Haywire (R)

9 Stars

This film satisfies.

Specifically the urge to watch a female protagonist square off with a male in hand-to-hand combat, and realistically win.

I’ve never considered how ill-equipped women are for fist-fighting. But that’s probably a good thing.

With the long hair, the unstable shoe heels, and simply the lack of body mass for throwing punches; in reality, most male vs. female altercations won’t result in sophisticated brawls.

And I suppose that’s why we rarely see it in film. When reviewing Captain America: The Winter Soldier I mentioned how we never get enough combat from Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson.

Anyway.

Haywire is great.

The writing, directing, editing, casting, soundtrack/scoring and acting is fantastic. The fights are awesome.

Steven Soderbergh may be my favorite director. His movies never disappoint.

Side Effects podiums amongst the top three films of 2013. You may know him from the Oceans Eleven franchise, Traffic or Out of Sight.

Gina Carano’s biography on IMDB claims Soderbergh, “wrote the role of Mallory Kane specifically for her,” though the screenplay’s written by Lem Dobbs (who also wrote The Limey, another famous Soderbergh flick.)

I knew I recognized Gina C. She plays a great character in Fast & Furious 6!

Others may know her as the famous MMA fighter.

If you see the movie, you’ll understand why Soderbergh’s such a great director. The action is entirely more riveting without stunt doubles.

I dig that Gina Carano. She’s charismatic and lovable as the protagonist. Let’s hope we see more of her in future films.

The chase scenes are quietly spectacular. The plot moves along at a break-neck pace so you have to pay attention.

There’s something about the on-foot chase scene that’s gripping. When it really feels like the characters are sprinting for long periods of time, it’s so engaging.

Haywire’s stylishly edited and utilizes innovative storytelling techniques. One scene cuts between three different types of footage to show a trio of plots developing simultaneously. Plus, there’s no in-scene sound or dialogue, just the musical score.

It’s very cool! And slightly confusing. So pay attention!

The supporting cast is spectacular.

Channing Tatum never disappoints.

Ewan McGregor doing quality Ewan.

Bill Paxton doing quality Paxton.

Anotonio Banderas. Michael Douglas.

Michael Fassbender!

Come on. What more do you need?

Haywire is a top-notch action thriller available for HD rental through Xfinity OnDemand, Amazon or iTunes for $3.99.

There’s nothing special during the credits.

But it’s 93 minutes, and it’s an R-rated flick that men and women will both enjoy.

You might call it a great ‘date movie’.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (PG-13)

9 Stars

Wouldn’t it be best to change the team name to X-Humans?

I’m kidding, of course.

Want to know what isn’t hysterical?

A ‘loose canon.’

The exact origin of the nautical phrase is uncertain. It’s presumably sailor jargon for a canon breaking free of the rigging keeping it stationary. Imagine one hundred pounds of cast iron rolling about a storm beaten ship deck.

The phrase is overused. But one can understand this reviewer’s hesitation, when associating the live-action depiction of Wolverine with a loose canon.

Ever since Cyclops’s cinematic demise, the clawed crusader’s gone a little soft.

Jackman’s Wolverine is much less of an antihero. He’s more compassionate, no longer a recluse. And wouldn’t you know it – he stars in this film, too.

Despite the saccharine portrayal, I’ll take plenty more sequels with Hugh at the helm, because Days of Future Past is excellent.

What sets the X-Men apart from other comic creations is time travel, success through crafty teamwork and mutant segregation. This movie tackles the entire thematic trio with vigor.

First some notes on the acting, directing and writing. Then the fighting. And finally, a gloriously thought-provoking takeaway.

Before any of that, a warning to spoiler-sensitive readers. Cease your literary digestion and devour DOFP before it vacates the big screen.

James Marsden is excellent as Cyclops in X-Men (2000), and fourteen years later proves he’s still got it.

By the by, after all this talk of ‘getting the gang back together,’ it’s a bit underwhelming with only one scene featuring Cyclops, Rogue or Jean Grey.

All’s forgiven, because DOFP’s greatest achievement is the creation of a ‘narrative reset.’ The denouement (the falling action after the climax) indicates the button’s been depressed, removing any narrative restrictions set by the previous films.

There are too many characters to mention but for hints toward each player’s prominence, check the theatrical poster (not pictured). The relative size of the character’s image to screen time ratio looks exactly to scale.

Ellen Page returns for a particularly great performance as Kitty Pryde. Her only previous appearance is from The Last Stand back in 2006, making her unique amongst the supporting players.

Another reliable favorite from the earlier films, Shawn Ashmore, delivers as Iceman. He’s easy to love and fights quite a bit, too.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Mystique and doesn’t disappoint. The blue beauty engages in some serious hand-to-hand combat, and it’s consistently thrilling.

She’s an enormous talent. My sister groans every time the young actress’s name is uttered. However, if pressed, even my sister will agree J-Law’s a dynamite thespian.

Perhaps she doesn’t usurp her last performance in American Hustle. But Mystique is one of the more difficult roles. She must remain on the villainous side of morality while conveying a pitiable sense of decency.

There’s a nod to Rebecca Romijn in the movie, as well as a reference I can’t quite figure out. In Shanghai Noon, Owen Wilson quotes James Brown in saying, “I don’t know karate, but I do know ka-razy.”

So when Wolverine says it, I assume it’s a nod to Shanghai Noon. Perhaps others disagree?

Michael Fassbender plays young Magneto, and delivers a fitting performance as one of our best actors working today.

