Sunday, May 31, 2015

Film Review: Mrs. Doubtfire

"Mrs. Doubtfire"  *** (out of ****)

Robin Williams engages in comedy hi-jinks as a recently divorced father who comes up with a scheme in order to see his three children every day in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (1993).

After the sad news of the death of Robin Williams last year, back in August, so many people turned to many of his comedies, as a reminder of Mr. Williams' comedy talent, but, this early 90s comedy, seems to hold a special place in many people's heart. It wasn't until recently I had the opportunity to re-watch this comedy and appreciate the laughs Mr. Williams left behind for audiences.

Upon its initial release in theaters, "Mrs. Doubtfire" grossed more than $200 million dollars in the U.S. alone and more than $400 million world-wide. Although the movie doesn't work up to the levels of cinematic art, audiences and some movie critics (sheep) were able to dole praise out to Mr. Williams and offer the final verdict that it is Mr. Williams and his comedy star power, that makes "Mrs. Doubtfire" worth watching. In her original review in the New York Times, movie critic Janet Maslin wrote "Mr. Williams remains this film's main and only real attraction."

Who else but Robin Williams could have played this role? Think of the comedy actors of the time, who could match Mr. Williams almost maniac level of high energy? Who could match his vocal impressions? Or his ability for physical comedy? You may find someone who possessed one or two of these attributes but not all three. Phil Hartman, for example, was great at impressions but physical comedy was not his strong suite. Billy Crystal is funny and has a sharp wit but he wasn't as "fast" as Mr. Williams.

Although the source material was a British novel, entitled "Madame Doubtfire" written by Anne Fine, published in 1987, it seems like a perfect vehicle for Mr. Williams, as if it was written specifically with him in mind.

There are moments in "Mrs. Doubtfire" you suspect Mr. Williams was given carte blanche. The movie tries to accommodate Mr. Williams comedy strong suites. As Daniel, Mr. Williams plays a voice-over actor. In the first scene of the movie we see Daniel playing the voice of cartoon characters for a television show. First, this makes the audience think of the Disney animated movie "Aladdin" (1992), for which Williams also did voice-over work as the Genie character. Secondly, what this accomplishes, is it gives Mr. Williams the chance to do vocal impressions. There is a montage in "Mrs. Doubtfire" where Daniel is at an employment agency looking for a job. He tries to demonstrate his ability for voices doing impressions of Ronald Reagan, The Marx Brothers and Humphrey Bogart among others. It is a montage that has found itself in other comedies Mr. Williams has starred in such as "Father's Day" (1997), which I like more than audiences give credit for, and even "Aladdin", which offered him great creative freedom.

While one can still offer these praises for Mr. Williams, "Mrs. Doubtfire" is still something of a mixed-bag. Did I laugh watching this movie? Yes. I certainly did. I would say, for me, there were about three or four big laughs and a few chuckles. Does the movie try to add sentimentality and attempt to make some type of commentary on divorce? Yes but rather clumsily. The approach is un-even. While the comedy aspects fare better than the sentimental scenes, the comedy does have that sit-com vibe to it. I could, rather plausibly, see everything that happens in this movie as season one of a television show.

And finally, for as good as Mr. Williams may be in this movie, does anyone else really stand out? Yes some can argue Mara Wilson, who plays the youngest daughter Natalie is very cute. She was also in the remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994). Ladies might say Pierce Brosnan as Stu, a new love interest for Miranda (Sally Field), the ex-wife of Daniel (Williams), is a nice piece of eye candy but in the end what does it matter? When we think of "Mrs. Doubtfire" even 22 years later, the first thing that jumps into our mind is Robin Williams. That is kind of what hurts "Mrs. Doubtfire" from being a great comedy. It is little more than a star vehicle for Williams. Imagine what would have happened if detail was given to the other characters, at least the Miranda character. You could have had another "Tootsie" (1982), a comedy which has become as revered as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and has established in a place in the mainstream as an important American comedy. That movie scored 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture.

The basic premise of the plot is Daniel and Miranda Hillard divorce after Miranda says Daniel is an adult child. He has not grown up which always makes Miranda "the bad guy" in the eyes of her children. Daniel, Miranda feels, does not share in parental responsibility and after 14 years of marriage she wants out. Daniel however cannot accept this. Not because he loves Miranda, the movie actually doesn't become a comedy about Daniel wanting to win back his wife, but Daniel cannot fathom the idea of spending time away from his children. That is the most difficult part of the divorce.

