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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

It’s been five long years since megastar Tom Cruise shouldered the weight of a massive summer blockbuster, leaving many filmgoers to wonder if the controversial action hero still had his box office mojo. In between 2010’s forgettable Knight and Day and last spring’s Oblivion, Cruise starred in two holiday blockbusters (2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and 2012’s Jack Reacher), and turned up in a bit part in 2012’s Rock of Ages, a messy summer musical that didn’t give Cruise top billing even though he stole the movie away from the teeny-bopper stars headliners and seasoned veterans. While off-screen antics and tabloid rumors have certainly soured Cruise’s reputation, the actor’s newest film answers the question of whether or not Cruise could still hold his own in a season that now belongs to Marvel superheroes and computerized Transformers. Behold Edge of Tomorrow, a nimble and clever sci-fi blockbuster that finds Cruise once again punching and shooting his way through an army of rampaging aliens. Based upon the graphic novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge of Tomorrow passes up the brooding tone that many summer blockbusters have been opting for over the years, and instead works with a bubbly, old-fashioned formula of comedy and thrills that leaves you stumbling out to the parking lot with an invigorating rush and proudly declaring to your buddies or your date that you’d gladly take that ride all over again.

Edge of Tomorrow begins by explaining that mankind is locked in a brutal war with aliens called Mimics, which arrived on Earth in a fiery asteroid several years earlier. With nearly all of Europe conquered by the Mimics, the United Defense Forces issues an exoskeleton called “Jackets” to each and every solider, which gives the humans a fighting chance against the savage enemy. Hope is also found in Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), a fierce warrior who led the humans to victory at the battle of Verdun. Confidence is kept high by UDF spokesman Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise), who has been talking up Operation Downfall, a massive campaign that will launch thousands of soldiers into Europe to topple the Mimic menace. Much to his surprise, Cage is summoned by General Bringham (played by Brendan Gleeson), who informs Cage that he will be jumping into the fight and storming into Europe. Terrified, Cage attempts to resist the order, which leads to him being arrested by Military Police and forced to the front lines. Unable to work one of the “Jackets” and squeamish at the sight of blood, Cage stumbles his way into battle behind Master Sergeant Farell (played by Bill Paxton) and a slew of colorful soldiers. The UDF is stunned to learn that the Mimics were aware of the invasion and are waiting for the soldiers as they approach. In the thick of the battle, Cage manages to kill a Mimic, but just as he is about to die, he gets covered in alien blood, which gives him the ability to keep reliving the battle over and over again.

In the hands of director Doug Liman, Edge of Tomorrow delivers plenty of epic but not overly showy action sequences that are sure to dazzle sci-fi diehards. The scenes of “Jacket”-clad soldiers storming onto a bombed-out European beaches present themselves like a futuristic WWII, with drop ships decorated with sneering faces and pin-up girls spinning out of the sky in blazing balls of fire, and soldiers struggling to get their bearings as they stumble through sheets of sand and soot. It’s a gritty and unique combo that gives the opening stretch of Edge of Tomorrow a pulpy sting. While Liman knows how to throw you into the intensities of war, he certainly never allows the CGI mayhem to eclipse the film’s impressive characters or its welcome sense of humor. There are more than a few moments that are downright hilarious, from Cage sweating and panting as he attempts to hang with battle-tested soldiers that hoot and holler their way into the alien lines, to some amusing death scenes that barrel straight out of left field. Most of the humor emerges in the scenes between the “Full Metal Bitch” (Rita) and Cage, as she attempts to whip the fidgety Major into fighting shape. What’s even more impressive is the way that Liman lingers on the human interactions, allowing raw emotion to overpower some of the film’s best action sequences. You’re given plenty of time to care for these characters, and what’s even more exciting is that you take them with you past the end credits.

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While Cruise’s personal life may have left many groaning, no one can deny that the man hasn’t continuously churned out memorable performances over the past few years. Edge of Tomorrow is no different, as Cruise gets kicks around with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He seems right at home in the skin of Cage, and it’s a nice switch-up when we learn that his character can’t even stand the sight of a paper cut. He’s undoubtedly spirited, and he continues to hone the comedic chops he’s been fiddling with since 2008’s Tropic Thunder. Cruise also finds plenty of chemistry with the beautiful Blunt, who brings her icy disposition to Rita, Cage’s fierce ally who understands just what is happening with Cage. Naturally, the two form a romance fit for a popcorn movie, but it’s welcome as it melts Rita’s frosty exterior to reveal a haunted interior. Another surprise is Bill Paxton, who has kept a low profile over the past several years. He emerges with a thick southern accent and a fast tongue, strutting his way through the role of Farell with such smug confidence that you’ll keep wondering just where the heck this guy has been all these years. And then there is Gleeson, who stands firm as General Bringham, a stone-faced general who refuses to allow Cage to weasel his way out of combat.

While Edge or Tomorrow brims with excitement, the film does wander off a bit into conventional territory. The epic climax—while fun—grows increasingly formulaic and predictable as it unfolds before our eyes, and the whole exoskeleton thing looses a bit of its cool factor as it trails in the wake of Neill Blomkamp’s blazing Elysium. Some of the background characters, specifically the ragtag unit that Cage is assigned to, are eccentric but also a bit cliché. As far as the aliens go, Liman and his team think up a parasitic enemy that is difficult to comprehend as it burrows deep into the sand and then attacks with a sudden fury that shakes you out of your seat. Liman never lets them stand still for very long in the frame, allowing the audience blood-curdling glimpses that make the aliens all the more terrifying. Overall, while the climax fizzles out, Edge of Tomorrow exceeds all expectations with surefire direction, an entertaining script, a playful sense of humor, gritty action, and sincere performances that keep the project grounded even as nasty extraterrestrials threaten to wipe out humanity. Yet what Edge of Tomorrow ultimately proves is that Cruise is still dependable as an all-American action hero. He’s still got it, folks, and it sure is nice to see him back in the thick of the summer movie season.

Grade: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

X-Men-Days of Future Past

by Steve Habrat

Since its debut in 2000, the X-Men series has been a bit of a rocky superhero franchise. 2000’s X-Men was a likeable enough effort that emerged just a year before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man ignited superhero fever at the box office. Three years later, X2: X-Men United would be hailed by both comic book fanboys and critics as one of the best superhero films ever made, but that praise would fizzle when they laid eyes on 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which was a hollowed out finale that sent a wave of disappointment through X-Men nation. Things didn’t improve in 2009 with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a tacky solo outing for the franchise’s most popular character. Just when everyone thought all hope was lost, along came X-Men: First Class, a Cold War epic that thrilled moviegoers with a fresh cast and a clever script. Last year, the momentum created by X-Men: First Class slowed a bit with The Wolverine, a second solo outing that was marginally better than the Origins. So as you can see, X-Men fans always have a reason to be concerned whenever a new installment in the franchise is announced. As it turns out, X-Men: Days of Future Past is just as thrilling and exciting as X2: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class. With Bryan Singer (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) back in the director’s chair, this time-travelling adventure creates fireworks by smashing together the young talent of X-Men: First Class with the veteran cast of the original films.

