X-Men: Apocalypse – A Review

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Apocalypse – I really had higher hopes for you.

When the next villain was teased at the end of the confusingly titled X-Men: Days of Future Past, I was intrigued despite not knowing much about who Apocalypse was. The idea of a villain that was also a god had real potential, despite the fact that I knew he obviously would be vanquished as that’s kind of how these movies play out and these films take place before the original X-men movies, where no reference to Apocalypse is made. My comic book loving friends were also relatively pumped for the arrival of Apocalypse and his four horsemen (horsepeople?), so while I knew the ultimate outcome would be in the favor of the X-Men, I thought that Apocalypse would provide them with a real challenge.

Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse was ultimately disappointing. There were brief moments of excitement and fun, but this franchise is really beginning to show signs of fatigue. For me, it was too much of what we’ve seen in other X-Men movies without much personality or originality to liven things up a bit. There are only so many times that you can see the same basic character beats and plot lines play out before you get bored and I think Apocalypse was that point for me. Even the actors seemed pretty uninterested in what was unfolding around them; when you have Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy at your disposal, the end product should be a lot more interesting.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens in ancient Egypt, where Apocalypse (Isaac), believed to be the first mutant, rules. He is betrayed by some of his worshipers and entombed until being awakened in the 1980s. He isn’t on board with modern life and decides that he needs to destroy the world in order to save it (questionable logic at best). He then sets out to recruit his four “horsemen” to assist him, including Magneto (Fassbender), who has been a fugitive since the events at the end of Days of Future Past, which have made Mystique (Lawrence) something of a folk hero. Apocalypse also wants to tap in the powers of Professor Xavier (McAvoy) and…well, a bunch of other convoluted stuff happens. Needless to say, the good guy mutants want to put an end to Apocalypse’s plans for world domination. X-Men: Apocalypse also marks the first introduction of young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and new mutants Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Jubilee (Lana Condor). Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Lucas Till, Evan Peters and Josh Helman all reprise their characters from previous X-Men films.

At this point, the X-Men franchise really needs to find a new direction to go in, so it’s not lather, rinse, and repeat with these storylines. Magneto is always a bad guy…until he isn’t. We’ve been watching Xavier try to save his friend for nearly 16 years now and it’s getting a little boring – especially since we know that this battle will wage on for the foreseeable future of the franchise as this tension was at the heart of the original X-Men film. The same goes for Mystique, who we know won’t stick with the good side either. The allegiances in these films are so flimsy and the character arcs are simply rehashing the same issues that we’ve already seen play out several times already. The introduction of the new mutants might add some interesting dynamics if they were actually given something to do; Psylocke and Angel have maybe 10 lines between the two of them in the film; we know very little about them or what their motivations are in this whole fight. Munn is definitely a bad-ass, but I couldn’t have told you her character name without looking it up. There are so many characters in play that they have a tough time servicing all of them; I would have much preferred learning more about some of these new characters than dealing with the Magneto/Xavier dynamic for the hundredth time. If you have Jennifer Lawrence locked up under contract, you should probably actually use her. She doesn’t have much to do in Apocalypse, to the detriment of the movie.

A lot of these issues wouldn’t have been so problematic if they had done more with Apocalypse. Oscar Isaac is unrecognizable in the role, both because he’s hidden under all the blue makeup and because there is absolutely no trace of his charisma or charm. Despite his backstory, Apocalypse isn’t the big bad that I was hoping that he would be. Not only is what he is really trying to accomplish a bit unclear, but he seems to take a pretty haphazard attitude in reaching his goals. His recruitment of his “horsemen” is random at best; if I was putting a team together to destroy the world, I might want to do more research beyond “these are the first four mutants that I came across.” I’m not really sure what Angel is bringing to the table and I will never be convinced that Storm is a real threat. Maybe you wouldn’t be able to recruit some of the most powerful mutants out there, but he probably should have put more thought into the whole thing. In all honestly, I could probably have taken Apocalypse out, and my superpower is just being snarky.

None of this is the fault of the actors, who do the best with what they’re given. There are also some nice fight sequences in the film that liven things up a bit, which is what you need in a movie like this. But it’s saying a lot that the most memorable and fun sequence in the film involved Quicksilver (Peters) and is basically a carbon copy of the scene that he had in Days of Future Past. Even the best part of Apocalypse is a retread.

Some other thoughts:

  • All these decade jumps make it very hard to keep track of how old everyone is supposed to be. Vulture investigates and not surprisingly, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
  • I think they missed a real cross-promotional possibility by not using Metallica’s “My Apocalypse” somewhere in this movie.
  • A lot of criticism has been levied at one scene in particular in the movie.
  • Since I’m such a big Game of Thrones fan, I had a tough time seeing Sophie Turner disappear into the role of Jean Grey. Mostly, I was hoping she would get to keep those powers as Sansa Stark, which would be a pretty big game changer for her Game of Thrones character.
  • I wouldn’t want to be an X-Man, not because I wouldn’t want the powers, but because they seem to have no fun at all. There is absolutely no joy in any of these characters; I’m sure being a mutant is hard, but there’s got to be some fun to be had as well.
  • There was a post-credits sequence that made absolutely nothing to me. Screenrant explains what it all meant.

