REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse

14 02 2017

Is it becoming contractually obligatory for a series’ third installment to be bland and lackluster? Must they expend all their energy in the first two films? Because by the time “X-Men: Apocalypse” came to a close, I found myself struggling to recall what it was that had me so jazzed after Matthew Vaughn’s reinvigoration of the franchise in the first place.

“It’s like a two hour pilot that introduces you to a fantastic ensemble while also fleshing out the conflict between its two biggest stars,” I wrote of “X-Men: First Class” back in 2011. So to extend the television metaphor, I guess this is that point a few seasons into a show where I disengage after noticing it’s clearly jumped the shark. The deeper dive into the series’ key figures, James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, has now officially ceded way to bloated, overstuffed “Spider-Man 3” syndrome.

The numerous characters in the “X-Men” universe, from supersonic Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have moved from strength to liability. Singer, with the aid of screenwriter Simon Kinberg, packs “X-Men: Apocalypse” full of new characters who ultimately feel like they are playing out narratives in search of a spinoff franchise. And while there’s really only one villain, Oscar Isaac’s prehistoric Apocalypse, he gets so little to do that a great actor ends up giving a mummified performance.

That cast of rising stars, once such an asset for the series, now weighs like a millstone around its neck. McAvoy, Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult have all seen their stars rise considerably since 2011. They owe a lot of that to the “X-Men” franchise. And they don’t pay it back in what could likely serve as their final outing in the respective roles. It’s less acting and more contract fulfillment. C+2stars

REVIEW: Moonlight

13 02 2017

“Who is you, Chiron?” Characters pose this question – or, perhaps, exhortation – to the protagonist of “Moonlight” as he ages. It’s not exactly so much an inquiry in search of answer as it is an expression of confusion at the bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies before them.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins makes these divisions of the self apparent by showing Chiron at three unique stages of his development, portrayed by a different actor at each phase. All bear a different name as well. Alex Hibbert’s Little is the youngest, a boy who makes his earliest attempts to make sense of his emotions and environment in drug-riddled Miami. Ashton Sanders’ Chiron navigates the tricky straits of adolescence as a sensitive, withdrawn teenager with no real recourse or comfort. Trevante Rhodes’ Black swaggers about with the toughness of a man, but that confidence wilts away when standing in front of key figures from his past.

These are three personas, but how does one reconcile them into one consistent identity? Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, Naomie Harris’ Paula, certainly can’t. The closest thing he has to a friend, Kevin, only manages the occasional peep beyond the posturing and performance. And given the way that Jenkins structures the film, we as the audience are not meant to click these into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Making sense of a person is not this easy. There are gaps we cannot fill, thoughts we cannot know.

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REVIEW: Dark Night

12 02 2017

dark-nightSundance Film Festival, 2016

A survivor of a movie theater massacre sits on a curb outside wearing a shellshocked but blank expression. The police have arrived with their sirens and lights filling the night air. The colors on her face alternate between blood red and sea blue. This is the American flag of Tim Sutton’s “Dark Night,” a portrait of a country where the threat of senseless death by firearms seeps into every fiber of the national consciousness.

Sutton uses a facsimile of 2012’s Aurora theater shooting at the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” as a springboard into a tone poem for a rattled, tattered America. Calling the film “episodic” does not do justice to the experience of watching the film. “Dark Knight” is like a mosaic inside of a kaleidoscope. It’s the story of isolated individuals who all converge on a single theater, but their real connection lies in their loneliness, disappointment and despair.

The film consists of little moments and glances – a Ronald Reagan portrait on the wall, a slightly obfuscated selfie – that Sutton grafts together with jump cuts and white noise to discuss larger ideas about contemporary community in America. The only thing that draws these disparate humans together is the promise of escape into fantasy. They form, to some extent, a makeshift community inside the theater. A group of like-minded individuals all with their eyes on one thing. (Ironically, not each other.) What makes that shooting, and “Dark Night” by extension, so frightening is the way it dwells on the destruction of something so rarely found anymore.  B+3stars

REVIEW: The Accountant

11 02 2017

In big-budget cinema these days, I’m looking to get a lot of bang for my buck. So are most Americans, many of whom are far more inclined than I am to browse for a better option on Netflix. Whatever Gavin O’Connor does in “The Accountant” gives me plenty of bang, but the noise comes from lots of big bullets being fired indiscriminately from a sniper rifle.

The film, written by Bill Dubuque, smashes several movies into one. There’s the Jason Bourne-like super assassin narrative, which is the one you sell during sports games. Then there’s the bit about an autistic wunderkind, Ben Affleck’s Christian Wolff, uneasily assimilating into corporate America, which can be emphasized to select audiences to give the film an appearance of thematic heft. And don’t forget an awkward platonic romance subplot between said autistic man and his fumbling co-worker, Anna Kendrick’s Dana Cummings, for … wait, who exactly cares about this aspect?

