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FURY (2014)
From Training Day scribe and End of Watch director David Ayer comes a World War II drama centered on the five-man crew of an American tanker and their 300 Spartan-esque stand against an army of Nazis. Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal, the film captures the horrors of war in ways we’ve seen before in cinema, yet it never quite achieves the lingering provocativeness of Saving Private Ryan, or the sheer desperation captured in Black Hawk Down, or the engaging storytelling in The Hurt Locker. The film offered some memorable moments, and featured some spectacular performances from Lerman, LaBeouf and Bernthal, but it never quite connected, although Ayer certainly tried to make his protagonists as human and likable as possible. What makes Fury unique is the characters’ interactions with and within the tank, almost giving the audience a sense that the tank is itself a sixth character. Infantry and cavalry always get featured in war movies, but only now has a story about tank soldiers been spotlighted. It was interesting to see how the inside of a tank operates when under heavy siege; even more so because the troops inside the tank are such individuals, fulfilling not only their respective military duties but also inhabiting different supportive roles within the unit as well.

While the war action aspect of the film may have been a little underwhelming (save for one exciting, strategy-laden scene involving four American tanks against one German one), it was the dynamic between the characters that really made Fury worth the watch. There was a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that every good war movie always imparts to the audience, and this was thanks in large part to the solid acting from Lerman and LaBeouf especially. Say what you will about LaBeouf, but the guy is a fantastic actor. He may be taking method a little far, and I don’t think his stint on Even Stevens still completely justifies his adulthood of strange behavior, but there’s some real talent here and LaBeouf shows that he can take on a role that has a lot of depth and complexity and make it his own. Lerman, on the other hand, showed off his acting chops before on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it was good to see that that wasn’t just a fluke. Lerman was so good in Fury that I could almost say it blocks out the godawfulness of The Three Musketeers movie he was in. Almost. 
Lerman and LaBeouf were standouts, but Bernthal and Peña also offered some solid performances. It’s difficult to really give Bernthal any major props because we’re used to seeing him play unsavory tough guys (The Walking Dead, Mob City), but there were moments in Fury where he really shone. Peña brought a lot of levity to the otherwise grisly story, and while it was great that he was central to most of the humor in the movie, I was hoping that he would be more than the guy who serves up the punchlines. Pitt has never really been my favorite actor, only because he seems to always come off very wooden (especially in the way he speaks). His performance in Fury is no exception. There was a general lack of intensity on his face that, while perfectly attributable to his character’s cynicism regarding the war, made him slightly less of a beacon of inspiration for his ragtag group of soldiers.

The film looked great, thanks to DP Roman Vasyanov (who worked with Ayer before on End of Watch) and the dynamic camera movement. There were also some really great staging and picturesque scenes. One thing that did bother me a bit about the film, however, was the enunciation from the actors. While I am all about doing whatever it takes to get your character across to the audience, it was honestly difficult to understand some of the dialogue from the actors, because they were reciting the lines with too much character acting (mumbling, putting on accents, etc). Jason Isaacs, whom I love to death, had a really strange American accent (I think he was going for New York) in the film that was really distracting.    
Overall, while Fury was certainly a solid flick, it fell a little short of being epic, never really making any novel or interesting statements about war and the experiences of soldiers that previous films in this genre have commented on. If you are a fan of war movies, this is certainly worth the watch for its focus on tanks, but if you’re looking for something more, you may be a little disappointed. While it featured some great performances and was generally well shot, at the end of the day I would not consider it a  film that left a lasting impression. 

FURY (2014)

From Training Day scribe and End of Watch director David Ayer comes a World War II drama centered on the five-man crew of an American tanker and their 300 Spartan-esque stand against an army of Nazis. Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal, the film captures the horrors of war in ways we’ve seen before in cinema, yet it never quite achieves the lingering provocativeness of Saving Private Ryan, or the sheer desperation captured in Black Hawk Down, or the engaging storytelling in The Hurt Locker. The film offered some memorable moments, and featured some spectacular performances from Lerman, LaBeouf and Bernthal, but it never quite connected, although Ayer certainly tried to make his protagonists as human and likable as possible. What makes Fury unique is the characters’ interactions with and within the tank, almost giving the audience a sense that the tank is itself a sixth character. Infantry and cavalry always get featured in war movies, but only now has a story about tank soldiers been spotlighted. It was interesting to see how the inside of a tank operates when under heavy siege; even more so because the troops inside the tank are such individuals, fulfilling not only their respective military duties but also inhabiting different supportive roles within the unit as well.

While the war action aspect of the film may have been a little underwhelming (save for one exciting, strategy-laden scene involving four American tanks against one German one), it was the dynamic between the characters that really made Fury worth the watch. There was a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that every good war movie always imparts to the audience, and this was thanks in large part to the solid acting from Lerman and LaBeouf especially. Say what you will about LaBeouf, but the guy is a fantastic actor. He may be taking method a little far, and I don’t think his stint on Even Stevens still completely justifies his adulthood of strange behavior, but there’s some real talent here and LaBeouf shows that he can take on a role that has a lot of depth and complexity and make it his own. Lerman, on the other hand, showed off his acting chops before on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it was good to see that that wasn’t just a fluke. Lerman was so good in Fury that I could almost say it blocks out the godawfulness of The Three Musketeers movie he was in. Almost. 

Lerman and LaBeouf were standouts, but Bernthal and Peña also offered some solid performances. It’s difficult to really give Bernthal any major props because we’re used to seeing him play unsavory tough guys (The Walking Dead, Mob City), but there were moments in Fury where he really shone. Peña brought a lot of levity to the otherwise grisly story, and while it was great that he was central to most of the humor in the movie, I was hoping that he would be more than the guy who serves up the punchlines. Pitt has never really been my favorite actor, only because he seems to always come off very wooden (especially in the way he speaks). His performance in Fury is no exception. There was a general lack of intensity on his face that, while perfectly attributable to his character’s cynicism regarding the war, made him slightly less of a beacon of inspiration for his ragtag group of soldiers.

The film looked great, thanks to DP Roman Vasyanov (who worked with Ayer before on End of Watch) and the dynamic camera movement. There were also some really great staging and picturesque scenes. One thing that did bother me a bit about the film, however, was the enunciation from the actors. While I am all about doing whatever it takes to get your character across to the audience, it was honestly difficult to understand some of the dialogue from the actors, because they were reciting the lines with too much character acting (mumbling, putting on accents, etc). Jason Isaacs, whom I love to death, had a really strange American accent (I think he was going for New York) in the film that was really distracting.    

Overall, while Fury was certainly a solid flick, it fell a little short of being epic, never really making any novel or interesting statements about war and the experiences of soldiers that previous films in this genre have commented on. If you are a fan of war movies, this is certainly worth the watch for its focus on tanks, but if you’re looking for something more, you may be a little disappointed. While it featured some great performances and was generally well shot, at the end of the day I would not consider it a  film that left a lasting impression. 

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)
Something stinks, and it’s not the smell of stale pepperoni pizza. It’s the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which I was forced to watch out of sheer nostalgia. Alas, fond childhood memories of this 80s comics turned 90s cartoon weren’t nearly enough to mask the overall sewer-worthiness of this film. 
Now even I know that when it comes to material that originated in the mid-80s to early 90s, a sort of audience abandon is expected and a generous suspension of disbelief is practically a given. I wasn’t looking forward to a masterpiece of epic proportions; after all, with armed, mutated reptiles who have a rat for a sensei for heroes, there’s really only so much one can do. Casting Megan Fox as investigative reporter April O’Neil, however, hardly inspired confidence that the producers of this film put in even the most minimal of efforts. It’s not that an Academy Award winner was necessary to play this role, but it’s a little tough to take Fox seriously as a savvy, hard-hitting journalist when her default expression is vacant and her demeanor incapable. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t trust her to give you the weather, let alone the news. The April O’Neil I remember from the 90s cartoons I watched religiously as a kid was strong, resourceful and not afraid to get down and dirty. Fox not only looked like she didn’t know what she was doing half the time, but her character was objectified in the film in ways I don’t remember was in the source material. Instead of Fox putting in a bit of effort to act like the shrewd April O’Neil we know and love, the character seemed to be written around the actresses’ bombshell persona. The result was a character who was constantly being hit on by her smarmy cameraman (played by Will Arnett), and an actual, shameless booty shot in the middle of a crisis. It’s sad that in 2014, when a more progressive attitude towards women should be expected, a 90s version of a character is portrayed in a much less sexist way in comparison. You can scoff all you like at my “serious business” interpretation of what was likely supposed to be a mindless blockbuster movie of a campy 90s cartoon, but it’s characters like April whom I looked up to when I was a kid dreaming about one day becoming a journalist.

But April was hardly the star of the show, was she? The 2014 reimagining of TMNT does get some things right, and that’s in its characterization of the turtles. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello were very much like the characters in the original series, and more thought seemed to be given to crafting their personalities than April’s. Although it seemed like they got less screen time compared to the vacuum taken up by Megan Fox, Will Arnett, random Whoopi Goldberg and William Fichtner (who über camped it up in this movie as the money-hungry ex-scientist Eric Sacks).
Fun fact: when I was growing up, my cousins and I would always choose characters in the shows we watched, and I would always get the short end of the stick because I was the youngest. I would get last pick, so naturally I’d get saddled with all the shitty characters no one wanted. I was relegated to the green/white ranger in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because all the girls were taken. I got Ma-Ti, the kid with the least awesome power in Captain Planet and the Planeteers, because again both girls were taken. In The Land Before Time, I got Ducky because my cousins would tease me for my larger than average posterior. And I got Raphael, because no one wanted the temperamental timebomb in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Turns out, however, that Raphael was kind of the badass of the quartet, and I ended up enjoying the fact that I got the diamond in the rough. The film does a good job in making his character shine, which was probably the only highlight of the entire movie for me.
Despite the entertainment provided by the incessantly squabbling but lovable heroes, there were more problematic elements than positive. The turtles’ new origin story was silly, and April’s connection to them even harder to swallow. Shredder, Big Bad that he was in the original series, was a hollow shell of a character in the movie who had zero personality. The action scenes were meager, and what was there (although visually impressive and props to the VFX team for pulling it off) was noisy, jumbled action. Granted there were some genuinely humorous moments - a jamming scene between the turtles while in an elevator for one - but overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film that feels largely unnecessary, and a little half-assed. Watch the 2006 animated film instead. 

TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)

Something stinks, and it’s not the smell of stale pepperoni pizza. It’s the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which I was forced to watch out of sheer nostalgia. Alas, fond childhood memories of this 80s comics turned 90s cartoon weren’t nearly enough to mask the overall sewer-worthiness of this film. 

Now even I know that when it comes to material that originated in the mid-80s to early 90s, a sort of audience abandon is expected and a generous suspension of disbelief is practically a given. I wasn’t looking forward to a masterpiece of epic proportions; after all, with armed, mutated reptiles who have a rat for a sensei for heroes, there’s really only so much one can do. Casting Megan Fox as investigative reporter April O’Neil, however, hardly inspired confidence that the producers of this film put in even the most minimal of efforts. It’s not that an Academy Award winner was necessary to play this role, but it’s a little tough to take Fox seriously as a savvy, hard-hitting journalist when her default expression is vacant and her demeanor incapable. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t trust her to give you the weather, let alone the news. The April O’Neil I remember from the 90s cartoons I watched religiously as a kid was strong, resourceful and not afraid to get down and dirty. Fox not only looked like she didn’t know what she was doing half the time, but her character was objectified in the film in ways I don’t remember was in the source material. Instead of Fox putting in a bit of effort to act like the shrewd April O’Neil we know and love, the character seemed to be written around the actresses’ bombshell persona. The result was a character who was constantly being hit on by her smarmy cameraman (played by Will Arnett), and an actual, shameless booty shot in the middle of a crisis. It’s sad that in 2014, when a more progressive attitude towards women should be expected, a 90s version of a character is portrayed in a much less sexist way in comparison. You can scoff all you like at my “serious business” interpretation of what was likely supposed to be a mindless blockbuster movie of a campy 90s cartoon, but it’s characters like April whom I looked up to when I was a kid dreaming about one day becoming a journalist.

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But April was hardly the star of the show, was she? The 2014 reimagining of TMNT does get some things right, and that’s in its characterization of the turtles. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello were very much like the characters in the original series, and more thought seemed to be given to crafting their personalities than April’s. Although it seemed like they got less screen time compared to the vacuum taken up by Megan Fox, Will Arnett, random Whoopi Goldberg and William Fichtner (who über camped it up in this movie as the money-hungry ex-scientist Eric Sacks).

Fun fact: when I was growing up, my cousins and I would always choose characters in the shows we watched, and I would always get the short end of the stick because I was the youngest. I would get last pick, so naturally I’d get saddled with all the shitty characters no one wanted. I was relegated to the green/white ranger in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because all the girls were taken. I got Ma-Ti, the kid with the least awesome power in Captain Planet and the Planeteers, because again both girls were taken. In The Land Before Time, I got Ducky because my cousins would tease me for my larger than average posterior. And I got Raphael, because no one wanted the temperamental timebomb in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Turns out, however, that Raphael was kind of the badass of the quartet, and I ended up enjoying the fact that I got the diamond in the rough. The film does a good job in making his character shine, which was probably the only highlight of the entire movie for me.

