Glass

Release: Friday, January 18, 2019

→Theater

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

All the pieces finally fall into place for M. Night Shyamalan and his long-gestating superhero trilogy with Glass, in part a direct sequel to 2017’s psychological thriller Split as well as a belated return to the awe-inspiring identity crisis established 19 years ago in Unbreakable. Glass is far from perfectly polished, but against all odds the third and final chapter not only justifies its own existence, it justifies everything leading up to it, notably the ending to the last installment.

For what it’s worth, Anya Taylor Joy wasn’t the only one being held captive that day. I was such a prisoner of the moment, convinced the writer/director had just written and directed himself into a corner he was at the same time being pressured into by modern industry trends. But this knee-jerk reaction failed to take into account that Shyamalan had wanted to expand upon ideas established in Unbreakable years ago but just couldn’t get a studio to bite on a Part 2. In fact Split‘s compellingly deranged anti-hero was extracted from a ditched subplot in Unbreakable and in (one of Shymalan’s favorite things) a twist of fate, that film, unlike its predecessor, was immediately embraced critically and commercially. And now here we are, at the end of the line — the culmination of what we should, I suppose, formally recognize as the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. Not a very sexy name, is it?

Glass technically begins three weeks after the conclusion of Split, reuniting us with David Dunn (Willis the Bruce) and his now-grown-but-still-believing son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), running a little Bruce Wayne-like operation in the back of David’s own private security firm, with Joseph keeping online tabs on the seedy activity taking place in the shadows of metro Philadelphia while his father “goes for walks,” physically immersing himself in those shadows, brushing up against — well, you know how it works. We first see The Overseer, as he’s now known amongst internet fanbases, taking down a punk with a mean-spirited YouTube channel, confronting him in his own house and overpowering him by some margin in a bit of gleeful fan service.

The story proper is set into motion when David and the notorious kidnapper Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) are escorted to a remote psychiatric facility after a skirmish that spills out into the streets. Even though David successfully frees a group of high school cheerleaders Kevin and his multiple personalities (a.k.a. “The Horde”) have chained up in a warehouse, not everyone views his vigilantism as being in the best interests of the public. Kevin’s behavior is much less defensible; why they are both punished equally here kind of defies reason, but then again airtight logic has never been one of Shyamalan’s superpowers as a writer. Regardless, the pair are going to be having a little chat with a Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in a very specific kind of delusion. The “I believe I am a superhero” kind of specific.

This of course is the same facility housing David’s nemesis, Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), who, despite his near-comatose appearance, is under the most severe scrutiny given his propensity for manipulation and deception. Dr. Staple’s job is to convince her patients that what they have been experiencing are merely complex coping mechanisms after having lived through trauma. Yet within the context of the entire saga, the character — less a human and more a plot device, granted — represents an evolution in perspective. Unbreakable posed the question of whether or not superheroes really walk among us and it did so by comparing the naivety of Joseph versus that of his father; the point of view was private, personal, highly contentious. In Glass that perspective is systematically denied. Instead this is about an institution that believes it has the ultimate perspective. As the woman in the white lab coat suggests, if superheroes are real why are there only three of them?

If you want dissenting opinions, you’ve come to the right place. I was really impressed with what Shyamalan was able to create on such a modest budget, funding the $20 million project himself. (I wonder what my life would be like if I had that amount to throw at one thing.) Budgetary constraints are on display everywhere: they explain why we are for a large portion of the film trapped more or less in a single room with a “field expert” who enjoys bludgeoning her patients (and us) with medical jargon and bureaucratese. They explain the incident in the parking lot, the pistol and the pothole — the latter representing a truly creative resolution for something we all saw coming. Yet I can’t say the low overhead necessarily enhances the experience, either; it’s never less than a nagging thought that the film might have gone a different direction with just a little more money behind it.

