidnap local victims to feed his bloodlust. Years later, an abducted war hero (Dominic Purcell) breaks free from the zombie family’s clutches, rounds up his brother (Henry Cavill) and returns to the wilderness for payback. Joel Schumacher directs this supernatural horror flick.”

I wanted to like this movie. I love the idea of horror movies with Nazis. Dead Snow is absolutely hilarious, Shock Waves is a wonderful slice of 70s cheese, The Keep was wonderfully atmospheric even if it made no sense whatsoever. Combine the kooky premise with a decent cast (Michael Fassbender, Dominic Purcell, and Henry Cavill – the new Superman) and it should have been a cakewalk. Sadly it is only okay.

Fassbender is also in Fish Tank, Angel, and A Bear Named Winnie but I have not had time to watch those.

Michael Fassbender Goes Haywire!

I’ve been lucky enough to catch quite a number of new movies at Carolina Cinemas lately.

Haywire (2011) – Rated R for some violence.

“A last-minute mission in Dublin turns deadly for stunning secret operative Mallory Kane when she realizes she’s been betrayed — and that her own life is no longer safe. Now, to outwit her enemies, she’ll simply have to outlast them.”

Okay ignore my title. Michael Fassbender is in this which allowed me to segue from yesterday’s A Dangerous Method but he is only briefly in this so it is a little misleading.

Do not go into Haywire thinking that this is a Steven Soderbergh film. Soderbergh did direct this film as he did last year’s delightfully scary Contagion but Haywire does not feel like a Soderbergh film. Apparently Soderbergh saw star Gina Carano fight and built a movie around her talents.

Haywire has a fairly large cast but except for star Gina Carano, no one has much screen time. Presumably because of both this reason and Soderbergh as director, some fairly big names appear in Haywire in small parts. I actually didn’t recognize Antonio Banderas the first time he appeared (that ended once he used his wonderful voice). Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, the aforementioned Michael Fassbender, Bill “Game Over, Man” Paxtion, and Channing Tatum round out the cast.

So aside from the minor distraction of those names, the weight of the film falls on Gina Carano. How does she handle it? Well she won’t be winning an Academy Award anytime soon. While she doesn’t mumble, much of her delivery is flat. On the other hand she really kicks butt. She beats up nearly everyone in the film and you really buy that she could.

I do not understand why Soderbergh did not have a better story crafted for Carano. The spy story in this is so trite and cliched that it borders on parody. The only refreshing aspect is that it is about private contractors but Ronin covered this to a certain extent last century.

This brings us to the action. The action is well staged and thankfully Soderbergh disdains the use of shaky-cam. This allows us to revel in the many beatdowns Gina Carano issues. If you view this more as a martial arts film than a spy film then I think it really succeeds. The fight scenes are visceral, brutal and realistic. I especially loved Carano’s scene with Fassbender.

So to sum up, Haywire is a very enjoyable film if you like fight scenes. If you don’t then there isn’t enough here to recommend it. I would really like to see Carano become an action star (in much the same way that Liam Neeson releases one every year at this time) because she really sells the physicality.

Michael Fassbender & A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011) – Rated R for sexual content and brief language. Strangely even though Keira Kightley is nude in it, nudity isn’t part of the rating.

In this David Cronenberg-helmed biopic, Viggo Mortensen stars as Sigmund Freud, whose relationship with fellow psychology luminary Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) is tested when Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), one of the first female psychoanalysts, enters their lives. This World War I-set drama also stars Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, a disciple of Freud, and Sarah Gadon, who plays Jung’s psychoanalyst wife.

David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors. I loved his visceral horror movies, often focused on issues of body modification and identity. They were always intelligent and original. Even his remake of The Fly was original and reinvented the story in much the same way John Carpenter did with The Thing. Unfortunately for me, he is now an important director so horror has gone by the wayside.

Michael Fassbender is the star of A Dangerous Method and he does quite well as Carl Jung. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors. He had wonderful supporting roles in Inglourious Basterds, 300 and Band of Brothers. He followed this up with proof that he can carry a movie in Centurion and was, forgive me, simply magnetic in X-Men First Class. Next up for Fassbender is the Ridley Scott science fiction opus Prometheus.

Cronenberg’s go-to actor appears to be Viggo Mortensen. Viggo was fantastic in Cronenberg’s last two films – A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. He is quite good in A Dangerous Method as Sigmund Freud but not quite as good as the two previous films. Still he instills a fair amount of gravitas as a father figure.

Keira Knightley is actually the astonishing one. Her portrayal of Sabina Spielrein requires a great deal of range and Keira gives quite freely of herself in this role. Vincent Cassel has a delightful time chewing up the scenery as the aptly named Dr. Gross. Sarah Gadon is just fine as Jung’s long-suffering wife but does not have as much to do as you might think.