So, when Miranda, a working mom, places an ad for a caretaker, for her children, Daniel sees this as his opportunity to disguise himself as a elderly English nanny named Mrs. Doubtfire and apply for the job. With the help of his brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein), a make-up artist, Daniel will now be able to spend time with his children, even if the children are not aware of it.

Like "Toostie", "Mrs. Doubtfire" shows Daniel becoming a better father and a better man by being a woman. He learns to take on responsibility, hold a job, create a stable home for his children, he learns to cook and clean and discipline his children. He learns to find the balance between having fun with his children and knowing when to be "the parent", the person that must enforce rules like time to do your homework. And that seems to be one of the main points of the movie. Seeing Daniel's maturity as a character. The lessons he learns as "Mrs. Doubtfire" and a final commentary on divorce and how children should never feel they were to blame. The final commentary on children's place in divorce seemed a bit too strong and goes on too long. It seems too "weepy" and tries to tie everything into a nice bow. It comes across too forced.

"Mrs. Doubtfire" in the end I feel has more scenes that work then don't, but it is a close race. This isn't a great movie in my opinion, it is a nice vehicle for Robin Williams, but that doesn't mean this is a classic comedy. Quite frankly I am surprised as how well the movie seems to have aged. Back in 1993, when I first saw this movie, I would not have thought the movie would have been remembered 22 years later. Children who grew up with this movie seem to really enjoy it, so I can't argue that but "Mrs. Doubtfire" is a good movie, a harmless diversion worth some laughs, but attempts to call it more than that I feel are over playing their hand and allowing their own sentimentality towards the movie to interfere with their judgement.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Film Review: Batman & Robin

"Batman & Robin"  ** (out of ****)

There is a new Batman in town and the cape crusader must protect Gotham City from freezing over in the fourth installment of the "Batman" series, "Batman & Robin" (1997).

"Batman & Robin" was directed by Joel Schumacher, who had directed the previous "Batman" movie, "Batman Forever" (1995). At its initial time of release some "fan boys" and "Batman" enthusiast felt Schumacher was a poor choice to direct a "Batman" movie, especially when you consider Tim Burton directed "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) and the approval those movies were greeted with from fans.

What many found so appealing about Burton's "Batman" was its attempt to tell a dark, adult story. Burton's "Batman" was about two disturbed men dealing with their psychological trauma, pitted against one another. It had a great visual style and used Gotham City as a visual metaphor into the mind set of its two lead characters, Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Joker (Jack Nicholson).

In my review for "Batman Returns" I said Burton has injected more humor into the story and given it a sexual vibe with the Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) character. I still recommended that movie but with Joel Schumacher at the helm the "Batman" franchise would continue to move into this campy, humorous direction instead of a more serious approach, examining Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego.

"Batman Forever" was greeted positively by some critics, Chicago Tribune and TV critic Gene Siskel among them, and audiences. The movie grossed more than $180 million in the United States alone, which was more than the $162 million "Batman Returns" grossed. Of course, box-office success or lack thereof, does not nor should not, reflect the quality of a movie and its artistic merit. However, I mention it to show the excitement and support the movie received. Today audiences look down on "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin", so I would like to put things into perspective.

"Batman & Robin" however was always considered the weakest of Warner Brothers original attempt at this franchise. At its time of release I thought the movie was an embarrassment. An ill-conceived mess. I re-watched "Batman & Robin" recently and while I don't think it is a very good movie it was not the disgrace I remember it being.

In "Batman & Robin" a new actor would play the caped crusader and millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne/Batman. This time around it would be George Clooney, who still hadn't quite made it as a box-office draw. Some were questioning his judgement in leaving the wildly popular television show "ER". Clooney even postponed the opportunity to play the Green Hornet, a role he accepted at first, which caused the project to be shelved until years later when Seth Rogen would disgrace the character.

Returning would be Chris O' Donnell as Dick Grayson / Robin, a role he played in "Batman Forever", Michael Gough as Alfred and Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon. Also joining the cast would be Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl and Jeep Swenson as Bane.

Schumacher and the crew seem to have been inspired by the 1966 television show starring Adam West as Batman. And that is the main problem viewers had with this movie. Like the 1960s TV show the movie is too campy, filled with too many sexual innuendos and double entendres. The movie makes a weird decision to create Batman and Robin's rubber costumes as anatomically correct. The movie goes for cheap laughs by having nipples on the costumes and having close-ups of the character's buttocks.

The movie lacks human emotion and dimensional characters. It has a lot of action scenes but somehow is boring to watch. It feels too long. It lacks suspense. The viewer doesn't accept Mr. Freeze or Poison Ivy as a real threat to Batman and Robin and so the viewer goes from sequence to sequence never fearing the dynamic duo may face their end.