Despite the entertainment provided by the incessantly squabbling but lovable heroes, there were more problematic elements than positive. The turtles’ new origin story was silly, and April’s connection to them even harder to swallow. Shredder, Big Bad that he was in the original series, was a hollow shell of a character in the movie who had zero personality. The action scenes were meager, and what was there (although visually impressive and props to the VFX team for pulling it off) was noisy, jumbled action. Granted there were some genuinely humorous moments - a jamming scene between the turtles while in an elevator for one - but overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film that feels largely unnecessary, and a little half-assed. Watch the 2006 animated film instead. 

SNOWPIERCER (2014)
Thanks to man’s mishandling of the global warming crisis, Earth has frozen over and humanity’s last survivors have taken refuge aboard a perpetually moving train called Snowpiercer. Stuck on this never-ending locomotive, the remnants of human society have established a system of sorts - a way to ensure that the population is under control and that everyone is in their rightful place. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a dystopian, post-apocalyptic drama, and The Host director Bong Joon-Ho surely delivers with a film that is an unusual combination of whimsical and grim, tackling ideas that range from Marxist principles to a reimagining of the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. But this science fiction flick is not without a heart, for its three-dimensional, well written characters ground the larger than life tale, encouraging the audience to invest in the story as it goes on. Visually interesting, challenging and provocative, Snowpiercer is unquestionably the must-see movie of the summer.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film stars Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Ko Ah Sung, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer. With a host of talented actors like these, it was clear that Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson were intent on building this story from the ground up, anchoring the film with characters who were compelling but not stereotypical. Snowpiercer showcases Chris Evans’ best performance to date, with the Captain America star taking on a role that would seem archetypal at first, but eventually evolving into something quite profound. Evans’ Curtis Everett is the reluctant leader of the survivors residing in the tail end of the train. The tail end suffers the worst conditions, from meager food to cramped living spaces, not to mention the severe punishments that befall those who cause any uproar. There’s a caste system on the train, consisting of the most affluent in the front and the most unfortunate and undesirable in the back. Naturally, such conditions cannot go on forever, and every now and then an uprising ensues that results in the thinning out of the train population. However, none of the tail enders have ever successfully made it to the front of the train and there are never any substantial changes made to the social hierarchy despite the constant threats of revolution. The tail enders are becoming increasingly desperate, and Curtis and his crew finally hatch a plan to make their way to the front of the train in hopes that they can change things once and for all. 

It was refreshing to see Evans taken on a role that had a lot more dimension, depth and daring than the ones we have been used to seeing him play. His Curtis Everett is far from the wholesome image of Captain America or the charming peacock that was Johnny Storm/The Human Torch from Fantastic Four. Evans also seemed to really stretch himself emotionally in this role, often giving the impression that the weight of the world was on his character’s shoulders. It was easy to see the physical and mental exhaustion on his face, making his character believable and sympathetic. Evans wasn’t the only memorable part of the film, however, as Song Kang Ho and Ko Ah Sung were also quite entertaining as the father-daughter duo who help Curtis open the doors to each train cart. They provided some comic relief but were also really charming and endearing. Both characters too, like Curtis, seemed easy enough to read and size up, but as the story progressed, became much more interesting. 
Tilda Swinton, however, was undoubtedly the scene stealer in the whole film. Swinton is widely known as a wonderfully versatile actress, floating from role to role effortlessly and inhabiting each character like a second skin. It’s rare to find actresses who are true character actors in the sense that they can mold themselves to any role with no regard for appearances; this is in large part to the double standard of Hollywood, really, where if you’re willing to get down and dirty for a role to a point where you’re nearly unrecognizable, you are ignored over actresses who look pretty on screen. While roles for actresses have become much more diverse, challenging and rewarding, there is still a premium placed on women in Hollywood to look and act a certain way. This results in rather limiting roles. When male actors deliver performances of complete and utter abandon, such as say Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, they are often praised for being dirty, grimy, unappealing - lauded for playing roles that aren’t easy to love. Actresses, on the other hand, rarely get offered roles that are as complex while allowing them to look as dirty, grimy and unappealing as it gets. Charlize Theron notably went to these lengths for Monster, but for the most part, Hollywood still expects actresses to be eye candy in a film. Swinton constantly refuses to be placed in that box, giving her a liberty that consistently results in brilliant, breathtaking performances (most recently and notably her criminally underrated effort in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin).

And Snowpiercer isn’t any different from what we’ve come to expect from Swinton. In it, she plays ruthless yet exceedingly gaudy government emissary Mason (allegedly originally a male character). Mason’s garish looks are not only representative of the excesses of the affluent onboard the Snowpiercer, but they also provide extreme contrast to the gritty grays of the tail enders. When she emerges from behind her slew of bodyguards, dressed in her elaborate outfits and flailing about in her exaggerated Yorkshire accent, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her character’s cartoonishness was delightful, and a welcome sight against the backdrop of bleakness in the first half of the film.
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Performances aside, another one of the most interesting things about the film is that while it is a science fiction genre film, it manages to tell its story in a way that is new and refreshing. With the popularity of films like The Hunger Games and Children of Men showing grim settings, it’s almost as though audiences have come to expect certain things from this genre. Snowpiercer, however, is anything but predictable, and it manages to surprise viewers in ways that don’t just seem like they’re there for the shock factor. There is a crucial point in the film where Curtis has to make a difficult decision on whether to grab Mason or save Edgar (Jamie Bell), and he opts for the road less traveled as far as heroic decisions go, much to the surprise of viewers. However, with the knowledge of this character, his background and the situation he is in, his decision ultimately makes the most sense. The expectation is almost that he will make a civilized decision that sets him apart from the animals in the front of the train, and the audience surely wants this to happen because we are rooting for these characters. However, in the big picture of Snowpiercer's tale, it seemed that Curtis alone would have been able to make that kind of decision, and it's precisely because of the person he is. This is a great credit to both Bong and Masterson, who show in this scene that they put realistic character motivations over what would have been a much more palatable route for the audience.  
The film also wasn’t afraid to tackle big ideas like Marxist principles, exploring the notion that those who are in charge of the mode of production have the most power, along with the idea that everyone has to be in their right place in order for the society to thrive. In one scene, Curtis and the tail enders fight their way to the cart that carries the train’s water supply, believing that once they’ve taken control of it, they would be in a better position to negotiate with the hallowed Wilford (creator of the Snowpiercer). There’s also the twist in the end wherein Curtis actually contemplates taking over for Wilford when he is offered the chance to be steward of humanity. Curtis’ hesitation is a meaningful one because it gets to the very heart of human nature and fight or flight instincts. At the end of the day, when you are offered eternal peace, it’s a Herculean internal battle to force yourself to give that up in exchange for a lifetime of struggle. Heroes who don’t hesitate or question what the right thing to do would be given a situation miss out on these rich character development moments. Speaking of great character development moments, when Curtis reveals his dark back story, the audience begins to understand him better. He isn’t a reluctant leader because of modesty or meekness. Rather, he’s reluctant because he believes that his past transgressions disqualify him from being admired, let alone followed. This revelation is extremely well done in the film, with Chris Evans putting on quite the emotional performance for his monologue. There was a nice poetry to his story about not being able to give up his arm and his sacrifice at the end when he breaks his arm so he can pull Timmy out from under the train. 
Another big idea the film unabashedly took on was the reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Plato put forth the idea that what we know is limited to our sensations and how we interpret these sensations. If we lived in these train carriages like the tail enders of Snowpiercer, all that we would know about the outside world would be based on the glimpses of it we see outside the window, or the things people around us would say about the outside world. The only way to know about the outside world is to emerge out of your “cave” and explore for yourself. A caveat to Plato’s idea, though, is that whoever goes out of the cave and derives knowledge from their explorations must go back to the cave and share this information with his fellow “cavemen”, the idea being that it is the duty of the informed to disseminate knowledge to those who do not know better. Snowpiercer explores this allegory through two characters: Namgoong Minsoo and Curtis Everett. The eccentric Namgoong (Song Kang Ho) exists to provide a moment of illumination for everyone else because he firmly believes that life can exist outside the train. Everyone else looks at him like he’s crazy, because everything they are told about the outside world contradicts his assertions. But he remains fervent in his beliefs and pushes Curtis to open one of the doors so they can go outside. On the other side is Curtis, who is presented with the dilemma to remain in the front of the train to control the Snowpiercer and take over Wilford’s duties, or go back to his makeshift family in the tail end and liberate them. Curtis is essentially struggling with going back into the cave to right the wrongs for his fellowmen, versus staying in the outside world and reaping the benefits for himself. 

In Snowpiercer's world, the children are the future. The film ends with Yona and Timmy emerging from the train wreckage to take their first steps on Earth. This conclusion may be ambiguous to some, but for the most part the lingering shot of the two young children (both of whom have little to no knowledge of Earth prior to this crisis) trudging through the snow, is strangely uplifting. Some may find this ending to mean that Timmy and Yona are going to end up as polar bear dinner, but it seems much more optimistic than that. The fact that both Yona and Timmy, seemingly the only survivors of the train crash, are left is no coincidence. Perhaps the message is that since they never lived on Earth, they may be in the best position to rebuild it or they may be more inclined to preserve it in ways that the adults who fucked it up to begin with would have never been able to. It's an enduring element of science fiction that children are the symbols of hope. Take Children of Men, for example, or The Hunger Games, each with its own idea about how instrumental the youth are in rebuilding civilization.
From a visual standpoint, there were so many cool things done in this film that might seem blasphemous to some. For instance, the mixing of styles aesthetics, usually considered a no-no for filmmakers for the purposes of aesthetic cohesion, was done in a manner that was in full service of the story. When Curtis and company enter the classroom cart of the train, for example, they interrupt a session led by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who has been brainwashing children with Wilford propaganda, reinforcing biases against the tail enders and fostering the idea that all life outside of the train is hopeless. At one point the children start chanting that if the train stops, everyone dies, a disturbing moment in the film. While this scene, with all its bright colors and overly enthusiastic energy, would seem out of place in a film so bleak as this, it is in there to prove a point. Curtis and his companions could scarcely believe their eyes and ears when they enter this room, and their reactions are priceless. The scene serves as a point of exposition for both the viewers and the characters, explaining how the oppressive system aboard the Snowpiercer manages to perpetuate time and time again. Again, this brings back the theme of the children being the future; and in Wilford’s propagandist mindset, he believes that enforcing his twisted will on the youth will result in truly making the engine eternal. It’s quite impressive that Snowpiercer was able to tackle all these philosophical ideas without becoming too dense or overbearing.   

There were a few things that could have probably been done a little better, such as the fight scenes or action sequences. There was a nice homage to executive producer (and Bong’s good buddy) Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (the scene with Oh Dae-su making his way down the hallway of enemies, armed with only a hammer paralleled with the scene of Curtis and his companions going down the train cart fighting off masked men with hammers and machetes), but the slow motion took away the kinetic energy of an otherwise exciting sequence. The film also got off to a very quick start leaving very little time for the development of relationships between characters, and I wish there were some more quieter scenes between Gilliam and Curtis or Edgar and Curtis so that the events towards the middle and end of the film would have been more impactful. But these are all preferential and don’t actually detract from the overall accomplishments of the film.    
Snowpiercer is the kind of movie that manages to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, while at the same time enthralling viewers with an engaging visual aesthetic and interesting characters. There are fantastic performances from everyone involved, especially Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Director Bong Joon-Ho didn’t shy away from taking on big ideas and delivered a groundbreaking, memorable film that is bound to be talked about for years to come.

SNOWPIERCER (2014)

Thanks to man’s mishandling of the global warming crisis, Earth has frozen over and humanity’s last survivors have taken refuge aboard a perpetually moving train called Snowpiercer. Stuck on this never-ending locomotive, the remnants of human society have established a system of sorts - a way to ensure that the population is under control and that everyone is in their rightful place. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a dystopian, post-apocalyptic drama, and The Host director Bong Joon-Ho surely delivers with a film that is an unusual combination of whimsical and grim, tackling ideas that range from Marxist principles to a reimagining of the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. But this science fiction flick is not without a heart, for its three-dimensional, well written characters ground the larger than life tale, encouraging the audience to invest in the story as it goes on. Visually interesting, challenging and provocative, Snowpiercer is unquestionably the must-see movie of the summer.

Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film stars Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Ko Ah Sung, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer. With a host of talented actors like these, it was clear that Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson were intent on building this story from the ground up, anchoring the film with characters who were compelling but not stereotypical. Snowpiercer showcases Chris Evans’ best performance to date, with the Captain America star taking on a role that would seem archetypal at first, but eventually evolving into something quite profound. Evans’ Curtis Everett is the reluctant leader of the survivors residing in the tail end of the train. The tail end suffers the worst conditions, from meager food to cramped living spaces, not to mention the severe punishments that befall those who cause any uproar. There’s a caste system on the train, consisting of the most affluent in the front and the most unfortunate and undesirable in the back. Naturally, such conditions cannot go on forever, and every now and then an uprising ensues that results in the thinning out of the train population. However, none of the tail enders have ever successfully made it to the front of the train and there are never any substantial changes made to the social hierarchy despite the constant threats of revolution. The tail enders are becoming increasingly desperate, and Curtis and his crew finally hatch a plan to make their way to the front of the train in hopes that they can change things once and for all. 

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It was refreshing to see Evans taken on a role that had a lot more dimension, depth and daring than the ones we have been used to seeing him play. His Curtis Everett is far from the wholesome image of Captain America or the charming peacock that was Johnny Storm/The Human Torch from Fantastic Four. Evans also seemed to really stretch himself emotionally in this role, often giving the impression that the weight of the world was on his character’s shoulders. It was easy to see the physical and mental exhaustion on his face, making his character believable and sympathetic. Evans wasn’t the only memorable part of the film, however, as Song Kang Ho and Ko Ah Sung were also quite entertaining as the father-daughter duo who help Curtis open the doors to each train cart. They provided some comic relief but were also really charming and endearing. Both characters too, like Curtis, seemed easy enough to read and size up, but as the story progressed, became much more interesting. 