Whether that would have been a more satisfying direction is obviously speculative. Going out with a bigger bang might have been more visually gratifying, but it would also risk violating the code of understatement Shyamalan has remained faithful to. As it stands, there is a surprising amount of weight that accumulates at an emotional and psychological level, and it is still the performances that make the movie. In its closing moments the actors are reaching some pretty spectacular heights (Willis aside, I won’t dissent on that widely-held opinion). I maintain that Mr. Glass is up there with some of Jackson’s career-best work, he’s a tragic and complicated figure. Meanwhile, McAvoy somehow one-ups his previous effort in Split by embracing even more of The Horde. In the process he illuminates his internal pain and turmoil in ways we haven’t yet seen.

Despite several blemishes in the script (inept orderlies, anyone?) and the fact Shyamalan reaches for but never quite achieves profundity, Glass ultimately succeeds in bringing closure to a series and a unique set of characters. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest this is either a swan song or a magnum opus. It’s simply a compelling film chockfull with geeky references to comic book lore and the culture surrounding it, and it is arguably his best effort in nearly two decades.

“Do it! Say osteogenesis imperfecta one more time . . .!”

Recommendation: Glass isn’t the event film most comic book adaptations are compelled to become and that alone feels refreshing. Getting to see all three characters share the screen is exciting, with James McAvoy being a true stand-out. The story is absolutely steeped in the language of comic books (becoming super-meta at the end with certain characters observing how reality is merging with events depicted in the comics — a nice touch even if a bit silly), and yet I think there is plenty here to recommend to viewers who aren’t hardcore about collecting and reading comics.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 129 mins.

Quoted: “This was an origin story the whole time.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Atomic Blonde

Release: Friday, July 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Kurt Johnstad

Directed by: David Leitch

Perhaps the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is that it bears the insignia of one David Leitch, a certifiable jack-of-all-trades whose résumé includes numerous actor, producer and assistant director credits. His directorial experience unofficially includes a joint effort with Chad Stahelski on 2014’s John Wick and will soon include (officially) Deadpool 2. Leitch’s stunt work can be found in everything from BASEketball to Blade; Seabiscuit to The Matrix: Revolutions. But it is his reputation behind the scenes as a stunt coordinator that most directly informs his gleefully violent send-up of the spy genre.

Despite the main objective being to create something that breaks from the “stuffy atmosphere” typically associated with films of its ilk, Leitch’s directorial debut isn’t a true original. This is an adaptation of the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston with artwork by Sam Hart. With the fall of the Berlin Wall imminent, it imagines a fictional narrative involving a lethal MI6 agent named Lorraine Broughton who is dispatched to Berlin to retrieve a dossier containing the identities of suspected double-agents trying to get across the border into the West. While there she’s also to find the person responsible for the murder of a fellow agent. Even as a neutral third-party, Broughton soon discovers her trip to Germany won’t be simple when you can’t distinguish enemy from ally.

In a role that recalls her intensity and grit in Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron stars as the enigmatic blonde, a survivor of many things unexplained at the start of the film. Her curvature emerges from a tomb of ice, battered and bruised to a degree that pretty much equates her to a modern superheroine. Hair matted to her neck and shoulders, eyes bloodshot, she swigs vodka to take the edge off. It’s an absorbing and moody opening that immediately draws us into the world of a hardened spy. Enquiring minds want to know: what chain of events have unfolded to get us here?

The gory details of a mission gone bad are recounted in a flashback structured through an interrogation taking place in the present day — a scene to which we frequently cut throughout. The technique underscores the rampant paranoia associated with the era. After all, who’s to say Broughton herself can really be trusted? Her handlers, an MI6 executive (Toby Jones) and a CIA agent who looks a lot like John Goodman, seem to humor her rather than accept as gospel what she says about her experience “working with” Berlin station chief David Percival (another great loose-cannon performance from James McAvoy). When some of that testimony proves potentially embarrassing, protocol requires the suits to bring out the broom as well as the rug.

The ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde may be steeped in familiar themes, but through sheer force of style Leitch manages to hack-and-slash his own path through the crowded genre of Cold War-set spy thrillers. It’s a breathless display of close-quarters combat in which sustained sequences of bone-crunching action are the movie and everything in between is just a bonus. The scene in the stairwell is unbelievable; something that would make Jet Li proud. Think John Wick turned espionage thriller: replace its lo-carb Neo with a female version of James Bond who makes Daniel Craig look like David Niven.

Proving a crucial component to the experience is a soundtrack rife with killer ’80s tunes, some original, others covered by contemporary artists. Everything from David Bowie collaborating with Queen (‘Under Pressure’ has particularly good timing) to Depeche Mode, Led Zeppelin to German punk group AuSSchlag is sampled, with so many numbers contributing to the overall tone and pace of the film that it becomes sort of impractical to break it all down. (So here’s this as a reference — be wary of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the film.)

Sure, Atomic Blonde has room for improvement. The direction is solid yet there’s still something nervous about it. There’s a slightly nagging pacing issue stemming from the way the chronicle is deliberately, almost self-consciously constructed. Occasionally the flashiness is a little too flashy. Other times it’s borderline pandering. Broughton’s whirlwind romance with an attractive but naïve French agent (Sofia Boutella) comes out of left field. At best the sudden blossoming of an intimate lesbian relationship identifies a certain joie de vivre in a film that otherwise lacks it. At worst, such tenderness strikes you as out of character. Very, very out of character. Still, I’m not sure what harm introducing a little warmth into a cold world, a cold movie really does, other than veer dangerously close to the very cliches its star proudly claims her latest role steers well clear of.

You don’t really come away with the impression that you’ve been educated as much as you feel like you’ve endured as many heavy blows and dodged as many bullets as the protagonist. This is a firecracker of an action thriller, though I’m left wondering if maybe the coupon would only be good for a one-time viewing. In fairness, Leitch cautions the viewer against taking things too seriously with an opening title card that suggests it might actually be better to view the movie as an “alternate reality” rather than something extracted from history.

The more I think about it, the only thing you really need to know about Atomic Blonde is just how much of a badass Charlize Theron is. She is a force of nature, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her male contemporaries. Her strong work, combined with the stylistic vision of David Leitch, is the recipe for one of the most violent female-led action films I have ever seen and one of the most purely entertaining.

Recommendation: Gritty, violent, with a female touch. More like a female frikkin’ wallop. This film festival-pleasing, pulpy genre-tweaker is a strong contender for best female-starring vehicle in all of 2017. The specifics of the narrative don’t really matter when an actor is just so in control of their craft. One of my favorite performances from Charlize Theron. If you thought she was a cold-hearted killer in Fate of the Furious, wait until you get a load of the Atomic Blonde. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t shoot! I’ve got your shoe!” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Split

split-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: M. Night Shyamalan

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

THIS REVIEW INCLUDES A MAJOR SPOILER

You just have to admire the child inside that M. Night Shyamalan has refused to abandon. His passion hasn’t always translated into quality entertainment but “going through the motions” isn’t a complaint you can lodge against the director. The fire keeps burning, even though the winds of critical and commercial failure keep trying to blow it out.

Amidst a climate of sudden optimism, it would seem Shyamalan has rediscovered his mojo, having delivered two consecutive products that have not become both the joke and the punchline (with last year’s The Visit garnering more positive reviews than his previous three efforts combined). Split, his most recent provocation which concerns three young women abducted by a man with multiple personalities, has people talking excitedly again.

The writer-director wastes precious little time in getting to work, introducing us to the three targets, led by Anya Taylor-Joy‘s moody Casey, before promptly throwing them down the rabbit hole. Her acquaintances, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) — and they are verifiably more acquaintances than friends, based on a few buzzwords we hear in the opening scene, like “mercy invitation,” “obligation” and “weirdo” — are here to offer contrast, particularly in the way the girls respond to threat. Casey stands out as both outcast and survivor, the prototypical Shyamalan protagonist.

Their abductor is played by James McAvoy, whose dramatic chops are put to the test in a performance that requires him to evoke the quirks and mannerisms of at least eight distinct personalities. He plays a mentally ill loner named Kevin Wendell Crumb who suffers from a real disorder called Dissociative Identity Disorder, which has actually rendered 23 different identities in total. They range from obsessive-compulsive disciplinarians to matronly caretakers to naive pre-teens. Given the complexities of such a role, this could be the Scot’s finest hour.

