Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sherlock: The Hounds of Baskerville Review


Unleash The Dogs of Madness...

I truly am in the minority when it comes to  Sherlock.  I recognize that.  It isn't even that I am not a Sherlockian despite my hardest efforts.  It's that while A Scandal in Belgravia has been hailed as the "Citizen Kane of Sherlock Holmes" stories (even topping anything that hack Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote), I found it sexist and intellectually vapid.  Conversely, the majority view of The Hounds of Baskerville, Sherlock's second episode of the second season/series, is seen as almost a disaster, while it to me was actually much better than its reputation leads one to believe.

Was Hounds of Baskerville brilliant?  No, which must come as a genuine surprise to its writer, Mark Gatiss, who fancies himself a genius in every way.  In some ways, it doesn't hold up (which frankly is a common element in Sherlock episodes, more spectacle for the dim-witted than actually clever).  However, The Hounds of Baskerville has some good acting in it, along with some nice visual flares that push it higher.

Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) comes to Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose notoriety in regards to his detective work has been growing.  He isn't too keen on the case Henry offers (having already rejected quite a few save perhaps for one involving a glowing bunny).  Henry tells him of the murder of his father 20 years prior, which he witnessed despite no body ever being found.  Henry is still highly traumatized by the memories of it all.  Ho-hum, thinks Sherlock, but it is the mention of a 'gigantic hound' that catches Holmes' attention.  With that, Sherlock and his blogger Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) are off to Dartmoor, to look in on Baskerville and Dewer's Hollow, the scene of the crime, and perhaps the dwelling place of The Devil.

The town has made financial hay of the Legend of the Hound, and it doesn't hurt that Baskerville is a super top-secret military base where rumors abound of the goings-on, a more secretive Area 51 if you will.  Sherlock, thanks to a passkey he 'borrowed' from his snooty uptight smug brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss playing himself), manages to get inside Baskerville where he meets a hostile Major Barrymore (Simon Paisley Day) and Dr. Frankland (Clive Mantel), who remembers Henry's father.

One night in the moor, Henry and Sherlock appear to encounter the Hound, while poor John is temporarily distracted by someone apparently signaling in Morse Code.  Holmes, quite shaken up by this, cannot admit that he has indeed seen the Hound, but his eyes tell him a different story.  Watson, for his part, is now tired of Holmes' dismissive behavior towards everyone, including a highly traumatized and unstable Henry. 

Holmes then suspects that 'Hound' isn't a literal animal, but an acronym, and with Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) popping in 'unexpectedly', we find that Baskerville is hiding more secrets involving mind-altering drugs and experiments from the past, specifically in America (Liberty, Indiana, to be specific).  As Henry soon starts slipping into insanity, Sherlock comes in time to rescue him and have both Henry's father's murderer and the Hound of Baskerville unmasked. 

In the denouement, we find that Mycroft has somehow decided (or coerced) to release Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) from his imprisonment, with the final shot being the word "Sherlock" written all over.

Unlike Mark Gatiss, I never believed I was or thought of myself as a genius.  I think of myself actually as a man of average intelligence.  This is why in so many respects I think Hounds of Baskerville is typical Gatiss: it throws a lot at you and thinks its so clever when on closer examination it doesn't hold together (and this from someone who still stands by his view of The Unquiet Dead being among the best Doctor Who stories, which oddly puts me somewhat in the minority on the subject).  First, I found the resolution to the elder Knight's murder far too convenient.  What exactly WERE the chances that the murderer would ever-so-conveniently be wearing a shirt that not only read out HOUND but pointed to the location of HOUND's previous work?  Furthermore, I question this in regards to the actual Legend aspect of the story.

Fletcher (Stephen Wight) is a man who makes his living by showing tourists the haunts, and even claims to have seen the hound himself (which left a very large footprint as well).  I am not accepting that this 'legend of the Demon Hound' sprang up within two decades (between Henry's first sighting--which I don't think would have sprung up a cottage industry from the ramblings of a child).  I would imagine that this legend would have existed for generations (like in the original Conan Doyle story).  I also have to think that Fletcher's statements of having seen the Hound are either lies or are true.  If lies, then he made that footprint himself (as far as I remember, the story makes no mention of whether he did or not).  If true, then he was under the influence of the psychedelic drugs and looked none the worse for wear. 

In short, something about the resolution just doesn't jive with me.  Then again, I am of average intelligence and nowhere near the lofty intellectual heights of Mark Gatiss, so there it is. 

I also object when the audience is not given information that leads to the resolution.  We have only one clue that the murderer was in America, a mention of 'cell phone' rather than the British 'mobile'. While I did notice this turn of phrase (and fail to understand why Holmes didn't), what I really don't get is if Gatiss took this from Murder on the Orient Express, which had Hercule Poirot come to the same conclusion about a suspect living in America based on the terms "long distance call to lawyer" versus "truck call to solicitor".   Could our genius have ripped off Agatha Christie?

Finally, how exactly does Sherlock fool the military into entering Baskerville twice considering that the super-secret key has a photo of Mycroft?  I guess people don't really look at badges these days, and the military has no interest in keeping people out they suspect of having broken in the first time into their super-secret center for nefarious experiments.

To sum up, story-wise I am not convinced that Hounds of Baskerville holds up logically.

As a side note, I wonder if Sherlock is required to have an obligatory gay suggestion, a 'joke' that has long-ago worn out its welcome. 

However, the flaws within the story are more than made up by other factors.  Paul McGuigan has a crafty visual flair that gives us that Gothic horror feel a supernatural story requires.  Charlie Phillips' editing worked so brilliantly, the flashlights (torches in the U.K.) making the characters come closer and closer with every light-glare that flashes before us.  The chaos of Henry and Sherlock seeing the Hound is excellently filmed, and the transformation of the sky as Henry talks about seeing the Hound and disbelief that Sherlock denies seeing it gives us that extra psychological edge. This, I believe, is the first time we go to Sherlock's 'mind palace', where we get an insight into how his mind works.  Visually it is well-shot and highly interesting.

