A Million Ways To Die In The West ***

20140702-103430-38070597.jpg

“A Million Ways To Die In The West” is the follow up movie by Seth MacFarlane to his outrageously funny 2012 film “Ted”. Here he puts himself in front of the camera and sets the story back in the old west, setting the stage for a parody based on clich├ęs from classic western movies. Some of it is successful and some of it is not. I guess I was hoping for a classic along the lines of “Blazing Saddles” so my expectations were set pretty high.

The film has a lot of moments that are truly hilarious. A lot of it comes from the fact that MacFarlane’s character, Albert Stark, has a modern sense of humor and everyone around him has the 1880’s mentality. I especially love the moments where Stark stares right in the face of some classic western movie moments and pokes fun at them on the spot. During a potential duel he points out that the two men’s shadows appear to be engaged in oral sex. Then there is the moment where a classic saloon brawl breaks out and MacFarlane stands in the back, pretending to fight his friend in the hopes that nobody actually attacks them.

Eventually he gets caught in the crosshairs of a deadly outlaw named Clinch Leatherwood, played by Liam Neeson. Neeson of course gets some big laughs by playing this absolutely straight. His wife is played by Charlize Theron, who has the same modern sensibility as Stark, which results in a mutual attraction, hence why Clinch wants to gun him down.

Now my standards were set high because I figured someone like MacFarlane would really go for a searing look at the old West using R rated comedy. Instead we get a lot of potty humor, dirty site gags and a lot of naughty language. All of it is fairly funny but I was hoping for it to be edgy in a way that might even piss a few people off.

In the end this is a pretty funny flick. It got funnier the more I thought about it after I viewed it for some reason. Some of the dialogue and jokes stuck in my mind. I don’t think it will really break out though as it is not quite as accessible as “Ted” was.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past ***1/2

20140702-102244-37364464.jpg

The “X-Men” film franchise was put back on track with last year’s “The Wolverine”. “Days Of Future Past” brings the series back to full prominence. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two “X-Men” movies, returns to helm this latest installment and absolutely kills it with probably the most epic superhero flick since “The Avengers”.

The plot follows the classic storyline from the comic books. We start in a post apocolyptic future where the mutant race has all but been eradicated by robots called Sentinals. They were created specifically to identify mutants and destroy them. As the film opens we are thrust in to a battle between a select group of mutants and some particularly fierce sentinals that seem to be able to absorb a mutant’s specific powers and turn the tables on them. Fans of this series will recognize Ice Man and Kitty Pryde instantly. Fan favorite Bishop is introduced here as well.

Eventually they meet up with Professor Xavier(Patrick Stewart) and the X-Men which now consist soley of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), and Magneto (Ian McKellen). They devise a plan that will send Wolverine’s future mind back in to his 1970’s self so that he can organize the X-men in the past and stop a specific event that will stop the sentinels from ever being created.

When Wolverine wakes up in 1973 he travels to the X-mansion to find Xavier (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) living in isolation. Xavier has lost his power due to the side effects of a medication that has restored his ability to walk.

Once Logan convinces Xavier of the terrifying future that awaits they band together to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of a specially designed prison under the Pentagon. This involves the help of a mutant known as Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has the ability to travel at supersonic speed. The effects that went in to creating the scenes with Quicksilver almost steal the whole movie. We see his point of view as he moves through time as everything slows down to a crawl.

The visual effects in this film are some of the best that this franchise has seen but they are finally used to service the story again. Entries like “The Last Stand” and “First Class” seemed to rely on CGI action and shied away from great story telling. “Days Of Future Past” is one of the iconic tales of the X-Men canon and it is told marvellously. From the screenplay to the direction and the performances, this is about as near perfect as a blockbuster can get. It is exciting and engaging at the same time.

It also masterfully combines the casts of the original films with the cast of “First Class” and creates a bridge that can lead in to a reboot of the series. Normally I am against reboots, remakes and reimagining’s but this one does it brilliantly because it is technically a continuation. And the tease at the end tells me it is going to continue towards a place I have truly longed for with this franchise.

Godzilla ***

20140616-210500-75900697.jpg

As for as giant, city crushing monster’s go, Godzilla is the gold standard. Everyone pretty much knows who Godzilla is. Hopefully this movie will erase the memory of the disasterous 1998 remake. I have to admit though that I was mildly dissapointed in Gareth Edward’s film. The trailers promised a more character driven disaster thriller with the great Bryan Cranston at the center of it. So how did the characters and the story end up being the weak part of the film? The effects and set pieces are absolutely breathtaking and epic. On the other hand the human parts of the movie were underwritten.

