Archive for May, 2016


This year’s already seen the release of three major superhero films and it’s hard not to get burnt out on their familiar tricks. But the release of the year’s fourth big budget superhero movie – X-Men: Apocalypse – proves that the genre still has some life in it. The X-Men franchise has always been a step above most other comic book franchises and that’s mostly because of their choice in cast and directors. This may not be the best film in the franchise (that title still belongs to 2014’s excellent X-Men: Days of Future Past) but this is still a great film filled with awesome visuals, great characters and memorable action. It’s easily the year’s best blockbuster so far and the best superhero movie to come along since its predecessor.

Thousands of years ago, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) rose to power as the world’s first mutant. He had the ability to transfer into different bodies whenever he wanted and this allowed him to absorb numerous powers from other mutants. But he was eventually buried at the base of a great pyramid and he stayed that way until 1983. When he once again awakens, he sets out to purge the world of any non-mutants by recruiting four followers that he imbues with great power: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). As Apocalypse begins to cause mayhem and destruction around the world, it’s going to take Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and a bunch of younger heroes to stop him.

It’s a fairly simple story of good versus evil and a nice change of pace from the complex themes of other entries in the franchise. A lot of the film relies on the portrayal of the villain and Apocalypse is one of the most memorable supervillains to come along in quite some time. Although he may be unrecognizable in the role, Isaac’s performance is perfectly menacing and powerful, while the design of the character is memorable and kind of frightening. The fact that they achieved this look through makeup and avoided using CGI or motion capture adds such a deal of weight to the character. He really feels like a legitimate part of the X-Men world and this focus on practical effects is what makes Apocalypse so much more intimidating than other powerful supervillains that are created using digital effects (Marvel’s Thanos comes to mind). Although his character and motivations are somewhat underdeveloped, he’s still a villain that commands the screen.

Praise then must go to director Bryan Singer, who continues to prove that his entries are easily the best in this franchise. It’s actually pretty crazy that he’s able to balance so many different characters, all of whom are given their moments to shine. The story and structure is admittedly a little all over the place, but it never feels confusing or bloated, even with a nearly two and a half hour runtime. The X-Men films simply feel more grand and cinematic than the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the majority of this is in the hands of the director. It also doesn’t hurt things that Apocalypse is a really dark film, more so than most people would be expecting. Children are killed, men get their heads lopped off by Apocalypse and, in one stunning sequence, Magneto even tears apart Auschwitz in a fit of rage. It’s safe to say that you may want to think twice before bringing your kids to this one.

Another reason why this movie might not interest children is its general lack of action. Some fanboys might be disappointed by this, but I found the focus on characters and story, rather than action and explosions, to be refreshing. But the action that is here is still very well done and much more memorable than in any other superhero film so far this year. The final extended action sequence is commendable in how all of the characters are able to work together and really feel like a team. Singer’s able to make the action easy to follow and the final thirty minutes of this film are much better than the airport fight scene in Captain America: Civil War that everyone seemed to be raving about. But the best action in the movie once again comes from Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who uses his speed to rescue an entire school from an explosion. Set to the tune of “Sweet Dream” by Eurythmics, it’s funny, visually interesting and a heck of a lot of fun. The scene may be a retread of his standout sequence in Days of Future Past, but it’s a retread that I had a blast with.

This franchise has always featured a great cast and Apocalypse is no exception. McAvoy continues to grow into the role of Professor X, delivering a performance that fits right alongside Patrick Stewart’s, while never feeling like a simple impression. Fassbender’s Magneto is put through the emotional ringer in this thing and he delivers what might be his best performance in the trilogy as a result. Lawrence once again does a fine job with the role of Mystique, but her portrayal is nowhere near as good as Rebecca Romijn’s in the original trilogy. Newcomers to the team include Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler. Out of the newcomers, Smit-McPhee is probably the best, although there’s something to be said about Turner’s ability to portray such a complex character.

Whereas the Marvel Cinematic Universe makes superhero movies, the X-Men franchise features films that just happen to be about superheroes. They’re superior in almost every way including visuals, story, score, performances and direction. Singer has great control over the material and his direction is so strong that it will make you wish he could direct every superhero film from now into the foreseeable future. As a fan of superheroes, these last couple years had me losing faith that this genre could wow me again. But, luckily, X-Men: Apocalypse is the superhero movie we’ve been waiting for.

