X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

Slow West (2015)

Slow West (2015) movie poster

director John Maclean
viewed: 11/21/2015

An English/Kiwi Western starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Slow West is the worst worst worst movie that I’ve seen in some time.

Smit-McPhee is a young Scotsman who follows the love of his life when she immigrates to America with her father.  He winds up employing Fassbender, a bounty hunter, to help track her down.  Only it turns out that the girl and her father are wanted criminals and Fassbender, as well as others, seek to track them for alternative reasons.

It’s not that this had to be terrible.  In fact, it’s a pretty-looking picture.  Who knows, it might be one of the better-looking awful movies ever made.  It’s meant to be artsy and somewhat ironic or humorous at times, as well as romantic.  For some reason, the film has gotten good reviews.  I’d mind-boggling as to why.  It’s dunderheaded.  Shockingly bad.  Absolutely, positively terrible.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013) movie poster

director Steve McQueen
viewed: 08/09/2015

I’m not big on seeing movies that win Oscars, but I had been wanting to see Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, though, let’s face it: it’s not a fun subject matter.  I’ve also been meaning to see McQueen’s earlier film, Hunger (2008), but haven’t yet either.  Starving Irish prisoners being almost as much fun as slavery.  I jest.

But, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I’ve been using the BBC’s recent list of “The 100 Greatest American Films” as a guide to filling in my dance card with classic films that I’ve never seen.  Interestingly, 12 Years is probably the newest film on the list, something that always seems a lack of perspective when compiling lists.

The story is terrible and fascinating, drawn from the true life account of one Solomon Northup, who in 1841 was shanghaied from his home in the North and sold into slavery in the South.  It stars the remarkable Chiwetel Ejiofor on a journey of a nightmare is almost impossible to comprehend.

Frankly, I thought that the film was good, but not great (I know this is something I say probably far too often about films).  I don’t feel like trying to pick it apart to say why I think it fails to reach a level of greatness.  It’s a noble effort, a noble endeavor, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it.  It just didn’t impress me overall the way great films do.

Take that for what you will.  I’ll leave it at that.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 05/25/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Who thought that this new X-Men movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, would turn out to be this year’s first good superhero movie?  Not I, necessarily.  The trailers seemed a muddle of complexity and confusion, with a tonality of overwrought drama.  The return of director Bryan Singer, who helped to usher in this latest wave of superhero movies with his X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), didn’t necessarily guarantee success.  After all, the previous X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class (2011) was a whole different creative team with director Matthew Vaughn at the helm.  So, really, who knew?

X-Men: Days of Future Past taps into one of the comic book’s most venerated story tropes, one that involves time travel and alternate realities.  Bryan Singer gets to re-connect his “old” X-Men (e.g., Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto) crew with the newer X-Men actors of X-Men: First Class (e.g., James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto), all in one movie.  And it all gets to make sense, which is even odder.   And of course we’ve got the irreplaceable Hugh Jackman reprising his Wolverine role for like the seventh time.

The bottom line is the the story is complicated.  It has to do with a future in which giant killer robots with the ability to morph to destroy every mutant have taken over the world and track and kill every mutant or potential would-be progenitor of a mutant in the world.  With the last surviving mutants scrambling around to escape the Sentinels (as they are called), a last ditch hope is to project Wolverine back into his 1973 self to go and warn the earlier versions of everyone that the assassination of the head of the robot program needs to be stopped, the only hope to change the future for the better.  And the assassin?  Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

While there is nothing simple about trying to relate a thing about this movie (maybe why the trailer was doomed to a lack of clarity), the film is actually an engaging, action-packed ride, managing to keep the whole thing’s momentum in constant thrust and entertaining, largely, the whole way through.  Now, I’d read the comics from which this was adapted, so I had some familiarity with the concepts and characters.  The film doesn’t spend much time trying to teach you who is who.  I stopped reading the comics in the 1980’s so there are a number of characters with whom I too am unfamiliar.