Tilda Swinton, however, was undoubtedly the scene stealer in the whole film. Swinton is widely known as a wonderfully versatile actress, floating from role to role effortlessly and inhabiting each character like a second skin. It’s rare to find actresses who are true character actors in the sense that they can mold themselves to any role with no regard for appearances; this is in large part to the double standard of Hollywood, really, where if you’re willing to get down and dirty for a role to a point where you’re nearly unrecognizable, you are ignored over actresses who look pretty on screen. While roles for actresses have become much more diverse, challenging and rewarding, there is still a premium placed on women in Hollywood to look and act a certain way. This results in rather limiting roles. When male actors deliver performances of complete and utter abandon, such as say Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, they are often praised for being dirty, grimy, unappealing - lauded for playing roles that aren’t easy to love. Actresses, on the other hand, rarely get offered roles that are as complex while allowing them to look as dirty, grimy and unappealing as it gets. Charlize Theron notably went to these lengths for Monster, but for the most part, Hollywood still expects actresses to be eye candy in a film. Swinton constantly refuses to be placed in that box, giving her a liberty that consistently results in brilliant, breathtaking performances (most recently and notably her criminally underrated effort in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin).

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And Snowpiercer isn’t any different from what we’ve come to expect from Swinton. In it, she plays ruthless yet exceedingly gaudy government emissary Mason (allegedly originally a male character). Mason’s garish looks are not only representative of the excesses of the affluent onboard the Snowpiercer, but they also provide extreme contrast to the gritty grays of the tail enders. When she emerges from behind her slew of bodyguards, dressed in her elaborate outfits and flailing about in her exaggerated Yorkshire accent, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her character’s cartoonishness was delightful, and a welcome sight against the backdrop of bleakness in the first half of the film.

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EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)
When Earth is invaded by über adaptive aliens called Mimics, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent to London to meet with the head of the United Defense Force (UDF), General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to coordinate a plan of attack - a last ditch effort to prevent the rest of humanity from being decimated. There’s just one slight problem: Brigham and Cage have totally different ideas on how to win the war. Cage is more salesman than soldier. Specializing in media relations for the American military rather than combat tactics for frontal assaults against ferocious alien creatures, Cage is anything but hero material. He can convince just about anyone to join a cause, layering on the smooth talk and winning smile, but ask him to risk his life by being embedded on the front lines? Fat chance. So color Cage confuzzled when he finds that he is stuck in some kind temporal loop where he relives the day of this Battle of Normandy-esque invasion over and over again, forced to play the hero by a painful and cruel game of trial and error. If Dark Souls starred Jerry Maguire battling Aliens, you’d have Edge of Tomorrow.
Based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and Yoshitoshi Abe, the film is directed by The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith's Doug Liman. It's surprisingly more fun than its gloomy trailer would lead audiences to believe. Yes, it's apocalyptic and gritty, but there's some levity due to the self-awareness of its Groundhog Day premise. Much of the humor is courtesy of the ever charismatic national treasure that is Bill Paxton. The majority of the film, however, is mostly action-packed apocalypse, and Liman certainly injects his spy thriller sensibilities into it with a lot of handheld camerawork. It was great to see Cruise play the bumbling, reluctant hero for once instead of the boy scout, and he definitely carried the film, even though very little about his character is known. This lack of character development is one of the fatal flaws of the film, which is unsurprising due to the fact that the script was penned by The Tourist and Jack Reacher's Christopher McQuarrie, who doesn't seem to know how to make characters more compelling than how they are already written on the surface. Edge of Tomorrow is entertaining, but it’s only entertaining because its actors commit to their roles, regardless of how limited they are in dimension. 

Aside from the always fantastic Cruise and Paxton, a no-nonsense Emily Blunt plays Rita Vrataski, icon of the war exemplary for having gone head to head with a Mimic and lived to tell about it. Dubbed the Angel of Verdun (or Full Metal Bitch to others), she is tough, prickly and incredibly jaded, a hostility that is mostly due to the burden of loss and exasperation at her encounters with the indomitable Mimics. If Cruise is a mainstay of science fiction films, one could say that Blunt is slowly becoming his female counterpart, being no stranger to the genre with her involvement in The Adjustment Bureau and Looper. It was refreshing to see a female character who was very unapologetic about her role in the war, and her singular focus on bringing down as many Mimics as possible wasn’t played off like some kind of macho schtick, but rather a cut-and-dried mission that she just wanted to finish. What’s even better is that this is a female character who isn’t a damsel in distress or a male character with boobs. In fact, the film acknowledges the existence of inequality between the sexes. “Full Metal Bitch” is scrawled all over posters of Rita, alluding to the disparity between the treatment of male and female heroes. Men who get stuff done are heralded as badasses, while women who get shit done are deemed bitches. This acknowledgment of the double standard was subtle but effective.
While the film’s first half was thoroughly entertaining, the later half is a lot less engaging. It lacked a climactic, grand set piece that we’ve usually come to expect of these types of films. Because of the underwritten characters and lack of back story, there was very little emotional investment to be had in their quests. Sure, we want to root for the protagonists, but there was never a real sense of hopelessness or desperation that compelled audiences to cheer for victory. The ending was also a bit more abrupt, and perhaps slightly predictable. Despite this, Edge of Tomorrow is still worth checking out, as Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise do put on a great show. The film is a solid popcorn flick with some chuckle-worthy scenes and intense action sequences. Be sure to download Christophe Beck’s fantastic score for it, too.

EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)

When Earth is invaded by über adaptive aliens called Mimics, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent to London to meet with the head of the United Defense Force (UDF), General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to coordinate a plan of attack - a last ditch effort to prevent the rest of humanity from being decimated. There’s just one slight problem: Brigham and Cage have totally different ideas on how to win the war. Cage is more salesman than soldier. Specializing in media relations for the American military rather than combat tactics for frontal assaults against ferocious alien creatures, Cage is anything but hero material. He can convince just about anyone to join a cause, layering on the smooth talk and winning smile, but ask him to risk his life by being embedded on the front lines? Fat chance. So color Cage confuzzled when he finds that he is stuck in some kind temporal loop where he relives the day of this Battle of Normandy-esque invasion over and over again, forced to play the hero by a painful and cruel game of trial and error. If Dark Souls starred Jerry Maguire battling Aliens, you’d have Edge of Tomorrow.

Based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and Yoshitoshi Abe, the film is directed by The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith's Doug Liman. It's surprisingly more fun than its gloomy trailer would lead audiences to believe. Yes, it's apocalyptic and gritty, but there's some levity due to the self-awareness of its Groundhog Day premise. Much of the humor is courtesy of the ever charismatic national treasure that is Bill Paxton. The majority of the film, however, is mostly action-packed apocalypse, and Liman certainly injects his spy thriller sensibilities into it with a lot of handheld camerawork. It was great to see Cruise play the bumbling, reluctant hero for once instead of the boy scout, and he definitely carried the film, even though very little about his character is known. This lack of character development is one of the fatal flaws of the film, which is unsurprising due to the fact that the script was penned by The Tourist and Jack Reacher's Christopher McQuarrie, who doesn't seem to know how to make characters more compelling than how they are already written on the surface. Edge of Tomorrow is entertaining, but it’s only entertaining because its actors commit to their roles, regardless of how limited they are in dimension. 

Aside from the always fantastic Cruise and Paxton, a no-nonsense Emily Blunt plays Rita Vrataski, icon of the war exemplary for having gone head to head with a Mimic and lived to tell about it. Dubbed the Angel of Verdun (or Full Metal Bitch to others), she is tough, prickly and incredibly jaded, a hostility that is mostly due to the burden of loss and exasperation at her encounters with the indomitable Mimics. If Cruise is a mainstay of science fiction films, one could say that Blunt is slowly becoming his female counterpart, being no stranger to the genre with her involvement in The Adjustment Bureau and Looper. It was refreshing to see a female character who was very unapologetic about her role in the war, and her singular focus on bringing down as many Mimics as possible wasn’t played off like some kind of macho schtick, but rather a cut-and-dried mission that she just wanted to finish. What’s even better is that this is a female character who isn’t a damsel in distress or a male character with boobs. In fact, the film acknowledges the existence of inequality between the sexes. “Full Metal Bitch” is scrawled all over posters of Rita, alluding to the disparity between the treatment of male and female heroes. Men who get stuff done are heralded as badasses, while women who get shit done are deemed bitches. This acknowledgment of the double standard was subtle but effective.

While the film’s first half was thoroughly entertaining, the later half is a lot less engaging. It lacked a climactic, grand set piece that we’ve usually come to expect of these types of films. Because of the underwritten characters and lack of back story, there was very little emotional investment to be had in their quests. Sure, we want to root for the protagonists, but there was never a real sense of hopelessness or desperation that compelled audiences to cheer for victory. The ending was also a bit more abrupt, and perhaps slightly predictable. Despite this, Edge of Tomorrow is still worth checking out, as Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise do put on a great show. The film is a solid popcorn flick with some chuckle-worthy scenes and intense action sequences. Be sure to download Christophe Beck’s fantastic score for it, too.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
If you asked me what my favorite part was of Bryan Singer’s much buzzed about X-Men: Days of Future Past, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. If I thought really, really hard about it (perhaps pressing my index and middle finger to my right temple and mustering my most constipated expression would help), it could be that I felt an enormous amount of glee at the audacious (and rather ingenious) move by this film in essentially erasing the clusterfuck that was X-Men: The Last Stand, a film which I have repeatedly tried to block from my memory to no avail. It’s a smart move. After all, everything that has come to pass after X2: United was disappointing (yes, even X-Men: First Class). It seemed only right that a studio determined to mimic Marvel’s success with their superhero franchises would want to reset the audience’s expectations. And now here we are, with the newest installment from the X-Men franchise, and I find that the bubblegum stuck to the bottom of my shoe is far more interesting.   
The story is set in a future where mutants and the humans who aid them are being persecuted by sentinels, creations of extremist scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) as part of his effort to stay what he thought would be the inevitable extinction of humans in the face of the the clearly genetically superior mutants. In this future, so few mutants are left, and we are introduced to what will be the core of the X-Men: Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart). They have survived as long as they have because Kitty can send someone’s consciousness into the future as sort of an intel-gathering expedition, bringing them back in time to warn the X-Men of impending sentinel attacks. But it’s only a temporary fix, and at this point the X-Men are only surviving, seemingly without any plan to defeat the sentinels and secure their future’s race. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Halle Berry) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) join the party and come up with a plan for Kitty to send Logan back to the past to stop the creation of the sentinels. It must be Logan, we are told, because his regenerative powers can handle the trauma of time travel. Logan must convince the X-Men of the past - which include young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) - to stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Trask (which becomes the catalyst that greenlights the sentinel program).
Following so far? It’s a fairly straightforward concept that’s been done before in films like The Terminator, so executing it seems like a pretty simple task, but when you have a cast of 20+ superheroes, things can get a little dicy. When Logan arrives in the past (the 70s, to be exact), he sees that his work is cut out for him, because the X-Men have never been further apart. For the most part, the film stays in the past, with Logan painstakingly trying to convince a disillusioned Charles Xavier that the fate of the mutant race lies in his hands. The story occasionally jumps to the future, as the mutants there hold their ground against the siege of sentinels. The condensed version of this story doesn’t seem so bad. It is, after all, based on an actual storyline from the X-Men comic books (although in the original plot, Kitty was supposed to be the time traveling heroine, not Logan). The execution, however, wasn’t the best, with the film lacking in emotional oomph and any real excitement. The story also went at a strange pace, with some parts feeling incredibly slow and uneventful, while others seemed rushed and incomprehensible. It lacked a sense of urgency and desperation that would have helped highlight the mutant struggle. While it was great to see the classic X-Men thematic emphasis of opposing viewpoints between Magneto and Professor X, overall I felt that the film suffered from a haggard energy, never making any big impressions or challenging the audience in any way. The most touching part of the whole series remains, by far, Jean Grey’s sacrifice at the end of X2, and since then nothing has managed to outclass or outweigh that image.
Read on for more (but be warned: possible spoilers under the cut).
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Interestingly, a part that I thoroughly enjoyed in the film involved the one character I thought this movie would fuck up, and that was Quicksilver (played by American Horror Story's Evan Peters); although I have no idea why they keep calling him Peter, when Quicksilver's name is Pietro (Pietro too foreign-sounding for them?). Quicksilver is enlisted by Logan and Xavier to help them with a jailbreak of a most elaborate nature. In the 70s, Magneto is imprisoned underneath the Pentagon after he is accused of assassinating JFK. Since Mystique is presumed to still be working under Magneto's control, his efforts are thought to be required. The jailbreak is incredibly entertaining, with Pietro's mischievous demeanor taking center stage. Despite Quicksilver’s horrendous outfit, he injected a fun, dynamic energy into the movie that the rest of the story severely lacked. Peters does a good job with the role, and part of me wished he stuck around a bit longer. 
The second highlight that was mildly interesting was the course correction of the franchise’s timeline. After the X-Men of the past succeed in thwarting Mystique’s plans to assassinate Trask, the sentinels become a mere memory. Logan then wakes up to what would now be the present, finding the original X-Men circa X2: United alive and kicking. Everyone from Rogue (Anna Paquin) to Cyclops (James Marsden) and (be still, my shipper heart) Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) seem blissfully happy (or ignorant) at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. This was an exciting move, because it acknowledged how poorly-executed the X-Men franchises after X2 were, while sending a quiet “fuck you very much” to X-Men: The Last Stand director Brett Ratner and his clueless cohorts. What’s interesting, however, is that it is presents something of a conundrum. Returning the original group of X-Men (Storm, Jean Grey, Cyclops, etc) also brought brought back their original actors, and curious minds want to know whether we will see more of them in future installments (especially now that Apocalypse is in the mix) or whether we’ll revert back to the First Class cast. 

