Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Although the "X-Men" franchise is one that is in danger of running out of steam due to the fact that a new chapter pops up every other year and has been doing so for more than a decade-and-a-half, this latest one - despite the inclusion of a few silly sequences - is a pretty good one. And this is mostly due to the fact that it has such a top notch cast, all of whom make the characters come to life more than the script would require them to do so.

There are too many characters and back stories and plot twists to lay out here, but suffice it to say that an ancient Egyptian with super powers (played by a game Oscar Isaac, whose character is given a majority of the silliest sequences) who may be the first mutant comes back to life and - since this is a summer blockbuster - the fate of mankind hangs in the balance. For once, I'd like to see a blockbuster with lower stakes - say, for instance, the fate of a two-mile radius is in danger. I digress.

Isaac's character - whose name keeps changing, but let's call him Apocalypse since at least one character does the same - is introduced in one of the picture's goofier scenes when the Egyptian is buried under a mountain of rock after a ritual is thwarted. Some thousands of years later, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, bringing the right amount of gravitas) is overseeing the training of pupils at his school for mutants, which includes some familiar characters in the form of new faces - such as Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Kodi-Smit McPhee as Nightcrawler.

Magneto (Michael Fassbender, always great) is given some new depth as we find him living in the woods of Eastern Europe, working at a mine and living with a new wife and child. Tragedy again strikes - how many can this guy take, seriously? - and the newly risen Apocalypse enlists Magneto and a few others (including a spunky Alexandra Shipp as Storm) to help him with his world dominance and the like.

An amusing element of the film is how it is set in 1983 during the heart of the Cold War and, similar to other X-Men films, uses the time period for thematic relevance, in this case the nuclear arms race. A Eurythmics song is also put to good use.

Not surprisingly, all of this adds up to a lot of sturm und drang in the picture's second half. And although I'm a little worn out on these type of apocalyptic blockbusters and super hero movies in which a band of few battles a maniacal superpower for the fate of all mankind, I had a pretty good time with this one. It helps when you care about the characters.

So, no, "X-Men: Apocalypse" doesn't exactly take this genre into uncharted territory, but it does a mostly solid job, thanks to a very good cast playing characters that are given a little more depth and personality than you'd typically expect for this type of thing. Bryan Singer, who directed this latest X-Men movie and has contributed several films to the series, is obviously the best pick to keep this franchise going - as I'm very sure it will.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Review: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
If you enjoyed "Neighbors," then you'll likely feel the same about its sequel as it is almost exactly the same story as the original. The only difference between the 2014 original and this one is that this follow-up features a sorority - rather than a frat - house moving next door to the beleaguered couple played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne.

As the film opens, Mac (Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Byrne) are purchasing a new home and moving out of the old one, but the catch is that their old property is in escrow for 30 days while the prospective buyers take the time to give the home the once-over. Much to the Radners' dismay, a sorority house led by a spunky girl named Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz) moves into the house once occupied by Teddy (Zac Efron) and his frat brothers.

The actual reason for the sorority's existence is fairly compelling. Shelby and two of her friends - who, at this point, are still living in college dorms - are disappointed to hear as they consider rushing sororities that only frat houses are allowed to throw parties. They are further put off after attending a frat party, which they accurately later describe as "rapey." So, when Shelby and the gang rent the house next to the Radners, we want to cheer for them as they defy the rules of the sexist system being upheld at their college.

Efron returns as Teddy, whose friends have moved on to jobs and marriage (Dave Franco's Pete is gay and soon to be married). Teddy, on the other hand, is leading a stunted life and, at first, is compelled by the concept of mentoring Shelby's sorority house, pitting him once again against the Radners. However, the girls soon tire of Teddy's antics and he switches teams, helping the Radners come up with methods - including bed bugs and a phone call placed to Shelby's father, played by Kelsey Grammer - of driving the sorority out of the house next door.

