Maleficent: So Wicked

“Let us tell an old story anew, and see how well you know it.” The narration begins with this simple line to forewarn us of the changes to come. We are told of two rival kingdoms, the world of humans and the Moors. Home to fairies, trolls and wicker men, the Moors is a breathtaking place full of magnificence and wonder. We meet Maleficent as a wide eyed, curious child! She is, seemingly, the protector of the Moors and always ensures their safety. What comes next is the beginning of Maleficent’s realization that the human world is full of treachery and disdain. She begins to darken as her world suddenly changes. Friends become enemies and she takes charge of the Moors. Destined to be a leader, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) ensures her world is now feared by the humans.

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The story does take a visit back to the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ tale we all know and love as she curses the infant Aurora who is later portrayed by Elle Fanning. Maleficent takes a keen interest in her upbringing, even at one point making a joke that she dislikes children. The audience chuckled. Diavel (Sam Riley) is a surprising addition to the story. Saved by Maleficent from impending death, he now allows her to transform him into any creature including a human. No matter the creature he becomes, he retains some form of his birdlike tendencies. Once Maleficent is on screen, she captivates us all. We await each action and linger on the words she speaks. We have all fallen in love with the “villain!”

Maleficent tells a tumultuous story of heartbreak and revenge. Angelina Jolie delivers a masterful performance as a wronged and vengeful woman. A woman that will make us all remember her for years to come. The pain, torture and hunger for the existence of love is sure to leave many of us feeling that this is something that is just too realistic for words. There is one scene, the one in which her wings are taken, that has seared into my brain and I will not forget it ever. A scene so brutal that your heart breaks as you watch it. Angelina delivers a wicked but comical recreation of Maleficent. Disney has given us a brand new view on the fairytale. Be warned, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

X-Men: Days of Future Past: A Superhero Movie Triumph

It’s been 14 years or so since Bryan Singer kicked off the X-Men movie franchise. In the meantime, through several films, we’ve experienced sequels, prequels, sidequels, and requels.  You may be a rabid comic-book collector or a casual fan of mutant mayhem, but that’s a lot to wrap your skull around. Singer’s return in the pop fantasia X-Men: Days of Future Past is so triumphant because of how effortless he makes connecting the dots seem. It’s an epic that couldn’t be more Byzantine on paper but scans with ease on screen.

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Ever since Singer left the fold after 2003’s excellent X2 to direct Superman Returns, things have been more or less a hit-and-miss. Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand was a dud, and both Wolverine spin-offs, despite Hugh Jackman’s gruff, mutton-chopped charisma, were underwhelming. Only Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class duplicated Singer’s cocktail of gravitas and merry-prankster fun. First Class introduced new actors in familiar roles, namely James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr (aka. Magneto), and the fizzy dynamic between these characters felt so fresh and emotionally resonant that it seemed inevitable the audience would demand to see the powerhouse actors in those roles again.

Not surprisingly, the best thing about Days of Future Past is that it’s heavier on the days past than future. In that sense, it’s a lot like 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, where even the most fervent fans of the USS Enterprise were waiting for William Shatner’s Kirk to bite the dust and pass the phaser to the Next Gen posse. In Singer’s new film, one of the key themes is traveling back in time to change the course of the present. It’s a movie about violating the Prime Directive. The nerdy irony is that it’s Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, whose Xavier is most gung-ho about rewriting history.

The film opens in a bleak future that finds the mutants and their human sympathizers cordoned off in an eerily glowing Central Park detention camp. The mutants who have managed to survive a xenophobic government (and their numbers are rapidly dwindling) are on the run from the Sentinels, a robot race of exterminators gunning to wipe out the freaks for good. Stewart’s Xavier and his longtime frenemy Magneto (Ian McKellen) have sought refuge at a Chinese monastery where several other mutants are hiding out. Cue Blink, Sunspot, and Iceman (but don’t get too attached; they mostly pop up during the film’s Sentinel-fueled bookends). There’s also Ellen Page‘s Kitty Pryde. Thanks to her ability to transport a person’s consciousness through time, she helps execute Xavier’s scheme to time shift Wolverine back to the pivotal moment in 1973 when Jennifer Lawrence‘s Mystique assassinated the Sentinels’ mastermind, Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

I know all of this sounds like a tangled thicket of cosmically Big Ideas. But Simon Kinberg‘s marvelous script makes it all move with a Swiss jeweler’s precision and hum with internal logic. It’s complex without being confusing. The film takes on a giddy time-warp thrill as Wolverine attempts to persuade the reluctant Xavier and Lehnsherr to team up for the common good — no easy feat, considering Magneto is in a high-security prison cell. So Wolverine enlists a new mutant to the celluloid series, Evan Peters‘ Quicksilver, whose brief turn as the ultimate jailbreaker is the highlight of the film. It’s also proof that Singer really gets what makes these movies such smart — and smart-ass — fun.

