X-MEN: APOCALYPSE movie review

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It may have taken eight movies but the X-Men franchise finally reached its moment in the sun. Coming off its biggest creative and financial success with Days of Future Past, Fox’s longtime superhero series hit its stride after a string of near-hits and big misses.

X-Men finally showed it was ready to play with the big boys and that meant competing in the most densely populated year for superhero films, maybe ever. Deadpool differentiated itself through graphic, fourth wall-breaking irreverence; Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, both explored the world’s response to heroism, albeit in very different ways.

X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t have the grand, genre-bending aspirations those three films had. Instead, in a market that’s mostly trying to push boundaries, the latest X-Men film is content to be a simple, epic action film on a much larger scale than the series has gone before.

In going a straightforward route, the movie suffers from a lack of depth and more than a few integral characters being sidelined.

But once you get past the feeling of air being let out the expectations balloon, it doesn’t take long to recognize that X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun, by-the-numbers superhero flick with large-scale action, a showy villain and an expanding universe that’s closer to truly solidifying the X-Men universe for the better.

Rather than a deep, emotional conflict running under the action, Apocalypse is just focused on the superficial fight against Apocalypse and his horsemen. Barring a couple strong emotional moments, most of the film’s emotional catharsis comes from directly calling back via flashbacks to X-Men: First Class and the foundation that movie set up.

I get the idea of tying things back to the original in a third installment but this movie missteps be simply revisiting them instead of recalling and expanding upon them.

Thankfully, the film makes up for this deficiency with a number of dazzling action set-pieces, neat reintroductions of classic members, a bold new music score from a returning composer and a few surprise appearances.

Perhaps the deciding factor in chalking this one up as a win is that it actually feels like an X-Men movie. It may be a largely simple action plot but the aesthetic finally feels like it’s in the right place.

Having the main X-Men ensemble on screen doing X-Men stuff in a vibrant way is just exciting — pure and simple. And they did it without leaning on Wolverine again.

More than Hugh Jackman and flashy new powers each time around, the X-Men series found its biggest strength recently in James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Ever since X-Men: First Class, these two have been the glue that not only holds the new series together but also makes you look forward to revisiting these characters.

McAvoy’s Professor X is allowed to shine, displaying a new confidence since the last installment. McAvoy’s portrayal is charming and brings life to a character that can easily become too dry.

Fassbender’s Magneto, meanwhile, has a thankless role here. After getting some promising buildup and carrying the film’s most emotional moment that isn’t a callback, Fassbender is largely left to hang around until the plot needs him to hover in at the end.

As one half of this series’ Lennon and McCartney (though still not as evil as John Lennon), the character deserves to be put to better use.

But with Magneto mostly benched, Apocalypse steps in to serve as the main foil. Sure, his plan is pretty standard supervillain stuff but it doesn’t really matter that much because the filmmakers and Oscar Isaac admirably sell how frightful and all-powerful the character is. Every moment Apocalypse is on screen is made great by Isaac’s performance and some awesome, boisterous villain monologues.

In any case, he’s clearly having more fun in his role than Jennifer Lawrence, who looks ready to ride that paycheck off into the sunset and away from the series that helped establish her.

Sophie Turner makes for an interesting Jean Grey — who may get a more satisfying treatment going forward –, Evan Peters gets more time to shine as Quicksilver in another amazing speed sequence, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is an actual character and Kodi Smit-Mcphee as Nightcrawler is amusing.

They fare better than Angel, Psylock and Jubilee, the likes of whom are given nothing to do.

And let’s not even get into where we stand with the timeline. That is a flaming hornet’s nest, aka nothing you can or ever want to try to fix. Isn’t that right, 45-year-old Havok who looks like he’s the same age as his teenage brother?

There may be a number of things to rag on this movie for but, at the end of the day, the fact remains that there was certainly energy put into make X-Men: Apocalypse brazenly entertaining.

And honestly, after two films this year addressing the recent, buzzkill notion that we should feel guilty about large-scale superhero action, it is wholly refreshing to be given a film that goes back to basics.

7/10

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR movie review

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Captain America has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and not just within this film.

Captain America: Civil War is the 13th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sequel to the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the jumping point for the MCU’s much-hyped third phase, and is coming off the heels of both a disappointing Avengers sequel and the modestly successful Ant-Man and last summer’s creative shakeup at Marvel Studios.

Meanwhile,  the story is loosely adapted from a controversial seven-part comic series of the same name that saw the Marvel universe fractured nearly beyond repair over the introduction of a superhero registration act.

Clearly, there’s no pressure here.

With that in mind, Captain America: Civil War is one of Marvel’s most technically and emotionally solid films to date. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo show a thorough understanding of this universe’s characters and craft an effective, well-balanced film.

At the same time, oddly, Civil War is also one of Marvel’s more unfulfilling entries due to its complete unwillingness to take the universe to the next step. Even the Russos can’t sidestep common Marvel missteps here and the film feels like a big missed opportunity to be the game changer it really should be.

Before we get further into that matter though, there is one point that must be stressed going forward: this is a better Avengers movie than Age of Ultron and probably the original.

A plot that could have easily been fragmented is instead brought together very naturally here. The story wisely builds its core around the arcs of Cap, Bucky and Tony Stark and brings its many other characters into the fray in a pleasant, organic way. Side arcs like Wanda and Vision’s, as well as Zemo’s, are almost all given enough focus and content to be meaningful but not so much so that they drag the movie down or feel out of place (no magic spirit pool hokum here).

The filmmakers know that the real meat of the story is the conflict between Steve and Tony over the act, known here as the Sokovia Accords, and the added wrinkle of when Bucky reappears. The approach to the internal split is refreshingly open ended; no side is overtly right or wrong and it’s easy to sympathize with both.

Likewise, the villain of the piece is actually able to buck Marvel’s lackluster villain standard by doing something different: not being a supervillain. Zemo doesn’t have enhanced abilities or world-dominating plans but he does have fierce intelligence, relatable motivations and a very personal plan.

There’s no cliche where the villain is just a dark reflection of the hero here, just a very smart man out for vengeance. This comes off as more true and interesting than almost anything Marvel has done lately with their foils.

There are cool new characters, memorable gags and an epic airport battle (not to be confused with Marvel’s typical final aerial battle) — all good new things that keep the film feeling fresh.

But at the same time, Civil War, for how good it is, can’t escape some of the lesser aspects of the Marvel paradigm.

The film has what is probably the studio’s worst opening action sequence. The battle with Crossbones in Nigeria is artificially sped up to the point of being unaffecting. It’s a bad foot for the film to start on and unusually shoddy filmmaking from a duo that usually delivers.

More unforgivable is the handling of Crossbones. Once again, Marvel has the opportunity for a scenery-chewing recurring bad guy with Frank Grillo and, once again, they utterly waste it by killing him off.

Just like a bland, forgettable score, that’s just business as usual for Marvel and it’s not the only predictable decisions they make. The studio is still petrified of offing any of their main heroes and even with a story that was a perfect fit for such a dramatic act, they chose to play it safe.

Even though our heroes end up in separate places by the end of the film, it still feels like the status quo is kept and there’s nothing they can’t bounce back from.

It’s filmmaking without risk and thus not very rewarding.

In the ever-expanding balloon of Marvel, one door closes, while all current ones remain open and a handful are introduced.

And on that topic, we need to talk about Spider-Man. Whereas Black Panther is treated to a terrific entrance here, Spider-Man falls flat. There’s just no reason for him to be in this movie outside of the studio saying “look, we have the rights back now!”

I’m sure Tom Holland is perfectly capable and a refreshing choice for the role but they’re trying way too hard with the humor. Instead of skillful and natural comedic timing, the character just becomes annoying — within minutes of a generally short screen presence too.

We have yet to see how a different filmmaker will handle the character for Spider-Man: Homecoming but there’s notably less enthusiasm on this end after seeing a favorite character of mine be such a weak point of this film.

Don’t get me wrong, when weighing the scales, Captain America: Civil War is going to end up with much more good to its name than bad. Enough so to be considered one of Marvel’s best movies too. There are plenty of moments in this film to justify its place in the universe.

But the cracks are starting to show in the house that Marvel built. This movie was a chance to move this story and these characters forward and they largely squandered it. Marvel is still stuck in its ways and, as an audience member, that just makes fatigue set in even faster.

7.5/10

ANT-MAN MOVIE REVIEW

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There’s been a noticeable habit among superhero movies, as of late, to aim bigger and bigger in scale. Some properties naturally lend themselves to the enormous blockbuster approach while others are a little to overwhelming for their own good.