There are some laughs to be found within, even though many of the jokes - airbags are put to use once again and condoms are switched out for tampons as weapons used against the Radners' home - feel recycled. There's a certain poignancy involving Efron's goofy Teddy, who comes to realize the errors of his ways, especially in how he and his frat brothers viewed women, as well the sorority's fight for equal rights to party, although the filmmakers mostly utilize this concept merely to show that women can be just as raunchy as men.

Ultimately, "Neighbors 2" isn't a bad movie, just an unnecessary one - a film determined by marketing and box office. Most of the film's cast is game, which counts for something, and I found myself laughing during a handful of sequences. But this concept, which was already a little thin, has been thoroughly exhausted.

Review: The Nice Guys

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. 
Shane Black's 1970s-based action comedy "The Nice Guys" opens with a young boy flipping through the pages of a skin magazine and ogling the naked body of Misty Mountains, a porn actress and model, right before an out-of-control car comes crashing through his house. In a twist of fate that's more than a little difficult to swallow, the car's passenger happens to be Misty Mountains, who lies dying on the ground topless as the boy stands there gaping. He then proceeds to cover her chest with a shirt.

Black's film follows two characters who - much like that boy - attempt to do what they believe is the right thing, although they are far from perfect. Russell Crowe's Jackson Healy is a hulking enforcer who gets paid to send messages via punches to the face and broken bones, while Ryan Gosling's Holland March is an alcoholic, widower detective with a young daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice) who is the only person that inspires him to be a better person.

Jackson and Holland first meet when the former arrives at the home of the latter to tell him to stop tailing a client before proceeding to fracture his arm. Shortly afterward, they find themselves paired up in a mystery to find a missing woman who may have had ties to Misty Mountains and was involved in a porno film with an environmental message that some shadowy characters are attempting to prevent seeing the light of day. They are hired by Kim Basinger, playing a bigwig at the Department of Justice, whose daughter is the missing girl.

Story-wise, "The Nice Guys" follows in the tradition of conspiratorial L.A. noir such as "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential," but it's more of a comedy than a thriller. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, from an early flashback sequence in which Healy finds out that his wife has been cheating on him to March's bumbling antics, especially one involving a balcony and the detective play-acting with a woman at a party that he has been shot. Another amusing ongoing gag is that Holly is much smarter and stealthier than both her father and the lunkhead Healy.

But while Black's film is mostly fun and often enough funny, it's also a little lightweight. Its 1970s background merely provides an excuse for some disco music and Kiss on the soundtrack as well as era-appropriate clothing, while a conspiracy involving Detroit auto makers is never fully fleshed out and a conversation between Basinger and the two detectives on that matter near the end of the picture feels as if it's too little, too late. Some other questionable sequences include one in which March dreams of a large insect in the backseat of his car (don't ask) and another during which a foul mouthed young boy talks to the private eyes outside a burnt-down house.

But all in all, "The Nice Guys" is a fun movie. Gosling shows some definite possibility as a comedic leading man, while Crowe's straight man even gets a few laughs. And even if the picture ends in the type of shootout you'd expect from Black - who is responsible for the "Lethal Weapon" screenplay as well as "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" - the film also works well enough as an action movie. Even if it occasionally feels rambling or cluttered, it's a better-than-average summer movie that is engrossing and good for at least a few laughs.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Money Monster

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Jodie Foster's "Money Monster" can't be faulted for good intentions and, for the most part, it's a well made thriller that occasionally reaches for the obvious and, in some instances, the downright unbelievable. It's skillfully made, well acted, more often than not entertaining and a little farfetched.

While last year's "The Big Short" and Ramin Bahrani's underrated "99 Homes" divulged a fair amount of information you might not have known about the economic and housing market crashes, respectively, "Money Monster" doesn't tell you a whole lot you likely don't already know about Wall Street greed. The filmmakers are obviously informed, but the picture is more interested in being a vessel for channeling rage and relying on tense drama for entertainment purposes than for educating.