The central conflict in Days of Future Past is between the young Xavier and Lehnsherr. Can they trust each other? Who has the stronger hold on Mystique? And once again, McAvoy and Fassbender prove that just because a movie is huge doesn’t mean you have to ham it up — that it’s possible to make a superhero flick feel as intimate as a piece of theater. I do wish that Dinklage’s Trask had more layers to his villainy and Lawrence had more to do. But these are minor complaints. The main one for fans of the comics, I think, will be that with so much ground to cover, certain mutants get shortchanged. But Singer did pull together an ambitious, suspenseful screen chapter that secures a future for the franchise while facilitating continued reinvention. Plus, there’s always the next sequel.

GOJIRA (Godzilla): Less Is More for the Best Monster Bash in Ages

Let me put my cards on the table. I was one of those kids who spent their youth watching Creature Double Feature smack downs between Godzilla and his arsenal of enemy combatants such as Mothra, Ghidorah and King Kong. There was something about seeing these behemoths stomp Tokyo to dust that made me absolutely giddy: the primal doomsday terror of a beast created by A-bomb radiation, the model-shop ingenuity, the laughable man-in-a-rubber-suit campiness. It’s been 16 years since Hollywood nearly soured that love affair and I was hopeful that the splashy new IMAX 3D reboot might rekindle the old flame.

Unfortunately, Gareth EdwardsGodzilla feels like two movies Scotch-taped together. In one, Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear engineer with a tragic past who’s racing to expose the truth about a series of seismic anomalies, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his estranged soldier son, and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are a pair of exposition-spouting scientists trying to keep straight faces while talking about electromagnetic pulses and mankind’s hubris. In the other, mammoth CG beasts knock the snot out of one another. Only one of these movies is any good. Thankfully, it’s the monster side of it.

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Edwards, whose only previous film was 2010’s low-budget Monsters, has been given a quick call-up to the majors with the reported $160 million Godzilla. He doesn’t seem too interested in his actors, they’re more plodding than their reptilian costars and you don’t care about a single one of them. Edwards does know how to fashion some serious monster mayhem though. Taking a cue from Jaws, he wisely delays Godzilla’s appearance, building suspense. In movies like these, it’s all about the slow tease and the big reveal. As an appetizer, though, he gives us a pair of ”MUTOs” (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) — a male and female duo of giant, Giger-esque creatures with sleek pincer jaws that resemble humongous staple removers. The MUTOs, who arrive on the scene after leveling a Japanese nuclear reactor, care about two things: feeding on the radiation that created them and mating with each other in… San Francisco of all places.

When Godzilla first lumbers on screen to hunt the MUTOs and ”restore balance,” he feels both nostalgically familiar and excitingly new. Every time you see a glimpse of him, it just makes you cheer him on. As big as a Sheraton and with a shriek that rumbles your insides, he appears beefier and meaner than you remember. But looks can be deceiving. Godzilla is humanity’s only hope for destroying the MUTOs or as Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa says, ”Let them fight!” Oh and fight they do, in an epic clash that turns the Bay Area to rubble. Unlike last year’s semi-disappointing Pacific Rim, Godzilla actually shows us its monsters without a scrim of rain and a cloak of darkness. And the thrill of the film is getting the chance to fetishize their sheer size and physicality as they rip through power lines and demolish buildings with their lashing tails. In its handful of moments like these, Godzilla almost makes you feel like a kid again.

Bad Neighbors

Makers of R-rated comedies face an essential dilemma: finding new ways to gross out their snickering adolescent viewers. But as Neighbors demonstrates, there’s another challenge that’s just as tricky: piloting the raunchy scenario to a payoff that upholds the very middle-class values the movie gleefully profanes.

Neighbors opens in an upscale suburb, where a house is occupied by a standard sitcom couple: goofy, pudgy dad and improbably beautiful mom. Although they have an infant daughter, Mac (Seth Rogan) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) endeavor to keep their pre-parental “cool”. They are pot-smokers and rave-goers, and when the movie begins they’re trying to have sex. They fail, embarrassed that baby Stella can see them, although Mac’s insistence on narrating the action — “this is happening!” is just as deflating.