X-Men: Days of Future Past picks up in post-apocalyptic 2023, with humans and mutants hunted and exterminated by hulking robots called Sentinels, which were originally designed to exclusively hunt and exterminate mutants. A small band of mutants including Professor X (played by Patrick Stewart), Magneto (played by Ian McKellen), Wolverine (played by Hugh Jackman), and Storm (played by Halle Berry) hatch a plan to use the time traveling abilities of young mutant Kitty Pryde (played by Ellen Page) to attempt to travel back to 1973 and prevent the creation of the Sentinels. The volunteer for this dangerous mission is Wolverine, who is tasked with stopping the shape-shifting Mystique (played by Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating pint-sized scientist Bolivar Trask (played by Peter Dinklage), the creator behind the Sentinels. As the Sentinels bear down on the mutants in the future, Wolverine must mend the friendship between a young Professor X (played by James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender) so that they can join forces and stop Trask together. This proves extremely difficult as Magneto once again attempts to break off from the group and embark on his own villainous path.

What ultimately made X-Men: First Class such a standout was the way that director Matthew Vaughn cleverly inserted familiar X-Men characters into the nuclear drama of the Cold War. It was the creative breath of fresh air that the franchise was in dire need of. Returning director Singer took note of this and catapults audiences back to the early ‘70s, during the last days of the Vietnam War. While the gunmetal action is certainly smooth and zippy in the future (the opening battle is one for the ages), what makes X-Men; Days of Future Past such a delectable treat is the way Singer mirrors Vaughn and seamlessly weaves these characters into American history. Throughout the course of the film, we hop over to Vietnam to meet a few grotesque mutants that have been fighting in the jungles of Saigon, and take a trip to the center of the Pentagon where Magneto is being held for the death of JFK. We also get to meet a pre-Watergate Richard Nixon, who hunches over his desk in the Oval Office and gruffly agrees that Trask’s Sentinel program is essential after witnessing mutants savagely show off their powers in Paris during a negotiation between the Americans and Vietnamese. It’s true that the ‘70s material overshadows the futuristic stuff every step of the way (even the Sentinels look much cooler in the past), but the gloomy apocalyptic destruction that Singer shows off does leave viewers curious about this perpetually dark dystopian future. Maybe he will dive in further down the line?

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By now you are well aware of what makes this X-Men film particularly special for comic books fans. Singer has recruited nearly every single actor or actress that has appeared in previous X-Men films, and boy, do they seem tickled to be back. While you could fill a book with the cast list, it would be criminal not mention some of the performances here. McAvoy once again reminds us that he is a silent talent in Hollywood, as it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes of his shaggy-haired hippie take on Professor X. Coming off his vile turn in 12 Years a Salve, Fassbender remains in villain mode as Magneto, a shaky ally in the quest to track down Mystique and stop her assassination attempt. Hugh Jackman’s enthusiasm for Wolverine remains in tact, seeming as cool and calm as ever while chomping on those cigars and waving around pre-metal claws. Jennifer Lawrence is all sexy confidence as Mystique, the deadly shape shifter who tirelessly fights for her fallen mutant brothers and sisters. Nicholas Hoult’s nebbish Beast still snarls and chomps with blue fury, and Evan Peters steals the entire movie as the speed demon Quicksilver. Every fan that made such a stink over the look of his character is going to instantly eat their complaints after they watch him dart playfully around the inside of the Pentagon. It’s the film’s best moment.

As far as veterans Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart go, both seem to be floating on cloud nine to be back in their respective roles. Stewart’s Professor X continues to give the series the emotional charge that he brought to the original three films, and McKellen remains as unpredictable as the master of metal, Magneto. The small-but-mighty Peter Dinklage proves to be a formidable foe for the X-Men, always using his commanding voice to give him an intimidating authority. With eyes that scream exasperation, he warns Congress of the mutant threat, and he watches grainy newsreel footage of Mystique with cold intrigue, desperate to get his hands on her blood, brain tissue, and spinal cord fluid to convert his devastating Sentinels into killing machines that can adapt to any threat. The ever-welcome Ellen Page returns to big budget blockbusters as Kitty Pryde, the girl who possesses the power to make this entire mission possible. Though she is given limited screen time, she makes the most of what she has. This limited screen time carries over to multiple other mutants, including Halle Berry’s Storm, who is basically handed an extended cameo to conjure up a wicked lightning storm. Berry is just one of the many familiar faces that pop in to say hello. I won’t spoil any of cameos here, but believe me when I say fans will walk out beaming with delight.

Though X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives in theaters with a budget of $200 million, the film remains surprisingly modest for a good majority of the runtime. The scenes set in 2023 are breathtaking and the fight scenes are buffed up with the expected CGI. The action set in the ‘70s seems plausible and practical, only really getting flashy during the final battle outside the White House. Much like the confrontation at the end of X-Men: First Class, the confrontation between good and evil has a slow burn approach. There is quite a bit of dramatic conversations and pleas, which proves to be just as thrilling as the fistfights and explosions. Just to add an extra layer of excitement, Fassbender’s Magneto shakes RFK stadium from its foundation and drops it over the White House, enclosing all the characters inside for colossal showdown. Another moment you’ll be talking about on the way home is Quicksilver’s giddy Pentagon infiltration, which wields a wicked sense of humor as he dodges bullets and dares to dip his finger in a pot of soup. Overall, X-Men: Days of Future Past is teeming with delights—it’s got the dramatic pull that the fans demand, it’s got the rollicking action that gets your gets your heart racing, and it’s fueled by stunning A-list cast that plays off of each other beautifully. While other challengers lay in waiting, X-Men: Days of Future Past is positioned to be the best superhero film of the summer.

Grade: A-

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1954, Japanese production company Toho Co. released director Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, an apocalyptic reflection about the dawning of the Atomic Age and the horrors of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla certainly didn’t shy away from delivering extended sequences of earth-shaking destruction, but the devastation was measured against absorbing human drama that made the film all the more eternal. In the wake of its release, Godzilla sparked “Kaiju” (Japanese for “giant monster”) fever around the world, leaving audiences with a hankering for more monster mayhem. In 1998, after multiple sequels that grew increasingly campy in quality, director Roland Emmerich decided to revive the king of monsters for American audiences, but the results proved disastrous and sent Godzilla sulking into the deepest depths of the Pacific for sixteen long years. After years of rumors and speculation about a new Godzilla movie in the works, we finally have director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, an old-fashioned blockbuster in the vein of early science-fiction creature features. Taking its sweet time to work up to the monster smashing and bashing, Godzilla 2014 goes the route of Honda’s ’54 original and injects both emotional weight and jittery nuclear paranoia right into the film’s heart. It’s an admiral attempt from a director whose only other directing credit is a low-budget indie movie from 2010 called Monsters. Despite some flailing human drama and more than a few avoidable clichés, Godzilla 2014 is an exhilarating rush that brings the legendary beast back to the silver screen with must-see style.

