Savages (2012)

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Two rich dope dealers run afoul of a Mexican cartel that wants to take over their business, and things really get kicked up a notch when the cartel kidnapped the dealers’ shared girlfriend. Savages offers an exciting premise and some excellent action, but it’s too often listlessly and unconvincingly acted to really hold one’s attention.

Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) have seen their little pot farm grown into a very lucrative business. Their not-a-third-wheel partner, O (Blake Lively) is a free spirit surfer girl who loves both of them, because that sort of thing happens in real life. And then one day the cartel from south of the border decided to horn in on their business, which exploits a particularly intense strain of the plant.

Representing the cartel, Lado (Benicio del Toro) and Esteban (Diego Catano) approach the, uh, mom-and-pop business with a proposal – join us, we get most of the profits, you get to live long and prosper, and so on. The boys are split about whether this is a good idea, as ex-soldier Chon wants to take the fight to the Mexicans and bookish Ben wants to maximize profits and minimize blood. While they dither on the offer, though, O is kidnapped by the cartel’s head honco, Elena (Salma Hayek).

This isn’t some A-Team-style action movies in which the good guys, a ragtag band of dudes with a lot of moxie and heart, take on an evil corporation of thugs. But it’s close. What follows isn’t really a precise plan or even a grunting, against-all-odds attack but rather a whimpering, half-assed rescue attempt that probably succeeds, if we’re being honest – even though O herself says in the first scene (in voice over) that she may very well be dead.

Taylor-Johnson, who’s grown up a tad since Kick-Ass, and Kitch are both pretty good, with neither playing a caricature more than a character. Lively’s O, although pretty and vivacious and such, seems half asleep by comparison.

Savages: **1/2

The Matador (2005)

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In The Matador, Pierce Brosnan plays a weary, boozy contract killer who just wants to be friends with Walter Mitty-like Greg Kinnear. Sounds like perfect casting, but the two leads don’t really mesh, and the movie plods along endlessly, halfheartedly throwing in a twist near the end that only slightly mitigates the dullness.

Julian Noble trots the globe, shooting, stabbing, and exploding those whom he’s paid to terminate. He’s not a likeable chap, this Julian. He likes his liquor strong and his girls young, if you know what I mean. After a job in Mexico City, Julian learns he may be on his way out of his amorphous organization; he then bumps into Danny Wright (Kinnear), a businessman who believes he’s just made a successful pitch to a local company. Julian comes off as kind of a rude jerk who may or not be telling the truth, but once he convinces (truthfully) Danny that he (Julian) is indeed a paid assassin, the two sort of become pals.

It’s a typical mismatched-buddies scenario – the loner and the married man, the odd duck and the straight arrow. Danny is married to Bean (Hope Davis), who becomes a little starstruck herself when she learns of Julian’s occupation. But what of Julian’s future? Will he soon be rubbed out by one of his own coworkers?

This seems like a role tailor made for Brosnan, kind of a down-on-his-luck James Bond, but for some reason the character is a nasty, tough-to-read creep. Is he sincere or a sociopath? Is he being funny or deadly serious? When he pulls the old messing-with-you trope once too often, you start to wonder what he’s all about – and you get no real satisfactory answers.

The twist is okay, but in even a decent thriller it would have been terrific. Here it’s just sort of there, as if the writers had realized they needed to tack on something a little off the beaten path and just kind of shoehorned it into the story. The Matador isn’t incomprehensible, it’s just maddeningly incoherent.

The Matador: **1/2

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

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The Devil Rides Out, also known as The Devil’s Bride (although there isn’t much riding, and the bride’s a minor character at best) is an above-average devil-worshipper movie, with the twist of the eminent Christopher Lee playing the good guy. It’s appropriately menacing and worthwhile.

Lee plays the Duc de Richleau (good name), who, along with Rex van Ryn (played by Leon Greene) is the ward of a certain Simon Aron (Patrick Mower). Rex and the Duc drop by Simon’s pad (it’s 1968, after all), only to discover that Simon’s throwing a party with 12 of his friends, all of whom seem a bit shady. One of the friends is Tanith Carlisle (Nike Arrighi), who catches ol’ Rex’s eye.

The Duc suspects that Simon has been recruited to join a Satan-worshipping cult (hence 13 at the party), and luckily for all of us, he knows a little of the black magic himself. So it’s a race to save the soul of Simon and of, naturally, Tanith from the evil clutches of the high priest, Mocata. Mocata is played by Charles Gray, who later would appear as Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever and as The Criminologist in the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he has a truly nefarious glare that he makes frequent use of. Lee, of course, also played a Bond villain – in The Man with the Golden Gun. Nice coincidence.

There’s sacrifices, mutilation, possession, kidnapping, mind control, astral projection. Hey, for a lesser-known Hammer film, it’s a pretty impressive production. For the first half of the movie, at least one person steadfastly doesn’t believe in devil worshippers, but in the second half everyone’s cool with the idea. They’d even buy into time travel or midget giraffes dealing Ecstasy. Wacky and weird, just not zany.

The Devil Rides Out: ***

Here Comes the Devil (2012)

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Here Comes the Devil, despite an unwieldy title, is appropriately creepy and tense, allowing viewers to immerse themselves in the plight of a couple that temporarily loses its two children while visiting Tijuana – only to find that the kids are now exhibiting some peculiar behavior.

Felix (Francisco Barreiro) and Sol (Laura Caro), after a day of sightseeing, allow their kids Adolfo and Sara to hike up a hill and do some exploring while their weary parents wait in a gas-station parking lot. The parents fall asleep, and when they awake it’s almost dark with no sign of the kids. The police are called, but because of the lack of light the search is put off until the morning. Felix and Sol blame each other and themselves and argue, suffering a sleepless night.

The next morning, though, good news: Adolfo and Sara have been found. They’re returned to their parents, but it soon becomes clear that the children have changed. They’re largely uncommunicative with their parents but have seemingly formed a stronger bond with each other. Around this time, Sol discovers some oddities about her daughter’s entry into puberty and becomes quite suspicious.

There’s a lot of atmosphere here and not an overwhelming amount of dialog (it’s in Spanish, with subtitles), both of which I consider pluses. What’s up with the kids? Is someone or something controlling them? Probably. Are they in danger? Very likely. Sol becomes more frantic with each revelation, and when she discovers someone who may have been on the hill with the children – she suspects molestation – she and Felix take matters into their own hands to resolve the issue. But do they have the right guy?

Caro, our protagonist, is aces high, and Barreiro is a fine match as the husband who just wants to put all of this madness behind them and be thankful his innocent children are back safe. Something’s sure amiss with Adolfo and Sara, but each step down the winding rabbit hole leads further into utter madness. It’s probably more serious than even molestation. Here Comes the Devil is just straight up frightening.

PS: I’ve seen this film compared favorably with Peter Weir’s 1975 classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, and I have to agree.

Here Comes the Devil: ***

751 – 22 Jump Street (***1/2)

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Yes! 22 Jump Street is even better than the original movie. Or the TV show, for that matter. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum have terrific chemistry, perhaps the best in comic cop movies since some guys named Gibson and Glover (over and over) were roaming the streets of LA. The laughs come fast and furious and are generally not of a PG nature, although apparently that was of no concern to the family of four behind me in the theater.

Officers Jenko (Tatum) and Schmidt (Hill) are now enrolled in college, trying to nail down the source of a new designer drug (again) that’s overtaking the campus. They remain in their high-school guises from the first film, mismatched brothers. Their handler, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), is sort of glad to see the boys again, since their previous success resulted in a huge budget increase. Which he exploits to the hilt. (I wonder if he ever did get that shark tank.)

