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: Mojave

19 01 2016

MojaveYou know how Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of his generation, yet is still in such films so obviously beneath him as “The Humbling?” Or how Robert DeNiro does movies like “Stone?” Well, if Oscar Isaac is one of the great actors of our time (see: “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year”), then”Mojave” is like his “The Humbling” or “Stone.” It’s a chance to cut loose and maybe get some of the negative impulses out before having to deliver a real, controlled performance.

“Mojave” comes from the mind of William Monahan, who gave the world a real gift with his script for “The Departed” … but also a lump of coal with “Edge of Darkness,” the last non-ironic Mel Gibson movie. It’s a literate work but also one of overwrought, overblown pretension. Isaac hams up his character, the mysterious desert drifter Jack, and seems to be enjoying himself. If only I could have shared in that feeling.

He gets an enjoyable moment here and there, but these are never enough to redeem – much less cohere – the mess that is “Mojave.” The film dabbles in far too many genres, sub-genres and plot digressions that I do not really know what to call it.

Monahan begins the film with Garrett Hedlund’s Thomas, a frustrated actor (the most severely underrepresented group on film – NOT), who meets Jack in the desert while trying to escape his life. The two share an exaggerated, overly articulate conversation, but it’s at least compelling. For whatever reason, I had the impression the movie would be a pure two-hander. “Mojave” might have been better had Monahan kept it this way, just letting the two men feed off each other. Hedlund could certainly use a meatier role; he has yet to further develop the charisma shown in 2012’s underseen “On the Road.” But Monahan mostly just leaves him to sulk. Actors, you know? C2stars





REVIEW: Inside Llewyn Davis

17 01 2016

Inside Llewyn DavisCannes Film Festival – Official Competition, 2013

“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” explains Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) after yet another gig strumming his guitar at Greenwich Village’s Gaslamp in”Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film is full of folk tunes in its soundtrack as it recreates the pre-Dylan early 1960s scene in New York. Yet, in many ways, the Coen Brothers’ film itself is a folk song, if judged by the definition they provide.

Llewyn’s story is all too familiar – and one that hits close to home for anyone yet to achieve the lofty success they were promised with every participation medal. Most stories of musicians trying to enter into the business involve some measure of pain and frustration, but for Llewyn, the bad breaks seem almost cosmic. He’s always a smidgen too early or a moment too late to shake off the funk that seems to set a tone of frustration and misery for his life. “King Midas’ idiot brother,” his ex-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan) describes him, and by the end of the film, such a mythological explanation for Llewyn’s woes seems entirely possible.

It proves frustrating to watch him endure trial after tribulation, though not because the beats are tired. The doomed slacker routine may have been done before, but certainly not like Joel and Ethan Coen do it. Insomuch as the duo would ever make something so straightforward as a “personal” film, “Inside Llewyn Davis” addresses the price a person can pay for trying to maintain the purity of their art. Llewyn decries the easy, the accessible and the crowd-pleasing, lamenting anyone who panders to these attributes as sell-outs or careerists.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 12 2015

J.J. Abrams is perhaps the chief nostalgist of our time, and he often executes this fascination with such panache that we might as well call him a classicist. The reverence he pays to the films that inspired his own work serves to elevate those movies to a higher cultural plateau. And, as if anyone had not noticed the influence of “Star Wars” on a generation of moviegoers, they have definitive proof in the second relaunch of the franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Abrams, working with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, finds that sweet spot between paying homage to the old and forging ahead with the new. The film’s action is primarily driven by two new heroes – the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon to discover extraordinary powers and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who gains a conscience after witnessing the slaughter of innocence. They go up against a new sinister antagonist in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who works in tandem with the eerily fascist politician General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Yet for all these new characters, there are also the old ones there in supporting roles – Han Solo, Luke and Leia Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are all back. John Williams’ score livens up the film. The Millennium Falcon is back. Heck, Abrams even maintains the distinctive wipes and editing transitions from the original Lucas films. Anyone who feared drastic change in the series with the passing of the reins ought to be more than reassured by “The Force Awakens.”