Granted the movie tries to hits on themes of Batman's legacy and deals with themes of family and loyalty, it all amounts to nothing because of the un-even tone of Akiva Goldsman's script. He also wrote "Batman Forever" and would go on to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for the Ron Howard movie, "A Beautiful Mind" (2001). For every attempt at something meaningful in "Batman & Robin" it is proceeded by three scenes of utter silliness.

Like the previous "Batman" movies, "Batman & Robin" gives a lot of screen-time to the villains. Unlike "Batman" or "Batman Returns" this movie doesn't go through great lengths to explain their origins. Poison Ivy is explained in one scene and Mr. Freeze through Batman's voice-over.

Mr. Freeze was a renowned doctor, who in an attempt to find a cure for his wife's disease, was involved in a freak accident which left his body dependent upon freezing temperatures to survive. Poison Ivy, was a botanist known as Pamela Isley, who is working towards creating mutant plants, with the plan of helping nature fight back against a human society which is destroying its land. She falls victim to her plants and toxins and is transformed into Poison Ivy.

Schwarzenegger plays Mr. Freeze for laughs, which lessens an audience's ability to view him as a threat. In one scene Mr. Freeze is watching the classic stop-motion animated Christmas movie "The Year Without A Santa Claus" (1974) as he listens to the Snow Miser sing his theme song, conducting his henchmen to sing along. The character keeps saying phrases like "chill out" and consistently makes puns with a "cold" reference.

Uma Thurman, at times, provides her character with a accent much like Mae West, as she tries to lure men into kissing her poisonous lips. She also tries to pit Batman and Robin against each other, as each man believes Poison Ivy is in love with him.

There are some nice production designs but Gotham City is no longer an important visual element to the story. The movie looks like a cartoon, which was clearly Schumacher's intention, however it was a bad move. Batman shouldn't be funny. That doesn't mean the movie as a whole cannot have moments of humor, but, the tone of the movie should be able to address more serious themes. The real issue deals with a more fundamental problem; how does Mr. Schumacher view Batman as a character? He believes, as this movie and "Batman Forever" would suggest, the material should be more tongue-in-cheek. The identity issues and brooding nature of Bruce Wayne should be abandoned. But, in large part I would believe, that's what makes Batman an interesting character.

In fact, if audiences want to see a movie treat Batman as a serious character, besides the Tim Burton movies which proceeded this, I would also suggest viewers watch the animated Batman movie, "Mask of the Phantasm" (1993), which was a spin-off of the acclaimed "Batman: The Animated Series". Even though it is an animated movie it actually treats Batman and his origins with more respect than this live action movie and takes its story more serious.

George Clooney also doesn't fit in the title role. If anything he makes for a good Bruce Wayne, but, Clooney is no action movie star. Fight scenes as Batman are not his foray.

At one time viewers wanted their superhero movies to have a bit of camp to them. It was supposed to feel like a live comic book with nice visuals, a bit of over-acting, especially from the villain, and exciting fight scenes. Today though audiences want something different from their superhero movies. They want the movies to take place in a world which resembles our own. They want a serious tone. They want the movies to examine the psyche of the characters. In other words, once upon a time a movie like "Batman & Robin" could please some portions of the audience today however the movie is a disappointment.

"Batman & Robin" was such a disappointment that Warner Brothers scraped plans for another entry into the series. Years passed until the entire Batman franchise would be given a re-boot from director Christopher Nolan who would direct "Batman Begins" (2005) and two more "Batman" movies which audiences responded kindly too.

"Batman & Robin" is a failed attempt to breathe life into the "Batman" franchise. It lacks a consistent tone, believable characters, suspense and drama. And even if we accept it on its own terms, its not funny.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Film Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

"X-Men: Days of Future Past"  *** (out of ****)

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014) is the X-Men movie I had hoped the first "X-Men" (2000) movie would have been.

I have been terribly slow coming around to comic book movies. I completely disregarded them ever since the movie studios started releasing them on a daily basis, to the public's delight, with the release of the first "X-Men" movie. The success of that movie brought with it an avalanche of superhero themed movies including, "Spider-Man" (2002), which spawned several sequels and eventually a re-boot series of movies, "Hulk" (2003), which was also re-booted, "Iron Man" (2008) and two sequels, so far, "Captain America" (2011), Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy" and two "Avenger" movies.