It’s therefore interesting that Marvel is following up Age of Ultron — one of those latter movies I mentioned — with Ant-Man. Like a true David and Goliath scenario, Marvel’s smallest hero shows the big dogs how it’s done, delivering a movie that uses its scope to its advantage in delivering a well-balanced heist comedy that’s one of Marvel’s most fun films in years — even if it is more than a little familiar.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can’t hold a job or get permission to see his own daughter on account of being a convicted burglar. Desperate to catch a break, Scott goes through with the robbery of an anonymous millionaire’s safe.

Little does he know, said figure wants him to rob that safe. The man behind the curtain is Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist, expert in microphysics and originator of the Ant-Man identity. Pym reaches out to Scott to pull off a very special heist. With the help of Pym’s prickly daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the trio must infiltrate Pym’s company to stop its new head, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from utilizing Pym’s uncovered shrinking technology to create an army of miniaturized assassins.

To do this, Scott must take up the mantle of Ant-Man and become the world’s smallest hero.

In a cine-scape of prolonged battles, multiple subplots, dozens of characters and endless tie-ins to other movies, Ant-Man is a superhero film that embraces refreshingly old-school principles that make it wholly accessible.

The film (previously to be helmed by Edgar Wright) is a mostly self-contained story that sticks to a core handful of characters, saves most of its action for the third act and keeps the core of the film between the characters, as opposed to the special effects. It’s because of these choices that the film is more genuine and embraceable than many other of its ilk.

In keeping things more focused, director Peyton Reed and crew can hone in on more of the colors that make the film unique. The best Marvel movies tend to be strong genre pics with a superhero twist; Ant-Man is the studio’s first foray into the heist genre and plays like Ocean’s meets Iron Man (that’s a compliment). The decision to have Ant-Man as a heist movie is damn near inspired, allowing Reed and the myriad of writers on the film to mix things up in fun ways, like combining the practice run montage on a heist film with the superpower discovery section of a superhero pic.

At the same time, the film mimics the general arc of such films and touts the power of buildup rather than sheer geek-gasm. Sounds strange for a modern superhero film, no? Well, it helps that the film is paced near perfectly, coming in at a brisk 1 hour, 57 minutes. Alongside films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, it’s not a stretch to say that Ant-Man is one of the summer’s leanest offerings that uses its runtime to its advantage.LOz04Ry

Being a Marvel film, there are naturally a lot of effects going on but not to the point of exhaustion. Ant-Man‘s shrinking abilities and his communication with ants is positively playful and acts more as a character beat than a studio-mandated effects shot. Reed and co. use just the right amount of restraint in the film until the end, letting us appreciate the effects more rather than getting spoiled by them.

In the meantime, the real strength of the film comes with the main three cast members. Rudd, Lily and Douglas all tap into the lightness of what the writers are going for but never phone it in, tackling the humor of the piece with charm and grace. This film may be more on the comedic side of the Marvel spectrum but serious kudos should be given the cast and creative team for making both the humor and the drama of the film genuine (the father/daughter themes in the film are beautiful), instead of having things come off as too cool for school… unlike certain other Marvel flicks.

That’s not to make it sound like everything about Ant-Man is shiny and new. Right off the bat the similarities between this hero and Marvel’s other super-powered suit-wielder are pretty clear. The benevolent suit-wearer up against the military industrial complex is Marvel’s shining cliche, but at very least they find a few new ways to go about it to keep things fun.

On the topic of Marvel cliches, let’s talk about how much their villains still suck! One day these guys will pick up the ball on their bad guys but Ant-Man isn’t the film to break the streak. Corey Stoll is a fine actor and gives it his best go here, but there’s only so much to do with the same cookie-cutter role the studio keeps carving out for their antagonists. Unfortunately, Yellowjacket is a one-two punch of the studio giving the villain weak motivations, then having him possess the same powers as the hero.

Then there’s Luis.

Coming out of this film, I was elated to realize this was no where near as aggressively annoying as Guardians of the Galaxy… with this one character being the exception. Michael Pena is quite good in a great many things but here his presence is just, well, ants to my eyes and ears. At best, he’s a major annoyance that hampers the vibe of the movie; at worst, he’s an insulting stereotype of the Latino community that Marvel let get out of hand and would be better off distancing themselves from.

Even with weak villains, cliched plot points and a Hispanic Stepin Fetchit, it’s hard to dismiss the pure charm Ant-Man has going for it. With only limited ties to the greater Marvel universe, it’s oddly comforting going in knowing you can have a fun time contained just to this one film. And fun it is. With movies like this you can hear it in the score (excellent, by the way) and see it in the edits.