A major personal criticism of earlier X-Men films is the underwhelming action. There are always fight scenes, but oftentimes they’re brief and never elaborate enough. For example, consider the action involving Banshee in First Class, the most recent film from 2011.

To be clearer, consider the two major fights involving Beast. In First Class, Nicholas Hoult doesn’t throw a single punch on-screen during the final brawl on the Cuban beach. Whether or not Hoult lands a blow, his battlefield presence pales in comparison to Kelsey Grammer’s ferocity at Alcatraz in The Last Stand.

DOFP opens with a spectacular fight sequence. Really, it’s one of the best superhero battles ever. But it’s brief, and trumps all other physical conflicts (in terms of quality) occurring later on.

The sentinels are superbly rendered, and the teamwork dynamic is explored throughout various altercations between mutants and robots. Sending Colossus falling through warp holes (in order to achieve maximum velocity) is genius.

My sole request from the X-Men franchise remains the same: A further exploration of collaborative battle tactics. Engage the audience with higher stakes, alternative bits of terrain, contrasting settings, differing elevations, complex character pairings, elaborate face-offs; more tense and intricate ‘continuous action’ sequences that last for minutes, rather than seconds.

Good examples of what I refer to are found in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (but without the teamwork dynamic.)

What’s absent is ultimately inconsequential. I want a final fight scene, one in which the X-Men collaborate to triumph over the ultimate villain. One in which they don’t all die.

I never receive my bejeweled battle, but in retrospect, am pleased with the filmmakers’ decision. Everybody loves a superhero movie that doesn’t fit the mold.

Besides, I’ll trade anything for the narrative reset.

When Magneto informs Charles (James McAvoy) of a misunderstanding (pertaining to J.F.K.’s assassination) a hearty stroke of laughter pierces the canopy of suspended disbelief.

Apparently a fellow moviegoer buys into the whole story leading up, but JFK being assassinated for his mutation is just too silly to remain silent.

That, my friends, is a person looking for a place to laugh.

‘Because everybody’s thinking it, right?’

No, you scoundrel!

Moving right along; Beast’s serum is tough to swallow, but other than the lackluster fighting and Professor X’s whining, here’s my final criticism.

Magneto’s mutation allows him to manipulate metal. This doesn’t include an ability to remotely control or reprogram computerized machinery. Therefore, the process by which he gains their support would be much more complicated than simply imbuing the sentinels with metallic cables.

That’s a major inconsistency, and like the serum, I’m sure it’s necessary to tie up loose narrative threads. For my tastes, it’s not quite tidy enough.

By the way, superhero movies are constantly berated for being male-oriented entertainment.

In DOFP there is one scene involving nudity, and it’s Wolverine from behind.

I’m not complaining.

When the political correctors start to cry out for a more ‘accepting’ team moniker, I’ll remind them of this previous gender imbalance.

How’s that for conclusive?

Breathtaking, isn’t it?

12 Years a Slave (R)

10 Stars

When I mentioned 12 Years a Slave to my Dad, he said, “I hear that’s great but depressing.”

An apt analysis, some may agree. But I would de-emphasize the depression aspect of this movie.

There are quite a few more tears than I am used to relinquishing, however, the majority are triggered by the happiness of the ending.

I’m not sure if it’s desensitization or a function of my age, but I would not describe the material as specifically “depressing.”

Horrifying? Sure.

Moving? Riveting? Absolutely.

But I don’t believe it induces a sad darkness that hitchhikes upon your brain for a number of days. We’re all aware slavery happened, right?

I do not mean this to be critical towards the specificity of my father’s diction. It’s more to discourage a certain mindset.

If you want to see a great movie, no matter how often you see them, 12 Years a Slave is easily worth the two hours and fourteen minutes. It’s shot remarkably well, edited masterfully, and retells the true story of the novel by Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is spectacular in this role. Perhaps it’s the lack of theatricality in his performance, but it’s just stunning. It’s the perfect mix of reserved and outspoken.

Towards the beginning, when the man breaks two separate paddles over his back, how does he prepare for that sort of acting? Seriously, it baffles me. I’m so thoroughly convinced by Chiwetel’s performance that I’m more focused on what the other actor is actually breaking the paddles over.

(I shouldn’t think like that during first viewings, but can’t help myself sometimes.)

According to IMDB, Chiwy learned to play the violin for this role! Could he be any more of a boss?

When he starts to sing with the other cotton-picking slaves is a wonderful transformative moment. But the whole movie is great; each scene is so beautiful and the conflicts running beneath are palpable.

You can feel the very value of his life diminishing as a product; a piece of human property. The film explores the themes of slavery so efficiently; that I wonder how much of the material actually came from the book.

The thing is, either way, the film takes place over the course of twelve years. I’m certain all of these things could have happened to him throughout that period. It seems like there are mostly only cruel white men in this world. Or at least, only slightly sympathetic Caucasians.

Which, as a side note, is perhaps the only loose thread in the screenplay’s quilt. Perhaps the only white slave depicted in the film shouldn’t be the one to betray Chiwetel to Fassbender. But that’s semantics, because it only further reinforces his apprehension when Brad Pitt rolls around.

So the weakness of that criticism is illustrative of any others I might have with this film – mild and without any real footing.

Like Eliza’s crying. It went on a touch too long, but perhaps that’s exemplary of the lifestyle Solomon had to endure. Perhaps there were times the crying went on much longer for him.

So overall, I give 12 Years a Slave two big thumbs up. It’s #4 on my ‘Best Films of 2013’ list.

It’s a visual masterpiece and tells an exhilarating narrative