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Marvel’s X-Men franchise had some serious damage it needed to undo. The once mighty superhero series had been harmed by that age-old foe – bad sequels. The collective stink from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and the 2009 Wolverine debacle, the franchise had lost some serious luster. While the recovery was not nearly as deep and cataclysmic as what the Batman franchise had to deal with in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin, a film that flirted with salting the earth, the X-Men needed some kind of facelift. Enter director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, Stardust), the man who was going to save the series back in 2006 when original director Bryan Singer flew away to direct a different man in tights. Vaughn was originally tapped to direct Last Stand but he dropped out and was replaced by the hack Brett Ratner (Rush Hour). Thus began the slide toward mediocrity. Now Vaughn is back to tidy up unfinished business, taking the series back to its historical roots in the 1960s. It seems that a trip back in time was just what was needed to make the X-Men fresh.
Back in 1944, Erik Lehnsherr is a prisoner in a Polish concentration camp when Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) discovers the young boy’s great potential. When enraged, Erik can control anything metallic. In upstate New York at the same time, young Charles Xavier discovers a young shape shifter named Raven. She’s blue from head to toe and afraid. They’re delighted to find one another, fearing they were the only ones “different” in the world, children of the “atomic age.” All three of these people are headed for a collision course. In 1963, Charles (James McAvoy) has become an Oxford professor, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) has followed him to England, and Erik (Michael Fassbender) has been systematically hunting down the Nazis responsible for his pain and suffering. Dr. Schmidt has now become Sebastian Shaw, a younger-looking playboy with the intent to push the Soviets and Americans to nuclear war. Shaw has his own team of mutant henchmen, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, proving once again that she can really only ever be good as Betty Drapier) who walks around in white lingerie the whole movie. Together with CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Charles and Erik assemble their own team of young mutants to thwart Shaw.
Similar to 2009’s Star Trek, this film provides the opportunity to reboot a franchise by going back in time. It transports the series back to the beginning of the friendship between Charles and Erik, and spends the next 130 minutes filling in the rationale for the “why” of their varying personal philosophies. By dialing back, we’re able to play around with 40 years of back-story and histories. While we know the end results, that these two giants will become enemies, that Charles will lose the ability to walk, and that Raven/Mystique will eventually side with Erik, that doesn’t mean there isn’t pleasure to be had in watching the journey. There are all sorts of self-aware in-jokes for fans and a few nifty cameos that left me howling with glee. The script, credited to Vaughn, his writing partner Jane Goldman (Kick-Ass), and four others, smartly moves the film forward; no scene seems at a waste. Even better, the film strikes a tone that manages to take its real-world implications seriously (nuclear brinksmanship, Holocaust, and fighting for equality and acceptance) without diminishing its popcorn thrills.
As a summer movie, X-Men: First Class has enough razzle-dazzle to compliment its intelligent social pontification. Vaughn and his screenwriters have composed action sequences that neatly incorporate the mutant abilities of its subjects while building the tension and smartly utilizing the contours of geography. I hate action sequences that don’t play to the potential of location and subject. An evil teleporter (Jason Flemyng) finds a fiendishly clever way to dispatch 20 CIA agents. Magneto efficiently takes out former Nazis residing in Argentina in one chilling sequence (“I’m Frankenstein’s monster,” he tells one man). Shaw makes for an actual formidable opponent for our fledgling heroes. The personal connection he has with Erik, on top of Bacon’s devilish glimmer of villainy, makes Shaw a strong antagonist that the audience can rally against. Vaughn has a splendid reveal with Shaw. Back when he was a Nazi doctor, he asks young Erik to move a coin with his abilities. The shots consist entirely from one side of his office, showcasing it to be a bookish study. Then when Shaw calls the Nazi guards to bring in Erik’s mother for a little more direct incentive, the camera flips position. We see the opposite side of the room, a medical station on the other side of large glass panels. Inside is a torturous display of medical cutlery. It’s a fantastic reveal that kicks up the tension while adding to the terrifying character of Shaw. The action highpoint, a mutant vs. mutant battle amidst the Soviet and American naval fleets, provides plenty of parallel action to follow that keeps the movie alive and kicking.
The film mixes a frothy, James Bond-esque spy thriller feel in production design and whatever-goes plot savvy, but then recomposes real life events as mutant enhanced. Alert the history textbooks, because the Nazi scientists experimented on mutant children and that mutants averted World War III. Some will chafe at the alternative history approach, but I find it to be more interesting, suspenseful, and a natural fit with the overall Cold War paranoia feel of the setting. Melding the X-Men into history makes for a more intellectually stimulating adventure, tipping its hat at various historical revisions that payoff as small rewards for a well-informed audience. I’m not saying that the movie is like Noam Chomsky’s take on X-Men by any means, but it’s certainly the most heady film in the series since the departure of Bryan Singer (he serves as producer on this flick). Indeed, this is a rather talky X-Men adventure with plenty of philosophical debates and speeches. But then it’s got naked women in blue too. But you see, it’s not just naked women in blue, it’s that a naked woman in blue can become a political statement – man!