At just under two hours of two-for-one genre thrills, Ant-Man is the type of playful film that has the confidence in it’s own strengths to escape its trappings.

7.5/10 

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON MOVIE REVIEW

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It can’t be easy being the follow-up to the biggest superhero movie ever.

There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders of whoever is in charge of a movie like Avengers: Age of Ultron —  in this case, Joss Whedon once again — to craft a movie that is even more enjoyable than the first, while fulfilling even more desires from audience and studio alike, while also stepping things up a notch.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is certainly a much bigger film and it absolutely tries its best to cover as much ground as possible, but even a talent greater than Whedon’s couldn’t handle the breathtaking amount of crap Marvel decided to pack into this film.

Acting more as a patchwork for the studio’s upcoming slate, Age of Ultron, while mostly worth its weight in spectacle and zingers, is overflowing with characters and nods to the point where there is almost no satisfying story arc in the film.

After completing some heroic housekeeping from the events of The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Avengers may have finally caught a break from protecting the world. Tony Stark, now in possession of Loki’s sceptor, finds an opportunity to use his new tech to jumpstart an artificial intelligence peacekeeping program that Bruce Banner and himself have been working on — Ultron. But as these things always go, Ultron immediately sees the best route to saving humanity as destroying it. With Ultron allying himself with two scorned superhuman twins in his plan to destroy the world, it’s up to the Avengers to stick together as a team and overcome their inner turmoil to best this new threat.

As mentioned earlier, Age of Ultron is big and blockbuster-y in some satisfying ways. There are several ambitious set pieces in the film, with the whole picture peppered with memorable one-liners and exchanges. Excusing some seriously messy camerawork in areas, the fight between Iron Man and the Hulk and the finale atop a rising city are among the best moments the movie — and maybe all Marvel movies — has to offer.

With hindsight, part of the reason early Marvel films like Iron Man work so well is that they keep a core of four to five characters and develop from there. Steadily growing ever since, we reach the point of Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has almost 20 characters battling for screentime. The result is that almost no one in the film gets ample time to shine.

I realize this is an Avengers movie, and that characters are supposed to share the screen for the shared experience, but even the multiple storylines feel maddeningly shallow or sometimes not at all worth it. When the pieces feel wrong, the whole picture starts to suffer.

Really, in the realm of characters getting their due, only Hawkeye has been afforded some actual growth, probably as a “mea culpa” for his role in the first movie. His addition to the film seems to be the exception to the rule when it comes to the characters not getting their due.nY6ARxp

Iron Man has perhaps the most un-met potential among the returning players, with Whedon toying with the idea that Stark is still not terribly popular around the world and that his actions, past and present, keep coming back to haunt everyone. But that’s quickly dropped in accordance with the action quota, while reasoning behind him being his same old self after the transformative end of Iron Man 3 is not even touched on.

Captain America is mostly kept to nice character beats in the absence of an actual arc (nice character beats being more than he was afforded the first time around), while Thor gets the honored duty of heading the film’s choppy, shoehorned side story that presumably leads up to many upcoming Marvel movies — it just has basically nothing to do with this one.

Bruce Banner and Black Widow here are stuck in an even worse shoehorned element: a forced love story. One that’s not believable beyond the reasoning of “well… we need something for the girl of the movie to do and we didn’t bother with the Hulk this time. Problem solved.” Keep an eye out for the third wheel in their romance scene: the conveniently eye-catching can of Gillette shaving cream.

The twins, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, are intriguing and feel like they should hold more importance but are another casualty of an overstuffed movie, getting shoved out of the picture in their own debut.

Also not getting their moment in the sun are Ultron and The Vision. The Vision is a cool new element to the team, and has a couple standout moments, but this is just his introduction in a movie that already had enough going on. Ultron, meanwhile, is hard to dislike because of James Spader’s menacing charisma, but again isn’t afforded the proper time to become one of Marvel’s few multidimensional villains.

And that’s not even touching on Nick Fury, War Machine and Maria Hill, who are in this movie for… some reason…, Baron Strucker, and our South African arms dealer, Ulysses Klaw, who essentially appears to preview a movie than is more than three years away.

Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t one of the stronger Marvel movies, even among Phase 2, but it’s still not necessarily bad. The film’s positives still make it worth catching on the big screen. I can honestly say I had fun watching a lot of it.

Still, it’s an odd occurrence when a movie so stuffed with stuff feels so empty. Ultimately, that’s what makes Ultron great promotional material instead of a great movie.


6/10