Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Megan Gale, Nicholas Hoult, John Howard, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Richard Carter, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Jennifer Hagan, iOTA , Angus Sampson, Joy Smithers, Gillian Jones, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Forgive me, but it’s been three days since I caught Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m still a bit speechless but this giant juggernaut of a film.  It’s been 30 years since the last time Max Rockatansky raced across movie screens in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and a full 36 years since the character was introduced in George Miller’s cult favorite Mad Max (the sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior arrived in 1981).  Though Miller had tried to get a fourth entry off the ground with Mel Gibson in early 2003, an agreement over budget and filming couldn’t be reached and the idea was scrapped.  Interest was again stirred around 2012 and that brings us to the awesome power of Mad Max: Fury Road.

The 70 year old Miller has spent the time between Max movies directing an impressive variety of films from The Witches of Eastwick to Babe to Happy Feet…but more than a little Mad Max-ness was still kicking around for the director and it’s a joy to see what he’s produced here with a new star and a sky high budget that thankfully isn’t all tossed away on CGI effects.  What Miller does is nothing short of a modern miracle of cinema and one that positively shouldn’t have worked as well as it has.

What you have here is really a two hour long car chase film with only the occasional rest stop to relieve the tension.  Giving the middle finger to the traditional film structure, it’s clever and full throttle entertainment, not for the faint of heart or hearing.  Miller assumes you’re well versed in the Mad Max universe (and if you aren’t, what’s wrong with you?) and doesn’t waste a millisecond getting you acclimated to the current state of affairs.  From frame one you’re thrust back into the apocalyptic wasteland (the Namib Desert in Africa, standing in for the Outback which was too wet for filming) where Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) calls home.  Captured by a gang of marauders and imprisoned as a human blood bag for sickly warriors, the future doesn’t look very good for our hero of few words.

Enter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman, sporting a shaved head and bionic arm) a trusted disciple of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter from Mad Max) the ruler of the appropriately named Wasteland.  Immortan Joe is an evil dictator who enslaves women either to produce milk for his War Boys or breed new children to add to his royal family.  When Furiosa makes off with Immortan Joe’s prized Five Wives, a race ensues that puts several bands of very bad men on the hunt for Furiosa and her booty of women, water, and gasoline.

If we’re being honest, this is really Furiosa’s movie with Max along for the ride.  How he gets involved with Furiosa and her cargo is best left for you to find out but Miller has correctly given Max an equal that seeks the same justice he does.  I find it interesting that Mad Max: Fury Road has come under fire from men (of all people) that are upset a woman leads the way…claiming they were duped into thinking this was a “man’s movie”.  If you’ve seen any Mad Max film to date, you’d know that Max has always been a character that aids the disenfranchised and, somewhat begrudgingly, comes to their aid.

What sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart is that Furiosa largely doesn’t need Max’s help to get the job done.  Yes, he’s there to help her on multiple occasions but she’s got things under control, no doubt.  The fun of the film is watching Hardy and Theron lock horns, band together, and wreak havoc on all that get in their way.

Good support is offered from a bevy of interesting actors that pop up throughout the film.  Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is whacked out as an amped up War Boy hot on the heels of Max and Furiosa that could become their greatest ally.   Zoe Kravitz (Divergent), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Riley Keough (Magic Mike), are three of the Five Wives that prove their value as Furiosa’s tanker clanks and clashes around canyons and sandstorms, trying to avoid the grasp of Immortan Joe and his crew that are accompanied, hysterically, by a convoy including six timpani banging War Boys and a mutant guitarist with an electric guitar that shoots fire.

It could be said that Miller doesn’t know when to quit and that’s a very, very good thing.  From the opening titles to the totally insane action sequences, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel in motion and the effect is often so overwhelming you feel the need to close your eyes to get your bearings.  Then you remember that if you close your eyes you may miss something…and you solider through it.

For fans of the Mad Max films, there are nice touches here and there that reference the previous three films.  Nothing too apparent or instantly obvious, but trinkets there to reward those that have stuck with Miller and his gang over the years.  Each Mad Max film has been a standalone story and with Tom Hardy signing on for at least three more Max films you can bet that once Miller has had a chance to catch his breath, he’ll hit the ground running with another escapade for his legendary hero.  The bar has been set so very very high with Mad Max: Fury Road…but Miller knows how to surprise us.

Mad Max: Fury Road puts all other summer blockbusters to shame.  It’s gorgeously shot, ferociously edited (culled from a staggering 480 hours of footage), and thrillingly produced with an insane level of detail in the costume and make-up design.  A second viewing is almost required to catch all of the inventive design Miller and his crew have worked up.  Not to be missed…and if I were you I’d plan on seeing it twice.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: So many trailers commit the cardinal sin of not being interesting enough to ensnare audiences into returning to see the final product…and then there are trailers like Mad Max: Fury Road. Like the first preview released in July, it’s clear that this will be one highly original futuristic film that takes no prisoners with its over the top theatricality. Providing more excitement and jaw-dropping moments in 2:30 than most films can muster at their feature length best, it’s a glorious reminder that movies can transport you to another world and thrill you with innovation. In short, Mad Max: Fury Road looks to be one bad ass sock-knocker-offer.   Directed by George Miller (who also helmed the original three Mad Max films) and starring Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Charlize Theron (Prometheus), and Nicolas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer), I can’t wait to hit the road with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and most everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life.

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: It’s been 30 years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and it feels like this follow-up/reboot has been filming for nearly the same amount of time.  It always amazes me the gestation period for certain blockbuster movies and Mad Max: Fury Road has been in utero long past its intended release way back in 2009.  With returning director George Miller and a new Max (Tom Hardy, This Means War), this first look at the action adventure set for release in May 2015 looks heavy on sand, style, violence, and atmosphere…all keeping in line with the series Miller started in 1979.  Add the always intriguing Charlize Theron (A Million Ways to Die in the West) to the mix and Warner Brothers already has a furious head start on laying claim to the summer of 2015.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.