All of these aspects compete for airtime in “The Accountant” with the latest Greengrass ripoff winning out most often. Whatever extra intrigue that Wolff’s condition might add to the film gets nullified by Affleck’s weak acting, which treats autism like an affect that turns on and off when convenient. The connective tissue of this closet killer to a larger scheme of financial malaise is weak, too, spoiling any chance for a sideshow to serve as pleasant diversion.

In fact, the only thing that O’Connor does manage to do well is advertise. “The Accountant” might represent the most elaborate promo for a Ford F-150 I’ve ever seen. If any clips of these scenes of Wolff driving were posted on social media, I should hope they were tagged with #ad or #sponsoredcontent. C2stars

REVIEW: The Red Turtle

10 02 2017

the-red-turtleAm I some kind of monster for not connecting with Studio Ghibli films? (Rhetorical question, don’t answer.) Obviously, I cannot deny the skillful animation and the detailed storytelling. But in regards to emotional connection, there seems to be some component I’m missing to access the depth of feeling to which others attest.

The Red Turtle,” though not directed by the studio’s godfather, Hiyao Miyazaki, still lacks resonance for me. The nearly wordless 80-minute movie plays out like an even more pared down version of Robert Zemeckis’ “Cast Away.” A stranded protagonist takes out his anger and frustration at his situation on the titular reptile, which does not even appear in the film until about the 30-minute mark.

Director Michael Dudok De Wit crafted a highly representational film that definitely makes the case that animation is not just for kids (duh), although its fable-like simplicity makes a compelling case that the film need not be ghettoized to high-minded arthouse crowds alone. My issue lies not with the elemental aspects of “The Red Turtle;” indeed, these make for the film’s most impactful moments. Instead, it’s the thinness of the premise. De Wit’s story could easily sustain a short film. The power gets diluted as it stretches to fill feature-length. Tedium sets in between periods of appreciation – although for me, deep feeling accompanies neither of these sensations. B-2stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 9, 2017)

9 02 2017

wadjdaAs firm of a believer as I am in the transformative power of cinema, I do not believe any film contains some kind of magical power that can rid the world of hatred and bigotry. What they can do, however, is gently nudge the needle of individual opinion in the way empathy and humanity. The act of experiencing a narrative arc through the perspective of someone different can open new insights into a world different from our own.

I think this is especially important now when the qualities of compassion and cultural awareness feel scarce, if not entirely imperiled. As the United States flirts with cutting off connections to the Muslim world, we should know what that world looks like from something other than the limited imaginations of the mass media gatekeepers. These countries contain people like us, living their lives under entirely different circumstances but grappling with a sense of self and their place within society.

Haifaa Al Mansour’s “Wadjda,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” gives us a glance into a space likely encountered by very few American viewers: a young Saudi Arabian girl. If a film’s background can attest to authenticity, then it marks the first time a Saudi female has directed a feature film. (It’s also the first feature shot entirely in Saudi Arabia.) Fittingly, Al Mansour uses the opportunity to put a plucky protagonist front and center with her titular character. Wadjda yearns to buy a bicycle but encounters both person financial difficulties and open resistance from community members that frown upon her desire to partake in a traditionally masculine activity.

Saudi Arabia, like most majority Muslim nations, abides by a patriarchal rule of order. Thus, many portrayals of women in narratives surrounding these regions treat them as silent companions or tacit witnesses. If they receive personhood in the narrative, they rarely possess agency. (To be clear, these are generalizations with plenty of exceptions. Asghar Farhadi, for starters.) Very few men populate “Wadjda,” yet their presence never seems far away. Even in spaces carved out for women, anxiety over what males might see or think pervades the atmosphere.

This environment helps explain Wadjda’s rebellious streak. She yearns for more than a private life away from the gaze of men, as her school and home provide. She wants the freedom to follow her heart and the kind impulses that spring from it, social norms and constructed boundaries be damned. We root for her free expression, not against her culture’s values – though Wadjda and Al Mansour have the real task of reconciling the two in their own lives.

REVIEW: Our Little Sister

8 02 2017

our-little-sisterKore-Eda Hirokazu’s dramas possess a peerless delicacy in their domestic observations. He never seems to approach the material with gloves on, although the gentility takes an quiet yet conspicuous effort. The director’s “Our Little Sister,” on the other hand, feels a little more precious than his previous work.

Kore-Eda adapted the film from a manga series, “Umachi Diary,” rather than writing the screenplay from his own original idea. I’m not familiar with the source material and any obligation he might owe it. My best guess is that his one-step removal from creating the characters kept him from unlocking the same level of interiority he captured in “Like Father, Like Son” or “Still Walking.”

“Our Little Sister” has its moments of genuine, tender familial emotion. The story of three grown sisters living together who take in their recently orphaned half-sister Sachi, a hitherto unknown offspring of their late estranged father. Her presence in their life sets off soul-searching in each of the original trio and triggers the release of some pent-up resentment from their spurned mother. When Kore-Eda embraces the prickliness of their relationships, the film works. But he spends more of the film dancing around their emotions, obliquely conveying them without really expressing their potency. B-2stars