Sunday, July 20, 2014

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" - The summer's clear winner

First things first: as titles, "Dawn" should have come before "Rise."

But now that we've got that out of the way, I really have nothing negative to say about "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes."  This movie, and its predecessor "Rise," are successfully pulling off a very neat trick.  We know how this story is going to end, so the key is making the journey interesting.  And it's not as if we're covering new territory here.  Many of my generation and older are intimately familiar with the mythology of the "Planet of the Apes."  My dad took me to see the original in 1968 (when I was 8 years old), and even though it's unlikely that my thinking at that time was sophisticated enough to fully appreciate the political statements being made in the film, there were plenty of scenes that stuck with me - when Charlton Heston first spoke in captivity, and the legendary final scene along the beach among them.

And while some of the sequels were somewhat cheesy, let's not forget the pedigree of that very first film - directed by Franklin Schaffner, who would win an Oscar for "Patton," Heston, and some all-time great character actors including Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, and James Whitmore.  Not to mention a screenplay to which Rod Serling contributed.  We're talking about a lot of talent there.  And Pierre Boulle, who wrote the novel?  Also the author of "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."  Not exactly a slouch himself.

But even with all that, it's really hard to avoid the conclusion that the 21st Century reboot of the franchise (and let's just concede that Tim Burton's attempt was a misfire) is superior in all aspects (with a minor asterisk, see below) to the original series of films.  First of all, the movie benefits from the 21st Century technology that allows actors such as Andy Serkis and Toby Kobell to play apes without having to don costumes that may have been impressive for their time, but looked less like real apes than humans dressed up in really neat Halloween costumes.  And the set design?  Part of what makes "Dawn" so impressive is how it looks - the ape compound in Muir Woods, and how San Francisco looks after the plague that has eradicated most of the human race.  If there isn't an Oscar nomination for someone in there, there's no justice.

And the story?  Undeniably powerful.  Make no bones about it, this is a tragedy.  But as in all great tragedies, even as the story unfolds towards its inexorable conclusion, and you bite your lip at the unnecessary behavior that moves it towards that point, you can understand the motivation behind the characters who would be considered the "villains" - Koba for the apes, Dreyfus for the humans.  Both have been scarred - Koba literally, at the hands of his former human tormentors; and Dreyfus, figuratively, who has lost his family as a result of the plague that for which he believes (incorrectly) that the apes were responsible.  Given what they know - the hands they have been dealt - none of their actions, even as you cringe as they are taken, are "unreasonable" from their limited points of view.

As was the case in "Rise," the central figure of "Dawn" is Caesar, the leader who eventually realizes that leadership alone is not enough to control events.  The comparisons to Michael Corleone in "The Godfather Saga" are apt - like Michael, leadership was thrust upon Caesar against his will, and like Michael he has compassion for his enemies - but only up to a certain point.  At the conclusion of "Dawn" he has recaptured his position of leadership, but now he faces a job that he never wanted to have in the first place - again, much like Michael.  Andy Serkis plays his internal conflict perfectly - he grieves for what has happened, but he is prepared to take it to its logical conclusion.  And when you attack his family, he's going to fight back.

The only asterisk?  We've yet to see a human character drawn with as much clarity as any of the apes.  The closest was probably John Lithgow in "Rise," and both Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke do the best with what they were given in "Dawn" - but that is still something to work on for the next movie.

But that too is part of what makes this series of "Planet of the Apes" films so exciting - seeing exactly how the filmmakers resolve those issues.   I just wish we didn't have to wait so long.

Story of a vacation told in five photos

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Flashback Film: "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969)

I don't remember the exact date that I saw "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" for the first time, but I do remember where I saw it (the original version of the Arden Fair Cinemas, long gone and missed by few) and with whom I saw it (my cousins Bill and Mary).  This was a rare treat - all of the parents had seen the movie, deemed it suitable for young viewers such as us, and let us go into the theater all by ourselves.  We were 13, 10 and 9 at the time, so that may not seem like such a big deal today, but trust me - it was a big deal for us.

Back in the days before Blu-Ray, DVD, or even VHS, "big" films with box-office potential even years after their release would see a second life in the cinemas.  Butch Cassidy was such a film, so in the spring of '76 I saw it for a second time, this time with my brothers Andrew and Pat.