X-Men: Apocalypse receives 3.5/4

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a perfect film for Disney. Not in terms of quality – it was actually very forgettable – but in terms of money. Not only did it make over a billion dollars worldwide, but it also set the trend for creating live action versions of classic Disney tales. But that film premiered right after Avatar blew everyone away with its 3D and the marketing for Alice in Wonderland capitalized on the popularity of this viewing experience. Now arriving a long six years after its predecessor, Alice Through the Looking Glass can’t rely on its 3D gimmick to succeed. But instead of trying to recapture the magic of Wonderland that was missing the first time around, the creative minds behind this film have produced something even more bland and uninteresting. It’s completely mediocre in almost every regard and it’s guaranteed to be forgotten not long after leaving the theater.

It’s been years since Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has visited her friends in Wonderland. Out in the real world, she’s become the captain of a ship and has just returned home from a voyage around the world. Upon her arrival she discovers that her former fiancé Hamish (Leo Bill) now runs her father’s company and is forcing Alice to sell her ship in order to save her mother’s (Lindsay Duncan) house. But soon Alice is once again transported to the world of Wonderland, where she is reunited with many of her fantastic friends. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is the only friend who isn’t happy to see her. Having previously thought that his family was killed by the Jabberwocky, the Hatter now has reason to believe that they are actually alive. As the Hatter’s health deteriorates, Alice decides that she must go back in time to find out what happened to his family. But to do so, she must confront the sinister being of Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen).

Director James Bobin has proven that he can be both clever and creative with the two latest Muppet movies, but here his creativity is completely stifled. There’s hardly anything to praise in the film, but there’s also not a lot to be critical of. It’s as if this was made by a machine that knows how to competently piece together a CGI-heavy movie, but has no rational thought into what would actually make a good film. The unique possibilities of Wonderland are endless, but Bobin doesn’t provide us with any interesting new set pieces or characters. Sure it’s fun to see Depp, Wasikowska and Helena Bonham Carter in these roles again, but that’s just not enough. Perhaps the screenplay by Linda Woolverton should have tried to be weird and different, instead of being predictably heartwarming. But ultimately, it’s the lack of imagination from everyone involved that makes the film so dull.

Alice Through the Looking Glass receives 2/4

In my review of the original Neighbors, I commented that although I loved how the characters and themes were handled in the film, there were simply too many big comedic moments that fell flat. It was overly raunchy and didn’t deliver enough laughs as one would have expected. Having recently rewatched that film, I can admit that I was probably a little too harsh on it. I still certainly wish that it was funnier, but it’s got a great premise and is incredibly well-directed by Nicholas Stoller. He once again returns to direct Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, a film that’s admittedly a step down from the original, but still a notch above most modern comedies. It’s rare that a comedy sequel ends up being a success and while that label might be a little too generous for this film, it’s certainly not a failure.

Several years after the rivalry of the first film, Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) discovers that she is pregnant with her second child, so she and her husband Mac (Seth Rogen) decide to finally sell their home. After purchasing an idyllic new house, they discover that their old house is in escrow for thirty days, meaning the couple that purchased it can back out at any point over the next month. This disappointing news becomes horrible once they discover that a young sorority has moved in next door. The couple tries to reason with Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), the group’s leader, but they soon learn that the sole purpose of this sorority is to throw parties outside of the frats. Things begin to get wild next-door and it’s only heightened by the arrival of Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron), who vows to help this new sorority out.

Neighbors worked as a film about two different groups of people who were afraid of growing older. Mac and Kelly were afraid of the commitment that being new parents would bring, so they chose to distract themselves from this responsibility by focusing on the war with Teddy. Teddy also didn’t want to grow older; about to graduate from college, he saw some of himself in the young couple, so his battle with them was a desperate attempt to hold onto his youth.

The main theme in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising doesn’t work quite as well, but it’s arguably more important. Shelby starts her own sorority to rebel against the sexism that is present in college Greek life. It’s pretty crazy to think that even today sororities can’t throw parties while fraternities can and the film ably skewers this lack of equality. Stoller and his cowriters also showcase the sexism that is inherent in frat parties, which often exists for the sole purpose of bringing in women for the brothers. It works as a progressive message and elevates the film above your typical comedy that features crude jokes about sex and drugs. The only downside is that this message doesn’t really affect Mac and Kelly at all. Whereas the first film showed parallels between the college kids and the parents, there isn’t much of a connection between the two in the sequel.

