January selections provide action-packed entertainment

by Leonard Heldreth

The selections this month are a powerful film from Ireland and three summer blockbuster films, of varying merit, that are generally entertaining.

Calvary
A powerful drama set in Ireland, Calvary starts with a quotation from St. Augustine: “Despair not, one of the thieves was spared; presume not, one of the thieves was not.”
This quotation is paraphrased in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Calvary shares some of the mordant humor, absurdity (in a lesser degree), and theological considerations of Beckett’s famous play.
The film opens with a scene guaranteed to grab the viewer’s attention. On a Sunday afternoon in County Sligo, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) sits in a confessional. A man enters the other side of the booth. He tells the priest he was molested by another clergyman from the time he was seven until he was fourteen. The other priest is dead, but someone must pay, and who better than another member of the clergy?
Although innocent, like Jesus, Father James will die for the other man’s sins. The confessor tells Father James he has a week to put his affairs in order, and on the following Sunday, he will be shot on the nearby beach. Then the man exits the confessional.
So begins the second film written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, whose first film, The Guard (reviewed in these pages February 2012), also starred Gleeson, that time as a policeman unconcerned about bending the rules.
McDonagh is the older brother of Martin McDonagh, another original writer/director whose Seven Psychopaths and In Bruges, (which also starred Gleeson) also were reviewed in these pages.
Calvary might have been a whodunit, but the priest recognized the voice of the intended murderer. The question is whether he will avoid the meeting and let the cup pass from him, or whether he will try to meet the man and talk him out of it. As days pass and he ponders his options, the audience is introduced to the group of misfits, sinners and nasty individuals who make up the parish.
One of the most interesting is a beautiful young woman who arrives with bandages on both wrists, complaining she can’t even do a decent job of killing herself. She is Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Father James’ daughter (after the death of his wife, he entered the priesthood). They clearly care for each other, yet she blames him for devoting himself to the church and not being there when she was a child and needed him.
Another major character is the butcher, Jack (Chris O’Dowd), who may sometimes beat his wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke); on the other hand, he accepts her affair with African immigrant Simon (Isaach de Bankolé).
Aidan Gillen plays the atheist coroner, who snorts a little coke and constantly taunts the priest’s theology and attempts at comforting people; the story he throws at the priest one night in a local bar is quite disturbing.
There’s also the police inspector (Gary Lydon) and his regular rent boy (Owen Sharpe), who seems to service half the town, including the local bishop (or so he says — but all of the characters lie).
One of the more disturbing characters is the bilionaire Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who taunts the priest with theological exchanges, urinates on a famous painting (“because I can”) and tempts him with a fat check to rebuild his church.
The only people who treat Father James with repect are non-Irish: a French widow (Marie-Josée Croze), for whose husband he performs last rites after an auto accident, and a very old American writer (the great M. Emmet Walsh) who enlists the priest’s help in securing a gun, so he can kill himself before he goes completely decrepit.
Sunday approaches, and how the film concludes remains up in the air until the very end.
Tough, sharply written, beautifully acted, cynical but full of humanistic values, and guaranteed to leave the audience with lots to discuss after it’s over, Calvary is a powerful drama not to be missed.

Guardians of the Galaxy
Despite being a Marvel comics spin-off, Guardians of the Galaxy manages to transcend its origins, exhibit patches of humor and originality among the action sequences, and laugh at its own audacity.
The opening sequences are typical. In a trite, tear-jerking scene, set in 1988, a boy bids goodbye to his dying mother, who gives him a wrapped gift. He runs weeping from the hospital and is scooped up by a giant spaceship. The next scene, twenty-six years later, shows him standing on the surface of a desolate planet, wearing an armored suit whose helmet’s eyes glow red (think of the little critters from Star Wars). As the bad guys approach, he does a little soft shoe routine to ’60s pop songs, in the vein of Footloose; he whips out his guns and blows the bad guys away. The music was compiled by his mother as a dying gift to her son, and it’s played on an antique Sony Walkman fastened to his belt. Nor is this the last we see of the Walkman, his mother and his dance routine, which help wrap up the film. In short, some interesting plot shenanigans are going on around the usual superhero bravado.
On the negative side, the Marvel plot framework is clearly visible. First, there’s a McGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for what everybody wants whether it has any value or not). In Raiders it was the Ark, in North by Northwest it was microfilm, etc. Here it’s an orb capable of obliterating everyone on a planet. The bad guys want it, the good guys try to keep it from them, and the hero at least has the courtesy to acknowledge it’s something like the black bird from The Maltese Falcon.
Second visible framework element: a scruffy band of five adventurers who could have come from the cantina in Star Wars: A New Hope.
They are led by the handsome hero, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, playing the self-named Star Lord, in his best Harrison Ford style).
First is Drax, the inarticulate muscleman out for revenge (World Wrestling star Dave Bautista). Then there’s the green-skinned but deadly female fighting machine, Gamora (Zoe Saldana from Avatarand Star Trek). Last is the duo of Rocket Racoon and Groot. Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is a well-done CGI racoon, with significant genetic alterations that enable him to speak, fire weapons and often out-think the other four. Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is an ambulatory tree with retractable branches whose first duty is protecting Rocket — and when he’s in that mode, not much can stop him. He’s a little like a cross between an Ent from Tolkien and Chewbacca from Star Wars. Throughout the film, he answers all queries with “I am Groot.”
Small parts played by major actors include the Collector (Benicio Del Toro), Yondu (Michael Rooker), Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and Nova Prime (Glenn Close, dominated by a white hairdo).
The plot machinations are predictable — the prison breakout, the fight between spaceships (a la attack on the Deathstar) and, most tedious of all, a climactic scene with a giant spaceship crashing into a city (a la Captain America, recent Star Trek films and most other blockbuster comic-style movies).
Despite these plot cliches, director James Gunn makes the action funny enough and sometimes original enough that the clunky plot isn’t offensive. Even he acknowledges he’s not taking this too seriously, as when a character yawns as they are being led away to die.
The references are fun, the wit often sharp and the special effects, especially for the outer space scenes, are literally out of this world.
The soundtrack of old ’60s hits is great, as are the references to Joss Whedon’s Firefly series, and I found the film considerably more entertaining than the umpteenth iteration of the typical Marvel blockbuster.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Reboots of Star Trek, Spiderman, Superman, and even James Bond have ensured that no franchise, no matter how badly it fails or how quickly it runs out of steam, will remain dormant for long if more dollars can be squeezed from it.
Television series, such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Homeland and even seasons of Justified have accustomed viewers to watching long narratives far more complicated in both length and plot than I Love Lucy or Perry Mason.
Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel was the source for the first five Planet of the Apes films starting in 1968; Tim Burton failed to restart the series in 2001; two television series followed; and then in 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes met with such critical and financial success ($482 million grossed globally) a sequel was inevitable.
Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise, was scheduled to direct the sequel, but creative differences with the studio led to his departure, and Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) came on board.
While Let Me In, the remake of the Scandinavian vampire film Let the Right One In, was surprisingly good for a remake, its small scale and intimacy said little about Reeves’s ability to handle large groups and action scenes. Dawn shows he can not only handle such large shots but knows how to keep the small, intimate scenes missing from so many blockbuster epics.
The story opens some ten years after the close of Rise. Human society has been decimated by Simian flu, a virus that escaped from human laboratories, and what is left of the species lives in geographically isolated pockets with no communication between them.
The apes who escaped across the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of Rise have established a primitive but flourishing community of hunter-gatherers in Muir woods. They hunt, ride horses, have a primitive language (mostly based on hand gestures) and live in a patriarchal society ruled over by Caesar (Andy Serkis), who led the escape at the end of the last movie.
