“Terminator: Genisys” in: The Age of the Reboot

The modern phenomenon known as “the reboot” has given the Hollywood blockbuster a new shape this year, and “Terminator: Genisys,” despite its flaws, functions as a beacon for that transformation. The 27% tomato meter score for “Terminator: Genisys” doesn’t do the move justice. Admittedly, many of the detractive points critics present are accurate. The plot is convoluted almost beyond comprehension. The action sequences are overly bombastic and drown out what little plot remains. And the characters are borderline cartoon sketches of their former selves. John Connor in particular, as a human/Terminator hybrid, could be taken as something of an insult to James Cameron’s original intentions. But this is precisely where the movie becomes interesting. In taking Cameron’s pre-established mythology and flipping it on its head, the Terminator franchise has boldly, finally, taken a step down a path that no longer requires that mythology. The franchise now has the potential to be born anew. This is not an anomaly, but rather the latest in a trend of Hollywood reboots that serve to realign the relationship between stagnant franchises and their skeptical audiences.

It is now commonplace, particularly this year, for sequels and/or reboots to pay homage to their previous entries, while simultaneously deconstructing their original building blocks. Take “Jurassic World” for example. The movie has many nostalgic moments in reverence of the original film (like “Terminator: Genisys,” it ignores the other two sequels) and of course contains the obligatory dinosaur chase sequences. Yet, many of the action sequences in the film take on a satirical nature, almost a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of the genre’s inherent ridiculousness. For instance: the scene in which a group of Pterodactyls (And a giant dinosaur-fish hybrid) slowly eat the most the annoying character in the film. The film’s director, Colin Trevorrow, gleefully showcased the death through continual dramatic teases in which the doomed girl comes just shy of escaping. It was the filmmaker saying – “let’s give the audience what they want, multiply it by ten, and simultaneously mock them for enjoying it.” It showcased a level of self-awareness usually absent in action films/sequels, coupled with a desire to sublimate the audience’s relationship with the film. The result is a sequence that’s both highly entertaining and joyously absurd.

“Terminator: Genisys” isn’t quite as clever in its construction of action sequences as “Jurassic World,” but there is a similar desire at play to present the audience with material that, on the surface, looks like classic Terminator, yet underneath is really just a robot in disguise. This is nowhere more apparent than in an early sequence in which the T-800 (a brilliantly CGI-rendered young Arnold Schwarzenegger) lands in 1984. The scene perfectly recreates the landmark intro from the original film, up until the point where Arnold asks a group of hooligans for their clothes. Then old Arnold shows up, shoots young Arnold with a shotgun, and expectations blow up with balls-to-the-wall insanity. Granted, this scene would have had more impact if it hadn’t been spoiled by the trailers, but that’s a criticism for another discussion. Watching two Arnold Schwarzeneggers smash each other to bits is every bit as ridiculously enjoyable as it sounds.

When John Connor arrives in the past, it disrupts the status quo in several fascinating ways. One, it throws all that we understood about the Terminator timeline out of whack. Two, it displaces our pre-conceived notions of a Terminator’s powers and limitations. Three, it allows for encounters between characters we never thought we’d be allowed to see – adult John and Sarah, John and Kyle. We assumed the Terminator series had self-imposed limitations. But “Genisys” takes the limitations and completely up-heaves them, showing the viewer that possibilities for the series have become numerous. Here the reboot approach proves successful by allowing the film series to be fundamentally altered on a meta-structural level.

Admittedly, director Alan Taylor doesn’t try his hardest with these possibilities. The film never reaches the transcendent level of storytelling achieved by the first two in the franchise. The early films had much deeper philosophical insight into the nature of humanity and fate. But Genisys, in its best moments, has little pretensions about being anything more than a vehicle for entertainment. Like “Jurassic World,” it trades the formalities of layered storytelling for the informality of fun, well-lubricated action sequences. From the Arnold fight to the T-1000 clash, from the bridge chase to the prison breakout to the pulse-pounding confrontation inside Skynet; the action creates a kind of rhythmic narrative for the viewer to ride along in the absence of deeper story. The action IS the narrative.

Following another trend this summer, “Terminator: Genisys” goes old school. There is a difference between the kind of action offered in “Genisys” and the blurred, nonsensical CGI sameness found in say, the “Transformers” franchise. The sequences found in “Terminator: Genisys” are vivid, attention-grabbing and actually give a damn about solid cinematography and editing. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is another example of a sequel that has boldly reinvented its own rules, taking cues from the action movie techniques established in the original “Mad Max” trilogy, then completely deconstructing and rebuilding them from the ground up. The film that results doesn’t take itself at all seriously, playing out as action-parody, but never insulting its audience. “Genisys” follows suit, perhaps not as perfectly, but nevertheless effectively. Both films use the action as their narrative.