We also have some great performances coming from the cast.  Cumberbatch continues to make Sherlock into an insufferable arrogant jerk, brilliant but highly terrible to everyone around him.  What was excellent about Hounds of Baskerville is that at least for a few moments, Cumberbatch allows us to see the thin cracks in Holmes.  His frustration at trying to figure out what he had seen shows Holmes to be capable of both fear and anger at having fear.  Freeman still has that bumbling Nigel Bruce-like manner to him, but at least here it was Watson who found an important clue that Holmes didn't.  The real showcase is Tovey as the tormented Henry, a man hanging on to sanity by the thinnest of threads.       

I would say that in some ways The Hounds of Baskerville is not the cleverest of stories or a brilliant variation of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  However, what flaws they have are made up for with brilliant editing and cinematography, along with some solid acting.  The Hound of Baskerville is on the whole a story made better by its atmospheric elements and is hardly the dog I was led to think it was.


Next Episode: The Reichenbach Fall

Friday, May 30, 2014

Elementary: Season Two Overview


A Good Holmes Is Easy To Find...

The dreaded sophomore slump has passed Elementary by, as the second season of the CBS Sherlock Holmes television show continued to thrive with its mix of odd investigations and character development, though not without some major flaws that I hope Season Three will repair. 

Looking over the 24 episodes we still see that what Elementary excels in is in character development.  Last season, it was all about the relationship of Lucy Liu's Joan Watson and Jonny Lee Miller's Sherlock Holmes: how they grew from sober companion/client to partners-in-crime-solving and even to friends. 

This year we have expanded that to include others.  There was an episode devoted to Aidan Quinn's Captain Gregson (shamefully renamed Thomas rather than the original Tobias or Toby from the Pilot/Canon).  We had a minor arc involving Jon Michael Hill's Detective Marcus Bell.  We threw in a couple of episodes with the brilliant Natalie Dormer as Moriarty.  There was another minor arc with Sean Pertwee's Inspector Lestrade, and ended with a story arc involving Rhys Ifans' Mycroft.

For a show that I think has been accused of not honoring the Canon all that much, we got quite a few nods to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories.  Granted, sometimes the nods were a bit haphazard (Silver Blaze, the horse at the center of The Marchioness, seemed almost an afterthought),  but this has been a bit of a problem with Elementary overall (Charles Augustus Milverton, a Canon figure who could have been a great recurring villain, was bumped off rather quickly in last season's Dead Man's Switch).

However, the show has been about the journeys of the characters, particularly the leads.  Miller has taken Sherlock Holmes to a new place, one where connections to people are becoming more important.  He keeps a correspondence with Moriarty because he needs her intellectual stimulation along with the physical.  He goes out of his way to rescue Bell from his own dark night of the soul because while he doesn't admit it publicly (or perhaps to himself), he has intense respect for him.  At one point, he tells Joan that he refers to all the other precinct detectives as "Not Bell".  His conflicting feelings towards his brother closed out the season, and in his inability to react to Mycroft's hug and declaration of love we see a man deeply struggling with emotions. 

However, Elementary Season Two has been about Joan's growth as both a detective and person.  On at least one occasion (Dead Clade Walking if memory serves correct), she was basically the lead investigator.  Her vast medical knowledge has on more than one occasion brought vital clues and conclusions.  She has grown as a detective, but she has also grown as a person.

A major though largely unspoken part of her storyline has been her search for a life outside detective work.  More than once have we seen her go off on dates courtesy of  One episode (We Are Everyone) had the potential to give her a serious relationship, and while that was dropped pretty quickly who is to say that Steve Kazee's Jeff Hines can't make a return appearance?

We also see now that Joan, as much as she has enjoyed working alongside Sherlock, has come to a point where she also feels stifled by him.  Being at the brownstone has put her in a vulnerable position: she is slowly losing herself to be a part of Sherlock's world and not be herself.  Perhaps this all started when to her irritation, Sherlock had been discussing Joan's love life to Moriarty (an act that would be obnoxious in and of itself, but to put her private life for someone like Moriarty for her entertainment must have been appalling).  With her decision to move on by moving out, she wants to have her own life, as she put it, not be in his orbit completely.

This is why I think she gravitated (no pun intended) towards Mycroft.  In some ways, she is a lonely person, and she found someone to reach for.  Whether it all works is debatable (many people I know hate the Mycroft/Joan thing), but I am not as harsh.

As a side note, I think what they did with Mycroft was excellent.  His work for MI6 (he called himself a clearing house of information I think) fit within Canon, if not strictly within it a pretty close approximation. 

What I would say about Elementary is that it still cannot hold up good guest characters.  Reducing Academy Award-nominee Jane Alexander to a bit part is shameful (though they did the same to Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham last year).  They have improved on story arcs (Bell, Lestrade, Mycroft), but sometimes they introduce great characters only to never see them again (Ms. Hudson, Jeff).  Also, I am not completely sold on Everyone, the Anonymous-type hacker group, as the Elementary version of the Baker Street Irregulars.  I am not saying I wouldn't go for it, but not completely convinced either.

In any case, now for the rankings.

In Order from Best to Worst, My Ranking of Elementary Season Two Episodes:

The Woman and The Woman...
The Diabolical Kind (10)
The Grand Experiment (10)
The One-Percent Solution (10)
Tremors (9)
Internal Audit (9)
Solve for X (9)
Art in the Blood (9)
Ears to You (9)
On the Line (9)
The Man with the Twisted Lip (8)
Blood is Thicker (8)
Poison Pen (8)
Step Nine (8)
Paint it Black (8)
The Many Mouths of Andrew/Aaron Colville (8)
The Hound of the Cancer Cells (8)
An Unnatural Arrangement (7)
Ancient History (7)
Dead Clade Walking (7)
All in the Family (6)
The Marchioness (6)
No Lack of Void (6)
Corpse de Ballet (6)
We Are Everyone (6)

Average Score: 7.95

Interestingly, Season Two scored slightly higher than Season One.

Here are the things I hope Season Three gives us:

Again, I still hope that Candis Cayne's Ms. Hudson makes more than a brief cameo,

that we get other Canon figures besides those we've seen to pop in,

that Gregson and Bell become not just a way to get the police involved,

that Watson find a serious, long-term relationship (where art thou, Jeff?)

that those Canon figures already seen return (though given Dormer and Pertwee's other commitments in Mockingjay and Gotham respectively, it appears highly unlikely),

and that more Canon stories find themselves adapted.