Other than these two highlights (and my thorough enjoyment of Hugh Jackman’s ass), there was nothing of great import in the film. Aside from a slew of continuity headaches, I did not care for the way Mystique was handled in the film. It’s understandable why her character gets special treatment; she is, after all, the reason why everything goes to hell for the mutants. Add to that the continually rising stardom of Jennifer Lawrence, and it makes sense that Mystique gets so much more face time. Was this face time particularly good? Not at all. Her impersonation of a Vietnam War soldier to break out mutant comrades Havok, Toad, Ink, Spike and others went on for too long for something that was only meant to allude to Trask’s horrific mutant experiments. This exposition could have been been done in a much more elegant and evocative manner. Why not have Mystique sneak into Trask’s lab and discover her fallen comrades there? It would have not only helped the audience understand Mystique’s deeply felt convictions about killing Trask, but it would have also given us some insight into the character of Trask himself (which was a terribly underwritten character completely unworthy of Peter Dinklage, by the way). Mystique’s seduction of a Vietnamese soldier was also quite laughable, and I can honestly say that I never want to hear Jennifer Lawrence speaking Vietnamese (or any other language for that matter) ever again.
The whole Mystique intervention involving Charles and Erik was also incredibly cheesy and tedious, the back and forth in this love triangle getting less and less interesting as it went along. It was a mistake to make this aspect of the film about Mystique wanting to do things her way instead of being manipulated by either Charles or Erik. It robbed the audience of the ability to truly empathize with her. Her crusade was actually a legitimate one; she wanted to save mutants no matter the cost. Her folly was in being shortsighted about it, not realizing the big picture and how instrumental her actions would be in altering the fates of mutants. It’s a little odd, however, that the film ends with Mystique impersonating Stryker (who gives Wolverine his Adamantium claws) as she fishes an incapacitated Logan out of the Potomac. It may have been Bryan Singer’s way of making the timeline coincide with X2: United, but it’s still confusing, especially when there was a deliberate parting of ways between Mystique and Magneto (he did, after all, try to kill her). Basically the question is: if the ending was meant to align X2 to X:DOFP, are we to believe that Mystique just forgave Erik for trying to kill her in X:DOFP (because she works closely with him in X2 to get rid of Stryker)? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Stryker fish Wolverine out of the Potomac, made especially poignant because of Hank McCoy/Beast’s theory of the immutability of time? It would have delivered the message that while Logan may have helped save the mutants of the future with his trip to the past, he still couldn’t escape the inevitable trauma he would experience under the hands of William Stryker.

Performances were strong, especially from James McAvoy and Hugh Jackman, however Michael Fassbender seemed to me a bit strange in this one. His Magneto was sort of just there (the same can be said for Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, who was really just there for decoration, and to shoot Jennifer Lawrence goo goo eyes at the end). While part of me enjoyed the contrasting scenes in past and future, with the X-Men of the past embroiled in bitter arguments while the mutants of the future fight as one cohesive team, I wasn’t impressed by the action scenes in X-Men: Days of Future Past. I would have liked to have seen more teamwork between the future X-Men. The action sequences between them when they fight the sentinels were forgettable and sort of awkwardly timed. I found that the future bits of the film were severely lacking in this kinetic energy. Even the part where Ellen Page’s Shadowcat is hanging on for dear life after she’s lost a lot of blood thanks to Logan’s dream-state clawing was sort of just ignored by everyone else in the room. My preference would have been for the X-Men of the future to reinforce their battlements slowly but surely, prepared to give their life so their pasts may be changed. Instead, all they do is sort of hang around uselessly, looking ominously in the distance as Kitty does all the work. Gradually showing the future X-Men preparing for a last stand, as if all hope was lost, would have given the film that emotional oomph it so desperately needed and given the actors something to do besides stand awkwardly to the side watching Logan on a stone slab. Would it have killed them to give Storm an anecdote to tell her former students? Give her something to reminisce before unceremoniously falling to her death? Still, the film wasn’t completely devoid of emotion. The somber exchanges between Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were evocative, and I liked the contrast between the Magneto of the past opposing Charles Xavier at every turn and the Magneto of the future prepared to die for Professor X and his mutant comrades.
Overall, while X-Men: Days of Future Past provided an entertaining romp in period drama with its venture to the 70s, there was an emotional disconnect to these characters that I was surprised by. As someone who grew up reading X-Men and watching the cartoons, I have a personal connection to these stories and really want them to succeed. Part of me doesn’t get the sense of love for these characters from the films any more. Part of me was sad that Kitty was never given her due as the real hero of this storyline, and being the medium for Logan’s trip to the past was, I suppose, somewhat of a consolation prize. Given all the product marketing for these films prior to release (don’t get me started on the Carl’s Jr. Mystique and Colossus commercials), it just makes me uncomfortable to see this franchise be nothing more than a moneymaker for FOX. I do, however, remain excited for its potential, given the rewriting of the timelines. There is still a possibility that it could get better. Funnily enough, that message - “We can only hope that it gets better” - is closer to the X-Men I know and love than the last two films were. 

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

If you asked me what my favorite part was of Bryan Singer’s much buzzed about X-Men: Days of Future Past, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. If I thought really, really hard about it (perhaps pressing my index and middle finger to my right temple and mustering my most constipated expression would help), it could be that I felt an enormous amount of glee at the audacious (and rather ingenious) move by this film in essentially erasing the clusterfuck that was X-Men: The Last Stand, a film which I have repeatedly tried to block from my memory to no avail. It’s a smart move. After all, everything that has come to pass after X2: United was disappointing (yes, even X-Men: First Class). It seemed only right that a studio determined to mimic Marvel’s success with their superhero franchises would want to reset the audience’s expectations. And now here we are, with the newest installment from the X-Men franchise, and I find that the bubblegum stuck to the bottom of my shoe is far more interesting.   

The story is set in a future where mutants and the humans who aid them are being persecuted by sentinels, creations of extremist scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) as part of his effort to stay what he thought would be the inevitable extinction of humans in the face of the the clearly genetically superior mutants. In this future, so few mutants are left, and we are introduced to what will be the core of the X-Men: Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart). They have survived as long as they have because Kitty can send someone’s consciousness into the future as sort of an intel-gathering expedition, bringing them back in time to warn the X-Men of impending sentinel attacks. But it’s only a temporary fix, and at this point the X-Men are only surviving, seemingly without any plan to defeat the sentinels and secure their future’s race. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Halle Berry) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) join the party and come up with a plan for Kitty to send Logan back to the past to stop the creation of the sentinels. It must be Logan, we are told, because his regenerative powers can handle the trauma of time travel. Logan must convince the X-Men of the past - which include young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) - to stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Trask (which becomes the catalyst that greenlights the sentinel program).

Following so far? It’s a fairly straightforward concept that’s been done before in films like The Terminator, so executing it seems like a pretty simple task, but when you have a cast of 20+ superheroes, things can get a little dicy. When Logan arrives in the past (the 70s, to be exact), he sees that his work is cut out for him, because the X-Men have never been further apart. For the most part, the film stays in the past, with Logan painstakingly trying to convince a disillusioned Charles Xavier that the fate of the mutant race lies in his hands. The story occasionally jumps to the future, as the mutants there hold their ground against the siege of sentinels. The condensed version of this story doesn’t seem so bad. It is, after all, based on an actual storyline from the X-Men comic books (although in the original plot, Kitty was supposed to be the time traveling heroine, not Logan). The execution, however, wasn’t the best, with the film lacking in emotional oomph and any real excitement. The story also went at a strange pace, with some parts feeling incredibly slow and uneventful, while others seemed rushed and incomprehensible. It lacked a sense of urgency and desperation that would have helped highlight the mutant struggle. While it was great to see the classic X-Men thematic emphasis of opposing viewpoints between Magneto and Professor X, overall I felt that the film suffered from a haggard energy, never making any big impressions or challenging the audience in any way. The most touching part of the whole series remains, by far, Jean Grey’s sacrifice at the end of X2, and since then nothing has managed to outclass or outweigh that image.

Read on for more (but be warned: possible spoilers under the cut).

Read more

GODZILLA (2014)
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a return to classic monster movie storytelling. The much-awaited Hollywood remake seemed to learn much from the disastrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film, relying less on bombast and more on suspense and build-up. All that, however, wouldn’t have mattered if there was no pay-off in the end. And Godzilla pays off in a big way. The iconic character gets the star treatment in this film, and quite rightly steals the show. If only the rest of the film lived up to his greatness. 
It’s easy to see how a relatively unknown director like Edwards got the challenging task of remaking this monstrous franchise. His 2010 film Monsters, which he directed, wrote and provided visual effects for, proved that he had a unique grasp of the power of suspense. Monsters was effective because of its interesting use of the protagonists’ perspective, emphasizing it as the lens with which the audience sees the story through. He also understood that in order for something larger than life to work, it needed to be grounded with relatable characters and a simple, resonant theme. Edwards brought these same sensibilities to Godzilla, employing a tactic that involved numerous shots from civilian’s-eye-views, such as a shot of Godzilla from inside a car, an office building… there was one shot from the tires underneath an airplane  - anything that could illustrate the awesome scale of the beast in comparison to the minuscule size of humans.
Edwards also takes a page right out of the Steven Spielberg handbook, borrowing inspiration from iconic monster movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park. As you might recall, Jaws was incredibly effective because it capitalized on the audience’s fear of the unknown. Along with a great, now-iconic score from John Williams and teasing imagery that let audiences know that a shark fin meant danger, Jaws changed the way horror was told on the big screen. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg took the success of Jaws    and turned the story of a dinosaur theme park out of absurdity, transforming it into an exciting, visually engaging, digestible film that also manages to say something about man’s hubris. Edwards tries to mimic some of that Spielberg juju, teasing the audience with glimpses of Godzilla until the very end, when he is unleashed in all his glory, much to the viewers’ delights. Spielberg, however, managed to make Jaws such an iconic character for something that is largely unseen for the majority of the movie, while at the same time making the human characters interesting enough for the audience to want to invest in. Edwards doesn’t quite pull off this balancing act. Godzilla is clearly the star of the film, with every scene he is in downright astonishing, and everything else seemed inconsequential. It’s only right; the film isn’t called Godzilla for nothing. However, what was supposed to be the grounding element of the film - the human characters - fell flat.
(no spoilers under the cut)
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Godzilla stars Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen. At first glance, it’s quite the star-studded cast. Upon closer inspection, however, much of that talent is underutilized. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a fine actor who has shown great range with action comedies like Kickass and period dramas like Anna Karenina. Heavyweights like David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche may have elevated the film a little with their presence, but for the most part their characters could have been played by virtually any actor. Cranston was perhaps the only actor whose character had an interesting story to tell, and who could have actually given the audience someone to genuinely root for. Unfortunately he had to take a back seat to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s ho-hum, milquetoast military man Ford. While Edwards tried to give a sense of urgency to the story of Ford trying to get back to his family, this wasn’t consistently touched on enough in the movie that the audience was invested in this goal. The result was a boredom that was rather unexpected for a film whose trailer packed a ton of excitement and suspense without ever really showing any action. 
Ultimately, Godzilla didn’t really need this level of acting talent because its script did not bother making any of its human characters as interesting as Godzilla himself. One might say that it would have been impossible for human characters to match the intensity or magnetic quality of a 160-foot mutant lizard, but a film like Pacific Rim, with its battling kaiju and jaegers, would beg to disagree. The idea behind this criticism is that if you’re going to have human characters as the entry point for the audience to invest in this larger-than-life story, make them emotionally accessible and make them interesting. Godzilla doesn’t quite accomplish this, with the majority of its characters coming off lackluster and passive. The talented Elizabeth Olsen, who wowed audiences with her performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene, was criminally underused, her role extremely underwritten as basically “wife of main protagonist Ford (Aaron Taylor Johnson)”. When you have people like Olsen and Binoche, Strathairn and Watanabe, you should harness their collective awesomeness, not waste it on something as simple as standing there looking shocked. 

A pet peeve of mine also involves characters who are only there for decorative purposes and bring no real value to the story other than spouting a bunch of jargon to make things seem more urgent and pressing. This was the case with the military personnel in the film, and the scientists (played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins), with the latter’s characters frustrating to watch because they didn’t seem to have any motivations. They were really only there as the resident scientists despite never genuinely adding anything of value to the conversation outside of “No! That’s a terrible idea!” Fear-mongers, especially scientist fear-mongers, are excellent characters to have in a story like this, but if they do not develop, they simply end up being mouthpieces for exposition, which is a trope that doesn’t seem to ever die. The conspiratorial angle of Watanabe and Hawkins’ characters was interesting, yet oddly this was never capitalized on despite its potential to reel audiences in.  
Godzilla was also quite underwhelming in its lack of a resonant message. Unlike the original 1954 film, which used the story of Gojira as a metaphor for the horrors of the atomic bomb, Edwards’ Godzilla doesn’t seem to carry any sort of prevailing message. If it did, it was either too subtle to be noticed or Yours Truly completely missed it. Sure, there was the classic theme of man’s folly in thinking that he can control nature when it is really the other way around, but it wasn’t persistent enough throughout the film to provoke discussion. It’s hardly a character journey either, because the film’s human protagonist doesn’t exactly develop throughout the course of the story. With so many interesting ways to make this version of Godzilla more relevant, Max Borenstein’s screenplay and Dava Callaham’s story instead seemed to back away from dispensing any sort of compelling message. If you were asked what the 2014 version of Godzilla was about, it’s as bare bones as you could get: giant monster terrorizes big cities, humans collectively freak out. This aspect of the film was particularly disappointing because Edwards seemed to really have a unique and interesting vision of the Godzilla that he claimed to want to represent, and yet this was noticeably absent in the story. Perhaps had he written the script, his thought-provoking ideas would have come to light.   