Godzilla 2014 begins in 1999 in Janjira, Japan, with nuclear physicist Joe Brody (played by Bryan Cranston) discovering strange seismic readings surrounding the nuclear power plant he works for. Despite Joe’s warnings to his superiors, work continues as usual at the plant, but when a tremor causes an explosion, the plant crumbles into ruin and sparks a mass exodus from the area. In all the chaos, Joe’s wife, Sandra (played by Juliette Binoche), is exposed to a deadly dose of radiation and is killed. In present day, Joe remains in Japan, convinced that the government is hiding something about that terrible day. Meanwhile, Joe’s estranged son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), diffuses bombs for the US Navy and lives in San Francisco with his wife, Elle (played by Elizabeth Olsen), and their young son. Upon returning home from a tour of duty, Ford is called to Japan to bail Joe out of jail for trespassing in the quarantine zone. Joe presents Ford with startling new information that suggests that the government has indeed been covering something up. The two travel back to Janjira to do a bit more snooping and collect some of Joe’s old data, but local authorities discover them and take them into custody. Joe and Ford are brought to the ruined nuclear plant, which is housing an egg-like sack that is emitting the same seismic readings Joe picked up on in 1999. After the egg hatches and produces a giant winged creature, the Brody’s team up with two scientists, Dr. Serizawa (played by Ken Wantanabe) and Dr. Graham (played by Sally Hawkins), and the military to track the monster down and kill it. As the military rushes to stop the creature before it can claim more lives, another similar beast is discovered in the Nevada desert. With military strikes proving useless against the creatures, only one hope remains to restore order—Godzilla.

For fans of old-fashion summer blockbusters and classic drive-in monster movies, Edwards’ Godzilla is a gift from the cinematic gods. The opening hour puts most of its emphasis on character development and exposition, teasing us from the opening credits with tiny little glimpses of the title beast. Of course, that isn’t to say that the opening hour of Godzilla is completely monster free. As the film’s promotional campaign has stomped on, it’s become increasingly clear that Godzilla isn’t the only beast turning cities to pebbles. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein pit Godzilla against not one, but two eight-legged terrors nicknamed MUTOs, which stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. The MUTOs are truly something to behold, and it is best not to reveal all of their secrets here, but just know that these critters are capable of some major carnage. To up the horror level, Edwards cleverly masks the MUTOs before really allowing us a good glimpse of them in broad daylight. The first time we see a MUTO, its concealed in flashing emergency lights as it fights its way out of a containment cage. From there, they are largely left in the dark, with helicopter spotlights and fiery wreckage illuminating their intimidating frame. It’s extreme effective and it keeps us strung along, always wanting just a little bit more of them. Keeping his monsters concealed also allows Edwards room to really deliver a grand finale that is the very definition of incredible.

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While the first hour of Godzilla is a bit slower than most mainstream audience members may be used to, Edwards understands why we plunked down our hard earned money for a seat in the theater. The film’s special effects are worth the price of admission alone, as there are some truly epic set pieces that will blow you into the lobby of the theater. The first encounter between one of the MUTOs and Godzilla is something that will give you a sharp chill of excitement, especially as Godzilla belts out a might roar that shakes your every organ. The rest of the encounter plays out mostly on television screens, but it still looks might impressive even at a distance. Some of the other awe-inducing set pieces include Godzilla’s watery arrival that leaves the streets of Honolulu flooded, a devastated Las Vegas that was briefly glimpsed in the trailer, a fiery train track encounter between a group of soldiers and one hungry MUTO, and a terrifying showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge that leaves soldiers gaping in horror at jets tumbling out of the overcast skies. Considering that this is Edwards’ first foray into multi-million dollar blockbuster territory, he handles it like a professional and he uses the moments as wicked teases for a final act that stomps the puny human dramatics. I won’t reveal much about the final royal rumble, but know that it is everything a monster movie aficionado could possibly hope for. It’s a cinematic achievement that truly makes you feel like you’re in the action, darting between the feet of warring gods who are determined to rip each other to ribbons.

As early reviews of Godzilla have poured in, much has been made about the scripts one-dimensional characters and the phoned-in performances from some respectable names. Leading the pack is Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, who really isn’t given much screen time. He gets a small window to show off that explosive temper his fans have come to know and love, but he also gives Godzilla some misty-eyed heartbreak that leaves you wishing there was more of him. Taylor-Johnson is second in command as Ford, a formulaic action hero who manages to make it out of every single life-threatening moment with a bit of mud on his face, a slight limp, and a bloody nick on his forehead. Together, Cranston and Taylor-Johnson make an appealing on-screen duo, but their partnership is short lived. Olsen is passable as Elle, Ford’s pretty wife who is simply asked to hug her son close, worry about Ford, push a hospital stretcher around, and run in fright from an advancing Godzilla. Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa mostly stands around in amazement of the death and destruction around him, but he is entertaining as he ominously explains Godzilla’s backstory and suggests that the monsters should duke it out. Sally Hawkins is wasted in the background role of Dr. Graham, a character who mostly dashes around after Wantanabe’s Dr. Serizawa. Rounding out the main cast is David Strathairn as Admiral William Stenz, the cookie-cutter military man in charge of nuking the rampaging abominations into ash.

The biggest question surrounding Edwards’ Godzilla is whether or not American audiences are ready to embrace these towering monsters again. Last year’s Pacific Rim—which was director Guillermo del Toro’s giddy comic book tribute to Toho’s line of legendary kaiju—suggested that they might not be, as it opened to low numbers despite critical acclaim. While Godzilla’s marketing campaign has sparked mysterious intrigue, it stands as a reinvention that remains fiercely loyal to the shadowy agony and radioactive paranoia of the original. Does this Godzilla come with the same complexity and depth as Honda’s original? Well, it re-establishes the big guy’s atomic roots, and it dares to echo recent tragedies such as nuclear meltdowns, earthquakes, and tsunamis. There’s no doubt that this Godzilla is thought provoking, even when it transitions into drive-in mayhem in the second act. As far as Toho’s most loyal fans go, some may be disappointed by the lack of screen time Godzilla receives, but I truly think it works, especially when we look back at Atomic Age classics that concealed their monsters until it was absolutely necessary to show them off. In addition, monster fans will also get a big kick out of the subtle tributes to other Toho Kaiju. (Check out the name of Wantanabe’s character!) Overall, while the character drama may not be especially noteworthy, Godzilla 2014 stands proudly as an extraordinarily grand piece of monster movie making. It is guaranteed to wow audience members of all ages, and send off those with a soft spot for classic monster movies with a nostalgic adrenaline rush.

Grade: B+

Neighbors (2014)

Neighbors #1

by Steve Habrat

Last summer, Seth Rogen made his directorial debut with the uproariously hilarious This Is the End, a star-studded apocalyptic comedy that revealed Rogen and fellow director Evan Goldberg’s affection for horror movies. In addition to writing and directing, Rogen also starred alongside fellow funnymen like James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel, all who brought their comedy A-game to the demonic shenanigans. This Is the End turned out to be one of the funniest and smartest comedies of recent memory—a film that left you wondering if the comedians involved could ever top some of the profanity-laced nuggets that were bursting forth from their sneering lips. Less than a year later, Rogen has shifted gears from fire-and-brimstone horror-comedies to frat-boy college romps with Neighbors, a routinely raunchy effort from the one of the reigning kings of comedy. Directed by Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Nicholas Stoller and produced by Rogen and Goldberg, Neighbors finds Rogen and his cast mates—Zac Efron, Dave Franco, and Rose Byrne—firing crusty condoms, dildos, stale beer, marijuana smoke, and alcohol-laced breast milk at the audience with demented precision. While there are more than a few good belly laughs to be had in Neighbors, some of the shock jokes lack the punch that Rogen and the filmmakers are hoping and praying that they have, leaving the audience feeling slightly underwhelmed and disappointed as they exit the theater.