And it’s on that note I’d like to say a few words. Mutants have always been a central metaphor for the oppressed, be they Jews, African-Americans, homosexuals, whatever minority group you’d like to slot in. That’s been one of the secrets to the continued success of Marvel’s flagship series – anybody can identify with the fear of being judged, feared, and despised because of who you are. That’s why the character of Raven/Mystique, short of Magneto, is the most fascinating character in the movie. Her true form, scaly and blue, is what keeps her feeling like an outcast. She doesn’t have an invisible power like her surrogate big brother, Charles. She constantly disguises herself in order to fit in, albeit her disguise is the alluring natural figure of Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone). “Mutant and proud,” she says in disdain when she stares at her bluish reflection in the mirror. It is through Erik hat she begins to believe in this mantra, gaining pride that “blue is beautiful” and she need not even wear clothes to cover who she is up (millions of teen boys celebrate this decision and wish it had become more widespread in application). Raven/Mystique is the figure torn between the two philosophies argued by Charles and Erik. She is the central figure that has to struggle with reality vs. idealism. It’s also a little funny that a movie piggybacking the civil rights movement of the 60s (mutant rights!) also trades in the casual misogyny of the 1960s (women in lingerie as outfits, regularly practiced sexism). I suppose some of this is intentional. I guess the women’s movement will be saved for a sequel.
While the retro setting ties in nicely with the series’ core metaphor about being different/disenfranchised, the dichotomy of ideas presented by Charles and Erik are not given equal measure. That’s because, quite frankly, Erik is a much more powerfully interesting character and more sympathetic than a rich kid who can read people’s minds. Charles Xavier and Magneto have always represented a comic book version of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X when it came to the ideas of integration, equality, and representation. Charles believes that mutants should assimilate and that humanity will accept in time; peaceful and hidden. Magneto, on the other hand, takes a more militant stance and feels that mutants need not hide who they are out of fear or shame, that they are the dominant species and should not be threatened by the weaker Homo sapiens. But where X-Men: First Class runs into some trouble is that the ideological deck is completely stacked in Magneto’s favor. He’s the one who suffered through concentration camps, Nazi experimentation; he’s seen the worst of what mankind of capable of. He’s a tormented man seeking vengeance, which is character motivation that is easy for an audience to fall behind. Then, even after the mutants save mankind’s bacon during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the first person who tells me this is a spoiler gets a history book thrown at them), they still get treated as the enemy. Almost everything that plays out onscreen aligns with Magneto’s ideology, which makes it hard not to be on Team Magneto as the movie draws to a close. I suppose the film utilizes our knowledge of future events to counterbalance Magneto’s pessimistic world philosophy.
The other issue that lends more credibility to Magneto than perhaps the filmmakers were hoping for is the fact that he’s the most interesting character in the movie, easily. The X-kids are a pretty bland bunch of boys and gals. This is the first class the filmmakers chose? Did they have recruiting violations at the school? Havok (Lucas Till), a goy who can shoot energy beams, Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), a guy who can scream loudly and fly, somehow, Angel (Zoe Kravitz), a gal with fairy wings and an acid tongue, and then Darwin (Edi Gathegi), a guy who… adapts? Darwin’s power is so obtuse to explain, it’s no wonder he doesn’t last long in service to his country (it’s a bit tacky that when one character says “slavery” the edits have to cut back to the one black mutant for a reaction shot). Each one of these teenagers has a different reaction to their powers. Some are ashamed, some are afraid, others proud or apathetic. But they are all singularly uninteresting. Once they establish their power, they become less a character and just another piece on a game board to be positioned. And Lenny Kravitz’s kid in fairy wings? Plus she spits little fireballs? I’m sorry but that should have been the first thing removed from rewrites. This crew makes it sure that we empathize even more with Magneto as he refines his powers to reach his personal vengeance, which is the film’s pre-designed payoff. We’re not really looking for the team to band together, which they inevitably do, but we’re awaiting that splash of vengeance. And when it does come, it’s satisfying, stylish, and dramatically fitting (“At the count of three, I’m going to move the coin.”). The fact that the movie still has like 15 minutes of material afterward is almost inconsequential.
Vaughn certainly delivers the spectacle, it’s the actors that produce the real fireworks. This is a vehicle for McAvoy (Atonement, Wanted) and Fassbender (Ingloruious Basterds, Jane Eyre), and both men provide admirable gravitas. McAvoy’s role offers a more jocular performance, showing Charles to be a bit of a lady’s man in his younger years, harnessing his telepathic powers to bed him some beauties. Then again, as I’ve been told from my female friends, looking like McAvoy will certainly also help matters. But this is Fassbender’s show. He has a chilly intensity to him, rather than just being cold and indifferent like January Jones (she is really poor, I’m sorry). His performance captivates you from the start, and his slow-burning hatred consumes the man. It’s a dramatically rich performance given the material. After being discriminated against for being a Jew, than a mutant, he has to sell that his character, haunted and rage-filled, would ironically follow the same social Darwinism that his Nazi tormentors evoked. And Fassbender sells every bit of an iconic Marvel villain coming into his destiny. However, his Irish accent slips out in the film’s final reel, and I’m really curious why the studio couldn’t have shelled a few bucks to fix that with ADR. