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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 9, 2016)

9 06 2016

Young OnesThe recent hiring trend for studio tentpoles has been to pluck indie directors from obscurity, combining their strong imaginative knack with their weak negotiating power and strong incentive to roll over and obey for the career boost. Some of these moves make a lot of sense (Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) while others still feel strange, like transitioning Colin Trevorrow from “Safety Not Guaranteed” to “Jurassic World” or Marc Webb from “(500) Days of Summer” to the “Spider-Man” reboot.

I find it rather shocking that Jake Paltrow is hitting the press tour this week touting a new documentary about Brian De Palma (co-directed with the venerable Noah Baumbach) and not talking about some massive franchise flick. His prior film, 2014’s sci-fi/western “Young Ones,” plays like the perfect audition tape for a hit factory. The way he conjures an entire desert world on a small budget recalls some of Tatooine from George Lucas’ original “Star Wars.”

But this economy of scale and maximizing of impact alone is not the reason for choosing “Young Ones” as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” (As is customary at the beginning of the month, I’ll remind you that “F.I.L.M.” is a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.) Neither is it because the film features odd flourishes of De Palma-esque style, if you know to look for it – particularly during exciting or charged moments.

No, it’s because Paltrow takes the time to craft an intriguing human story in an environment where the dystopian agrarian society might overwhelm character. “Young Ones” puts interpersonal conflict first and foremost, pitting parents against children, families against outsiders, and even siblings against each other. Protection and survival guide most actions from Michael Shannon’s patriarch Ernest Holm and his son, Kodi Smit McPhee’s Jerome.

The real attention-grabber, however, is Nicholas Hoult as Flem Lever, who makes a deceitful journey from boy to man at the Holm family expense. He assumes the role of a patrician in a manner befitting “The Godfather,” although the frequent slow pushes Paltrow has director of photography Giles Nuttgens executes does recall Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood.” Flem seizes power far more frequently than he earns it, which puts him at odds with the more earnest Jerome.

But rather than devolve into shouting matches or stylized fighting, “Young Ones” simply lets their struggles play out naturally. Paltrow relies on the cut and the implication to convey what an action set piece would otherwise show. As blockbusters get noisier and more frenetic, executives ought to give this film (and filmmaker) another look if they want to appeal to a pendulum potentially swinging back the other way.

 





REVIEW: Slow West

6 07 2015

Slow WestIf there is one compliment I can pay writer/director John MacLean’s “Slow West,” it is that the film bears a particularly apt title.  It is slow, and it is set in the west.

This revisionist genre flick follows Scottish traveler Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as he moseys through the American West with sporadic guidance from grouchy nomad Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender).  He’s in pursuit of his love, Rose (Caren Pistorius), but the goal seldom seems as important as the experience of wandering.  As foreign visitors often do, Jay sees the landscape differently, a view that MacLean echoes through Robbie Ryan’s photography that shakes up the expected Western playbook.

“Slow West,” even in its tediousness, interrogates the land rather than gaze in wonder at it.  MacLean’s incorporation of humor serves as further evidence of his revisionist – and borderline parodic – intent.  But aside from his hilarious send-up of the classic “wanted” signs, the comedy of the film feels indeterminate.  He switches from cruel irony, which is drier than the deserts that Jay and Silas travel through, to slapstick humor at the drop of a hat.

The voyage ultimately does pay off in one hell of a climax with quite the statement of the genre’s gunfire.  But whether the conclusion is enough to salvage the sluggish start is a decision up to each moviegoer.  Since “Slow West” only runs 84 minutes, I figure the relatively small expenditure of time is more worth it than not.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Congress

19 07 2014

The CongressAri Folman’s “The Congress” certainly cannot be faulted for any lack of ambition.  The director has fiddled with some seemingly unthinkable products in the past. “Waltz with Bashir,” after all, seems like an oxymoron (an animated documentary?!).

In that film, he used animation to explore questions of personal memory and conscience in the wake of a decades-old conflict between Israel and Lebanon.  Here, he’s shifted his focus westward to Hollywood.  Folman places his finger on the pulse of some very real anxieties in the City of Angels: motion capture replacing real actors, lingering fears of digitization, and the commoditization of celebrity, to name a few.

