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

Advertisements




REVIEW: Entertainment

20 02 2016

EntertainmentRick Alverson’s “Entertainment” definitely has a lot to say, make no mistake. It’s nice to see a film titled after a concept that engages deeply with that idea.

Alverson sets up an interesting dialectic between two touring performers, a mime played by Tye Sheridan and a comedian played by Gregg Turkington. The former opens each show, deftly calibrating his moves to respond to the crowd and givng them their money’s worth. The latter, however, self-consciously stumbles his way through a stand-up routine that might have killed were it delivered in 1984. When it starts to bomb, the comedian often fires back at the crowd in seeming self-sabotage.

Perhaps this is the very tension between entertainment and art playing itself out in allegorical form. One comforts the audience while the other confronts them. One is harmless fun; the other, a provocative thorn. Alverson’s film definitely takes the form of the comedian, never easily indulging the whims of easy crowd-pleasing in its 100 minutes.

But as “Entertainment” wore on, the film started to feel thin on ideas. Yes, there is value in watching Turkington’s comedian slowly grow more and more agitated with audiences and wrestle with his own performance. Yet Alverson might have incited that same intellectual response from a short film, one that more tersely conveys the same ideas. Heck, it could have even wrestled with a new set of ideas about what people look for in a video of that length. B-2stars





Social Scientists Behaving Badly (REVIEWS: The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter)

24 12 2015

The Stanford Prison ExperimentIn my first semester of college, I took an introductory sociology class on a whim and wound up loving it so much that I added fifteen additional hours to my schedule to make it my second major. Ironically, in my final semester of college, two infamous experiments in the field of social science that captivated me in that first class made their way to the big screen.

Both premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered respectable reviews and picked up distribution from heavy-hitting indie distributors. Though I’m reviewing them in tandem because the opportunity was too good to pass up, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment” depicts a study in which professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) threw college students looking for a little extra cash into a staged environment deemed unethical by most in his field. The assignment was simple: in a lab-created prison, each received an assignment of prisoner or guard which they were to act out. To say they began to take these roles a little bit too seriously is the understatement of the century as harmless animosity spirals out of control into actual violence.

At one point during the experiment, a colleague interrogates Zimbardo and asks him what independent variable he was measuring – that is, what change he was hoping to observe in his study. Zimbardo does not have an answer, and it’s hard not to feel like the movie is similarly grasping at straws when it comes to what exactly the experiment was trying to examine. Beyond mere power relations and the willingness of humans to commit atrocities against each other, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” does little to illuminate the intellectual concepts that make its titular event worth studying to this day.

It abandons academia for entertainment which, admittedly, it does a very good job of providing. Though audiences may not feel the film’s ideas piercing their brain, they will likely feel the emotional impact of the solid turns from this extraordinary cast. People will no doubt look at “The Stanford Prison Experiment” like people today look at “The Outsiders,” seeing strong performances from rising male actors. If you haven’t already, remember these names – Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Michael Angarano, Jack Kilmer, Thomas Mann, Johnny Simmons, Logan Miller, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee – because it will not be the last you hear from them.

ExperimenterAlvarez would have done well to lean on the findings from the subject of Michael Almereyda’s “Experimenter,” Stanley Milgram. A social psychologist working at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram sought answers to how ordinary German people became complicit in the Nazi machine. In other words, he sought to find in science and data what Hannah Arendt described in theory as “the banality of evil.”

Almereyda’s film puts a heavy emphasis on process, using large chunks of the film’s beginning to detail just how Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) went about obtaining his – pun fully intended – shocking findings. He meticulously devised an experiment in which an unsuspecting person would be asked to administer escalating electric shocks to someone else. No matter the pain that other person seemed to endure, the subject with the power to dole out the shock almost always continued if given the instruction to do so from an authority figure in the room.

Notoriously, Milgram was so horrified by the levels of obedience he found in America that he decided against testing his hypotheses in Germany. He controlled for any number of factors – the proximity of the person receiving the shock, the proximity of the authority figure in the experiment, even removing the subject from the setting of an academic laboratory. He got the same results nearly every time.

As a film, “Experimenter” loses a little luster with its less interesting forays into Milgram’s personal life and some didacticism. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to go deeper into his findings, somewhat similarly to Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.” It starts off weird but eventually becomes normalized. Plus, Almereyda does plenty of showing the experiment that a little bit of telling to make sure no one misses the point feels fine.

But as a work about my other passion, social sciences, “Experimenter” reminds me of what I loved about the discipline. It celebrates the questioning of underlying assumptions we hold about social arrangements and then putting them to the test. I only wish it was around to show in a class or two when I was still in college. Hint to professors: this would make for a great Friday activity!

The Stanford Prison ExperimentB2halfstars
ExperimenterB+3stars





REVIEW: Joe

11 09 2014

JoeDavid Gordon Green’s “Joe” gets off to a slow start, prompting me to initially wonder if it was going to be a complete non-starter like his prior directing effort “Prince Avalanche.”  He takes his time giving us the lay of the land and introducing us to the characters, a lax unraveling that teeters close to tedious.