I initially disliked nearly all of them, but, for the past few years I have tried to make amends and re-watch some of these movies a second time and give others a first viewing. There are some I don't like such as "X-Men", "Iron Man 2" (2010) and three and "Daredevil" (2003) but I have stumbled upon some I have liked such as "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012), which I placed on my top ten list of 2012, and most recently "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014). And now to that list we may add "X-Men: Days of Future Past".

My problem with "X-Men" was I felt there were too many mutants which weren't given enough screen time to explain their origins. As someone who doesn't read comic books and therefore I am not familiar with these characters, the movie seemed to glance over too much and not explain its characters and the idea behind X-Men. My suggestion in that review was to limit the mutant characters, explain their background stories, and end the movie with the suggestion the X-Men, as a group,has been started. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" nearly does just that and it truly helped me, as a viewer, understand the X-Men and this Marvel Universe being created. For me "X-Men Days of Future Past" serves as a sequel to "X-Men", though I understand that was not the intention. This movie was meant to be a sequel to two other movies in the X-Men series, which I have not seen. But, having seen both movies recently helped me understand characters much better.

In "X-Men: Days of Future Past" we learn the future is a bleak place for mutants. They are being killed off by Sentinels, robots created to recognize a mutant's power and make themselves immune to it, rendering the mutant helpless and incapable of defending itself.

The Sentinels were created by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who initially had difficulty convincing congress that the next great threat facing not only America but the world after the Vietnam War, would be mutants. Mutants, congress believe, are peaceful. If mutants do exist, they have not harmed humans so far. They mainly live in the shadows. They keep to themselves, not wanting to be exposed and shun from society. As a result, Dr. Trask's program is not given funding. But, when a mutant called Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) kills Dr. Trask, the government now fears mutants and sees them not only as harmful but a possible government threat. Mystique is captured and experimented on. She has the ability to change her appearance to anyone or anything. Her DNA is needed to be used in the Sentinels.

This all happened in 1973 and brings us to the modern day as mutants are unable to survive. If only there was some way to go back in time and stop Mystique from ever killing Dr. Trask and preventing the Sentinels from being used. But there is a way! We learn from Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) of a way to send someone back in time. Kitty has the ability to do this but she can only send someone back a few days, possibly a month. To send someone back further in time may cause harm to their body. Because of this Professor X, as he is known, cannot go back to 1973 to stop Mystique, who was at one time his friend. Instead Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent because one of his powers, besides claws emerging from his knuckles, is his ability to rapidly heal himself. He would be able to withstand any damage which occurs to his body through time travel.

Wolverine must now find a young Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbinder), convince them to join forces, and help him find Mystique and prevent her assassination of Dr. Trask.

Yes, it may all sound silly but we must remember we are dealing with mutants and superheroes here. You walk into a movie like this and have to suspend believably and accept the movie on its own terms. You can't question the accuracy of events. Because even if superheroes weren't involved it is still a time travel story. If you are going to question this movie on its science then I also suggest questioning "Back to the Future" (1985) and its sequels. Those movies have quite a following as well and those fans seemed to have accepted the merits of that trilogy.

But that is what makes me like "X-Men: Days of Future Past". Like "Back to the Future" the movie presents everything as realistic. It follows it's own logic and creates a world the audience can believe in. Everyone plays their parts as real characters, facing real issues. Characters caught in complex moral dilemmas. All of these characters have something at stake. That creates an interest in the plot and keeps you watching until the end.

The source material for this movie comes from the comic book "The Uncanny X-Men" and a storyline published in 1981 called "Days of Future Past" in which it is Kitty Pryde who travels back in time to acquire the help of X-Men to assist in preventing Mystique from assassinating a U.S. senator. What some may find interesting is the story takes place in the future of 2013.

I did not know any of this prior to watching this movie nor have I seen all of the seven movies in this series but in the end it doesn't matter because I was able to follow the events of this movie and knew some of the characters. For me "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a stand alone movie. In fact maybe it is the movie you should watch before watching any of the other movies in this series.

One of the reasons I enjoyed "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" so much was because I was surprised the movie made a social commentary on issues currently going on in society, namely government surveillance. That, I felt, gave the movie something extra. The first "X-Men" movie I thought was making a subtle commentary on illegal immigration. "X-Men: Days of Future Past", one can argue, comments on America's military-industrial complex. This movie takes place at the end of the Vietnam War. As that war is coming to an end Dr. Trask is trying to start another one with a new enemy. America always needs a enemy. The military always needs society to face a threat.

Some viewers have also tried to make the argument that "X-Men" is also a parable for the civil rights movement. Outsiders trying to find their place in society and fighting for acceptance. Some believe Professor X is a Dr. Martin Luther King type of character, believing through peace mutant will find acceptance and Magneto a Malcolm X type of character who believes a more forceful, perhaps violent approach, is necessary.

