Movie Reviews - 2016 postsMonday November 28, 2016
Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
There’s a lot of in-jokes in this thing, winks to the franchise and its fans, that don’t make much sense given its timeline. Right: timeline. There are different timelines to “X-Men” movies now. We should be handed Playbills before entering the theater. Charts should be set up in lobbies. Professors should give lectures.
This is how I believe it goes. The first three “X-Men” movies are on the same timeline, but director Brett Ratner screwed the pooch with the third one by killing nearly everyone: Prof. X, Jean Gray, Cyclops. So the next two movies, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) and “X-Men: First Class” (2011), were prequels, while the most recent “X-Men” movie, “Days of Future Past” (2014), created an alternative timeline in an attempt to retcon the shit out of Ratner’s shit.
In “Days of Future,” Wolverine goes back to 1973 to stop a minor incident (the hush-hush assassination of an anti-mutant scientist) and unleashes a major one: the outing of all mutants in Paris and the near assassination of Pres. Nixon on live TV by Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who wrecks both RFK Stadium and the White House in the process. But Mystique stops him, showing there are good mutants, and thus humans become less fearful and less likely to create anti-mutant machines in the future.
Right. Because if there’s one “good one” in a group of scary people, everyone automatically trusts all of them. Cf., for counter examples, the whole of human history.
A long time ago
Anyway, we’re now on a timeline in which mutants have been outed in 1973. Here’s the thing: This knowledge doesn’t seem to change much. Ronald Reagan is still elected president in 1980, probably meaning Jimmy Carter in ’76, probably meaning Nixon was still impeached in 1974. A being lifts RFK Stadium and drops it like a ring around the White House, yet the Watergate scandal still tops headlines in the summer of ’73? It’s like a Bizarro version of the Butterfly Effect: Magneto’s shit storm in D.C. doesn’t affect a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia.
Oh, and it doesn’t affect George Lucas’ story ideas, either.
This a petty complaint but hear me out. Before the shit goes down in “Apocalypse,” which is set in 1983, new Xavier Academy students Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan, looking disturbingly like Andy Sandberg), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of “Game of Thrones,” ubiquitous actors these days), Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and Jubilee (Lana Condor) all go to the mall. It’s an odd moment. The introverted Scott suddenly becomes extroverted to get everyone there—to show Kurt this newfangled thing called a “mall.” (Fact-check: they’ve been around since the 1950s.)
The real purpose—for the plot anyway—is to get the kids away from Xavier Academy when it’s attacked, so they won’t be taken hostage like the others. The other purpose is a wink. We see our superteens walking out of a mall theater where “Return of the Jedi” is playing and get the following conversation:
Jubilee: I’m just saying “Empire” is still the best. It’s the most complex, the most sophisticated. Wasn’t afraid to have a dark ending.
Scott: Yeah, but come on, if it wasn’t for the first one you wouldn’t have any of the rest of the movies.
Jean: Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.
Ha ha. Get it? It’s for X-Men fans who hated the Ratner movie (which was truly awful), and maybe a self-effacing acknowledgement that this movie, too, the third of the prequels, will get slammed. Ha ha.
Except it got me thinking. In their world, in 1973, everyone becomes aware that there are creatures so powerful they can control our minds with theirs. And George Lucas still creates a movie with something called “the Force”? And Americans still flock to see it even though it’s no longer wish-fulfillment fantasy but a very scary part of their own reality? Really?
Plus the first “Star Wars” is obviously the best because it actually has an ending. “Empire” is just “to be continued,” and that’s not a movie.
We get another nonsensical, annoying wink after the Wolverine cameo. In one of those super-steel, underground government fortresses, where Mystique and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are being held captive by Col. Stryker (Josh Helman, who has a powerful screen presence even if his character is so done), our teen sleuths, Scott, Jean and Kurt come across Wolverine, who’s been experimented upon. He now has the adamantine skeletal structure as he did at the beginning of the first “X-Men” movie, so check that box for the alt timeline. By this point, he’s half mad, and kills about two dozen federal agents, so Jean uses her powers to ease his mind by removing memories. Which means he’s got amnesia again, as he did at the beginning of the first “X-Men” movie. So check that box, too. And as he flees into the woods, Scott says the following:
Hope that’s the last we see of that guy.