Because it would be unreasonable to expect the actor to portray all of the personalities living inside his character — not to mention confusing for the audience — only a handful of them are paraded in front of the terrified girls who all the while can’t agree on an escape plan. The well-adjusted reason that physical confrontation is inevitable while Casey thinks it’s better to be patient and use Kevin’s condition to their advantage, believing their best chance for survival lies in their ability to manipulate Hedwig, the nine-year-old boy.

Shyamalan ranks among the best in the biz when it comes to generating suspense and making audiences dread what lies around the next corner. Split is more of the same in that regard, but it also has the added bonus of McAvoy’s stunning performance and Taylor-Joy’s nearly-as-impressive portrayal of a troubled teen with a dark secret, one that slowly gets teased out throughout the course of the film. But the thing about Shyamalan is that his childlike enthusiasm for sharing his gift for storytelling often undermines his seriousness of purpose. He is often too clumsy, too ambitious, too obsessed with artifice. Some of his decisions have proven disastrous. Split is not a disaster. In fact, 90% of it manifests as a really interesting psychological thriller that stays well below the usual threshold of silliness.

But that 10% is what is always going to keep Shyamalan a few steps short of greatness. And it is frustrating, because he is quite literally less than a few steps short of delivering his most satisfying psycho-thriller since Unbreakable, now 17 years old. It’s what he does to wrap things up that proves his undoing. Again. The ending is a complete betrayal of the reality in which his new film is based. I’m not concerned about the science that Split manipulates for its own agenda. A) It’s par for the course for fictional works to take dramatic liberties. That’s why it’s called fiction. And B) Kevin’s psychologist (played by Betty Buckley) isn’t the key to unlocking the film’s secrets.

No, that’s why we get Bruce Willis. You have got to be kidding me. I’m now waiting the ultimate plot twist wherein I wake up from all of this madness.

aw-hedwig

2-5Recommendation: When compared to his most recent output, Split feels like a much more accomplished film. And for the most part it does impress, locking the audience inside a pressure cooker from which escape seems highly unlikely. Wonderfully atmospheric and well-performed, the guillotine that Shyamalan runs into at the end is just so regrettable. Two-thirds a return-to-form, in my book. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “The broken are the more evolved.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

X-Men: Apocalypse

'X Men - Apocalypse' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 27, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Bryan Singer; Simon Kinberg; Michael Dougherty; Dan Harris

Directed by: Bryan Singer

In the midst of Magneto’s metal-throwing rampage, a burning hot ember of emotion buried deep underneath the rapidly cooling coals of X-Men: Apocalypse, I glance over to find my friend fast asleep, head buried into his shoulder and a small puddle of drool starting to form. All I could do was smile, really. It was the perfect summation of everything I was feeling on the inside throughout much of Bryan Singer’s fourth go-around as the helmer of this most consistently inconsistent of superhero film franchises.

For about an hour I couldn’t come to terms with the disparity in quality between Singer’s previous installment and his latest; how is it possible to be so enthralled by one entry and bored to tears with the next? Seeing as though I wasn’t someone put off by the tweaks made to X-Men history in Days of Future Past, I then had the troubling thought that I was still better off than the purists, those who had a lot more invested in these adaptations.

Apocalypse is, if nothing else, a perfectly good waste of Oscar Isaac’s talents. As the titular super-villain En Sabah Nur, Isaac couldn’t look more disinterested. Was part of the plan caking the man in make-up to the point where his disgust over the poor (and I mean really poor) script would be concealed? If it was, that plan failed. In the early going Nur rises from the dead in modern (well, 1983) Egypt after being entombed under tons of rubble resulting from a last-second violent uprising that occurred during an attempt to transfer his consciousness into another mortal body. He quickly learns of how modern society has come to be and is profoundly disturbed by it. Like Tony Stark’s ultimate fuck-up, the Ultron program, Nur/Apocalypse is big on the cleansing of mankind but very slight when it comes to personality. (It’s a little painful to be comparing an Oscar-caliber actor’s charisma here to that of a robot, but here we are.)