Anyway, Jenko and Schmidt try to find out where the new drug WHYPHY (“Work hard – why? Play hard – why?) is coming from. Their only lead is a photo of one student buying it from another, with one of the students later winding up dead. Jenko pals around with the jocks, which include possible suspects Zook (Wyatt Russell, Kurt’s son) and Rooster (Jimmy Tatro), while Schmidt falls into the boho scene, meeting cute with Maya (Amber Stevens), to whom he develops a kind of liking.

For those of us who thought that the title sounded pretty lame, well, it’s better than “21 Jump Street 2,” right? And of course, this film being as self-aware as a film can be, there’s a reason – Jump Street HQ is now located across the street from the old place, since the Koreans wanted their church back. Makes sense.

Much of the plot does indeed follow that of the first film, but as Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) tells them, the boys should handle this case the same way they handled the high-school one. It’s what the brass wants! But the taking-down-the-bad-guys plot is only window dressing for the real problem, the conflict between the partners as they discover that they’ve become more different than they were in “high school.” Is it possible that they’ll need to go their separate ways in order to finish this case? Will this be the last case? Well, no, that’s not likely. But the first one is possible. Remember, in 21 Jump Street, somehow Schmidt was the cool guy and Jenko was the schlub who had to hang out with the AV guys (who, naturally saved the day). This time, not so much – Jenko is a BMOC, what with the being strong and apparently immune to alcohol and such. Schmidt is now the one with some doubts about their partnership, and that’s the real story behind the story. He can’t follow in Jenko’s path, or even walk alongside him, because people like the jocks don’t want him around. And suddenly Jenko sees his partner as a hindrance, someone preventing him from his true calling – football player.

Much mirth is made of the similarities between the duo’s partnership and a full-blown emotional relationship. At one point they even visit a psych professor (well, it’s to get info about a patient who had taken WHYPHY, but still) and wind up revealing more of their feelings than they may have intended.

It’s hard to imagine better casting for the roles of Jenko and Schmidt. Tatum and Hill appear to have been working together for decades, honing an act to impeccable heights, so good is their banter. But the fun doesn’t stop with them – Ice Cube is a terror as a father and a cop, Rob Riggle and Dave Franco happily reprise their roles from 21 Jump Street (the movie), there’s another cameo of a veteran of the “old” TV show, and both Amber Stevens and Jillian Bell (playing Maya’s roommate) are killer good. Also on hand is the usually oily Peter Stormare as, surprise, the bad guy.

For whatever reason, I’m much more inclined to laugh out loud at a movie while at home than when I’m at the theater, but I couldn’t stop laughing (or giggling, possibly when Jenko and Schmidt inadvertently take some of the designer drug). The movie was that funny. 22 Jump Street is definitely as good as the first, and for my money it’s a step up.

22 Jump Street: ***1/2

The Hill (1965)

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The Hill is a brutal film to watch. It stars a (relatively) young Sean Connery as he attempts to avoid being typecast as James Bond and features recognizable British actors in support. It’s a psychological thriller set in a prison camp for court-martialed British soldiers, a rugged, terrifying camp run by a ruthless sergeant-major, played by Harry Andrews.

Connery is Joe Roberts, in the klink for slugging a superior officer after refusing to (re)enter the field of battle (his squad was hopelessly outnumered and outflanked; see also Paths of Glory). Roberts is tossed in a cell with fellow cons George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), Jacko King (Ossie Davis), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson), who alternately resent and respect Roberts’ actions.

The hill of the title is a steep, sandy incline in the middle of the Sahara, where the camp’s located. Convicts are tasked with double-timing it up one side and down the other, carrying a loaded backpack and their kit, or duffel bag. And then back again. The hill is used as a way for RSM Wilson (Andrews) to break them, to make them into real soldiers again.