Neighbors introduces us to Mac (played by Seth Rogen) and Kelly (played by Rose Byrne) Radner, a fun-loving married couple who are slowly trying to adjust to adulthood. In between marijuana breaks and pleading invites from their friends to come out to the bar, Mac and Kelly are also trying to raise their newborn daughter, Stella, in a quiet and stable environment. One day, Mac and Kelly learn that their new neighbors are members of Delta Psi Beta, a rowdy fraternity led by president Teddy (played by Zac Effron) and vice-president Pete (played by Dave Franco). Mac and Kelly politely welcome the fraternity to the neighborhood, and they make the simple request that that the boys keep the noise to a minimum. Teddy and Pete agree to the request, asking in return that the Radners don’t break up their parties by calling the police. The relationship between the Radners and the Delta Psi brothers gets off to a fine start, but after Teddy ignores the Radner’s request to quiet down one evening, Mac is forced to call the police to break up the party. Shocked that the Radners broke their promise, Teddy and the rest of the Delta Psi brothers declare war on the quiet couple next door. Refusing to be terrorized by the frat, Mac, Kelly, and their two friends, Jimmy (played by Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (played by Carla Gallo), begin plotting various ways to get the frat disbanded.

Before the obnoxious frat boys lug their snagged couches, neon beer signs, and marijuana leaf posters into the vacant house next door, Mac and Kelly are a couple reluctant to leave their hard-partying days behind. At work, Mac is coaxed by Jimmy to take a weed breaks behind their office building, and Kelly withers and shakes at an invite from Paula to come to the bar and go crazy. When Kelly and Mac finally agree to make the trip to the bar, they gather up a sleepy Stella, a myriad of baby essentials, and frantically try to rush out the door to get their drink on. Unfortunately, fatigue sets in and they collapse before they can even make it to the car. Mac and Kelly’s urges to jump back into the party scene are tempted even more when Teddy leads his fist-pumping frat brothers into their party mecca, where they quickly get to work planning an epic blow-out that will make them Delta Psi legends. It’s here that Mac and Kelly see their opening, even if that opening does come with a request to keep the noise down. One of the funniest moments of Neighbors comes when Mac and Kelly are invited over to join the insanity. With a baby monitor clipped to their pajama pants, Mac shovels mushrooms into his mouth while Kelly drunkenly swaps stories with a handful of sorority sisters about how she met Mac at college. In typical Rogen fashion, there is a lot of heart in these drunken bonds, as Teddy and Mac debate over who is the best Batman is (Keaton vs. Bale) and Kelly giggles as her stoned husband urinates with his new friend in a fountain.

Neighbors #2

Of course you already know that the relationship between the brothers of Delta Psi and the Radners heads south rather quickly. While there was plenty of raunchy material found in the quieter opening moments, this squabble gives way to sporadically jaw-dropping behavior. The beef begins small with slight little jabs from both ends, but Mac and Kelly take things to a new level when they flood the frat’s basement, giving the boy’s the idea to make homemade sex toys in an effort to rise money to pump the dirty water from their grimy basement. From there, it’s not holds barred, culminating in a breast-pumping debacle that ranks as the film’s most outrageous moment. From here, Rogen, Stoller, and screenwriters Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien can’t really devise a way to top themselves. There’s the hope that Seth Rogen’s hairy back, a dildo fistfight, an attempt at hot boxing an entire house, and a gruesome leg injury followed by urination can all push the envelope, but none of it really seems to get the laughs that everyone involved was hoping for. This isn’t to say that Neighbors looses it’s heart, wit, or entertainment value, but considering what audiences have been exposed to in the past, this all seems a little insipid.

While some of the gross-out gags may fizzle right before our eyes, the performances remain incredibly spirited throughout the runtime. Rogen is his usual gruff self as the scruffy Mac, a husky stoner who desperately wants to look cool in front of the toned fraternity brothers. The Austrian Byrne lets her wild side roar as Kelly, a ferocious momma bear who is incredibly skilled in turning Teddy and his gang against each other. She’s especially hilarious when she puts on her “cool” act in front of the gawking eyes of the Delta Psi gang. The most shocking turn among the cast is Zac Efron, who plays to his pretty boy image as Teddy, a sculpted bro who never misses a chance to shed his shirt and strut around like a Greek god. James Franco’s younger brother, Dave, continues to show off his comedic talents as Pete, the frat’s smirking vice president who layers on golf shirts during a black light party. As far as the supporting roles go, Christopher Mintz-Plasse is wasted in the small role of Scoonie, Barinholtz comes on a little too strong as Jimmy, and Gallo is a hot mess as the boozy Paula. Also, keep an eye out for the scene-stealing Lisa Kudrow as Carol Gladstone, the college dean who has a fascination for newspaper headlines. Overall, Neighbors may not be quite as wild and wooly as many were hoping it would be, but it still manages to be a clever and sweet little comedy about growing up and embracing adulthood. It’s also bound to leave many hard-partying audience members plotting a Robert DeNiro party this summer.

Grade: B

The World’s End (2013)

The World's End #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2004, America had the pleasure of being introduced to Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright, a trio of British funny guys who bowed at the cinematic alter of all things horror, action, science fiction, and exploitation. They burst into Hollywood with Shaun of the Dead, a warm and fuzzy romantic comedy…. with zombies. Shaun of the Dead was a surprise hit, even earning praise from the zombie godfather himself, George A. Romero. In the summer of 2007, Pegg, Frost, and Wright returned to theaters with Hot Fuzz, a razor-sharp marriage of the slasher genre and the buddy cop action genre that threatened to be even better than Shaun of the Dead. It was around this time that you started hearing that these films were part of a trilogy that Wright was calling his Cornetto trilogy. After another lengthy wait, the trio have finally brought their Cornetto trilogy to a close with The World’s End, a smashing nod to classic science fiction films from the 1950s all the way to the 1980s. Wright and his starring duo have already proven themselves as experts at mashing up multiple genres of film and The World’s End finds them once again at the top of their game. This midlife crisis comedy flows with laughs, blue blood, brilliant characters, superbly choreographed fistfights, heartfelt drama, and enough beer to have the most seasoned beer drinkers screaming uncle and running for the bathroom.

The World’s End introduces us to Gary King (played by Simon Pegg), a forty-year-old wash up that is stuck living in the past. In his youth, Gary and his four closest friends participated in a pub-crawl called the Golden Mile, which consisted of twelve pubs scattered throughout their hometown of Newton Haven. The boys were unable to finish the crawl, but Gary remembers it fondly as the greatest night of his life. After growing frustrated with rehab, Gary tracks down his four best friends—Andy (played by Nick Frost), Peter (played by Eddie Marsan), Oliver (played by Martin Freeman), and Steven (played by Paddy Considine)—in the hopes of convincing them to reattempt the Golden Mile and this time making it to The World’s End, the final bar in the crawl. Despite having moved on with their lives, the gang decides to join Gary in the pub-crawl. It doesn’t take long for the gang to start bumping into familiar faces from their youth, but it seems that their old friends don’t recognize them at all. After a bathroom scuffle with a group of freakishly strong and blank-faced teenagers, the group discovers that the citizens of Newton Haven have all been turned into robots. Confused, buzzed, and terrified, the group decides to continue on with their crawl in an attempt to blend in, but it doesn’t take long for the group to blow their cover. Teaming with Oliver’s beautiful sister, Sam (played by Rosamund Pike), and a handful of normal locals, the group begins a fight to remain human… and make it to The World’s End.