Nur’s extinction-level plans simply boil down to nostalgia for them good ole days. With a perpetual scowl set upon his seasick-looking face, he sets about bestowing untold amounts of power upon already powerful, albeit vulnerable, mutants the world over, enticing them to join him in his effort to restore world order. His recruits include the likes of Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy); Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn); and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). While each character’s alter egos manage to jump off the page from a visual standpoint, no one other than Magneto is given anything to do. Even their action scenes register as perfunctory.

Elsewhere, mutants both new and old are . . . doing something. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is professing at the school where he professes things, teaching students to learn how to accept being gifted with powers; Magneto, prior to being wooed by the job offer from the False God, is eking out a quieter existence in Poland following the disastrous events in Washington D.C.; Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continent-hopping as a mercenary-for-hire, rescuing fellow mutants from their current miseries all while denying her heroism. The false modesty is soooo Katniss Everdeen Gwyneth Paltrow. And we are reacquainted with sidekickers like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Jean Gray/Phoenix (Sophie Turner); Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan); and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee).

Aside from the dismal performance from Isaac, one that reminded me more than once of the kind of collapse Eddie Redmayne had in Jupiter Ascending last year, Apocalypse suffers from a total lack of enthusiasm in reintroducing its sprawling cast. The characters themselves, of course, are universally welcomed back, yet their presences aren’t so much felt as they are foisted upon audiences expecting an epic action spectacular. (More on that in a little bit.) It was during these protracted intros where my mind started to really wander, where my head started sitting heavy in the palm of my hand. ‘Why is this girl in front of me constantly reaching out towards the screen? Like, does she know someone in this thing or something?’ ‘Is she having spasms?’ ‘Do I need to call a doctor?’ Thoughts no one should be having during a film that features so many likable and unique characters, a film steeped in mythology now 15 years in the cinematic making, I was totally having, and constantly. It was as if Charles Xavier had somehow gained access to my cerebral cortex. Leave my cerebral cortex alone, Charles.

There is actually a defense against critics blasting Apocalypse for lacking originality in its ambitions to out-epic the competition. Sometimes a ‘back-to-basics’ approach can be rewarding. You can simplify the thrust of the narrative to the ultimate in superhero standoffs, wherein all roads to the end of days run through mutants brave enough to face up to Nur and his four horsemen. Unfortunately in this case there is such a lackadaisical attitude in bringing back the characters to face their toughest test. This is in some ways one of the most personal outings for the X-Men yet, but this latest installment feels cold and detached. Much of that can be traced to Isaac’s prominence, though the build-up to the climactic fight is just as off-putting.

Look no further than said capstone battle. Hasn’t Singer learned anything from the Bay’s and the Emmerich’s? Threat of annihilation by virtue of large-scale, pixelated destruction isn’t really a threat at all. In fairness, Singer tries to make up for some of the transgressions by ripping himself off and including another über-slow-mo sequence that shows off the greatness that is Quicksilver. That’s gotta count for something in the way of originality, right?

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Recommendation: If we’re talking hierarchy of awesomeness, X-Men: Apocalypse is a tier or two down from Singer’s previous output, Days of Future Past because it doesn’t express the same level of enthusiasm nor does the story work as cohesively as the ones that have come before it. The clichés are much harder to escape here as are the cheesy one-liners and there’s a sense of franchise fatigue. A poor performance from Oscar Isaac doesn’t help matters either. Still, there’s enough here to say I’m willing to see where the franchise goes from here. I’m also liking how the past is catching up to “the present.” It’s an interesting way to build a full and complete picture of the X-Men universe. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 144 mins.

Quoted: “Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day, they’ll come for you? And your children?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.cinemablend.com

Filth

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by:  Jon S. Baird

Directed by: Jon S. Baird 

What’s that old adage — nice guys finish last? Nice guys are also chumps.

James McAvoy as Scottish Detective Sergeant Bruce Robinson added that last part. It wasn’t me. I’m not the guy bumping a line or two before work, before meetings (before anything for that matter); not the guy almost literally cutting throats to get ahead, to get that coveted Detective Inspector promotion. I would never use a woman like Bruce would over a phone. I guess never say never, because I’m not sure what I’m fully capable of.

After all, I did find myself identifying perhaps a little too easily with his self-destructiveness. I found myself enjoying Filth for what it is rather than what it could have been: this is a story that enjoys that last burning cigarette before undergoing chemotherapy for its lung cancer. Nothing like that actually happens (though Bruce enjoys a cigarette for sure) but its reckless abandon and willful sinning is undeniably infectious.

Jon S. Baird drowns his character study in a hallucinogenic spirit that’s as fun as it is toxic. Based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Filth starts off pessimistic and ends accordingly, somewhat miserably. But McAvoy is just so good it doesn’t even matter if the tone vacillates between bleak and upbeat, suggesting a Fear & Loathing in Edinburgh, and that his character is uncharacteristically vile. Consistency isn’t what this relatively low-budgeted production was ever aiming for. It strips away illusion to reveal the ugliness of reality, a man coping with his life after a terrible event. Overcompensating, perhaps, but dealing with it in what may be the only way he can. Rarely is he justified in his actions — his abuse of friends and lady friends is shameful — and his abuse of narcotics and abuse of power while on the job are equally outrageous.

Bruce is assigned to oversee the investigation of the murder of a Japanese student, and though he believes this is the opportunity he needs to advance himself, he begins suffering from a series of emotional setbacks that gradually spiral out of control. Filth revels in squalidity not unlike the self-inflicted nightmare Raoul Duke and his attorney experienced en route to discovering the American Dream of the 1970s. In Filth, a film that seems to try to repel rather than entice — those who like their stories upbeat and expect some sort of method to the madness ought to give this a miss — things go from bad to worse and when they don’t seem to be able to get any more disorienting there’s always Jim Broadbent as Dr. Rossi to ensure Dorothy continues tumbling down the rabbit hole.

Filth isn’t particularly ambitious, despite the commitment from its lead. Where at first Baird’s screenplay seems to suggest a complex police procedural, there comes a point where it becomes apparent the narrative has little interest in anything beyond delving deeper into the mindset of a most corrupt detective. Unfortunately it takes some time before that awareness hits; surely I’m not the only one who arrived at the end feeling somewhat duped. Of course, there’s something I should have expected to sacrifice watching McAvoy making obscene gestures towards small children in public places and being a general douche, and if this film delivers on any promise it’s ensuring he may lose a few fans. Or he may gain some. I don’t really know. I do know that the red beard suits him though.

Despite the underachieving story, the production is bolstered by all-around great performances; entertaining turns from the likes of Eddie Marsan as Clifford Blades, a member of a masonic lodge Bruce is a part of, Imogen Poots as Drummond with whom Bruce is in the fiercest competition regarding that coveted pay raise, and Broadbent’s previously mentioned doc. Each performer seems to enjoy getting their hands dirty right alongside McAvoy. Very little of this world is attractive, yet there’s something compelling about Bruce’s degeneration.

“Yeah, alright then, take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Recommendation: Gleefully unpleasant, mischievous in all the right ways and darkly comedic, Filth is undoubtedly an acquired taste. For fans of James McAvoy, consider this a must-see. It’s always a treat seeing an actor undertake a role so atypical that it becomes transformative. Bruce Robinson is certainly the glue keeping this one together, as the story leaves quite a bit to be desired. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “Same rules apply.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

dofp-1

Release: Friday, May 23, 2014

[Theater]

If Bryan Singer’s latest addition to the X-Men chronicle is any indication of the summer of movies that awaits us, by the shortness of Peter Dinklage we are in for a good one!

In fact the cinematic event that Singer has recently finished polishing off is one so grandiose it might very well make the controversy that arose prior to its worldwide debut a day simply of the past. With any luck, the quality of this much-anticipated material will be enough to satisfy most blockbuster moviegoers’ palate in the coming weeks.