Trouble arises when Wilson’s second in command, Staff Sergeant Williams (Ian Hendry) badgers one of the convicts so relentlessly that the man dies, thus kicking the battle of wits between prisoner and gatekeeper to an entirely new level. And this is where we really begin to see the unvarnished war of man versus man, as Wilson and Williams strain to break not only Roberts but also his cellmates.

Connery is really fantastic as the strong-willed Roberts, and Wilson – who played plenty of authoritarian, stiff-backed British characters, is his equal. It’s good to see Connery in a movie that transcends his sex appeal and his association with a certain superspy. Filmed in stark black and white (as black and white tends to be), The Hill is near the apex of psychological war films.

The Hill: ***1/2

750 – The Odd Life of Timothy Green (***1/2)

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The Odd Life of Timothy Green is a beautiful, sweet story of a childless couple who reap the benefits – and unintended consequences – of wish fulfillment. It’s framed as a fantasy, but it is leavened with dollops of honesty, education, and wonder.

Jim (Joel Edgerton) and Cindy (Jennifer Garner) Green have been trying, trying, trying to have a baby. Their fertility doctor informs them that despite all of their efforts, the couple simply cannot conceive. Devastated, Cindy wants them to accept the facts and just move on, but Jim cannot let go. His coping mechanism is for each of them to write some attribute that they believe their child would have had (based on themselves) on pieces of notepaper, put the papers into a wooden box, and bury the box in the backyard garden. This they do, and during a highly unusual thunderstorm that night, they discover an unusual young boy in their house, muddy and wet – and with leaves on his lower legs.

His name is Timothy, and he calls Jim and Cindy “Mom” and “Dad.” At first, Jim and Cindy believe young Timothy to be a runaway – but the leaves on his legs and the big hole in their garden lead them to suspect otherwise. And so, after so much time spent anxiously wishing for a baby of their own, the couple is now thrust full speed into the realm of parenthood. And I do mean full speed, for the very next morning various family members arrive for an outdoor party that apparently our two adults have forgotten all about.

Through Timothy, we meet the gang. Jim’s dad Big Jim (David Morse) is the sort of smug, arrogant guy that most people take an instant dislike to; conversely, Cindy’s Aunt Mel (Lois Smith) and Uncle Bub (M. Emmet Walsh) are the very picture of a lovely older couple. Then there’s Cindy’s sister Brenda (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her husband Franklin (Ron Livingston), who happens to be Jim’s boss at the local pencil-manufacturing plant. Brenda and Franklin famously natter on about their overachieving three-kid brood, something that consistently rankles Cindy.

Timothy’s effect on everyone around him is noticeable. Much like Pollyanna, the glad girl, Timothy seems to make everyone happy, even the cranky sorts like Big Jim. But yes, he is a bit of an oddity, and poor Jim and Cindy are torn between raising a so-called normal child and allowing Timothy to be himself. That does sound treacly, like an Afterschool Special. But somehow, it’s not. We don’t know where Timothy came from. We don’t know why he has leaves on his legs and what they may signify. Those things aren’t important to this story, because this is really a tale about not having all of the answers and doing the best anyway. In other words, it’s about making mistakes and learning from them.

The movie also provides such a great perspective on being a parent (and I say this as a non-parent); Jim and Cindy are bewildered, beset by the ghosts of parents past and present. They try too hard, as one might expect from new parents. Never is this more evident than when Timothy finds himself on the school’s soccer team (coached by rapper Common). Yes, they become soccer parents. And Timothy is not some savior who magically makes everything come out just grand. He knows who or what he is, but he is not infallible. In fact, there are many, many things he doesn’t know (for example, how to swim).

I really appreciated the ending. Yes, it’s sad and bittersweet, but it’s so packed with emotion that the effect is very powerful indeed. Garner and Dianne Wiest, who plays Cindy’s boss, are both excellent, and young CJ Adams (seen in the most recent Godzilla adaptation) is stunning.

