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

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REVIEW: Passengers

20 12 2016

Franchise action flicks catch a lot of flak – rightfully – for existing as little more than an excuse for merchandising. But maybe the problem doesn’t stop there. Is it possible that our star vehicles have similarly been co-opted to serve as personal branding for actors?

There is a very plausible scenario in which a year from today, I will remember little of what happened between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt’s characters in “Passengers.” I’ll probably never forget how angry I felt watching them play into the flaws of the script – more on that in a bit. What I am most likely to remember, however, is their late-night talk show appearances and lab-created viral video moments. The film itself feels like an afterthought amidst the millions upon millions of media impressions the duo generated on a month-long press tour.

The ancillary content for “Passengers” further cements the personas of both actors: Lawrence the raucous and relatable girl next door, Pratt the goofy but lovable working man. But the film itself cuts against the grain for each of them, making everything feel entirely disingenuous. This does not constitute much of a problem for Chris Pratt, who gets to play the tortured center of a deep space morality play. The prematurely awakened space passenger Jim Preston represents Pratt’s first chance to really display his dramatic chops, and director Morten Tyldum spotlights them by … focusing heavily on his puppy dog eyes whenever he’s grappling with a deep emotion or question. Whomp!

Lawrence, on the other hand, plays totally against type for both her on- and off-screen feminism. As Aurora Lane, the object of Jim’s gaze and manipulation, she gives herself over to being little more than a sex object ready to please on cue as well as a backstage figure to male heroism in the face of danger. This is Katniss Everdeen and Joy Mangano! This is the actress who dared to call out Hollywood’s sexist payment practices! What’s going on with this retrograde role choice?

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REVIEW: Joy

16 01 2016

“Hands, give me the hands,” Bradley Cooper’s Neil Walker vehemently instructs a cameraman filming Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy Mangano as she sells her Miracle Mop on QVC. For Walker, the consummate showman (and perhaps the stand-in for writer/director David O. Russell), these appendages are the attribute that sets stars apart from the average person. Hands are important because, in his words, “that’s what people use.”

Russell uses hands as a motif running throughout “Joy,” a hymn to ingenuity and perseverance inspired by true stories of daring women. To him, hands mean physical labor, the kind of work traditionally delegated to men. But that traditional division of duties never stopped Joy, who built kingdoms out of paper as a child, dog collars as a teenager, and finally a self-wringing mop as an adult. Her knack for creation, when coupled with her practicality and pragmatism, means she has real potential for success.

Indicative of just how overextended Joy is among her large family, her hands spend most of their time at home doing household repairs like plumbing which would normally be left to the male authority figure. (Her ex-husband, Edgar Ramirez’s failed singer Tony, spends most of his day crooning in the basement.) On top of all the emotional labor of caring for the physical and emotional well-being of her two young children, she has virtually no time to pursue a path that could bring fulfillment and fortune. Yet another mess Joy must clean up enables her to dream up the revolutionary mop after shards of glass lead to gashes all over her hands.

In order to turn her flailing life around, Joy has to compete in the man’s world of business to get her product in front of customers. She has virtually no cues as to how to operate in this sphere; repeated asides from a fictional soap opera show the kind of cues from which Joy can draw. Boys get “The Godfather.” Girls get puffed-up camp like “The Joyful Storm.”

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REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

20 11 2015

Much like the “Harry Potter” series, the final installment of “The Hunger Games” departs radically from the formula of all entries that came prior. “Mockingjay – Part 2” does not actually feature the Hunger Games themselves, the main event that involves children killing children to placate the masses of a dystopian future. Without this intense action set piece to which the story can build, everything else cannot help but feel like a bit of a letdown.

“Mockingjay,” for many fans of the series, represented the least of Suzanne Collins’ books. So, in a sense, it is not terribly surprising that “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” ends on a similarly underwhelming note. But even that is unlikely to put a damper on what will surely be one of the highest grossing films of the year; the four-year relationship Jennifer Lawrence built between viewers and her Katniss Everdeen is truly remarkable.

Without the games, “Mockingjay – Part 2” seems rather confused as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Some aspects of political semantic games and propaganda messaging remain from Part 1, primarily at the outset. These leftovers just further serve to reinforce the sense that a two-part finale was an unnecessary protraction of events.