I look forward to more interesting cases, the successful resolution to the Watson/Sherlock relationship, and of course, more CLYDE! (the real star of Elementary).

Next Episode: Enough Nemesis to Go Around

I could survive everything
EXCEPT losing Clyde.
Rob Doherty, mess w/him, you mess w/me!

Bates Motel: The Complete Second Season Overview


The Dangers Of Master Bates...

The hotel is closed for the season, but what a season it gave us.  We had murder, we had sex, we had incest, we had drug wars.  Pretty hectic for a small town like White Pine Bay.

I've been pretty harsh on the drug war business, feeling it took away from the interplay between Vera Farmiga's Norma Bates and Freddie Highmore's Norman.  Furthermore, it almost always seemed that this drug was came from another show altogether.  It wasn't until late in the season that both stories were tied together.  On the whole, I thought they were brought together remarkably well, but I also hope that Max Thieriot's Dylan Massett will have other and better things to do.

In regards to Dylan, learning the truth about his parentage led to a genuinely shocking twist.  Actually, that would be a good theme for Bates Motel Season Two: the discovery of the truth.  Norman learns the truth of his blackouts.  Norma learns the truth about Norman's killing and sex life.  Emma learns the truth about love and sex.

That perhaps is Bates Motel's biggest weakness after the drug war storyline.   Poor Olivia Cooke, who is so sensational as Emma Decody, kept getting lost in the shuffle.  Again and again it seemed like one of the best characters was either written out or written off, which seems such a shame.  I hope she stays around for Season Three and that she gets more into the strange goings-on.  Her storyline of finding love with Gunner was in turns sweet and pleasant.  I don't know what happened to him, so perhaps he can come back.

Parents Just Don't Understand...

Now, let us have the ranking of all Bates Motel Season Two Episodes from Best to Worst. 

The Immutable Truth (10/10)
The Box (10/10)
Meltdown (9/10)
Caleb (9/10)
Check-Out (9/10)
Gone But Not Forgotten (8/10)
The Escape Artist (8/10)
Plunge (8/10)
Presumed Innocent (7/10)
Shadow of a Doubt (6/10)

Average Score: 8.4

Shadow of a Doubt was to my mind the weakest because it had one purpose to it: close out the Bradley storyline (of which I'm happy to see end).    It also seemed that giving Norman either a girlfriend or a sex life always ended up in disaster (both physically and story-wise).  Bradley was sent packing, Cody was sent packing, and the luscious Miss Watson just lost her head. 

Maybe in Season Three we could have a season-long arc where Norman appears to have just a steady, regular girlfriend without the accompanying craziness, at least until said girlfriend disappears or is found dead.  Now that both Norma and Norman know what he is capable of, this situation of being a serial killer is worth exploring.

If you had HIS father,
you'd be frowning too...
Another thing worth exploring is the interplay between the Massett-Bates clan and those outside their circle.  We had a storyline with Norma entering White Pine Bay society (sadly come to an end, or perhaps not), but it would be nice to see them interact with the citizens more often (at least those not involved in crimes).  There appeared to be a suggestion that perhaps Nestor Carbonell's Sheriff Romero and Norma would find something there that wasn't there before, but I am one of the few people not interested in a Romero-Norma relationship.  It would be so out of character for the sensible Romero to get involved with someone he knows is, if not crazy, at least not the most stable of people like Norma.

We has some good characters that we may never see again, and I do wonder whether Norma will lose her seat on the City Council (probably will, more the shame). 

In terms of performances, I think we need go no further than Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates.  Long seen as a possessive, clingy, almost evil woman who browbeat her son to a murderous rage, Farmiga's Norma is a remarkably human person.  She is highly flawed: she can be unpleasant, pushy, and selfish, but she is also someone who does genuinely care about both her sons and wants to do right, even if her efforts almost always end up blowing up in her face.  This Norma is someone we can understand, even relate to.  She certainly doesn't set out to be controlling, but it is in the extent to how she loves that is both her and her sons undoing.  She doesn't know when to let go, when to let her sons make their own decisions (including their own mistakes). 

Farmiga already has one Emmy nomination as Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series for Bates Motel (surprisingly, the series' sole nomination, that year the Television Academy honoring Clare Danes' crazy in Homeland rather than Norma Bates' not-so-crazy), and she more than deserves another chance for her portrayal of Norma Bates: a complicated and contradictory figure who is fascinating to watch.  Norma Bates certainly does her best and wants to be a good person, but it just never turns out that way.

Such a sweet boy...
I think Highmore should also be considered awards-worthy.  He too makes Norman Bates less a crazed murderer and more a good kid who has something within him that he can't control, let alone understand.  His horror at remembering killing the luscious Miss Watson and of being held prisoner is such a brilliant performance.  Certainly the writing too should be thought of as better than Season One (minus the drug war...I really disliked that aspect).

I make no predictions about Season Three.  I do hope that we see Dylan rise to drug kingpin or be the motel handyman: one would put him in a position of power, the other would put him closer to his family.  I hope Norman and Norma find relationships that aren't disastrous (given how eventually Norman will kill his own mother, it appears inevitable that she remarries). 

One thing I do hope we get more of is conflict or bonding between the brothers.  They've had their fights (which Norman does not remember, having blacked out after them).  However, perhaps one of the reasons the drug war subplot wasn't the greatest was because Norman wasn't involved in Dylan's life and vice-versa.  Season Three could put the brothers in greater conflict (Dylan more determined to put Norman in an asylum, Norman resenting his brother's interference) or it could unite them either against Norma or the town.  There were flashes of conflict in Season One (particularly in a barely-explored storyline where Dylan and Bradley might have been carrying on an affair), but by and large because there didn't seem to be much interplay between Dylan and Norman, it kept looking like Dylan could have been making guest appearances on a spin-off show we knew little about.  I hope Season Three brings the family together.

For myself, I have enjoyed Season Two tremendously.  It gave us some gasp-inducing moments (Norma's Chinatown confession) and some wonderful storylines (Gunner + Emma=4Ever).  The drug war story is over and we have an opportunity to take the show into more fits of crazy.  Just the way we like our Bates Motel

I certainly will have my reservations ready.

We just love to watch....

Next Episode: A Death in the Family

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Elementary: The Grand Experiment Review


World of Mycroft...

Picking up where we last left off in Art in the Blood's cliffhanger, The Grand Experiment closes out Elementary's second season with some solid heartfelt acting, some nods to Canon, and not one but two storylines that appear impossible to overcome, but which promise to have great payoffs if Elementary creator Robert Doherty can pull it off. 

Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) has burst into the bedroom of his brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans).  Sherlock doesn't appear all that interested that his crime-solving partner Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) is not finished dressing, obviously catching them after their lovemaking session.  Sherlock is here to tell Mycroft that MI6 is coming for him, Mycroft having been framed for murder and treason, suspected of being a mole within the British intelligence service. 

With that, Mycroft is spirited away to a safe house courtesy of Ms. Hudson (sadly unseen) where Mycroft must sit tight while his younger brother investigates both who is the actual mole and solve the murder of Nadeer Kadem, an Iranian expat who is somehow involved in the shady machinations of MI6's mole.  By now, Sherlock has learned of what Mycroft did for him and now is determined to clear his brother's name when at first he didn't seem all that interested in doing so.

Holmes also has to contend not just with saving Mycroft, but also with Joan's determination to move out of the brownstone and find a life apart from Holmes and their detective work.  Sherlock all but asks Joan to stay, but while she accepts that they have had a good partnership it isn't enough for her.  She needs a life outside of Sherlock's orbit, a place of her own figuratively and literally.  They still do work together to solve the crimes (both which are tied together), but not without Mycroft doing his own thing.

He approaches the mole, who tells him Mycroft is too well-framed to escape.  Death, it seems, is the only answer.  It just so happens to be, but it's not Mycroft's death.  Thanks to the NSA, Mycroft can now go away, perhaps for good, and when Sherlock begins to blather on to Mycroft, the latter stops him cold by embracing him and telling him that he loves him.  As Joan begins apartment-hunting, Sherlock takes some of the heroin he had stashed away from a previous case but rather than use it, goes to Sir James Walter (Jim Norton) to accept his offer of having Sherlock work for MI6.

If anything, Elementary is not all about the crimes Holmes and Watson investigate.  There is that, don't misunderstand me.  However, Elementary has also been strongly about Sherlock Holmes, the man's greatest mystery being himself.  The man is brilliant at solving crimes, but for most if not all his life he has locked himself away from people, needing them only so far as they are necessary for his work. 

This series, and this season in particular, have now put him in positions he'd rather not be: that of caring.  He had enough respect for Detective Bell that when Holmes' actions got Bell seriously injured and even at risk of losing his career, it quietly devastated him.  His plea to Bell about being his friend still is one of the highlights of the season.  His relationship with Joan has come to a crossroads: he knowing perhaps that she yearns for a life outside detective work but he still unwilling to break up what has been a bounty for himself.  Now with The Grand Experiment, he must come to terms with understanding the complex relationship he has with Mycroft. 

Somehow, despite their bitter differences and constant bickering, deep down both do love each other.  Mycroft still has deep hurt at his younger brother's summation of his character.  "He has no ambition and no energy.  He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would be considered wrong rather than take the trouble to prove himself right."  This quote, taken directly from Canon, was made by Sherlock to their yet-unseen father, and Ifans in his performance shows that after all these decades, his younger brother's brutal assessment still haunts and hurts him.  When he has to leave Sherlock, that embrace that Mycroft gives to the brother he has sacrificed so much for and who still struggles to accept is beautiful and haunting.

Miller, for his part, is at his full power as Sherlock.  He has his own beautiful scene, where in so many words he basically asks Watson to stay.  In his own way Sherlock is just as vulnerable and wounded as Mycroft, having found in Watson a firm and steadying force.  However, we also see beneath the stiff, buttoned-up Sherlock there is someone who is almost afraid to love, not in a romantic or eros way but in a philos way, who can't quite bring himself to admit he needs people.   He is equally matched by Liu, who gives a beautiful speech about how she considers herself lucky to have fallen into his orbit, but she cannot be forever the moon to Sherlock's sun, reflecting his glory but having no light for her own.  She needs to be her own orbit, and she cannot be that by staying forever in the brownstone. 

Here is where Elementary has excelled, the portrayal of the character's lives.  The crimes aren't exactly secondary (though the mole's identity couldn't have been that much of a surprise), but the show to its credit keeps a good balance between crimes and characters.    As a side note, I thought it was interesting that the mole's actions were motivated by class resentment against the wealthy Holmes family and their social set rather than just greed or sympathy for the enemy. 

The crimes themselves gave us some good twists (the reason for the Iranian's murder was not political and both unique and relatively rational), and while we haven't quite forgotten either Aidan Quinn's Captain Gregson and Jon Michael Hill's Detective Bell it was good to see that the NYPD is not inept but close to putting things together.  We also see that Everyone, the online hackers are now basically the de facto Baker Street Irregulars.  The scene with Joan and the mole where Everyone makes a last minute appearance is both brilliant and a release from the tension that had been building in the confrontation between them.

I don't have a particular objection to having Everyone make more appearances, but I do hope that Ms. Hudson and the true star of Elementary (CLYDE!) do make more appearances, but now I'm getting ahead of myself. 

This certainly has been a Grand Experiment, where the season ended on a high and gave us much to think on as we wait for Season Three of a strong and excellent Sherlock Holmes adaptation.   With strong performances and some great work between the actors, it is a satisfying conclusion to the season.

A Beautiful Friendship...


Season Two Overview

Please, PLEASE, Mr. Doherty
Don't Kill HIM Off!

Elementary: Art in the Blood Review


The Mycroft Identity...

You have an Elementary case involving spies, invisible tattoos, stolen body parts, and the not-quite-love triangle between Joan Watson and the Holmes Brothers, Mycroft and his younger brother Sherlock.  Art in the Blood continues this interesting story arc while giving us some wild twists and turns to elevate the story to places we don't expect.

Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) has been rescued from her abductors, and now it is time Mycroft Holmes (Rhys Ifans) tells his brother Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) his big secret.  MI6 is not here to arrest Mycroft as Sherlock expects.  Mycroft IS MI6.  A shocked Sherlock cannot believe his slothful idiot brother could work as British intelligence.  "What's your 00 designation?  License to kill or just annoy?" Sherlock wryly asks.

Mycroft's work at MI6 now ties in to Sherlock's work as a consulting detective.  Mycroft's handler Sherrington (Ralph Brown) asks Sherlock to consult on the murder of a former operative, Arthur West.  Ruled a robbery gone wrong, Sherrington suspects the ex-analyst's murder had to do with him discovering a mole within the agency.  When Joan and Holmes go to investigate (both Captain Gregson and Detective Bell unaware of Mycroft's involvement), they get a big surprise at the morgue.  West's arms have been sawed off. 

Who would want to steal a dead man's arms, and why?  This is tied in to his work, for West had hidden information in his arms in the guise of tattoos which were only visible under fluorescent lights.  We also learn that West had spied on Sherlock back in London, and that Mycroft had left MI6 earlier but had been 'pulled back in' after Sherlock, during the heights of his heroin addiction, had unwittingly helped a terrorist plot.  While the plot failed, to keep Sherlock from being arrested for treason Mycroft went back into service.  Joan, now fully aware of all the facts, finds that her attraction to Mycroft is not wrong and they go to bed.

Sherlock, meanwhile, still irritated by his brother and by Joan telling him that she plans to move out but still work with him, is on total edge.  He finds that there is evidence making Mycroft the mole, and he bursts into Mycroft's apartment, catching his brother and his partner dressing.  The episode ends with him telling Mycroft he has to flee, because the British secret service is coming up to arrest him for murder, espionage, and treason.

Last season, having Moriarty and Irene Adler be one and the same was the element in Elementary that divided the Sherlock Holmes fanbase.  This year, it has to be the romance between Joan Watson and Mycroft Holmes.  Looking at the fan-boards and online posting, the entire storyline is apparently quite hated, held in contempt with a mixture of horror and anger.  I can see their point: why would a highly intelligent woman like Joan fall for someone like Mycroft, let alone have sex with him?

Now, while I too am puzzled by her actions (and worried that as a woman, her character has to be seen in bed with someone), we have gotten hints in earlier episodes that Joan is also lonely and in need of human, particularly male, contact.  She has been using for some time, and each date has fallen by the wayside.  There was one episode where it looked like she could have had a long-term relationship and I always felt it was a wasted opportunity to give her a serious relationship outside of her work.  With that, I think that by now Joan, who had slept with Mycroft earlier, might have been vulnerable to being with someone.  I don't think it was the greatest of decisions, but I also don't hold it as a deal-breaker either. 

Moreover, she ends up going with him because she sees another side to Mycroft: the caring, tender side, not the ruthless and manipulative side Sherlock knows all too well.

Does it all in the end work?  Perhaps not as well as Elementary may hope for, but again I don't think it's a disastrous choice.

I think Art in the Blood maintains Jonny Lee Miller's quick manner with a quip.  As much as I'm loath to compare Elementary to its bête noire Sherlock, Miller's line to the regional MI6 head Sir James Walter (Jim Norton) of "Overthrow any good governments lately?" could be scriptwriter Bob Goodman (and Elementary creator Robert Doherty) making a snide and subtle dig on Benedict Cumberbatch's retort to HIS Mycroft (Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss) in A Study in Pink when Sherlock tells Mycroft, "Try not to start a war before I get home.  You know what it does for the traffic."

Just a thought.

However, we see that Miller has a firm take on his Holmes as someone who is buttoned up (literally and figuratively) but who also can't imagine not having Watson in his life and home.  The scene between Miller and Liu when she tells him that she is planning on moving out (and perhaps, moving on) is brilliant and devastating.  He tries to rationalize it as a reaction to her abduction and what she endured, but she cuts him off.  "YOU are what you do," she tells him in response.  By now, as much as she enjoys being a detective and having Sherlock as a mentor and friend, she has reached a point where she knows she doesn't want to BE Sherlock Holmes.  She wants her career as a consulting detective, but she also wants a life apart from work. 

Sherlock Holmes doesn't have that.  His life and his work are synonymous.  Joan Watson's life and work WERE synonymous when she was a surgeon.  Now she wants a life where work isn't that all-consuming, and she believes the best way to achieve it is by leaving.  It gives us much to think on with regards to Season Three.

Art in the Blood has wild twists (Lost Arms!  Invisible Tattoos!) and great character development (Joan and Mycroft's romp notwithstanding).  It's a prelude to what promises to be a sharp season finale, one that I hope wraps up stories and wants us begging for more.


Next Episode: The Grand Experiment

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Near-Disasters Volume II: 2009-2014


Sadly, we've reached a point in our series where we simply have too many bad movies to go over.  They are ugly (just like River Song), they are pointless (just like River Song), and they have been a waste of our time (just like, well, you know).

What makes these particular films not just failures, but failures of epic proportions?  Good question; part of it I think is failure of ambition.  There was simply too much of it.  Some of these films are so stuffed with information and exposition that the actual story gets drowned out.  You have some awful acting, incoherent directing, stories that don't make any sense.

Some of them tried to be serious and deep but only ended up laughable.  Those that were intended to be laughable were instead rather sad, the comedy forced, dumb, predictable, and unnatural.  These films were lazy, trying to make things funny rather than letting the situation make things funny. 

IF they have a common denominator, I think it is that they hold the audience in contempt.  They think too little of us as viewers.  These films think we are stupid: that we have to have emotions spoon-fed to us rather than trust us to feel because of the story or acting.  They think we are stupid because they throw lots of lights and flash and pretty people at us and we're suppose to get excited over it.   These films aren't even good enough to be guilty pleasures.  Instead, they are just guilty: of poor execution, of creating by committee (too many chefs in the kitchen), of clumsiness or just laziness.  While there might be one or two things within them that are good (say an actor who tried to make things work), by and large these films are things you should avoid. 

