Tag Archives: Summer blockbuster

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

For years, Trekkies have perpetrated the “odd-numbered curse” rumor that befell the original crew’s movies. According to this theory somehow, someway the odd numbered movies are mysteriously inferior to the even numbered entries. While there is a certain truth in that, it is not because of some silly curse, nor is it a mystery. Movies do not just magically “make themselves,” and the actors do not make it up as they go along. The common denominator in the even numbered Star Trek entries is Nicholas Meyer, who wrote and directed Star Trek II (1982) and Star Trek VI (1991) and co-wrote the script for Star Trek IV (1986). The strengths of Star Trek IV lie in the writing, particularly that which is clearly from the stylistic hand of Meyer. The film’s weaknesses lie in Leonard Nimoy’s pedestrian directing.

Still from X-men Days of Future Past (2014)When the third X-Men movie, The Last Stand (2006) was released, fans (and some critics) were shocked that it fell far short of the first two entries. Since Bryan Singer directed and co-wrote both X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003), and was not at all associated with The Last Stand, that third film’s lesser quality should not have been a surprise. Regardless, Singer has returned after an eleven year absence to direct and co-write Days of Future Past. With him, the franchise is vital entertainment again. Although not without flaws, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) is as much imaginative dumb fun as Singer’s previous efforts. Its biggest misstep is that it is not a stand alone movie. It expects the audience to have seen all the previous X-Men movies, and after The Last Stand it should be counted as almost a miracle that any future movies were even made about mutant super-people. (Except, of course, we are talking about the 21st century American market; the same market that actually made a hit of live action Scooby Doo movies, the Transformers franchise, and the Fast and Furious franchise). It is probably helpful to have along a translator who speaks Marvel Comics if you are unfamiliar with all the characters’ histories—and there a lot of characters, too damned many for Singer to balance with the same level of deftness that Joss Whedon is adept at.

Like many Trek stories, this X-Men opus tackles a time travel plot, albeit an overly complicated one. Thankfully, it turns playful. There are plenty of allegories bandied about and historical parallels abound (think the Vietnam War and a Terminator-like apocalypse). An older Professor X (Trek veteran ) and Magneto ( ) meet their  younger selves ( and ), shades of Picard-meets-Kirk or Spock-meets-Spock-Prime. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has to go back to 1973, which means waking up to the music of Roberta Flack and the discovery that Richard Nixon (Mark Comancho) was not only deep in Watergate, but also aiding and abetting Dr. Trask () in a robot plot (it always helps to have robots). References to the Kennedy assassination and the magic bullet are thrown in for good measure (which diverts us back to another unused Trek plot).

Singer occasionally gets waterlogged, probably from trying to appease fanboy expectations. Additionally, his return to pulp is excessively long in its last quarter. However, it is capped off with a winning finale, which feels like a teenage interpretation of “Twilight Of The Gods” (minus Wagner himself, of course).  Singer keeps the film flowing through pop references galore, which helps levitate all that on-sleeve, existential mutant angst. Even the much-missed Jim Croce provides good tonic, via his legendary “Time In A Bottle,” as does John Ottman’s assured score. Once past the confusing opening, X-Men: Days Of Future Past shifts gear into ambitious, melodramatic fun, and has a few surprises up its sleeve, at least to those of us who forgot our Marvel concordance. Now, if the producers are smart, they’ll keep Singer employed in this franchise (providing he can keep out of jail).

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

With his Napoleon complex, obsessiveness over religious fads, questionable treatment of wives, salary demands, and downright paranoia over maintaining his box office standing, Tom Cruise makes himself an easy target. However, occasionally this actor picks interesting roles and reveals genuine talent.

Still from Edge of Tomorrow (2014)Cruise started off roughly around the same time as , and early in their careers the contrast between the two could not have been more pronounced. If anyone was the patron saint of loud, dumb summer blockbusters, it was Cruise. He set the model with Top Gun (1986), and who could forget Cocktail (1988)? That box office bonanza, one of the worst movies of the last half century, is proof that the masses will buy just about any excrement if it is marketed right. Cruise went on to act in and produce Mission Impossible (1996). Despite having  in charge, it was not a good start to the franchise. Yet, the franchise dramatically improved, especially with Ghost Protocol (2011). Depp’s goals were more artistic, and he seemed ill-suited to the blockbuster mentality. However, the distinction between these two box office leviathans has blurred. Depp has become increasingly apathetic, even cartoonish as the star of his own blockbuster franchise, which started off bad and has only gotten worse. Despite a promising early body of work, Depp has gone into autopilot mode, while Cruise only works harder (sometimes too hard). Cruise’s fretting about securing his star status has, for the most part, reaped rewards, while he has expectedly proven his superiority in manning the blockbuster ship. Unexpectedly, Cruise continues to take startling risks at times, even if he does not inspire extended confidence with a planned Top Gun sequel, yet another Mission Impossible, or a here-we-go-again version of Van Helsing. Still, Cruise may merely be continuing a shrewdly cultivated balancing act and, in doing so, maintaining his ability to surprise.