For those who aren’t cinema buffs or seasoned vets of the Cornetto trilogy, the main focus of these three films has been to pick a genre of film (horror, action, science fiction) that Wright, Pegg, and Frost adore and pay tribute to the classic films within that genre, all while tucking a heartfelt and relatable storyline inside the nods. After giving the viewer a chunk of time to get to know the characters, The World’s End sets its sights on the classic science fiction films from the Cold War/drive-in era all the way to the films like John Carpenter’s The Thing. When the robot-aliens finally make their presence known, the narrative of The World’s End begins to heavily borrow from Don Siegel’s 1956 sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Wright then sprinkles in hints of the 1978 remake, but these lean more towards the visual end. Genre fans should also be on the lookout for nods to The Day the Earth Stood Still and a scene-stealing ode to John Carpenter’s The Thing. Wright smartly understands that these classic films were heavy with politics and social commentary, and he converts these nods into a hilarious comment on modern day conformity. The best use of this commentary comes when the guys start the crawl and realize that the colorful bars that they use to frequent as boys have been scrubbed of their small-town individuality and converted into Starbuck-esque establishments. It’s a running gag that never gets old.

The World's End #2

The theme of conformity continues in the characters, especially Andy, Oliver, Peter, and Steven. These guys have tried desperately to distance themselves from their hard-partying days and embraced a happy family, a cozy desk job with a mound of benefits, expensive suits, and a fancy home in the suburbs. We sense their boredom early on and we roll our eyes when they tell the free-spirited Gary to grow up and get serious with his life. Pegg easily gives the strongest performance of his career as Gary, the ultimate party animal who just can’t say “no” to a cold pint and a bag of weed. I really don’t think I have seen Pegg throw himself into a role with this much enthusiasm before and I thought he was a ball of energy in the Star Trek films! Frost breaks away from playing the slouching slacker that he played in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and takes the uptight route as Andy, who hasn’t had a drink in fifteen years and is flat out appalled by Gary’s loose-cannon behavior. Watching Andy and Gary try to rekindle their relationship is awkward, hilarious, and moving all at the same time. Marsan is another scene-stealer as the geeky Peter, who appears to be petrified of his own family and bottling up pain from being bullied. When he starts downing the brews and the shots, he is an absolute riot. Freeman’s Oliver is your usual businessman with a Bluetooth shoved in his ear and Considine is a fitness nut dating a younger girl. Pike is sweet and scrappy as Oliver’s sister, Sam, who is pursued by both Steven and Gary. Pierce Brosnan also makes a special appearance as Guy Sheppard, an old guidance counselor from the gang’s high school.

Where The World’s End hits a snag is in the final confrontation between the gang and the alien invaders that are hiding out in Newton Haven. Just before the two parties meet, there is a surprisingly emotional heart-to-heart between Gary and Andy that will have a good majority of viewers getting a bit misty-eyed. The dramatic moment is pierced by a drawn-out war of words with the alien force. Wright is slyly paying tribute to some of the lower-key climaxes of the sci-fi films from the 50s, where the all-American hero came face-to-face with the alien invaders and engaged in a heated discussion about the alien’s intentions. While it is smart on Wright’s end, it does throw the film’s momentum way off and it feels like we’ve hit a brick wall for a good ten minutes. Thankfully, Wright recovers with some seriously epic destruction that will get the heart pounding again. Overall, The World’s End may not be my personal favorite film of the Cornetto trilogy, but I still found myself getting wrapped up in the emotional sweep at the climax, laughing at the quick wit, hanging on the action sequences, and beaming over the love letter homages. This is one cocktail that may suffer from a bit of backwash near the end, but will still leave you with one hell of a buzz that is guaranteed to last for days.

Grade: B+ 

The Butler (2013)

The Butler #2

by Steve Habrat

It isn’t uncommon for one or two Oscar hopefuls to sneak into movie theaters near the end of the summer, when the aliens have been battled back into space and the superheroes have hung up their capes until next May. It really is a nice change of pace considering that blockbuster fatigue does begin set in by early August. Recently, hype has been slowly building around Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, but for weeks now there has been plenty of talk about director Lee Daniels’ star-studded new picture The Butler, a film that is bound and determined to get some sort of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Butler is certainly an absorbing drama that digs deeply into a wound on American history, a wound that still hasn’t quite healed up. Based upon the life of Eugene Allen, Daniels’ latest effort is bursting at the seams with performances from a roster of Hollywood who’s who, and one that is carried off into the clouds by the always-fantastic Forest Whitaker, who should probably start ordering a tux right now for Hollywood’s big night. While there is plenty of family melodrama and quiet personal anguish that pierces the heart, Daniels may have missed a shot at the Best Picture and Best Director category due to a few bungled sequences that resemble something you might see on a made-for-TV movie, not something you’d see in an Oscar hopeful.

The Butler begins in 1926, with a young Cecil Gaines witnessing his father (played by David Banner) being gunned down after speaking up about the harassment that his wife (played by Mariah Carey) has been enduring at the hands of the vile cotton plantation owner. The young Cecil, who has been learning how to work the cotton fields, is soon pulled from under the hot Georgia sun brought into the plantation household to learn how to act as a house servant. A few years later, Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) leaves the plantation and ends up landing a job as a butler at the Hotel Excelsior in Washington D.C. After charming a handful of Washington bigwigs, Cecil is contacted by the White House about a job as a butler for the Eisenhower administration. Cecil accepts and quickly becomes a favorite among the White House staff as he silently observers multiple presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (played by John Cusask), and Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman)—and the difficult decisions they are tasked with making. Meanwhile, Cecil’s home life begins to suffer as his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey), develops a drinking problem and falls into the arms of another man (played by Terrence Howard), his oldest son, Louis (played by David Oyelowo), gets swept up by the Civil Rights Movement, and his youngest son, Charlie (played by Elijah Kelley), gets shipped off to Vietnam.

With so much history to cover, you fear that The Butler’s two hour and ten minute run time may not be quite enough to do it all justice, but Daniels handles a majority of it with ease. Sadly, there are a few years that are reduced to a quick-cut montage of fuzzy stock footage. Some of the more violent stretches are sanitized for a PG-13 audience but there are still a handful of images that manage to haunt (a pair of black men hanging battered and bloodied are a grim warning and the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination are appropriately angry and raw). One of the most powerful stretches of The Butler is a sequence that finds Cecil preparing a ritzy White House dinner while his son and a handful of his friends march proudly into a diner and request service in the non-colored section. The sequence is superbly edited together and it effectively builds tension in the way it closes itself around the viewer, backing us into a corner as white-hot hate crashes all around. This particular sequence doesn’t mince words but there are a number of scenes that seem defanged. One of the softer moments comes when Cecil’s son Louis is bopping along happily on a bus with his Freedom Rider friends when their bus is suddenly cornered by an enraged group of KKK members. Rather than allowing the action to play out at normal speed, Daniels makes the perplexing decision to bring the violent encounter to a slow-motion halt in an awkward attempt to really underline the fact that these hate-spewing monsters are the very definition of evil. This moment, which should have you holding your breath, comes off like something you’d see in a History Channel documentary rather than a Hollywood movie. I suspect that at normal speed, this scene would have had both black and white viewers covering their mouths in horror.

The Butler

Carefully worked into this historical tour is a melodramatic portrait of a family that is on the verge of coming apart. Cecil is forced to quietly keep his composure as he brings tea right into the Oval Office and face individuals who are fully capable of doing something about the racial tensions ripping America to shreds. Watching Whitaker tackle this role is never short of amazing and the way he allows us to glimpse his heavy heart through his sad eyes is really something special. He’s a frustrated father, an absent husband, and warm face that greets school children with a plate of cookies as they arrive at the White House for a field trip tour. Winfrey, meanwhile, is a huge surprise as Cecil’s bored housewife, who turns to the bottle and another man to fill the empty gap in her life. Winfrey is absolutely on fire in a sequence in which she berates a fatigued Cecil as he tries to get some sleep. Then there is Oyelowo’s Louis, Cecil’s pissed off son who is sickened by the way his people are being treated. He starts out with small protests that earn him a night or two in jail (as well as a pot of hot coffee thrown in his face) only to graduate into the Black Panthers with a grimacing galpal that tells the conflicted young man that she is willing to kill for her people, a statement that forces Louis to look inward and find an alternative way to help African Americans earn equal rights. He’s equally as strong as Whitaker every step of the way.

As far as the rest of the all-star cast goes, they’re somewhat of a mixed bag. Williams is as good as ever in his few scenes as Eisenhower, Mardsen is grossly miscast as the charismatic Kennedy, Schreiber is a ball of energy as Johnson, Cusack is slouched defeat as Nixon, and Rickman is a showy and unbending Reagan. Jane Fonda turns up in a brief appearance as Nancy Reagan, who invites the popular Cecil to a White House dinner that he’d normally be serving. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz offer up strong supporting roles as two other butlers at the White House who become chummy with lovable old Cecil. David Banner’s small but affectionate role as Cecil’s father is impressive and Carey is completely wasted (and barely recognizable) as Cecil’s abused mother. Nelsan Ellis appears in a small role as Martin Luther King Jr., but his presence doesn’t seem to pack the wise wisdom that it so desperately wants. Daniels should have left him to the stock footage that he liberally uses as the film’s guiding track. Overall, The Butler is certainly a handsome film (don’t forget to take in the meticulous sets and period clothing) and one that sets out to encourage every single viewer—whether they are white, black, young, or old—to reflect on the topic of race in America. It certainly does spark a bit of reflection on the issue, but the film is just a bit too innocuous to really shake things up like it wants. However, The Butler is still an entertaining film that features a powerhouse performance from Whitaker.

Grade: B+

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick Ass 2 #1

by Steve Habrat

Anytime someone asks me to list off a few of my favorite superhero movies, I always make sure to include director Matthew Vaughn’s full-throttle 2010 offering Kick-Ass among my top picks. I am a huge fan of the controversial original, loving it so much that I even included it in my top ten films of 2010 list. I found the film to be a hugely entertaining sugarcoated parody of the superhero genre and a work that had its fingers firmly on the pulse of the new teen generation. Plus, it features two must-see performances from Nicholas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz. It should come as no surprise that news of a Kick-Ass sequel grabbed my attention and had me very excited. After a little over three years, Kick Ass and his merry band of misfit teen superheroes and super villains return in Kick-Ass 2, a surprisingly rushed and flawed follow-up to the anarchic original. There’s no denying that Kick-Ass 2 is plagued by flat filmmaking, sloppy scenes, one very shaky performance, and way too many characters to flesh out, but the film still manages to be a madcap rush, all while smartly lampooning a generation brought up on the glow of an iPhone screen, social media, One Direction, and bath salts.

Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, comic book fanatic Dave Lizewski (played by Aaron Taylor Johnson) has decided to retire his Kick Ass persona. He shuffles through school in a daze thinking back on his run as a high-profile superhero and considers hopping back in the saddle. After some contemplation, he decides to reconnect with former ally Mindy Macready AKA Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), who is now in the care of her deceased father’s closest friend, Sergeant Marcus Williams (played by Morris Chestnut). Mindy agrees to help get Dave back on his feet but she is quickly forced to hang up her cape after Marcus discovers that she is still taking to the streets as the ferocious Hit-Girl. It doesn’t take Dave long to discover that his Kick-Ass persona has inspired a slew of costumed vigilantes that are eager to pick up where he left off. Fellow masked vigilante Dr. Gravity (played by Donald Faison) soon recruits Dave to join the vigilante group “Justice Forever,” an organization run by the mysterious Colonel Stars and Stripes (played by Jim Carrey). Meanwhile, Dave’s former superhero partner Chris D’Amico AKA Red Mist (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is busy plotting his revenge against Kick-Ass. Redubbing himself The Motherfucker, Chris begins recruiting a gang of psychopaths that will aid him on his quest of tracking down Kick-Ass and destroying New York City.

With Vaughn out of the director’s chair and serving only as producer, the Kick-Ass franchise has been handed over to Jeff Wadlow, the man responsible for such films as Cry Wolf and Never Back Down. Wadlow quickly proves that he has a handle on action-oriented sequences of Kick-Ass 2, as the same blood-drenched carnage that cut through the original film quickly comes roaring back with a vengeance. There are a number of stand out scenes including a back alley brawl that manages to capture some of the giddy shock that pulsed through our first encounter with Hit-Girl, back when she hacked through a living room of thugs as the inexperienced Kick-Ass looked on in absolute disbelief and horror. There is also a claustrophobic fistfight between “Justice Forever” and a room of seedy gangsters (capped off with a dog chewing off a gangsters unmentionables), a fiery suburban battle between the hulking Mother Russia (played with gusto by Olga Kurkulina) and a slew of cops (wait for a visual gag including a lawn mower), and a massive final showdown that looks like Wadlow took a bunch of neighborhood kids to see the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, told them to go home and make their own superhero or supervillian costumes, and then take to the streets to duke it out. It’s all very entertaining and guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that is, if you can stomach blood, spit, and chunks of flesh flying across the screen.

Kick Ass 2 #2

While the action is good and gory, Kick-Ass 2 really begins to clutter itself with numerous characters that all seem undercooked. The first time around, Aaron Taylor Johnson was the star of the show and everyone else was just a colorful supporting player, but with this film, he has to share the limelight with Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Johnson is still bursting with lovable geeky charm and its fun to see him with sharper fighting skills when he throws the green wet suit on, but when Chris D’Amico begins targeting his personal life, his character’s inner struggle with throwing on the mask seems snubbed. Meanwhile, the heavy focus on the fan favorite Mindy/Hit-Girl is certainly welcome, but it seems like it is treading on the toes of Dave’s story. Mind you, Mindy’s plotline is still clever, one that reflects upon her pursuit of a normal life and trying to fit in with the popular girls at school. Moretz is such a talented young actress and she brings real bite when she is forced to turn the tables on the cheerleading clique that dares wrong her. Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Jim Carrey as the scene-stealer Colonel Stars and Stripes, a born again ex-mob enforcer with some foul chompers and a habit of taking a baseball bat to the REALLY bad guys. Carrey is really only in the film for about twenty minutes, which is a shame because you want to know more about him. Instead, his backstory is relegated to a handful of exchanges between other “Justice Forever” members that he has taken the time to mentor.

Perhaps the weakest player in the cast is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris/The Motherfucker. There is no doubt in my mind that Plasse absolutely loves this role, but his over-the-top approach to the character begins to feel cheap after a while. His character is built simply to shock at every turn, making you long for something to really drive his evil scheme. It doesn’t help that his comedic timing seems to be on the fritz. As far as the supporting players go, Faison is on point but underused as the smiley Dr. Gravity, returning cast member Clark Duke has softened as Dave’s best buddy Marty/Battle Guy, Robert Emms is fidgety as the homosexual do-gooder Insect Man, and Lindy Booth is bubbly and sexy as the femme fatale Night-Bitch. Booth’s Night Bitch is established as a love interest for Kick-Ass, but by the end, its gone without a trace. As far as the bad guys go, Kurkulina is pure roid rage as the one-woman-army Mother Russia, Andy Nyman is pure sleaze as The Tumor, Daniel Kaluuya is wasted menace as Black Death, and Tom Wu is filler as Genghis Carnage. Basically, all most of them are asked to do is march behind Plasse and scowl into the camera, although there is a bad ass battle between pint sized Hit Girl and stone cold Mother Russia. The most cringe-worthy character of all is probably Augustus Prew’s Todd, Dave’s dim former buddy who joins sides with The Motherfucker and then acts surprised that he did. It’s about as underwritten as characters get, especially ones that double-cross their buddies.

While some botched supporting characters and graphic violence play tug of war, the intimate moments are the ones that really could have used more attention from the filmmakers. There are times when heartfelt exchanges feel like they were written with graphic novel dialogue and it doesn’t help that some of these scenes feel like Wadlow simply aimed his camera at one of the Kick-Ass graphic novels and hit record. The best of the serious-minded moments comes when the “Justice Forever” team takes turns explaining why they decided to put on masks and fight crime. It may be a slightly lazy double for brief character development, but a few of the stories do strike a chord and have an eerie sense of realism about them. The saving grace to the bland presentation and stiff dialogue is the fact that, once again, the project dares to prod teen culture of today. Overall, amidst the numerous problems that plague Kick-Ass 2, there is still some enjoyment to be found. Carrey hits the crazy button with an oversized Acme hammer and then whispers warm advice that cuts right to the heart of our young heroes, the action is just as crazy/disturbing/cool as it was the first time around, and you just gotta love that Hit-Girl. If you’re in the target audience or willing to keep an open mind, Kick-Ass 2 will make for a passable night at the movies.

Grade: B-

District 9 (2009)

District 9

by Steve Habrat

Before August of 2009, the summer movie season had largely been an uneventful one. About the only films worth talking about were the spiffed up reboot of the sagging Star Trek franchise and Pixar’s Up, which was a heartfelt tribute to the spirit of adventure in all of us. Then August 14th arrived and the summer movie season received the electric shock that it severely needed. Enter Neill Blomkamp, a little known South African director who had been developing a Halo movie with producer Peter Jackson. With their Halo project abandoned, Blomkamp and Jackson opted to make District 9, a gritty, Johannesburg-set science-fiction allegory for apartheid that was based on Blomkamp’s 2005 short film Alive in Joburg. Celebrated as one of the most original sci-fi films of recent memory, District 9 boasts creativity as far as the eye can see, featuring a breathless pace, gruesome action that isn’t for the faint of heart, imaginative extraterrestrials, alien weaponry guaranteed to make geeks everywhere giddy, and a classic performance from first time actor Sharlto Copley. As if a strong late summer opening and critical acclaim weren’t enough for District 9, the film went on to earn a surprising four Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Not too shabby for a $30 million sci-fi actioner that could have easily been overlooked by the stuffy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

District 9 begins by explaining that in 1982, a UFO came to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. After hovering motionless for several days, an investigation team entered the ship and discovered thousands of malnourished aliens fighting for their lives. With the world watching, the South African government rounded up the aliens and moved them to a government camp called District 9, which is located just outside of the city. After several nasty run-ins between the locals and the aliens (the locals refer to them as “Prawns”), the government created Multinational United, a company that is tasked with moving the aliens to District 10, a new camp further outside Johannesburg. The man in charge of this project is Wikus van de Merwe (played by Sharlto Copley), a lowly MNU employee who receives a promotion from company executive Piet Smith (played by Louis Minnar), who also happens to be Wikus’ father-in-law. Wikus and a heavily armed task force arrive in District 9 to serve eviction notices, but while investigating, Wikus stumbles upon a laboratory set-up in the home of Christopher Johnson (played by Jason Cope), a clever alien capable of piloting the massive UFO back to alien’s home planet. While snooping around the lab, Wikus finds a small canister that contains a thick black fluid. After accidentally spraying himself in the face with the liquid, Wikus begins mutating into an alien and finds himself being hunted by the corporation that once employed him.  With MNU closing in, Wikus takes shelter in District 9 and seeks the help of Christopher, who agrees to fix Wikus if he agrees to help Christopher get to the alien mothership.

Opting for a “found footage” style over a conventional approach, District 9 is instantly given a much more intimate feel through a series of downtrodden interviews, cinema vértité-esque exchanges and encounters in the field, and stock footage news reports that aid in the exposition. This approach instantly separates District 9 from the rest of the sci-fi bunch (well, except maybe from Cloverfield, which applied the “found footage” style to prey upon our post 9/11 paranoia). The middle section of the film finds Blomkamp largely abandoning this approach only to re-embracing it in the action packed climax. Yet we don’t even notice that Blomkamp has dropped this style because we have completely lost ourselves in this alternate reality. When the whirlwind of action blows through the climax, the breaking news reports and the surveillance footage adds a brutal edge to the violence. People are ripped apart by alien weaponry, spaceships crash into dilapidated huts, alien droids send bullets rocketing back at the MNU forces, and that motionless spaceship begins to move. Through all of this chaos, we hold our breath for Wikus, who is the sole cause of all of this bloodshed.

District 9 #2

On its own, District 9 would have had enough creative juice in the tank to allow it to cross the finish line, but Blomkamp made the wise decision to cast his real-life buddy Sharlto Copley as Wikus. Copley, who had never acted before this, throws himself into the role as if he may never get the chance to star in a summer movie again. Believe me when I say that he takes a really good movie and makes it great. The off-the-cuff scenes of Wikus fumbling with his microphone add a bit of humor to a film that is gravely serious and a scene in which Wikus gushes over his wife for the cameras is truly a touching moment. Even though he may be a giant loveable dweeb in the slower scenes, Copley shows he can run with the big dogs when the action explodes. Copley also shares plenty of tender moments with Cope’s Christopher Johnson, a resourceful alien who will do whatever it takes to protect his precocious young son. David James is particularly vicious as Colonel Koobus Venter, the brutal muscle of the MNU tasked with hunting the terrified Wikus down. Eugene Khumbanyiwa gives a grotesque turn as Obesandjo, the paralyzed leader of the Nigerian arms dealers who has a stomach-churning taste for alien flesh. Together, James and Khumbanyiwa form a particularly nasty thorn in Wikus’ side and make for two seriously memorable movie villains. Vanessa Haywood balances out the evil as Tania, Wikus’ heartbroken wife who wonders if she will ever see her husband again.