It also doesn’t help that the premise feel quite similar to that of Green’s film school buddy Jeff Nichols’ recent success “Mud.”   A troubled man played by an actor looking to show off a more serious facet of his talent befriending a rough-hewn yet good-hearted teenager played by Tye Sheridan?  “Joe” feels like the younger brother of “Mud,” although perhaps only little due to the order in which it was released.

By all accounts, though, “Joe” is the better realized film.  It’s more emotionally charged and features more dynamic, complex characters.  Once Green kicked the film into gear around the 40-minute mark, I couldn’t take my eyes off the action.

After winning an Oscar, Nicolas Cage shouldn’t technically have to prove anything, so perhaps it’s best to say he reminds us that he is so much more than a meme.  As the eponymous ex-con Joe, he bares the bruises of his past with startling vulnerability.  While some might chuckle at the possibility of the same actor from the infamous “The Wicker Man” screaming video conveying a convincing paternal aura, Cage embodies and exudes a worn-down wisdom that feels completely authentic.

And Tye Sheridan as teenaged Gary, desperately in need of someone to look up to instead of his abusive alcoholic father, forges an entirely believable connection with Cage’s Joe.  Once again, Sheridan completely nails all the frustrations of adolescence.  He’s always remarkably in the moment on screen, which comes in handy when Green needs to communicate the urgency of the story.

We really feel the dire need for Gary to save his family before his father ruins it for good (credit the late Gary Poulter in an unhinged performance as the frighteningly destructive Wade).  Moreover, we see the need for Joe, flaws and all, to save the day.  It might take some time to reach that point, but “Joe” is worth watching for its gripping back half that leads up to an extremely intense conclusion.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Mud

19 01 2013

Cannes Film Festival 2012 / Sundance Film Festival 2013

(NOTE: I saw “Mud” at the first showing in Cannes last May.  I have no idea if the movie being shown in Utah is the same one I saw in France.  I have some lingering suspicion it might have been reworked and tweaked a little bit since it disappeared from the festival circuit for eight months.)

Third features are, for most filmmakers, really the first time we can gauge their capabilities and career trajectory.  A debut film is, well, a debut film.  Unless you are Orson Welles, whose first film “Citizen Kane” is the best of all-time to many, the first time behind the camera is rarely one that produces much beyond the promise of great things.  While many directors break out with their second film, some would consider that they still have the training wheels on the bike.

By the third film, however, we generally stop cutting them slack or grading them on a curve.  It’s do or die, make or break.  If you haven’t quite figured out how to make a good movie, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change.  Just to provide some perspective, Scorsese’s third film was “Mean Streets,” Spielberg’s was “Jaws,” Malick’s was “The Thin Red Line,” Jason Reitman’s was “Up in the Air,” and Ben Affleck’s was “Argo.”

Jeff Nichols, an emerging American filmmaker, made his first two movies with a very independent spirit.  His debut, “Shotgun Stories,” had an interesting concept but was poorly executed.  His second film, “Take Shelter,” was a superb ambiental drama that effectively visualized the state of economic and personal anxieties in the age of the Great Recession.  But his third feature, “Mud,” is so different that it almost feels like a first film.

With “Mud,” Nichols makes what I believe to be a very conscientious leap towards the mainstream.  It definitely plays more towards satisfying audience expectations with familiar storyline and aesthetics, not jarring them with the uncomfortable or the unknown.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; he’s fairly adept at capturing that boyish spirit in the coming-of-age movies that Steven Spielberg among others made so well in the 1980s.  But after the brilliance and originality of “Take Shelter,” I was hoping Nichols would not just fall in line.

And to reiterate, I don’t disdain “Mud” simply for daring to be similar.  It’s still quality filmmaking, but it feels more like a harbinger of things to come than something substantial in and of itself.  This transitional film is too populist to be indie; however, it’s also a little too indie to be truly mainstream.  I don’t usually talk about forces competing for the soul of a movie, yet it feels totally relevant for “Mud” as these two entirely different spirits of filmmaking run amuck throughout the movie.  Each claims a scene here or there, and the ultimate victor is unclear.

I would argue that the real winner of “Mud” are the characters, written with love and care by Nichols and brought to the screen with compassion by the cast.  Matthew McConaughey, the new king of career turnaround, beguiles as the titular character Mud.  He fancies himself an urban legend, an almost mythic figure of sorts.  Yet it’s fascinating to watch the man slip out from underneath his tough facade and see his guilt and shame manifested.

Though the movie is named for his character, Jeff Nichols’ film isn’t really about Mud.  It’s about the two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan from “The Tree of Life,” albeit totally changed since that film was shot so long ago) and his sidekick Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who stumble upon Mud hiding out in a boat in the trees.  While Mud drives the narrative forward, the movie’s real story and power comes from the way those events affect these two adolescents.

“Mud” mainly follows Ellis as he navigates a new world, one where nothing seems clear-cut or black and white.  Mud teaches him what love and trust really are when they are together away from society, and then he reemerges to find alternative meanings of such concepts.  Sheridan lends a real authenticity to the struggles of growing up and realizing hard truths in a performance that evokes Henry Thomas’ Elliott in “E.T.,” a movie that feels like quite a kindred spirit of “Mud.”

To tap into a fraction of what Spielberg achieved is quite an achievement.  Now, it’s time for Nichols to relocate his old voice of originality and create a work just like “Mud,” only with that old aesthetic brilliance and creativity.  B2halfstars