As the film opens, George Clooney's smarmy Lee Gates is hosting the titular financial TV show via the help of his producer, Patty (Julia Roberts). Although these early scenes are effective, they also include a few moments involving Clooney's character and a few back-up dancers that are, well, a bit embarrassing.

Thankfully, those awkward moments are interrupted when an angry young man named Kyle (Jack O'Connell) takes Lee hostage while live on the air, demanding answers after having lost all his money on a stock for which Lee vouched. The company's CEO (Dominic West) blames the stock's plummet on a mysterious glitch.

The film mostly plays as if it's taking place in real time as Lee and Patty, who is clearly the smartest person in the room, scramble for answers and attempt to track down West's shady Walt Camby, who may or may not have engaged in some dirty dealings that led to the stock's crash.

The film channels some of the anger that has been witnessed during this election cycle, although it is more in line with Bernie Sanders' populist anti-Wall Street campaign than Donald Trump's racial scapegoating one. And while it may have its heart in the right place, some of the elements in "Money Monster" are difficult to swallow.

The picture features a scenario that is obviously complex, although its characters manage to unravel it during the course of a morning through a few phone calls and clicks of the computer. And while Kyle is supposed to draw our sympathies - and does so later in the film - he, at first, comes off as unhinged and with his thick New Jersey accent, a stereotype of blue collar America. A scene in which his pregnant girlfriend dresses him down over a computer is awkward and a subplot involving police officers trying to shoot a bomb device off Clooney's shirt stretches credibility about as far as it can be stretched.

That being said, "Money Monster" is tense and, for the most part, works as a thriller. Clooney does a nice job playing a compromised guy who realizes he can do better, while Roberts is very effective as the voice in his ear, acting both as Lee's instruction guide on how to stay alive and his conscience. If "Money Monster" doesn't reveal much we don't already know about Wall Street, it works well enough as a hostage thriller. It's far from perfect, but is a decent piece of entertainment that, at least, attempts to tackle weighty subject matter in a movie season mostly filled with fluff.

Review: Sunset Song

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Determinedly old school in style and pace and both intimate and epic in nature, Terence Davies' "Sunset Song" is a gorgeous - both visually and for its central performance - and somber tale of a young woman's education via the school of hard knocks at the dawn of World War I.

Davies's films - whose works include the elegiac pair of World War II and post-war dramas "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes" as well as the acclaimed "The House of Mirth" and "The Deep Blue Sea" - are often compared to those of Terrence Malick in that they are frequently period pieces that rely more on imagery than story and have a dreamlike quality to them.

His latest, "Sunset Song," is just as visually stunning as his previous works, but it's a surprising departure in that it's an intimate character piece featuring a dazzling lead performance by Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, the brave heroine of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel of the same name. The term "star-making performance" gets thrown around a lot, but if Deyn's work here doesn't lead to her becoming a household name, then I don't know what would.

Chris lives on a secluded Scottish farm with her family in the years leading up to World War I. Her father, played by a fierce Peter Mullan, is a hard man who rules with an iron fist, impregnating Chris's mother again and again against her will and doling out vicious beatings on Chris's older brother. After her brother departs for a better life and several tragedies strike, Chris finds herself attempting to hold down the farm on her own.

Her neighbors - mostly men - take an interest in seeing that Chris succeed and just when we think that their intentions aren't all above-board, we find ourselves surprised at the goodness of others. Chris eventually takes in an older woman who helps with work on the farm and finds herself in a budding romance with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), an acquaintance of her brother. They eventually marry and life appears to be on the up and up, that is, until World War I intrudes and despite Chris's pleas for Ewan not to enlist, his fellow townsmen throwing rocks through his window and calling him a coward eventually win the day.

I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Ewan returns from his first tour of duty and Chris finds herself with new challenges. Although the supporting work from the film's cast - especially Mullan and Guthrie - is very good, the film is carried on the shoulders of Deyn, whose performance recalls great film heroines of the past that could have been played by Olivia de Havilland or Ingrid Bergman.