While District 9 has plenty of action and gee-whiz wonder at its core, the film does have quite a bit of depth to it. It is no secret that District 9 is an allegory for the apartheid era that gripped South Africa during the 1960s and there certainly is an exploration of racism, which allows the film to retain a lasting relevance. The heady ideas are a nice touch and they are smartly balanced out in between the mesmerizing performances, gut-punch action, and the breathtaking pacing. And I can’t forget to mention the impressive special effects executed on a shoestring budget. The aliens are cool and that spaceship that looms over ever shot consistently fills us with sublime wonder. As far as flaws go, there are very few to be found within District 9, although there are a couple of plot points that could have been elaborated on but that would just be nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. Overall, upon your first viewing of District 9, there is absolutely no way you can walk away untouched by it. It is fueled by pure vision and adrenaline, and this strange brew is spiced up with a performance from Sharlto Copley that genre fans will be talking about for years to come. No matter how many times you see District 9, it is always like watching it for the first time. It deserves to join the ranks of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

Grade: A+

District 9 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Elysium (2013)

Elysium #1

by Steve Habrat

In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp took moviegoers by storm with his hugely original directorial debut District 9, a grungy science-fiction gift from the gods that acted as an allegory for apartheid in Johannesburg. Made with only $30 million, District 9 went on to make $37 million its opening weekend and earn almost unanimous praise from both critics and audiences for being one of the most unique and human science fiction films to come around in years. District 9 then went on to earn four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, a huge surprise considering it was a summer action movie. After a grueling four-year wait, Blomkamp finally returns to the science fiction genre with Elysium, which finds the director digging deeper into the politics that he hinted at with District 9. While not quite as invigorating as District 9, Elysium still finds Blomkamp at the top of his game, crafting another pedal-to-the-metal sci-fi thriller around heady ideas and left-wing politics. Elysium doesn’t shy away from current hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class warfare, but the film still finds plenty of time to keep audiences hooked with a full story, immaculate special effects, and a handful of extraordinary performances from a group of gifted actors. Did I mention that it is also pretty powerful?

Elysium begins in 2154, with Earth being an overcrowded and polluted wasteland. The human population has been split into two groups: the wealthy, who have fled Earth and moved to the ritzy space community Elysium, and the poor, who are left to fend for themselves in the slums on Earth. Among those living in the slums is Max (played by Matt Damon), an ex-con who is trying to get his life back on track. Max spends his days working a factory job at the Armadyne Corporation, the company that is responsible for building Elysium, and his evenings dreaming of moving to the glamorous city in the sky with his childhood love, Frey (played by Alice Braga). After being exposed to deadly levels of radiation at work, Max learns that he has only five days to live. Desperate, Max hatches a plan to make his way to Elysium, where there exists Med-Pods, which are able to cure human beings of any illness or injury in seconds. Max seeks out his old friends, Spider (played by Wagner Moura) and Julio (played by Diego Luna), who have ways of sneaking Max into the heavily guarded space community. Spider agrees to help Max under one condition: that he helps steal valuable information from Carlyle (played by William Fichtner), Armadyne’s shady CEO. With his strength diminishing by the minute, Spider provides Max with an exoskeleton that gives him superhuman strength to carry out the mission. As Max closes in Carlyle, he realizes that the information Spider is after will change the world forever. However, waiting for Max is Jessica Delacourt (played by Jodie Foster), the iron-fisted defense secretary of Elysium, and her psychotic mercenary, Kruger (played by Sharlto Copley), who will stop at nothing to keep Max out of Elysium.

Ditching the found footage approach that he used in District 9, Blomkamp allows Elysium to unfold in a much more conventional manner. The bulk of it isn’t comprised by expository interviews or shaky news reports from an alien warzone, but rather classic storytelling that retains the same antsy sense of urgency that made District 9 such an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. Elysium means business and it is bound and determined to give you your money’s worth, especially in the action and effects department. At about the forty-minute mark, Blomkamp sends the bullets and bombs flying, and he does it in the most eye-popping way imaginable. He has guard droids getting blown to bits by exploding bullets in slow motion, spaceships zooming in and out of Earth’s atmosphere with heat seeking missiles hot on their tail, and a climatic fistfight between Kruger and Max that is sure to take your breath away. It should be noted that even though Elysium is a late summer movie, Blomkamp certainly doesn’t soften up his violence. Humans are torn to shreds by an array of advanced weaponry, one character gets a whole blown right into their face, another gets stabbed in the neck with a shard of glass, and the scene in which Max gets fitted with the exoskeleton has a few graphic moments that will make you cringe.

Elysium #2

In addition to his refusal to soften on the breakneck pacing and the flesh-ripping violence, Blomkamp also refuses to back down from his politics, which he kept largely subdued in District 9. Ever since the trailer debuted, Elysium has been taking quite a bit of heat from the right wing for its blatant left wing political standpoint. About as subtle as a nuclear blast, Blomkamp tackles hot topics like pollution, immigration, health care, and class division/warfare, things that are currently filling news headlines as you read this. While you may think that this would automatically turn anyone with a right wing viewpoint off, that actually couldn’t be further from the truth. It really isn’t difficult to see where Blomkamp stands on these issues, but it’s the way he places them within the action that is truly admirable. He almost presents them as a cautionary warning rather than an awkward lecture. A few of these topics are wisely pushed to the foreground, mostly implied rather than outwardly addressed, which is nice because it prevents the film from really forcing itself on those who disagree with the side that the film is taking, but perhaps the most controversial topic of all (health care) doesn’t budge. The most relieving aspect of all is that Blomkamp gives these ideas a huge amount of emotional weight, and by the end, it is almost impossible to say that you weren’t shaken up at least once.

As far as the performances are concerned, Blomkamp doesn’t fall back on a group of unknowns to sit behind the wheel of the film. Unlike District 9, there are a handful of A-list thespians headlining Elysium. Damon is in full action mode as our dying hero Max, a guy who longs for a place in paradise. It doesn’t take us long to like his blue-collar ex-con and he has our full support as he fights his way into the sky. Jodie Foster is ice cold as the ruthless defense secretary of Elysium, a cruel and scheming monster who has no problem shooting down shuttles carrying handfuls of innocent Earth civilians. Sharlto Copley goes full crazy and makes off with the entire film as the scene-stealing bad-boy Kruger, a psychotic mercenary who will stop at nothing to carry out his mission. If you thought Copley was fantastic as the bumbling hero Wikus in District 9, wait until you lay eyes on this bloodcurdling performance. After the disaster that was The Lone Ranger, William Fichtner completely redeems himself as the slimy CEO of the Armadyne Corporation. It’s a small role but he plays it with fire in his eyes. Braga is fragile as Frey, the heartbroken and exhausted love interest of Max. Moura is another scene-stealer as the hobbling smuggler Spider, who gets a chance to act as a sidekick to Damon’s ass-kicking Max, and Luna shows off a soft side as Julio, a car thief with a heart of gold.

At a brief hour and fifty minutes, Elysium has quite a bit of storyline to go around. There isn’t a second wasted in its surprisingly brief runtime and you’ll never find your attention starting to wander. It balances every single character and side plot perfectly, all to come together at a hugely satisfying climax that is sure to put your emotions to the test. All of the white-knuckle action is complimented with a grimy electronic score from Ryan Amon, who is able to smoothly shift from rusted synthesizers to swelling orchestral blasts. Overall, Elysium isn’t the game-changer that District 9 ended up being, but then again, that was a tough act to follow. It is, however, a consistent, clever, thrilling, poignant, and self-assured work from a true science-fiction visionary. Here’s to hoping that we don’t have to wait another four years for Mr. Blomkamp to exhilarate us with his wild imagination.

Grade: A-