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X-Men: Apocalypse

May 27, 2016
X-Men: Apocalypse

Coming out in the wake of Dawn of Justice and Civil War, it’s inevitable that X-Men: Apocalypse will be judged in their light. And that might be unfair, since it’s not even trying to engage with the same issues the other two are; predictably enough, it returns to the same integration-vs-revolution tensions that inform every X-Men outing.

In keeping with the pattern laid down by First Class and Days of Future Past, it’s now the 1980s, complete with the last dregs of Cold War hysteria and the first glimpses of PC technology. The whole web of characters and backgrounds from those movies is taken as read, with only a few reminders for those who didn’t review beforehand. Professor X (James McAvoy) is still sheltering young mutants at his upstate New York manor in the wake of the last movie’s events, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in Poland.

Things are generally quiet until Agent McTaggert (Rose Byrne) stumbles on a group of cultists in the process of resurrecting an ancient mutant — possibly the world’s first — buried under Cairo. This En Sabah Nur, or “Apocalypse” (an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac), reawakens with his old drive for world domination fully intact. He recruits Magneto, along with new-to-this-continuity Psylocke, Storm, and Angel (Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Ben Hardy), as his Four Horsemutants, and sets out to tear down everything humanity has wrought while he was away the last few thousand years.

Of course, Professor X believes in peaceful coexistence, so he decides to stop these plans, only to be rounded up along with the rest of the X-Men front-line — Mystique, Beast, and Quicksilver (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, and Evan Peters) — by now-Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) who suspects them of being behind Apocalypse’s attacks. And so it falls to newcomers Cyclops, Phoenix, and Nightcrawler (Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee) to free their compatriots and join the battle.

Did you follow that overstuffed cast? it probably helps if you’re already a fan of the comics, or at least the movies. It was pointed out to me that it’s become a guideline for X-Men that ever mutant is someone’s favorite, so writers work hard to include as many as possible. Simon Kinberg seems to have taken this maxim to heard.

In fact, director Bryan Singer’s whole aesthetic seems aimed squarely at established X-Men followers. The whole movie is composed primarily of fanservice and splash pages — those big, half- or full-page panels that let artists really show off. There’s a whole sequence, for instance, that features a “surprise” cameo character for no story-driven reason other than their popularity; if you noticed any conspicuous absences above, you’ve probably already figured it out.

The clearest proof of Singer’s concern comes near the midpoint of the movie. In order to dispose of humanity’s best chance of a counterattack — I assume; it’s not terribly well explained — Apocalypse causes all the world’s nukes to fire out into space. Clearly someone involved has a massive flaw in their understanding of how ballistic missiles work, but more importantly this should be a horrifying scene. We even see people watching the launches, properly horrified. And right in the middle of them: the signature Stan Lee cameo, undercutting the mood entirely.

Even once we get back to some semblance of the chilling effect a global missile launch should have, Singer segues directly into the Quicksilver Sequence. And it’s as great as it was last time, seeing Peters running around in fast-motion, manipulating the background in slow-motion. But to go straight from the horrific prospect of thermonuclear war into this fun effects-fest causes the heaviest of tonal whiplash.

But this is only really a problem if your goal is to maintain a steadily developing tone in your story. It’s only bad from a storytelling perspective. And it seems clear that Singer doesn’t care much about storytelling here; his primary concern is awesome shots and scenes. Quicksilver Sequence: awesome; nuke launch: awesome; both go in. We dutifully check off Angel with wings outstretched to fill the widescreen frame, a levitating Magneto surrounded by little chunks of CGI metal tracing out dipole field lines around him, and Phoenix coming into the full magnitude of her power. These are great scenes, and great stills, each taken in isolation, but they’ve been thrown together with little consideration for how they actually work to tell a story.

And to really bring the point home, we have Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is itself hit-or-miss as a storytelling franchise outside the usual long-arc procedural tropes common to network TV these days. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has to avoid “Mutants”, to which Fox owns the movie and television rights, substituting the similar “Inhumans”, and yet the recently-ended storyline cribs heavily from the same source material as Apocalypse, to much more satisfying results. Or, satisfying in terms of character and story, but small-screen lackluster in terms of spectacle.

Of course if a bunch of spectacular shots and scenes is what you’re after, X-Men: Apocalypse will work like gangbusters. But if you want to use superhero operatics to tell deeper, more nuanced stories the way that they’ve been doing over at Marvel, this is not your series.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace test: fail.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

May 27, 2016
Alice Through the Looking Glass

Alice in Wonderland was such an irredeemably awful movie that it’s kind of stupefying to realize that they’ve made a sequel. As a follow-up to one of the worst movies of Tim Burton’s entire career, there is no reason that Alice Through the Looking Glass should exist. And, with no reason to exist, there also seems to have been no reason for anyone involved to care about it.