The humor here is sporadically successful, providing just enough laughs to satisfy moviegoers. A set piece taking place at a college football tailgate is easily one of the film’s highlights and Ike Barinholtz dressing up as a scary clown to casually blend in is easily the highlight of the sequence. Rogen and Byrne are still great together, with Byrne generating so many laughs based solely on her performance that it’s a wonder why more people don’t consider her one of the funniest screen comediennes of this generation. But just like the original film, the humor in this sequel sometimes goes too far, confusing raunchiness for genuine humor. A scene centered around vomit that opens the film is actually funny, but moments involving bloody tampons and a woman going into labor are not.

But even if some of the themes and the humor are shaky, it’s ultimately Stoller who brings everything together into a worthwhile experience. There are very few directors working today that are better at handling comedy than he is. Compared to other entries in this genre, the film is visually excellent and Stoller does a fantastic job editing together montages and extended comedic sequences. Even something as simple as Rogen’s character searching through different garbage bags feels fresh and exciting under his direction. Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is the rare comedy sequel that’s actually worth checking out.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising receives 2.5/4

Making people laugh isn’t easy, so you have to give props to any comedy that can generate big belly laughs. It usually takes a combination of comedic performances, clever writing, steady direction and focused editing to make audience laugh throughout a film’s entire runtime. Shane Black’s The Nice Guys is a great example of how all these elements can come together to form a stellar comedy. A buddy cop noir set in the groovy 1970s, it’s a great showcase for Black’s cool style and two great performances from Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe. It may not be about superheroes or dinosaurs, but this is one movie that you definitely do not want to miss this summer.

The year is 1977. Jackson Healy (Crowe)is a tough enforcer who will take any job that comes his way, while Holland March (Gosling) is a bumbling private investigator who can only seem to get hired by lonely old women. When March is hired by a woman to find her missing niece (Margaret Qualley), the two men are put on a collision course with each other. And while their initial meeting ends with a disagreement (as well as some broken bones), these “nice guys” end up working together to find this young woman and protect her from a group of men who seem to be killing everyone in their path. Their investigation exposes corruption and conspiracy at some of the highest levels of power, but they’ll need to figure out how to work together without killing one another if they want to solve the case.

First and foremost, The Nice Guys is a comedy and in that regard, it’s a huge success. Funny from its opening minutes all the way to its final scene, the film’s humor hardly ever misses a beat. Whether it’s the broad humor of dumping a body over a cliff and onto a dinner table, clever one-liners or even some of the more bizarre moments, practically every joke sticks the landing. No doubt Shane Black had a big part in this, but the film wouldn’t have been nearly as funny if it wasn’t for his two lead performances. Crowe is excellent in the role, delivering one of his most natural performances in years. He may not get the most laughs, but he’s the perfect foil to Gosling’s high-strung character. After having focused on overly serious roles for the last few years, it’s great to see Gosling let his comedic chops fly. He’s truly hilarious in the film and he’s responsible for the majority of the film’s big laughs. Whether it’s him cutting his hand while breaking into a building or trying to scream after finding a corpse, Gosling elevates every joke that he’s attached to.

Recreating a noir in its feeling, location and story, Black’s third feature is intentionally hard to follow, filled with so many characters and twists that it practically begs for repeat viewings. This is perfectly fine because The Nice Guys is such a good time that you’ll want to see it again regardless. Crowe and Gosling are so great together that a sequel actually seems like a great idea. It would be great to revisit this strange and hilarious world of the 1970s with two actors who I could watch work together all day. They’re like sugar and spice and The Nice Guys is everything nice.

The Nice Guys receives 3.5/4

It’s hardly a revelation that some of the rich tycoons who run Wall Street are crooked and yet it seems like every few months we’re given a film that examines the greed inherent in the American economic system. The latest of these is Money Monster, a thriller that attempts to show how the selfish decisions of the rich can shatter the lives of the poor. Directed by Jodie Foster, it’s a film that tries to be gripping and insightful at the same time, while somehow never managing to accomplish either. This is a pretty mediocre experience that’s really only elevated by its strong cast.