To explore these, he makes us of actress Robin Wright to play a fictionalized version of herself.  In “The Congress,” she’s an actress standing on the precipice of obscurity (the film was shot before “House of Cards” sparked a career revival) faced with a decision to sell her persona to the studios for digital “sampling.”

Folman’s commentary enters the realm of the satirical on many an occasion, recalling a justifiably little-seen film “Antiviral” where fans would inject themselves with viruses from stars to experience them further.  “The Congress” similarly follows its beginning concept, which doesn’t seem entirely out of the realm of possibility, logically into absurdity.  Along the way, Folman doesn’t hesitate to dole out copious amounts of shame to both the business that condones these developments as well as the public that consumes them.

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REVIEW: Let Me In

29 04 2013

It’s rare to see a horror movie made with as much artistry as Matt Reeves’ “Let Me In,” and I think it’s all the more haunting because of that.  The film focuses on developing a hostile environment over cheap screams, a move that pays off in spades over the course of the film.

Believe it or not, the blood-sucking adolescent vampire Abby (the omnipresent Chloe Moretz) is hardly the most menacing villain of the film.  That dubious honor would belong to the bullies, who make life a living hell for the shrimpy but sweet 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee of “The Road“) for no other reason than the fact that he’s an easy target.  And they aren’t just name-callers or lunch money-stealers; they want to inflict potentially life-threatening pain.  Maybe they are a little excessive, but after all, movies are a heightened reality!

The ravenous Abby inspires the unassuming Owen to fight back against his tormentors, and indeed he does.  But she also teaches him a thing or two about friendship and love, which seems to innocuously bloom between the two outcasts.  It’s this rose amongst a bed of thorns that gives “Let Me In” such a peculiar warmth and comfort amongst the bluntly portrayed horrors of Abby’s bloodlust.

All the while, there’s a peculiar undercurrent of Ronald Reagan and all that he has come to represent running throughout the film, an interesting setting change by Reeves.  It’s easy to tell he has a real vision for the movie and tender compassion for its characters.  That makes a difference in a horror movie, where everyone seems written only for the purpose of dying.  B+3stars





SAVE YOURSELF from “The Road”

27 11 2012

The RoadI’m in a semi-minority when I say that John Hillcoat’s film “The Road” is a dreadful movie.  However, I know I’m in a vast minority when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road,” the book Hillcoat’s film is based on, is just as bad – if not worse.  Yes, I’m taking issue with the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize and Entertainment Weekly‘s distinction of the best book of the past 25 years.

To all the haters who are sure to be drawn out of hiding by this pan, I assure you that I’m not some uneducated Philistine who is quibbling with McCarthy’s unconventional prosaic style.  Sure, it makes it a difficult read, but I actually quite enjoy it.  The experience is tough but refreshing, particularly in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

But “The Road” is just tedious and boring.  Yes, I know that’s the point!  But beyond a certain point, I get it.  I understand how the man, played with vigor in the film by Viggo Mortensen, and the boy, portrayed by then newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee in a rather impressive debut, feel on the road.  I don’t need to spend hours of my time reading them do the same things and having minor variations of the same conversation, day after day.  It makes for a great short story or short film, but stretched to novel and feature film lengths, monotony ensues.

Perhaps Hillcoat was fated to displease me with “The Road” since many of my issues with the text and story seem to be rather systemic, foundational quibbles.  Yet the upstart Australian director had made a capable, taut thriller in “The Proposition” before he tackled McCarthy’s work.  (“Lawless” had its issues as well, but I still admired the work on display.)

Joe Penhall’s script tries to add some sensationalism to make the story more tolerable (and commercially viable, I can imagine), but the attempts fail miserably.  Making The Man’s wife a larger character in the narrative adds nothing to the story, even when she’s played by the talented Charlize Theron.  Adding further dimensions of terror to their foes on the road don’t make the movie any more thrilling.  Instead, we are left with a film that ambles slowly and uninterestingly towards bleak nothingness and can’t succeed at the one thing that should have been a no-brainer for it: a deep character study of the Man and his Son.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbLgszfXTAY