Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

Say what you will about the recent assault of Marvel Comics adaptations, Bryan Singer’s X-Men films still pack the biggest punches. More than anything, they are always about something, centering on damaged, misunderstood, yet gifted individuals sharing and encouraging each other’s unique strengths. Apocalypse sees them beat down by poverty, career failure, lust for power, and even death, persuaded into rash, destructive action by a false god promising them the means to feel whole again. That’s a great metaphor, and director Singer, one of the few auteurs left in blockbuster filmmaking, again lends his X-films the skilled balance of depth and fun these movies require.

It is 1983, and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) have learned of a new threat to man and mutant alike – En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac), the first known mutant and foretold bringer of the Apocalypse. After being re-awakened from a slumber of over two-thousand years by Xavier’s old flame Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), Apocalypse recruits his four “horsemen” to bring about destruction on Earth – a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and of course Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The latter of whom has been in hiding since the events of 2014’s Days of Future Past, attempting to lead a peaceful life with his new wife and child. Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) grapples with being the figurehead of mutant empowerment and a hero in the eyes of Xavier’s newest students, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Jean (Sophie Turner), all of whom must step up to defeat Apocalypse.

As with Future Past, Singer again sets his bar monumental in expectation – he is tasked with setting the 80’s-themed stage and getting characters up to speed ten years after the last film, introducing the new villain and conflict, keeping bankable star Jennifer Lawrence in the limelight, paying off the “prequel” trilogy begun by 2011’s X-Men First Class, including standout moments for everyone’s favorite individual mutants (namely Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, a favorite from the last movie), introducing the younger versions of the mutants from the original X-Men, and getting us essentially caught up to where that film began.

Apocalypse is huge in scope, balancing character after character with the same strong characterization and pitch-perfect casting as previous installments – I particularly enjoyed James McAvoy channeling a bit more of his “future” counterpart Patrick Stewart here, playing it gentler and more genuine. And the young’uns, Sheridan, Turner, and Smit-McPhee, seem to be shoe-ins for their
older counterparts in the original trilogy of X-films; they not only look like them, they have the acting chops to back it up. And fans will of course appreciate Apocalypse’s fun cameos and knowing winks of what we know is to come.

Oscar Issac makes for an…okay villain. “I have been called many names…Ra, Krishna, Yahweh. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man’s awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization,” he growls poetically, but emptily. It’s very apparent Singer just isn’t as interested in Apocalypse as an antagonist as he is Magneto, making the subtitle “Apocalypse” feel somewhat trivial.

But the film’s greatest sin is its clumsy editing. One gathers much of Apocalypse was left on the cutting room floor. In an instant, we go from heavy and emotional with Magneto to light and comedic with Quicksilver; emotionally, it’s all over the place. Pacing suffers as well – the film’s bloated third act composed largely of expensive effects shots never seems to end. Even the obligatory Stan Lee cameo feels more ‘going-through-the-motions’ than joyous. And the film’s backdrop, Cold War-era America in a time of impending nuclear war, just doesn’t leave the impact it should. Shame that Apocalypse’s overstuffed script can’t realize all of Singer’s ambitious.

Not to mention, continuity critics won’t be amused by Apocalypse’s further complicating the timeline. The film continues in the alternate history begun by Future Past, but leaves several questions posed by that film entirely unanswered. For one, what happened with Mystique and Wolverine at the end of Future Past? Even Apocalypse’s own logic feels questionable – how did En Sabah Nur manage to
completely avoid being awakened by sunlight for two-thousand years being buried just a few feet under the earth? Regardless, I admire how Singer seems preemptively conscious of these failings; in an amusingly self-aware sequence, after the young mutants walk out of a screening of Return of the Jedi, Jean shakes her head and says, “the third one’s never as good.”

Luckily, it’s not enough to completely hinder the heart of these movies – the mythology, the Saturday-morning-cartoon thrill of seeing all your favorite characters teaming up to fight bad guys. It’s the little touches Singer includes throughout the series – the Fox logo ending with the series’ theme riff, or the opening credits concluding by ushering us through the door to Cerebro. Even Apocalypse’s death-y, destructive tone isn’t enough to stop me from recalling the warm and fuzzy feelings of my childhood. In interviews, Singer has expressed his difficulty letting go of the series, and we as fans would have an equally hard time, I think, seeing him do so.

Apocalypse isn’t the highest the series has climbed, but it is yet another solid, fun bout with this universe. Will Singer conquer the 90’s now? That’s a decade fans often point to as a golden age of X-Men, in the Jim Lee-illustrated comics, the arcade game, and the Fox Kids animated series. After Singer takes a hiatus to direct a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I think he’s got one great home run left in him.