Joss Whedon’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” set an interesting tone for the franchise movies releasing this summer. Whedon, famous for his uncanny knack for playing with audience expectations, executed a fundamental lesson in narrative trickery when he laid the groundwork for the sacrifice of Hawkeye, only to have Quicksilver come in at the last second and bite the bullet instead. It impressed upon us the importance of a narrative’s relationship with the audience, which, when used effectively, can create alternative methods by which to ensnare the viewer. This was true of “Avengers.”  It was true of “Jurassic World,” in its creation of an action-parody structure. It was true of “Mad Max” and its reliance on the action-narrative, in addition to action-parody elements. And it’s true of “Terminator: Genisys,” which offers a bit of all of the above. It subverts the audience’s awareness by fundamentally altering the course of its characters. It streamlines the narrative through a reliance on the action. It has a ton of fun creating a near-parody of the “Terminator” mythology. It does all of these things less effectively than each of the other films. But it’s the only film I’ve seen this summer that attempts them all. The result is a muddled yet entertaining one. “Terminator: Genisys” ultimately becomes the pinnacle of the modern Hollywood reboot. A form which, at its best, shifts both storytelling gears AND the relationship between the story and the audience. “Terminator: Genisys” is a reminder of how the modern action movie has continued to evolve and become an overall more engrossing and less predictable kind of beast.

Oscar picks 2015

The 87th Annual Academy Awards are upon us. And for the first time, I’ve seen each and every major Oscar film. Yes, my wallet is bit thinner, but two-for-the-price-of-one double feature deals helped a lot. Especially the ones AMC wasn’t aware of. In light of this, I thought I’d offer my Oscar picks for the year.

Please note this list is not comprehensive, nor is it designed to try and predict the winners of each category. Although I’ve been reading up on the various Oscar favorites, I’m no expert myself, and any attempt of mine to deduce the winners would just be culled from what I’ve read by other critics. Therefore, this list is strictly about what I think should win, not what will win (though I do acknowledge the favorites). You’ll see my choices for all of the major categories and a few of the minor ones, but sadly nothing on the documentary or foreign language front, as I haven’t seen most of those films. That said, I’m excited to plunge into the discussion of the year’s major films. Please read on and enjoy! Comments welcome.

Best Picture

Most Oscar critics have deduced this category is a toss-up between “Birdman” and “Boyhood.” Others feel that “American Sniper” might steal a victory, but I personally believe there is no contest. “Sniper” is a visionless, jingoistic dud of a war film, and I can’t believe it’s even on this list. “Boyhood” is a technical achievement, but lacks the heart, wonder, and focused personal vision that makes “Birdman” soar. “Birdman,” despite the many players involved in its production, coheres as a remarkably singular film, with seemingly effortless craftsmanship. It’s the immaculate conception of Oscar movies, and my definitive pick for Best Picture.

My pick:Birdman”

Best Director

In another BvB, Alejandro Inarritu and Richard Linklater are neck-and-neck in the director race, but for me it’s Inarittu’s direction that truly stands out. Linklater’s achievement is noteworthy, but really is predicated on the sheer length of time he spent on his subject. Taking that aside, “Boyhood’s” direction is comparatively hands-off, and the film works primarily through editing magic rather than a definitive directorial shape. This is polar opposite to “Birdman,” a uniquely personal tale that, again, feels almost miraculous in its cohesion of cinematography, actors, sets, music and editing. Inarittu’s singular vision is the glue that holds together the film’s key players, and his hand pumps the beating heart of Riggan Thompson. The directorial choices shape the film in a way that the other nominees on the list simply cannot match.

My pick: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman” 

Best Actor

This is a tough call. I want Michael Keaton to win this. I really do. As an actor who’s struggled in the shadow of Batman for over 20 years, it’s remarkable to see him finally land a role that allows him to display his full talents. Anger, sadness, joy, frustration, heartbreak – it’s all there in a performance that runs the full gamut of human emotions. That said, I have to admit that Eddie Redmayne gave the superior performance. His transformation into Stephen Hawking is truly astonishing. The way he slowly conforms and contorts his body, subtly changing his physical presence and his speech to authentically create the effects of ALS. Most remarkably, despite the physical deterioration, the spirit of Hawking continues to shine through Redmayne’s eyes. With subtle facial expressions he conveys a glib awareness and devious sense of humor that reminds the audience just how alive Hawking remains. It’s a transformative performance that will go down in history as one of cinema’s greats. Sorry Michael. If only Birdman had been released a different year.

My pick: Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Actress

It seems that the best actress race is one of the few sure bets this year, with Julianne Moore’s performance in “Still Alice” set to finally give the actress her Oscar. It’s easy to see why. Her performance as an Alzheimer’s disease patient is subtle and heartbreaking. She conveys so much pain and defeat by shadowing the emotions rather than allowing them full reign. And while I’ll be happy see Moore finally earn a statuette, my choice for the win is Felicity Jones. In a film that could have easily been entirely dominated by Redmayne, Jones remarkably matches him and sometimes even steals his thunder. Jones’ Jane Hawking is the beating heart of “The Theory of Everything.” She is Redmayne’s anchor, bringing his emotions forth through the incredibly real relationship they create. It’s amazing just how much Jones is able to convey through facial expressions. Through necessity she is strong and determined, yet underneath the exterior, her sadness, vulnerability and uncertainty shine through. Her eyes practically glow with heightened awareness. She is able to express just as much as Redmayne can through minimal dialogue. And in a way, hers is the more difficult task. As Hawking, Redmayne expresses through his eyes because he cannot speak. As Jane, Jones expresses through her eyes because of what she chooses not to say. Perhaps another year Jones could have managed a win. It’s a shame for her, really. In a more balanced world, Redmayne wouldn’t pull off the win without her.