The crew are not by any means terrible at their jobs. Tim Burton does not return to direct, but James Bobin did a passable job helming The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted. Linda Woolverton also penned the previous movie, but she counts animated Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King among her credits, along with the more recent Maleficent. I can’t find reason to complain about any of the cast. And yet the result is ghastly, soulless, and cynical.

Alice Through the Looking Glass feigns even less connection than Alice in Wonderland did with Lewis Carroll’s writing. I might give it credit for dropping the pretense, but then it’s even more infuriating that it pretends at all. It smacks of the impulse to do something — anything — that Disney can slap a name on and pretend to continue their copyright. And there’s that “pretend” word again, since Disney actually doesn’t hold any rights to Carroll’s stories. They can lay claim only to the elements introduced in their own movies, and who in their right mind wants to steal anything original to Burton’s ill-fated outing?

I suppose in these days of ever more expansive IP laws we should count ourselves lucky to have unfettered access to Carroll’s delightful, absurdist prose. We can remember that “nonsense” doesn’t simply mean “silliness”, and that to be absurd there must be expectations to break. Merely setting a boring MacGuffin-chase in a fanciful fantasy landscape shows none of the wit or humor that marked Carroll’s tales.

In fact, the only significant new character to join Alice (Mia Wasikowska), the Hatter (Johnny Depp), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) — who Woolverton again confounds with the Queen of Hearts — is a personified version of Time (Sacha Baron Cohen). This gives license to run through nearly every single English-language idiom involving “time” — most of them in a tedious scene which does little else but run through the list — with the notable exception of the one that Carroll actually used in his own writings. Bonus points if you can remember what that one is.

We’ve seen the sort of desperation that drives a studio to use a property in a movie just because they can, in last year’s debacle of Fant4stic, or in the previous year’s Amazing Spider-Man 2. You remember: the movie so bad that Sony decided it could make more money off of the character by just letting Marvel (that is, Disney) make the movies themselves and taking a royalty payment. With nothing to say, a directive to produce any crap that happens to vaguely resemble the necessary title will produce exactly that.

Most of the story is built around another swashbuckling adventure with Alice in the leading role. Again escaping the grimy sexism of Victorian England, where she is in danger of losing the captaincy and ownership of her late father’s ship — literally losing The Wonder — she ducks into Underland — yes, I know — to find the Hatter in a funk, convinced that his family must have somehow survived the attack of the Jabberwock. Except that just like last time they call it “the Jabberwocky”, because they can’t be bothered to actually read their sources.

The only solution is, naturally, time travel, which is about the least Carrollian idea imaginable. And it’s achieved by using the “chronosphere”, which is about the least Carrollian name imaginable. The dissonance grately resembles the Kingdom Hearts video games which mashed up classic Disney characters and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series, but without the sense of playfulness.

And yes, I know that “chronosphere” sounds like just as self-serious a MacGuffin as “infinity stone” does in Marvel superhero movies. At least in those cases the story built around the chase manages to be fun, with characters developed beyond “Depp goofs around with something weird on his head again”. A kick-ass, girl-power action heroine is all well and good, but Carroll’s Alice is more like a dandelion seed, blown from one vignette to the next, pausing just long enough for an episode of nonsense before heading on to the next. His supporting cast needed no development because he wasn’t trying to tell the same old hero’s journey story that dominates the CGI blockbuster era, and shoehorning his characters into one can never and will never work, no matter how many tries Disney offers to Woolverton.

Speaking of the CGI, we come to the other slight improvement that Alice Through the Looking Glass makes on its predecessor. Like last time, the movie looks like a clown threw up all over it, with bright, garish colors everywhere. But Alice in Wonderland had easily the worst, most eye-gouging stereography in the modern 3-D era, its successor is not completely terrible on this count.

It is, however, at least partly terrible. Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh has some gorgeous films to his credit, but he doesn’t seem to have had any experience with 3-D. That probably explains why so many shots feature stereo depth cues and focus depth cues working at cross purposes, leading to muddled, confusing images. If you absolutely must watch this empty husk of a movie, you should only do so in a 2-D screening.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

The Nice Guys

May 20, 2016
The Nice Guys

Shane Black sure knows his way around a noir, as we learned from his directorial debut, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And, having created Lethal Weapon, he knows buddy-cop comedies too. So, after taking some time to write and direct the excellent Iron Man 3, it’s great to see him back in his crime-comedy form with The Nice Guys.

