X-Men’s Big Pay-Off

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The funny thing about the X-Men franchise is that it can decline just as much as it can excel. The first installment, released in 2000, was an interesting introduction to a colorful cast of mutated freedom fighters that had a solid promise but seemed like it was missing certain bits. The 2003 sequel had much more action, more developed characters, and a grander feel to it that elevated the reputation of comic book movies in general. With those two steps forward came two giant steps back in the sub-par third installment and a god-awful origins story of the franchise’s standout character. Thankfully, 2011 brought a fun, fresh, and invigorating prequel that reestablished what the X-Men could bring to the multiplex. Yet again, the franchise would come to a halt with yet another horrible stand-alone movie based around its breakout star. So now, 14 years since its introduction into Hollywood, how can this franchise take a much-needed positive step forward? Take the best of the old with the best of the new and connect whatever dots you can. A daunting task indeed, but one pulled off wonderfully by Bryan Singer, the man who first brought the X-Men to the big screen.

            Singer returns to the director’s chair for “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” where he combines the casts of “X-Men: First Class” and the original X-Men trilogy. Here, the mutants of the future are hunted and imprisoned by deadly robots known as Sentinels. Running out of options, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) decide the only way to save the future is to change the past. They plan to use Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) newly acquired power of sending one’s mind back in time to one’s younger self in order to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing scientist Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose death caused the US government to mass produce the Sentinels and declare war against mutants. The only mutant strong enough to sustain the timey-wimey journey is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as he is sent back to meet up with the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to track down Mystique.

            It’s a big plot with big characters taking a big risk on a big franchise (see a theme, there?). By some miracle, Singer manages to weave all of the characters from the original trilogy and “First Class” into a compelling storyline that ties in the Vietnam War and Nixon’s presidency flawlessly. The primary focus here is on the “First Class” team, who are all on point. McAvoy and Lawrence are especially good and being angry, hurt versions of Xavier and Mystique. Lawrence especially has more bite than her last skimp in blue makeup, showing cold bitterness behind stunning beauty. Mr. Dinklage (awaiting trial by combat on TV’s “Game of Thrones”) is also exceptional as the driven but sinister Trask on a mission to study mutants in the fight against human extinction, making him less of a villain and more of a smart man fighting the wrong cause. It’s interesting to see Jackman’s Wolverine be the mediator between the volatile opposites that are Xavier and Magneto (patience isn’t his strongest suit, as he points out early on) as he’s typically the one who needs to be held back. Jackman’s restraint allows focus to be kept evenly on other characters, where typically his back-story is part of the plot. Even the addition of new mutants like Quicksilver (a standout Evan Peters) doesn’t bog the movie down. Nearly every character gets juicy lines that make them memorable to the audience, thanks to a tight script by Simon Kinberg (who actually only wrote the screenplay for “The Last Stand”). There isn’t a bad performance or wasted actor in this movie, except maybe for Halle Berry’s Storm, but that’s hardly noticeable.

            The real miracle is at the hands of Bryan Singer, a director who has pulled feeling out of everyone from a gang of former criminals (“The Usual Suspects”) to even Superman (“Superman Returns,” a far better Superman movie than “Man of Steel,” by the way). Singer pulls off the same miracle that Joss Whedon did with “The Avengers” by carefully combining the essential pieces of a beloved franchise into a cohesive, working action movie. Plus, he made sure to make it fun for both comic book fans and casual movie audiences without insulting either group of audiences. That’s a real gift; just like “Days of Future Past” is to the summer movie collection. This is the best X-Men film to date, and definitely has this critic’s ticket punched for “X-Men: Apocalypse” in 2016.

Final Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars

 

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The Case of Jackson’s “Xscape”

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Like all things involving Michael Jackson, “Xscape” is a complicated case. The 2nd piece of unheard material released after Jackson’s death in 2009 has been “contemporized” by a handful of producers (Timbaland, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Jerome Harmon, etc.) selected by Antonio “L.A.” Reid. The task is meant to make Jackson’s incomplete or buried tracks seems more modern and fitting on the charts the way Jackson would’ve wanted them to be. However, there is a slight complication with the release of the album: there is the standard version with the 8 “contemporized” tracks, and a deluxe edition with the standard 8 along with the songs in their “original” versions and a duet with Justin Timberlake. So the question is; are the “contemporized” tracks worthy of their new polished reworking or should the original versions have been left alone? Let’s take a look to see if “contemporizing” is worth it.