One such surprise is in the summer sci-fi outing, Edge of Tomorrow (2014). The unoriginal title is hardly promising, nor is the much bandied-about description “Groundhog Day Meets Independence Day.” The clever tagline “Live. Die. Repeat.” suggests a video game. Numerous critics have made the comparison, but director Doug Liman and a trio of writers (Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Christopher McQuarrie) take a self-conscious, witty approach in  spirit of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novella “All You Need Is Kill,” on which the screenplay is based.

As soldier Cage, Cruse abandons his normal poster boy persona with relish. He is a coward and reluctant hero, mercilessly bullied by his Master Sergeant Farell (, impressing again). Predictably, Cage manages to get himself killed in war with the alien Mimics. Only, these extraterrestrial neo-Fascists revive him time and again, in an attempt to study the battle techniques of humans. As in a video game, even death is not a finality; and while under normal circumstances comparing a movie to something out of Nintendo is no compliment, here it is that looping, arcade-styled aesthetic the filmmakers first mimic, then cleverly divert from.

Cruise’s Cage is nearly matched by Emily Blunt’s Rita. It is a rarity for Cruise to have a vital female lead and, like her character, Blunt inspires him into something transformative. Almost as surprising as Cruise is in an atypical role, Blunt is equally so, even though her part is still secondary. It may be a minuscule quibble, given the excellent work of the two leads. Cruise has securely returned to his torch-carrying, old-fashioned move star mold. It is a welcome return. An unsatisfactory third act almost threatens to dismantle the film, but, thankfully, fails.

The sublime Groundhog Day was awash in romantic spirituality and originality. Edge of Tomorrow takes a more visceral route, aided considerably by Don Beebe’s cinematography which consciously pays homage to Spielberg’s WWII opus Saving Private Ryan. This does not mean that Edge Of Tomorrow is brainless. Alas, it might have been more profitable if it had been. American audiences, who rarely can form syllables or go beyond spoon fed formula, have mostly stayed away and Edge of Tomorrow is expected to be a box office flop, having been quashed by Disney’s umpteenth retelling of “Sleeping Beauty.”

As the saying goes: one will never go broke underestimating the intelligence (or taste) of the American public.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE LEGO MOVIE (2014)

Usually, movies about toys are merely an excuse for mass merchandising. Make no mistake: The Lego Movie (2014) is immersed in marketing, but that is secondary because the filmmakers wisely and creatively keep the film’s heart intact.  The Lego Movie may prove to be the best film of the year and, in its second run, can be seen for less than the price of  an actual Lego. That is a far better spend than putting a second mortgage down for most of the first-run dreck we are inundated with.

The Lego Movie is a pop culture manifesto, composed of wall-to-wall references and jokes that come at you fast and furious. Yet, the in-jokes are so judiciously worked into the fantasy at large that they leave you smiling instead of spinning. This was no doubt helped by the writing/directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. The duo clearly were inspired by the level of imagination found in the long-popular toy. It is remarkable what a mere two artists can do, as opposed to committee-style filmmaking. Lord and Miller began their collaboration with the cult series “Clone High” (2002) and continued to the big screen with Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs (2009) and 21 Jump Street (2012).  In addition to the writing/directing team, what makes The Lego Movie so winning is the personality to be found in plastic.

As a mystic toy,  spoofs his pious screen persona, and his sense of joy in doing so is contagious. Equaling Freeman in voice work is Chris Pratt as the protagonist construction worker Emmett; Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle; Will Arnett as Batman; Alison Brie as Unikitty; and as GoodCop/Bad Cop. A smorgasbord of high- and pop-culture characters make appearances, from Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) and Shakespeare (Jorma Taccone) to Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders).

Brick City is a universe in its own right and it absorbs everything that came before it with shrewd wit, including Star Wars (with Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels reprising their respective roles). The Lego Movie even does the impossible: it makes George Lucas’ characters fun again. The animation here is among the most innovative since the golden age of Disney and the Fleischer Brothers. It is also delightfully weird. It sometimes seems as if has risen from the dead, been given an orange plastic brick and an unlimited budget and let loose.