It also helps that Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have dynamite chemistry as the (slightly) mismatched leads, and that they both feel right at home in 1977 Los Angeles. Holland March (Gosling) is a private eye on the skids, but with a steady enough supply of dowager clients that he can string along. Jackson Healy (Crowe) wants to get into detective work, but for now he’s in the slightly less legitimate field of enforcement. That is, if someone’s bothering you and you want them to stop, he’ll pay them a visit and make sure they do. They run into each other when Amelia (Margaret Qualley) hires Healy to get a couple investigators off her tail, and hands him March’s home address.

March does, in fact, have a lead on Amelia, but he’s really looking for porn star Misty Mountains. Of course she very publicly died in a car crash right as the movie opened, but her aunt is convinced she was still alive and at her house a few days later. March, willing to take her money, dug up Amelia through her license plate, but is plenty willing to drop the case if it means Healy will stop breaking his limbs. But then two other goons show up at Healy’s place looking for Amelia, so he decides to team up with March to keep her safe. And so they head off on a romp through late-’70s L.A. on the tail of a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

Black works his mastery of both buddy comedy and neo-noir here. He knows the tropes backwards and forwards, and he knows that we know them too, which gives him and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi every opportunity to set them up, take them apart, and put them back together in new and surprising ways. It helps that he’s got an impeccable sense of comic timing, as usual.

The only glaring flaw is the way they treat the regressive 1970s setting as license to indulge in similarly regressive humor. Yes, forty years ago things were more visibly racist, sexist, and homophobic, but the script sometimes edges over from pointing out that fact into the realm of using it for cover. Thankfully they spend more time using the same trick on the way people in the ’70s played a lot faster and looser with things like safety, and the resulting jokes never go quite as sour.

Just like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang hung on Robert Downey, Jr.’s effortless charisma, so too does The Nice Guys work mostly because of the easy chemistry between Crowe and Gosling. Not to mention the rapport between Gosling and Angourie Rice as March’s daughter, Holly, who would play Penny to his Inspector Gadget, if Dr. Claw was the villain in Chinatown. Healy and the two Marches form a tight trio, as the actors pick up every cue that Black lays down. And when the cast and crew get in sync like this, it can’t help but be fun to watch.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Sunset Song

May 20, 2016
Sunset Song

It is at least clear that Terence Davies makes beautiful, beautiful films. Maybe even the most beautiful films made without using Emmanuel Lubezki or Luca Bigazzi as cinematographers. And, as with the similarly lush period piece he offered in The Deep Blue Sea, Davies’ long-awaited adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song is a meditatively slow affair, but quite a satisfying one.

Like Gibbon’s novel, Davies’ film adaptation plays like a call-back to — and skeptical commentary on — Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Again, we have a young woman making her way in rural Britain. But Bathsheba Everdene’s romantic struggle and triumph in south-west England led to her modern-for-the-mid-1800s happy ending; Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) has a harder row to hoe in north-east Scotland during the run-up to the Great War.

The small farming community of Kinraddie offers a hard life to a young woman tantalized with just enough modern education to know what she’s missing. And yet Chris loves the land, and can’t bear to part with it even after a series of tragedies uproots all her other ties. She still tries to make a go of it with the charming Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), only for war to twist her polite young swain into as coarse and harsh a man as her own father (Peter Mullan) had been.

Davies renders this ambivalence subtly. Gibbon’s novel could more easily expose Chris’ inner life to her readers than Deyn can show through her affect alone — the same problem that kneecapped the Hunger Games adaptations — though Davies does offer some snippets of voiceover commentary from the novel’s “English Chris” to help out. Still, it takes some effort on the part of the film audience to suss out what’s going on under the surface.

And it takes more effort still to pick out the even subtler political commentary. Davies is smart enough to recognize the way A Scots Quair — the trilogy that Sunset Song opens — works as an allegory for the Scottish nation at the turn of the twentieth century. So now when we stand at the break of the twenty-first, and Scotland begins to wrest her independence from the United Kingdom, Davies wants to tell the story of “Chris Caledonia” over again. He might put his thumb a bit on the side of her self-determination and give away some SNP sympathies, but he at least tries to capture some of the ambivalence that comes with such a leap, and which usually gets ploughed under amidst the politics.

Even if all that gets lost, we are still left with Davies’ gorgeous compositions. Michael McDonough turns each shot into a Rembrandt painting, all gloriously textured shadows and introspection. The fine bravery of learning might get less emphasis here, but there’s a reason Chris cries for “the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

May 20, 2016
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

In what’s becoming something of a pattern this year, Zac Efron is endlessly watchable, even as the movies around him are anything but. This time, it’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, the sequel to Neighbors that nobody wanted or needed.