That is a little heavy-handed to me. I don't see that in these movies but do accept the idea the movies do make the argument for living in a world were all class of people are accepted.

What bothers me though is why do we need superhero movies to make these statements? Why can't Hollywood make movies about humans that discuss these issues? And, do fanboys and teenagers that see these movie acknowledge some of the social themes brought up?

When I first saw "X-Men" I thought what a fascinating character Mystique is and it was a shame the movie did not provide us with her background story. It was one of the reasons I didn't like the first movie. There is still a lot about this character I would like to know but what is so wonderful about this movie is it allows this character to be an integral part of the story and allow some background. The character was first played by Rebecca Romijn in three X-Men movies and played by Lawrence in the previous "X-Men: First Class" (2011), which I have not seen.

The other interesting character in the X-Men series is Wolverine, who has been played by Jackman in all seven movies. Wolverine has a very interesting storyline that has not been clearly explained in any of the X-Men films I have seen. Wolverine though, from what we can tell, was experimented on by the military. He has seen much in his life and is a troubled soul. There are a lot of personal demons this character must overcome.

The performances however by all the actors are quite good. All the characters seem believable. The actors are able to flesh out these mutants and give them dimension. They are all presented as people first. People with background stories and clearly defined motivates.

This movie also marks the return of Bryan Singer as a director for the X-Men series. Singer directed the first two movies and is scheduled to direct the next movie in the series "X-Men: Apocalypse", which will be released next year.

At its worst "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a enjoyable Hollywood big-budget popcorn action/sci-fi movie. At its best it is one the highlights in the superhero genre.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Film Review: X-Men

"X-Men"  ** (out of ****)

I remember when this live action movie adaptation of the popular Marvel comic book series, directed by Bryan Singer, was released. I saw "X-Men" (2000) in a movie theatre.

At its time of release I didn't like "X-Men". I felt it was a complete waste of time. As a 17 year old teenager at the time, I didn't even want to see it. I was never a fan of comic books. My friends and I collected and traded Marvel comic cards but I never read one comic book growing up. Because of that I simply considered myself the wrong audience for these type of movies. I took no pleasure seeing these super-heroes come to life on the big screen.

I have said some truly awful things about comic book movies. Things like only the deaf and blind could enjoy them. You'd have to be brain dead to like these movies. But, I've tried to come around. I placed Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012) on my top ten list at its time of release. Most recently I saw "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014) and enjoyed it. It got me thinking, maybe I haven't been fair to the super-hero genre. So, I thought I'd go back in time and re-watch a lot of these movies I so quickly dismissed. I picked "X-Men" first.

For years I had it in my mind "Spider-Man" (2002) was the movie which kicked off the super-hero movie genre. I distinctly remember after that movie was released an avalanche of super-hero movies rapidly followed. There were two sequels to "Spider-Man", plus a reboot of the series, the "Fantastic Four" (2005), "Iron Man" (2008), Christopher Nolan's "Batman Trilogy", X-Men 2" (2003), "Hulk" (2003), "Daredevil" (2003), "The Punisher" (2004) and many, many others. But, I was wrong. The movie that started this whole trend was "X-Men".

What I found impressive about "Captain America; The Winter Soldier" was it was socially conscience. The movie mentioned issues which society is currently dealing with. That is what made me re-consider my stance against comic book movies.

As "X-Men" begins I started to feel perhaps this would be another movie which addresses timely social issues. There is a lot of political talk in "X-Men" of humans being afraid of mutants and a senator who wants to pass a law requiring all mutant to register themselves. This closely resembles the immigration debate in this country. A few years ago giving illegal immigrants driver licenses was a hot issue. Some worried by bringing these people out of the shadows the government would now target them. What do you think is the line of defense against the mutant bill presented in "X-Men"? By requiring mutants to come out of the shadows they are exposing themselves which would allow the government to target them. Hmmm. Is it a coincidence?

This was starting to make me like "X-Men". Using a super-hero movie to thinly disguise itself as a social commentary. Interesting. Maybe "X-Men" would be about something. But, its not. And once again I must face the conclusion I am the wrong audience for comic book movies.

Even on its own terms, as a strict comic book adaptation and not a social commentary, the movie fails. I find the same flaws now that I did 15 years ago. "X-Men" does a poor job establishing all of its characters for those not familiar with the "X-Men" comic books. It throws too many characters into the mix which the movie can not sufficiently provide enough screen time for. In the end we are left with more questions than answers. There is no exciting payoff to the movie. It feels like a set-up for another movie. Which is exactly what happened.

