X-Men: Apocalypse Review: Super-meh


Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac

cf7kkqeuuaeqame


Release date: May 19th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 144 minutes


3/5

Best part: The stacked cast.

Worst part: The weak villain.

Halfway through the ninth X-Men franchise installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, four characters walk out of a cinema having just seen Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. One character discusses the A New Hope‘s ground-breaking aura. Another praises The Empire Strikes Back‘s darkness and complexity. Finally, another snarkily retorts: “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst”. Although a throwaway jab at X-Men 3: The Last Stand, the line perfectly sums up my feelings about this latest entry. Sorry Apocalypse, you shot yourself in the foot.

This series, kicking off back in 2000, set the bar for action-adventure storytelling and superhero cinema with a modest and mature first installment. Since then, the genre has launched into the x-men-6-2bc1b619-fbb6-4faf-9a71-45464932d131stratosphere. The franchise has been on a rollercoaster ride of stellar (X-Men 2), unique (The Wolverine), and terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) entries. Following up the kooky X-Men: First Class and exhilarating X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse dives into the 1980s’ brightly coloured, discomforting void. The world has grown weary of mutantkind, with the events of Days of Future Past now
etched into modern history. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has built his college for gifted students in Westchester County, New York. Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) learns of old frenemy Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto(Michael Fassbender)’s return to the war between them and humanity.

That synopsis barely scratches the surface regarding Apocalypse‘s multitude of plot-threads and character arcs. All-powerful being En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), inadvertently awoken by CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert(Rose Byrne)’s activities, gathers his ‘Four Horsemen’ – Lehnsherr, Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy), and Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn) – to help obliterate the world. Earth-shattering events draw Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Michael-Fassbender-X-Men-Apocalypse-TrailerTill), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the battle.

Sadly, X-Men: Apocalypse pales in comparison to trend-setters Days of Future Past and Captain America: Civil War. The movie cherry-picks plot-strands, sociopolitical messages, emotional moments, and memorable sequences directly from earlier X-Men flicks. The overall narrative (end of the world, blah blah blah) is lifted from countless blockbusters before it. Director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, Days of Future Past) and screenwriter Simon Kinberg, once again, explore Xavier and Lehnsherr’s push-me, pull-you dynamic, Raven’s wavering allegiances, William Stryker(Josh Helman)’s shady dealings, new mutants brought into Xavier’s school, and recurring characters making googly eyes at one another. It’s not bad, just too familiar. In fairness, thin sub-plots including Lehnsherr’s Polish family life torn asunder and younger maxresdefault (1)mutants becoming friends make for several interesting patches.

At an exhaustive 144 minutes, Apocalypse feels overstuffed, underdeveloped, inconsequential and bloated simultaneously. The nihilistic worldview, washed-out colour palette and dreary atmosphere permeate. Worse still, Despite the terrific Quicksilver, nuclear warhead, and Auschwitz set-pieces, the third act becomes a mind-numbing blend of mutant powers and cataclysmic destruction. For all the bluster of exotic locations, pretty performers, Logan/Wolverine(Hugh Jackman) cameos, and millions of dollars, the movie crumbles thanks to its titular villain. After a blistering opening sequence, depicting Apocalypse’s Ancient Egyptian origins, the character is given nothing but cheesy dialogue and vaguely defined abilities. Isaac, one of Hollywood’s most promising talents, is stranded under layers of costuming, prosthetic make-up, and voice modulation.

The low-three-star Apocalypse survives primarily on its cast’s enthusiasm and inherent charisma. Pulling themselves through silly dialogue, McAvoy and Fassbender are compelling leading men. Imbuing Xavier and Magneto with warmth, both thespians treat the material with respect. Dodging the Mystique maxresdefaultmakeup at every turn, Lawrence brings her deer-in-headlights/contractual-obligation facial expression to an underwritten character. Fortunately, Hoult, Peters, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Tuner get just enough screen time to develop chemistry and lasting impact. However, Munn, Shipp and Hardy barely register in glorified henchman roles.

Despite going through sequels, prequels, and reboots, the X-Men franchise needs yet another shake-up. X-Men: Apocalypse, like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, just cannot compete against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Less really is more, and Deadpool is starting to look a lot better.

Verdict: A middling, overstuffed superhero flick.

Ex Machina Review: Sci-fi Soliloquy


Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno

ExMachina_Payoff_hires2


Release date: January 21st, 2015

Distributor: Universal Studios 

Country: UK

Running time: 108 minutes


 

4/5

Review: Ex Machina

A Most Violent Year Audio Review: Crimes & Cruel Demeanours


Director: J. C. Chandor

Writer: J. C. Chandor

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

-A_Most_Violent_Year-_Theatrical_Poster


Release date: December 31st, 2014

Distributor: A24

Country: USA

Running time: 125 minutes


 

4½/5

Review:

The Two Faces of January Review – Hide & Seek


Director: Hossein Amini

Writers: Hossein Amini (screenplay), Patricia Highsmith (novel)

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan


Release Date: April 16th, 2014

Distributors: Studio Canal, Magnolia Pictures

Countries: USA, UK, France

Running time: 96 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: The immaculate scenery. 

Worst part: The underwhelming love triangle.