Still from The Lego Movie (2014)Emmett is the much-needed, flawed little guy hero, and probably the best example we have seen of the type since Wall-E or The Iron Giant. We root for him, as opposed to Batman (and after the last Batman movie, why would anyone cheer the caped crusader)? Yet, here in The Lego Movie even Batman is unexpectedly fresh. Even better: amidst all the dazzling effects, the viewer genuinely hopes that two pieces of plastic, Emmett and Wyldstyle, will interlock.

The most surprising thing, in a movie chock full of surprises, is the glorification of the individual over the status quo corporation. One would hardly expect such a “Piece de Resistance” from a giant manufacturer. Even Will Ferrell rises to the occasion, giving an all too rare good performance as the evil President Business of unfettered capitalism.

Reportedly, over four million digitalized lego images were used in the film, which would seem an invitation for disaster. The production not only pulls it off, but does so with shocking precision through all that hyperkinetic color splashing. The last act of The Lego Movie takes an unexpected route, and one may fear the worst, but the filmmakers pull off yet another surprise, giving us that rarity of all rarities in animated films: an ending which should not be given away.

This is an epic film whose narrative commendably refuses to take the well worn dumbed-down path so often prevalent in movies of this type. Its minuscule flaw may be that it is overly ambitious, but proves a welcome retreat from the plethora of excrement that is bankrupt in ambition. The Lego Movie pulls off the impossible:  it restores some faith in the imaginative and creative potential of the medium, at least for 101 minutes.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

The comic book superhero cult is becoming a new fundamentalist-type religion in the West. The fans (AKA fanatics) approach the movie story of their hero in tights with memories of past comic books, going over the character’s history like scriptural literalists cross-checking every passage. A misplaced comma might be equated with blasphemy. Most amusingly, literal faithfulness and realism are often demanded in movies about characters who started off wearing underwear outside of their pants. If a critic dares to say something negative about the funny-paper deity, they may receive death threats, as did the first professional critic who publicly panned Dark Knight Rises (and never mind that said critic was right).  Of course, the fanboys may only resort to mockery, as they did with Roger Ebert, ridiculing him for dying of cancer, when he dared to give a negative review to Thor (2011). These are the Marvel and DC Taliban; their behavior is so nonsensical it is mind-boggling.

Still from Amazing Spider-man 2 (2014)It is perhaps ironic (or perhaps not) to find as much of a level of obsessiveness over characters created by modern Westerners as over those created by ancient Jewish writers. Primitive figures spun from tribal tales have been replaced by Superman, Batman, and Spiderman. We get just as offended by liberties taken with the Caped Crusader as we do liberties taken with Noah. We root for Hulk to wallop puny false gods with the same hip-hip-hooray we afforded Mel’s Lethal Jesus taking one more bloody blow to prove how much of a true “guts and glory” God he is. Ben Affleck as Batman is as heterodox as a wimpy eco-friendly deity who has the audacity to care about the world he created.

Spiderman should be the hero least prone to this type of obsessiveness. He is not like Superman, doused in all that sloppy pious savior mythology. Nor is he is a brooding billionaire crusader for truth like the Dark Knight. Peter Parker, as created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, was an idiosyncratic angst-filled teen who had everyday problems like the rest of us. He was never destined for canonization ., producer of “Spiderman: The Animated Series” (1994-1998) perhaps said it best: “It does not matter who Spiderman’s villain is. What matters is Peter Parker can’t pay the rent and has girlfriend problems.” That’s pretty simple advice to remember, which Spiderman 3 (2007), with its smorgasbord of villains, failed to heed. Director Sam Raimi had already  delivered two financial, critical hits. Rather than trust Rami’s track record, Sony interfered, and the result was franchise implosion. Amazingly, Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014) failed to learn that lesson, and delivers the worst film to date about a super arachnid.

The first sign of a here-we-go-again bad omen with Amazing Spiderman 2 is the presence of seven writers credited for the screenplay. That many writers working on Green Lantern (2011) indicated movie-making by committee, and it turned out to be just that. The plethora of chefs here deliver a stale Snickers bar with the guts squeezed out, which is surprising since the Amazing Spiderman (2012) at least seemed to be aware of what had gone wrong in Spiderman 3 and went some distance towards correcting the misstep.

Andrew Garfield returns as Peter Parker, and he has angst in his spandex regarding girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In the first film of the reboot series, Stone’s Stacy proved a better love interest than Kristin Dunst’s self-pitying, eye-lash batting Mary Jane. At the end of Amazing Spiderman, it seemed that Parker’s promise to distance himself from Stacy had been resolved. However, in the sequel, we are subjected to an extended rehash of that promise. Parker also has the backstory of his parents to contend with. That backstory was the reboot’s most pointless addition, but at least it was kept to a minimum. Here, it receives full blown treatment. Aunt May (Sally Field) has become a suburban bore, but she solicits more sympathy than her nephew, who has already lost much of his charm. The scenes with Parker and Stacy are what the film is really about, or rather, should be. However, that set-up is mostly squandered for something that begs description. Pressed, a synopsis could possibly be found, by why would one want to?