Ha ha. Get it? Cuz Wolverine will become his future rival for Jean’s affections. But that’s just the first timeline, right? Or does love transcend timelines? And does that mean poor Scott Summers is doomed to play third fiddle throughout eternity while Jean and Logan forever burn for each other? Rough role, dude.
But enough with the timelines. There’s worse stuff.
Walk like an Egyptian
Here’s Jean Gray in “X-Men” from 2000:
Ladies and gentleman, we are now seeing the beginnings of another stage of human evolution.
This movie upends that. Turns out the most powerful mutant of all, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who can transfer his being from one body to another, accumulating powers as he goes, was an Egyptian ruler, En Sabah Nur, in ... 3,600 BC. So much for “now.”
In 1983, spy shenanigans by CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, last seen in “First Class) wakes up ol’ En Sabah, who recruits, in quick fashion, young versions of Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto, who’s been living for the past 10 years as a Polish steel worker. Prof. X (James McAvoy) uses Cerebro to try to find Apocalypse, but Apocalypse discovers him instead, and kidnaps him, and is going to transfer his essence into Xavier’s body, after which this new Apocalypse will destroy the world in order to see what rises out of its ashes. Because apparently having four billion slaves is a bore. But rubble—that’s entertainment!
This transference is being done within a newly constructed pyramid in the rubble of Cairo, while, outside, for the zillionth time, good mutants battle bad ones. They also try to turn them toward the good side. And this is where we get another goddamned “Return of the Jedi” moment. Rip off or homage, you decide.
Remember how long it took Darth Vader to turn from the dark side and attack the Emperor, and thus save his son, Luke, in “Jedi”? And how boring that was? That’s Magneto here. He even has a long-lost son to save— Quicksilver—but it takes him forever to switch sides. We all know where it’s going but the filmmakers draw it out. As if waiting for the obvious makes the obvious exciting.
Movie Review: Arrival (2016)
I remember reading “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. in about 1990 after a breakup with a girl I loved, and taking some small comfort in the concept of time as perceived by the aliens in the novel:
I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.
I was mourning the loss of this girl in my life, but, from the Tralfamadorian POV, she, or us—it, the relationship—would not be lost; it wouldn’t be gone; it would be right there. Dude, why are you heartsick over missing something that’s as clear as Mount Rainier? Just look at it. It’s right there. Look how glorious it is.
I’ve thought about this concept of time—from time to time—ever since.
Ian walks, Louise translates
“Arrival” is another tale of an alien race that has a less linear view of time than we do, but the initial comparison is less with “Slaughterhouse” than with “Contact,” the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film in which Jodie Foster tries to contact an alien race and winds up seeing her long-dead, beloved father.
This one begins (or “begins”) similarly: We get 20 or so years in the life of a mother, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), and her daughter Hannah (various actresses), who, at the end, dies of cancer. The father is never in the picture. The synopsis is so expertly handled by screenwriter Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villenueve (“Sicario,” “Incendies”), that for a moment I flashed on Carl and Ellie’s preamble in “Up”—high praise. I particularly liked the quick cut between the young girl telling her mother “I love you” and the teenage girl saying “I hate you!”
But because it recalled “Contact,” I worried what the connection between Hannah and the aliens would be. I worried that the most momentous event in humankind—contact with an alien species—would once again be reduced to the personal tragedy of the protagonist.
Thankfully, “Arrival” is smarter than that. Dr. Jones, on her way to class, is the last to realize that 12 alien ships, looking like giant versions of the eggs from the “Alien” poster, have touched down, or slightly hovered above, 12 different places on Earth, including Montana. While China and Russia gird for war, we send in a linguist, Dr. Jones, and a scientist, Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner)—along with a few soldiers, of course. We’re not stupid.
There’s great tension, fear and wondrous mystery as they enter the ship for the first time and gravity ceases taking hold of them. I also like the early attempts to communicate—although I probably would’ve begun with “Hello/Hola/Ni hao” rather than “Human.” I also would’ve gone with “Why are you here?” before, for example, “Ian walks.” But then I’m no linguist.
The aliens—and there’s no way to state this without seeming to diminish the movie—are giant squid-like creatures who communicate with Louise from behind a glass partition. Their language is circular rather than linear. They squirt an ink-like cloud in the air that forms versions of circles that clump and form almost artistic ridges at different points. Our heroine’s goal is to figure out this language before the bastards of the Earth—Russia, China, or rogue soldiers within the U.S.—attack. Or, I suppose, before the aliens attack us. But this being an indie movie rather than a summer blockbuster, the likelihood of that is rather small.
We also get some false tension. At one point, Louise translates an alien pictograph as “weapon.” She tries to calm fears by saying that the aliens might not know the difference between “weapon” and, say, “tool.” But this is presupposing that she does, in their language. Meaning she can already parse that difference but can’t even ask them, “Why are you here?”
Seems a stretch.
And it turns out it’s not just the language of the aliens that’s circular—their concept of time is, too. And the more Louise learns their language, absorbs it, lives it, the more she begins to lose her own (our own) linear sense of time. She keeps flashing to moments with her daughter, and they’re less reveries than fugue states. She seems dazed, unsure where she is.
I’ll cut to the chase.
- Why are they here? They’ll need us in 3,000 years, which, to them, isn’t the future, but, you know, right over there.
- How does Louise save the day? By phoning Gen. Shang (Ma Tzi) and getting him to call off his attack by telling him something only he would know: his wife’s dying words.
- How does she find out Shang’s wife’s dying words? In the future, when the giant-squid aliens are part of a kind of bigger U.N., Gen. Shang will thank her for the phone call, and he will tell her both his personal phone number and his wife’s dying words. So she learns in our future what she’ll need in our present. But to her, of course, it’s all right over there.
Maybe my favorite part: The long-lost daughter is not past but epilogue. She’s the future—the result of Louise’s eventual marriage to Ian. Even her name, Hannah, a palindrome, reflects this origin. In other words, the personal story augments and deepens the story of alien contact, rather than reducing it as with “Contact.”
That said, “Arrival” is a good not a great movie. The ending is Pollyannaish—humans wreck everything, and they would most definitely wreck this. Suspicious masses would rise up and attack. But I liked that it was an effort to keep up intellectually with the movie. That’s rare. It was nice to see something smart in this dumbest month in American history.
Movie Review: Bad Moms (2016)
I can get behind bad moms; but “Bad Moms” is just bad.
It begins with Amy (Mila Kunis), a ridiculously pretty and super harried mom doing everything for everybody. She makes her kids breakfast, drives them to school, hands them their lunch (which she made) and their art projects (which she also made), goes to her part-time job (a kind of coffee company with a tech atmosphere), goes to a PTA meeting, goes grocery shopping, makes dinner, and helps the kids with their homework. The boy is spoiled and shrugging; the girl, 12, is anxiety-ridden about whether she’s going to get into Harvard. The husband is a T-shirt wearing, ruffle-haired doofus who is somehow also a high-paid stock broker. Plus he’s cheating on her. Online. Ironic since, in real life, men cheat online with Mila Kunis.
The point is she’s a ridiculous figure: nervous, forever running around in high heels, semi-cowed by the catty PTA moms, particularly the ultra-perfect PTA president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). Plus: she doesn’t allow her kids to grow the fuck up. She reminds me of Louis C.K.’s one-time nemesis, Jezandapuss’ “weak piece of shit” mom: “You’re raising Hitler, motherfucker, do your job!”
So what happens? She goes to the opposite extreme, of course. One day, like Popeye, it’s all she can stands. She refuses a task from the ever-demanding Gwendolyn, and she and two other moms go to a bar and get drunk. Then they go to a grocery store and create havoc—chugging a gallon of milk mixed with chocolate syrup, spilling half of it on themselves and the other half on the floor. They make a security guard flee and knock over a display. They abuse and harass minimum wage employees. All in slow-mo and to rock ‘n’ roll. It’s thesis/antithesis.
And in the final act? Right: synthesis. Plus all good things happen to her. She winds up with the hard-bodied Latino widower all the moms are crazy about (Jay Hernandez). She’s fired from her job but without her the company falls apart so she comes back at twice the salary + remote work days. Her daughter is pissed off but comes around; her spoiled son who couldn’t pour cereal makes a frittata; and she takes on and trounces the ultra perfect Gwendolyn for PTA president.