The real conflict begins when a college fraternity, Delta Psi Beta, moves in next door, cramming its new home with beer, babes, noise and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Mac and Kelly try to indulge the newcomers, even joining them for some of their daily parties. But the neighborly outreach doesn’t lead to quiet, and Stella can’t sleep through the racket. So the 30-something old folks call the useless, but of course, cops.

Full-scale culture war results, led by grim-eyed, often shirtless Delta president Teddy (Zac Efron) and his marginally more reasonable lieutenant, Pete (Dave Franco). Foul-mouthed Kelly is a more skilled combatant than Mac, even if she does sometimes divert her hostility away from Teddy and toward her husband. The bitter conflict encompasses condoms, exploding airbags, girl-on-girl smooches and sword fights.

Been there, inserted that, so Nicholas Stoller and script writers, Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien needed a new outrage. They find it in the procreative aspect of sex, which may discomfit the teen-boy demographic. After some hard partying, Kelly is swollen with alcohol-tainted milk, and hysterically insists that Mac relieve the pressure. A set of veiny prosthetic breasts amplifies the body-horror hilarity of the moment, which may be unprecedented but feels as predictable as everything else in this utterly routine provocation.

After that scene, it hardly matters if the frat house burns down and takes whole neighborhood with it. Neighbors has attained its peak of queasy vulgarity, and now must negotiate its way down the other side toward a cozily sentimental conclusion. Near the end of Neighbors in which it’s revealed what has become of Efron’s hard-partying, never-studying Teddy after college graduation. (It has no bearing on the rest of the plot, but if you don’t want to know, stop reading now.)

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In what is either the movie’s deepest self-inflicted wound or its most cunning inside joke, we learn that Teddy has become… well, a model for Abercrombie & Fitch.

It’s a moment that rings more painfully, exquisitely true than anything else in the film.

‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2′ But Not So Amazing Spins Web of Chemistry and Wit

The second chapter is always the most crucial one to nail in any blockbuster franchise. After all, the first tends to be so loaded down with obligatory backstory or, in the case of superhero movies, their origins. There’s hardly any room to hint at the bigger picture, where the whole thing is headed. Part two is like a pivotal second date, where a director can stretch out and show his or her intentions. Sometimes this means revealing deeper, darker layers like The Empire Strikes Back; or sometimes it exposes the muddled confusion at the heart of the endeavor like The Matrix Reloaded.

In other words, there’s a lot riding on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not just commercially (although there is that) but also as a signpost of what lies ahead. Thankfully, director Marc Webb‘s dizzy, slickly enjoyable sequel gets a ton right. It’s a Marvel Comics spectacle that manages to deftly balance razzle-dazzle, feel-it-in-your-gut slingshot moments of flight and believable human relationships. There’s psychological weight to go with all of the gravity-defying, web-slinging weightlessness.

After kicking off with an action-packed flashback that shows Peter Parker’s late father (Campbell Scott) and mother (Embeth Davidtz) on the run from Oscorp heavies and meeting their fate, Webb picks up where he left off at the end of the first movie. Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) are a couple as adorable as a box of kittens, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is dead, and Peter is moonlighting as a jokey, quippy crime fighter in red-and-blue arachnid spandex (some might say a bit too jokey and quippy). Following a face-off against a Russian thug (Paul ­Giamatti), Peter grapples with a promise he made to Gwen’s dad (Denis Leary) to protect her by leaving her alone. Of course, we know the chemistry between these two won’t let any breakup stick, so they spend a lot of time in a flirty, will-they-or-won’t-they dance straight out of a Cheers episode. Meanwhile, Spidey saves nerdy, mentally unhinged Oscorp engineer Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) from going splat under a taxi, and Max becomes obsessed with him. In the Marvel universe, this is what passes as ”foreshadowing.”

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Soon enough, after a freak accident at Oscorp, Max transforms into a recluse-turned-power-conductor named Electro, who’s like a high-voltage cross between The King of Comedy‘s stalker Rupert Pupkin and Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. Because one or two baddies aren’t enough, there’s also Peter’s boyhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) which sets the table for a third-act battle-royal climax. And this is where the overstuffed, sequel-setting film goes a bit pear-shaped and dips into a wide variety of subplots, and never comes together as a story. While it’s always a blast seeing comic-book heroes and bad guys square off in an F/X smack down, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t know when to end. The busy finale or rather, finales — keeps coming until you want to blow a whistle and call it a draw just to make it stop. It’s a minor beef for an otherwise really fun movie, but hopefully Webb will learn that less is often more before swinging into action on Spidey 3.