My pick: Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”

Best Supporting Actor

J.K. Simmons. Need I say more? I actually wasn’t the biggest fan of “Whiplash.” I believe the movie’s energy and musical whimsy secretly serve to mask an absurd plot that’s filled with holes and contrivances. But J.K. Simmons is simply on fire as the maniacal, authoritarian “Bleed for your work” music teacher. All of “Whiplash’s” energy is channeled through Simmons – the maniacal gleam in his eyes and feverish determination to teach with an iron fist. All of this is rendered palpably authentic in a role that too easily could have become cartoonish. A shout out to Edward Norton as my runner-up choice, in a similarly crass and energetic role. But there’s simply no way he’s taking the award from Simmons.

My pick: J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”

Best Supporting Actress

As with Moore, Patricia Arquette is pretty much a lock for the win for her performance in “Boyhood.“ Which frankly I don’t fully understand. I think she’s great in the role, but nothing about her performance stands out as particularly unique or daring. She gives the emotions that Linklater wants from her, and she does it pretty well. But I don’t think she does it with the same rawness and vulnerability as the other mother role on this list – Laura Dern in “Wild.” A film which, by the way, should easy have been a best picture nominee. That said, Dern is phenomenal, and creates the perfect portrait of a woman who wants nothing more or less in the world than to be a mother. Not perfect, not always self-assured, but a mother whose heart and entire being belong to her children. Through subtle acting choices, Dern shows the purity of her feelings. The pure joy her children bring her in the beginning, and the pure sadness she feels when she can no longer be with them. It’s a wonderful performance that captures the essence of motherhood more fully than Arquette’s – or frankly any mother performance I’ve seen in years.

My pick: Laura Dern, “Wild” 

Best Original Screenplay

This is a tough call. Wes Anderson’s script for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is fresh, original and packed with zing. It’s certainly Anderson’s best chance for Oscar gold on Sunday. Inarritu’s script for “Birdman” is another close contender, packed with loads of original characterization and fascinating dialogue interplay. But at its core, “Birdman’s” greatness stems from the direction, not the script. For “Budapest,” the direction is more of the standard Wes Anderson style, but the script gives the movie its wit and energy. For that reason my vote goes to Anderson.

My pick: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Best Adapted Screenplay

For me the adapted screenplay race is a much easier choice. There are several worthy candidates here, but “The Imitation Game” stands heads and tails above the rest. The movie’s screenplay is a fascinating, self-solving puzzle. Much like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing – who spends the movie unraveling the mysteries of his enigma machine – the script seeks to unravel the enigma of Turing himself. Graham Moore has brilliantly crafted a three-tiered structure. Starting on the outskirts of Turing’s character, the script slowly mines and probes him, creating brilliant parallels between Turing’s exploration of the machine, his underlying exploration of humanity, and the audience’s exploration of Turing. The result is a screenplay that provides the foundation for the movie’s greatness.

My pick: Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game”

Best Film Editing

This is damn near a three way tie. If the script for “The Imitation Game” provides the blueprint for the film’s structure, the editing cements it firmly in place. The film’s use of flashbacks and flash forwards creates a story in three time lines that never feels jumpy or confusing, thanks to editor William Goldenberg’s smooth and streamlined cutting. In “Whiplash,” the editing stands out for different reasons. Rather than smoothing over the cracks, editor Tom Cross gives the film its energy and frenetic sense of panic. This especially shines through in intense scenes of Miles Teller performing on stage. The editing creates a rhythmic, heart stopping battle to the death between Teller and his drum set. But this is the one category that I’m going to give over to “Boyhood.” Like with “The Imitation Game,” “Boyhood’s” editing smooths over the potential fissures in the storytelling. But even more impressively, it manages to create a coherent narrative through the piecing together of 12 years of footage. If I could point to one person responsible for Boyhood’s incredible technical success, it would have to be editor Sandra Adair. She managed to take Linklater’s decade-spanning vision and turn it into a three hour film print.

My pick: Sandra Adair, “Boyhood”

Best Original Score

This is a close call between Alexadre Desplat’s score for “The Imitation Game” and Johann Johannsson’s score for “The Theory of Everything.” And actually the scores are somewhat similar in the role they serve for their respective films. In both cases the scores create an emotional underpinning for the main character’s journey. This is accomplished through strong thematic material and swelling orchestral sweep. The scores are very traditional in that respect, but Johannsson’s score is probably the more diverse of the two. Dipping and rising, fading and swelling, the music creates a sense of symmetry throughout the film, providing the foundation for the Hawkings’ emotional connection just as effectively as the actors themselves. The score is their perfect accompaniment, the springboard from which their performances soar. As much as I’d love to see Desplat finally win an Oscar, I’m siding with Johannsson’s work as a truly distinctive and beautiful piece of scoring.

