The Process in Chaos (Patriots Day, 2017)

patriots-day-posterPeter Berg’s Patriots day is one of those films where going in, it may feel a bit like a “Rah Rah America!” exercise in propaganda.  And while, to a certain extent, it may very well be, it is also one of Berg’s better efforts.

Patriots Day is the story of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that ensued for the Tsarnaev brothers.  The film is most effective in how it is not about “one guy” in all of it.  Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders is our eyes for much of the film, but it takes detours to give us insights into the people impacted who were not part of the manhunt.  And this works very nicely, even if, at the beginning, it feels a bit like “Why are we meeting this person?”

This leads to one of the most powerful aspects of the film.  It captures the absolute chaos of those couple of days.  The intense search for leads o catch the brothers, the desperation of the brothers to escape, the evil that they were willing to for their “cause”.  The horror of the people hurt in the bombing trying to find loved ones they have been separated.  This is all extremely well done.

The one moment to take me out of the film, however, was what felt like a mini-documentary in which the actual people spoke on camera.  I get that it may be a tribute…but it really felt like Berg did not trust the audience to have the “correct mindset” exiting the film.  It also distracted me because there is no interview or mention of Tommy Saunders and his wife.  This is because they do not exist.  They are a combination of people.  Had there been no “Here are the real people” moment, this would not have stood out so glaringly for men.

However, this is really a minor issue for an otherwise strong film.

Rebirth (X-Men: First Class, 2011)

X-Men-First-Class-PosterAfter the cool reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine the producers stepped back to determine their next step.  So they went back to the drawing board.  X-Men First Class starts at the beginning with a Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  It also gives an origin of sorts for Mystique.  Oddly, for a character who mostly served a function of henchman for Magneto in the original series, the latest set of films are heavily focused on Mystique as a tortured soul torn between Professor X and Magneto.  One of the interesting things that happened as the film came together was the return of Matthew Vaughn as a director.  He dropped out of X3 for family reasons.  Returning for First Class was a good move.

While the first trilogy gave no hint that Prof X and Mystique know each other, but early in the film we see them not only meet, but young Charles Xavier takes her in to live with him in his giant mansion.  But the film opens with a faithful recreation of the first X-Men film’s opening.  Young Magneto is brought into a concentration camp where he is seen as a great weapon by Nazi Officer Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).  It is pretty clear that the X-Men Origins Magneto film morphed into this one and we get a well constructed scene where a grown up Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) finds two retired Nazis in a bar and torments them for information.  We return to Charles Xavier (played by James McAvoy) with a full head of hair and Raven (Mystique, now played by Jennifer Lawrence).  Xavier is recruited by the government for help regarding Sebastian Shaw, who has not aged a day.  He is trying to play governments against each other in the midst of the cold war.  The world does not know mutants are out there, but the government does and they want them.  This help brings Professor X and Magneto together when Magneto tried to take down Shaw, messing up the sting.

They start working with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and A Man in a Suit (Oliver Platt) to locate new mutants.  The entire time, Magneto struggles with his desire for revenge against Shaw.  Raven finds herself drawn to Magneto’s pride as a mutant.  Meanwhile, Shaw and his henchmen (Including Emma Frost, inexplicably a grown woman in a film set years earlier than X-Men Origins Wolverine) are working to incite nuclear war (the film is really set around the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Overall, First Class is fun, exciting and compelling.  Magneto: Nazi Hunter is a great introduction.  The collection of characters is an intriguing mix from the X-Men comics.  You have longstanding members like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havok (Lucas Till) and newer characters such as Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz) and Darwin (Edi Gathegi).  The film is extremely well cast and is filled with strong performances.  There is a lone exception.  January Jones once claimed her ex Ashton Kutcher told her she cannot act.  I am inclined to agree.  Her Emma Frost is dull and lifeless.  Emma Frost is a character who should be intensely arrogant and cold.  And here she feels entirely inconsequential.

While the original films irked people with the leather outfits, this film pays homage to the early costumes, with black and yellow color schemes.  This is one of the strongest films in the franchise, full of life and character.  There is much to admire and enjoy with First Class.

There are some slipups in the choices they make, such as the film kills some characters with great potential for the old “See How Great the Danger Is?”  It also just happens to be one of the few minority characters in the story.

And yet, it starts some continuity cracks.  First Class is going back to the beginning, not pretending the first three films never happened.  Moira McTaggert is a scientist in the third film, played by Olivia Williams.  First class has the same character in another job altogether decades earlier.  They use characters without concern for whether they appeared in the previous films with entirely different incarnations.  Jubilee appeared in the third film ad then in Apocalypse.  Apparently never aging.  The quality of the film overcomes these issues, but it starts a series of problems.