The coexistence of the old and the new provides every bit as much tension as the plot, which I will continue to avoid discussing in any depth lest I reveal a spoiler. (I kept my head in the sand as much as possible regarding “Star Wars” news in order to experience the film with as fresh of eyes as possible, and it paid off.) Yet even with Rey and Finn as the primary engines of action in “The Force Awakens,” the film feels practically like a mirror image of the original 1977 “Star Wars.” This was no doubt intentional, I assume, but the amount of bowing Abrams performs before the mythology of the franchise keeps his film from standing as tall as it could.

Certainly future installments in the new “Star Wars” will go deeper and bolder, making an even greater case for the series’ relevance and importance. For now, though, this served its purpose to reawaken the vanguard of longtime fans and excite a new generation. I must say, I am on board for what comes next. B+3stars





REVIEW: Ex Machina

3 05 2015

Ex MachinaEx Machina,” from writer/director Alex Garland, marks yet another fascinating entry into the technophobic science-fiction genre – or, at the very least, the film has a skeptical stance towards the beneficence of technical advances.  Over the course of a week, Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb must determine whether a robot, Alicia Vikander’s Ava, can pass the Turing Test.  (For those who skipped “The Imitation Game,” that exam measures whether an artificially intelligent being can pass for a human.)

The deceptively simple set-up gets more complicated when factoring in Ava’s creator, Oscar Isaac’s Nathan.  An irascible genius in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg (at least how “The Social Network” portrayed him) crossed with the unsettling articulation of Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nathan has little regard for standard operation procedure or tradition decorum.  He handpicks Caleb to administer the test under unorthodox conditions as well as tight supervision.

Given all these factors, “Ex Machina” becomes highly unnerving once events start taking a turn for the unexpected.  Not since Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” five years ago has a film made me so distrusting of every character’s motives or uncertain of whether an event was actually happening.  Remarkably, Garland achieves this terror with little more than the basic building blocks of cinema: tight editing, controlled and sparse staging, crisp camerawork.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: The Two Faces of January

18 06 2014

two_faces_of_january_ver5Los Angeles Film Festival

Hossein Amini makes his feature film debut by directing an adaptation of “The Two Faces of January,” an adaptation of a novel by “The Talented Mr. Ripley” author Patricia Highsmith. The film is understandably a natural cousin to Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated 1999 dramatic thriller made from the latter of the aforementioned books. Amini did not, however, have to be so hopelessly indebted to the playbook that made that film work.

That’s not to say he made a carbon-copy; the two stories are very different. “Ripley” has shades of “The Great Gatsby” as it explores the psychology of the jaded upper class and one ambitious upstart whose desire to join them turns dangerous. “January,” on the other hand, is much more about the events and their sequence. There’s far less complex psychology or layered characterization to be found as a result.

The film’s three leads each play more of a type than a person. Oscar Isaac’s expatriate tour guide Rydal is quite a bit like Matt Damon’s Ripley but played with a penchant for larceny. He stumbles upon the MacFarlands, an American couple visiting Eastern Europe, and finds himself hopelessly drawn towards them.

Kirsten Dunst, as Collette MacFarland, has even less to do. She’s little more than an item for a childish game of tug-of-war between Rydal and her husband Chester, played by Viggo Mortensen. The film takes place in the early 1960s, and it would have been refreshing to see Dunst channel a screen icon of the time (say, Grace Kelly or Janet Leigh) to lend the film the feel of the period. But alas, Dunst retains the same sort of turn-of-the-millennium acting sensibility she normally brings to a part.

Mortensen also does a familiar act, although for him, what it recalls is his superb work in 2005’s “A History of Violence.” He’s great at playing collected everymen who prove themselves shockingly capable of savage outbursts, though it’s somewhat less exciting as a repeat in “The Two Faces of January.” His Chester sets the film in motion by retaliating brutally against an investigator sent on behalf of scorned clients, and he later carries the film by engaging in a battle of wits with Isaac’s Rydal.

Though Amini can get his actors to engage with each other, his direction doesn’t quite provide the spark necessary to light the fuse of the film. The tension dissipates quickly after the precipitating event of the film and then devolves into histrionics and cliches. Formulaic action film, beautiful European backdrop – sounds far less like “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and more like “The American.” Or dare I even say it … the much reviled (yet inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated) “The Tourist.”  C+2stars