Honestly, X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t a bad movie, just kind of a boring one. It’s too much of the same old that we’ve seen throughout the franchise, which means that it’s predictable and showing signs of fatigue. They need to find a new angle or something new to say in order to breathe some new life into these films; they were able to do that when they did X-Men: First Class but that concept seems to have run its course. They should either clean house and focus more on new mutants or perhaps make a villain that lasts for more than one movie – anything that would shake up the same basic formula that these films are regurgitating with little variation. So many superhero movies are cranked out now every year that you really have to do something different to stand out. X-Men: Apocalypse was a perfectly serviceable superhero movie, but ultimately is just recycled storylines from previous X-Men movies. Hopefully this is a transition movie that will eventually lead to something a little more original or interesting down the road. Otherwise, this may be a franchise that will coast on fumes for a while.

X-Men: Apocalypse is currently showing nationwide.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – A Review

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“Let’s do the time warp again”

It seems like a required rule that at some point in a long running franchise or series there will be some mucking around in the space/time continuum. It may be something as simple as a flashback scene that helps to flesh out a story, fill in some missing information or help to round out a character that doesn’t have any lasting impact on the larger story arc. These momentary peeks into the past or future do not ultimately alter the timeline of the story. The more adventurous forays into time travel are more complicated, but they also have longer lasting consequences. While Friends flashing back to the high school prom served only as a reminder of how long Ross has love Rachel, films like Back to the Future and Looper illustrate the butterfly effect of moving through time – change anything while in the past and there is a ripple effect that can greatly impact the present.

I was excited for X-Men: Days of Future Past, since I greatly enjoy this franchise, but I was also a little wary. I don’t have the best track record with movies that involve time travel and there is always the very real possibility that moving through the past is just a gimmick to basically reboot the franchise. Characters can be brought back to life and existing characters may be altered. I don’t have a problem with that per se, except when it is done in a lazy manner, which I was not particularly concerned about for this film since the plot is loosely borrowed from a very popular storyline in the comic books. Execution in and of itself wasn’t as worrisome as the inherent complication that comes with these sorts of narratives – the rules and regulation for time travel and its impacts vary from movie to movie (and occasionally within a movie), often resulting in a confusing mess that is difficult to keep track of. So I went into Days of Future Past anxious to see the X-men again, but skeptical that I was going to be able to keep track of everything that was going on. Add in a very large cast of characters to draw from and the fact that I was going to a late screening when my mind was tired and this was a legitimate concern. I just didn’t want to be confused.

I am very happy to report that it wasn’t an issue; there may be some moments in the story that stretch credibility and logic, but for the most part Days of Future Past is such a fun and entertaining ride that it doesn’t much matter. The time travel aspect is fairly easy to follow and allows the filmmakers to figure out how to bridge the original X-Men trilogywith X-Men: First Class. It also permits them to cherry pick the biggest stars from both periods of the franchise – I call this the Jennifer Lawrence effect – and the audience gets to have its cake and eat it too, with two versions of Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr. It’s obviously very early, but I have to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past is the early frontrunner for my favorite movie of the summer. I just had a really good time.

When we first meet up with the X-men in the film, the future is looking pretty bleak. Mutants and the humans that support them are being exterminated by Sentinels, giant robots that are able to morph and adapt to various mutant powers. A small band of X-men have been able to elude capture by using Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) ability to send people’s consciousness back into their younger selves to warn them of imminent attack. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professer Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hatch a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to stop the Sentinels from being created by Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and prevent this dystopian future from happening. He’ll need to recruit the younger versions of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Xavier (James McAvoy) to help him, a difficult prospect as the two were not exactly pals back in 1973. However, he’ll need them both to reach Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who is the key to everything. This all may sound a little confusing, but I assure that it is easy to follow on the big screen.

What I liked in particular about X-Men: Days of Future Past is that it does a really nice job of balancing both action and story. There are some fun and engaging fight scenes in the film, as to be expected from a summer comic book movie and the effects are top notch. It’s a thrilling ride and well-executed. But none of the explosions and battles would mean much if there wasn’t something behind it – that’s something that a lot of summer blockbusters still haven’t figured out. This is not a problem in Days of Future Past because the characters are so well defined and there is still room for additional character growth and real emotion. These mutants might be able to control people’s minds or instantly heal themselves, but they are also going through some stuff. It also doesn’t hurt that Days of Future Past has a pretty stellar cast, boasting multiple Oscar winners and other excellent thespians. When you have that kind of bench to draw from, you can go deeper with your characters and trust that your actors will be able to deliver – which they uniformly do. Many of these actors have also played these characters in multiple films – I think this is Jackman’s seventh time out as Wolverine – so they understand who these characters are and their motivations. That added dimension helps invest you in all the action sequences, because you actually have some investment in what happens to these mutants. The visual imagery never outweighs the story.