Look Out Below (Tremors, 1990)

tremors-posterKevin Bacon saw a slight slow down right before 1990…his career was not in the crapper, but his draw had lowered a bit.  And  so he was available for a low budget horror flick.  Mind you, it was more a comedy with a sci-fi angle.  Had the film gone for being outright scary?  This would be a failure.

Instead, Director Ron Underwood (who followed Tremors up with City Slickers) opted to play to the comedic strengths of his cast.

Valentine (Kevin Bacon) and Earl are buddies and handymen in small town of about 20 people call Perfection.  In the middle of nowhere Nevada.  Both dream of getting out of the small town and becoming rich.  If only they had not stopped to check on Edgar, who is hanging on a telephone post.  They discover he is dead and leap to a theory of a serial killer.

They are wrong of course.  Cause this is a monster movie.  Tremors has a decent premise of giant worm-like monsters that burrow under the ground to catch their prey.  Val and Earl are not thrilled when they get stuck in Perfection, unable to reach help.

They, along with a visiting Seismologist named Rhonda (Finn Carter) lead the town in an attempt to get past the monsters.

The film did poorly in theaters, but was saved by home video.  It is no small wonder, as this is a fun movie.  The cast of characters are likable and entertaining, the standouts being Burt and Heather Gummer (Michael Gross and Reba McEntire).  They are survivalists who chose Perfection due to it’s isolation.  They love their toys.  McEntire and Gross are very memorable.

This is a good old fashioned monster movie.  It is not to gory, and is not about scares.  Yet the effects do not look cheap.  The monsters are convincing enough to seem like a real threat to be reckoned with.

Dwight Dons Spandex (Super, 2011)

super_posterYou remember that movie Kick Ass?  You know, the one where the loser kid wonders why nobody ever fights crime in a costume-so he decides to do it?  And teams up with a precocious ten year old girl who kills people and swears a lot?  And how it was all seen as good something sane people would do?

James Gunn (writer director of Slither and Guardians of the Galaxy) thought that film was full of $#!^ (to use comic book talk).  In the world of Super, in which Dwight from the Office has a mental breakdown and decides to fight the evil Kevin Bacon to save his elvish wife with the help of Juno, you have to be a little off to want to put on a costume and fight crime.

The story centers on Frank (Rainn Wilson, Dwight on the Office).  Frank has lived a life of humiliation after humiliation.  His only two good moments were marrying his wife Sarah (Liv Tyler) and the time he helped catch a criminal.  His wife falls in with a bad crowd, hooked on drugs and eventually, she leaves him.

Frank sees a cheesy Christian Super-Hero called The Holy Avenger (played by Nathan Fillion) on TV (think Bibleman).  Later, after pouring his heart out in a prayer, Frank has a vision.  This vision convinces him he has a special calling.  And so he vows to fight crime in a costume with a night stick.

Beating up criminals makes him a public phenomenon at first, until Frank overreacts to a guy who makes a slight social faux pas.  He meets Libby (Ellen Page), who discovers his identity and becomes obsessed with being his “kid” sidekick.  What soon becomes apparent is that she is not interested in doing what is right so much as the action and rush involved.

That the film can be very dark was not truly a surprise to me.  It really does present the idea of super-hero work as requiring that you be a bit disturbed.  While not a new idea in comics (Garth Ennis makes quite a living off of the notion) after several years of stable heroes in film…this rather cynical take works pretty well.  Of course, it came out the same year as the film Defendor-and even covers similar ground.  But still, Wilson makes a pretty compelling mental case, who can be endearing and yet a bit scary.  Kevin Bacon is good as a low level drug kingpin wanna be, while Page goes from a fun exuberance to a really uncomfortable and tragic place.  Gunn really makes the story work, and finding a way to inject satire in with sincerity that is usually very hard to get right.

There is a brutal honesty when Frank is on his knees, in tears begging God for an answer as to why his life seems so stacked against him.  He pours out every bit of self resentment and begs God for an answer…why do I have to look like this?  Why couldn’t I have been smarter?  Cooler?  More lovable.

Frank is messed up, but you can understand and sympathize as to why.  He really wants life to be more simple than it is.  Underpinning the film is a rather grim and unpleasant portrayal of violence that challenges the cool action hero of something like Kick Ass.  It is disturbing and lacks the “cool one liners and puns” prevalent to other violent action heroes.

And yet, in spite of the grimness, the film finds a way to end on an upbeat and even inspirational note, without feeling false or tacked on.  It never justifies what went on before, instead suggesting some healing for Frank.

Super really caught me off guard, in spite of having heard positive raves about it, I think I anticipated a more gritty take on Kick Ass, but I got something much better out of it.  Yes, it was violent, but it was also thoughtful, touching and inspirational.

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