The two main characters in "X-Men" are Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose real name is Logan and a young teenager Marie (Anna Paquin) whose nickname is Rogue. They are mutants. Neither understands why they are what they are. Rogue is not able to touch another person without nearly killing them. But, she doesn't understand why. Wolverine has blades which come out of his hands, near his knuckles, which appear when he is upset. He also has the ability to heal from wounds rapidly. The movie suggest Wolverine has a mysterious past, but, none of it is revealed. they had to leave some story for "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (2009) after all.

Wolverine and Rogue meet Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) a mutant himself, who has the power to control other's minds, has started an Academy for other mutants. Prof. Xavier is also the leader of "X-Men", a group of mutants that would like to find a way to co-exist with humans. The other members of X-Men include Cyclops (James Marsden), a mutant whose eyes shoot out laser beams, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who, like Prof. Xavier can also control minds and Storm (Halle Berry) who can control the weather. All interesting characters and not one minute of background story is devoted to them. How did Storm get her gifts? I'm sure it could make for an interesting story. But, never mind.

The X-Men are in conflict with another group of mutants known as The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, headed by Magneto (Ian McKellan), who unlike Prof. Xavier, believes humans are inferior creatures and should be wiped out. The Brotherhood also consist of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a mutant with the ability to shape shift into other people and Toad (Ray Park) who has the ability to walk on walls and has a long tongue (get your mind out of the gutter!) and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), a mutant with resembles a feline. All of these fascinating characters are also given zero screen time to explain their origins except Magneto, who we learn was in a concentration camp as a child. The cruelty he experienced during this time is perhaps what has lead to his hatred of humans.

Some may want to defend "X-Men" to me by saying, "Alex, the movie can't explain the origins of all these characters in one movie. There wouldn't be time for a plot." Exactly! "X-Men" would have been better with fewer characters. Imagine if the story just focused on Wolverine and Rogue, looking for answers concerning who they are and they meet Prof. Xavier and learn about his school and the work he is doing. And then towards the end of the movie we learn more about the group "X-Men" and have provided a good set-up for the sequel. We could even have the Magneto character in the movie to provide the counter argument against Prof. Xavier.

This way "X-Men" hits on some social themes, has action sequences with humans trying to capture mutants, builds on the suspense of who Wolverine is, perhaps this within itself could provide more social themes to be explored and we have better character build-up. The viewer would now be able to understand who we are watching on-screen and be given a chance to care about this world and its characters.

But again some may argue and say, "but that's not X-Men", first of all, why do you think I care? And secondly, it makes for a better cinematic story and accomplishes the same things this failed final version does and improves on others.

I believe what explains why I have preferred some of the Batman movies or even "Captain America" is it deals with one focal character which the story allows enough time to establish as a real character with a background story and motives and create a human interest story which an audience can respond to.  "X-Men" cannot give these characters their proper due. And that's too bad. Comic book fans should have been disappointed by that. They shouldn't have been so easy to please. The movie grossed more than $150 million in the U.S. alone and nearly $300 million world-wide. They should have demanded more and want these characters' stories properly told.

"X-Men" has the benefit of some good actors; Stewart and McKellan among them and a hint of a social commentary which will keep an audience watching. In the end though, this is a missed opportunity. A movie that tries to do too much and ultimately accomplishes very little.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Film Review: Sunshine

"Sunshine"  **** (out of ****)

The first time I saw Istvan Szabo's "Sunshine" (2000) I thought it was a masterpiece. The greatest film Istvan Szabo, the famed Hungarian filmmaker, ever made. In fact, I used to go as far as saying, only he could have directed this movie. It was the story his entire career was leading up to. For me, it was the story of Hungary on-screen.

But then one day, years later, I saw it again. My feelings changed. "Sunshine" wasn't the story of Hungary at all. It was the story of Jews living in Hungary and in particular a family called Sonnenschein and the persecution they face during the 20th century in Budapest. My memory played tricks on me. I didn't enjoy "Sunshine" as much anymore because it wasn't the movie I remembered it being.

So, I watched it a third time, in anticipation of this review. Going into the movie a third time I hoped I would be able to, possibly, accept the movie for what it is and not what I wanted it to be. But, yet again, I came away with a different impression. Yes, "Sunshine" goes through historical moments in Hungarian history. Yes, "Sunshine" deals with the trials and tribulations Jews faced in Hungary. But, now I see a movie that argues against assimilation. We are so often told assimilation is a good thing. It brings people together. It makes us one. Here is a movie though that shows people, it doesn't have to be Jews but rather any group that feels like an outsider, who try to fit into a world which won't accept them no matter how hard they try to be like everyone else. And that story I find touches my heart.