I also appreciated the more pared down focus of this film – there are a lot of X-men and it is easy to get bogged down with so many characters to juggle. Days of Future Past is smart about it; while many members of the X-Men universe turn up throughout the film, a lot of them are simple role players. It’s a nice way to have the best of both worlds – we get to see some old friends, but the film doesn’t worry about giving everyone a story line or a moment to shine. All the characters are there to support the greater good, which is a tight and fun action movie. The obvious candidates take center stage, but other characters get some smaller individual moments. This paring down is essential – failure to do so would result in a sprawling story that in attempting to service everyone wouldn’t do right by anyone.

This leaner and meaner X-men story means that there is room to introduce some new characters. While the character of Trask isn’t particularly well defined, Peter Dinklage is such a freaking force of nature that it really doesn’t matter that he is just “evil scientist guy.” He lights up the screen in every scene that he is in and has such charisma that he makes way more of Trask than was probably on the page. That man is a national treasure. Evan Peters, best known for American Horror Story, also steals most scenes that he is in and provides some fantastic comic relief. I don’t believe they ever call his character by his mutant name, but fans of the comics (or people who read the Internet like I do) will know who he is. A great addition to the cast.

Some other thoughts:

  • Hugh Jackman gets naked in this one for no real reason, but it was much appreciated.
  • I do have one bone to pick with Marvel – Evan Peters character is ALSO played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the upcoming Avengers movie. That is way too confusing; I have enough to keep track of without two different actors playing the same guy in movies that are released pretty close to one another. Stop hurting my head, Marvel!
  • I enjoy The Pete Holmes Show sketches where he fires the X-Men. The latest is Magneto:

 

The bonus of having a large junk of the film set in the 70s? We already know from American Hustle that J-Law looks great in the clothes!

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All in all, X-Men: Days of Future Past was a very enjoyable cinematic experience. The return of director Bryan Singer brought a steadying hand to a franchise that was starting to wobble and the end result is an entertaining and action packed film that breathes some fresh life into the series. The cast, writers and director have figured out how to balance the humanity of these characters with their inhuman abilities and create a well-rounded film. There are some moments that slightly defy logic, but you are having so much fun that you don’t even care that everything might not hold water under closer examination. Definitely one of the better X-men entries in the film canon; not only did I like Days of Future Past, but I am more excited for X-Men: Apocalypse. Go see this film, bub.

12 Years a Slave – A Review

“All you ever did was wreck me”

-Miley Cyrus

Starting off a review of 12 Years a Slave with lyrics from Miley Cyrus may seem counter-intuitive; it is certainly not done to minimize this powerful movie. But it seemed apropos as when I left the movie theater after my screening, I felt like I had been hit by a wrecking ball. This film is tough to watch and I was emotionally drained when it was over. That is a compliment – the actors and director tell such a compelling story that you cannot help but be affected by it. It is a movie that should be seen, even if it is a challenge. All of the praise that this film has received is totally warranted.

12 Years a Slave is the adaptation of a true story: Solomon Northrup is a free black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, NY. A talented musician, Solomon is approached by two men who offer him a lucrative deal playing music in a traveling show. He accepts the deal and accompanies them to Washington DC. While there, the two men drug Solomon and sell him into slavery; he awakens to find himself chained with no memory of how he got there. His protests that he is indeed a free man fall on deaf ears. And so beings Solomon’s nightmare of being enslaved for 12 years, with his family having absolutely no idea what happened to him and having no way to prove who he is. In an instant, he is reduced to a piece of property. What follows is an honest and brutal depiction of the life of the slave.

12 Years a Slave is far from the first movie to tackle to issue of racism and slavery; however, most recent depictions of the institution have focused more slavery from the point of view of the white men who are debating its morality. Lincoln was a very good film, but it paid more attention to the process of passing the 13th Amendment than on the people who would actually be affected by it. That is a valid story, but it isn’t the full story. By telling Solomon’s story, 12 Years a Slave provides an unflinching look at what many had to endure and why such legislation was needed. In telling one man’s story, it is telling the story of thousands of others who suffered. Many films about slavery allude to inhumanity and cruelty that many had to endure but back away from depicting the true savagery. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from the truth – it isn’t violence for violence’s sake, but a necessary look at a dark chapter of our history. I am normally pretty unflappable, but there came a point in the film where I simply had to look away from what I was seeing. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to compose myself, tears streaming down my face. I’m not an idiot – I knew slavery was an unspeakable horror for many – but actually seeing a recreation of it that felt so authentic was just too much for me. I was far from the only person sobbing in the theater.