It begins as just another day on Wall Street for Lee Gates (George Clooney), the host of “Money Monster”, a television show that offers advice on the stock market. Gates’s guest was supposed to be Walt Camby (Dominic West), the CEO of a company who just lost investors $800 million after their trading algorithm suffered a glitch, but Camby was unable to attend the show. Instead, Gates is treated to a much more unexpected guest: a gunman named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell). Budwell is a blue-collar worker who lost $60,000 because of Gates’s advice to invest in Camby’s company. Budwell pulls out an explosive vest, straps it to Gates and demands that the cameras continue rolling so he can have an international platform to air his grievances about Wall Street. It’s going to take the charm of Gates and the quick thinking of the show’s director Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) to ensure that everybody makes it out of this alive.

With this premise and the fact that the film occurs seemingly in real time, you would think the hostage situation would be both intense and suspenseful, but Foster’s direction doesn’t generate a lot of excitement. Her filmmaking abilities are certainly competent, but she’s unable to do anything spectacular to elevate the film above its mediocre script. If the screenplay by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Kouf had done more than present surface level themes of greed and corruption, Foster’s unimaginative direction wouldn’t have mattered quite as much. But both the director and the screenwriters have landed directly in the realm of mediocrity, resulting in a film that feels very middle-of-the-road.

If it hadn’t been for the solid cast, there’s a chance that Money Monster would have been completely forgettable. Clooney and Roberts lead the pack and while their performances aren’t anything spectacular, they do elevate the material a great deal. The film’s third act might get a little ridiculous, but this is still pretty watchable. It’s not until the movie ends that you’ll realize how any potential generated from the setup is squandered in a mostly forgettable experience. It might not be worth seeing in theaters, but it’s probably the perfect movie to half-watch on cable on a rainy day.

Money Monster receives 2/4

We all love superheroes, but sometimes less is more. After having been treated to some excellent superhero team-up films like The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s become clear that simply throwing a bunch of different heroes into a single movie isn’t enough to impress anymore. It no longer feels like an event to have Iron Man fighting alongside Captain America and therein lies the problem with Captain America: Civil War. It’s a film that throws together more superheroes than we’ve ever seen together on the big screen, but it lacks an interesting story or memorable action to make anything standout. If this film had come out at the beginning of the recent superhero craze it probably would have felt incredible, but it’s hard not to watch this and feel numb to its effects.

In reality, this feels like two separate films that are mushed together and the two different storylines don’t always complement each other particularly well. The first major thread involves a disagreement that brews between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). When a group of the Avengers accidentally end up killing several civilians in Lagos, the Secretary of State (William Hurt) proposes that all of the superheroes sign an accord that would prevent them from acting on their own free will. If they agree to sign this document, they would be under the control of the United Nations, who would give the Avengers orders when they see fit. Stark is in favor of signing this document, while Captain America strongly opposes it.

The other major focus of the movie involves Captain America trying to help his friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan), who has been reprogrammed by Hydra into the Winter Soldier. When the headquarters of the United Nations in Vienna is bombed, Bucky is the prime suspect, although Captain America is still determined to prove his innocence. Stark sees this attack as even more reason for the heroes to sign the accord, but he’s unable to convince Captain America. This leads to a standoff, with half of the Avengers siding with Stark and the other half siding with Captain America. It may not be an easy choice, but everybody is going to have to choose a side and stick to it.

While Civil War is being marketed as The Avengers 2.5, the focus of the film is still mostly on Captain America and Tony Stark. And you have to give Marvel credit for effectively working so many different characters into a single story, without it ever feeling like an overload. Admittedly, certain characters probably aren’t given the attention they deserve and a reveal involving Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) would have been so much more satisfying in his own movie, but things definitely could have been much worse. But even if the screenplay from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is able to juggle so many different heroes, it’s all wasted on mediocre direction and a lack of vision from Anthony and Joe Russo.

The Russo Brothers have proven that they know how to film a big budget picture, but their inability to direct compelling action has become more apparent with each Marvel film they make. Their action sequences are too frantically edited, cutting way too often and refusing to let a scene breathe. In a sequence where Bucky grabs a motorcycle and hops onto it in one quick motion, the Russo Brothers cut together at least three different shots in less than a second and completely distract from what should have been a cool action moment. It’s this over-editing that creates a lack of coherence in most of these big action scenes; it’s often difficult to tell what is going on and what everybody is immediately doing.