"Sunset Song" moves at its own pace and is old fashioned in style and storytelling, although it occasionally takes us to darker and more harrowing places than you might expect from a picture of this type. Davies' work frequently focuses on the first half of the 20th century and provides detailed views of how lives were led during the World War years in England and, in "Sunset Song," Scotland. His movies capture the lives of people in those eras from the songs they sing to the manners in which they gather round a table to have a meal.

"Sunset Song," much like Davies' best films, feels lived in. And Deyn fully embodies the character of Chris Guthrie, resulting in one of the year's most memorable characters and performances. For moviegoers with the patience for a slowly paced - but visually and narratively captivating - film, I can't recommend this one highly enough.

Review: The Lobster

Image courtesy of A24.
It's been said that there are seven basic plots in everything from literature to film - and then, there's the work of Thomas Pynchon, "Being John Malkovich" and, now, "The Lobster." If nothing else, director Yorgos Lanthimos gets credit for coming up with something so peculiar and utterly original, even if it occasionally risks reaching the point of indulgence and dragging on a little longer than it should. Regardless, it's one of the strangest films I've seen in some time and unlike virtually anything else, that is, other than Lanthimos' other works.

For those unfamiliar with the filmmaker, he burst onto the scene with 2010's utterly deranged "Dogtooth," which cracked my top 20 that year and has to be the most unusual film to ever get nominated for an Academy Award (in the foreign film selection). His follow-up, "Alps," remained true to the director's style, but was less successful.

"The Lobster," which is the director's first foray into English, features a continental cast and one of the most delirious premises of recent years. Set at some point in the future, human beings are required by law to have significant others and those who fail to do so are transferred to a hotel, where they have 45 days to fall in love or get turned into an animal and set free in the woods.

Colin Farrell plays a sad sack named David who has arrived at the hotel shortly after being dumped by his wife for another man. There, he befriends a couple other bachelors, including John C. Reilly's lisping American and Ben Whishaw's determined and limping Brit. David's attempts to meet women at the hotel mostly fail - there's a young woman with constant nosebleeds whom Whishaw's character manages to snag through subterfuge and another woman whom the hotel's guests refer to as "heartless," although that ends up being an understatement.

As the time draws close for David's transformation into the titular animal - the hotel's staff appears impressed that he chose to be a crustacean, whereas most guests want to be dogs - he decides to make a run for it and ends up in the woods, where a rebellion is brewing. The catch is that the revolutionaries have imposed their own set of laws that stipulate its members must remain single and its leader - played by a steely Lea Seydoux - is strict on enforcing them.

And naturally - since this is a comedy - David finds himself attracted to and increasingly falling in love with a fellow comrade played by Rachel Weisz (most of the characters are not given names) and the two of them devise a system of sign language that allows them to express themselves without being caught.

As I've mentioned, "The Lobster" is an extremely odd film, almost to the point of being precious, but its darker elements and deadpan humor keep it on the right track. My one quibble is that the film doesn't know when to end and a plotline involving David and Weisz's character planning to flee their group gets dragged out a little too long. The film ends on a note that could be read as either despairing or absurdist, but is - if nothing else - certainly open ended.

The film makes great use of its landscapes, whether it's the woods where David takes up with the rebellion or the spare but stylish grounds of the hotel. Lanthimos' film is filled with great visual gags - such as a final farewell between a character and a friend who has been turned into a pony and a scene of relative seriousness interrupted by a wandering camel in the background.

If "The Lobster" doesn't quite relay any greater truths amid its weirdness - as Spike Jonze's dazzling "Being John Malkovich" did - it's still a unique vision that is frequently hilarious and just as often melancholy. Its depiction of loneliness often feels spot-on as does its portrayal of the awkwardness involved in burgeoning romantic relationships. For me, "Dogtooth" is Lanthimos' finest work to date, but "The Lobster" is well worth a view, especially for fans of esoteric, absurdist or offbeat cinema.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Review: Dheepan

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Much like one of this week's other art-house films - "A Bigger Splash" - Jacques Audiard's latest, "Dheepan," which won the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, starts out as a simple story before genre trappings seep in during the finale, although Audiard's film does so more convincingly.