7/10

IMAGES: http://s3.foxmovies.com

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Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

bvsBack in 1986, as Superman star Christopher Reeve was prepping work on the ill-fated Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, he approached the writer of Superman I and II, the late, great Tom Mankiewicz, for advice. Reeve pitched Mankiewicz on his idea for Superman to rid the world of nuclear weapons, a parallel to real-world social issues of the time. Mankiewicz replied with this advice:

Don’t ever get involved with something Superman could fix. He could disarm the world in fifteen minutes. He doesn’t have to go to the UN. If he feels that strongly about it, he could get rid of all the missiles. Superman could feed the world if he wanted to. He could establish agricultural fields in outer space. Don’t bring up things like that.

I would like to add an addendum to that. Don’t get Superman directly involved with real-world issues. Do not twist his mission of peace into a political struggle. Do not bog him down with the ugliness of reality, the superfluity of man’s government, or the problems of democracy, especially at the expense of his message of hope, of inspiring the best in humanity.

I write this, because my many concerns over the past few years with director Zack Snyder’s approach to Batman v Superman were finally realized last month. Not only has the filmmaker indulged in all the above missteps, he’s delivered the most vile, morally reprehensible depiction of Superman and DC Comics on film to date. The film is a brutal assault on our senses, on the spirituality and idealism of these characters, on our intelligence as moviegoers, and on the vitality of quality filmmaking in big-budget studio tentpoles. It’s not just a disappointment; it’s a resolute misstep for the future of the DC Universe on film.

The film centers on a middle-aged Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck getting first billing in a long history of big actors being billed before the guy playing Superman) who after witnessing Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod topple one of his company’s buildings at the end of Manbatman-v-superman of Steel two years ago, grows weary of such dangerous forces being left unchecked.  Rather than blaming the indulgences of the director in the previous film, we are to blame Superman for Metropolis’ destruction. Bruce’s fear is shared by a great deal of the public, who endlessly debate Superman’s heroics and the fact that he “answers to nobody.” Bruce returns to Gotham City plotting to neutralize, and kill if necessary, the Man of Steel, despite repeated claims by butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that “he is not our enemy.” “That son of a bitch brought the war to us!” replies Bruce. Blah blah post-9/11 themes.

Back in Metropolis, Clark Kent is living comfortably with fellow Daily Planet staffer Lois Lane (Amy Adams). I guess Lois knowing Clark’s secret identity from the get-go at the end of Man of Steel hasn’t yielded any interesting twists on their decades-long will they/won’t they relationship from the comics. Contrastingly, Superman has been entirely anti-social in public, saving the world yet not really interacting with it in any way beyond that for these two years. Meanwhile, wealthy philanthropist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) plots to acquire the recently-discovered Kryptonite to control Superman, by manipulating a senator (Holly Hunter) and indeed everyone else around him. Oh, and there’s also other DC characters like Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) lying in the wait for the eventual Justice League movie.

It’s an overflowing plot, but there are traces of intrigue. Chris Terrio of Argo fame uses the characters as players in a larger piece about terrorism, power, corruption, and security, the groundwork of an intriguing political thriller. It is critical of heroes like Batman and Superman, examining their failings and the real consequences of their actions. It’s also a huge deviation from the reverence Snyder and his Man of Steel team showed for the universe in that film. In part to blame is perhaps the director’s long-standing love of Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns; Snyder carts over that story’s older, world-wearier Batman, some talking-head-style political commentary, and perhaps intentionally or not, Miller’s own disdain for the Last Son of Krypton.

Indeed, Dawn of Justice continues the tradition of recent Superman media by placing the hero in no-win scenarios that go directly against the winning spirit the character has always been about. There is a scene wherein (avoiding spoilers) Superman enters a building and a bomb goes off, and Superman just watches somberly as everyone around him is vaporized. Uh, Zack? This is Superman. Not Doctor Manhattan.

That’s an issue I had with Man of Steel too, though to a lesser extent. The Superman mythology isn’t about “well, what if he were REAL? What if a humanoid that had all these powers came to earth?” I don’t care how the real world reacts to Superman’s presence. That’s not appealing to me. Superman is about fantasy, he’s an ESCAPE from the real world. He’s a guy flying around in a red cape who makes a difference in his community and inspires those Batman-V-Superman-Trailer-Fight-Heat-Visionaround him to pitch in themselves. Why is there debate about whether or not he’s doing the right thing? We KNOW he’s gonna do the right thing. He’s SUPERMAN. And yet here we are, watching Charlie Rose and Neil DeGrasse-Tyson (both make brief appearances) debate about a Superman that exists and whether or not his power should be checked. But this is a Superman that hasn’t even begun to build bridges with people publically, so he’s clearly failed in his mission. The Superman of the comics won people over with a smile and a wave as he flew above them. Pity Henry Cavill’s Superman isn’t allowed such joy, regulated to stand and mope idly about how people don’t understand him.