The film opens with Joe and Sandra, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, as a husband and wife as scientists working in a nuclear power plant in Japan. When an unexplained phenomenon causes catastrophic meltdown, Sandras character becomes a casualty, leaving Joe to raise their son on his own.

Years later the son Ford, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is just returning home from the Navy when he recieves word that his father has been arrested again in Japan for illegally entering the disaster site. Turns out he spends his days trying to uncover the conpsiracy that led to his wife’s death. All of this takes place in the first twenty minutes of the movie and it is quite engrossing.

When the monsters show up is when suddenly the characters seem to have no place in the story. We follow Ford as he travels back to the States to protect his wife and daughter from the impending doom. Taylor-Johnson, a very talented actor, becomes the central character that we follow. His performance becomes a muted series of vacant stares, even in the face of towering monsters. The dialogue he is given does almost nothing to help. His wife, played by Elizabeth Olsen is also restricted to a role meant to simply react to terrifing news and recieve tearful phone calls from her hubby.

Fortunately Godzilla and the other giant creatures steal the show. Fans of Godzilla will appreciate the fact that he shows up not to destroy mankind, but to tear apart the monsters that are threatening them. Of course he causes mass destruction himself. He is a skyscraper sized being who is bound to step on a person or two. The CGI effects that went in to creating Godzilla are simply stunning. He can’t speak but he is still full of personality. In fact he gives the best performance of the movie next to Cranston.

My only gripe about the action is that Edwards makes the strange choice to cut away from some of it. At first I thought it was a neat nod to the original films when one potentially epic battle is shown as a news story on one of the main characters televisions. But eventually it happens a few more times so that we can check in on the boring characters and their progress. Someone needs to tell Edwards that he has a bigger budget then his masterful 2010 film “Monsters”. He doesnt have to cut away from action when you have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend.

In the end I really enjoyed this picture. The 3D was sort of unnecessary but not too distracting. It is required viewing on the big screen because the large scale action actually look epic as opposed to seemingly constrained such as in last summer’s “Pacific Rim”.

Neighbours ***1/2

20140616-205844-75524631.jpg

“Neighbors” is the funniest movie of the year so far. I think I thought the same thing at this point last year when I saw “This Is The End”. Both movies starred Seth Rogan. This time he plays the husband to Rose Byrnes character. They are a young couple who just had a baby. When a Fraternity moves in next door, led by Zac Efron, a battle of wills ensues over the constant partying and noise.

The real humor comes from the characters themselves. Rogan and Bryne’s newly weds struggle with letting go of time before having kids. When the loud parties start happening next door they find themselves divided on whether or not they want to tell them to keep it down or if they should join in.

Efron and his crew struggle with the fact that their college years are almost over and real adulthood is about to start. Their goals are to throw such insane parties that they will be remembered as legends. By the end of the movie they are wishing that they had been working towards goals that actually matter.

The director is Nicholas Stoller, who directed some of the best comedies in recent years such as “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and “Get Him To The Greek”, stumbled a bit with his last flick “The Five Year Engagement”. This movie is a nice bounce back, proving that he is a very underrated comedic director. Big names like Todd Phillips of the “Hangover” series get all the attention even though he hasn’t turned out a funny movie in five years yet guys like Stoller are consistent yet are not a house hold name.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ***

20140505-000428.jpg

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2″ is the sequel to the 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man film series. I liked the first film a lot more than I thought I would. I was opposed to seeing our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man restarted so soon after the original trilogy. But it was an exciting superhero flick that focused on story and character over action and effects. The sequel takes a bit of a step back from that focus. It is an entertaining film but I found I could of used maybe less antagonists and more of a compelling story.

As the film opens we catch up with Spider-Man aka Peter Parker, played again by Andrew Garfield, as he is chasing down an armoured car being pursued by multiple police cars. Driving the vehicle is Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who Spidey experts know assumes the identity of the villain the Rhino. This causes Peter to be late for his own high school graduation ceremony where his girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), is giving a speech.

Peter and Gwen’s relationship is complicated. At the end of the first movie, Gwen’s Police chief father asked Peter to stay away from his daughter for her own safety just before he died. This moment haunts Peter through most of the movie. Garfield and Stone’s scenes together are the heart of this movie. They have magnetic chemistry together. Honestly at one point I thought that this should be an indie movie about their romance with no action in it. Can you imagine telling the studio that?

I think my favourite moment in the movie is when Peter and Gwen meet after breaking up. You can tell almost immediately just how much they love each other. The acting and dialogue here are just wonderful. Just when it is about to get truly romantic, Peter’s spider sense goes off. Talk about summing up their whole relationship perfectly. This whole sequence could of been lifted straight from the source material.