The Odd Life of Timothy Green: ***1/2

Goodbye World (it’s a movie)

Now this does look interesting. We’ve had plenty of end-of-the-world movies, but Goodbye World seems a bit different:

James and Lily live off the grid, raising their young daughter in a cocoon of comfort and sustainability. When a mysterious mass text ripples its way across the country, triggering a crippling, apocalyptic cyber attack, their home transitions from sheltered modern oasis to a fortress for the estranged old friends that show up at their door for protection and community.

749 – The Campaign (**1/2)

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The Campaign is an uneven slapstick comedy about two polar-opposite candidates in a North Carolina district. Zach Galifianakis and Will Ferrell star as Cam Brady and Marty Huggins, respectively, one vying for an uncontested fifth term and the other a tourism director. Jay Roach, who directed the Austin Powers movies, is at the helm here.

Cam Brady is a slick ladies’ man, but when he accidentally leaves a (shall we say) ribauld message on the answering machine of a devout family, his backers the Motch brothers think it’s time some new blood was sent to Washington (on their behalf). Enter Marty Huggins, who displays none of the alpha-male characteristics one might expect from a politico, as his dad Raymond (Brian Cox) is an old hand at politics and a friend of the Motch brothers. Marty enters the race mainly to impress his jaded dad, who’s always favored his other son Clay over Marty.

Marty’s quickly in over his head, but help arrives in the name of Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott), who’s sent by the Motches to be Marty’s campaign manager. Wattley soon has rearranged Marty’s life (new dogs, new furniture, new wall hangings, new haircut for his wife) and has instilled confidence and even some ferocity into Marty’s normally placid personality. This helps Marty in the first candidates’ debate.

The Motch boys (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) are patterned directly after the Koch brothers, real-life political cronies, with the same business-first mentality. The brothers’ aim is to place someone in Congress who they can get favors from, such as tax breaks and other incentives for their various factories.

This is not a shrinking-violet movie. Whole lot of profanity, a lot of it funny and some of it even in good taste. The story may seem a little mean spirited to some – the trailer famously showed Ferrell’s character punching a baby, sort of a no-no in politics – and truthfully there are times when the nastiness is a little over the top. Galifianakis and Ferrell are good enough to pull it off, but they can’t work miracles. That said, there are some really funny scenes, including the debates, the fake commercials (which escalate in hostility), and really any interaction between the stars.

But the movie is also often too maudlin and melodramatic; too much that could have been funny or at least sweetly sincere is instead blown up, stretching our credulity even further. One thing about this movie certainly does ring true, and that is that Big Money can win a campaign.

The Campaign: **1/2

748 – Escape from Tomorrow (**1/2)

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On the final day of his family’s vacation at Disney World, a man finds his sanity rapidly slipping away. Escape from Tomorrow, filmed guerrilla style at the actual Disney resort in Florida, is part marital melodrama, part horror show, and part surreal oddity. The movie is as tough to explain as it is to be disregarded.

Roy Abramsohn plays Jim, father of two, who learns that his boss is laying him off. Jim hides this information from his wife Emily (Elena Schuber), his son Elliot, and his daughter Sara. There’s already tension afoot between Jim and Emily, possibly a by-product of a busy vacation with two kids. Jim begins to have macabre visions while the family visits the attractions, and he and Elliot split from mother and daughter to ride on Buzz Lightyear at Elliot’s behest – but, unfortunately, the ride shuts down, after a long wait, owing to a technical malfunction. Trying to make the disappointment up to Elliot, Jim takes him on Space Mountain, a scary ride by Disney standards, and Elliot gets sick. This leads to more tension (and a fight) with Emily.

All the while, Jim notices a couple of French teens who occasionally look at him and giggle. Becoming more and more obsessed with the girls, he drags one kid or another around the park to follow the teens around. But the Happiest Place on Earth is slowly becoming more and more sinister to Jim, as he encounters the (fictional, probably) seedy underbelly of the park, including costumed princesses who make money on the side, ex-princesses who are more than what they seem, and even secrets beneath EPCOT Center.