As for Ben Affleck’s Batman, he busies himself in these ridiculous, jarring dream sequences reflecting his fear of aliens from the sky. I had hope after one such sequence, wherein a bat-creature bursts from the tomb of Martha Wayne to attack him. It recalls the jump-scares of a horror movie, a cool new twist that might really transport audiences into Bruce’s tortured psyche. Yet the movie never goes anywhere with it, taking us into even more absurd (and immodestly-budgeted) nightmares, one of which is a full, unabashed teaser for the Justice League movie. Pity Affleck, who’s been suckered into this mess with the promise of redemption after the indignity of 2003’s Daredevil. The actor/filmmaker isn’t altogether unfitting in the cape and cowl, but is also far from the finest performer to fill it.

But I digress. After characters have waxed poetic enough, director Snyder yanks the film’s breaks and yells, “less talk, more EXPLOSIONS!” All political discussions or reflections on real-world politics (clumsy as they were) are gone, leaving all its ideas entirely unresolved, lost in Snyder’s blaring self-indulgence and Junkie XL and Hans Zimmer’s blatant, blaring, borderline parodical score. What of Scoot McNairy’s legless homeless guy? Why has Amy Adams’ role been all but reduced to damsel-in-distress? Shouldn’t Clark be getting in trouble every time Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) passes by his empty desk? No answers here, we only have enough time left in the already bloated two-and-a-half hour runtime for the movie to live up to its namesake – the bout between Batman and Superman.

And…it sucks. Not only does Snyder fail to build up their conflict in any meaningful way, their fisticuffs aren’t satisfying, nor are they really even warranted in the context of the film. It’s seriously the weakest explanation for pitting these two characters against each other. And it was at this point in the movie, after suddenly becoming aware of the intense grimace on my face, I wondered, “aren’t I supposed to be having fun?”

Apparently not. There’s actually a really ugly undercurrent to Dawn of Justice, boasting such brutality, such bloodlust, such hyper-machismo bullshit that makes for the most uncomfortable, punishing experience. That’s not just during the title fight too, that’s the whole movie. Snyder and his cinematographer Larry Fong absolutely do not know when to stop with the hypermasculinity, when enough is enough, to the point where one starts to feel ashamed at being a man at all. It’s more than enough to build a case accusing Snyder, who also shoots the death of Bruce’s parents with all the slow motion and heavy breathing of a sex scene, of using DC Comics characters to work through his own crippling manhood issues.

The studio is even prepping an R-rated cut of this movie for home video release. That’s right, your favorite childhood comic book characters have been perverted into a movie that, without certain cuts, was deemed too violent and too intense by anyone under 17 years old. Wow.batman-v-superman-the-complete-guide-to-frank-miller-dark-knight

So inevitably, we know Batman and Superman are to resolve their differences at some point. And after all that thirst for blood, all that shoddy build-up, their altercation is capped off in the most mind-bogglingly stupid, overwhelmingly left-field conclusion, that literally any idea you, the audience, could come up with as to why these characters should stop fighting, will better qualify you to write this movie than the filmmakers being paid hundreds of thousands to do so.

And then they’re friends, as if nothing had happened, teaming up to destroy an even more laughably stupid threat. And if you thought this film would be answering for Man of Steel’s destructive climax, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong. Batman v Superman doubles down on the needlessly high body count. In fact, in one scene Batman has the big baddie in a totally isolated area, but rather than returning to the city to bring the necessary tools to kill the baddie to him, he actually draws him BACK INTO THE POPULATED CITY to get HIM to the tools. Remember how Christopher Nolan’s Batman had that one rule about killing people? Apparently Zack Snyder doesn’t share that sentiment.

So we finally realize, Batman v Superman is a movie about uncomfortable extremes. Snyder has always been an overwrought mess of a filmmaker, favoring style over substance, but the responsibility of pitting together two beloved DC characters has done nothing to curb his sadist, ear-rapingly obnoxious hard-on for destruction. What the hell? Doesn’t this go against everything DC Comics characters have stood for the past 70 years? You bet. Both Batman and Superman are acting totally out of character here. Batman’s a crazy, single-minded bruiser who brands criminals and wants nothing short of Superman’s death, while Superman is totally willing to bend his own moral code if his family is threatened. In the comics, the two have had their quarrels, occasionally even violent ones, but they have never, ever been pushed to the point of foaming at the mouth, hungering for each other’s head on a spike like in this movie. Pity the children who have to witness such overt brutality by the hands of characters who should, ideally, be serving as their role models.