But, you know, it’s actually pretty good.  X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first superhero movie this year that I’ve walked out actually feeling like I enjoyed it.  Which is a testament in a way itself because I’ve been beginning to wonder (as others have no doubt) whether the superhero movie has played itself out for the time being, despite being the template for years to come for movie studios.  There is a doubtless cynicism in some of the future films, though there are some things to which I am looking forward.

Now, I guess, I’m looking forward to the next X-Men film, too.

Shame (2011)

Shame (2011) movie poster

director Steve McQueen
viewed: 07/08/2012

This is the film in which Michael Fassbender plays a sex addict and Carey Mulligan plays his tragically needy sister.  Joyless sex abounds.  Full-frontal nudity for both stars.  Directed by arts-oriented British filmmaker Steve McQueen.

It’s about as fun as … well, forget the simile, … it’s not fun.  Not that it’s supposed to be.

Fassbender is as cold and aloof a character as you can imagine here.  Kind of a serial killer but with consensual sex and no killing.  Mulligan’s character is more on the heartbreaking side, yearning for Fassbender, her brother, for some love, some connection.  He’s just so dead inside that he hasn’t got one iota of feeling left for her.  Her presence in his life stifles his own sexual escapades, and her one fling devastates him on some level.  He’s ruthless and mirthless.

Mulligan, I thought, was very good.  She sings a unique jazz version of “New York, New York” at one point, sort of the film’s centerpiece, slow and central as it is.  There is a message in the plaintiveness of her expression of the lyrics.  While it may be true that if she “could make it there, (she’d) make it anywhere” but she’s not going to make it.  There or anywhere.  New York City itself plays a key role somehow in this film, with a goodly amount of location shooting, city vistas from fancy, high-up windows, and this cry to this city.  I’m not sure where to take that, frankly.  But it’s there.

McQueen has a keen cinematic eye, controlling the camera is deft, eloquent ways.  These feelings are not evoked by accident or failure, but by intent.  You develop a sense of some very sad backstory that is never rendered between these two New Jerseyite siblings in their loveless, soulless and soulful miseries.  But ultimately, I’m not sure what to do with it all.

It’s definitely one of those films that you don’t watch for pleasure, and in that sense, not one you’re likely to revisit.

Haywire (2011)

Haywire (2011) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 07/07/2012

Director Steven Soderbergh devised the film, Haywire, as a star-making vehicle for mixed-martial arts fighter Gina Carano.  It’s not the first time that Soderbergh has sought to build a film around a non-mainstream performer.  His 2009 film, The Girlfriend Experience, employed porn actress Sasha Grey in her first mainstream feature film, building around her own unique qualities.  In Carano’s case, it’s her fighting skills that should make her the most compelling. So an international intrigue is constructed, giving her an action-based role to show her stuff and kick some ass.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well as it might have sounded on paper.

Carano is very beautiful and built.  And she can kick ass.  And for the most part, the film doesn’t ask her to work with a great breadth of range.  Really, this is a typical given in the action realm even for male stars.  But then in a typical action film, no holds barred, it’s action, action, action and violence.  It’s not usually trying to be urbane, intelligent, or otherwise meaningful.  Soderbergh is looking to make an intelligent action film at the very least, and Carano needs to have character and be something more than a figure hitting her marks.  There were times in the film that I felt like I could imagine someone coaching her through a scene: “Okay, look down.  Pause.  Look left, look right, step off camera.”  Most likely she hit her marks and it’s not that she’s so much a “bad” actress as much as she seems to be going through these motions.

Quentin Tarantino used stuntwoman Zoë Bell in Death Proof (2007) similarly, but he didn’t try to build the whole film around her (it was bad enough as it was).  There is, especially in action films, something very compelling about someone whose physicality is just presented on screen, doing their own stunts, showing their skills.  But the most successful ones have some larger acting ability or outright charisma/persona that carries them further.  Carano’s performance is understandably understated but also quite muted.  And in the end, Soderbergh doesn’t specialize in fight scenes, especially with someone doing their own stunts.  Those sequences seem very choreographed (of course they are, they just aren’t supposed to look like they are).