The last time we hung out with any mutants, it was starting to become a one-sided affair, and Logan, a.k.a. ‘the Wolverine’ seemed to be receiving more than his fair share of the spotlight. Even though at this point it’s been all but pre-determined by the studio that Hugh Jackman’s gorgeously CGI-ed biceps is what we need the most, we are inclined to agree. His understanding of the character, and his command of it has been a thrill to watch; his pain consistently strikes at the heart of the struggle of the X-Men. And despite getting to spend that much more time with his charismatic manimal in The Wolverine and X-Men Origins — it’s not really his fault his character seems to be the most compelling of those who possess the magical DNA — these considerably lackadaisical entries contributed greatly to the sense that the series itself was a dying breed. Even despite Jackman and a wealth of material still yet to be tapped.

It’s fine, though. A few steps may have been taken backward but it’s with great relief to announce that what this summer has in store for fans is something that takes leaps and bounds beyond anything that has come before it. Simultaneously a compelling merger of the mutants in their younger and older forms, and an action-packed adventure/fantasy in its own right, X-Men: Days of Future Past is thrillingly paced, hilarious and keenly self-aware; intelligent on a level the series has been clawing at but failing to breach thus far. To be fair, few films with stakes this high can afford to be all these things at once without sacrificing something.

Given the final product on display here, it’s unclear what Singer or screenwriter Simon Kinberg have had to sacrifice. We join up with the few surviving mutants who are now hunkering down in the side of a mountain as the world around them continues to deteriorate. A government-sanctioned program has spawned a third race of beings on the planet: sentient robots built with the sole purpose of targeting those with mutated gene pools. These are the creation of the sinister Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) and they are horrifyingly efficient at what they do.

The crisis has reached a point where reconciliation is all but impossible for either party, and it’s even begun to sap Professor X (Patrick Stewart)’s optimism for a future of any kind. Fortunately he’s still got one more trick up his sleeve, and that is in Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page)’s ability to project present consciousnesses of fellow mutants back in time into beings that existed back then. One snag: the critical time period we must go back to is 1973 — fifty years removed from the present, and this eliminates all mutants but Wolverine, as they won’t be able to physically or psychologically survive such a sojourn.

Wolverine’s task is to track down certain mutants in 1973. Yes, this will indeed involve the unenviable challenge of intervening during a period where a young and besotted Charles (James McAvoy) is having a bit of a spat with the similarly naive Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender). He must organize everyone in an effort to prevent a renegade Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from her inevitable date with destiny, as the blue-skinned beauty has taken it upon herself to even the score with Bolivar, whom she seeks for his inexorable experimentation on her mutant friends.

There’s no room for error on her part, and ditto that for Wolverine, only with exponentially less room. Not only is he battling the conditions of the time period he’s reinserted himself into, he’s having to convince those around him that there’s a bigger picture they all must pay attention to; and this isn’t even to mention that his journeying into the past has a perpetual impact on his physical and mental tenacity. This is assuming nothing goes wrong on the other end, as well.

Days of Future Past stockpiles the thrills as its labyrinthian plot unfolds piecewise. Its similarly expansive cast is on fine form and at this point in the game its more than a little difficult to separate actor from character. Familiarity typically breeds contempt, but here it breeds a hell of a lot of fun. Comparisons to The Matrix and Marvel’s The Avengers aren’t unreasonable — the teleportation of Wolverine seems to mimic the connection between realities found in the former, whereas both scope and visual grandeur make the comparison to the latter all but inevitable.

Comparisons run amok with Bryan Singer’s new X-Men installment, but it’s as well a thoroughly well-made product on its own merits. It looks sleek and best of all, it doesn’t feel even one second over 90 minutes. The film is actually over two hours in length, and even has time to factor in an exquisitely rendered and considerably extensive slow-motion sequence, without ever feeling like it’s wasting ours. Now that is effective storytelling.

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4-0Recommendation: Was it worth the wait? You bet your mutant ass it was. Days of Future Past may stack up to be one of the most heavily anticipated films of the year, and the final product is well-equipped to handle the challenge of living up to lofty expectations — expectations made so by frequent and repeated failure to get things right before. It deftly handles a dense amount of material by seamlessly connecting stories together, with a focus on the shadow games played by Mystique and Wolverine. Enthralling to newcomers and rooted firmly in the ethos of the comic, 2014 may well have brought us the definitive X-Men movie.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 131 mins.