And again, pretty much all the problems posed by the movie would’ve been solved immediately had Superman simply TALKED OPENLY. A simple, “Bruce, we’re being played!” would’ve stopped the title fight altogether. And every single other problem of the movie could’ve been completely avoided had Superman simply stood up in front of the public after Man of Steel and been like, “Hey guys, my name’s Superman, I’m just here to help out with the problems you can’t solve yourselves and really just help everyone to do better. Sorry about that Zod character, he’s a bad guy on my home planet, and I was just trying to stop him. Next time we face a threat like this, I’ll do it in space or something so there’s not as many casualties. Again sorry, still new to the whole superhero thing. Anyway, up up and away and all that!” *woosh*

Boom. /conflict.

Even the other DC characters teased in this movie lack subtlety; they basically appear in mini-trailers for their upcoming solo movies. It’s a sad day when I’m longing for the more natural, thoughtful teases of Green Lantern.

I haven’t even mentioned Jesse Eisenberg, who gives the most abysmally misguided performance as Lex Luthor. Eisenberg, known for his mousy-yet-charming teenage characters in Adventureland and _1436830197Zombieland, is not only insanely miscast as the powerful billionaire, he’s clearly never even glimpsed a Superman comic long enough to know who this character is supposed to be. So he instead plays Luthor the only way he knows how – by going over-the-top awkward, hammy, and creepy, his hands shaking as he speaks about power at a charity event, stumbling over the girth of his words. There’s even a point at the end where he actually hums the notes of the musical score. It’s just uncomfortable, a lot like…well, Zack Snyder’s id – angry, unrestrained, bratty, unlikable, and sadistic.

And that’s pretty much Batman v Superman too, the Donald Trump of superhero movies – loud, blunt, ugly, stupid, fear-mongering, extremist, tasteless, and bearing several cringe-worthy teases of what’s to come. Zack Snyder was always the wrong architect for the DC Universe on film, merely a loud, annoying kid bashing his action figures together. I don’t think Tom Mankiewicz could’ve envisioned anything like it, but if he could see Dawn of Justice now, there is no doubt he’d be shaking his head, collecting his valuables, and leaving the theater. I’d be right behind him.

3.5/10

 

QUOTE: Rossen, Jake; Millar, Mark (2008-02-01). Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon (Cappella Books) (p. 164). Chicago Review Press. Kindle Edition.

IMAGES: cinemablend.com, mirror.co.uk, screenrant.com, cdn.idigitaltimes.com, i.ytimg.com

Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

king-of-knights-cup Contains mild spoilers.

Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy? About a young prince, a knight, sent by his father the King of the East, west into Egypt, to find a pearl, a pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king, forgot about the pearl, and fell into a deep sleep. The king didn’t forget his son, he continued to send word, messengers, guides…but the prince slept on.

The above is a direct quote from the opening voiceover of director Terrence Malick’s latest work, and heavily symbolic of the narrative to follow. Rick (Christian Bale) is a thirty-something screenwriter in Los Angeles, living in a beautiful apartment, regularly attending lavish parties, and always draped in an expensive black suit. But he does not feel. His inner turmoil consumes him. By most accounts, he is dead inside, trapped in a realm of meaningless, material boundaries.

This is no purgatory. Malick is known for his awe-inspiring photography of nature (credit also cinematographer/longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki), but he shoots Knight of Cups’ California backdrop, the skyscrapers, the highways, the man-made creations, in bland, neutral greys, rendering them unsettlingly lifeless. No, this is Terrence Malick’s Hell on Earth, and Rick its fallen angel, gazing upward, striving to return to the beaches, the water, the sky, the heavens.

Knight of Cups examines the existential crisis as mythological struggle. Rick searches, wanders from person to person, soul to soul, experience to experience, longing for meaning, for feeling. The film separates these segments by title cards, “The High Priestess,” “Death,” etc. Rick sees his immature brother (Wes Bentley) kicking skateboards around his lackluster apartment and goading Rick into fights. Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) rambles about giving up his life for his children, and in voiceover, continually reminds Rick to “remember the pearl.” A fellow womanizer (Antonio Banderas) speaks of his surroundings with a playboy’s disdain – “The world’s a swamp. We have to fly above it, so it’s just a speck.” Then there are the women – Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a nurse who hates how he moved her out to California, an exotic dancer (Teresa Palmer) who talks of Rick’s potential to be anything he wants to be, and a married woman (Natalie Portman) Rick falls in love with.