The story itself is kind of confusing, told in flashbacks and semi-linear order, I couldn’t completely sort out what was supposed to be going on.  The bottom line is that Carano’s character works in some covert ops for a third party firm working for government and something goes wrong, she gets set up for assassination.  She’s got to figure out too.  Ultimately, you can kind of figure who the bad guys are and even if it doesn’t make total sense, it’s not the biggest problem with the film.  Or at least not the biggest that I had with it.

I had heard that it wasn’t all that great, but I’d liked Soderbergh’s last genre film, Contagion (2011), and held some hope that it might be more worthwhile.  It’s decent, by no means atrocious.  But by no means particularly worthwhile, either.

Prometheus (2012)

Prometheus (2012) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 06/08/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

One of the most anticipated films of the year, as if you didn’t know, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is the famed and successful director’s return to the science fiction genre in which he made his initial splash and arguably his most important and influential films in his young career.  But it’s not only a return to the genre, it’s a return to his specific movie, Alien (1979) (the first R-rated film that me and my sister were taken to in the theater), and the progenitor of a number of sequels and ultimately a franchise.

Prometheus is sort of a prequel, set in the same universe and timeline as the original film and its offspring, but decades before the events of those Sigourney Weaver-starring films.  Scott had somewhat coyly remarked that Prometheus bears Alien‘s DNA, as the stoked masses on the internet curiously wondered at what this film would be, what story would be that brought the English director, so commercially successful since, back to a genre that he had completely left behind for 30 years.

The coyness was less coy than it seemed.  The whole of Prometheus is infused with DNA from the opening sequence in which a marble-like hairless humanoid stands on a cliff, as a massive spacecraft flies away overhead.  The humanoid drinks some digitally activated concoction from a bowl and starts to have his DNA pulled apart (as we are shown through the magic of digital special effects).  He eventually tumbles down a waterfall into the depths below, being rended asunder at the mitochondrial level.

Millennia later, the present of the film, 2089, a team of researchers, led by Noomi Rapace, discover cave paintings that suggest giant beings had left a message all over the primordial world about a location enormously far away.  This inspires an expedition, founded by a corporation, to seek out the possibility that these beings are the engineers of the human race.  And the goal of the mission is to find them and find out why.

Though the film plays significantly with “the big questions” about human origins, it doesn’t necessarily do so with great depth.  Rapace’s character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, brings sincerity to the spiritually-infused seekers in the film, but if anything, the quest for answers only raises more questions, namely in the order of the built-in need for a sequel.  Still, in some ways, this is a gloomy, violent non-humanistic, non-spiritual The Tree of Life (2011).

While Scott cleverly asked his screenwriters Damon Lindelhof and Jon Spaihts not to tread down the same tropes and paths of his original film (or its overly trod tropes played out in its sequels), the film does have elements that echo of the series, namely an important, dubious android character (this time played by Michael Fassbender) and then a sort of reverse on the monster bursting from the sternum sequence.  I don’t want to ruin it for you but it’s the film’s most intense and gory (and titillating) sequence.

Frankly, as the film began, I was deeply engrossed.  It’s beautifully shot and while it’s been criticized as slow, I found it more than compelling.  Really, the first three quarters of the film felt like truly classic science fiction at its contemporary best.  Meaning, a genre film that actually follows traditions and tropes while feeling fresh and modern, but with that question, that curiosity of “where is this going?”  “what’s going to happen?” constantly pulling you forward.

My disappointment only came in toward the final twenty minutes or so, in which the quest for answers is boiled back into one of the oldest cliches in the book, the aging rich looking for a means of sustaining life eternally.  It’s not so much the simple cheap answer of that as the motivation of the human endeavor, the corporately-funded endeavor, but that it teases at so much depth that its reveal of its lack is rather disheartening.

Still, it’s a ridiculously thrilling ride for the most part.  Rapace and Fassbender are the standouts in the film.  And not to ruin it all for you but it’s clear that in a sequel, they’ll be the only ones coming back.

But that’s part of the bait-and-switch of the film.  Alien was a stand-alone movie, and even though I utterly recall contemplating sequels long before James Cameron came back with Aliens (1986), it wasn’t so crass as to build in (not even its DNA but rather its guaranteed template for) a sequel.  That said, I’m on board for Prometheus Two or whatever they call it.  I honestly enjoyed this film more than anything else new that I’ve seen all year, no matter how critical I’m sounding of it.