What’s going on? Is Jim imagining things? It’d be easy to suppose that, but there are too many weird things that he encounters that his kids also see, so the audience is left to presume that these experiences are real. On the one hand, we have the understandable friction between husband and wife near the end of a stressful vacation, but on the other we have some horrific tragedies that seem almost out of context, intentionally juxtaposed with a veneer of joy and gladness. Who are the teens, anyway? Who are these Disney princesses? Forget about tugging on Superman’s cape; this is like watching Mickey in a knife fight with Grumpy.

Director Randy Moore took care to de-emphasize the Disney brand, although he left “Spaceship Earth” and “Space Mountain” intact, and various costume critters abound. The “It’s a Small World” ride is transformed into something else, probably because Moore sure wasn’t going to pay for the rights to use the song. And, unlike most of the rides, it has a prominent role. But for the most part, the movie was filmed furtively, on handheld cameras and with scripts stored on iPhones an the like. The choice to shoot in black and white, too, lends a whiff of realism to the proceedings.

I like the premise, this madness set against a prototypical, nuclear, all-American family, but the execution doesn’t always work. Jim is thrown into situations that at first do seem compelling but ultimately don’t seem to propel the plot much – other than to confuse and confound the audience, anyway. Escape from Tomorrow thus feels like a missed opportunity (although with a great open-ended conclusion), with a story that lacks both cohesion and context; Jim’s descent into madness is somewhat undercut by the aimlessness of the plot. Although we can empathize with some of Jim’s issues (new unemployment, a witch of a wife, bratty kids, and other stress forms), the bizarre environment that makes up the bulk of the movie forces too much distance between the characters and the audience.

Escape from Tomorrow: **1/2

747 – Godzilla (***)

This is what happens when you have too many Red Bulls. Image from
This is what happens when you have too many Red Bulls. Image from
You know, I did like the original 1954 Godzilla, but part of me saw it more as a tongue-in-cheek monster movie of the time than as a straight-up horror film. And when the oh-so-American version came out in 1998, I saw that one as almost a comedy, and not in a good way. But this one? This new version of the oft-told tale is downright terrifying, combining a plausible origin with sterling special effects and not one but three really big monsters.

Our story begins in the Philippines in 1999. Scientists are called to a mine in which a huge skeleton has been unearthed; within this skeleton are two pods – one broken open, with a trail leading to the sea. Not long after, unusual seismic activity is recorded at the Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan. The plant’s operator, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sends his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche) and her team down into the core to check the sensors. But then there’s this big explosion, and Sandra and the other scientists in the core are trapped. Publicly, the disaster, which affects all of Japan, is attributed to a 6.3-magnitude earthquake.

Some 15 years later, the Brodys’ son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a Navy bomb-disposer guy, to use the technical term, and he’s a bit estranged from his dad, who’s become obsessed with finding out the true reason for the so-called earthquake. Shortly after Ford returns home to San Francisco to be with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam, he learns that Papa Joe has been arrested in Japan for trespassing on the grounds of the old, now-quarantined plant. Joe insists that there was no earthquake, that an electromagnetic pulse was behind the disaster. And he may be right, because while Ford is in Japan collecting his dad, there’s another incident, and a gigantic winged creature flees the scene. No, it’s not Godzilla, but he’s around somewhere.

Fret not; Godzilla does show up, and when he does it’s a real heart stopper. He’s not King Kong tall, he’s more like ten or eleven King Kongs tall. He’s Kanye’s ego tall. He’s Donald Sterling’s racism tall. He’s a big fella, is what I’m getting at here. Anyway, he and Winged Monster (called a MUTO, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) are soon joined by another creepy dude, who’s like Winged Monster although without wings. They both sort of look like the monster from Cloverfield, come to think of it, but much more realistic.