Amazing Spiderman 2 is akin to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997): an aluminum Christmas tree on circuit overload. Seldom has so much excess been thrown onto a screen. The answer for such a mess, at least the answer for returning director Marc Webb, is big-name stars. Here, Jamie Foxx, as Electro, fills the same sort of shoes Sir Arnold wore as Mr. Freeze. Joining Foxx in the super-villain team-up is  as a metallic rhinoceros and as an emaciated Goblin.  Webb proves as inept as Schumacher or at handling action sequences, and we feel his lethargy, gorging on AC/DC colored CGI. With a solid dramatic base, such gluttony would be forgivable, except the dramatic elements here are as apathetically handled, with far too many witless one-liners used as exclamation points. Stone, who was the freshest thing about the first film, is wasted here.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a video game (as opposed to a movie), except that games are supposed to be fun. The only people who may find any joy in Amazing Spiderman 2 are unimaginative, in-denial Marvel fundamentalists; but whether those folks are really human or not is open to debate.  Amazing Spiderman 2 is a movie for blithering idiots.

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: GODZILLA (2014)

The first entry in the “Alfred Eaker vs. the Summer Blockbustes” series, in which we send a curmudgeonly arthouse critic out to the cineplexes to check out the latest in pop culture with the unwashed masses. 

As a movie character, Godzilla always seemed too imitative of his predecessors, notably King Kong (who had far more personality and craft) and a couple of Ray Harryhausen creations (which had more craft). Still, the 1954 Japanese original, distributed by Toho Enterprise and directed by Ishiro Honda, was an imposing manifestation of the H-Bomb. Grimness permeates the original, birthed from an authentic response to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the 1954 nuclear tests in the Pacific (which had resulted in radiation sickness visited upon occupants of a Japanese freighter). The beast of nature brutally emerges, like a fevered dream, amidst raining soot and decimated fallout shelters, to take revenge upon mankind. Contemporary audiences may roll their eyes during some of the clunkier dialogue (i.e.the preachy finale) or squirm through dated FX, which do hold true to form. Horror films, more than any other genre, date quickly: but that hardly renders the original mere camp. The clicking newsreel footage, juxtaposed against the dramatic tensions between the four human characters, nearly banishes the preposterousness of it all. Predictably, American distributors demanded a dumber version tailored to Yank attention spans, which cannot handle much in the way of foreign narrative, let alone subtitles. The result, directed by perennial hack Terry Morse, cut out nearly an hour of footage and added an Americanized half hour with actor Raymond Burr, who in the role of reporter Steve Martin is awkwardly placed throughout the film, pointlessly narrating what we are already seeing. Worse, by muting the escalating human drama, Morse and company actually made the film a duller affair, robbing it of its gnawing pop power. Burr is simply too phlegmatic an actor for such surroundings, lacking the anxieties of Takashi Shimura (an Akira Kurosawa regular) and Momoko Kochi, or the haunting quality of Akihiko Hirata. Western audiences flocked to the bastardized version anyway, and, until a few years ago, when both versions were released on the Criterion Collection, most Americans were largely unaware of the Japanese original.

Godzilla (2014)It was the success of the American Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), rather than Honda’s Godzilla (1954, originally titled Gojira), which set the increasingly cartoonish pattern that followed. Honda, who had previously been an assistant to Akira Kurosawa, wrote the original film’s screenplay and invested a stark sobriety into his absurd narrative. However, it was the American box office which dictated the remainder of Honda’s output. By the third entry in the ongoing franchise, King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the big green lizard (still technically a villain) does battle with of one of his own influences. However, the guy in the rubber gorilla suit here looks more like an embarrassing reject from the Island of Misfit Toys than he does the titular hero of the 1933 classic. King Kong vs. Godzilla nearly serves as a new definition for “execrable.” That, in itself, could prove entertaining, but the film fatally succumbs to unbearable dullness. Even the most hardcore Godzilla fundamentalists are pressed to defend this one, and it is almost shocking to find Honda directed it as well. While the original Godzilla isn’t a certified classic, it is rousing pulp fare.

Within a few films, Godzilla morphed into a kind of jolly green giant, super-dino protector of Japan. Occasionally, the new genre injected fleetingly Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: GODZILLA (2014)