Next time, the closing to this particular series, the Worst Films from 1914-2008 that I have been misfortunate enough to see. 

Too low?  Too high?  Let me know and I'll take a "Second Look".

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

J'Accuse, Oscar!

Luise Rainer:
Best Actress for The Good Earth


"One shouldn't take them so seriously.  After all, they gave two of them to Luise Rainer".

So said once-blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo about the Academy Awards, and he used the two-time Oscar winner as his reason for thinking as much.

The Tenth Academy Awards has that historic footnote: it was the first time someone won back-to-back competitive Oscars.  Not satisfied with giving a highly mannered performance as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld, the world's oldest living Oscar winner was awarded an acting prize for playing a poor, demure Chinese peasant in The Good Earth.  If the idea of an Austrian playing a Chinese woman doesn't already strike one as odd, her Chinese peasant husband was played by Yiddish theater star Paul Muni!

Well, so much for multiculturalism at the Oscars.

A decade into the Oscars, they are now taking the shape that has remained relatively unaltered since.  Dramas, particularly biopics, are the Academy's catnip, while comedies are generally relegated to second-tier films.  Sometimes the popular choice of the time is not the one that has stood the test of time. 

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)
Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)
Anne Shirley (Stella Dallas)
Claire Trevor (Dead End)
Dame May Whitty (Night Must Fall)

Brady has lost the year previous for My Man Godfrey, so I cannot say for certain this is a case of a 'retroactive Oscar', where a performer is given the prize for having been denied earlier. In what can only be called a case of continuing to deny Brady her Oscar, the Best Supporting Actress prize became the center of one of the strangest moments in Oscar history.

Brady was not present to accept her prize, so an unknown man leaped up to accept on her behalf.  No one knew who the mysterious man was, and once he had the Oscar plaque in his hands (as Best Supporting Actor and Actress did not receive actual statuettes until much later) he and the Oscar disappeared, never to be seen again. 

Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)
Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)
Anne Shirley (Stella Dallas)
Claire Trevor (Dead End)
Dame May Whitty (Night Must Fall)

For the moment, while I don't see much reason to change the official results until we see all the films, I'm going to pick the woman who got Katharine Hepburn to wax rhapsodic about calla lilies.

Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)
Billie Burke (Topper)
Margaret Dumont (A Day at the Races)
Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)
Flora Robson (Fire over England)

Given how personally popular Billie Burke was in Hollywood, it is surprising that she was  nominated for an Academy Award only once.   Burke's fluttery but loveable wife who must endure the strange actions of her husband (who claims to be haunted by friendly ghosts) is a pitch-perfect example of comedy at its highest.  She isn't dumb, just incredulous, genuinely loves her Topper but can't believe the nonsense her fussy banker husband is telling her. 


Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth)
Thomas Mitchell (The Hurricane)
Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola)
H.B. Warner (Lost Horizon)
Roland Young (Topper)

Schildkraut came and went in terms of movies.  It is curious to me that for a movie called The Life of Emile Zola, a major chunk of it revolves around the Dreyfus Affair, and the man who plays Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French officer falsely accused of espionage and treason whose persecution was motivated more by anti-Semitism than anything else justifiably received special attention.  Schildkraut gives an excellent performance as Captain Dreyfus, and it is impossible not to be moved when he is stripped of his rank or when he is finally released from prison.    

Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth)
Thomas Mitchell (The Hurricane)
Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola)
H.B. Warner (Lost Horizon)
Roland Young (Topper)

Having said that, I think it took an enormous amount of talent to play the fussy, stuffy banker who finds himself haunted by friendly ghosts, much to his irritation.  His constant frustration at having to endure the benevolent aid of the happy-go-lucky Cary Grant and Constance Bennett is hilarious, his incessant struggle to maintain himself while the Kirbys are wrecking havoc on his life.   His interpretation of Cosmo Topper was so good it brought two sequels: Topper Takes a Trip and Topper Returns.

Sadly, when it comes to comedy, neither Young or Ralph Bellamy had a ghost of a chance of winning.

No Substitutions.


Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth)
Greta Garbo (Camille)
Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)
Luise Rainer (The Good Earth)
Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

Lordy, Lordy were they nuts.

First, due to an error I put Greta Garbo's performance in Camille in last year's list, and I am frankly too lazy to make changes.  Now, we have not one or two or even three but FOUR, mark them, FOUR iconic performances.  You have Dunne's pitch-perfect comic performance in an essential screwball comedy.  You have Garbo looking gorgeous and heartbreaking even as she is dying.  You have Gaynor in the first take on a lurid tale of how Hollywood eats its own.  Finally, you have the tough and brassy working-class woman who sacrifices so much so her daughter could have a place in society.

Out of all of those, they pick the one in yellowface. 

Maybe it was because Rainer was more popular than the other nominees or that people were highly impressed with an Austrian playing a Chinese.  Be that as it may, while I think her performance here is better than the fluttering one in The Great Ziegfeld, I think people don't remember it as much as they do the others. 

Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth)
Greta Garbo (Camille)
Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)
Luise Rainer (The Good Earth)
Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

With the possible exception of Rainer, I don't think there is a single bad performance among the nominees.  Picking just one therefore, is a bit of a task.  However, out of all of them I think Dunne's comedic one as the wife who finds herself but suspecting and being suspected of infidelity still holds a high mark when it comes to screwball.

Constance Bennett (Topper)
Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth)
Greta Garbo (Camille)
Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)
Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

I think that Rainer is the odd duck out.  Again the Academy preferred drama over laughs, which is a shame because we had some good mix of comedy and drama throughout the years.  For the moment I am standing behind Dunne.


Charles Boyer (Captive)
Fredric March (A Star is Born)
Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall)
Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)
Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous)

This is a curious year for ethnically dubious casting.  Who else could play a Portuguese sailor than the very Irish Spencer Tracy?  At least it wasn't as bizarre as having a European playing an Asian.  I haven't seen the performances, but I am not predisposed to like Tracy in this film only because the accent is a bit much.  Not a deal-breaker by any stretch, but not a plus either.

Charles Boyer (Captive)
Fredric March (A Star is Born)
Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall)
Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)
Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous)

March originated the role of Norman Maine, the former matinee idol whose career crashes and burns while his wife's rises.  While I think highly of James Mason's version in the first remake (with another one on the way last I read), I think March's acceptance that his career is over is a fine turn.

Cary Grant (The Awful Truth)
Fredric March (A Star is Born)
Laurence Olivier (Fire over England)
Robert Montgomery (Night Must Fall)
Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)

Grant is another performer who simply made it all look too easy, as if he weren't actually acting, just being.  He is the midst of his comedy phase in this period, and while he never stopped making comedies his persona would go through a subtle shift to where we could see the darkness beneath the suave manner in the future.  It is surprising that while his costars were nominated for The Awful Truth, he himself was not.


Remember Me (Mr. Dodd Takes the Air)
Sweet Leilani (Waikiki Wedding)
That Old Feeling (Walter Wanger's Vogues of 1938)
They Can't Take That Away from Me (Shall We Dance)
Whispers in the Dark (Artists and Models)

Again we have a case of what was popular at the time winning over what has stood the test of time.  Who remembers Sweet Leilani (let alone Waikiki Wedding)?  I've heard the song.  It's pretty, inoffensive, but utterly forgettable.  I defy people to whistle it without looking it up.

There is one song that is now a standard, which has stood the test of time and is part of the Great American Songbook.  The fact that its composer, George Gershwin, died two months after Shall We Dance premiered, making this his final film work, lends his brother Ira's lyrics a special significance.

I'm sure contemporary audiences went for the hokey Sweet Leilani and its dreams of Hawaiian romance, but there's no doubt now that it made the first of several bad choices. 

As a side note, its most recent bad choice...Skyfall from Skyfall.   

My Choice: from Shall We Dance, They Can't Take That Away from Me, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin.

However, I'm going to throw a wrench into the proceedings when I say that I would have selected ANOTHER song from my list of nominees.  It's amazing that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs lost Best Original Score to One Hundred Men and a Girl (which sounds rather perverse if you ask me).  It is even more surprising that not one of its songs was nominated for Best Song.  Given how so many of Snow White's songs (Whistle While You Work, Heigh-Ho), especially compared to the totally obscure Sweet Leilani, its absence from the nominees is more bizarre.  Having said all that, I'm picking as my choice for Best Original Song...

From Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Some Day My Prince Will Come, music and lyrics by Frank Churchill and Leigh Harline.


William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola)
Sydney Franklin (The Good Earth)
Gregory La Cava (Stage Door)
Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
William Wellman (A Star is Born)

In this situation, it is surprise that the Academy went for a comedy rather than the prestige biopic or the more serious drama.  I want to speculate that it might be a case of spreading the wealth around, but in this case, I think the Academy might have had a soft spot for screwball.  It's curious that in the Academy's first ten years, not counting when there was a Best Comedy Directing Oscar, the AMPAS chose a comedy in the Directing category four times. 

William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola)
Sydney Franklin (The Good Earth)
Gregory La Cava (Stage Door)
Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
William Wellman (A Star is Born)

So far, I find no cause to disagree with the official choice...

George Cukor (Camille)
William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola)
Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth)
Norman Z. McLeod (Topper)
William Wellman (A Star is Born)

Even with a few minor alterations.


The Awful Truth
Captains Courageous
Dead End
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
The Life of Emile Zola
Lost Horizon
One Hundred Men and a Girl
Stage Door
A Star is Born

It is no surprise that the Academy went for the "important biopic" for the Best Picture prize. This category leans heavily towards dramatic films.  There are some signs of things to come.  A Star is Born was the first color film to be nominated for Best Picture, and the dramatic Lost Horizon got a nod despite its financial failure.  Adding insult to injury, the original cut of Lost Horizon is itself lost, which is a loss to cinema history.  It is interesting though that this is the second biopic in as many years we have gone from the lavish and frothy The Great Ziegfeld to the self-consciously serious The Life of Emile Zola

The Awful Truth
Captains Courageous
Dead End
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
The Life of Emile Zola
Lost Horizon
One Hundred Men and a Girl
Stage Door
A Star is Born

However, out of all the films on the list, only a few still manage to rise to long-lasting.  Seriously, One Hundred Men and a Girl?  It might be a good film, but when was the last time someone saw it? Having said all that, I think only one is still remembered, still watched and loved.  What can I's not awful, and that's the truth.

Now, as for my choice from my list of nominees for the Best Picture of 1937...

The Awful Truth
A Day at the Races
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
A Star is Born

1937 certainly wasn't spoiled for choice when it came to great movies.   Again perhaps its a reflection of my own tastes that we have three comedies nominated for Best Picture to go along with one drama.  However, as much as I may love the films I think the technical and historic achievement (not to mention the actual quality) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs puts it over the top to make it my personal choice.

Next time, the 1938 Oscars. 

You're a very nice lady,
but you don't deserve either of them.

Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Review (Review #637)



That famous phrase (or infamous, depending on your thinking) came to me as I thought on X-Men: Days of Future Past.  We have a major character going back into the past to alter the future.  Would it all work?  Would it make sense?  I am too honest in saying that how Days of Future Past fits into the previous X-Men movies I cannot answer for certain.  What I can answer is that DOFP holds up well on its own, has some thrilling and well-crafted action pieces, and has incredibly intelligent acting and directing behind it, making this a rare comic-book adaptation that both die-hard fans and those generally unaware of the mythos will enjoy.

It is 2020, and the world is devastated by a war between humans and mutants, with the latter about to be exterminated completely.  Those mutants and their human allies not already captured have been killed by Sentinels, machines that can counteract any mutant power and kill them.  There are a few mutants left to make a last stand.  Among them are Professor X (Patrick Stewart), his erstwhile ally Magneto (Ian McKellen), two instructors from Professor X's school, Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and a former student, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore).  Along with younger mutants such as Warpath (Booboo Stewart, no relation to Patrick), Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), they manage to hole up in China.  It is decided that the best way to end the war is to stop it before it began.