As the years have gone by, I've watched it a lot, and since it is available on Netflix Streaming, decided to give it another go a couple of weeks ago.  Back when I was a kid, this was a magical film - even having seen few movies in the "grown up" theaters, this pretty quickly became the best film I'd ever seen.

Watching it now, I still think it's great - but it isn't quite that good, and it certainly doesn't hold up as well as its spiritual twin, "The Sting" (which is one of the few perfect movies ever made).  And frankly, it's a bit of an odd duck. Why?  Consider the following:

First, when you get right down to it, it's really three movies in one:

Part 1 is the setup, when we meet Butch and Sundance for the first time and are introduced to Etta, the love of their life, and the grungy but highly entertaining members of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang.  Even within this section of the movie, there are abrupt shifts in tone: parts are very gritty, others are close to pure comedy.

Part 2 is the chase, where Butch and Sundance are pursued by a posse with almost mystical powers ("Who are those guys?") to, literally, the edge of the abyss.  This is the best section of the film, even though there isn't a ton of dialogue, because it allows Newman and Redford to just be themselves, developing an onscreen rapport that is justifiably legendary.

Part 3 could be called "Fishes out of water in Bolivia," and it's the least successful part of the film, if only because we've seen better examples of everything that it tries during the first two acts.  But this is where you get to see Strother Martin in action, only one of the all-time great character actors, so it's not a total loss.

Second, the music.  It doesn't have what you would call a traditional score, but it does have music, credited to composer Burt Bacharach.  Don't get me wrong - I think Bacharach is a genius, but this is far from his best work.  I know that "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" won the Oscar and all, but it's pretty pedestrian for a Bacharach/David tune, and the scene in which it appears (though cute) is entirely gratuitous.

And then, during the Bolivian adventures, there is an extended scene where we see glimpses of Butch and Sundance going back to their old ways, which is accompanied by music that is as out of place as anything I've ever heard in a movie.  It's sounds like the score to a really bad Broadway musical, and it just destroys the momentum of the movie.  A previous, similar interlude was much more successful, showing Butch, Sundance and Etta during their trip down to Bolivia, where they lived and were treated like royalty.

But those are really small quibbles, nit-picking if you prefer.  In addition to Strother Martin, it's got an incredible cast of character actors: Henry Jones, Jeff Corey, Ted Cassidy, Kenneth Mars, Cloris Leachman.  And it's got Newman and Redford, demonstrating with ease why they deserved their legendary status.  That's film history right there, folks.

Old 97's deliver a messed up masterpiece

"Most Messed Up," the new album by the Old 97's, is packaged in spartan fashion.  It includes neither liner notes nor a lyric sheet.  On the back cover, you see that there are "Twelve songs in total," with an album length of "Thirty-nine minutes, fifty-seven seconds."  And then, "Play this album loud."  With that admonition a gauntlet has been thrown down, and the only thing that remains is to find out whether the band can deliver on the promise.

The answer is a resounding "yes."  In fact, "Most Messed Up" is my favorite album of the the year -  certainly the most fun, and probably the truest to the spirit of rock 'n roll.  If "Born to Run" was "a '57 Chevy running on melted down Crystals records" (the great line by Greil Marcus), then "Most Messed Up" is akin to a Dodge Charger that's been driving all night long, a little overheated, running mostly on melted down bottles of Jack Daniels and whatever "medicines" the band was able to get their hands on.

The first clue to what the album is all about can be found in the song titles: "Longer Than You've Been Alive" (which is how the long the band has been playing together), "Let's Get Drunk & Get It On," "Wheels Off," "Wasted," "Intervention," "Most Messed Up."  The second clue can be found in the band credits, just below those for the band regulars: "Additional electric guitar and vocals: Tommy Stinson."  For those too young to remember, Stinson was a founding member of The Replacements, one of the greatest (if not the greatest) of American post-punk bands.  The first few listens, I couldn't quite put my finger on what the sound of "Most Messed Up" reminded me of - but seeing that credit to Stinson, it all came into focus, because there's a distinct "Let it Be" and "Tim" (The Replacements' first two albums) vibe to the proceedings.  The album sounds like it was recorded in one take, without any breaks for silly things like guitar tuning, rehearsals or overdubs.  It's a bit of a mess, but a glorious one.