 

Track 1: “Love Never Felt So Good”

The “contemporized” version is definitely more complete than its original version. Propelled by a soft piano and handclaps, Jackson’s voice is smooth as he woos the new love he has in his life. When he hits the chorus, it’s jubilance with a subtle electric guitar strumming and strings washing through the bridge. While it may be “contemporized,” this version could easily fit into Jackson’s disco breakthrough “Off the Wall.” The duet version with Timberlake is even better, if only for having a bit more skip in its step. More focus is placed on the live band (drums and guitar) to make it sound funkier. Timberlake is a great duet partner to Jackson when they trade lyrics and have their voices synched together. The original version sounds more like a demo (a polished demo, but a demo nonetheless), with just finger snaps in the background and the piano.

Winner: Duet “contemporized” version with Justin Timberlake

 

Track 2: “Chicago”

            With an electronic drumbeat and glimmering synths, this is another light R&B track “contemporized.” Jackson again goes back and forth between his soft coo and his signature gritty singing about a woman who lied to him and has another family. It’s not hard-hitting, but easy to bob one’s head to while cruising in a car, which is an odd thing for a song about infidelity to do. The original version is a bit slower with more cymbals than drums. Jackson’s vocals are also slowed down a bit, which really throws the song off. The music itself could’ve been an interlude, but his vocals don’t match up to make a working song.

            Winner: “Contemporized” version

 

Track 3: “Loving You”

            Here is another happy love song to stroll down the street to, weather permitting. Jackson talks about the August moon and waiting for the stars to come out. A more progressive drum loop drives the chorus, with light horns punctuating the end of each verse. It’s a good modern love song, but it actually gets beat by its predecessor. The original version has music much more fitting to Jackson, with 80s style electric drums and synths. The original version sounds like it could’ve been recorded during the sessions for “Thriller” or “Bad.” It’s sounds much more familiar to the classic King of Pop. A smooth group of horns carries the listener through the bridge, only adding to the lightness of the song.

            Winner: Original version

 

Track 4: “A Place with No Name”

            Believe it or not, Michael Jackson is apparently a folk music fan. At least, a fan of America’s 1972 hit “A Horse With No Name,” because he reworked into this rubbery dance track. Here, Jackson talks about being taken to a mysterious happy place by a woman who falls for him and doesn’t want him to leave (think “Hotel California”). Jackson is backed by a bouncy drumbeat and a funky organ riff to create a great dance beat. The original version sounds like a clear rip-off of America’s hit, considering it uses the exact same acoustic guitar riff to drive the song. Electronic drums and Jackson’s aching vocals help keep it within the storytelling aspect of the America song, almost like Jackson is telling the listener the story by a campfire. Both songs are good, but the “contemporized” version gets the point for at least having a bit or musical originality. The original mostly sounds like Jackson doing a karaoke cover with his own lyrics.

            Winner: “Contemporized” version

 

Track 5: “Slave to the Rhythm”

            This track, recently performed via hologram at the Billboard Music Awards, is a thumping dance track that would’ve given Jackson prominence on the modern dance floor. Regarding a girl who is, of course, a “slave to the rhythm,” a fast drumbeat, strings, and a beeping synth beat. Jackson sounds alive and agitated as he has on “Billie Jean” and “Smooth Criminal.” The original version sounds hollow and incomplete, almost like a half-baked idea he had from the “Dangerous” sessions. The drums are very tinny and there’s nothing else to back Jackson’s energetic voice up. This one definitely needed an overhaul.

            Winner: “Contemporized” version

 

Track 6: “Do You Know Where Your Children Are”

            For the record, this song title is ripe for a joke but let’s avoid that and stay on point. Here is probably the most eclectic song in the album, with its heavy organ, epic string section and clapping drumbeat. Jackson talks about a young girl alone in the big bad city in his stressful voice and some impressive high-pitched backing vocals. There is also a guitar freak-out in the bridge and the outgoing of the song to create a more frantic atmosphere. The original is definitely a 80s demo, with organs similar to those hear on “Bad” or even a classic Prince record. Jackson’s vocals are slightly louder, but it’s not as alive as the contemporary version. The guitar is tamer, it’s not as dance floor ready, and there is annoying wood block being hit in the chorus that is almost as loud as Jackson.

            Winner: “Contemporized” version

 

Track 7: “Blue Gangsta”

            With its high energy, thumping beat, and Jackson at his most powerful, this may be the best song on both versions of the album. The “contemporized” version has the same urgency and tension as “Bad,” Smooth Criminal,” and “Dangerous.” Horns and synths slam in and out of the song, with backup vocals adding great drama to Jackson hustle and strut through. The drum beat uses fast snare hits to pump up the chorus, while a soft piano allows Jackson to take firm control of each verse. The original version has more focus on horns to give the song an old school feel to it. There is even an accordion playing in the verse to create a more interesting atmosphere. It sounds like Jackson is in the middle of “The Godfather,” challenging Vito Corleone for power. Both songs are great forms of pop escapism and the centerpieces of both versions of the album.

            Tie

 

Track 8: “Xscape”

            The final track on the album is Jackson in “Leave Me Alone” mode, rejecting the views and control of “the system.” The “contemporized” version is a tight R&B jam with horns and funky guitar trading blows as Jackson huffs and puffs through. The drums are not hard-hitting, but effective to move bodies on the dance floor. However, the original version is way more progressive and hits harder. Twitching electronic drums and keyboard blips go in and out of the song. It sounds like a modern version of “They Don’t Care About Us,” but more aggressive and dance able. It’s a four on the floor stomper that puts Jackson in a more modern context of pop.

            Winner: Original version

 

Final Score:

Contemporized: 5

Original: 2

Tie: 1

Final Verdict: This new collection is definitely an improvement over 2010’s sub-par “Michael.” There are certain tracks that put the King of Pop in the current style of pop music that would’ve kept his prominence on the charts if he were still alive. This is not a complete “album,” but a collection of songs that Jackson thought were interesting enough to keep in his back pocket. Time will tell if there are more hidden gems than duds in Jackson’s vault and who has the guts to try to present them correctly. 3.5 out of 5 stars

 

Coldplay’s Soft But Similar Love Story

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            Yes boys and girls, Coldplay (specifically front man Chris Martin) have gone all Taylor Swift on our asses. It’s been over two and a half years since the nicest guys in rock strutted into stadiums with 2011’s shiny “Mylo Xyloto,” and there has been a big change in the camp of Coldplay (or, again, Chris Martin). In fact, the emotional state of Chris Martin may be the focal point of Coldplay’s latest record. The normally private Martin had apparently been going through marital troubles with his now ex-wife, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, during the recording process. It’s surprising that this is the first time Martin has allowed such a private matter into his very public career, since Coldplay is known for making their sonic ambition bigger than themselves. They’ve come a long way from being the university friends strumming guitars in pubs and have often let the imagery of their music overshadow lyrics. But album number 6 is the sound of someone taking a good long look in the mirror.

            “Ghost Stories” goes for a stripped down approach while still keeping with the electronic-based style that Coldplay dived into on “Mylo Xyloto.” Drum machines and an inorganic bass line steer 1st single “Magic,” while “Midnight” features Martin singing through a vocoder. “A Sky Full of Stars,” on the other hand, is a full-on EDM track produced by Avicii. It’s commendable for a band that was once panned for breaking out due to a “Wonderwall”–esque acoustic anthem (“Yellow”) to develop to the other side of the musical spectrum over time instead of just switching sounds out of a desperate genre change. But this also means the band has to really hold back, which is disappointing because in classics like “Speed of Sound,” and “Clocks,” the band builds to a great musical climax. Here, everything is subtle and sustained, from bassist Guy Berryman’s pseudo-Peter Hook riff in opener “Always In My Head,” to the quiet plucking and strums of guitarist Jonny Buckland. The atmosphere on “Ghost Stories” is more relaxed than anything Coldplay have done before, creating a solid soundtrack for an introspective night looking up at the stars.

            While this album has a romantic theme to it, it isn’t the Romeo and Juliet love story. There is more sorrow than bliss on “Ghost Stories,” where the man (presumably Martin) longs for the woman he loves after she’s left him. “Another’s Arms” is easy to picture with “late night watching TV/used to be you here beside me/ used to be your arms around me/ your body on my body.” “Oceans” involves Martin, now alone since that’s not been emphasized enough in the second half of the record, trying to find himself “alone in this world.” Right after that, the melancholy is thrown out the window for the upbeat dance number “A Sky Full of Stars,” where Martin says he wants to die in the woman’s arms. The lyrics can be on the level of Ms. Swift’s corniness in its sappy simplicity, almost like picturing Chris Martin alone in his house with nothing but a tub of ice cream and old wedding photos.