All that said, for those of you who are really only in it for the King of Monsters himself, you will not be disappointed. This Godzilla is bigger, badder and more impressive than anything you’ve ever seen. Edwards cleverly and deliberately withheld the way Godzilla was unveiled for dramatic effect, and the juice turned out to be well worth the squeeze. The monster battle is quite amazing, and there were some great throwbacks to the original character that Godzilla purists are sure to love. Does this iteration of the iconic movie monster add anything interesting to the larger story of Godzilla? Not really. Does it look cool? Absolutely. 
Godzilla is a return to classic monster moviemaking because of its refusal to be a traditional blockbuster, disposing of long, drawn out and explosive battles in favor of shorter bursts of pure excitement, along with supporting characters who are reactionary to the chaos and destruction instead of active participants in the larger tale of this mythic creature. But it’s also this strict adherence to bare bones storytelling that makes this film fall short. Its characters are underwhelming, seeming like petty distractions instead of being the audience’s point of access into the story. It was easy to invest in and root for Godzilla, because he was actually better written and developed than his human counterparts. However, when ¾ of the story is about the human characters and their experiences during this inexplicable phenomenon, it’s easy to see why the film ultimately becomes forgettable. 
It’s also not necessary for you to see this movie in 3D, as there wasn’t really anything stellar in its incorporation in the film. If you care about sound, however, I would recommend checking it out in IMAX, as the music and sound did help establish the film’s foreboding atmosphere. Seeing Godzilla himself is worth the price of admission, but everything else is expendable. The plot plods along from point to point, seemingly uninterested in fleshing out characters or building drama anywhere outside of Godzilla’s direct involvement in the film. While Gareth Edwards and company did Godzilla himself justice, they didn’t really add anything interesting to the franchise. If we’re to measure the success of a remake in its accomplishment of things absent in the original while managing to keep the spirit of the story intact, the 2014 version only partially succeeds.

GODZILLA (2014)

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a return to classic monster movie storytelling. The much-awaited Hollywood remake seemed to learn much from the disastrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film, relying less on bombast and more on suspense and build-up. All that, however, wouldn’t have mattered if there was no pay-off in the end. And Godzilla pays off in a big way. The iconic character gets the star treatment in this film, and quite rightly steals the show. If only the rest of the film lived up to his greatness. 

It’s easy to see how a relatively unknown director like Edwards got the challenging task of remaking this monstrous franchise. His 2010 film Monsters, which he directed, wrote and provided visual effects for, proved that he had a unique grasp of the power of suspense. Monsters was effective because of its interesting use of the protagonists’ perspective, emphasizing it as the lens with which the audience sees the story through. He also understood that in order for something larger than life to work, it needed to be grounded with relatable characters and a simple, resonant theme. Edwards brought these same sensibilities to Godzilla, employing a tactic that involved numerous shots from civilian’s-eye-views, such as a shot of Godzilla from inside a car, an office building… there was one shot from the tires underneath an airplane  - anything that could illustrate the awesome scale of the beast in comparison to the minuscule size of humans.

Edwards also takes a page right out of the Steven Spielberg handbook, borrowing inspiration from iconic monster movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park. As you might recall, Jaws was incredibly effective because it capitalized on the audience’s fear of the unknown. Along with a great, now-iconic score from John Williams and teasing imagery that let audiences know that a shark fin meant danger, Jaws changed the way horror was told on the big screen. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg took the success of Jaws    and turned the story of a dinosaur theme park out of absurdity, transforming it into an exciting, visually engaging, digestible film that also manages to say something about man’s hubris. Edwards tries to mimic some of that Spielberg juju, teasing the audience with glimpses of Godzilla until the very end, when he is unleashed in all his glory, much to the viewers’ delights. Spielberg, however, managed to make Jaws such an iconic character for something that is largely unseen for the majority of the movie, while at the same time making the human characters interesting enough for the audience to want to invest in. Edwards doesn’t quite pull off this balancing act. Godzilla is clearly the star of the film, with every scene he is in downright astonishing, and everything else seemed inconsequential. It’s only right; the film isn’t called Godzilla for nothing. However, what was supposed to be the grounding element of the film - the human characters - fell flat.

(no spoilers under the cut)

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UNDER THE SKIN (2014)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
In the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s best-selling sci-fi novel, Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly being on the prowl on the streets of Scotland for unsuspecting young men who are only too eager to jump into a van with her. Once they are unable to escape her clutches, they dissolve into this abyss, seemingly consumed by Scarlett’s voracious alien appetite. It’s this routine of picking up and consuming men that populates the first half of the movie. As the story progresses, Scarlett’s character starts venturing outside of her routine of subsistence living. Sustenance is no longer primary, understanding what it means to be human suddenly intrigues her. While Johansson is literally a man-eating alien in this film, don’t let that premise fool you. Glazer’s approach to this story was anything but pedestrian. The English director, known for his eerie, off-kilter work that includes Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth, took nearly a decade to finish this project and the end result is quite stunning. This film takes a most unusual yet fascinating approach in attempting to answer man’s greatest riddle: what is the meaning of life? The answer may not be 42, but I assure you, it is just as profound. 
While some may be perplexed by the film’s sparse dialogue or the deliberately abstract quality of some of its scenes, in many ways this was a celebration of the visual and visceral style of storytelling. Under the Skin isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. Once you leave the theater, you’re suddenly bombarded with overwhelming emotions that you may find difficult to put into words. Your mind is racing, unsure of how to comprehend what you just saw, yet you remember acutely how you felt during certain scenes, with some moments staying with you even well after you’ve left the theater. This is precisely how effective Glazer was in luring viewers into this rather simple yet endlessly fascinating and eye-opening tale of discovery, both on a micro and macro level. On the one hand we have the tale of an outsider looking in, viewing people under a microscope and marveling at all the things that make us human. On the other side of the spectrum is a beautifully told story about becoming, self-awareness, and an almost terrifying understanding of human nature. 
A story that was both complex and yet shockingly simple could only have been effective with the right actress at the center of it all, and Under the Skin is perhaps Johansson at her very best. She brought such great dimension to her character, showing impressive range with her acting that was subtle but impactful. There was a childlike innocence to her character that made it easy for audiences to sympathize and empathize with her, despite her mysterious, inexplicable origins. Viewers are never told of her purpose, and her behavior is never fully explained, yet we feel a kinship with her. The evolution of her character is really well done in this film. We see her grow from someone who initially seems to only exist for the sole purpose of self-preservation. She hunts these men for food, essentially, and nothing else. As the story progresses, however, she starts to explore outside the realm of merely surviving, forced by circumstances outside of her control. While driving around, she gets stuck in this impenetrable fog. The limited visibility hinders her quest of prowling for hitchhikers, so she pulls over and just starts aimlessly walking. She meets a man who is hospitable to her during this time of need. He takes her in and they start spending time with each other doing leisurely things, which comes as a surprise to her because she is so used to merely devouring men for food. She begins to see that humans don’t just live to eat, they live to enjoy the company of others. When the two of them share a moment and things get a little hot and heavy, another realization hits her: humans don’t just have sex for procreation; they can have sex for pleasure. At a restaurant, she orders a delectable slice of decadent cake. She stares at it, seemingly unsure of whether this even qualifies as food. There’s a very specific reason she orders dessert, and it’s because it’s usually a part of the meal that is largely unnecessary, and the one we normally eat for the sole reason that it is pleasurable and we are merely indulging our whims. She takes a bite and immediately spits it out. Perhaps she has grown so used to eating for survival that her palate isn’t suited for anything else, especially not leisurely dining. So Johansson’s whole character journey is about discovering that there is more to human life than merely existing. Survival is still primary, but how we cope with the brevity of life is through experiences such as enjoying the company of others and indulging in desires and not just needs.  

In this day and age, audiences seem to have a lot of things handed to them when watching a movie - whether it’s information imparted through exhaustive, lengthy exposition, or a barrage of sound, special effects and other cinematic paraphernalia that assault the senses. Viewers have grown accustomed to stories that are wrapped up neatly in a little bow at the end of a film, or a character’s motivations explained at great length, that when presented with a tale that is so open to interpretation and so defiant in its  challenging of traditional storytelling, it comes as a complete shock. Puzzlement was certainly what Glazer was going for, but not the kind that leaves viewers frustrated and shortchanged. His minimalistic approach to Under the Skin's story was intentional because he understood the value of withholding information from the audience. The result was refreshing, and actually quite pleasurable, because not having all the answers yet feeling a sense of understanding towards the story, without necessarily feeling accomplishment over having finished a film, is an interesting place to be for a viewer.   
The sound design of this film was really the glue that held the film together, however. Mica Levi’s haunting score was a character all to itself. It was foreboding yet alluring, drawing the viewer in just like Scarlett lured her prey into her clutches. While the film already had such great atmosphere, it was the music that really served as the intellectual and emotional anchor for the audience. When words may not be enough (or completely necessary, as in the case of this film), music is more than ample as a substitute, because the marriage of sight and sound can be so much more dramatic than any verbal explanation. 
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The film provokes a lot of discussion about human nature usually through providing interesting visual imagery. Whether it’s putting a spin on social norms (such as the image of Scarlett Johansson driving around in a van like a sketchy ice cream vendor who turns out to be a psycho killer) or depicting the contrasting (and not necessarily contradictory) aspects of humanity. This film asks, “What does it mean to be human?” It answers this question through a series of events that showcases a theme of destruction and preservation, death and life, things that seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum and yet somehow foster the harmony needed for life to propagate. One instance this theme becomes abundantly clear is when a couple drowns as their infant child wails, abandoned, on the shore. The precariousness of the world and the fragility of life, which can be so easily snuffed, juxtaposed with the promise of life in the form of a loud, crying child. 
To an alien, this aspect of humanity - the one that fights to preserve life to its dying breath while at the same time committing acts of destruction and violence - is a conundrum. It’s exactly the observation Milla Jovovich’s character Leeloo from The Fifth Element expresses in frustration:
"Everything you create you use to destroy." She says.
"Yeah. We call it human nature," Bruce Willis’ Korben Dallas replies.

Johansson’s character is very much in the same situation as Leeloo. She witnesses these acts of love, selflessness, creation and preservation, and at the same time she experiences violence, exploitation, and, ultimately, destruction. Life would seem almost pointless because of such contrasting elements, and yet it’s also what makes it so interesting. In many ways, there’s a message here that may may be interpreted as a rejection of nihilism. There’s beauty and sadness in human life because of how fragile it is, yet people get up every day and continue living. Johansson’s character reaches a state of being at the end of the film, and it’s one that seems to be an acknowledgment of the profundity in this theme. At the very moment she understands humanity, she dies. As she stares at her lifeless, outer human shell (literally depicted as an out of body experience), she appears to mourn her fragile exoskeleton, yet there’s a quiet victory there in having understood finally what humanity is about. It’s almost as though the requirement for understanding life is to have to go through death or loss.
From beginning to end, Under the Skin is mesmerizing. The final shot of  smoke rising to meet the falling snow was breath-taking, a visual way to impart to the audience what Johansson’s character was feeling at the end of the film. The dark flume of smoke swirling with the pure white snow was a symbolism of destruction and rebirth, death and life, horror and senselessness coupled with peace and understanding. It’s an endless series of parallels, like a quiet movie like Under the Skin possessing very little dialogue yet managing to speak volumes - the cinematic equivalent of speaking softly while carrying a big stick.

UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

In the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s best-selling sci-fi novel, Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly being on the prowl on the streets of Scotland for unsuspecting young men who are only too eager to jump into a van with her. Once they are unable to escape her clutches, they dissolve into this abyss, seemingly consumed by Scarlett’s voracious alien appetite. It’s this routine of picking up and consuming men that populates the first half of the movie. As the story progresses, Scarlett’s character starts venturing outside of her routine of subsistence living. Sustenance is no longer primary, understanding what it means to be human suddenly intrigues her. While Johansson is literally a man-eating alien in this film, don’t let that premise fool you. Glazer’s approach to this story was anything but pedestrian. The English director, known for his eerie, off-kilter work that includes Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth, took nearly a decade to finish this project and the end result is quite stunning. This film takes a most unusual yet fascinating approach in attempting to answer man’s greatest riddle: what is the meaning of life? The answer may not be 42, but I assure you, it is just as profound. 