And while there's no lyrics sheet, you can find them easily enough on the band's website.  A few choice nuggets:

bottles of whiskey bottles of beer

there’s a bottle of medicine somewhere ‘round here

we’ve been in nightclubs and we’ve been in bars

honky-tonks and theaters from Memphis to Mars

most of our shows were a triumph of rock

although some nights I might have been checkin’ the clock

"Longer Than You've Been Alive"

this is the ballad of drinking rye whiskey

and sleeping till 2 on a warm afternoon

telling your journal how badly you miss me

and you can’t believe I’ll be coming so soon

this is the ballad of anticipation

waiting and waiting and waiting and then

finally getting the one you’ve been wanting

and guess what it’s time to start waiting again

"This Is the Ballad"

stop squeezin’ my shoes quit killin’ my buzz

why you wreckin’ my mood what are you the fuzz

I’m so far gone I can’t never get found

I am the most messed up motherf*cker in this town

"Most Messed Up"

The Old 97's have been around for more than twenty years, and I don't think many people would accuse them of being a household name.  That's probably not going to change with the release of "Most Messed Up," and it's unlikely that the band had any expectations that it would.  But trust me, this is about as good as it gets.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Seven Song Perfect Playlist: The Ramones

1. "Blitzkrieg Bop"

2. "Sheena is a Punk Rocker"

3. "Rockaway Beach"

4. "We're a Happy Family"

5. "I Wanna Be Sedated"

6. "Teenage Lobotomy"

7. "Cretin Hop"

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #22 - "Who's Next" (1971)

I've got quite a history with this album.

At one time in my life, I might have ranked it up in the top ten.  At another time, it wouldn't have made the list at all.  So what happened?

Let's start at the beginning.  Spring of 1974, I'm wrapping up 8th grade, and hanging out at a friend's house after school.  His brother plops the album on the turntable, and the first song coming out of the speakers is "Getting in Tune."  It's the second side, followed by "Going Mobile," "Behind Blue Eyes" and the epic "Won't Get Fooled Again."  I'm hooked - and it's almost as if a new world has opened up.  Looking back now, it was probably the first "pantheon album" that I'd ever heard - what most objective observers would call the best album from a band considered to be one of best ever.

Fast forward to the fall of 1980 - my first quarter at Berkeley, during that time when you're trying to figure out the right balance between freedom (I can do anything I want, any time I want!) and responsibility (Oh yeah, there's that whole study and do well on your grades thing still hanging overhead).  Trying to get used to a bunch of people from different backgrounds, with different tastes and different whims.  And, perhaps most importantly to someone like myself, with different musical tastes.

So at any given point during my two years in the dorms, that might have meant the guy who went in for folk-era Dylan, or the guy who was into Eno's ambient music, or the young lady who went more for the hardcore stuff (X, Flipper), or in one particular instance, the guy who owned two albums and played them at length, nearly every day - one of them being "Who's Next" (the other was Todd Rundgren's "Something/Anything," which at least had the virtue of being a double album).  What I learned in that one nine-month period is that there are no albums that can withstand that amount of playing - not even an album as great as "Who's Next."  It was nearly 20 years before I could listen to it again.

Once I made peace with it, there could be no question that this was one of the greatest albums ever recorded; the prototype of what would now be considered the classic "classic rock" album.  From the majestic opening of "Baba O'Riley," to the perfect Roger Daltrey vocals, to the outright beauty of some of the music ("The Song Is Over," "Behind Blue Eyes"), to the humor of John Entwistle's "My Wife," and to what was probably the last great drumming of Keith Moon's career - it's damn near perfect.

Give it another 10 years, and it may wind its way all the back to the top ten.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sportsball Update!

I've noticed lately that people have begun to use "sportsball" as a derogatory (in my opinion) term to describe a) sports in general when they don't care for sports in general; and b) sports that they don't care for, when they may be passionate about others.  Either way, it strikes me as a way to appear superior to all of us yahoos who (to quote my mom) will watch any contest where they keep score.

So...screw that.  Instead of falling prey to the temptation to demonstrate one's superiority for not being into something that appeals to the masses, how about just keeping those thoughts to yourself?  And meanwhile, I promise not to publicly comment on any of your obsessions that I find to be particularly uninspiring.

And now that I've got that out of my system, there's a lot been going on lately in the world of sportsball, and I've been remiss in not commenting on any of it!

Let's start with the U.S. Open, both men's and women's division.  For the first time, both tournaments were played in consecutive weeks on the same course (Pinehurst No. 2), which was plenty cool in and of itself.  And notwithstanding the rants of one Donald the Trump, who likes his courses lush and green, the course looked great - and more importantly, looked exactly like the kind of course that our national tournament should be played on.

Admittedly, there wasn't a lot of drama to be found over either of the respective weekends, but that's not entirely a bad thing, because you can't sneeze at the type of dominating performance that Martin Kaymer turned in for the men.  And Michelle Wie?  She may only be 24, but she's been around forever.  She is clearly the superstar that women's golf needs to take it to the next level.  And there's something about potential fulfilled that is gratifying.  She's been through a lot, and some of her problems may have been self-inflicted, but Wie now seems poised to grab the spotlight in a way that no other golfer could hope to, outside of a couple of guys named Tiger and Phil.

And how about those San Antonio Spurs?  They may not be a "dynasty" as the term is defined by Phil Jackson, but they've certainly managed to achieve a level of sustained excellence that no other NBA team in history (outside of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers) can match.  Tim Duncan may not be the best player in the history of the league, but as Bill Simmons astutely noted last week, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may have had a better career than Duncan.  Championships 15 years apart, and still playing at a high level.  Parker and Ginobli?  Mainstays for a decade.  And Kawhi Leonard, the series MVP?  The guy was SEVEN YEARS OLD when Duncan won his first title.  And when challenged by mastermind Gregg Popovich, he came through like few others have - effectively outplaying the man who might just be the best who's ever played the game.

And so what about Lebron and his legacy?  He's got his two rings and he's recovered from the asinine way he publicly portrayed his entry into Miami four years ago, but at the same time he's lost two finals and now he seems chained to a ship that, if not sinking, is certainly starting to take on water.  If he leaves for greener pastures, anywhere except Cleveland, he puts the entire "asshole" argument back in play.  If he stays and the Heat can't pull themselves together for another title run, he never challenges Jordan for the title of "best of all time."  What's important to him?   I guess we'll find out.

World Cup?  Yeah, it's been awesome this year, with dramatic games nearly every day.  And how painful was that 2-2 tie today with Portugal?  Well, it reminded me of how I felt when Robert Horry stuck a dagger through the heart of the Kings way back in 2002, in Game 4 of the greatest NBA series ever played.  But our next game is against Germany, and what have they ever done in the World Cup?  Right?

Hat tip to Rafael Nadal - great win over Novak Djokovic in the French Open Final; and all of a sudden Roger Federer's title as the greatest major player in history is at doubt.

And last but not least, kudos to the L.A. Kings - who were down THREE GAMES TO ZERO in the FIRST round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.  I'd call that resilience.

Sportsball, baby...that's where it's at.

Top 50 Albums of All Time, #23: "Automatic for the People," R.E.M. (1992)

R.E.M.'s career went through a number of distinct phases.  Their first three albums established them as the world's favorite indie critics' band, even as Michael Stipe's enunciation issues and oddball lyrics made them almost impossible to understand.  Around the time of "Fables of the Reconstruction," I remember telling a good friend from my college days that I wasn't even sure if I liked them that much.

And then, BOOM.  On "Life's Rich Pageant" they hired John Mellencamp's producer, turned up the mikes on Bill Berry's drum set, and all of a sudden Michael Stipe decided to stop mumbling.  Some critics called it a sell-out (or even worse, a betrayal), but I thought it was their best album to date.  This trend continued with "Document," which was even better, and "Green," which was almost that good.

But it was after that, in the early to mid-1990s, that the band hit their creative peak.  During that time they issued four consecutive albums falling somewhere between "classic" and "masterpiece," and one of the reasons it's taken so long to restart this project is that I really wanted to avoid the cop out of selecting all four, like I did with Talking Heads.  After listening to all four albums quite a bit, it came down to a choice between "Out of Time" (which should probably be somewhere on this list, but call it near the top of the next tier) and "Automatic for the People," which were released within about a year of each other.

It's the latter album that gets the nod.  Interestingly, the worst song is the first, "Drive," and even it is pretty good.  But it's the six songs that anchor the record - all among their best, featuring some of the most beautiful music they ever wrote - that push it over the top.  I'm talking about "Try Not to Breathe," "Everybody Hurts," "Sweetness Follows," "Man on the Moon," "Nightswimming," and "Find the River."  That's half the album right there, and if I was putting together a tape representing the best of their career, I'd be hard pressed to leave any of those off.