Assimilation only works if others start to see you as one of them the problem is they never will. You will always be different because of your religion, your skin color, your gender, your ethnic background. In the end, you must accept who they are. Don't try to please the masses because you will never be able to. Cherish your culture and your people. They are the ones that will accept you when no one else will. For example. our President of the United States is African-American but to many people, those with hate in their eyes, all they see is a black man. No matter what he has accomplished, he, and others like him, will always be different.

This is eventually what the Sonnenschein family learns. The movie follows three generations of male figures, all played by Ralph Fiennes, over the course of the 20th century ranging from both world wars to the 1956 uprising to the years after.

First we follow Ignatz (Fiennes) the oldest son of Emmanuel Sonnenschein (David de Keyser) and Rose Sonnenschein (Miriam Margolyes), who have made their fortune creating a liquor called "Taste of Sunshine". Ignatz has a younger brother, Gustave (James Frain) and a cousin his parents have adopted, Valerie (Jennifer Ehle). Ignatz is studying law and hopes to become a judge one day. He very much respects honor and disciple and doing the right thing. He believes in tradition. He greatly respects Emperor Franz Joseph which puts him at odds with his brother, who has communist sympathies.

Ignatz has also fallen in love with Valerie despite the protest of his mother and father.

Next there is Adam (also played by Fiennes) the youngest son of Ignatz. Adam becomes a famous Olympic gold medalist in fencing. And lastly there is Ivan, Adam's son, who also becomes involved with the communist after WW2, by capturing fascist. He rises quickly in the communist ranks and begins an affair with a married woman (Deborah Kara Unger).

Each man found himself on the path to greatness and only one stood in their way, they were Jewish. It wasn't directly said at first, only hinted at. But slowly society tried to chip away at each man's sense of belonging. At first it is suggested. change your name to something more Hungarian and leads itself to the family actually changing their religion.

At each corner the family, now called the Sors, tried to find a place in society and each time they were seen as nothing more than Jews. This causes each man to hate himself. Why, oh why, did he have to be born different. Why do Jews cause such problems in the world  they wonder? Each man has isolated himself to the point he looks down on his own and believes the anti-Semitic logic he hears around them.

Even today don't we hear this chant? Minorities should change, embrace American values once they come to this country. In Europe it has been an old story, Jews never fit in because they didn't assimilate. They lived near each other and created Jewish neighborhoods. They spoke Hebrew, never learning the language of the country they settled in. They only made friends and communicated with one another. This caused suspicion in the eyes of others. It was and remains the same story for another group of minorities in Europe which have been persecuted, gypsies. They too have been accused of not assimilating.

One of the best things about "Sunshine" is the performance given by Ralph Fiennes. Each character he plays has a distinct personality. He makes each character different. He takes up the majority of screen time but never becomes boring to watch. He consistently demands our attention.

I would have preferred Szabo tell this story in the Hungarian language but if he did so we would not have the brilliant performance given by Fiennes which  wrongly was ignored an Academy Award nomination. The movie as a whole was over-looked, which was one of the many reasons why I have such harsh feelings towards the Academy. Fiennes should have won the Academy Award for his performance in this movie and Szabo should have been nominated for best director and the movie up for best picture.

Also worth mentioning to American viewers that watch this movie, you will get to see the legendary Hungarian actress Mari Torocsik, considered one of the finest actresses in Hungary during her time. When she was at her peak in the 1950s she was a beauty with a natural screen presence. Here she plays the family's maid Kato. My guess is she does not know how to speak English or at least speak it well because she does not utter one line of dialogue, still, it is wonderful to see her on-screen. She has appeared in Hungarian movies since this film but in America we are denied the charms of Hungarian cinema. Not that anyone but myself cares.

At two hours and forty minutes "Sunshine" could have actually been a longer movie and we wouldn't mind watching it. The movie has that sprawling, epic feel to it, going through the generations of this doomed family. This could have been a mini-series. The movie breathes though. It has a natural flow. It doesn't feel rushed. Szabo tells this story with great confidence. He has faith in this story, which he co-wrote along with Israel Horovitz.

"Sunshine" is a powerful, emotional story. The majority should be able to relate to this movie.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Film Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier"  *** (out of ****)

Walking into "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), which I will refer to as simply "Captain America" from now on, my expectations were low. Not because I enjoyed the first movie, "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011) and felt, well, you know how it goes with sequels, they are rarely, if ever, as good or better than the original. No, my expectations were low because I am not a "fanboy". I am not a comic book enthusiast. I have been slow coming around to all of these Hollywood adaptations of comic books.