If you’re unfamiliar with Malick’s style, one might best describe it as visual poetry, a hypnotic, complementary combination of sights and sounds that seem to capture the spontaneity and spirituality of life itself. Every shot an essay and every word a double meaning, Malick’s films are the kind film students will be analyzing shot-by-shot for years to come. And for good reason – Malick challenges you to pay attention to the little details, trusting your intelligence as a viewer to be able to make connections and piece together the story from bits of voiceover and dialogue. There is a scene in which Rick passes by a sleeping homeless man – in one shot, the camera lies on the ground with the man, and in the next, Rick is bending over to examine him, a look of sympathy in his eyes. Just two shots contain a novel’s worth of commentary, and evoke such simple meaning, such basic human sympathy. It is truly amazing how much Malick can say with so little.

We can also infer a good deal about Rick’s character with only minimal background. In tarot reading, the Knight of Cups signifies a charming and romantic knight in shining armor bearing a cup to the world, but the reverse can be a sign of moodiness, of life failing to sync with expectations. Much can be made of Rick’s relationship with water as well – after a wild party, he is seen immersing himself in a pool, walking along the bottom, arms outstretched like an angel. In other sequences, Rick is often seen walking barefoot along the beach, to feel something perhaps? Is he waiting to be whisked away by a passing ship, like a castaway on an island? Another party he attends plays a song in which the lyrics celebratorily decree, “never gonna take me out to sea.” But Rick is tormented by them, wandering around, knowing no one.

For another, Rick’s screenwriting career isn’t very impactful towards his existence. We never see him actually writing, only big businessmen meeting with him and offering him great opportunities leading to fame and fortune. It isn’t a stretch to imagine Malick himself being a part of such meetings with major Hollywood executives pitching projects of little interest to him. In fact, much of Knight of Cups feels autobiographical; for one, there are mentions of another of Rick’s brothers that committed suicide, paralleling the death of Malick’s own brother Emil.

Knight of Cups is a bit colder than Malick’s last, the 2012 love odyssey To the Wonder. Perhaps that’s because Cups’ bleak portrayal of Hollywood excess comes across as alien to most of us; we are meant to be repulsed, yet I wanted to know more. In the end, the film leaves us with few answers to Rick’s struggle. We’re led to believe the film is building up to some great truth that never really materializes. But maybe that’s the point – Malick allows us to write our own ending. Life is a series of deaths and rebirths that we are left to navigate and overcome on our own. Malick is always overreaching with elements like this, but that’s what makes Malick Malick.

Above all, Knight of Cups is a breath of fresh air after a year so lacking in true art. As with any Malick film, its spirituality and existentialism open our minds, inspire us, and remind us to live in the moment, to feel at one with the world. It’s hard for someone like me not to want to interview Malick extensively on his technique, but such is near impossible given how notoriously reclusive the director is. Still, I hope to one day encounter him, perhaps on a beach somewhere, staring out at the water. I would probably just smile and nod at him. I like to think he’d smile back.

8/10

 

 

Sources: ew.com, biddytarot.com, keen.com

Review: Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

TFAAround the age of 8 or 9, I was experiencing Star Wars for the first time on a screen of 10 inches. I preferred watching movies in solitude, so I would set up our family’s box-sixed portable TV on one of the endtables in our living room, and insert one of three tapes – the edited-for-TV Special Edition of A New Hope taped off of PBS, the edited-for-TV Phantom Menace taped off Fox, or a rented copy of the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi (I’d deemed Empire to depressing for a rewatch). For the first time in my life I was part of a larger world, and a great love of film bloomed.

I’m like many with their own childhood Star Wars stories. The series holds a timeless, universal appeal that inspires the most passionate emotional attachment of any film franchise ever made. Perhaps that’s because of how Star Wars seems to blend every genre of film together in one big, beautiful mosaic. Star Wars practically IS film, and with its latest installment The Force Awakens, the vice versa can be true once again.

I’ve expressed my fears as Star Wars transferred hands from creator George Lucas, who’d pledged an end to the series on film, to the Disney corporation, who had instantly greenlit The Force Awakens and would surely whore it out tenfold. I expected, perhaps even wanted, to hate director J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm team for The Force Awakens being the one to drop the torch, to extinguish the light of the series for all time.

And that’s just me – Star Wars’ legacy spans nearly 40 years of films, TV, comic books, video games, merchandise, and more. The universe means so much to so many different generations with different takes on its many tales. Lucasfilm and Abrams have taken careful consideration of all this, and in an exhaustive effort to please everybody, The Force Awakens is actually a very likable, if familiar rebirth of the series.