These are not happy songs - just check these lyrics from "Try Not to Breathe:"

I will try not to breathe.
I can hold my head still with my hands at my knees.
These eyes are the eyes of the old, shiver and fold.
I will try not to breathe.
This decision is mine. I have lived a full life
And these are the eyes that I want you to remember. Oh.

I need something to fly over my grave again.
I need something to breathe.
I will try not to burden you.
I can hold these inside. I will hold my breath
Until all these shivers subside,
Just look in my eyes.

The meaning behind those lyrics has been talked about for more than two decades now, to the point where the discussion has its own page on Metafilter.  Clearly the song is about death, but the brilliance of the writing is that you can't pin down the circumstances.  I've always felt it was about someone dying of AIDs, but that's not necessarily the case.  

And these from "Everybody Hurts:"

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it's time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you've had too much
Of this life, well hang on

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don't throw your hand, oh no

I'm not sure what Michael Stipe was going through at that time of his life, but he clearly had a lot on his mind.  But it's best to remember R.E.M. as a band, because their work together was definitely greater than the sum of each individual part.  Nearly every song they recorded was credited to the entire band, and the music they created together was at times so beautiful - gorgeous melodies and vocals - that you sometimes forgot that it was a lot more than Stipe and three sidemen.  So here's to Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.  You were all a great band.

Restarting: Top 50 Albums of all time

For the last couple of summers, my "summer blog project" has been the "95 Songs of Summer," but I think we've taken that one about as far as it can go.  So this summer, the goal will be to wrap up the Top 50 Albums of all time list, started long ago but which stalled out earlier this year. 

But first, let's get caught up on where we were.

You can find all of the individual reviews here.

24. Talking Heads first four albums, 1977-80
25. American IV: The Man Comes Around, Johnny Cash
26.  Pretzel Logic, Steely Dan
27.  Late for the Sky, Jackson Browne
28.  Rubber Soul, The Beatles
29. Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Frank Sinatra
30.  Dig Me Out, Sleater-Kinney
31.  Kiko, Los Lobos
32. Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young & Crazy Horse
33.  Horses, Patti Smith
34.  The Joshua Tree, U2
35.  Rumours, Fleetwood Mac
36.  Peter Gabriel (1980)
37.  August and Everything After, Counting Crows
38.  Tie: Siren and Avalon, Roxy Music
39.  Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
40.  Making Movies, Dire Straits
41.  Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash
42.  Graceland, Paul Simon
43.  Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams
44.  Life'll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon
45.  Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers
46.  Actually, Pet Shop Boys
47.  Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Elton John
48.  Los Angeles, X
49.  Madonna
50.  Some Girls, The Rolling Stones

Sunday, June 08, 2014

On the occasion of Born in the U.S.A.'s 30th anniversary

"...the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good."

- Robert Christgau

"Born in the U.S.A." holds a unique spot in the Bruce Springsteen canon - it's his most commercially successful album, and yet the album that is most detested by many diehard Bruce fans.  Even the website "Backstreets" has been known to dis' it on occasion - I clearly remember a time when they wrote something along the lines of "A concert without any songs from Born in the U.S.A.? Priceless."

So what happened?  For what it's worth, my theory is that the longtime fans resented the fact that the album was so successful that a) it made it a lot more difficult to get into his concerts; b) it was pretty clear that many (most?) of the new fans were fair-weather fans; and c) his popularity made it necessary to make the jump into the stadiums, resulting in a less intimate concert experience and (inevitably, given the massive scale of the enterprise) an overall drop in the quality of the shows. I saw one of those shows, and it was pretty damn good, but sitting near the top of the Oakland Coliseum surrounded by screaming young girls was definitely different than seeing him in the Arena, with a crowd that probably knew the words to every song.

As for the album, I've always thought that it was among his very best, and I'll continue to defend it now.  Would I put it above "Born to Run" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town?"  No.  But that's pretty heady company, and at the end of the day, it's hard to argue against the notion that with "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen achieved everything (and more) that he set out to accomplish.  As Christgau noted, it sounds great, which is as good a place as any to start.  There is no single track that reaches the level of "Born to Run," "Backstreets," "Badlands" or "The Promised Land," but neither is there a bad track on the album.  And while the music throughout is upbeat, the lyrics don't stray far from previous works - while you're tapping your foot to songs like "Darlington County" or "Working on the Highway," you might want to check out what those songs are about, and how they end. 