My pick: Johann Johannsson, “The Theory of Everything”

There you have it, my Oscar picks for 2015! Can’t wait to see it all play out on Sunday. Please let me know what you think of my choices and feel free to list your own. Any feedback would be welcome.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) review

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The latest work by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” is, despite the uncertainties of its characters, an assured piece of filmmaking. It follows Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a one-hit wonder celebrity, famous for his portrayal of the super hero Birdman. The aging Riggan seeks to recapture his glory days by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

There are troubles behind the curtain, both literally and psychologically. As Riggan is forced to deal with an irascible, egotistical co-star (Edward Norton) a seemingly bi-polar lover who may or may not be pregnant (Andrea Riseborough), a defiant daughter unsympathetic towards her father (Emma Stone) and an exasperated lawyer/producer/best friend (Zack Galifinakis), the real battle is between Riggan and his once alter-ego, Birdman. Speaking in a raspy, menacing tone, (surely a jesting reference to Christian Bale’s take on Batman) the specter of Birdman jibes and rattles Riggan, telling him that he’s just a washed up failure, that his attempts at artistry are a crock. He might as well throw in the cowl and make Birdman 4 already.

As Riggan struggles to hold onto reality, the lines between his three lives become increasingly blurred. The reality of Riggan the ordinary man, Riggan the stage actor, and Riggan the superhero all blend into one, and we doubt whether anything we’re seeing is real anymore, or just a manifestation of Riggan’s consciousness in turmoil.

There’s some notable influences guiding Inarritu’s hand. Certainly “Black Swan” comes to mind as we see Riggan’s increasing madness elevating his stage performance. There’s also “Synecdoche, New York,” with Riggan using his play to fend off the looming threat of death. But Birdman is more complex than “Swan” and more digestible than “Synecdoche.” Ianarritu’s cultivation of these influences simply adds layers to a film already bursting with content. Birdman is its own beast.

The film lampoons social media’s role in forming celebrities – one hilarious sequence involves a robe caught in a door, which traps Riggan outside his theater in his underwear, forcing him to walk through Times Square amongst a crowd of gleeful spectators eager to blowup twitter. The film also has something to say about the shallowness of comic book pop corn flicks, particularly in a sequence where Riggan, walking along Broadway, finds his mind suddenly usurped by Birdman’s blockbuster world. Broadway transforms into a big budget movie set, complete with a gigantic robot Griffin breathing fire down Riggan’s back.

But the film’s viewpoints on pop culture play as secondary to its interest in Riggan, as the camera follows him everywhere. During moments of particular absurdity, the camera drifts to the side to reveal bystanders peering at Riggan in bewilderment, before swinging back onto Riggan, who hasn’t noticed them. Riggan experiences the outside world as nothing but a fly buzzing in his ear.

Indeed all of the other characters in the film, and all of the events on stage, could easily be perceived as elements of a fantasy sequence playing out through Riggan’s twisted psychology. Many of the characters are struggling with a deep personal issue that they desperately seek to overcome. Mike’s (Norton) impotence with partner Lesley (Naomi Watts) can only be overcome by the thrill of actually attempting to have sex on stage. Sam (Stone) perceives herself as a perpetual loser, and she can only handle this by acting out against her father, pretending it’s all his fault. Riggan desperately believes that he has something to offer the artistic world, and the only way for him to achieve credibility is to come out from under the shadow of Birdman’s wings. But the mistake these characters make is believing that the only way to escape themselves is to be actors, rather than embracing who they are. The similarities are so notable that the secondary characters may well be mere cogs within Riggan’s solipsistic mechanism.

We are living in Riggan’s world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Zubeski makes phenomenal use of three dimensional space. As Riggan steps out of the theater and onto the brilliantly lit streets of Broadway, the camera rides on his back, then joins him for a drink, seating itself on the bar stool next to him. Like a patient friend waiting for Riggan to finish his last round, the camera remains loyally his. Every physical space that Riggan steps into feels like another floor in the world’s most accurately constructed dollhouse – we know it’s fake, but we feel as though we can live and play in it all the same. This is all thanks to the camera’s refusal to leave his side. Adding to the three dimensionality, the film’s editing takes a cue from Hitchcock’s Rope, and with the exception of a few transitional fades, every cut is hidden with the scene, to sustain the illusion of complete immersion.

This immersion also helps the viewer to accept the film’s constant tonal shifts. The movie is equal parts comedy and tragedy, shifting between the two modes in a stream-of-consciousness flow. Riggan’s world is a place where bi-polar behavior is the established norm. We embrace the tonal shifts as much as we embrace Riggan himself.

Finally, special mention must be made of Michael Keaton. He brings to the role such confidence and believability, and every mood swing the character experiences feels as natural as a shift in the blowing wind. This is Keaton as we’ve never seen him before, stripped naked and ready to take all the punches the world has to throw at him. The result is a revelation of a performance, raw and real. Keaton channels his emotional shifts through the intense psychological hardness that has always been uniquely his. There’s a fire raging behind Keaton’s eyes, a fire we’ve always seen, but never really experienced. The intensity of his stare is something that made his Batman intriguing. But here the Batman mask finally comes off, and Keaton’s fire spreads… consuming the entire theater in the process.

