Thursday, May 29, 2014

Culture Shock 05.29.14: 'Days of Future Past' gives X-Men a second chance

Given the obstacles it must overcome, that "X-Men: Days of Future Past" works at all is a pleasant surprise. That it's one of the best superhero movies to date qualifies as a minor miracle.

The X-Men franchise is one of the few Marvel Comics properties still outside Marvel and Disney's carefully constructed Marvel Cinematic Universe. That has its pluses and minuses.

The X-Men work better when kept at a distance from Marvel's other superheroes, who get in the way of the mutant vs. human dynamic that's central to the premise. That said, Fox's track record with Marvel's mutants is mixed. Only "X2: X-Men United" and "X-Men: First Class" are in the same league as Marvel's in-house productions.

But with Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men outings, returning to the helm, "Days of Future Past" not only hangs with the best of them — "The Avengers," "Iron Man" and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" — in many ways it raises the bar.

Singer and Fox have a message for Joss Whedon and Marvel/Disney: "Game on, bub."

Adapted from a 1981 story by Chris Claremont and John Byrne ("Uncanny X-Men" Vol. 1, Nos. 141-142), "Days of Future Past" opens in the near future, where a war between humans and mutants has laid waste to everything and left most of the mutant population dead or imprisoned in concentration camps. The only mutants still roaming free are a handful of X-Men and their former enemy Magneto (Ian McKellen). They're just steps ahead of the Sentinels, an army of robots that can adapt to combat any mutant, no matter his or her abilities.

With no other options left to them, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto hatch a plan to save the future by changing the past. That means sending someone back in time to prevent the act that ultimately leads to mutantkind's annihilation.

There's some explanatory handwaving, but eventually they send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973, where he wakes up in his younger body with a mission to find the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whom we met in "First Class."

Only together can they stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), a weapons designer who believes mutants herald humanity's extinction.

Trask's answer to the "mutant problem" is the Sentinels. But ironically, it's his assassination that leads the government to fund the Sentinel program, which it had previously passed on.

Mystique's solution is actually the problem it's meant to solve.

Wolverine's mission has just two complications. First, the young Xavier, deep in a depression following the events of "First Class," has given up on his dream of mutants and humans living together in peace. Second, Magneto is imprisoned beneath the world's most secure building. And even if Wolverine can bring them together, they hate and distrust one another.

Even with all that story to deal with, Singer delivers plenty of well-staged action.

Singer wisely dispenses with the "First Class" supporting cast, keeping only Nicholas Hoult's Beast, to focus on the main characters and what they do with their second chance. Even franchise mainstay Storm (Halle Berry) gets only a few lines, although she does finally get to show off her powers.

Storm kicking butt minus Berry's wooden line readings equals a win-win for the audience.

That leaves room for a few new additions, of whom Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is the undisputed scene stealer. No spoilers, but Quicksilver's big scene, improbably set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," will have you smiling.

As much as "Days of Future Past" is about second chances for the characters, it's a second chance for Singer, too. He walked away from the third X-Men film to direct 2006's "Superman Returns," a misguided effort that led to Warner Bros. starting over last year with "Man of Steel." In his absence, Brett Ratner directed 2006's wretched "X-Men: The Last Stand."

With "Days of Future Past," Singer sets the X-Men right in more ways than one.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Culture Shock 05.22.14: 'Godzilla' takes its time but is worth the wait

In the first half of Gareth Edwards' re-imagined "Godzilla," we only glimpse the title character.

Dorsal spikes cut through the water like a shark's fin as Godzilla crosses the Pacific trailed by a U.S. Navy carrier battle group. In one memorable shot, the partially submerged Godzilla dwarfs an aircraft carrier sailing beside him. You half expect someone to say, "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Just in case that doesn't remind you of "Jaws," most of the main characters are named Brody.

The 2014 model "Godzilla" is the second attempt by an American studio to adapt Japan's most recognizable cinema icon. The widely reviled 1998 "Godzilla" pitted a giant iguana against "Ferris Buller's Day Off" star Matthew Broderick, with a script that was "Jurassic Park" meets Dino De Laurentiis' campy 1976 "King Kong." Whatever it was, it wasn't a Godzilla movie.

This one takes some inspiration from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," but at its heart, this "Godzilla" is surprisingly faithful to the Japanese version, especially as depicted in the "Heisei series" films Toho produced from 1984 to 1995.

As a bonus, instead of Ferris Buller, we get Heisenberg.