Caesar has a wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer); a teenaged son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a newborn son. Much emphasis is placed in the film on the value of home and family, both for humans and apes.
The apes have seen no humans for more than two years, and assumed they all were dead until an expedition from the ruins of San Francisco appears, hoping to augment their meager supply of power by reactivating the hydroelectric dam located in ape territory.
Although suspicious of each other, the two species negotiate and agree that humans may stay in ape territory for a day or two to start the power plant, and then must leave.
On the ape side are Caesar; his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose body carries the scars of human medical research and a few other advisor apes. On the human side are Malcolm (Jason Clarke), Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm’s second wife.
Each side has one antagonist whose goal is total war with the other species, and these two manage to subvert the good intentions of the majority. Distrust, double-crosses, and general interspecies rivalry follow until trust completely breaks down and armed conflict results (the apes have learned how to use guns).
The story has been interpreted in a variety of ways — the Middle East conflict, black-white relations, etc., but the themes probably go much deeper, into the very DNA of our species, who squabble not only with other species and outsiders but within nationalities and subgroups. When groups lack a common enemy, they fight among themselves. Other themes run through the film, and when it is over, audiences can find much to discuss.
The ending of the film is dark, as war between the two groups seems inevitable, and human reinforcements are on the way. A sequel with the present director already has been scheduled, and results should be interesting.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster with a lot more thought and fewer explosions than the average warm-weather extravaganza. It’s worth seeing just to marvel at Andy Serkis’s extraordinary performance as Caesar.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singer started the X-Men movie franchise, and with Singer back to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past, the series seems to have come full circle — either to a new beginning or a dead end.
Actually, it does neither, because Singer does many things right in the film, but it is Marvel comics and specifically the X-Men franchise, so not much tinkering will be allowed. Don’t expect a lot of surprises.
Future Past keeps the dual cast of First Class and combines them into one narrative, with a time-travel twist.
In 2023 the mutants are being attacked and nearly obliterated by giant, virtually indestructable robots called Sentinels, programmed to detect mutant DNA and destroy the individual carrying it.
Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) have taken refuge in a Chinese monastery, and are working on a plan to travel back in time to keep the Sentinels from being invented. (Yes, there’s a certain Terminator echo here.)
With the help of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Wolverine will be sent because he most closely resembles the way he was in 1973 (he ages extremely slowly) and because he has the most stamina. He successfully makes the time-leap, but he must also convince the Xavier of that time (James McAvoy) and then Magneto (Michael Fassbender) of his fantastic story; free Magneto from the Pentagon, where he is imprisoned for killing JFK; convince the two geniuses to work together and keep Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels.
If all of this sounds dreadfully confusing, it is, but Singer lays it out so it can generally be followed, despite the time travel paradoxes. Whether Wolverine, not known for his subtlety and persuasive powers, can keep it all on track is another matter.
Action alternates between the future, where Xavier, Magneto and Pryde protect the supine form of Wolverine while listening to the sounds of the battle raging against the Sentinels, and the past, as Wolverine tries to carry out his mission despite one unexpected complication after another. Fortunately for the audience, the past gets most of the attention and action.
The most impressive addition to the X-Men stable in this film is Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who moves so fast people can’t see him.
His speed and agility help in the freeing of Magneto from the Pentagon prison, and in a slow motion scene set in a kitchen, he systematically takes out guards sent to apprehend the X-Men, spins fired bullets off their trajectories and tosses pots and pans at the opposition, while pausing to sample the soup cooking on the stove. The scene is a real tour de force. The question remains, however, why wasn’t his help enlisted in the final fight?
The film is full of spectacular special effects, some more impressive than others. A scene late in the film shows Magneto lifting a major stadium and dropping it on the White House lawn, much to the chagrin of then-President Richard Nixon, who appears in several scenes.
Most of the acting is solid, as one would expect from actors with these reputations, although character motivation and backstories remain at the comic book level — no surprises there.
Days of Future Past is long, packed with action scenes and characters, and sometimes complicated to follow.
On the other hand, it’s generally entertaining, especially if you like Marvel comics and the X-Men. It may be the best film in the franchise since Bryan Singer’s previous ones.

— Leonard G. Heldreth
All films reviewed are available as DVDs or videotapes from local stores. Reviews of earlier films cited can be found at marquettemonthly.org

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