While some may be perplexed by the film’s sparse dialogue or the deliberately abstract quality of some of its scenes, in many ways this was a celebration of the visual and visceral style of storytelling. Under the Skin isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. Once you leave the theater, you’re suddenly bombarded with overwhelming emotions that you may find difficult to put into words. Your mind is racing, unsure of how to comprehend what you just saw, yet you remember acutely how you felt during certain scenes, with some moments staying with you even well after you’ve left the theater. This is precisely how effective Glazer was in luring viewers into this rather simple yet endlessly fascinating and eye-opening tale of discovery, both on a micro and macro level. On the one hand we have the tale of an outsider looking in, viewing people under a microscope and marveling at all the things that make us human. On the other side of the spectrum is a beautifully told story about becoming, self-awareness, and an almost terrifying understanding of human nature. 

A story that was both complex and yet shockingly simple could only have been effective with the right actress at the center of it all, and Under the Skin is perhaps Johansson at her very best. She brought such great dimension to her character, showing impressive range with her acting that was subtle but impactful. There was a childlike innocence to her character that made it easy for audiences to sympathize and empathize with her, despite her mysterious, inexplicable origins. Viewers are never told of her purpose, and her behavior is never fully explained, yet we feel a kinship with her. The evolution of her character is really well done in this film. We see her grow from someone who initially seems to only exist for the sole purpose of self-preservation. She hunts these men for food, essentially, and nothing else. As the story progresses, however, she starts to explore outside the realm of merely surviving, forced by circumstances outside of her control. While driving around, she gets stuck in this impenetrable fog. The limited visibility hinders her quest of prowling for hitchhikers, so she pulls over and just starts aimlessly walking. She meets a man who is hospitable to her during this time of need. He takes her in and they start spending time with each other doing leisurely things, which comes as a surprise to her because she is so used to merely devouring men for food. She begins to see that humans don’t just live to eat, they live to enjoy the company of others. When the two of them share a moment and things get a little hot and heavy, another realization hits her: humans don’t just have sex for procreation; they can have sex for pleasure. At a restaurant, she orders a delectable slice of decadent cake. She stares at it, seemingly unsure of whether this even qualifies as food. There’s a very specific reason she orders dessert, and it’s because it’s usually a part of the meal that is largely unnecessary, and the one we normally eat for the sole reason that it is pleasurable and we are merely indulging our whims. She takes a bite and immediately spits it out. Perhaps she has grown so used to eating for survival that her palate isn’t suited for anything else, especially not leisurely dining. So Johansson’s whole character journey is about discovering that there is more to human life than merely existing. Survival is still primary, but how we cope with the brevity of life is through experiences such as enjoying the company of others and indulging in desires and not just needs.  


In this day and age, audiences seem to have a lot of things handed to them when watching a movie - whether it’s information imparted through exhaustive, lengthy exposition, or a barrage of sound, special effects and other cinematic paraphernalia that assault the senses. Viewers have grown accustomed to stories that are wrapped up neatly in a little bow at the end of a film, or a character’s motivations explained at great length, that when presented with a tale that is so open to interpretation and so defiant in its  challenging of traditional storytelling, it comes as a complete shock. Puzzlement was certainly what Glazer was going for, but not the kind that leaves viewers frustrated and shortchanged. His minimalistic approach to Under the Skin's story was intentional because he understood the value of withholding information from the audience. The result was refreshing, and actually quite pleasurable, because not having all the answers yet feeling a sense of understanding towards the story, without necessarily feeling accomplishment over having finished a film, is an interesting place to be for a viewer.   

The sound design of this film was really the glue that held the film together, however. Mica Levi’s haunting score was a character all to itself. It was foreboding yet alluring, drawing the viewer in just like Scarlett lured her prey into her clutches. While the film already had such great atmosphere, it was the music that really served as the intellectual and emotional anchor for the audience. When words may not be enough (or completely necessary, as in the case of this film), music is more than ample as a substitute, because the marriage of sight and sound can be so much more dramatic than any verbal explanation. 

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THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)
Not even the adorable goo goo eyes exchanged between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone could make Marc Webb’s Spider-Man sequel amazing. But there is at least one thing worth celebrating: Peter Parker finally has the good sense to use Google instead of Bing. 
Despite the promise of a talented cast such as the two mentioned above, returning champ Sally Field, and the addition of individually magnetic actors Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 missed the mark completely. It’s a damn shame, because its story had quite a lot of potential, but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted this movie to be and threw in everything and the kitchen sink. This resulted in a bloated, noisy affair that suffered from one too many villains and, worst of all, a bit of an identity crisis for the webbed superhero. While its predecessor, the largely unnecessary but somewhat entertaining The Amazing Spider-Man, wasn’t exactly worth writing home about either, the sequel continues to prove that this franchise reboot is less a celebration of everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and more about making money the laziest, least creative way possible. Why lazy and uncreative? Because the writers changed the characters’ origin stories for the sole reason that Sony wanted to jump on the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon (more on that later), even though they haven’t done enough to set this up for success. Because this film felt sloppy, squandering what could have been a potentially impactful storyline in favor of showy, over-the-top antics (I’m looking at you, Dr. Kafka). Because its musical score was so awful, I am forced to use hyperbole and declare that it nearly made my ears bleed. Because the addition of the X-Men: Days of Future Past post-credits teaser was tacky and the marketing equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen (spoiler alert: it’s never gonna happen, FOX and Sony). These are merely a few of the offenses made by Marc Webb’s disappointing sequel.
While the film was visually impressive and featured elaborate action set pieces, and the love story between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy was fun to observe as a third wheel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2's mistakes were egregious enough that they overshadowed these high points. The most glaring error was the lack of cohesion in the script. Not only were there too many things going on, but they seemed to be completely unrelated to each other. The story jumped from Peter Parker’s (Garfield) on-again-off-again romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), to his brief rekindling of friendship with heir to OsCorp throne Harry Osborn (DeHaan), to uncovering the secrets behind his parents’ mysterious deaths, to battling Blue Man Group wannabe Electro (Foxx)…there was a thing with Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti), a plot point involving Aunt May that was introduced and quickly forgotten…All this occurred probably only within the first hour of the film. These individual elements worked well in isolation and as mentioned before had tremendous potential, but Orci and Kurtzman failed to weave them together. The writing duo seemed to be making things up as the film went along, with only a vague sense of direction and a plan B that consisted of “Let’s just write ourselves out of this situation!” 
Warning: 1) spoilers to follow,  2) this is one of my more rant-ridden reviews, so proceed with caution, 3) this thing is hella long. I let my nerd rage loose on this one, so if you don’t like to read, well, that can’t be helped, really.
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One would say that this was a product of ambitious minds, while another could point out that this was the result of a lack of focus and a throw-in-everything-and-see-what-sticks mentality. An argument could be made that this narrative clusterfuck was intentional; that it was meant to show how Peter was out of his element, perhaps caught in a web of his own making when he thought he could handle all these things at once. Perhaps this kitchen sink method was intended to throw Spider-Man off balance, to show that the snarky teenager couldn’t have everything - not a girlfriend, a best friend, or even the fond memory of his parents. But the counter argument is: was this the best way this message could have been imparted? The answer is a resounding no. Even with a commendable, streamlined message like that, the film was still much too loud, seemingly forgetting that the first movie only became a hit because its small, cutesy love story was what resonated with viewers. The sequel pays homage to Peter and Gwen’s epic romance, sure. In fact, it may have been one of the very few things that was done well in the film. However, the rest of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was so out of touch with this one golden nugget, making everything else seem like irritating background noise. 


One of the things that really bothered me (and should bother hardcore Spider-Man fans) was the change to the web-slinger’s origin story. The film puts forth the notion that the venom from the radioactive spider that bit Peter could only have turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man - that chance didn’t turn this smartass teenager into a superhero but rather a pre-ordained conspiracy. You know the now-famous line from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility”? Well, you can throw that out the window, because this was a lesson that Peter Parker apparently didn’t need to learn, because he was literally born to be Spider-Man. He didn’t have to earn responsibility for his newfound powers because Daddy Parker decided for some bullshit reason spurred on by some bullshit non-canonical OsCorp conspiracy that radioactive spider venom could only positively work with Parker DNA. If that line of thinking doesn’t make your head explode (or at least mildly irritate you), consider the fact that this does not only quash Uncle Ben’s romantic moral, but it also tramples on the everyman quality that made Spider-Man so iconic and identifiable in the first place. Peter Parker wasn’t a billionaire, a super soldier, or an invincible alien. He was a trash-talking teenager with an occasional affinity for scienc-ey things, but who was ultimately a regular Joe you can easily empathize with. He could be anybody. And the freak accident that turned him into Spider-Man embraces the theme that anyone can be a superhero; it’s why the fact that Spider-Man is masked is so essential. It has nothing to do with some innate precondition, but a desire to do good with the powers he was given. It’s an aspirational theme unique to Spider-Man, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2's team completely spit in its face with their half-assed, completely unnecessary attempt at reinventing the wheel.
This whole reinvention of Peter Parker/Spider-Man should be considered an egregious offense because it really tarnishes the spirit of the character, yet some people think that a sassy Spider-Man, an endearing Gwen Stacy, and a light show reminiscent of an LSD-induced rave are ample elements to call this a passable Spider-Man movie. The people who were pissed about Zack Snyder’s Supermanabandoning his boy scout, thou-shalt-not-kill code of honor should be equally offended by Kurtzman and Orci’s altering of Spider-Man’s origins, yet few seem to grasp just how much their writing changed the character.
Peter Parker/Spider-Man isn’t the only character that Orci and Kurtzman did a number on. The villains in this film suffered on a completely different level of pain. For one, making it so that all the villains stem from OsCorp is quite possibly the laziest way to bring about the Sinister Six. Not only does it ignore the colorful, interesting origin stories of each of these villains, but it dilutes the value of the Sinister Six to begin with. Instead of the humor behind a ragtag group of villains bonding over their mutual hatred of Spider-Man, they are united by OsCorp. Boring, unimaginative and completely unsatisfying. Turning what were very human incarnations of The Green Goblin(s) into a genetic curse, the result of Osborn blood mixing with radioactive spider venom…once again, Orci and Kurtzman have decided that these characters don’t ever need to evolve or come into their own. They are simply born to be the characters they inhabit. I find this incredibly lazy. They couldn’t be bothered to write a compelling enough argument for why Harry Osborn would hate Spider-Man, so they decided to concoct this elaborate back story of an Osborn-exclusive disease that created the Green Goblin? Well. I suppose we need only remember that these are the same writers behind Star Trek: Into Darkness, and all of a sudden, this explains so much of why TASM2 failed.
And what about the hideously cartoonish Dr. Kafka (played campily by Marton Csokas), whose maniacal, affected behavior was completely out of place in the film. Also shockingly bad was Dane DeHaan, who played Harry Osborn with either zero helpful direction from Marc Webb, or a completely misplaced idea of who his character was supposed to be. DeHaan was all over the place, pining over his character’s daddy issues one moment then prancing around whistling game show tunes in B-movie bad guy mode the next. It’s a damn shame, because DeHaan is a fine actor, having previously wowed audiences with his intensity in films like Chronicle and The Place Beyond the Pines. His talent is squandered in this film because his character is simply a joke and not very well-written. it doesn’t help that the only reason the Green Goblin is even in this film is because Gwen Stacy, at some point, needs to exit the franchise, and we all know who is responsible for her demise. This raison d’être would’ve been excusable, but it shouldn’t be too much to ask that a villain have at least a little bit more dimension other than that their actions lead to the death of an important character. 

Jamie Foxx’s Electro, who was supposed to be this film’s Big Bad, seemed like more of an after thought. Instead of providing a teachable moment for Spider-Man by reminding him that his newfound powers give him responsibility to help people, Electro is instead set up to be this socially awkward fanboy whose character motivation and overall existence in the story remained sketchy at best. Electro has no relation to anything else in the story other than a fly-by interaction with Spider-Man and association to Gwen due to their shared workspace at OsCorp. He is brought into the story to distract from the Green Goblin swooping in for a final, heartbreaking blow at the end, which while commendable, would have been much more effective had he been written as a more formidable character. Instead, you could replace Electro with virtually any villain in the Marvel universe, and the story would have remained completely intact. Sure, Electro provided some fantastic action set pieces for the film, and the fight between he and Spidey was fun to watch. But haven’t we progressed past the point where villains in movies only exist to make the superhero look cool?
Electro’s real involvement in this film is simple, however: Sony wanted a Sinister Six movie. Never mind that they didn’t do enough to set up the film, let alone that these villains deserved to see the light of day (tell me exactly how we take Vulture and Mysterio seriously). The whole affair reeks of Sony’s pretentiousness, scrambling to manufacture their own brand of Marvel juju with a half-baked attempt at their own cinematic universe. 
Since we’re on the subject of the offensive, let us move on to the horrendous music courtesy of Hans Zimmer and The (Not So) Magnificent Six. In a scene set in Times Square, the music became so distracting that it actually takes audiences out of the movie, making them notice that the score is bleating at them. And at one point during a knock-down, drag-out battle with Spidey, Electro manages to play “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. HOW. WHY. This can’t be happening. This movie’s score is quite possibly one of the worst ever, and someone needs to tell Hans Zimmer that he is no longer allowed to use reverberations in his score. 
Now that the rant-ier portion of this review is over, some other mistakes need mentioning, including the wasted potential of Aunt May’s storyline about having to work two jobs just to make ends meet. Had this angle been fleshed out, or even made central to the story, it would have really made the film soar. Aunt May’s sacrifice could have been a reminder to Peter that he doesn’t have to constantly carry this cross for his dead parents, because Aunt May is doing a perfectly bang-up job in their stead. The laser focus on the deceased Mr. and Mrs. Parker is a major reason this movie is so flawed. Orci and Kurtzman’s efforts to turn the Parkers into martyrs distracted from the people who actually really made an impact on Peter’s life - Gwen and Aunt May.