Spider-man then rushes off to face the likes of Electro, a villain made almost entirely out of electricity. He is played by Jamie Foxx in a performance that is good but not great due to being tragically underwritten. We meet him early on in the film as he encounters Spider-Man and immediately begins to idolize him. He is a lonely man who lives a quiet life of solitude when an accident with electric eels turns him in to a monster.

Also coming in to Peter’s life is an old friend he hasn’t seen since childhood, Harry Osborn played by Dane Dehaan. Harry’s father Norman, fonder of Oscorp, is dying. He informs Harry that he too is dying from the same disease. He becomes obsessed with Spider-Man by thinking that his blood will some how cure him. He eventually is rushed in to becoming the Green Goblin, so he can rumble with Spider-Man near the end of the film.

You can kind of see what I am getting at here? It is almost like the filmmakers were too bogged down with creating villains to eventually become the Sinister Six. There is just not enough screen time to develop them all properly. “Spider-Man 3″ is coming to mind.

Take for example the Rhino. Paul Giamatti plays the character and barely has any lines. He is apprehended at the beginning of the movie, only to be shoe horned in to the final scene as a teaser. This scene at the end is also the worst in the movie. Would the Rhino really stop terrorizing people because a little kid emerges from the crowd. And would that many people really stop and spectate a shoot out involving a giant mechanical suit and missiles? I doubt it.

The director is Mar Webb, who helmed the reboot from 2012. His distinct visual style really makes the movie a joy to watch visually. I did find that they were relying a little too much on CGI at some points during the action scenes but I guess that is a must when one of your characters is made of electricity. I just found he was hampered by a script that tries to include way too much.

My hope for the third film is that they hold off bringing out the Sinister Six. That is just too many villains too early. This series seems to be in too much of a rush all of a sudden. Slow down and tell an engaging story about one or maybe two villains as well as Peter Parker.

Transcendence **

20140504-232657.jpg

I can honestly say that I am quite surprised with how bad “Transcendence” is. The director is Wall Pfister, who was the cinematographer for every one of Christopher Nolan’s films. The cast is lead by Johnny Depp who is finally doing an original film that doesn’t involve pirates and is not directed by Tim Burton. So how did this film turn out so poorly?

For starters the screenplay starts with an intriguing setup only to end in a series of pointless action sequences and effects set pieces. Why tease us with interesting ideas and some real thought provoking science fiction only to everything boil down to shoot outs and fist fights?

The story involves a scientist, played by Depp, who is attempting to create a stand alone artificial intelligence. His hope is that this will advance medical technology by decades in the attempt to save human lives. When he is fatally wounded by an anti-technology group, his wife and trusted friend have his mind uploaded in to a computer. This could of resulted in a thriller that really asks questions about the dangers of technology. Look at the recent indie drama “Her” for a much better movie about artificial intelligence.

I say again, I was quite let down by this movie. The previews were intriguing and the cast and crew were top notch. I feel like the studio wanted a specific type of movie made. One that can make a quick buck on opening weekend. This is the result.

Joe ****

20140702-133817-49097428.jpg

“Joe” is the latest film from David Gordon Green, who is experiencing a career resurgence after crossing over in to mainstream comedies with some disastrous results. Last summer he came back to indie dramas with “Prince Avalanche” and now he puts together an intense drama with a searing performance from Nicolas Cage in “Joe”.

“Joe” is an absolutely gripping mix of friendship, violence and redemption. Taking place in the deep south, Cage portrays Joe, a hot tempered, hard working ex con who spends his days resisting the temptation of getting in to trouble. When a young kid (Ty Sheridan) comes looking for work he finds himself channeling his rage in to the role of a fierce protector who wants to save this young boy from his murderous father.

The performances are terrific but as with most of David Gordon Green’s films the locations play an important role. Together with his usual cinematographer Tim Orr, the film develops a unique visual style that is rich with authenticity in these off the grid backwoods areas. All of the characters homes and the places they spend time, which includes bars, brothels and wide open spaces, seem real. Time and poverty have both taken their toll. The town has almost become a third world country. The infrastructure has been neglected and nature has almost grown back through it all.

The journey and the story seem right at home with these locations and the characters. It is nice to slow down from big blockbuster movies and get to know some real people. Spend time listening to their conversations, their needs and their wants. Joe is somebody we all probably know in our own lives. He is trying to do right but his impulses and his upbringing constantly bring him into conflict.

I wonder how Cage and Green came together on this project. Cage is so erratic with his choices. When he partners with a truly talented director he can be one of the most magnetic actors working today. When he joins movies like “Drive Angry” and “Season Of The Witch” he becomes a parody and it is hard to watch. However it happened this actor and director were born to work together. I hope they can reunite again down the line.