The movie is a filmed version of a play and, in spite of the gorgeous locations used, seems like one. In spite of the cast listing there are really only five roles in the movie. The biggest flaw of the movie seems to be that of its subject matter. The movie comes across as very analytical and is of course combined with brief overviews of the works of Freud and Jung (although many of the latter’s more out there philosophies are only approached tangentially).

A Dangerous Method has very little action in it and is quite talky, albeit intelligently so. The parts of the film showing the disintegration of a professional relationship are riveting because Cronenberg and the actors make them so nuanced.

WARNING: A Dangerous Method is a very good film but it is not always an entertaining one. The first half in particular delves into a number of issues of sexual abuse/dysfunction and can be a little difficult to watch. It is not what I would call a “date film”.

Centurion – Actionfest week

This past weekend I spent at ActionFest. Instead of instant Netflix films this week, I will be talking about the films I saw. Centurion was a World Premiere at Actionfest.

WATCH: Centurion (2010) – NR – Not rated (yet)

“In 2nd-century Britain, Roman fighter Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the lone survivor of a Pictish attack on a Roman frontier post. Eager for revenge, he joins the Ninth Legion — under General Virilus (Dominic West) — and journeys north on a mission to destroy the Picts. Writer-director Neil Marshalls rousing sword-and-sandals adventure also stars Olga Kurylenko as the beautiful Pict warrior Etain.”

Neil Marshall is one of my favorite up and coming directors. His latest film, Centurion, had its world premiere Thursday night at Actionfest.

His first feature film was the wonderful Dog Soldiers – one of the two best werewolf movies of the last decade (Ginger Snaps being the other one). Dog Soldiers is a very cool low budget military horror movie (there are not enough movies in that subgenre) – marred only by thick accents and British slang which make it a little tricky for American audiences.

He followed that up in 2005 with the incredible The Descent. The Descent is the only horror film of the last decade to actually scare me. It had the misfortune to be released around the same time as The Cave, The Cavern and one other cave related horror movie whose name escapes me. The Descent is the real deal. Not only does it capture an incredible feeling of claustrophobia but also tells a powerful emotional story about characters you care about.

Sadly his third film Doomsday (2008) was not very good.

Centurion is good but not a masterpiece. It was not the best of the Actionfest movies though it was a lot of fun. The cinematography made good use of the impressive terrain and is quite nice to look at without detracting from the narrative.

The violence is not brutal – it is ultra-brutal and occurs constantly throughout the movie. I enjoyed the unflinching carnage with one exception. Much of the blood in the film is CGI. I simply do not understand how we can realistically depict dinosaurs, aliens, spaceships, etc in CGI and yet every time CGI is used for blood spatter, it just looks so fake.

One of the factors I really enjoyed about the narrative was that while our protagonists are Roman soldiers and the story is told from their point-of-view, it is clear that the Romans are just as responsible as the Picts for the events that unfold.

Michael Fassbender is the star here. He had small roles in a number of shows but caught a break when he was cast as Stelios in 300. Most recently he played Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds. He is quite captivating as an action hero. He has a good but not overwhelming presence (which fits in with the story) and certainly has an action physique.

Dominic West steals the show as General Virilus. Like Michael Fassbender, he was also in 300. There he played the despicable Theron with some degree of relish. Here he shows off as the ultimate Roman general with one tiny little weak spot.

Olga Kurylenko has a powerful female role here as the tracker Etain. She is riveting in all of her scenes even though her character is mute. She handles the physicality well and is no stranger to action having previously appeared in Quantum of Solace, Hitman, and Max Payne. She is joined by Axelle Carolyn as another powerful woman.

The rest of the cast is colorful including Ulrich Thomsen as the Pict chief Gorlacon. The other Roman soldiers are given just enough screen time and presence to make them interesting but not quite enough to make us care about them.

There is an incident early in the third act that both sets up and completely gives away the ending. It is unfortunate since Neil Marshall was far more subtle and less-contrived in Descent and Dog Soldiers. My only guess is that it was a push to make the narrative more mainstream.

Ultimately Centurion is a very gory and fun thrill ride. I recommend putting it in your queue for later.

For those who do not know, films can be put in your Netflix queue long before they are released. The Netflix queue can hold 500 films. Mine always fluctuates between 475 and 500. Doing this gives you a good idea when one of your films is coming to instant Netflix.

People Watch: Imogen Poots plays a very intriguing Arian here. She previously played Tammy in 28 Weeks Later and Young Valerie in V for Vendetta.