The role of Birdman is clearly associated with Keaton’s Batman, and can be perceived as a device for both character and actor to move forward. Batman, like Birdman, was a defining part of Keaton’s life as an actor, and neither Keaton nor Riggan would be the same without their alter ego. Birdman is largely about coping with a legacy. For character and actor alike, the only way to move past your legacy is to embrace it, and in so doing, redefine it.

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

 

The common trend in super hero films of late has been style over substance. Movies like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America 2 might please on a visceral level, but they narratively bend in genre-conventional ways, without standing out as their own defined films. It is perhaps apt that Bryan Singer, who revolutionized the super hero genre with the original X-Men film in 2000, has returned to redefine the X-series once more. He has crafted a truly impressive time travelling chapter in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Mutant kind has been all but destroyed. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the straggling survivors of Charles Xavier’s X-Men band together for one last mission. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) call upon the talents of time-and-space phaser Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to transfer Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) consciousness back into his younger body in 1973. There he must locate the young Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and bring them together to prevent their one-time disciple Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage); an event that will accelerate Trask’s Sentinel program and lead to the extermination of mutant kind.

DOFP picks up the steam left over from X-Men: First Class and builds to a scale of epic achievement. The stakes are high, and the storytelling consequently reaches a level of intense intricacy. Luckily, Simon Kinberg is a talented enough writer that he’s is able to weave most of the important story telling beats around the time travel logic, keeping everything moving at a fluid pace. Kinberg has proven himself a master at moving chess pieces across a board – much like Xavier and Magneto – and though the character pieces on this particular story board are many, Kinberg manages to give most of them a real purpose. The essential characters are neatly configured into the plot, and those who are excess are either killed off in the future or given a reason to exit the stage.

One who comes to mind is the super-fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who is introduced as a primarily comedic character. He’s a delight to watch on screen as he assists in breaking Magneto out of a Pentagon prison cell using his own brand of hyper-speed tricks to outwit the clueless security guards. But as fun as he is, he’s not really needed after the Pentagon sequence, and doesn’t overstay his welcome. No character hangs around uselessly, and for a cast this impressively big and talented, that’s a notable achievement.

The possible exception to this is Jackman’s Wolverine, who as the future visitor is necessarily relegated to be the story’s exposition delivery man. While Jackman’s curmudgeonly performance is as enjoyable as ever, never before has his character been so weighted down by the need to explain the logic of his being there to everyone he encounters. But while Wolverine may have seen better days, there are three characters and three performances that the film’s success hinges upon, without which this movie would have been just another average super hero flick. And those are James McAvoy’s Xavier, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.

Bringing Magneto and Xavier together to stop Mystique is fundamental to the plot, but on a deeper and more interesting level it functions as a three-way character conflict. As seen at the end of First Class, Mystique left her former mentor, Charles, to join Magneto’s brotherhood, and Charles is understandably bitter about it. DOFP picks up this emotional thread. Mystique now functions as mostly her own agent, but nevertheless is the center for a push-and-pull between Xavier’s and Magneto’s attempts to gain her loyalty back. What’s interesting is how the three of them view this unique situation. Xavier sees her as a sister, and just wants her to come home and do the right thing. Magneto wants her to reach the full potential of her power, sacrificing all morals along the way. And Mystique simply wants vengeance for her fellow mutants. She’s neither as morally untouchable as Xavier, nor as blatantly murderous as Magneto. Mystique is the catalyst of the film, and Lawrence is a force her own as she fiercely fosters a single-minded blood thirst. Yet glimmers of uncertainty bubble forth as the angel and devil on her shoulders attempt to direct her convictions.

A few weeks ago, James McAvoy was asked who should be the new face of the X-Men franchise if Hugh Jackman were to retire. He gave his vote to Lawrence, and after watching this film, it’s easy to see why. She’s practically already replaced Jackman, as the emotional distress and uncertain future that once defined Wolverine’s arc have now been transferred onto Mystique.

Mystique is the crux of a fascinating emotional triangle. Of this triangle, Magneto is the weakest link. Fassbener and McKellen excel separately, but they never quite gel as the same character. There’s just too many differences in the way they physically and emotionally embody Magneto. More problematic is that Fassbender all but carried First Class, and after such an impressive first outing his contributions to this film have been significantly diminished.  Magneto’s goals are not as fully formed and understandable as Mystique’s and Xavier’s. It’s questionable that he spends much of the film’s climax attempting to wipe out the President’s cabinet even though he knows what the future outcome will be. After such a strong character arc in First Class, it’s disappointing to see his motivations become so hazy.

But where Magneto disappoints, Xavier impresses. DOFP does for Xavier what First Class did for Magneto. Seven movies into the franchise, and finally we get a movie that’s really all about Charles. The dual performances of McAvoy and Stewart also come together much more successfully than Fassbender’s/McKellen’s.

DOFP’s plot thematically reflects onto Xavier’s personal arc. The story finds the Xavier of 1973 a beaten and broken man. Abandoned by his best friend and the woman he thought of as a sister, he has retreated within himself. He takes spinal injections that restore his walking ability, but dull his mind to the point of being unable to access his powers. This proves a disaster for the other mutants who need him, and for the first time we see just what a world without Charles Xavier would look like. No one mutant needs to be saved more than him, and the rest of the mutants cannot be saved without him.

This is the most fully formed version of Xavier that we’ve yet seen. McAvoy portrays his pain, anguish and regret with an emotional honesty and vulnerability. This exposes the once emotionally guarded professor to a degree that makes him appear – ironically – human. Stewart plays the Xavier on the other side of the present. War torn and weary, the future Xavier has nevertheless lost none of his resolve, and Stewart’s performance evokes years of hardship and solemn understanding.

The two Xaviers come together in a beautiful scene that plays out as the film’s emotional crux. As past meets future, Stewart tenderly tells McAvoy that the key to his future is to hope again. He speaks not just of hope for himself, but of hope for all mutants and humans alike. The weight of Xavier’s mission has never been heavier, and the idealism at the core of the X-Men films has never been clearer. For all the special effects and comic book dazzle, the best thing about DOFP is its character study of Charles Xavier. Paying close attention to his arc, one develops a greater understanding and appreciation of what makes him – and consequently, the X-Men – tick.

There are still other elements to be appreciated. Bryan Singer has greatly matured as director, and he expertly handles large scale set pieces with multiple small ingredients. This talent is especially evident in the Quicksilver sequence and the big Sentinel climax, where Singer deftly works each of the characters as highly coordinated cogs within the greater storytelling machinery. Essential too is John Ottman’s editing. His skill at cross-cutting provides the emotional payoff in the finale as past and future are uniformly brought to a head. Also of note is the dual editor’s/composer’s musical work, as the memorable fanfare from X2 makes a triumphant return here. This is dramatically potent for a movie that works on drawing from franchise nostalgia. But equally important is the hope of a better future for the X-Men.

Ultimately the movie acts as a reset button on the X-Men franchise. This is notable for fans who were upset with the direction taken in Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Now the series has been given a chance at redemption and new life. Though some may view the ending as a cop-out, it’s certainly in-keeping with comic book traditions. More importantly it opens up the storytelling well for expansive new possibilities.

In a modern world of generic and factory-churned super hero franchises, it’s refreshing to see that the X-Men series has plenty of life left. The movies have increasingly become less about spectacle and more about character study, and X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first to balance the two with near-perfect precision. The franchise’s next installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, looks on paper to tip the balance in favor of spectacle again. But hopefully in execution it will treat its characters with equal importance. If DOFP teaches us anything, it’s that good characters can change the future.

How I Met Your Mother Series Finale: 8 Reasons It Was Actually Legendary

How I Met Your Mother Series Finale: 8 Reasons It Was Actually Legendary

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The series finale of the much-beloved sitcom How I Met Your Mother aired this past Monday night. The hour was a dramatic, funny, and emotionally satisfying journey that navigated through 15 years of Ted’s, Robin’s, Lily’s, Marshall’s and Barney’s lives. Each character wound up in a place that felt real and narratively satisfying to their own arcs.

Most satisfying of all was Ted’s, finally fulfilling his long burning (yet separate) desires to have a wife and family AND ultimately wind up with true love Robin. The show deftly managed both fronts, acknowledging the importance of the mother (or Tracy McConnell) and the tragedy of her death, without making it feel like she was just a placeholder until Ted could finally be with Robin.

But apparently the large majority of the internet fan base feels the exact opposite. Infuriated claims of betrayal have been echoing through social media since Monday night. Anger has been levied at HIMYM creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas for seemingly betraying the very title of the show through its ending. This sentiment is understandable, but ultimately misplaced. In general, the criticisms against the finale missed a few important points. Specifically, 8 points. Here are the 8 reasons the HIMYM finale was actually legendary.

 

8. Barney and Robin Divorce

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER
Shocker number 1 of the time jumping finale was that Barney and Robin divorced after only 3 years of marriage. It was a delightfully unexpected twist, but angered fans for two main reasons.

The first reason is they felt it made the entire final season pointless. This is somewhat true. It was a little infuriating to have to sit through 22 episodes of meandering around Barney and Robin’s wedding weekend, only to have it completely undone in 5 minutes. But the finger of blame can be pointed at the season that preceded the finale rather than the finale itself. It was clearly a mistake to stretch the wedding out for so long. The writing suffered and the story as a whole lagged under its’ weight. But putting the divorce’s effect on the season aside, as a stand-alone twist it works pretty well. Taking it into account for shock value alone, you might even consider it pretty cool that the writers had the balls to pull this off after trying to convince us for a season that Barney and Robin were meant to be.

The second reason for the upset fans, is that Barney and Robin had developed so much together and this twist ruined everything. But Barney and Robin were never meant to be. They never worked as a couple. Their chemistry consisted of high fives, dumb sex jokes, and mutually narcissistic ego boosting. They always seemed way more like friends with benefits than an actual couple.

The divorce twist not only righted an egregious wrong in character pairings, it also worked as one of those very real facts of life (something the finale was chock full of). Barney and Robin were another unfortunate victim of profession standing in the way of relationships, something that was always a possibility because of Robin’s convictions. As for Barney, his big win of the break up was having a kid, something he always wanted (at least back in Season 6) but never could have achieved with Robin. Which brings us to our next category.