Fifteen years ago, an accident destroyed a Japanese nuclear power plant where Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad") was an engineer. The accident also killed Joe's wife (Juliette Binoche in a glorified cameo) and rendered the surrounding city a no man's land.

In the present day, Joe is still in Japan, searching for answers to a disaster he doesn't believe was caused by an earthquake or other natural occurrence. Just so you know he's obsessed, he wallpapers his apartment with newspaper clippings, because that's what borderline psychos in movies do.

Half a world away in San Francisco, Joe's son Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of "Kick-Ass") is a bomb disposal expert returning home to his wife and son (Elizabeth Olsen and Carson Bolde) from a 14-month tour of duty. He's barely unpacked when a call comes from Japan: His dad tried to break into the quarantine zone and needs Ford to come bail him out. This is a movie with giant monsters but no Western Union, but it gets the Brody boys together for when the action starts.

Of course, Joe is right. The nuclear plant was destroyed by a prehistoric monster that's still cocooned at ground zero, feeding on the radiation. And a secret organization led by Ken Watanabe's Dr. Ichiro Serizawa has been studying such creatures since the first one reawakened in 1954. (One guess which monster that is.) But before Joe and Serizawa can compare notes, the cocooned monster — designated MUTO for "massive unidentified terrestrial organism" — wakes up, lays waste to everything and flies east toward California, where Ford's wife and son live. Bummer, right?

By this point, you may be wondering where Godzilla comes in. Serizawa has been talking about him from the start, and his presence looms over everything, but it takes Godzilla an hour to show up.

Fortunately, when he does, he doesn't disappoint. This is no oversized iguana.

Be very, very quiet. Godzilla is hunting MUTOs.

Cranston can chew scenery with the best of them, and Watanabe's Serizawa ably fills the traditional role of the one person who is sympathetic to Godzilla. But otherwise it's hard to care about any of the human characters, and the Navy's plan to nuke the monsters is so stupid you wonder if humanity even deserves to survive. Fortunately, the slow buildup pays off when the monsters fight, and at least the monsters' motivations, driven by the most Darwinian of instincts, make sense.

Also, you can't deny that Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("The Avengers") have shot one of the best-looking Godzilla movies ever.

If there is a message here — and Godzilla movies usually have a message — it's that nature is chaotic but self-correcting. The MUTO awakes, but so does Godzilla, "the alpha predator." If humans don't upset the balance, order will return — after two or three cities have been flattened, give or take.

It's the Tao of Godzilla. When Serizawa says, "Let them fight," he's speaking for the movie as well as for the audience.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Culture Shock 05.15.14: Changing Godzilla reflects a nation's mood

Godzilla first stomps Tokyo in 1954's "Godzilla."
One of my earliest movie-going memories is my grandmother taking me to a Saturday matinee showing of "Godzilla on Monster Island," aka "Godzilla vs. Gigan."

This was Godzilla smack in the middle of his kid-friendly phase. During the 1970s, Godzilla kiddie matinees were common. It was the high tide of Godzilla's popularity in America.

Blue Oyster Cult released its 1977 album "Spectres," which included the single "Godzilla." Mattel produced a popular Godzilla toy (with spring-loaded claw and flicking tongue) that now fetches hundreds of dollars on eBay. NBC aired Hanna-Barbera's now-infamous "Godzilla" cartoon featuring Godzilla's dorky nephew Godzooky. And Marvel Comics published 24 issues of "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," which saw Godzilla square off against the Avengers, SHIELD and other Marvel heroes.

Godzilla vs. the Avengers!
Apart from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon, about which the less said the better, these American Godzillas kept him in his original role — a chaotic and destructive force of nature — rather than adopting the "protector of Earth" role Godzilla had by then assumed in Japan. For many Americans, Godzilla's hero period is yet another inexplicable artifact from the culture that is Japan.

In the Japanese context, it makes perfect sense. Many things about Godzilla may change, but for 60 years one thing has remained constant: Godzilla is Japan's most reliable mood indicator.

The original "Godzilla," aka "Gojira," opened in Japanese cinemas on Nov. 3, 1954, less than a decade after Japan's defeat in World War II and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a bleak and somber film, much more so than the Raymond Burr version most Americans have seen.

The '54 "Godzilla" is the product of a Japan still reeling from defeat, and Godzilla, a prehistoric creature awakened by atomic bomb tests, is a terrifying reminder of nuclear disaster.