Solomon’s story in and of itself is captivating tale, but the reason that it resonated so much with me was because of the impeccable acting in 12 Years a Slave. The cast was uniformly incredible, anchored by an amazing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. His transformation in this film is a revelation, as he changes from a happy family man to someone who is simply enduring, with dwindling hope that he will ever escape his imprisonment. Ejiofor is why this film works so well; you would sympathize with Solomon’s plight regardless, but Ejiofor makes Solomon’s story truly come alive. More importantly, he makes it all real. It is such an elegant and nuanced performance that it is really beautiful to watch. He can convey so many emotions without speaking a word.

Michael Fassbender is also unsurprisingly outstanding as slave owner Edwin Epps. Much of the worst brutality that befalls Solomon and the other slaves occurs on his plantation. It would be easy to let Epps become a one dimensional character, the epitome of evil, but that would be lazy filmmaking. Fassbender gives Epps depth and makes him believable. Epps is much harder to dismiss because of the intensity that Fassbender brings to the table. He fully commits to bring this unspeakable human being to life. It speaks to just how good Ejiofor is that Fassbender doesn’t steal this movie.

The film also shows the spectrum of slave owners – as Master Ford, Benedict Cumberbatch is not necessarily a bad man, but a weak one. He prides himself on the kindness that he shows his slaves and he certainly does not relish in his role of master like Epps does. But he is still a slave owner and when faced with Solomon, a man that is clearly educated and was not raised in slavery, he runs from the truth. He may try to be more humane than most – he expresses sympathy for a mother being ripped from her children – but he is not willing to rock the boat and challenge the structure of the South. The best he is willing to do is to make it a little less unpleasant.

Also worthy of singling out is relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (this is her first feature film). As Patsey, a slave that has caught the eye of Epps, she gives a star making performance. While being an object of lust of the slave owner may garner her some special treatment, it also makes her a target for the wrath of Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). In a film full of pain and suffering, her character may suffer the most. It is a haunting performance that leaves its mark on you.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have not yet read the book that the film is based on, so I cannot speak to how loyal of an adaption this is. It’s now on my list, though.
  • Don’t let the commercials fool you – Brad Pitt is only in this movie for ten minutes or so. He doesn’t really disappear into the role – he’s a good actor, but his face is just too familiar – but I was thankful when he showed up, if for no other reason than it provided a much needed break from “reality.” Plus there is no way that Pitt was standing for this inhumanity.
  • About halfway through the film, I was rooting for Jamie Foxx to show up and bring some much needed vengeance into the film. Sadly, the real story doesn’t provide the kind of closure that Quentin Tarantino can provide.
  • Having grown up a stone’s throw from Saratoga, I immediately thought of Congress Park during the scenes in the city. I don’t know if that was where they were actually going for, or if I was projecting, but that was the first thing that came to mind.
  • My one complaint about the film – not enough Michael K. Williams (Omar, The Wire). He only had a bit part, but I am always happy to see him.
  • I was shocked that there were people who wouldn’t stop talking in a movie like this. I have no idea why they were even in this movie if they didn’t want to see it; if you want to be an a**hole, go across the hall and go see Bad Grandpa where you’ll be less of a distraction.
  • This is clearly a difficult movie to market, as evidenced by the random assortment of trailers that preceded the film. Usually trailers are selected to compliment the interests of the assumed audience, but based on the hodgepodge of ads that they selected I don’t think that they have a clear idea of who exactly is going to see this film.
  • Paul Giamatti also has a small part in this film as a slave trader.  Giamatti makes the most of his limited screen time.
  • On my way home from the theater I had to stop and get myself a treat just to cheer myself up a bit after watching such an emotionally devastating feature. Probably not the best way to kick off my weekend, but I have no regrets.

I have some very minor complaints about 12 Years a Slave – there were some scenes that I’m not sure why director McQueen chose to include – but they don’t detract in any way from the magnificence of this film.  I don’t see how this film will not be a prominent player come Oscar time; it is so beautifully acted and filmed that it would be a travesty if the movie wasn’t recognized with many nominations. 12 Years a Slave is definitely the newest member of my YOWO club; it was powerful and affecting and I have absolutely no interest in putting myself through that emotional wringer ever again. It is because it is so challenging to watch that I think everyone should see it. If a movie can make me tear up when I’m writing the review, it is clearly doing something right. 12 Years a Slave forces us to suffer for two hours so that we can have some small glimpse into the lifetime of suffering that so many had to endure simply because of the color of their skin. It’s been almost a week since I saw 12 Years a Slave and yet I can’t stop thinking about it and discussing it. This is a film that will stay with you long after you leave the theater and should be required viewing for everyone.