But it’s clear that the majority of the Russo Brothers’ attention was on the big 17-minute airport fight between the two groups of heroes. And you would think that this would be the moment that dazzles the audience, making grown men feel like children again. Sadly, this isn’t the case and the extended fight sequence is blandly directed, weakly choreographed and generally uninteresting. This is an action set piece that hardly feels like an action set piece. If it wasn’t for the fan-favorite heroes at the center of this fight, hardly a single moment would feel memorable and nothing about it feels extraordinary. The Russo Brothers are certainly no Joss Whedon and the dullness of this big sequence has me worried about their involvement in the next Avengers sequel.

While the direction of this big sequence feels completely mediocre, there is one element that at least makes it somewhat fun to watch: Spider-Man. Tom Holland is a joy to watch as Spider-Man, perfectly capturing the sarcastic quips and fun nature of the web-slinging hero. It feels like casting a younger version of Spider-Man was a smart move and I can’t wait to see Holland further flesh out his character. It’s a testament to Holland’s performance that I’m much more excited for the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming than The Avengers: Infinity War. The other new addition to the cast is Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. While he isn’t quite the scene-stealer that Spider-Man is, Black Panther is a welcome addition to the Avengers team. His unique costume and interesting background make him far more interesting than most of the other secondary heroes in the film.

The prospect of Iron Man and Captain America fighting was sure to excite Marvel fans, but the finished product is a disappointment that brings hardly anything new or interesting to the table. Remember that feeling of joy you experienced while watching The Avengers fight together for the first time? Well Captain America: Civil War has twice as many heroes doing battle with each other and it’s unable to generate even a fraction of that wonder or excitement. If all you’re looking to do is turn your brain off and stare at the screen while a dozen superheroes fight each other for a few minutes, this movie will scratch your itch. Beyond that, it’s sure to be forgotten by most when the summer movie season concludes.

Captain America: Civil War receives 2/4

A lot of people turn up their noses at overly violent films. And while violence can certainly be exploitative, it can also be effective given the right circumstances. Director Jeremy Saulnier uses violence to deliver exciting results in Green Room, a standoff thriller that is sure to shock and surprise. Like most genre films, it’s thematically shallow and character development is practically non-existent, but that hardly matters for a film about a punk rock band being held captive by a group of neo-Nazis. It’s best to just sit back and enjoy the ride, provided that you’ve got a strong stomach.

“The Ain’t Rights” are a punk rock band who are travelling the country in a large van, siphoning gas and surviving on whatever money they can scrounge up at shows. They arrive in Oregon for a gig at a small bar, but soon realize that the establishment is run by neo-Nazis. After playing a set that angers everybody in the crowd, the band leaves the stage, only to realize that all of their gear has been moved out of the green room. While being ushered out of the club, the band’s female member Sam (Alia Shawkat) realizes that she forgot her cellphone and heads back into the room, only to discover a young woman who has been stabbed to death. Pat (Anton Yelchin) and the band’s other members want to call for help, but the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) is intent on eliminating any witnesses.

This is a film that thrives on its suspense and violence, but nothing really happens for the first 20 minutes of the movie. We watch the band drive around the country and get interviewed by a local radio DJ, but the characters are so thinly realized that it’s hard to care about anything that they’re doing. It’s not until they actually get to the bar and witness the murder that things really kick into high gear. As events begin to spiral out of control, it’s often difficult to understand what exactly is happening and why people are behaving in certain ways, but this is something that feels true to what would actually happen in a situation like this. It’s commendable that the film feels as grounded and realistic as it does, especially with its use of violence.

The first overly violent moment is sure to draw gasps from audience members, both with its portrayal and who is in on the receiving end of it. The violence actually heightens the suspense and makes you feel like anything can happen at any given time. Like Saulnier’s last film Blue Room, it’s great to see what can be accomplished with a small budget and Green Room makes the most of its short runtime. Nice cinematography and solid performances – particularly from Patrick Stewart – help the film, but it’s a great premise and Saulnier’s assured direction that really elevate this over your average genre fare. This may be a messy film, both in its execution and violence, but it’s one that you probably don’t want to miss.

Green Room receives 3/4