The picture follows the story of the titular character - played with some serious gravitas by Jesuthasan Antonythasan - who sheds his identity and pairs up with a young woman named Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) and an even younger one known as Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby) to form a fictional family in order to gain entry from France after fleeing war in Sri Lanka.

Although little detail is given, we know that Dheepan fought in that war, was among the few surviving members of his squad and, in all likelihood, committed some horrible acts that he'd like to forget. He doesn't actually know Yalini or Illayaal, both of whom have lost most of their families in their home country, and the three attempt to get to know one another so that they can convincingly portray a family when applying for citizenship.

Dheepan lands a job as the caretaker at a particularly rundown housing project that is overrun by gangs and drug dealers and Yalini is hired to take care of an elderly disabled man whose son happens to be the drug kingpin at the project. This man enjoys Yalini's cooking and, for a time, Dheepan and his family are treated with favor by the tenants at the project.

But a few unfortunate run-ins transpire, including Dheephan's discovery that one of his former commanders in Sri Lanka has moved into the same project and, much worse, Dheepan gets into a scuffle with a drug dealer after having been in an argument with Yalini. At the same time, Dheepan and his fake wife begin to develop an actual relationship that is tender and convincing, while Yalini begins to behave like an actual mother to the lonely Illayaal.

As I'd mentioned before, some plot developments occur late in the picture involving a war between rival drug dealers and Dheepan and his family find themselves caught in the middle. The picture goes from being an occasionally tense - but often moving - immigrant tale to a bloody action movie during the finale and although a sequence during which Dheepan takes action is a bit far-fetched, it's also gripping and very well made.

For those unfamiliar with Audiard's work, his pictures typically tell gritty stories about persons on the outskirts of society who find themselves surrounded by - and occasionally drawn into - violence. My favorite Audiard picture is his powerful gangster drama "A Prophet," although "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" and "Rust and Bone" are also noteworthy. "Dheepan" is a gripping immigration story, but also a powerful and convincing tale of makeshift families. And the performances by its lead trio - none of whom have much previous acting experience - are very impressive. I'd highly recommend it.

Review: A Bigger Splash

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Luca Guadagnino's "A Bigger Splash" has a terrific cast and is gorgeous to look at, but I'm not convinced that it knows which of its myriad of stories going on is the central one. At times, the film is a drama about a celebrity and her recovery and then, at others, it's a relationship drama between two different pairs of people. Then, it's a tense drama about the uncomfortableness caused when someone from one of the characters' pasts shows up and wreaks havoc. Finally - and least convincingly - it's a not-quite-thriller and not-exactly-police-procedural, but somewhere in between.

Despite my not being completely taken with the picture, "A Bigger Splash" offers much to recommend. Similar to Guadagnino's "I Am Love," it's visually stunning, whether we're staring over the mountains that surround the central villa where it is set or watching a vehicle travel down a winding path with the sun setting.

The cast is a particularly strong one. Tilda Swinton never speaks in more than a whisper as Marianne Lane, a rock star who has undergone a vocal operation and is not supposed to talk. She's spending some time alone with her younger lover, a documentary filmmaker named Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, at their villa, but two guests show up - a good-time-Charlie record producer named Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who was once in business and love with Marianne, and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who clearly wants to stir the pot and make everyone at the villa uncomfortable.

The film's first half is fairly successful, creating a sense of the relationships past and present between these people, although Penelope remains a bit of a mystery. Fiennes, whose character plays the agent provocateur, is especially memorable as Harry, who is unafraid to make a fool of himself dancing drunkenly in front of others to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue," singing karaoke to a bar full of people eyeing Marianne, who can't sing due to her recent surgery, and promenading around the villa completely naked.