Film noir, like many genres reminiscent of classic Hollywood, relies on several visual and thematic ingredients. Marked by alluring visuals, trench coats, and seductive femme fatales, the genre thrives today thanks to aspirational filmmakers. Keen to bring back Hollywood’s greatest motifs, The Two Faces of January is one such homage to film noir and all its charming prowess. However, whilst honouring the genre, this drama-thriller seeks to envelop and grapple with several other genres simultaneously.

The Two Faces of January, despite the impressive cast and sumptuous scenery, has slipped under the radar. Like a shadow dancing across black-and-white film reels, this feature’s motions and emotions match up to its all-powerful influences. Sweeping across the festival circuit, it’s strange how almost no one caught onto this intriguing chase-saga. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel of the same name, the narrative shares a handful of similarities with one of her most notorious works. Like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January tells a softly spoken parable about dirty deeds and picturesque landscapes. Set in 1962, the movie investigates the highest peaks and seediest alley-way-laden depths of Europe. We follow enthusiastic and amoral tour guide Rydal (Oscar Isaac) as he attempts to start a meaningful existence within Athens’ momentous ruins. Ripping off, and occasionally seducing, young tourists, Rydal’s quaint lifestyle almost comes off as charming and enriching. However, his daydreams drift off over the horizon towards something more powerful. I may be delving into this a bit too much, for the movie says and does a lot less than it promises. However, alarmingly so, we sit alongside Rydal as he becomes infatuated with wealthy businessperson Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst).

Kirsten Dunst.

It’s in one delectable moment, in which Rydal sees the couple wandering through the Acropolis of Athens, that he halts his ponderous lifestyle and sparks wondrous ideas. After introducing himself, Rydal even begins to picture their holiday schedule. The plot, kicking in shortly after the jaw-dropping opening scenes, takes several turns toward romantic-drama territory. With Rydal’s affection geared increasingly towards Colette, a love triangle begins to sizzle under the European sunlight. Sadly, this laboured start, defined by candle-lit double dates and forced character development, comes close to getting this twisted narrative off on the wrong foot. In fact, the love triangle is sorely under-utilised in this otherwise rich and decadent stand off. Soon enough, thanks to its tight and eloquent screenplay, this keep-you-guessing thriller steers toward its more exciting promises. With Rydal falling into the MacFarland’s sticky situation, the three of them embark on a daring escape from the law. Admittedly, this drama-thriller deserves to be stuck with the most overused and lugubrious of descriptions: Hitchcockian. Attempting to match the master filmmaker’s subtle touch and distinctive visual motifs, director Hossein Amini sticks close to everything we’ve seen countless times before. Despite his best efforts, Amini – having written actioners like Drive and Snow White & The Huntsman – fuses Hitchcock’s deft sensibilities with bombastic action-thriller tropes. Leaving the page for the camera, Amini mistakes a derivative and inconsistent style for resonant, slow-burn storytelling. With its pace more wave-like than Greece’s gold-and-aqua beaches, this drama-thriller becomes mind numbing and predictable well before the second half arrives.

“I’m sorry I disappointed you.” (Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen), The Two Faces of January).

Oscar Isaac.

Fortunately, despite the stylistic flaws, The Two Faces of January smuggles several intensifying and immaculate parts into its sleek and pristine suitcase. As a sprawling romance between Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train and North by Northwest, the movie tackles its fun premise by delving into its three-character feud. In the spirit of classic Hollywood, this Europe-drenched story pits our well-dressed allies against themselves, gun-toting baddies, and the foreign labyrinth around them. Along the way, several sequences remain dialogue free. Puffing on cigarettes and honour codes, our characters look through one another as the clock ticks down. The tension even reaches breaking point early on, as Chester says of Rydal to Colette: “I wouldn’t trust him to mow my lawn”. Gracefully, this tension-defying conflict, between these three power-starved anti-heroes, boosts the entertainment factor. Certain sequences, in which our characters come close to becoming recognised by security personnel, deliver the most memorable highlights. Indeed, thanks to everyone around him, Amini’s debut has looks to die for. Set against Europe’s most valuable and awe-inspiring cities, the cinematography, sound design, and mis-en-scene deliver something to write home about. Beyond the aesthetic wonders, our three A-listers bounce off this performance piece. Mortensen – known to impress first and attack his own movies later – excels as the relentless antagonist in this vicious concoction. Dunst delivers her most nuanced and likeable performance in a decade as the unpredictable squeeze. Meanwhile, following up his immense success with Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac is a magnetic force as the other side of the coin.

Keeping friends close and enemies closer, The Two Faces of January’s vigorous premise is on par with many of classic Hollywood’s shining lights. If anything, this drama-thriller will be seen as a commendable effort for our three charismatic and dexterous leads. The movie’s compelling visuals and tough-as-nails screenplay deliver several delights hidden around famous landmarks and decrepit streets. However, Amini’s first-time jitters stall an otherwise enlightening thrill-ride. Let’s hope his Hitchockian blues no longer chase him across Tinsel-town.

Verdict: An intensifying yet glacial drama-thriller. 

Inside Llewyn Davis Review – Friendly Folk Flick


Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman


Release date: January 16th, 2014

Distributor: CBS Films

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The memorable soundtrack.

Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.

Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.

Oscar Isaac & cat.

Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).

Carey Mulligan.

Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old MenTrue Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After ReadingThe Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious ManFargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).

John Goodman & Garrett Headlund.

Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark, Inside Llewyn Davis hurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.

With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.

Verdict: An intelligent, hysterical, and enlightening drama.