Like its predecessors, the film is drawn in simple strokes – Luke Skywalker is missing. The Galactic Civil War rages on thirty years after Return of the Jedi, in the form of the New Order (bad guys) and the Resistance (good guys). Before being captured by the Empire on the planet Jakku, X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) gives droid BB-8 a secret map to Skywalker’s whereabouts. BB-8 then stumbles upon Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who traverses Jakku’s deserts for the remains of imperial machinery. There is also Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper horrified by war, who teams up with Rey to return the map to the Resistance. They are pursued by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a wannabe Darth Vader of the New Order wielding the power of the Dark Side. There are appearances from the older players of the saga as well, but I’ll leave those as nostalgic surprises for the viewer to discover, just as they are intended to be.

While watching The Force Awakens, I found myself internally berating its inane dialogue (“C’mon! We need a pilot!”) and hokey sentimentalism (“You came back for me?!”). But, I recalled, are these not qualities of the original Star Wars as well?

So I sat back, shut my mind up, and I let the movie work its magic. And I was whisked right back into that larger world.

If the original trilogy was George Lucas’ prize automobile, then J.J. Abrams has gone to Lucas’ old garage, studied the original blueprints, cosmetics of the machine, looked under the hood, memorized every detail of its design, and then built a pretty chewiewerehomedamn close replica. And it runs like a dream. I imagine a lot of that can be attributed to Abrams calling in all the old pit crew to put the vehicle together – we have Empire and Jedi screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan co-scribing, sound master Ben Burtt bringing back some familiar sounds from the series’ past, and John Williams rounding out with a rousing, triumphant score. Even Drew Struzan was enlisted to provide some poster art. And though Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is mugging at CGI monsters now, he’s still got that leading-man swagger that made him a star back in ‘77. And the new players are holding their own just as well amongst the veterans to boot.

Abrams is also one of those smart everyman directors who, like Lucas, puts you in the driver’s seat and gives you the full sensory experience of its speed. We nod. We like the way this engine sounds. We like the feel of it when it vrooms. And Abrams’ own tiny contributions feel like welcome twists on an old machine. The lightsaber duel, for one, is slower, more feral and akin to medieval fencing, a fresh perspective on the cartoonish acrobatics of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Abrams understands through and through why these movies worked so well; The Force Awakens, like Hope, Empire, and Jedi, are about idealism, comradery, friendship, loyalty, and on a deeper level, life and legacy. Awakens retains the tone, the spirit, and the fun, rah-rah attitude of the originals. Credit Lucasfilm for that too – The Force Awakens can stand among the best of the company’s Expanded Universe stories as a natural complement to the Original Trilogy before it.

Yes, there’s a “but” coming.

You might recognize the film’s key plot points, the cute little droid carrying secret plans, the captured Rebel leader being tortured for the location of said plans, the mysterious masked villain, the shadowy evil figure behind him, the old man mentor, the cantina of bizarre creatures, the giant space station that can destroy planets…are all retreads of A New Hope. Sure, the series has always called back to and paralleled itself (“like poetry” says Lucas), but a beat-for-beat recreation of Hope feels too safe, a concession to fans lying in the wait with pitchforks for anything deviating from the series’ past, and a studio with a very large investment to protect.

Which is the key problem with Awakens…it fails to innovate, to push the technological envelope in the same way its predecessors did. All stormtroopersthe planets look like rehashes of the original trilogy’s – desert planet, forest planet, and ice planet. The World War II symbolism of the originals also feels conspicuously foregrounded, not to mention dated. Abrams claims the New Order are like if the Nazis all fled to Argentina and reformed, and obviously fans would not object to bringing back such iconic enemies. I would’ve liked, however, to have seen Abrams do something a little ballsier to parallel more modern warfare…what if instead of Nazis, the bad guys were stand-ins for the Russians during the Cold War?

Abrams also struggles to find the visual comedy of the series. Awakens has some chuckle-worthy moments but nothing like the campy humor of the originals, which while occasionally cringe-worthy, provided a cutesy way of breaking up the action. Add to that some lingering continuity issues with the series as a whole, and Awakens isn’t quite as satisfying as it could’ve been.

My past posts have suggested a great distaste for Disney corporatizing the series. With The Force Awakens, I felt just as pumped up as I did watching the originals as a kid. And I think I’ve made peace with those anti-Disney sentiments now. The simple truth is, Star Wars isn’t mine anymore. It is being passed to a new generation. Episodes I-VI will always hold special places in my heart, and the series will continue to be a great influence on me as an artist and as a person. But when you love something, you let it go. Rather than selfishly denounce all future Star Wars material, I want the kids of today to see The Force Awakens and get as wide-eyed, as uplifted, and as inspired I was was watching the originals.

Though hopefully on a slightly bigger size screen.