Speaking of Gwen and Aunt May, they made up some of the few bright spots in this otherwise unbearable film. One of the things that makes this movie remotely tolerable is the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. The chemistry between Garfield and Stone was very apparent, possibly one of the perks of being a real-life couple. There was a point, however, where Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer lens kicked in and he practically turned the film into a music video. The scene where Peter walks through traffic to meet Gwen was a tad overdone. The music was overbearing and the flirtations were so cute, they bordered on the uncomfortable. Much as I am a hopeless romantic, these scenes spoke more to the hateful miscreant in me and came off slightly saccharine. Webb admits that he wanted this movie to cement the idea of Peter and Gwen, and it did, but there were much better ways that the same message could have come across. Had Peter just stopped across the sidewalk from Gwen and gazed at her as she was waiting from the other side of the street…that would have been enough.

The one thing the film did get perfectly right throughout was Gwen Stacy, whose character was the only one who not only evolved during the course of the story but who, at the same time, remained clear and constant. What was clear and constant was that she was her own person. She repeatedly asserted that she makes her own decisions - from declaring that she doesn’t want to live in the shadow of her dead father to her decision to go to Oxford to pursue her dreams. Gwen is smart and knows what she wants, yet time and again Peter takes her for granted, which in a way forces her to evolve. Because of this, it’s clear that Gwen and Peter are on totally different paths. Gwen is growing as a person while Peter remains the same - and if Peter, supposedly the main protagonist, is stagnant, well, that just doesn’t bode well for the story. The lesson he learns at the end of this movie is what he already should have learned in the first film - how to cope with loss. The lesson he should have learned this time around was taking responsibility and owning the fact that he has taken the people around him for granted, whether it’s people like Max/Electro (who look up to Spider-Man yet often get neglected), or Aunt May (who tries her hardest as a single parent), or Gwen (who desperately wants to convince Peter that their love should take priority over the wishes of a dead man). Instead, Peter learns nothing, and he repeatedly learns nothing. Gwen’s death is hammered into the audience’s head as her fault because she chose to get involved. For some reason, Peter’s grand gesture on the Brooklyn Bridge as Gwen is going off to pursue her dream is supposed to be romantic, when really had he listened to her at all and accepted that she was moving on, she would have never been in such a precarious situation to begin with. What’s interesting about Peter’s lack of responsibility for anything is that this feels oddly familiar, like Ichabod Crane from Orci and Kurtzman’s TV project, Sleepy Hollow, who is apparently a character who can do no wrong no matter the circumstance. 
So let’s talk about exactly how unlikable Peter Parker is in this movie. He rebuffs Gwen because of a promise he made to her dying father (a promise  he broke by the way at the end of the first movie). Gwen gives him a talking-to for being indecisive, and for letting a dead man dictate what they do with their relationship. I feel good about this, because Gwen should be mad. But what I don’t like about this whole exchange is that Peter comes off like he’s doing the heroic thing, honoring the wish of Gwen’s father. Gwen just comes off callous, inconsiderate of her own father’s dying wishes. Wow, can’t she just understand that Peter is trying to do the right thing? Cue the ghost of Amazing Spider-Mans Past in the form of Denis Leary scowling in the background. They break up and Peter is brooding over the twang of Mumford and Sons. Clearly he is very sad. I mean, he cued up the Mumford and Sons! Fast forward and then he talks to Aunt May, who in an outburst tells him that she is working two jobs just so he can go to college. Well, that heartbreaking confession completely flies over Peter’s head because he couldn’t give two shits that his ancient aunt is performing back breaking work just so he can be provided for while he gallivants as Spider-Man. He instead complains that Aunt May is hiding the truth about his parents from him and oh, he’s so pained. He’s so pained that the camera is at a Dutch angle to reflect this inner turmoil. I MEAN. THEN. THEN he sort of rekindles his romance with Gwen, but right when she’s sharing something that is meaningful to her, namely going to Oxford and pursuing her dreams, Spidey senses kick in and he totally leaves her hanging as he goes off to fight Electro. Worst boyfriend. THEN. She shows up at her interview for the Oxford thing and he bursts in mumbling about how his whole life is A LIE because OsCorp this and his parents that, not even stopping to consider that this is Gwen’s most important day and he is making this all about him. But then of course, all this isn’t Peter’s fault because Andrew Garfield is always adorable and he’s flustered and babbling and tells Gwen he loves her repeatedly even though he has an odd way of showing it (rebuffing her numerous times, never listening to her, not being there for when she needs him). So the gist is: Peter Parker is an asshole to everyone in the movie, yet he is AMAZINGLY oblivious to this and as a result, never takes responsibility. He never realizes that he needs to sort out his priorities and emerges from the whole story seemingly unchanged. As long as he’s being a smartass and fighting bad guys, no one apparently cares that this is a character who is completely unchanged from the beginning of this series to its current end. What was his inner conflict to begin with? No one knows! He probably didn’t have any. He was awesome before he became Spider-Man and he’s even more awesome afterwards, especially now that it’s been established that he was the only one who could ever be Spider-Man thanks to Daddy Parker. Is this even a Peter Parker you recognize?
If it were up to me, this movie would have been an hour and thirty minutes. Cut out the bit with Rhino, spare the audience the painfully silly exposition bits (did you really need to show Peter Parker watching a how-to Youtube video about batteries? the guy makes his own web shooters, for crying out loud), forget that the conspiracy about Peter’s parents is even a thing, and voila: this movie would have been 100% improved. If it were up to me, this movie should really have taken a page out of Spider-Man 2, adopting a similar message about Peter Parker’s complacency and how he takes people for granted to his ultimate detriment. Instead, what could have been a thought-provoking, familiar message told in a new and refreshing way became a major letdown. This film had missed so many opportunities to really shine, and what’s even more infuriating is that they are missed because of a commitment to future sequels instead of a desire or any concerted effort to make this movie really work.
All the star power in the world isn’t enough to perform the miracle of vanquishing the stink of a crappy, convoluted film whose heart is in the wrong place and completely misunderstands what Spider-Man represents. Just when you think you have the story figured out, it switches gears to something totally unrelated. Bonus points for keeping viewers on their toes, but not at the expense of a clear, concise message. It seems that the writers were coming up with the story as it went on, and when they backed themselves into a corner, their solution was to write a new plot line to get themselves out of it. 
At the end of the day, sure, this movie isn’t as bad as the head-scratcher that was Spider-Man 3, but you know what? It came pretty damn close. And that makes all the difference.

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)

Not even the adorable goo goo eyes exchanged between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone could make Marc Webb’s Spider-Man sequel amazing. But there is at least one thing worth celebrating: Peter Parker finally has the good sense to use Google instead of Bing. 

Despite the promise of a talented cast such as the two mentioned above, returning champ Sally Field, and the addition of individually magnetic actors Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 missed the mark completely. It’s a damn shame, because its story had quite a lot of potential, but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted this movie to be and threw in everything and the kitchen sink. This resulted in a bloated, noisy affair that suffered from one too many villains and, worst of all, a bit of an identity crisis for the webbed superhero. While its predecessor, the largely unnecessary but somewhat entertaining The Amazing Spider-Man, wasn’t exactly worth writing home about either, the sequel continues to prove that this franchise reboot is less a celebration of everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and more about making money the laziest, least creative way possible. Why lazy and uncreative? Because the writers changed the characters’ origin stories for the sole reason that Sony wanted to jump on the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon (more on that later), even though they haven’t done enough to set this up for success. Because this film felt sloppy, squandering what could have been a potentially impactful storyline in favor of showy, over-the-top antics (I’m looking at you, Dr. Kafka). Because its musical score was so awful, I am forced to use hyperbole and declare that it nearly made my ears bleed. Because the addition of the X-Men: Days of Future Past post-credits teaser was tacky and the marketing equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen (spoiler alert: it’s never gonna happen, FOX and Sony). These are merely a few of the offenses made by Marc Webb’s disappointing sequel.

While the film was visually impressive and featured elaborate action set pieces, and the love story between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy was fun to observe as a third wheel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2's mistakes were egregious enough that they overshadowed these high points. The most glaring error was the lack of cohesion in the script. Not only were there too many things going on, but they seemed to be completely unrelated to each other. The story jumped from Peter Parker’s (Garfield) on-again-off-again romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), to his brief rekindling of friendship with heir to OsCorp throne Harry Osborn (DeHaan), to uncovering the secrets behind his parents’ mysterious deaths, to battling Blue Man Group wannabe Electro (Foxx)…there was a thing with Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti), a plot point involving Aunt May that was introduced and quickly forgotten…All this occurred probably only within the first hour of the film. These individual elements worked well in isolation and as mentioned before had tremendous potential, but Orci and Kurtzman failed to weave them together. The writing duo seemed to be making things up as the film went along, with only a vague sense of direction and a plan B that consisted of “Let’s just write ourselves out of this situation!” 

Warning: 1) spoilers to follow,  2) this is one of my more rant-ridden reviews, so proceed with caution, 3) this thing is hella long. I let my nerd rage loose on this one, so if you don’t like to read, well, that can’t be helped, really.

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VAGABOND (1985)
A naked young woman emerges from the waves, like a scene out of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. She is a mirage of beauty and warmth right now, as she frolics by the sun-soaked shore, but as weeks and months pass, she ends up cold and dead in a ditch. The circumstances of her demise begin a mystery in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, only to unfold as told through the eyes of those who encountered her on the road. It is learned that she calls herself Mona, a name whose significance isn’t lost on the viewer, as in Greek it means “solitary”. And solitude is merely one of the many subjects in Varda’s fascinating masterpiece of a woman’s life on the road. 
From people’s first recollections of Mona, it is clear that she is regarded as somewhat of a phenomenon. The way they talk about her, with equal parts confusion and fascination, makes it seem as though the goddess Venus herself descended from the heavens and lived for a time, at once  incomprehensible and seemingly inconsequential, among us lowly mortals. It is learned that she touched so many lives, whether she meant to or not, and as she floated from town to town with her trusty backpack, she unwittingly affected those around her with her devil-may-care attitude. Vagabond is a story of a particular kind of have-not, and its exploration of female homelessness hasn’t been portrayed in quite the same way before.
Mona (played by Sandrine Bonnaire), unkempt and unbridled, is a representation of many things. It has been said that Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus offers two interpretations of the goddess of love and beauty: That she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or one who inspired intellectual love in them (x). Vagabond offers both interpretations with the character of Mona, who fits this description to a T. She is at once alluring to the men who pass her by, and at the same time extremely confounding to those who try to understand her. In a way, this is Varda’s attempt to explore the feminine mystique, and to assert that women are complex creatures, capable of a voracity that is so often mistaken for hysteria. Society seems to want so badly to put women in a simple, pretty box that is easy to understand and devoid of multiple interpretations. This is especially clear in a scene where a man describes Mona as revolting, as she stumbles drunk and disoriented around a train station. A woman should not be acting this way, it seems. She should not be sleeping outdoors, either, and least of all by choice. One elderly woman chalks the whole situation up to Mona simply being unable to find a suitable husband.
And therein lies the subtle social commentary that makes Vagabond so interesting. The whole story is an enigma to its characters and the audience because it is so unusual. There are countless stories of male vagabonds, journeying across countries and continents in search of their raison d’être. Where are the stories for women? Do they not exist, or at least exist in fewer quantities or prominence, because society believes women do not have such existential crises? Are our lives simpler because if patriarchal society is to believed, all we have to do is pop out babies and the rest are just meaningless details? For instance, in one scene, a woman named Yolande expresses her frustration at the passionless relationship she and her boyfriend have. Her boyfriend Paulo just thinks she’s being hysterical, but the woman is yearning for fire, excitement, for something other than what this man has in mind for them. Dismissing female wants and desires as trivial has been the motif of many stories, and Vagabond challenges these ideas with a character who exists without much regard for the pressures society puts on her as a woman. And it’s frightening, especially for the men Mona encounters, to be so inexplicable. “Do I scare you?” Mona asks a bespectacled man who seems troubled by her wild, untamed hair. The truth is, her physical non-conformity is the least of his worries. It’s her refusal to allow herself to be categorized in an easily digestible manner that perturbs him.

Mona Bergeron is a complex character precisely because she’s hard to box in. The people she encounters during her travels are afraid of the absolute freedom she represents - freedom from rules, relationships and the romantic ideas that some people have about living on the road. Mona is no hippie flower child. She’s not adorned in flowing maxi dresses with daises in her hair, throwing peace signs about. She’s lived a life on the road for reasons she has chosen not to reveal, a secrecy that makes her character even more intriguing. The audience is never told of her background; in fact, Mona is an unreliable protagonist because she states up front and quite flatly to those who interrogate her that she simply lies when asked about her history. There’s something liberating about a character like that. Normally a character’s lack of back story would repel audiences because of our inherent need to comprehend. Yet Varda makes this work in Vagabond because Mona’s experiences serve as a mirror for society, and not necessarily a contribution to a character study. Varda has accomplished something amazing with Vagabond. She has managed to allow audiences a window into this brief life of an aimless wanderer, who actually turns out to be a means with which we can discuss issues of conformity and femininity.
"It seems to me she came from the sea," one woman recalls of Mona, again bringing forth parallels between the young protagonist and Botticelli’s Venus. The comparison is quite poignant and fitting. At the end of the day, whether Mona was the goddess Venus or not is insignificant, because all she ever wanted to do was be left to her own devices. To exist and not be judged for the choices she makes, may these choices be chain-smoking or refusing to bathe. Art aficionados and historians will always debate true interpretations of The Birth of Venus, just as we continue to argue about women’s place in a modern society. But maybe Venus just is, just as Mona just is - both women, and women can’t be put in boxes. To borrow the title of a Jean-Luc Godard film, “une femme est une femme” - a woman is a woman. And as Mona emphatically says in the film, sometimes "C’est ça!" - "That’s it!" No explanation, no elaborate or fantastic back story. And it should be good enough.  