That's the part Godzilla would play until the mid-'60s. With 1964's "Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster," Godzilla began to change. Toho, the studio that produced the Godzilla films, began pushing the character in a more heroic direction, having him team up with two other monsters, Rodan and Mothra, to fight the outer-space menace of Ghidorah. By "Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster" two years later, the transformation was complete. In that film, Godzilla defeats a terrorist army and its giant lobster monster, and in the process helps save the terrorists' captives.

Godzilla's flying dropkick in "Godzilla vs. Megalon" (1973).
Godzilla's change coincided with increasing Japanese confidence. In the '60s, Japan was a growing economic power. Also, it had begun building its first nuclear power facilities, taming for peaceful purposes the same atomic power that had leveled two of its cities and given birth to Godzilla in the first place. If the atom could be tamed, Godzilla could be, too.

Nowhere is the transformation more pronounced than in 1971's "Godzilla vs. Hedorah," aka "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster," which pits Godzilla against a monster literally made of pollution. Godzilla here is completely domesticated. Children play with Godzilla toys, while Godzilla might as well be a cheerleader for nuclear power over smoke-belching factories.

The next change comes in the 1980s. Godzilla returns to his "force of nature" mode just as Japan reaches a peak of national prestige. Then by 1991's "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," Godzilla is saving Japan from time travelers who want to prevent Japan from becoming the future's dominant world power. Ironically, that was just as Japan's "lost decade" of stagnation began — pride before a fall.

So, Toho killed off Godzilla in 1995's "Godzilla vs. Destoroyah" only to revive him as a leaner and meaner monster in 1999's "Godzilla 2000," a symbol of what Japan needed to become to regain its confidence. (The Japanese don't regard the 1998 American-made "Godzilla" as a true Godzilla, and neither do I.) Then, after five more films, Fukushima happened.

So, now comes a new, American-made "Godzilla," the first Godzilla film since 2011's tsunami-spawned Fukushima meltdown. As Blue Oyster Cult sang, "History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of men."

In Fukushima's wake, Japan's answer is to let someone else deal with Godzilla for a while.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Culture Shock 05.08.14: WGN's 'Salem' is a Salem you've never seen

George Sibley knows a secret. There are witches in Salem, and his wife Mary is one of them.

But George will never tell. You see, he has a frog in his throat — literally. Mary put it there so she can control him, because she's a witch and that's apparently something witches do. And since Sibley is the most powerful man in Salem, that makes Mary the real power in Salem.

If WGN America's first scripted series weren't trying so hard to convince us it's a serious drama, one would swear at times it's a comedy. To say the least, it's a strange retelling of the witch trials. It even has you almost rooting for the infamous Puritan minister and pamphleteer Cotton Mather, author of the best-selling anti-dancing manifesto "A Cloud of Witness Against Balls and Dances."

The Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693, during which 20 people were executed, have never been portrayed quite like this. In this telling, the witches are real, meaning they have supernatural abilities straight out of the Brothers Grimm. They're also the force behind Salem's witch-hunting hysteria, throwing suspicion on unsuspecting citizens so as to divert attention from their own schemes. The Puritans are just pawns, unwittingly bringing about their own destruction.

The big brain behind "Salem" is Brannon Braga, who does here to American history what he did to the laws of physics back when he was writing "Star Trek." Among other transgressions, Braga wrote the episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" in which Capt. Janeway and Lt. Paris travel faster than warp 10, turn into salamanders and have salamander babies together.

"Salem" isn't the first time Braga has gotten all weird with amphibians.

The story starts with John Alden (Shane West, "Nikita") going off to fight in King William's War. John is the son of one of Salem's founders, but he's so fed up with the Puritans he'd just as soon go off to fight the French. That also means leaving behind the woman he loves, the not-yet Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery), who is secretly pregnant with his child.

So John goes off, gets captured by the Indians, spends years missing and presumed dead, and returns only to learn Mary is married to wealthy invalid George Sibley (Michael Mulheren).

Oh, and while he was away, Mary underwent a ritual that rid her of her unborn child in exchange for membership in Salem's witch coven, which sounds like Pat Robertson's worst nightmare.

Mary wants revenge on Salem's Puritan ruling class, whom she blames for taking away everything she ever loved. By the time John comes strolling back into the village, alive and bitter, her plans are too far along to abandon.

The coven's plan is to tear Salem apart by fomenting hysteria and framing innocent people for witchcraft. And their No. 1 pawn is Mather, played by Seth Gabel ("Fringe").

This is not a portrayal the historical Cotton Mather would recognize. While Gabel's Mather shares the original's religious fervor and daddy issues, he retreats from his burdens by drinking heavily and having relations with women of the night.