Quoted: “Maybe you should have fought harder for them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Trance

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Release: Friday, April 5, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Danny Boyle has a new look in 2013: his latest entry Trance shimmers with style and oozes with color. It’s editing and transitions, intentionally disjointed and jarring, provide a moviegoing experience unlike any other so far this year. It is superbly acted, and the overarching plot is reminiscent of the gleeful mischief we experienced in The Thomas Crown Affair, if only because of the coveting of one seriously expensive painting.

Trance is a work of art itself. While it offers a relatively straightforward premise, Boyle’s direction ensures that the hunt for the painting will become anything but a simple case of hide-and-seek. The movie takes great pains in providing unforeseen twists, abstract concepts, and visual stimuli. Cleverly, it also refuses to offer a simple way out of all of this.

We begin with a high-bid auction in London, where Goya’s “Witches in the Air” painting has just sold for £27 million. Simon (James McAvoy) leads us off with an explanation as to how this museum handles the protection of precious items in “the event” of a robbery. He has the inside knowledge because he works for the building; he also has a keen interest in this particular painting. His slow, measured words quietly foreshadow a looming disaster: when a team of expert thieves led by Franck (Vincent Cassel) are about to gain access to and abscond with the “Witches,” Simon suffers a blow to the head, rendering him unable to remember what became of the painting. It soon becomes clear Franck also does not possess it, and when torture and other forms of intimidation fail to produce answers from Simon, he enlists the professional help of a hypnotist (Rosario Dawson).

Dr. Elizabeth Lamb (Dawson)’s job is to open up Simon’s mind in the hopes of prying out an honest explanation from his subconscious. And even though we saw the rules bending in a similar fashion in 2010’s Inception, the Trance is nevertheless unique and possibly even more alluring. With each “session” Simon is forced into entering with Dr. Lamb a different part of his memory seems to be jarred loose by the hypnosis.

We are just as much in his brain as Dr. Lamb, and it’s intimate. It’s awkward. It’s moving, to some uncomfortable degree. Unless I also have some unusual vulnerability to hypnosis myself, I never felt completely at ease in my chair. Boyle’s direction is very effective in this department.

Where the film’s hypnotic state begins to lose effect — where the movie quite frankly becomes a little silly — is in its handling of the relationship aspect. I can’t say much, but talk about analyzing something to death! You’ll need to see what I’m talking about to fully make up your own mind, but the great flaw in Trance is it abandons even the rules its laid out for itself in the beginning. What was a search for the answer to the location of a missing painting evolves into a psychoanalysis of what might ultimately be described as a typical obsessive mind.  Around the fifty-minute or hour-mark in the film, expect things to not make a whole lot of sense. This is not because you’re going crazy, or even that the story is dumb. Thanks to the frenetic editing in some places, it just becomes very difficult to follow along, like a conversation you’re having with someone who refuses to move their hand away from their mouth.

But much to its credit, Trance is trying something tricky. Manipulating visual effects is one thing; how an audience thinks and feels about the lead characters using the occasional slow-motion action sequence and extensive dialogue — dialogue that operates more as metaphor than practical relevance to the story — well, that’s quite the leap to the next level.

While it falls short of possessing a mostly coherent story, the story we get is pretty damn intriguing. Also, despite the characters being a mixed bag of sort-of-likable and simply tolerable, we feel for some of them. . . emphasis on the ‘some.’ Great acting does not necessarily equate to winning personalities, and this film is a role model in that way. It successfully blurs fantasy and reality together, even if success in this case is measured in how confused you become. Ultimately, it looks good and for an hour and forty minutes its a great dream.

And so it passes.

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3-5Recommendation: (I’m almost going to straight rip this off the Rotten Tomatoes summary page, because I can’t think of a better way to say it…but….) fans of Boyle will take to it pretty quickly. It’s an interesting, new head space to be in when you’re viewing this film and even if the payoff in the end is less than it should be, most of the film is thoroughly engaging and visually pleasing. In more ways than one.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com