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REVIEW: Serena

23 02 2015

SerenaDespite all the negative press churned out by the rumor mill as it sat for years in the editing bay, “Serena” is far from a disaster.  Susanne Bier’s saga of competition and coveting in 1920s North Carolina certainly contains a fair share of riveting moments.  Overall, though, it seems to lack focus.

For instance, is the protagonist of the story George Pemberton, Bradley Cooper’s timber baron intent on protecting his land from government encroachment?  Or is it Serena Pemberton, Jennifer Lawrence’s arrestingly beautiful and tempestuously emotional business and life partner?  The answer is unclear because the movie lacks decisiveness.

The same goes for which of the two storylines in “Serena” – George and Serena’s tumultuous marriage, or their contentious capitalistic ventures – serves as the predominant one.  The film would have undoubtedly benefitted from the demotion of one to the status of a subplot.

With some of these fairly basic issues left unsettled, “Serena” quickly becomes mostly notable as a showcase for its stars.  Had Bier and her editors somehow turned the film around in a few months after shooting in spring 2012, the performances would likely have received no end of acclaim.  But now, three years have passed, in which time Cooper and Lawrence have collected a whopping five Oscar nominations.  Their George and Serena now feel rather penciled-in when measured against Pat Solitano and Tiffany Maxwell.

The 105 minutes necessary to watch “Serena” might be put to better use by rewatching “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle,” or “American Sniper.”  Those films feature the stars giving more fully fleshed-out performances (with better accents) while also featuring more confident direction.  The fine details available for discovery by digging deeper into those characters far outweighs what can be skimmed from the surface of this middle-of-the-road flick.  C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 21, 2014)

21 11 2014

Academy Award winner Charlize Theron is Sylvia, a Portland restaurant worker who feels distinctly spiritually absent.  She still has a cutting problem that she manages to keep inconspicuous from the world, and she frequently engages in sex with men in an attempt to feel something.  Theron gives one of those “physically naked signifying emotionally naked” kind of performances, which proves hauntingly effective.

Academy Award winner Kim Basinger is Gina, a wife and mother in New Mexico who can only find happiness in the embrace of her Hispanic lover, Nick.  Their affair crosses not just ethnic but also social class boundaries, two status markers that erect rigid divisions in their small community.

Now an Academy Award winner, Jennifer Lawrence is Mariana, a self-sufficient teen thrown into the responsibilities of surrogate motherhood far too early.  (The character now makes for an interesting antecedent to “Winter’s Bone” as well as “The Hunger Games.”)  She is at a transitional moment in her life, unsure of how to feel about her inattentive mother and budding romantic prospect.  Lawrence marvelously conveys both her tenacity and her insecurity.

“The Burning Plain” is a movie where – gasp! – all these women’s stories connect, as characters often tended to be linked somehow in the first decade of the 2000s.  This is my selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” though, because writer/director Guillermo Arriaga ties these disparate storylines into one complete package.  (Arriaga had plenty of practice writing the first three “hyperlink cinema” screenplays for director Alejandro González Iñárritu.)  His film is a plaintive meditation on the paralyzing effects of guilt that lands with somber impact thanks to a carefully crafted script and three quietly moving female performances.





REVIEW: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

20 11 2014

Unlike the “Harry Potter” finale, which ran over 800 pages in length, the last installment of “The Hunger Games” probably did not necessitate a two-part cinematic conclusion.  But alas, the filmmaking team thought they could find enough action in the story, and the Lionsgate executives had confidence that they could market two films.  So now, audiences are stuck with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.”

Though the film runs a full 30 minutes shorter than both its predecessors, it feels significantly longer.  Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his penultimate role) do bring an aura of prestige to the relatively calm proceedings, yet that is not enough to boost the low energy that plagues the first half of “Mockingjay.”  While there is a thrilling final rescue scene and one quasi-action sequence in the middle, the inside baseball of Panem politics occupies the majority of the two hours.

Perhaps “Mockingjay” could inspire the next generation of political publicists, a prospect simultaneously encouraging and frightening.  The film offers an introductory course to how semantics, misinformation, and outright propagandizing can be used by governments as well as social movements to recruit followers and repel criticisms.  The overarching lesson of “Mockingjay” may very well be that the camera is mightier than the sword.

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