Both activities were big no-nos in Puritan circles — although drinking and legal bordellos were common in the other colonies. The real Mather would be aghast.

For that matter, he'd find everything about "Salem" objectionable. This is a sexed-up Salem that pushes the boundaries of basic cable. Expect regular helpings of bare backsides and sideboobs, to go along with the gruesome executions and brandings.

Gabel's Mather, with all his doubts, is more compelling and sympathetic than either West's bland Alden or Montgomery's Mary. Mary's willingness to sacrifice the innocent in her quest for power loses her our sympathy almost from the start. At least when Mather executes someone it's because he's been duped and manipulated. Mary knows exactly what she's doing.

"Salem" plays like an alternate history of America's founding. If the witches turn out to be the Illuminati, secretly manipulating America since it's founding days, I won't be the least surprised.

"Salem" airs Sunday nights at 9 CT on WGN America. New episodes appear Mondays on Hulu Plus.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Culture Shock 05.01.14: Syfy looks to shake up its 'Sharknado' image

In television, as in any business, branding matters. You can have the greatest product on Earth, and it won't matter a bit if your brand sends customers fleeing.

TNT knows drama. USA is where characters are welcome. AMC is all about advertising executives and zombies, which has a kind of synergy if you think about it.

And Syfy is the "Sharknado" channel, although that may be about to change.

There are worse fates. Never mind the lack of music, MTV is more like VTM nowadays, as in "Vacuous Teenage Moms." "Sharknado," on the other hand, was the surprise hit of 2013 on social media and gained viewers with repeat airings. The third broadcast attracted 2.1 million viewers, a record for a Syfy original movie repeat, according to Entertainment Weekly.

There's a lot to be said for cheesy movies. If I had my way, there would be a channel that aired nothing but reruns of "USA Up All Night." I'll take USA Network's early 1990s late-night schedule of "Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama," "Chopping Mall" and "Hell Comes to Frogtown" over yet another "NCIS" marathon any day.

Come to think about it, 2014 Syfy is a lot like 1990s USA. Back them, USA Network was known for cheesy movies, WWF wrestling and originals such as "Silk Stalkings" and "La Femme Nikita" (a Canadian co-production). Today, Syfy is known for cheesy movies, WWE wrestling and originals such as "Warehouse 13" and "Continuum" (a Canadian co-production). All entertaining, but apart from the rare "Sharknado" fluke, nothing that gets viewers talking the next morning.

Syfy used to air a show that did have its audience talking: "Battlestar Galactica." Then, for reasons that make sense only to television executives, Syfy declared a moratorium on shows set in space. An odd decision for a channel originally called The Sci-Fi Channel, I know.

But Syfy is also the channel that didn't know what to do with "Doctor Who," and Syfy's loss is  BBC America's highest-rated program and a reliable buzz generator. Meanwhile, Syfy has "Sharknado," "Ghost Shark," "Sharktopus," "Dinoshark" and the TV movie that kickstarted Syfy's love affair with monster-hybrid insanity, "Mansquito," which is oddly shark-free.

You have to figure Syfy's execs are just a little jealous of the science fiction and fantasy programming generating buzz for their competition, whether it's "Doctor Who" or "The Walking Dead"  on AMC or "Game of Thrones" on HBO. Syfy is an also-ran in the genre it used to own.

So, it's big news that Syfy is showing interest in its reason for being. The channel is heading back into space, embracing tech-heavy science fiction and, like all those other channels, looking to adapt best-selling novels.

One project already has a 10-episode order, and it will likely be the most ambitious series Syfy has aired to date, to say nothing of having the hardest science of any Syfy series. Maybe the success of "Gravity" has changed the mindset around the Syfy offices.

If Syfy is looking for its own "Game of Thrones," it may have found it in "The Expanse," based on "Leviathan Wakes" and its sequels by James S.A. Corey (the pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). And wouldn't you know it, the cover of "Leviathan Wakes" has a nice blurb from "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin.

"Leviathan Wakes" has warring factions, pitched battles and lots of unexpected death. So it is a bit like "Game of Thrones," only in space and without all the sex. So maybe it's not like "Game of Thrones" at all. Never mind. But it can air on basic cable without upsetting the usual suspects.

But even if "The Expanse" is good, will anyone tune in? Syfy has an established brand, one it spent years cultivating. And that brand doesn't scream intelligent, sophisticated, science-literate entertainment.

It's a brand that screams we're gonna need a bigger boat — and probably a bigger flyswatter, too.