Would it be spoiling things if I noted that all three beat the heck out of each other? Probably not. It’s also not a spoiler to note that the armed forces attempt to use everything from handguns to tank ordnance on our friendly neighborhood monsters, to little avail. Nuclear weapons are mentioned.

This is such a visceral movie. There’s little in the way of shaky-cam cinematography, and you almost never get a full-on look at any of the monsters. This is good, because it highlights how damn huge these guys are; if you or I were there, we wouldn’t be able to fully comprehend their colossal stature without moving back, oh, a couple hundred miles. All of this makes the movie feel very much real and as if you’re very much in the middle of things, 3D or not. The CGI is worlds better than it was for Roland Emmerich’s 1998 dud.

There are plenty of jaw-dropping moments of terror, and there are a multitude of on-screen deaths, PG-13 rating or not. There’s always this lingering feeling of being trapped. After all, you can’t go into the water (Godzilla swims!), and you can’t go into the city (Godzilla smash!), and you can’t even go into the mountains, because these guys are tall, tall, tall. How tall? Grande from Starbucks tall. So you’re trapped, and you can’t figure out how to stop them, since bullets don’t work.

Turns out it’s not complicated, but I’ll let you see for yourself on that score. Anyway, although I watched the 3D version of this, I don’t think the 3D added much to the experience. It didn’t take away from it (that is, it wasn’t distracting), but it did seem needless in retrospect.

But the bottom line for me is that Godzilla is a lot less campy and much, much scarier than the version from olden times (1954). Think World War Z without zombies or the ability to zip around from continent to continent. Okay, so technically here we move between North America and Asia, but you get the idea.

Godzilla: ***

746 – Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (***1/2)

Think this guy has enough flair? Image from
Think this guy has enough flair? Image from
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, with its mostly self-explanatory title, is sweetly charming, expertly acted by Keira Knightley and Steve Carell. It is a rare film that manages paradoxically to be beautiful and fearful, sincere but not maudlin.

The world is ending. A huge asteroid is hurtling through space on a course with Earth in three weeks’ time, and a Space Shuttle mission to destroy it has just failed. As the film begins, the news of that failure is announced on the news. Dodge (Carell), a mild-mannered insurance salesman, and his wife Linda (Nancy Carell, Steve’s real-life wife) hear the news while sitting in a car. As Dodge sighs despondently, Linda suddenly opens the door and bolts, and that’s the last we see of her.

All around Dodge, people react differently to their impending demise. There are suddenly more available parking spaces at his office. Traffic is even more riotous and aggrieving. His friends Diane (Connie Britton) and Warren (Rob Corddry) throw a no-rules party, complete with heroin, little kids drinking booze, and no attachments. Diane’s attempting to set Dodge up with her friend Karen (Melanie Lynskey), but Dodge simply isn’t interested – not in the hedonism, not in anything.

And then one day, Dodge finds a woman outside his window, on the fire escape. She’s Penny (Knightley), his upstairs neighbor, and she’s hanging out while her boyfriend clears his stuff out of the apartment. She enters the apartment, and she and Dodge strike up a conversation; shortly thereafter, Penny is fast asleep (she’s described herself as a hypersomniac).

This is not some quirky meet-cute movie. Dodge’s poker face belies a real sense of grief – his wife, his absent family, his lack of friends. But then, while sifting through mail that had accidentally been sent to Penny’s apartment, Dodge finds a letter from his high school sweetheart (whom he’d never really gotten over) indicating her desire to reconnect with him. This changes everything. This gives the man a reason to live, at least for three more weeks. And when violence breaks out in the city, he – and Penny – make a run for it, heading for the sweetheart’s parents’ house (no return address on the letter’s envelope).

This is also not some mismatched travel-companions movie. Both Penny and Dodge are vulnerable, humanistic, and alive with passions of self-doubt and honesty. And while they are on their quest and get to know each other, the signs of the impending apocalypse are never far away. There is no misapprehension about the chances of survival. Humanity will cease to be, in a short time. It’s important for Dodge to get the closure he wants, and it is important for Penny to find a way back to her family, in England (the movie is set in the Northeast US).