Hooray for synthesis!
There are a few good jokes. But what a waste of opportunity from writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who are best known for writing “The Hangover.” They also gave us “Four Christmases,” “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” and “The Change-Up. I think they owe us an apology.
Originally, the movie was supposed to be produced by Judd Apatow and star Leslie Mann, which could’ve worked. Leslie Mann would be perfect as the mom—nice looking but obviously a mom. Apparently Mila Kunis really is a mom, but c'mon. So the scene where she goes to a bar for the first time to try to pick up guys, and fails? Well, that ain’t exactly cinema vérité.
“Bad Moms” also does this odd thing of making everyone a cartoon, and then, in defeat, allowing them a sliver of humanity. So hubby Mike (David Walton) is a super-doofus until, post-divorce, Amy needs help and a hug; then he morphs into a regular guy. Gwendolyn is a major bitch—actually planting pot in Amy’s daughter’s locker to get her kicked off the soccer team—but after she loses the PTA-ship to Amy she cries in her car, and the two women bond. Then Gwendolyn takes Amy and her friends on her private plane because Hollywood has no clue what it’s like to be a person in America in 2016.
Five years ago, Kunis blew us all away in “Black Swan.” Since then? “Friends with Benefits,” “Oz the Great and Powerful,” and “Jupiter Ascending. And this. Who is helping her choose her movies—Ashton Kutcher?
Movie Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)
“A Bigger Splash” got good notices (90% on Rotten Tomatoes) when it was released (barely: 378 theaters) in the U.S. this spring. It has a dream cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts; Dakota Johnson impresses. It’s well directed by Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”). The movie promises, and delivers, sex—never a bad deal.
The problem? I got bored with the premise. It’s a Garden of Eden story where the snake is too obviously a snake. You watch and think, “You know, you really should get rid of that snake," and they don’t, and bad things happen, and who cares.
With a friend like Harry
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a rock star temporarily reduced to whispers after a throat operation, and nursed and pampered by her younger husband, Paul De Smedt (Schoenaerts), a hunky documentarian, as they vacation in Pantelleria, a remote Italian island in the Mediterranean. They’re having a post-coital moment on the beach when her phone rings. It’s Harry Hawkes (Fiennes), music producer (Rolling Stones, etc.), and, it turns out, her former lover. He’s talking so much he doesn’t even realize he’s talking to Paul. He’s on a plane. To the island. He’s landing in five minutes “with a surprise.” Then the flight attendant forces him to hang up and the shadow of the plane passes over Paul and Marianne’s idyllic spot. Nice bit.
The surprise is his daughter, Penelope (Johnson), Pen for short, whom he didn’t know he had until a year earlier, and with whom he’s overly affectionate in a creepy, Donald Trumpian kind of way.
Who they are is revealed after a dinner in an absurd outdoor restaurant in the hills/graves of the island. Harry and Pen have no place to stay, so Marianne finally offers their rented villa. This is their reaction.
Harry: Oh Christ, that took forever.
Pen: Is there a pool?
His reaction made me laugh, hers made me roll my eyes. It gets worse. Harry, with his boundless, narcissistic energy, takes over. He fills their refrigerator with booze—even though Paul is an alcoholic. He tries to get Marianne to sing—even though she’s not supposed to talk. Without asking, he invites over a mother and daughter, who aren’t exactly horrible, but they’re not worth anyone’s time. They’re actually perfectly done. They’re exactly the type of people Harry might invite, and exactly the type you wouldn’t want around. As viewer, too, sadly.
How snakey is Harry? He's trying to break them up. He fixed them up in the first place, six years earlier, but now he wants Marianne back. Is that why Pen? For a time, I wondered if she was a plant, meant to seduce Paul, or if that was her own idea. Mostly she walks ahead of everyone, self-contained, a smirk at the ready. I longed to see her age.
Halfway through the film, our foursome splits into two groups: Marianne and Harry go shopping (he seems to know the island better than she), while Paul and Pen go on a mindless, uninteresting hike. Do they do it? She strips for him and lays down on some rather uncomfortable-looking rocks, but the filmmakers leave it up in the air. Nothing subtle about Marianne and Harry, though, who are doing it standing up in the hallway off the kitchen, until, mid-coital, she tells him she’s not leaving Paul; she’s happy with Paul. Tensions mount at dinner (with all of them), and late that night by the pool (Harry and Paul).
Here’s a good little speech Harry gives Paul:
We were friends. Better than brothers. Better than all those shits in their lofts talking about who the fuck cares what, and now you just ... You just tolerate me. Do you know how offensive that is to me? Think what you want, judge the hell out of me, but don't fucking tolerate me.
It's half profound, half bullshit, and unfortunately no one is given rejoinders to Harry’s bullshit: As in: “Well, that’s what happens when you show up unnoticed, don’t give a shit about anyone else, and try to steal my wife.” Nobody says the obvious, but within the movie the obvious keeps happening. As in:
- They’re going to fight here, aren’t they?
- Harry is going to pull him in the pool, right?
- I think one of them is going to die. Probably Harry.
- Yep, Harry.
Is it an epiphany if others realize it first?
For the last half hour the tension in the movie is: “Does Paul get away with it?” but by then I'd stopped caring. Either he gets caught or this thing hangs over them forever. Eden is done; the snake has won. After Paul confesses his crime to Marianne, she frets and struggles and does what she can to protect him, but I kept thinking, “You do realize he’s still a murderer.” She realizes it, too: in the final shot of the film. She goes from the euphoria of Paul’s exoneration to this epiphany. The one I had 15 minutes earlier.
There’s also an 11th-hour reveal that Pen is 17, not 22. Then she cries on the plane home. For Harry? For herself? What a shit she is?
The acting was great, locales beautiful, some subtle Hitchcockian/neo-realism touches throughout. The character of Harry is a nice stretch for Fiennes, who usually plays prim and reserved. But the Garden of Eden needs a subtler snake.
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)
The point of the Magnificent Seven, and the Seven Samurai before them—you might even say the beauty of these guys—is that they do the deed for the deed. They may have qualms about it, they may not always be the best men, and the villagers they protect aren’t exactly pure; but it’s still a noble, selfless act amid a (for them) pyrrhic victory.
The 2016 update of “The Magnificent Seven” by Antoine Fuqua changes a few things—names, locale, victims, the ethnic makeup of the Seven—but the biggest and most uncommented-upon change is the motivation of team leader Chisolm (Denzel Washington), which isn’t revealed until the final act.
Turns out the villain they’re fighting? The rich, 19th-century industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, overacting by underacting), who rules the mining town of Rose Creek with a sadistic, powerful, and blasé finger? Chisolm knows him! In fact, ol’ Bartholomew killed Chisolm’s wife and kids way back when. He tried to kill Chisolm, too (cue: neck scar reveal) but our man didn’t die. Or maybe, a la certain Clint Eastwood heroes, he’s a vengeful ghost or something.
The point is, Chisolm doesn’t do the deed for the deed, as Chris and Shimada did before him. He does it for revenge. For him, it’s personal.
This changes everything about the story. Worse, he doesn’t even tell any of the rest of the Seven that he's got skin in the game. He gathers them, and gets them to do the deed for the deed, even as he’s doing it for the most personal reasons possible. He lies, essentially. Our hero lies.
I gotta ask: Who on the filmmaking team thought this was a good idea? Fuqua? Screenwriters Richard Wenk (“The Expendables 2”) or Nic Pizzolatto (HBO's “True Detective”)? Denzel? Some suit? Has anyone accepted credit? Or blame?
Chisolm’s motivation also allows for one of the worst tropes in modern action movies: the slow, sadistic death of the villain. For decades now we’ve gone Old Testament; we want our eye for an eye. We want the villain to suffer as he made others suffer. “I seek righteousness, but I’ll take revenge,” says Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, forever spilling cleavage). That’s us. We want to be both moral and sadistic. We get it here. Slower. Slower. Make it last. We’re sick puppies.
Overall, Denzel is in fine form, the final battle is surprisingly well-orchestrated and well-told, and it’s always nice to see Vincent D’Onofrio. But most of the Seven aren’t interesting. Fuqua gives them race (the Mexican, the Native American, the Asian guy) but no personality. Personality is still for the white dudes (Pratt, Hawke, D'Onofrio).
Most importantly, Chisolm's motivation fucks up the most beautiful part of the story.