 

7. The Barney Reset

CBS

There aren’t many who will argue that the most emotionally powerful scene of the episode was Barney giving himself over completely to his newborn daughter. It was a beautiful moment that brought about more “real” character growth than anything we ever saw from him and Robin.

But this is where many fans disagree. They complain that after Barney and Robin broke up, he simply reset, returning to his old womanizing ways and even producing a brand new playbook. The frustration is understandable, but isn’t this a clear case of the ends justifying the means? Yes, Barney returned to his old ways, but he got a new kid out of the deal. And it’s not like the writers simply ignored his previous development. They acknowledged it. Barney himself acknowledged it when he asked his friends, “Can I please just be me?”

Much of Barney’s development with Nora, Quinn, and Robin never quite rang true. It always felt like Barney was pretending to be the new Ted rather than actually genuinely believing himself to be. And this episode was the first time the writers acknowledged that they felt the same way. When Barney asked his friends if he could simply be himself, it was the most refreshing and true moment we’d seen from the character in a very long time. The true love of his life was not some woman who he would have to change himself for. The true love of his life was a child he could put all of himself into.

For a man who grew up fatherless, it was emotionally truthful that Barney would pledge himself forever to his own child. And it made for one hell of a beautiful scene. A scene that was only so powerful because of the very reset button fans are complaining about. In order to his find his true calling, Barney had to find himself again first.

 

6. The Time Jumps

How I Met Your Mother

Another common complaint has been about the jumps in time shown throughout the finale. Rather than staying rooted in say, two time periods – with future Ted and present Ted – the episode instead charts the future arcs of every single character. Fans feel that the episode rushed through such important plot points such as Barney and Robin’s divorce, Barney becoming a father, Ted and Tracy getting married, and Tracy’s death. It was a season’s worth of dramatic content stuffed into one episode. But rather than weigh the episode down, this wealth of dramatic material served to boot the finale as a whole.

Each of the plot points were only given a few minutes, but each of those minutes were doused with so much great writing, characterization, and acting. It’s really all we needed to see. The scene between Barney and his daughter was about 30 seconds, but we understood the power of their connection through brevity. Though Tracy’s death was mentioned only at the end, we understood the full weight of Ted’s sadness as the editing took us through time, from the end of the mother’s life back to the very first time she and Ted met. And Ted’s ultimate reunion with Robin was quick and wordless, but we understood the timeless strength of their connection simply by the way they looked at each other.

These moments work so beautifully precisely because they’re short and sweet. If they had been spread out over the course of several episodes, they wouldn’t have worked nearly as strongly as they did contained within this last hour. HIMYM has always been a master at storytelling through time jumps, and this finale reached the apex of that technique.

 

5. The Mother’s Death

CBS

It’s ironic that the most popular fan theory of all turned out to be completely true, and yet fans still reacted to it with outrage. Fans have called it insulting, morbid, and too dark for this show. But there’s something to be said for HIMYM’s ability to navigate drama with comedy. They’ve been doing it successfully for years. The death of Marshall’s dad, Robin learning she can’t have kids… The show has always expertly balanced emotional content within the framework of the show’s narrative. It always had a meaning, and was never tragedy for the sake of tragedy.

The same is true of the mother’s passing. It retroactively brings a larger weight to Ted’s story, making it all the more worth telling. Looking back at the mother’s appearances over the course of the season, it’s now much easier to understand Bays’ and Thomas’ rationale for keeping her appearances brief. The future glimpses of her and Ted together almost take on a ghost-like characteristic, suggesting the mother’s presence as an all-important spirit within Ted rather than a fully fleshed out character.

If the mother had been any more prevalent within the past season, or indeed the series as a whole, her death would have been too much to bear. It would have been like killing off Lily or Marshall. That would have been too tragic for this show, but as a character we’ve only seen fleeting glimpses of, her presence worked well in defining the show’s ending without overwhelming it in sadness.

Truth be told, there is one aspect of this they could have handled a bit differently. They should have shown some of Ted’s grief following her passing. It wouldn’t have to be much, but perhaps a few shots of Ted at Tracy’s funeral and the gang all around him, sharing in his grief. This would have cemented the mother’s importance and prevented some of the backlash that the mother’s death was glossed over. Which brings us to Robin.

 

4. Ted Ends Up With Robin

Blue French Horn
The primary reason the mother’s death works is because this is the one and only turn that could have allowed Ted to end up with Robin. I’ve been rooting for the two of them to get together since the very first episode, and Bays and Thomas clearly were too. Many fans feel this twist was disrespectful to the mother, and made it seem like Ted was in love with Robin throughout his entire marriage.

But the more likely implication is that, while Ted was with Tracy, she was the only woman he had eyes for. And as Ted’s kids rightfully point out, it’s been six years since the mother’s passing. It was high time for Ted to move on. And who better to move on with than the first love of his life?

It bears mentioning that the final scene between Ted and Robin is simply beautiful. Showing up at her window with the blue French horn once again was the perfect callback to the first episode, and narratively it brought the entire story full circle. It returned Ted to his romantic best, bringing him out of the rut in his life caused by his wife’s death. On a story level it was the perfect romantic ending, bringing closure and allowing a happy ending for what otherwise would have been a way-too-tragic note to end on.