Carell gives an atypically tender performance that I think may have been overlooked by critics and audiences alike. Dodge is not a hero, grimly determined to beat the odds, but he is also not some spineless pushover. He’s simply a genuine character brought to multifaceted life by a tremendously gifted actor. Knightley, too, is a real treat as the well-meaning Penny, trying to do her best by Dodge in his quest to find his beloved. Both performances are powerful. And although the approaching asteroid is kept in the metaphorical background, its existence permeates almost every scene, lending a strong air of terror.

But far and away, this is much less a sci-fi movie than a movie about opening hearts, breaking down emotional walls, and being happy. Director Lorene Scafaria easily trumps her earlier films, Whip It and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist with a moving, emotionally packed film.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World: ***1/2

745 – X-Men: Days of Future Past (***1/2)

X-Men: Days of Future Past sort of blew me away. And here’s the kicker – you don’t need to have seen the previous movies in the series to understand what’s going on. There’s an unerring blend of past and present characters, real heart-in-your-throat tension, and stunning effects. Yeah, so I sort of liked it a little bit.

I don’t mean to fawn, but sometimes it’s appropriate. This is a great movie. In a nutshell, here’s your story. It’s sometime in the future (2029? not sure). The Sentinels, robots built with the sole purpose of eradicating all mutants, are on the rampage, tracking said mutants down and slaughtering them, full stop. In fact, they’ve become so advanced that when a mutant defends against/attacks a Sentinel, that mutant’s powers are absorbed by that Sentinel. Get it? It’s a bad scene.

Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and other assorted X people have holed up in the middle of nowhere, awaiting their doom. Xavier believes that the only way to stop the war on mutants (and on sympathetic humans, by the way, in case you missed the analogy) is to travel back in time to prevent the creation of the Sentinels in 1973. Now, Professor X wants to be sent back (don’t worry, Kitty Pryde is on the job), but because of the long time period between ’73 and the present, Pryde thinks the journey would snap even the Professor’s mind. Instead, they opt to send Wolverine back, because he’s essentially unchanged from 1973 (more-or-less ageless, really) and would therefore adjust better to the trip. And so back he goes.

A solo, rogue mission by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), in an effort to destroy Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels, merely gave the public and the government cause to turn on the mutants, thus sparking the war. So: Wolverine is to locate Mystique and persuade her to give up her cause, and he won’t be able to do so without the help of…the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Aye, there’s the rub, huh? Older, wiser Magneto regrets fighting Charles Xavier all those years, but younger, angrier Magneto isn’t so shrewd. (They’re just like people!)

So there’s your setup. Young Magneto is being held secretly about 100 stories below the Pentagon in a super-ultra-mega-maximum security cell for the murder of…well, never mind. Young Xavier, on the other hand, is hiding out at his School for Gifted Youngsters, which no longer is a school nor houses youngsters, except for Beast, who helps his mentor faithfully. Thus the movie unites not only good mutants and bad mutants but younger and older versions of themselves, more or less. And because of the trippy time shenanigans, you could possibly see familiar mutants, from movies other than the First Class one. Sounds like this would make for a crowded cast, but the action centers around the younger Magneto and Xavier, Mystique, Wolverine, and the younger Beast (Nicholas Hoult).

It feels so good to have Bryan Singer back behind the wheel. The story flows in sync with the dazzling, but not distracting, effects, as if a steady-handed auteur was in charge. This feels like the most authentic and personal X-Men film to date, and I (yeah, yeah) liked each of the others. And heaven forfend if I bust out a spoiler, but you know what they say about time-travel movies: they can change things, man.

X-Men: Days of Future Past: ***1/2

Independent reviews, on account of I don't get paid.

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