It’s still curious to me as to what really brought Ridley Scott back to not just science fiction but to Alien and Blade Runner (1982) (you know he’s working on some sort of sequel to that as well, right?)  No matter how positive one feels about Themla & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), or Black Hawk Down (2001) or any of the many commercially successful films that he’s made in the 30 years since he dabbled in genre, it’s clear from both fan base, cultural influence, and even critical studies that Alien and Blade Runner have been his most significant cinematic contributions.  Still, why?  Why now?  From what I’ve read, it took a while for the Alien franchise to die back down to make way for something like this, but to follow it up with a whatever he does with his other contribution to the genre, hot on its heels?  And will he do the promised sequel to Prometheus?

Much like the questions of the origins of humanity that are played with in the film, we’ll just have to wait and see.

A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Cronenberg
viewed: 12/22/2011 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

I don’t know whether David Cronenberg has ever himself gone through Freudian analysis but it’s easy to assume much of his earliest film work was put through such by critics, analysts and film students.  In A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg turns the analysis back on Sigmund Freud and his colleague Carl Jung and their relationship around psychoanalysis and a patient of Jung’s with whom he had an affair, Sabina Spielrein.  Ostensibly, this is an historical drama, dramatized but based in fact.

The film stars Michael Fassbender as Jung, Keira Knightley as Spielrein, and Viggo Mortensen as Freud, with Vincent Cassel appearing in a cameo as another odd figure of the psychoanalysts, Otto Gross.  What’s true if nothing else is that there is a lot of interesting story here, originally documented in a non-fiction book called A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr and then into a stage play called “The Talking Cure” by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay. I have to say that I was almost immediately interested in reading up more on the subjects.

This is contemporary Cronenberg, not as overtly Freudian as in his earlier films of horror, science fiction, sex and violence.  But it’s also a lot more racy, say, than more typical historical dramas that are released during Oscar season like The King’s Speech (2010).  There is sex, sadism, masochism, though nowhere along the lines of Cronenberg’s earlier film Crash (1996), Dead Ringers (1988), or Rabid (1977).

Knightley, who I’ve always deemed rather lightly (sorry), is actually quite good as the hysterical Russian Spielrein.  For one thing, she acts and sounds distinctly different from other roles.  She appears at the beginning, a screaming, raving, uncontrollable basket case, in which Knightley is either quite good or good even in over-doing it.  But she’s good throughout the film, as a woman with crazy repression and a distinct genius of her own, who is “cured” by Jung’s “talking cure” and sexual relationship.

I liked the movie.  I like Fassbender, Mortensen and company and, as I said, the reality behind the story suggests even more fascinating truths in understanding it.  And a lot of the movie moves along quite well.  But at several points, it turns to the reading of one letter, say from Freud to Jung, then another in response from Jung to Freud, and back again.  And though this is no doubt the way much of their friendship, communication, and ultimate break with one another transpired, it’s a lot less dramatically effective.  The film doesn’t so much bog down as sort of just move slowly.

For my money, Cronenberg is always worth seeing and this film has a lot of interesting stuff to offer.  I might even find myself looking for the original non-fiction book from which this all arose to read more on the subject.

Interesting and recommended.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 06/17/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s kind of ridiculous, the pure quantity of superhero movies that have been rolling out for the past couple of years.  Marvel Comics in particular has amped up its production of movies, preparing for next summer’s Avengers movie, giving each of the characters their own solo film in the build-up.  While that run is quite unprecedented and a somewhat interesting, though also deplorable marketing beast that it is, the situation of The X-Men as well as other franchises, is the “re-boot”.

While re-boot or re-imagining is the common style of re-make these days, what’s even more unusual is how short the cycles are now between one run of movies and a whole new era of directing, producing, casting to attempt to re-invigorate a franchise when it’s hit its first commercial failure.

The first X-Men series of films (X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), spanning 2000-2006 with its own one-off spin-off (so far) was a success story for Marvel and the comic book movie in general.  The X-Men have long been a fan favorite, but the characters’ designs and powers would have been very difficult to create without digital special effects.  And the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the comic’s most popular character, made him a star and probably helped pave the way for all comers since.  But the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, which had the feel of a final installment to a trilogy of sorts, was also a bomb of a film.

For X-Men: First Class, the re-boot does something akin to the successful Star Trek (2009) re-boot, going back to a time before the other series came together, an origin story in which the main characters are younger and more vital.  Of course, the Star Trek re-boot had a clever angle of telling a story that hadn’t been told before.  X-Men: First Class goes back to paint the origin of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and others, perhaps re-tweaking tales that have been told in comic books before.

They set it in the early 1960’s, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a tweak on real world history.  It’s also interestingly close to the real world creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so there is an uncanny sense of aptness in this setting.

The story is very much about how Magneto and Xavier started as colleagues and how they came to be on separate sides of a political spectrum, and eventually arch enemies.  The film gets a lot from McAvoy and Fassbender, who both have charm and give the film some of its striven for depth.

It’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who only a year ago brought out the fun and ironic superhero movie Kick-As (2010).  Here he’s working with some heavy comic book lore, the origin story of one of comic-book-dom’s favorite gangs, and telling it alongside historical portents of WWII and what almost became WWIII.  And he does a pretty good job of it, considering the sprawling amount of narrative that the film has to pack in.

With your average single superhero movie, one villain/one hero can make for a more balanced story, a little more time to invest in the good and the evil.  When films add more and more heroes and villains they often get off-track.  For a film about a team, each hero and villain needing some significant back-story to give them depth, not to mention the big build-up to when the hero(es) have to save the world in a big showdown…there is just a lot of exposition to contain in a two hour plus movie.

I took the kids, who were nonplussed about going to the movie, but they both enjoyed it.  I do have to give it to Clara who observed to me that “All the characters have superpowers but the women have to take their clothes off to use theirs’.”  Which is an astute feminist criticism from a 7 year old girl.

Fish Tank

Fish Tank (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Andrea Arnold
viewed: 04/09/11

Raved about in the press and compared to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) or the work of British film-maker Ken Loach, Fish Tank is a snatch of contemporary English gritty realism.  Starring Katie Jarvis, previously a non-actor who was “discovered” on the train platform in Tilbury where the film is set, director Andrea Arnold’s film has that working class London area flavor, neither idealized nor vitrified, a balance of showing the lives of the poor in estate housing in England’s center.

Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a single Ken Loach film, so I don’t know how it compares with his work.  But I am familiar with the English films and television shows that seem to have a more open eye to all strata of English life and depicting it through the social realism lens.  I’ve actually always admired this aspect of British cinema and entertainment that there seems to be a better self-awareness or a broader self-awareness of the breadth of England’s society.  But these types of films can be real downers too.

Fish Tank is neither pure downer nor pure upper.  The life of 15 year old Mia (Jarvis) who lives in a housing estate with her mother and younger sister in significant poverty.  Her mom is a lush, more a peer than an adult, who hooks up with hunk Michael Fassbender, one of the few people to show Mia some genuine attention.  Fassbender is a hunk, and he’s charming too.  Mia’s hopes for becoming a hip-hop dancer are somewhere between pathetic and pipe-dream, and while the worst things that happen to her don’t come close to how exploitatively bad as the could be, the ending is a mixture of hope and pessimism.

I have to say that I wasn’t as taken with Fish Tank as I was anticipating.  It’s a good film and well worth seeing.  Given some of the reviews that I’d read and the fact that it got a Criterion Collection release made me anticipate something perhaps more transcendent.  Actually, what was weird was how the DVD was made full-screen rather than letter box, which seems like a weird choice.  I read somewhere that the choice was perhaps to further the claustrophobia of Mia’s life or to make the film more “low-fi”, like an old VHS video.  I have no idea.  But it was unusual.  Maybe there is some aspect of it being called “Fish Tank” in it, like looking in at a little, constrained world in which the poor creatures flit around fruitlessly, living but not living free, never with any chance of escape.