With that, Wolverine (the only mutant who could possibly survive time travel), goes to 1973 to stop the even which triggered the war, the assassination of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  When she murdered Trask as vengeance for his experiments on other mutants, she was captured and her DNA used to create the Sentinels (and Trask's murder the rationale for striking at the mutants).  Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is the only mutant who can send him back (though his body remains in the 'present' as well). 

Wolverine lands in 1973 and is surprised by what he finds.  His mentor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has become distraught and disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the loss of his friends Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (the former imprisoned in the Pentagon for having assassinated President Kennedy).  He can walk thanks to a serum by Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) which controls McCoy's transformation into Beast, but it takes his telepathic powers away.  After some convincing that Wolverine (aka Logan) is telling the truth, Charles agrees to rescue his frenemy from the Pentagon with the help of a cocky young mutant named Peter (Evan Peters), soon to be known as Quicksilver.

After Erik escapes, it is off to the Paris Peace Conference that ends the Vietnam War to stop Mystique's killing of Trask.  However, soon other motivations from others start taking over and the future appears to have not been altered despite their best efforts.  More wild twists and turns take place until we get a wild climax.

Simon Kinberg's script is highly reminiscent of The Terminator (down to when we see Jackman when he arrives in the past for the first time...fully nude from the back and showing he is amazingly fit at 46).  However, despite the similarity DOFP is based on an X-Men graphic novel.  I haven't read it so I can't say how close or far it strays from the film (though I suspect things were altered).   However, credit should be given that the script managed to keep things flowing and balanced between the past and present.

The bulk of DOFP takes place in 1973, which has the effect of giving the original X-Men Trilogy cast not much to do apart from sit and talk while attempting to hold off the Sentinels.  As a result, with the exception of Jackman (who now not only owns the role of Wolverine but has earned his place alongside Christopher Reeve's Superman as an actor who has made his interpretation of a character iconic) it is the First Class cast that handles most of the story.

I have always believed that if you cast actual actors in these roles, you will have excellent performances.  DOFP confirms my belief.  As Xavier, McAvoy's evolution from a man who has given up on hope to one who rises by acknowledging the goodness in humanity and other mutants showcases just how good an actor he is.  He is matched note for note by Fassbender, whose Magneto is not necessarily evil but who himself is motivated by fear and anger towards non-mutants.  The scene aboard Charles' plane when Erik reprimands his friend shows that in his mind, Erik is doing more for mutants by having humanity be dominated by them than Charles' peaceful coexistence worldview.

The other performances are also solid.  Lawrence's Mystique is placed at the center of the cold war between Erik and Charles, and she herself shows a mixture of both: her desire to avenge her fellow mutants mixed with intellectual acknowledgement that escalating a war will lead to more mutant and human deaths.  Hoult's Hank/Beast is in many ways the calm, intelligent creature required to think of solutions, but when unleashed his fury (such as when he goes after Erik) he is fierce and dangerous.

As for Jackman, well, as stated he is now the face we see when we think 'Wolverine' (even though technically he is all wrong, Jackman being much too tall to fit Wolverine's description).  Jackman as Wolverine still has a way with sarcastic quips and dismissive attitude.  However, when calls for emotion are needed (such as when he has a flashback that temporarily jeopardizes the mission), Jackman can deliver those moments too.

Of the newer members, Evans is the standout as the cocky Quicksilver, and his scene in recovering Erik is perhaps the highlight of DOFP. To Jim Croce's Time in a Bottle, we see things from Quicksilver's perspective as he rushes past everyone while fixing the guards.  He does what is needed (divert the bullets) but he also has fun (stealing the guard's caps, taking a quick taste of the soup flying in slow-motion through the air).  Evans' Quicksilver is a kid who loves his powers and has a good time using them, so this chance to stick it to the Pentagon must have been a highlight in his life.  He isn't deferential to his elders (Erik is not amused and a little stunned at having this kid hold him, warning Magneto of whiplash down to repeating the words, "Whip...lash..." as if he were talking to an idiot), and of the newer cast members Evans' brief turn is one of the best.

However, the jury's still out on his costume.

The song fits into the time period, the ironic message of the song to Quicksilver's fast-paced abilities, and even the sadness of the tune lends a touch of pathos to a beautifully shot scene. 

Other cast members like Dinklage does well with making Trask less overt villain and more highly concerned of mutant takeover (though his motives as to why he was so afraid of mutants were a bit vague). 

As stated earlier, because the bulk is in 1973, the past cast didn't play a large role in the film.  However, there is a scene where past and present meet, and it was beautifully acted by all parties.  Bryan Singer brought out not just great performances from his cast, but also kept a solid balance between past and present.  The editing whenever we had to go back to the future was another solid part of DOFP, where it ramped up the tension as to whether either side would live to tell the tale.

The score and musical choices (such as Croce and Roberta Flack's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face) fit every moment.  John Ottman's music could be tense and exciting to almost New Age (the past and present meeting sounding like something from Music From the Hearts of Space).

If I were to find faults in Days of Future Past, it is in that one has to know greatly the minutiae of X-Men lore to figure out everything going on.  We don't get a real introduction to the newer mutants and if one doesn't remember Ashmore or Page we wouldn't know who they were (I didn't).  Same goes for the post-credit scene, which I had to have explained to me.  While I don't think you have to know all things X-Men to follow the plot, it does help.  The film does a good job establishing characters for those who don't know a Rogue from a Sunspot, but the rush to get things going may leave some people puzzled.

Without being too philosophical, X-Men: Days of Future Past is not just a fun action/comic-book film (thought certainly it is that).  It is also about intelligent themes: the fear of 'the Other' that leads to tragedies on both sides, the struggle between peaceful coexistence among groups or loyalty to 'one's own kind'.  Ideas like these rattling around in an escapist picture?  That is something to contemplate.

X-Men: Days of Future Past may not be the best X-Men movie ever, but it comes pretty close to it.  However, any movie that erases the bad memories of both The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine (and maybe renders them obsolete in terms of continuity) already has our eternal gratitude.   X-Men: Days of Future Past does much to restore the luster and potential of the franchise, and one hopes that the Apocalypse will be as good as the future and the past.