Saturday, May 24, 2014

These Are The Days Of Our Lives

Reel To Reel: X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Going Rate: Worth full price
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Sci-Fi Action violence, mild language, about 5 seconds of Hugh Jackman's bare bum

The X-Men franchise gets props for finding a way to crank out sequels and prequels with fresh ideas, mainly by disrupting the time-space continuum of its own universe. Days Of Future Past takes everything people liked about X-Men: First Class and melds it with the original films to create a mash-up of sci-fi summer blockbuster and 70's period piece with an American Hustle vibe.

Apparently, X-Men: The Last Stand wasn't the last stand. Mutants and any humans who dare help them are now facing extermination from a seemingly indestructible legion of super-mutant androids called Sentinels. They have DNA cloned and perfected from that shape-shifting blue mutant named either Raven or Mystique (Lawrence), but I forget and just keep calling her "Big Blue Nude Girl" in my head.

It turns out the current war stems directly from Big Blue Nude Girl's 1970's killing of a weapons researcher just as the Vietnam war is ending, thus setting off a process leading to the perfection of the Sentinel program. If only somebody could go back in time and prevent that from happening. The mutant team led by Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) find a mutant that can pull that off, but the job requires somebody tough enough to survive a trip back several decades. How about Wolverine?

So Hugh Jackman's claw-slashing character is transported back to the days of bell bottoms and polyester. He goes directly to Professor X's school for mutants, now closed and run down. Its former headmaster Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is on the bottle and shooting up compounds that help him walk again at the cost of his mutant powers. Hank, the future Beast (Hoult), is his caretaker. Both have pretty much given up on trying to improve the world for anybody. Wolverine has to convince them that their future selves depend on their current ones to do the right thing, even if it means getting back together with Erik, the future Magneto (Fassbender). He's being held in a deep, metal-free Pentagon cell that nobody can break into. But where there's a will, there's a mutant with skills.

So we meet Peter, aka Quicksilver. That should give you some idea of his ability. Blink and you'll miss him swipe your gun, your hat, and just about anything else he wants to do to you. One inventive sequence, choreographed to Jim Croce's "Time In A Bottle," makes anything you've seen in The Matrix look like amateur night.

Jackman once again has to carry a lot of weight in this film, just like he has in his own X-Men spin-off films, and he handles it just fine. And once again, I like the chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender. I like Lawrence's shape-shifting antics, but it's nothing without those performance chops honed in the Hunger Games movies.

X-Men has always been a comic-book movie series that continues to exceed people's expectations on multiple levels. That gets harder to do with every film. But because their characters are so compelling and watchable, and because we keep finding new mutants with new abilities, this franchise is not running out of gas.

Make sure you stay all the way through the credits for a hint of what may be to come -- something new that makes us want to see more.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Time To Put On Your Big-Boy Spider Pants

Reel To Reel: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Going Rate: Worth matinee price
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan
Rated: PG-13 (but really could be a PG)
Red Flags: Action violence

Several times during this sequel to the reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I wasn't sure if I was watching a superhero film or a tricked up episode of The Young And The Restless. Spidey's newest adventure flirts with soap-opera schmaltz, but it seems to pull up just in time to get back to being the summer actioner people are expecting.

ASM2 quickly and conveniently refreshes our memory of some key facts from the first picture, notably Peter Parker (Garfield) suddenly left in the care of his aunt and uncle. Parker's dearth of information about his father continues to gnaw at him as he tries to balance his crime-fighting alter ego with his attraction to Gwen Stacey (Stone). She's at peace with Parker's double life, but he can't seem to love her the way she needs. Well, nobody ever promised being a superhero was going to improve your dating life.

This edition gets more specific on what Oscorp -- that megalith corporation Parker's father worked for -- does to make so much money. We learn it's heavily involved in pharmaceutical research and energy production, even powering New York City's grid. For all it does, however, it can't save the life of its founding father Norman, who's wasting away from a genetic disease. He passes both the reins and his affliction to his silver-spooned, mildly creepy son Harry (DeHaan). I wonder if Harry came from a secret Oscorp project to combine the DNA of Damien Thorn and Howdy Doody.

Harry knows Peter as a childhood friend, and he knows Peter knows Spider-Man. He's got a hunch Spidey is carrying the genetic material that can cure him, if only he can get to the webslinger. He also learns the down and dirty of what Oscorp is doing in its secret labs after an accident involving a nerdy technician named Max (Foxx), an embodiment of a grown-up Steve Urkel. Let's just say power corrupts.

The first 15 minutes of this film run tight and powerful. I saw more of the wit and sly asides Spider-Man is known for, along with some mind-boggling web-slinging. Every so often, the movie riffs on a landmark CGI technique from The Matrix to slowly wind us through an over-the-top moment of superhero prowess we'd miss if we watched it at normal speed. Indeed, some shots in this film seem more paced like a hyperactive CGI kid flick. Part of me misses the old days of optical effects compositing, where all shots had be grounded in some rough reality instead of the liquid smooth computerized perfection that gets better every summer. Don't get me wrong, though. Just like Spider-Man 2, that sequel to the previous franchise starter featuring Tobey Maguire, this sequel does a lot of things right and does them with heart.

One parting note: stay through the credits to see a clip of the upcoming X-Men movie. I'm wondering if this will start a new trend in film marketing by encouraging other blockbusters to bury a stealth trailer for another event film inside the credits. Thinking about it now, I'd rather Hollywood and the cinema chains run a few trailers in a squeezed format over the end credits, similar to network television, rather than lumping 15 minutes worth of trailers before the beginning of the feature presentation. But don't count on it.