Although, to be fair, the sequel is better than the original, though that’s not setting a very high bar. It’s built around a well-observed core, as if the first draft of the screenplay came from some staff writer on The Nightly Show. New student Shelby (ChloĆ« Grace Moretz) finds that sororities — at least the major ones represented by the National Panhellenic Council — aren’t allowed to throw (alcohol-involved) parties. And the frat parties they’re left with are, well, kind of awful if you’re a young woman who doesn’t want to get sexually objectified and assaulted. Beth and Nora (Kiersey Clemons and Beanie Feldstein) agree, and they decide to start their own outside-the-system sorority, Kappa Nu.

Of course they need a house, which brings them to the abandoned and somewhat dilapidated Delta Psi house next door to Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne). And there they also find Teddy (Efron), who can’t seem to move on with his post-college life like all his friends have, so he agrees to mentor them.

Neighbors seemed to have left Mac and Kelly in somewhat of a detente with Teddy, so it’s not clear why he’s upset at them now, but still we need a more solid conflict. The young ladies need five buckets of rent money a month — Teddy did not major in accounting, it seems — which generally will be funded by throwing parties. Mac and Kelly have just sold their house, and they worry that big sorority parties will spook the buyers during escrow. They’re especially stuck because they stupidly bought their own new house without escrow, and if their buyers pull out they’ll be stuck with two houses and no way to pay both mortgages.

That’s just the first and most obvious example of an unfortunate change in Mac and Kelly’s characters. They may have been hapless and outmatched by Teddy and Delta Psi last time, but now they’re panicky and stupid. And it seems necessary since, despite the movie’s marketing, Kappa Nu doesn’t pose nearly the threat Delta Psi did. In fact, they barely pull any “pranks”, relying more on psychological gambits that only work because Mac and Kelly are, again, panicky and stupid. It’s about the laziest possible method to ensure the script goes the way the many writers intend it to.

And what they intend is to take this story — a group of young women who see the deck stacked against them, seek to change things for the better, lose their way, and find it again — and load it down with all the usual Seth Rogen/Nicholas Stoller physical and raunch comedy. I can’t even call it a stoner comedy because nothing ever really hinges on someone being affected by drugs in any way. Sure, the sisters decide to monopolize the pot market at one point, but the most stoned anyone gets is drifting off to sleep at the end of the whole sequence.

Right in the middle of all these ill-considered gags is Zac Efron, finding the pathos and humanity in a character whose world has passed him by. Some day he will find another script worthy of his abilities, but not until these same writers throw him through the wringer again two months from now.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

Divine Access

May 13, 2016
Divine Access

A movie like Divine Access, with a drily comedic take on religion and spirituality, could easily have turned into a snarky, barely-sufferable affair that mostly appeals to high school and college boys who don’t yet know that they don’t know everything. Instead, writer/director Steven Chester Prince and co-writers John A. O’Connell and Michael Zagst come up with a gentle, sincere tale that manages to be thoughtful even in its absurdity.

Jack Harriman (Billy Burke) is a good-looking, charismatic sort of guy who just wants to be left alone to do his own thing. He likes to hang out and have a good time. And while I might think pure live-and-let-liveism a tad short-sighted, he’s not really a bad guy, all told.

After her divorce, Jack’s mother tried all sorts of different spiritual paths, trying to find what would work for her. Jack grew up exposed to this wide variety of beliefs, and turned out pretty skeptical of them all, picking and choosing useful nuggets where he could find them. So when his friend, Bob (Patrick Warburton), starts a late-night cable access religion show, Jack’s an obvious choice to appear.

When he finally agrees to come on, he quickly ousts wannabe-televangelist Reverend Guy Roy Davis (Gary Cole), and gains a wildly popular fan-base with his mixture of Zen, est, AA, and whatever else fits into his brand of “do what feels right” radical-relativism. A speaking tour soon follows, which will provide the layabout Jack with the income he needs and the groupies he enjoys. He even picks up a couple apostles. Nigel (Joel David Moore) has experience as a “catcher” at revival meetings, and writes down Jack’s teachings in a King James gospel style. Amber (Dora Madison) is a prostitute who Jack finds high and dry outside his motel room, and who refuses to let his lazy, selfish tendencies go unchallenged. But there’s also Marian (Sarah Shahi), who shows up at all his talks and vanishes, seemingly without a trace, always asking Jack how he can offer guidance when he doesn’t know where he’s going himself.