VAGABOND (1985)

A naked young woman emerges from the waves, like a scene out of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. She is a mirage of beauty and warmth right now, as she frolics by the sun-soaked shore, but as weeks and months pass, she ends up cold and dead in a ditch. The circumstances of her demise begin a mystery in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, only to unfold as told through the eyes of those who encountered her on the road. It is learned that she calls herself Mona, a name whose significance isn’t lost on the viewer, as in Greek it means “solitary”. And solitude is merely one of the many subjects in Varda’s fascinating masterpiece of a woman’s life on the road. 

From people’s first recollections of Mona, it is clear that she is regarded as somewhat of a phenomenon. The way they talk about her, with equal parts confusion and fascination, makes it seem as though the goddess Venus herself descended from the heavens and lived for a time, at once  incomprehensible and seemingly inconsequential, among us lowly mortals. It is learned that she touched so many lives, whether she meant to or not, and as she floated from town to town with her trusty backpack, she unwittingly affected those around her with her devil-may-care attitude. Vagabond is a story of a particular kind of have-not, and its exploration of female homelessness hasn’t been portrayed in quite the same way before.

Mona (played by Sandrine Bonnaire), unkempt and unbridled, is a representation of many things. It has been said that Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus offers two interpretations of the goddess of love and beauty: That she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or one who inspired intellectual love in them (x). Vagabond offers both interpretations with the character of Mona, who fits this description to a T. She is at once alluring to the men who pass her by, and at the same time extremely confounding to those who try to understand her. In a way, this is Varda’s attempt to explore the feminine mystique, and to assert that women are complex creatures, capable of a voracity that is so often mistaken for hysteria. Society seems to want so badly to put women in a simple, pretty box that is easy to understand and devoid of multiple interpretations. This is especially clear in a scene where a man describes Mona as revolting, as she stumbles drunk and disoriented around a train station. A woman should not be acting this way, it seems. She should not be sleeping outdoors, either, and least of all by choice. One elderly woman chalks the whole situation up to Mona simply being unable to find a suitable husband.

And therein lies the subtle social commentary that makes Vagabond so interesting. The whole story is an enigma to its characters and the audience because it is so unusual. There are countless stories of male vagabonds, journeying across countries and continents in search of their raison d’être. Where are the stories for women? Do they not exist, or at least exist in fewer quantities or prominence, because society believes women do not have such existential crises? Are our lives simpler because if patriarchal society is to believed, all we have to do is pop out babies and the rest are just meaningless details? For instance, in one scene, a woman named Yolande expresses her frustration at the passionless relationship she and her boyfriend have. Her boyfriend Paulo just thinks she’s being hysterical, but the woman is yearning for fire, excitement, for something other than what this man has in mind for them. Dismissing female wants and desires as trivial has been the motif of many stories, and Vagabond challenges these ideas with a character who exists without much regard for the pressures society puts on her as a woman. And it’s frightening, especially for the men Mona encounters, to be so inexplicable. “Do I scare you?” Mona asks a bespectacled man who seems troubled by her wild, untamed hair. The truth is, her physical non-conformity is the least of his worries. It’s her refusal to allow herself to be categorized in an easily digestible manner that perturbs him.

Mona Bergeron is a complex character precisely because she’s hard to box in. The people she encounters during her travels are afraid of the absolute freedom she represents - freedom from rules, relationships and the romantic ideas that some people have about living on the road. Mona is no hippie flower child. She’s not adorned in flowing maxi dresses with daises in her hair, throwing peace signs about. She’s lived a life on the road for reasons she has chosen not to reveal, a secrecy that makes her character even more intriguing. The audience is never told of her background; in fact, Mona is an unreliable protagonist because she states up front and quite flatly to those who interrogate her that she simply lies when asked about her history. There’s something liberating about a character like that. Normally a character’s lack of back story would repel audiences because of our inherent need to comprehend. Yet Varda makes this work in Vagabond because Mona’s experiences serve as a mirror for society, and not necessarily a contribution to a character study. Varda has accomplished something amazing with Vagabond. She has managed to allow audiences a window into this brief life of an aimless wanderer, who actually turns out to be a means with which we can discuss issues of conformity and femininity.

"It seems to me she came from the sea," one woman recalls of Mona, again bringing forth parallels between the young protagonist and Botticelli’s Venus. The comparison is quite poignant and fitting. At the end of the day, whether Mona was the goddess Venus or not is insignificant, because all she ever wanted to do was be left to her own devices. To exist and not be judged for the choices she makes, may these choices be chain-smoking or refusing to bathe. Art aficionados and historians will always debate true interpretations of The Birth of Venus, just as we continue to argue about women’s place in a modern society. But maybe Venus just is, just as Mona just is - both women, and women can’t be put in boxes. To borrow the title of a Jean-Luc Godard film, “une femme est une femme” - a woman is a woman. And as Mona emphatically says in the film, sometimes "C’est ça!" - "That’s it!" No explanation, no elaborate or fantastic back story. And it should be good enough.  

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014)
If you ever need to deliver a crazy beat down to a horde of attackers, Iko Uwais is the man for the job.
The 31-year-old Indonesian actor, whose team efforts with director Gareth Evans in 2009’s Merantau and 2011’s cult hit The Raid: Redemption, earned him some buzz in the action movie landscape, is no stranger to a knock-down drag-out brawl. He reprises his role from Redemption in The Raid 2: Berandal, where his character Rama emerges from one life-or-death scenario to another, seemingly in a span of mere hours. Uwais, who performs his own stunts, never ceases to amaze, enduring volley after volley of attacks from multiple opponents, something that he surely is used to by now. But Berandal is not just another run-of-the-mill action flick. Its story is grand, with characters that seem to have emerged right out of a Shakespearean play.
Berandal picks up right where Redemption leaves off, with Rama as one of two survivors of a bloody massacre in a dilapidated crime syndicate’s base. He is about to throw in the towel, deciding that a life of battling organized crime may not be for him, when a personal blow thrusts him back into the fray. This time, Rama has to go deep undercover to get to the root of Jakarta’s criminal underworld. And nothing is as close to the belly of the beast as befriending the son of the most feared crime lord in Indonesia. What ensues is a story that is clearly more elaborate and much more painstakingly crafted than its humble predecessor, but whose recurring themes of family and legacy forge an unmistakable bond between the two films.
The Raid 2: Berandal is unsurprisingly quite the action-packed affair, with sequences that are so mind-blowingly relentless that viewers can almost feel the heat from all the excitement emanating from the screen. Uwais bounces from one brawl to the next, doling out the signature grappling moves that make the martial arts of pencak silat so unique. Director Gareth Evans clearly takes advantage of a bigger budget, experimenting with more creative ways to film these fast-paced, hard-hitting sequences and squeezing the most drama out of numerous exposition shots. This is certainly one of the things that separates the sequel from the original; Evans takes his time telling the story of Berandal. Where Redemption throws the audience (and Rama) into the thick of the action from the moment the camera rolls, Berandal patiently unfolds, giving the film a very different look and feel. Colors bleed into the screen and shots are more stylized in this ambitious sequel. The result is an adrenaline-fueled opera set on a bigger stage and with more dramatic flair. Berandal feels like a classier, grown-up Redemption, and is a well-executed sequel overall.  
(possible spoilers after the cut)
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Redemption worked because its simplicity, along with the straightforwardness of its story, married well with the gritty, minimalistic, guerrilla-style filmmaking. In making Berandal, however, Evans didn’t simply attempt to repeat the successes of Redemption. It’s obvious from the start of the sequel that the director was aiming much higher, giving audiences more action and more drama, delivered in a moodier, more atmospheric style. Berandal's story is more complex, with a focus on a seemingly indestructible web of corruption that plagues the streets of Jakarta. It's still a story of family and legacy, which is really where the heart of the series lies, but it plays out on a bigger stage, featuring much more colorful characters. The ambitious Uco, heir to the throne of Jakarta's largest, most feared crime syndicate, is a familiar archetype, portrayed brilliantly and with an almost King Joffrey-like brattiness by Arifin Putra. Alex Abbad’s gloved and perpetually bespectacled Bejo brought a more flamboyant, very theatrical villain to the forefront. Finally, the formidable trio of The Assassin (played by Cecep Arif Rahman), Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) certainly gave Iko Uwais a very entertaining albeit grueling run for his money, much to the audience’s delight.
While Berandal's moody exposition shots were great to look at and gave the film an expensive, refined quality, there did seem to be more of an emphasis on style over substance. Nothing too glaring to a point of extreme detraction, but enough for viewers to notice a clear difference between Berandal and Redemption. Both films’ action scenes were absolutely riveting and relentless (especially the final onslaught between Rama and Bejo’s right hand assassin, which were filmed in such a way that left viewers undoubtedly exhausted from just watching), but the somewhat haphazard way Redemption was filmed made its fight sequences seem more spontaneous and organic compared to Berandal's slightly staged, off-kilter ones. Berandal's bigger budget and playground becomes most apparent in its car chases and multiple filming locations. It was a nice change from the monotony (and simplicity) of Redemption's multi-level apartment building. One thing that the film could have done without, however, was making the characters abruptly switch to speaking English in a scene between the Japanese and Indonesian crime lords. The purpose of the switch was understandable, however neither the written lines nor their manner of delivery weren't good enough to justify it. It only succeeded in taking the audience out of the film, coming off like it was trying a bit too hard.

Redemption, however, ultimately felt more personal than Berandal. The sibling rivalry in Redemption grounded the film, giving it some heart. In Berandal, Rama is fueled by rage, wanting to avenge his brother’s death, but as the story progresses, this almost takes a backseat to the big picture of taking down the crime lords. Whether this was intentional, leading audiences to conclude that Rama was able to set aside his personal vendetta for “the greater good”, or merely the result of crafting a more complicated drama is unclear. What Berandal did very well was use the bigger stage and extended time for storytelling to highlight the often gray area situations of deep cover agents and how, often, corruption occurs when people venture into the dark side despite their good intentions. The character of Rama benefits from this extended storyline, and became more developed as a result of a more drawn out series of events. Whereas in Redemption Rama is a bit of a boy scout, in Berandal he gets his hands dirty (literally, as represented in the very stylized and very muddy prison brawl), often doing things that he never dreamed he would do. He has to swallow a bitter pill in the sequel, realizing that the road to peace is paved with more than just a few atrocities. 
Yours Truly’s personal preference still lies with the original film, but overall, The Raid 2: Berandal is a solid sequel to Redemption. It features more of everything audiences loved about the original film - action, drama and excitement - but on steroids. The film may be more stylized and involve more characters and settings, but it retains the stacked action that made the original so entertaining. While it has less of an emotional pull than Redemption, its engaging visuals and carefully crafted storyline manage to draw the audience in nonetheless.

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014)

If you ever need to deliver a crazy beat down to a horde of attackers, Iko Uwais is the man for the job.

The 31-year-old Indonesian actor, whose team efforts with director Gareth Evans in 2009’s Merantau and 2011’s cult hit The Raid: Redemption, earned him some buzz in the action movie landscape, is no stranger to a knock-down drag-out brawl. He reprises his role from Redemption in The Raid 2: Berandal, where his character Rama emerges from one life-or-death scenario to another, seemingly in a span of mere hours. Uwais, who performs his own stunts, never ceases to amaze, enduring volley after volley of attacks from multiple opponents, something that he surely is used to by now. But Berandal is not just another run-of-the-mill action flick. Its story is grand, with characters that seem to have emerged right out of a Shakespearean play.

Berandal picks up right where Redemption leaves off, with Rama as one of two survivors of a bloody massacre in a dilapidated crime syndicate’s base. He is about to throw in the towel, deciding that a life of battling organized crime may not be for him, when a personal blow thrusts him back into the fray. This time, Rama has to go deep undercover to get to the root of Jakarta’s criminal underworld. And nothing is as close to the belly of the beast as befriending the son of the most feared crime lord in Indonesia. What ensues is a story that is clearly more elaborate and much more painstakingly crafted than its humble predecessor, but whose recurring themes of family and legacy forge an unmistakable bond between the two films.

The Raid 2: Berandal is unsurprisingly quite the action-packed affair, with sequences that are so mind-blowingly relentless that viewers can almost feel the heat from all the excitement emanating from the screen. Uwais bounces from one brawl to the next, doling out the signature grappling moves that make the martial arts of pencak silat so unique. Director Gareth Evans clearly takes advantage of a bigger budget, experimenting with more creative ways to film these fast-paced, hard-hitting sequences and squeezing the most drama out of numerous exposition shots. This is certainly one of the things that separates the sequel from the original; Evans takes his time telling the story of Berandal. Where Redemption throws the audience (and Rama) into the thick of the action from the moment the camera rolls, Berandal patiently unfolds, giving the film a very different look and feel. Colors bleed into the screen and shots are more stylized in this ambitious sequel. The result is an adrenaline-fueled opera set on a bigger stage and with more dramatic flair. Berandal feels like a classier, grown-up Redemption, and is a well-executed sequel overall.  

(possible spoilers after the cut)

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