7.5/10

luke-hand

Images: themarysue, dolimg.com, images.smh.com

Review: The Visit

the-visitYou’ve gotta give M. Night Shyamalan credit – here is a director who is bombarded with criticism over any movie in his filmography of the past fifteen years, and yet he still manages to keep his chin up and keep working in spite of it. And yet, after his unfairly reviled 2013 studio effort After Earth, I think Mr. Shyamalan must’ve resigned himself to critical estrangement. It’s the only explanation for his latest thriller The Visit, the cinematic equivalent of a once-promising director throwing up his arms and snapping, “You know what? Fuck it.”

The Visit opens with Loreta (Kathryn Hahn), a mother prepping to drop her two kids off to meet their grandparents for the first time. After conceiving them with an older man and moving out, Loreta has not spoken with her parents in 15 years. So rather than accompanying her children to make sure everything’s cool with the fam like a good mother would, she sends them off and goes on a beach cruise with the hubby. Hooray for modern parenting!

Her children are 15-year-old Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge), who speaks as if she’s been studying a little too hard for a film school exam, and the 8-year-old Tyler (Ed Oxenbould), a wannabe freestyle rapper. No, you are not reading that wrong, and yes, he is white. Painfully, agonizingly white. After the kids are picked up by their Nana and Poppa (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie respectively), who of course live on a farm in the middle of nowhere, they decide to document their voyage to have something to bring back to mom. We watch the entire film shot in this faux-documentary style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, a great model to emulate if you want to suck the suspense right out of your horror movie.

Things take a turn for the weird when the kids find their grandparents exhibiting bizarre behavior around the house. Papa is found with a shotgun in his mouth, and Nana scrapes at the walls while naked and bounds around on all fours with her hair in her face like something out of a better, scarier horror movie. Poppa calls it “sundowning,” a form of dementia that only occurs at nighttime. He advises the kids to lock their door after 9:30 p.m. But is there more to the kids’ grandparents than just an onset of old age?

One thing’s for sure: there is nothing more to this movie than its director’s stylistic suicide.

Since 2002’s Signs, director Shyamalan’s quiet, minimalist approach, often eliciting odd line delivery from his actors, has been a breeding ground for unintentional comedy. For The Visit, Shyamalan has thrown subtlety to the wind and embraced every bit of awkward humor he can derive from this concept, even going out of his way to push a few painfully unfunny gags. One such recurring bit sees Tyler try to improve his rapping by replacing curse words with the names of female pop singers, “Oh, Shania Twain!” he spats after dropping his camera. Ha!

Then there are the grandparents, who do things that grandparents wouldn’t normally do, and this somehow constitutes as either comedy or horror. “Would you mind getting inside the oven, to clean it?” Nana awkwardly intones in a memorable line from the trailer. But by that point, even the film’s shock value is depleted; crazy people doing crazy things can only be surprising for so long. The same can be said of the scares, which are cheap and jump-y in place of real horror. One sequence sees Nana literally leaping into the frame and screaming into the lens, for no real cinematic purpose other than to startle us. You can practically hear M. Night and his new buddy in Insidious producer Jason Blum snickering in the back of the theater as the moment happens, and passes, with little consequence.

There’s of lot of elements like that in The Visit, including an underdeveloped subplot where the kids are suddenly revealed to harbor some repressed anger over their father’s leaving them to move to California, providing ample fodder for a canned message at the end that has no bearing on the film’s actual contents.

So to recap, we have a movie about crazy old people doing crazy old people shit that is neither funny nor scary. It’s just uncomfortable, and amounting to what is essentially an exploitation film about dementia in the elderly.

Ha?

Balancing comedy and horror is tricky. Few filmmakers can pull it off. Edgar Wright and Drew Goddard elicited laughs and scares aplenty with Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods, respectively. But The Visit has no such vision, banking on its filmmaker’s failings, rather than his strengths, to serve its dual genres.

Somehow that didn’t stop the audience at my screening from yukking and screaming it up (caught quite a few “oh hell no!”’s at the oven line). But I think history will favor my take on Shyamalan’s big middle-finger to critics: “what the fuck happened to the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable?”

At least The Visit isn’t Tusk. But it’s close. Damn close.

1/10

Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

fantastic-four-miles-teller-nerd Sifting through the rubble of Fantastic Four has proven a fascinating exercise. It is a project wrought with problems, from the very public feud between director Josh Trank and studio 20th Century Fox, to the tonal mishmash of scenes in the final product. I’m reminded of the making of Superman II, another film which saw its director’s vision overtaken and remade by new management. Which is precisely why film scholars will love dissecting this new Fantastic Four, the third cinematic attempt to bring Marvel’s First Family to the screen – to exercise their observational skills and debate the merits of two wildly opposing approaches. It’s a debate we’ll likely be having for years to come.