Bays and Thomas managed to resolve Ted’s relationship with the mother and bring him back together with Robin with one masterful stroke. If we remember, the only reason Ted and Robin broke up in the first place was because Ted wanted kids and Robin wanted to travel the world. Each of them individually achieved their own dream, and with those successes behind them, they were finally ready to be together.

 

3. It Was Never Really About The Mother

CBS

On a fundamental level, fans’ biggest issue is that the entire Robin twist places the series in a different light. For those of us who assumed the show was true to its title, this revelation gives the appearance that Bays and Thomas copped out of their initial premise just to service Ted/Robin shippers. But the thing is, the show was clearly always about Robin.

She was the woman Ted laid eyes on in the very first episode. That initial attraction set the course for the rest of the series. For the first 2 seasons Robin was the only girl Ted had eyes for. But even after that, he always kept coming back to her. Over the course of the rest of Ted’s relationships, Robin always wove in and out of them to a greater or lesser degree. I think Victoria summed it up best in season 7 when she declared that the real reason none of Ted’s relationships ever worked out was because of Robin. It’s clear that Bays and Thomas imbued that idea into the very core of the show.

It’s been pretty obvious for a while now that the true point of Ted’s story was to tell his kids how he felt about Aunt Robin. For fans who complain that the mother of the title was unfairly brushed aside, she wasn’t. Her importance, again, was clear, but she simply wasn’t the point of the story and she wasn’t Ted’s endgame. If angered fans were to view the title, “How I Met Your Mother” as a clever red herring rather than an insulting fake-out, they’d probably be far more accepting of the twist.

 

2. The Ending That Was Always Meant To Be

How I Met Your Mother Robin

Despite any fan misgivings, one really has to give credit to Carter Bays and Craig Thomas for sticking to their guns. They filmed the penultimate scene with Ted’s kids nine years ago. For nine years they’ve known that Ted would wind up with Robin. Some critics have argued that the show evolved to a point in recent years where the original ending no longer made any sense. They argued that Bays and Thomas should have been aware of this and abandoned their original ending.

There’s probably a good argument to be made for that idea. But we live in a world where so many writers, at their best, allow their series to naturally evolve to their ending, and at their worst, simply wing it up until the last moment. But rarely do we see an ending that has been completely planned out since day 1.

Bays and Thomas should be commended for sticking with their original convictions. They had a vision for their show and they saw it through. It’s regrettable that their original trajectory got somewhat muddled through misdirection in the past couple of seasons. But although the show was unfortunately stretched out past its expiration date, the strength of the finale itself never wavered or altered in any form. And that’s pretty legendary.

 

1. It Stayed True To The HIMYM Formula

How I Met Your Mother

How I Met Your Mother has always been a show that thrived on an equal balance of comedy and drama, the real life lessons registering in our brains as the romantic elements rang true to our hearts. All of Barney’s hilarious social rules only worked because they struck with some element of our own experiences. And all of Ted’s romantic yearnings only spoke to us because we could see ourselves in his quest for love.

For readers, here is one final thought: think about just how realistic – yet true to the show – the ideas contained in the finale are. Friends grow older and grow apart. Marriages dissolve and single bachelors have children out of wedlock. Wives and mother pass away, and old lovers reunite. The events of this finale packed an emotional wallop that was very true to life. It was tragic yet optimistic, comedic yet dramatic, realistic yet romantic.

The way the episode managed to balance all these opposing elements and allow them to be equally true was a tremendous accomplishment. Ted and Robin ending up together was a realistic turn, yet a storybook ending. And for a show like How I Met Your Mother, which has always blended real-life awareness with storybook romance, it was an ending that could only be called “destiny.”

 

 

HIMYM – “Gary Blauman” thoughts

Beautiful episode. This is most I’ve laughed with HIMYM in ages, and not just a chuckle or two here and there, but genuine uproarious laughter. The fast pacing and bouncing back and forth between the different characters’ reactions to Gary Blauman was classic HIMYM, and the curly fry bit was particularly hilarious. It had that vintage HIMYM quality of “This is so funny because it’s a little thing in life that no one would ever think to bring up, even though it’s really true.”

And that 3 minute tracking shot was perfectly staged. I was impressed with just how many people they got to come back for cameos. As our first sign of the show truly ending, it had a lot of emotional significance as well as being packed with great little comedic bits.

But my favorite element of the episode was Ted and the mother’s date. It was the most stand-out sign of character growth we’ve seen in Ted for a very long time. Instead of taking fate in his hands and forcing something that isn’t meant to be (Aka Robin) he lets fate have its way, being so bold as to walk away from his future wife. But not only does she call him back, she actually makes the first move and kisses him.

This is not only a sign of how perfect she is for Ted, but also symbolic of how much Ted has grown since the day he first stole that blue horn for Robin. Where the old Ted was brash and determined to make his fate the way he saw fit, the new Ted is willing to take it in stride, hoping for the fate he wants but accepting of the reality he sees in front of him.

It’ll be interesting to see if this new reality-grounded Ted can last through, say, the mother’s death, if indeed that does come to pass. But for now, it’s refreshing to see Ted’s final and most significant relationship begin with a 180 curve from his normal routine. Ted’s arc is almost complete.