However, I must admit I was surprised. "Captain America" is actually watchable. What surprised me most about the movie was is it somewhat socially aware. It mentions issues which society is currently dealing with. I know many "fanboys" like to believe comic books are a window into the world, that the comics deal with issues, but I never bought into that. It makes comic books feel a little too important. I feel comic books and the movie adaptations of them are mainly "escapist entertainment".

As "Captain America" began I started to think my original perception was correct. I had a difficult time understanding the movie. "Captain America" relies upon the viewer having a) seen the first movie, b) knowing in advance the Captain America origins, and/or c) a combination of both. Unfortunately I fall into the "d" category. I never saw the first movie and don't know the origins of the character. There is a brief moment however when we get to hear the story of Captain America AKA Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and understand he was a soldier in WW2 and was part of a government experiment which gave him superpowers after originally not being accepted into the military. He was then frozen and thawed out as it were in today's world.

The movie takes a good 30 minutes to get to its story. Before that time the viewer doesn't really understand the story, the motives of the characters or where the plot will ultimately lead. Generally that it too long to wait to establish your story. But "Captain America" is a very long movie, two hours and 16 minutes. It could have used a few more edits to make the story "tighter". Once it "settles" into its story though the movie begins to gain our interest. For me, my interest came from the social comments the movie makes and not so much the characters. What prevents "Captain America" from being an even better picture is it needed to offer more of a critique of the social issues; government surveillance and the politics of fear, which it addresses. But it doesn't really go anywhere with those ideas.

This may lead some to say, Alex, if the movie doesn't say anything about those themes, why are you recommending it? As far as I am concerned the bar is so low for comic book adaptations the movies simply have to make minor attempts to actually be about something and I'm impressed.

I am also very late in the game when it comes to comic book movies. I have seen Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) as well as more modern movies like "Spider-Man" (2002), "Iron Man" (2008), "Hulk" (2003), "Daredevil" (2003), "X-Men" (2000) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (2012). None of them have impressed me with the exception of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises", which I even placed on my annual "top ten" list. So I haven't been keeping up with the Marvel Universe and decided I am the wrong audience for these movies.

Growing up I had no interest in comic books though I did collect trading cards when I was in elementary school. In my teens I started reading Russian Literature and "serious" novels, not comics. I was fascinated by Kafka and Camus not Superman and The Avengers.

But now my feelings are starting to change. I re-watched the Tim Burton "Batman" movies I discovered I liked them more now than when I was a child. I enjoyed "The Dark Knight Rises" and now I find I enjoyed "Captain America". Maybe I should give these kind of movies a second chance.

I admit I really don't understand everything in "Captain America" as far as background story goes. I'm not completely sure what "S.H.I.E.L.D." is or what it stands for. I am not sure who the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is. What are her super-powers? How did she get her super-powers? How does she relate to Captain America? What is she doing in this movie? In the past all of this would have bothered me. "Captain America" doesn't really explain any of this. But, that's okay. I just went along for the ride. I am aware there is something called the "Marvel Universe" which is attempting to connect all of these super-heroes in the same time frame and they may appear together in movies, like "The Avengers" (2012). Fanboys can better describe it to you than I can. So I know in previous movies all of these things were explained. I worry though if these movies are able to stand on their own. For the most part "Captain America" did.

The characters I enjoyed watching the most were Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of "S.H.I.E.L.D." and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who also works for "S.H.I.E.L.D.". They are presented as two men who hoped to change the world with their ideas and perhaps even revolution. These two characters are the most realistic and encompass the world in which we live in. They are confronted with the same so-called "moral" dilemma's our government and society contend with, namely how far should the government be allowed to go to ensure "freedom" and "protect" its citizens through surveillance and the threat of war.

Supposedly the filmmakers, Anthony and Joe Russo, who are set to direct the next Captain America movie and an up-coming third "Avengers" movie, wanted this film to be reminiscent of political thrillers which were common in the 1970s. "Captain America" isn't quite at the level, even with the appearance of Redford, who was in his own political thriller, "All the President's Men" (1976), one of the great masterpieces of the decade. Still it is that ambition of "Captain America" which elevates its story.

"Captain America" is a good movie with a decent plot. I may not like the movie for the same reasons fanboys and comic book readers like the movie but this installment in the Captain America series is worth watching. Maybe next time they can make a greater social commentary and then you would really have something special on your hands.