The film opens promisingly; two aspiring young boys with scientific know-how develop a tiny teleportation machine in their garage, but they are ridiculed at every turn by their adult superiors. Finally, as adult Reed Richards and Ben Grimm (Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, respectively), the boys are discovered by Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and given a full scholarship to the Baxter Institute to pioneer a full-size version of the transporter to send humans to an alternate dimension. Without giving too much away, the new dimension leads the young heroes, including Dr. Storm’s devil-may-care son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and the scoffing elitist Victor (Toby Kebbell) to acquiring bizarre powers that they must struggle to come to terms with.

This is all strongly inspired by the first issues of Marvel’s Ultimate Fantastic Four comic by Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, and Adam Kubert. It’s also far darker and more solemn than the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby material of the 60’s, or any previous incarnations of the Four on film. In place of the realism offered by his found-footage superhero drama Chronicle, Trank peppers his Four with some funny, genuine dialogue that feels refreshing in a subgenre known for cheesy one-liners. But where Trank really deviates from the material is after the heroes receive their powers, in what Trank describes as “Cronenbergian body horror” after the style of director David Cronenberg. Trank shows the heroes in great pain after their transformations – Johnny constantly feels the burn of the fire around him, Sue can’t stay visible, etc. It’s a pretty far cry from the source material, but a compelling angle nonetheless.

And then the movie breaks. Hard.

Then it cranks into reverse and screams backwards.

We abruptly cut to “1 Year Later.” Characters are now acting completely out of character, awkwardly reshot sequences (look for Kate Mara’s wig) are being intercut into the movie to weave scenes together, and we’re taken on an entirely different narrative thread that clashes with the tone and direction of the first act.

It is abundantly clear this is the point in the film where Fox was taking some serious issues with Trank’s work, and we can feel the corporation yanking the reigns away from Trank to get their major summer tentpole back into standard superhero territory. Our heroes decide to use their powers for good, our villain is quickly introduced, and a big, epic battle for our world and the new dimension ensues. We are left to wonder what was really so objectionable in Trank’s approach that led to the studio releasing such a hugely disjointed version instead. Fantastic Four ends up two very different halves of an incomplete whole.

Granted, Trank’s vision was probably never going to be the Fantastic Four movie fans wanted. Indeed, the film is actually at its worst when it’s forced to hearken back to its pulp tradition – one scene sees a younger Ben Grimm’s abusive brother running at him announcing, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Oof.

The problem is that both the Fantastic Four comic and Trank’s vision can’t really be reconciled. Fantastic Four is supposed to be about family, about a group of very different personalities learning to work together as a unit. But neither Fox nor Trank develop the characters enough to where, when they inevitably team up to fight the bad guy, they can all work together and interact in any meaningful way.

So what else? Miles Teller rocks Reed Richards after losing out on the Spider-Man gig. He’s a funnier, hipper Mr. Fantastic, yet retains the core idealism the character is known for. Michael B. Jordan also overcomes casting concerns and owns his role as the Human Torch. But much like the film, this cast is divided strictly down the middle – Kate Mara proves a wooden and disinterested Invisible Woman, and Jamie Bell appears distant as Grimm, like he’s just keeping his motion-capture muscles warmed as the Thing until he can play Tintin again.

Those looking for a complete, cohesive narrative in Fantastic Four will be sorely disappointed. Those fascinated by movie “could’ve-would’ve-should’ve”s would do well to check it out. It’s half an interesting take on some beloved characters, and half cartoony, clichéd superheroics, held together with the thinnest, most visible glue the likes of which we rarely see in completed studio films. Both Trank and Fox are probably to blame to varying degrees, though Trank’s ideas are easily the superior of the two, and I at least would’ve liked to have seen Fox let Trank finish what he started. It’s a moot point; Trank single-handedly killed the film’s box office, and because of it, likely won’t be working on another studio movie for a long time.

Regardless, I found more food for thought in Fantastic Four than I did in Ant-Man, though a friend I attended the screening with wholeheartedly disagreed. “I would rather have half of something great than a whole of something mediocre,” I argued. “So you would rather have an unusable half of a $100 bill than a whole $1 bill?” he replied.

And…well, yes. I see $1 bills all the time. I get them, I give them away, they are nothing special. But let’s say I’m looking down and I find half of a $100 bill sticking up out of the sandy ground. When I bend down to pick it up out of the sand, I can see it’s really only half a $100, not a full $100 and thus not legal tender. But I had an experience. I was titillated. I got a rush of excitement thinking I’d hit the jackpot. And afterward, I got to tell an out-of-the-ordinary story to my friends. I wasn’t rewarded, but I still cherish that half-a-bill for jarring me out of my routine.

If you’re among the camp that agrees, you may just find something worth experiencing in Fantastic Four.

 

5/10