Tensions begin to rise between the couples following an afternoon during which Marianne and Harry spend time together and Paul takes Penelope on a hike to a deserted beach. This then leads to a kerfuffle between two characters, which ends up coloring the entire final third of the film. I can't say too much without giving important plot details away, so I'll just mention that the direction in which the film goes didn't particularly work for me. The picture suddenly becomes about something much more dramatic but, to me, less compelling once the genre cliches kick in.

Guadagnino's films capture a certain aura - stylish Italian films of the 1960s and 1970s - as well as milieus - namely, well-to-do European circles - and "A Bigger Splash" is best when it's mining that material. When it unexpectedly veers off into almost-thriller territory, it began to lose me. The cast is very good and the film is nothing if not scenic, but Guadagnino's movie - which, I should mention, is based to an extent on the 1969 film "La Piscine" - feels like a picture in which there are two competing stories and it so happens that the less compelling one finally wins out.

Review: Captain America: Civil War

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Some slightly annoying and simplistic views of diplomacy and government aside, "Captain America: Civil War" is a pretty decent summer movie/comic book extravaganza that rolls out many of the expected themes of this series as well as a bevy of characters from various franchises, but also some new faces that nearly upstage the old ones.

Faring much better than the other recent superhero clash - "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice," the third "Captain America" picture and, let's be honest, umpteenth unofficial sequel to the "Avengers," finds its heroes pondering some of the same topics last discussed in "The Winter Soldier" - the concept of safety versus liberty and the like.

The film opens with several of the Avengers battling villains in Lagos, which results in a fair amount of destruction and, accidentally, the loss of innocent lives, in part, thanks to the Avengers themselves. In steps William Hurt as a government bureaucrat who wants there to be some sort of monitoring of the Avengers who have, thus far, gone unchecked. The thing this film's creators fail to understand, however, is: he's sorta right. And so is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the rest of the Avengers who agree with him.

But, of course, we're dealing with a Hollywood blockbuster and, so, the government figures are seen as sneering and shifty characters with agendas, while Captain America and his faction of the Avengers who want no oversight are the gods tasked with saving us mortals and, therefore, should be beyond repute. Diplomacy and the United Nations also catch a bad rap here because the filmmakers find a way to make the plot contrive it in the Cap's favor.

Regardless, this sets up a battle between Captain America and his allies - including Falcon, Bucky Barnes, Hawkeye and several others - against Stark and his pals, including Black Widow and War Machine. But the MVPs in this film go to the newbies who bring a breath of fresh air to the proceedings, such as Spider-Man, played charmingly as a motor mouth high schooler by Tom Holland, and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), an African prince who dons the costume and kicks all manor of ass after his father, the king, is assassinated.

There is also, of course, a villain - a Serkovian general named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) who wants to get revenge on the Avengers for a specific reason that I won't divulge. He's also the one responsible for setting off the titular war between Captain America's and Iron Man's allies. And his whole reason for being sort of justifies what Stark has been arguing - that their unchecked power has, in a way, contributed to - rather than detracted from - the number of villains that constantly pop up in these movies.

There are some solid set pieces in the film, proving that filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo - who directed the series' second entry, which featured that terrific shootout involving Samuel L. Jackson in a vehicle - are good choices for this franchise. The best sequence, naturally, is the one in which the Avengers battle among themselves, not only because it is exciting and well choreographed, but also because it provides the most opportunities for levity, mostly thanks to Holland's Spider-Man and Paul Rudd's Ant Man, who drops by for a few.

So, while I'm still pretty fatigued on comic books movies - and will likely be more so by the end of this summer season, which promises more - this is a pretty good one. It's fun, well made and acted and has more on its mind than your typical barrage of special effects, even if the way it presents its themes is, on occasion, a bit bungled. It's a decent way to start the summer movie season.