So no, it may not be his best - but it's certainly one of the best.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

LP of the Week - "Wild Planet," The B-52s (1980)

"The world's greatest new-wave kiddie-novelty disco-punk band," Robert Christgau called them in 1980.  And while the novelty piece of that equation is fair, it's also fair to note that they're still around today, some 38 years after they first came together in Athens, Georgia during the year of our nation's bicentennial.  And that they've had precious few lineup changes over those years - the only permanent one being when guitarist Ricky Wilson died of an AIDs-related illness in 1985.  Keith Strickland, the original drummer who then assumed guitar man duties, no longer tours with the band, but still considers himself a full-fledged member.

"Wild Planet" was their second album, released just two weeks before I would leave home for college in September, 1980.  To be fair, it's not as good as their debut, but that's not much of a criticism, because the debut was an enduring masterpiece that remains one of the greatest New Wave albums ever released.  If the self-titled debut was an A+, the follow-up is no worse than an A-, and a lot of bands have done a lot worse than that.

The only thing that really distinguishes "Wild Planet" from the album that preceded it is the lack of a single track as strong as "Dance This Mess Around" and "Rock Lobster."  It's remarkably consistent, and yes, they were sticking to a formula, but you could sure do a lot worse than record and release an album that features 9 eminently danceable, fun tracks without ever missing a beat.  "Private Idaho" is probably the best song, but "Devil in My Car," "Quiche Lorraine" and "Strobe Light" come close.  There's a reason that the album was one of the staples of my Berkeley experience, and the band's near-universal appeal is the reason why so many people in our dorm were enthusiastic about attending the band's two Bay Area concerts during that time.

Rock on, dance still sounds great today.

Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men hit the mark again

The title may be a little clumsy, the plot may be a little complicated, and the whole enterprise may require more knowledge of the canon than most people could be reasonably assumed to have, but at the end of the day "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is an entirely satisfying comic book movie, one that builds on the promise of the "First Class" prequel while completely wiping the bad taste of "The Last Stand" from the memories of fans and movie-goers.

* Spoilers Be Ahead, Consider Yourself Warned! *

Similar to J.J. Abrams' first "Star Trek" movie, "Days of Future Past" uses time travel as a device, not just to bring the two X-Men casts together, but more importantly to reboot the series in such a way that anything that now follows can make sense (and be defensible to those who do have intimate knowledge of the canon).  Done poorly, that could have been a cheat, but like "Star Trek" it's done very well, and unlike the "Spider Man" franchise, which just seems to be telling the same story all over again (in fairness, I haven't seen the second one yet), it moves the story forward in a way that doesn't sacrifice continuity but also opens up entirely new avenues of story-telling.

As much as I love Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, in this film I have to give the Professor X/Magneto crown to James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, which really isn't surprising given that the story gives them much more to do.  The old guys are definitely there for a reason; don't get me wrong, but aside from one wonderful moment near the end when the old friends/foes clasp hands while Magneto wistfully wonders why they've been fighting each other for the last 50 years, the best moments are given to McAvoy and Fassbender.  Professor X and Magneto are flip sides of the same coin, almost as if Two-Face was split into two people, and both actors do a fine job taking that dichotomy to a new level.

If you've been even remotely paying attention, you've heard about the story - mutants and humans are under siege in the future from the Sentinels, which are like mutant terminators, able to instantly modify their structure in such a way that makes them invulnerable to whatever mutant power they are facing.  The only hope is to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, great as always in the role but so jacked up that he looks to be auditioning for a new mutant, Veinburst) into the past to bring the good Professor and Magneto back together, to stop Raven/Mystique from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask, the inventor of the Sentinels (because killing him will ensure that his Sentinel project moves forward).  So back we go to 1973, and needless to say things don't go entirely as planned, and all the while the few mutants left in the future...well, let's just say that things are looking increasingly bleak for them.

Kudos to everyone involved, although as the villain, Peter Dinklage is given nowhere near enough to do.  If you've watched any "Game of Thrones" at all, you know what Dinklage is capable of, and unfortunately the Trask role comes nowhere near to Tyrion Lannister in terms of interest or charisma.  Evan Peters is great as Quicksilver, in an extended sequence that might be the best thing in the movie.  And the ending, which gives us a glimpse at several characters we thought we might never see again, carries a powerful emotional punch.

All in all, a job nicely done.  Very much so.