            Thankfully, the music keeps the album from too much “don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” territory. It’s refreshing to hear Coldplay take down the neon lights and fanfare for something so intimate. It actually makes one question how they’re going to apply this on their undoubted upcoming world tour because no matter how small they make their music, they’re still Coldplay. The lyrical content is somewhat of a letdown, not entirely, but the message of the album is clear by track 4 of 9. The atmosphere of “Ghost Stories” is mournful, reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or Bon Iver. Maybe if Mr. Martin had looked at his life beyond his “conscious uncoupling,” he could’ve let his listeners know the struggle behind being one of the biggest bands in the world. But “Ghost Stories” is two pieces of different things: one is the music of a band looking to take a brave step back in a world of loud thumps forward, while the other is a breakup journal. Some romantic listeners might find the new Coldplay a good remedy and the music is an interesting change of pace, it’s just now easier to notice the occasional corny lyric. There is no “bad” song on here, it just seems like a step down from the concepts of “Viva La Vida” and “Mylo Xyloto.” It’s tempting to blame Ms. Paltrow for throwing Chris Martin off, but that’d be too easy.

Final Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars

Essential Tracks: Midnight, Magic, Another’s Arm, Oceans

Godzilla Returns With A (Delayed) Bang

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It must be hard to make a good monster move, especially nowadays. There are audiences who want to see big, nasty beasts wrestle each other as they destroy major cities going “fe-fi-fo-fum” and whatnot. But ever since the likes of “The Dark Knight”, “The Avengers,” and “Inception,” some people want a little more substance in their blockbuster summer movies (at least until Michael Bay storms cinemas again this summer…twice). So there has to be a functioning story, interesting characters, and eye-popping visuals in order to bring in a crowd. With all of that said, is there still a place in American cinema for the King of Monsters? Godzilla, one of Japan’s biggest and most influential exports, is back at the multiplex for the first time in a decade and the first time in American cinemas since 2000, and he’s been rebooted for the 21st century in a big way thanks to multi-million dollar effects and a top-notch cast including Bryan Cranston, Aaron-Taylor Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Ken Watanabe.

Cranston is a former nuclear power plant supervisor in Japan who lost his wife after the plant they worked at melted down due to an unforeseen anomaly. He’s been trying to figure out why the government has been covering up the incident ever since while his son (Taylor-Johnson) is a bomb diffuser for the Army and has a family (with Olsen) of his own. But when the two sneak into the now quarantined plant, they discover something monstrous that could destroy mankind. According to the scientist funding the operation (Watanabe), they learn the entire nuclear bomb tests and developments during the 40s and 50s were attempts to kill this monster (called a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO). Fortunately, the scientists believe there is another monster (the big spiked G himself) on the hunt for the MUTO and that they must clear out the cities so the monsters can duke it out.

Now warning must be given that the fight scenes in “Godzilla” are very sparse in the 123 minute running time. Fights are either shown in rapid cuts between scenes of dialogue or barely shown on newscasts, which may anger the viewers that came to see Godzilla rumble with monsters and nothing else. It’s understandable why director Gareth Edwards put this in, which is to build up to a pretty awesome finale. If viewers have enough patience, they might be pretty satisfied at the spectacular final fight Godzilla has in San Francisco. Godzilla himself is an impressive sight too, with his epic roar fully intact and updated for 2014. Edwards gives great set-ups and entrances for his monsters, but he needed to work on execution.

He also needed to give his actors proper motivations. Cranston, fresh off of TV’s “Breaking Bad,” is an emotional powder keg with his voice going from a shaky quiver to a hoarse yell. Taylor-Johnson seems a bit lost in this movie, like he’s unsure how to react. His face keeps a stern grimace throughout the movie, which isn’t something audiences to connect to (but the audiences would probably rather connect with Godzilla instead). Watanabe always looks either confused or nauseous any time he’s onscreen, so he may have had the stomach flu during shooting. If it seems odd that I haven’t mention Ms. Olsen yet, it’s because she’s barely in the movie and of no importance at all.

Thankfully, “Godzilla” is not trying to be a funny crowd-pleaser that Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film tried (and failed miserably) to be. This is strictly a monster movie that goes for quiet build-up instead of fight scene overkill. While that attempt is admirable, there is too much character development on the wrong characters. The character that needs the most attention is, or course, the titular monster, and he is not given a proper amount of screen time. Last summer’s “Pacific Rim,” was a great monster movie because it had a near perfect balance of big brawls and dialogue. Here, there is too much focus given on characters the audience doesn’t need to care about. Since the film is about the monsters and what they’re going to do, why should there be focus on the humans who have nearly nothing to do with it? It’s like if the alien army Loki commanded in “The Avengers” were the focus of the movie; nobody cares! It’s great to see Godzilla crash into theatres again and he gets a grand finale worthy of applause. But, like Tony Stark told Bruce Banner, “Godzilla” mostly tiptoes when it needed to strut.

Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Not Even Close To “Amazing”

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There are such things as bad movies, especially in this day and age. Some movie studios are so desperate for box office success that they’ll pour money into promotion and star power, but leave the actual development of the movie last on their to-do list. The result can be rushed, dragged in pacing, horribly acted, and working on nothing but half-baked characters or ridiculous ideas. This type of letdown can disappoint or even anger certain viewers, especially if the film is part of a reboot of a beloved franchise (that did not end on the highest of notes). So to all of the moviegoers who adored the action-packed, imaginative, and all around fun of Sam Raimi’s original films about your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, prepare for a rather stinging slap in the face.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the 2nd film in Sony Pictures’ revival of the Spider-Man franchise, is so silly and ridiculous in all the wrong ways that Peter Parker with an emo haircut dancing to jazz in a bar may be sorely missed on the viewer’s part.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is graduating high school, madly in love with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and is praised by New York City for his crime-fighting work as Spider-Man. One person who gives the web slinger a disturbing amount of fanfare is Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), an electrical expert at Oscorp who is nearly invisible to everyone around him. When he is killed in an unfortunate (and, to be honest, ridiculously silly) accident, he gains the power to harness electricity and begins to terrorize a city that shunned him under the name Electro. On top of that, Peter deals with the return of his old childhood friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) and has concerns for the safety of his girlfriend. Soon, Peter realizes that Oscorp may have more to do with him and his dead parents than he thought and risk the safety of the ones he loves to stop the evil forces at his door.

What’s truly amazing about “Amazing Spider-Man 2” is its ability to be totally rushed in its 142 minute length, but also how it drags on and on with little to no excitement whatsoever. Spider-Man himself only appears in the film about 7-8 times in nearly two and a half hours, while light is attempted to be shed on Peter and Gwen’s relationship, Electro’s back story, Harry’s back story, Peter’s life at home with his Aunt May (the always delightful Sally Field), and Peter’s investigation of his father’s science. The film is overstuffed with plot and characters that have scenes cut short or end up pointless. Accompanying these rushed scenes is awfully cheesy dialogue (which apparently needed 3 writers to be this groan-inducing) and annoyingly fast editing. The acting can be horrible too, mainly from Paul Giamatti’s cartoony accent as Russian mobster turned robo-rhino Aleksei Sytsevich (thankfully, his screen time is short). Mr. Foxx has the right character as the obsessive fan scorned, but he just doesn’t feel right for the part on-screen, especially when he turns blue and dons a rubber outfit Batman would probably sue him for. DeHaan’s most famous role to date is his turn as the paranoid, emotionally unstable Andrew from 2012’s exceptional “Chronicle.” He basically has half of that character here along with a somewhat enjoyable hammy villain character, until he turns into the Green Goblin, who looks like The Grinch.

To the film’s credit, it’s male and female leads still have the spark that worked in the previous installment. Peter and Gwen have great chemistry, playing off each other and acting speechless around their own adorableness. It’s easy to see why Stone and Garfield are a couple in real life, because they have a spark that puts a smile on the face of any romantic. The special effects are also pretty impressive, with great shots of Spider-Man swinging around the city and pulling of aerial stunts against bad guys. Clearly this is where most of the money went (along with the constant product placement of Sony technology).

But still, the little good cannot help the monstrous bad in this sour superhero sequel. Serious scenes are either too ridiculous to take seriously or just fall flat entirely. The suspension of disbelief is stretched to baffling proportions and the laws of science are scoffed at throughout the movie. The silliness in “Amazing Spider-Man 2” rivals that of the equally disastrous “Batman & Robin.” At least the latter film can be enjoyed while pointing out its stupidity. Here, Spider-Man just disappoints nearly scene after scene with little to no fun, no suspense, and barely any investment in most of the characters. There are also moments the comic book nerds will not be too pleased about, but I’m sure the disappointment of Marvel fans means little to the filmmakers here. With 2 more films on the way, let’s hope Spider-Man learns to care as much about the audience as we do about his returns to the big screen. Until that great responsibility is taken seriously, avoid this movie at all costs.

Final Verdict: 1 out of 4 stars