Meanwhile, Prince keeps cutting back to the Reverend, who quickly founders without an outlet for his evangelism. He crafts a “Mini-Jesus” ventriloquist dummy to talk to, which creeps out his boss at the supermarket and gets him fired from his janitorial position. He sees in Jack the cause of his troubles. More than that; Jack is obstructing his self-appointed mission. And so, utterly convinced of his own righteousness, Guy Roy becomes dangerous.

That’s one place that Divine Access parts with the cheap, snarky version of this movie. Yes, the Bible-banger is an object of ridicule — and Cole does some of his best comedic work here — but he also poses a real, in-movie threat instead of just a fumbling ineptitude for us to point and laugh at.

But then the script flips the other way; it’s easy to recognize the danger in certitude, especially about matters that extend beyond this life. It’s easy to throw your hands up and walk away, dismissing it all as so many stories, and congratulating yourself for not needing their comfort. It’s especially easy if you’re a good-looking, charismatic, white guy in central Texas. But it doesn’t begin to touch the real pain and suffering that brings people to his talks, lost and desperate for some sort of meaning.

David Foster Wallace, in his famous Kenyon College speech, said that everybody worships something; we only get a choice in what it is. In Jack, we see a man who through his life has become a worshipper of non-belief. And this devotion to detachment, bereft of compassion, is just a bitter, spiteful rejection of the world. The Buddhists Jack claims to emulate would not recognize in him the joyful peace they seek.

Price doesn’t claim in Divine Access that he knows what specifically to believe, but he speaks strongly and sincerely that it must include compassion, and it must be a positive embrace rather than simply a rejection of alternatives. There is humor here, but no snark.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

High-Rise

May 13, 2016
High-Rise

J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was, like Crash (which inspired the Cronenberg film, not the one that won the Oscar), an exploration of the new frontiers in human psychology brought on by an increasingly technologically-mediated world. In the hands of director Ben Wheatly, High-Rise becomes an impressionistic allegory for the collapse of late-stage capitalism. It presents itself obliquely, and will not yield up its metaphors easily to audiences more interested in catching a glimpse of Tom Hiddleston unclothed than in social commentary.

I almost wonder why Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump didn’t retitle the movie Skypiercer, since it treads much the same income-inequality-soaked ground as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. But instead of the lower and upper classes living at the back and front of a train, they reside on the literal lower and upper floors of a modernist forty-story apartment building on the outskirts of London. And while the building may come with all the amenities that the late 1970s can offer, the reality is somewhat less than advertised in the manual that Robert Laing (Hiddleston) finds when he moves into 2505.

The supermarket on the 15th floor may be more fully stocked than any in London, but the produce is shot through with mold and rot. There are recreation facilities, including a gym and a pool, on the 30th, but the children from the lower floor tend to get kicked out in favor of private events held by the residents of upper floors. Power cuts are a constant interruption.

The penthouse is occupied by the architect of the whole development, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). In a building slowly turning inwards and disconnecting from the outside world, Royal is more isolated and introverted than the rest. It’s his particular neoliberal hubris to even think he can design his way to a utopian community. It’s true in the real world too; Columbia, Maryland never degenerated into a dystopian nightmare like the high-rise does, it didn’t quite work out like Jim Rouse planned.

It’s not long after Laing moves in that things break down. A documentary filmmaker from the lower floors, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), leads first a rent strike and then a charge to retake the amenities for which he pays as much of a fee as those from the upper floors. Pangbourne (James Purefoy), from the top, leads his counter-charge to prove that his people can “throw a better party”. And the professionals in the middle just want to be left alone in peace to repaint their walls.

Wheatley captures the collapse of society with a series of impressionistic montages, forgoing even the attempt at a clear narrative. But then what clarity can we really expect from the end of the world? The chaos steadily mounts, and we can struggle to follow along or be left behind with the rest of the victims. Speaking of whom, without the action-flick tropes and styling of Snowpiercer, the violence that accompanies the downfall is far more brutal and disturbing.

And maybe it’s all just so disorienting that we just can’t take it all in at once, and we just have to choose one thing to focus on: the secretary upstairs (Sienna Miller), or Wilder’s pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss), or Wilder’s crusade, or Royal’s loss of control, or just what color Laing wants on these damned walls.

As the dust settles, Wheatley leaves us with a radio broadcast from Margaret Thatcher, decrying state control of capital and the harm it causes to political freedom. But, as we see in High-Rise, any sufficient concentration of capital amounts to the same thing. Putting capital into private hands isn’t magic. Just because there’s not a “government” setting rules doesn’t mean rules don’t get set, and the consequences can be every bit as catastrophic.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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