Entertaining Mayhem of Non-Stop

Being a bruised-knuckle action hero is a young man’s game. Unless, of course, your name happens to be Liam Neeson. Continuing his prodigious run of duo-syllabic action movies, Neeson is back with a gun in his hand and a weary grimace on his long Irish mug in Non-Stop, a sometimes inspired, mostly serviceable doomed-airliner thriller that reunites its star with Unknown director, Jaume Collet-Serra for another round of pseudo-Hitchcock hijinks. That beneath all the prestige-film trappings lay the beating heart of an unapologetic B-movie badass. For the most part, audiences have made out like bandits from this makeover. Neeson’s imposing 6’4” frame, haunted eyes, and knack for snapping limbs have elevated throwaways such as Unknown, The Grey, and Taken 2 into something more than the sum of their parts. They may not all be memorable films, but they’d be utterly forgettable without the high-gloss patina of a class that he gives them.

The actor’s latest genre-film gambit is Non-Stop, a tense but ludicrous cat-and-mouse thriller at 30,000 feet up in the sky. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a grieving alcoholic on board a transatlantic flight to London. This tells us he’s a man with a troubled/tragic past that will inevitably come home to roost somewhere around the movie’s third act. Collet-Serra plows through the other scene-setting details in similarly expedient fashion, introducing an “Airport”-worthy cast of passengers that includes a frazzled businesswoman (Julianne Moore), a tough New York cop (Corey Stoll), a slacker dude (Scoot McNairy), a Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally) just waiting to be racially profiled, and an unaccompanied minor. By ten minutes in, the movie is airborne, and by fifteen, Marks receives the first in a series of anonymous and taunting text messages (sent over the plane’s secure network) threatening to kill someone on board every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred into a designated bank account. These doubts may seem like the figments of Bill’s pickled imagination, but the suspicion bears out.

ImageAs a rule airplanes make deviously effective settings for trashy mayhem. Collet-Serra is an able-bodied genre craftsman with a love of old-fashioned plot mechanics and an unusual generosity to actors, who are afforded more quiet, character-revealing moments in his movies than such fare typically allows. Non-Stop; in its twist-a-minute script is patently ridiculous and its appeals to our post-9/11 anxieties are as subtle as a jackhammer. But once again Neeson is a straight-faced secret weapon. With his lion’s roar and can-do fists, he grounds the film’s more preposterous moments and makes them feel excitingly tense. At a certain point either you’ll fasten your seat belt and go with Non-Stop‘s absurd, Looney Tunes logic or you won’t. Against my better judgment, I went with it.

No light on Under the Skin

After waiting thirteen years since Sexy Beast and nine years since Birth, Jonathan Glazer‘s striking two previous features, it’s no pleasure feeling the sense of anticipation and excitement steadily and surely slipping away throughout Under the Skin, in which the filmmaker makes a left turn into a very dark dead-end alley. Glazer, whose background is in music videos, has lost none of his ability to generate strikingly original images, as the opening of Under the Skin confirms: A small pinhole in the center of the screen grows gradually larger until it becomes a white, doughnut-shaped mass. A black orb then moves toward the center of the doughnut and makes contact, until what we are looking at resembles a human eye.

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We seem to have witnessed some kind of birth here, though Glazer, who adapted Michel Faber’s novel, is deliberately short on details. In the book, this strange creature was called Isserley and had come to Earth with the mission of luring handsome human males into her trap so that they could be turned into a kind of alien caviar. Here, Scarlett Johansson bears no name and her motives are markedly less clear. In his attempt to render an alien point of view, Glazer devotes much of his running time to Johansson traversing Scotland in a cargo van, stopping to ask directions from various male passersby, whom she subsequently tries to lure into the van. For those thus tempted, the night is likely to end in an abandoned squat, where Johansson uses her mysterious powers (and various moments of undress) to lead the men into a strange dark pool that consumes them like quicksand. And that, as we later learn, isn’t the half of it.

Glazer’s initially intriguing formal conceit is that Johansson, reasonably well disguised under a dark wig, cheap-hooker couture and Brit accent, interacting with real unawares Scotsmen, all of it captured by small digital cameras mounted in and around the van. Glazer uses the hidden-camera method when Johansson is walking down a crowded Glasgow street, or ushered by a mob of female revelers into a nightclub throbbing with strobe lights and house music. In one of the movie’s more inspired, lyrical episodes, she offers a ride to a badly disfigured man en route to do his grocery shopping under cover of night, and seems not to notice his Elephant Man-like deformity.

And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of Under the Skin isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting.

Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, Under the Skin becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible.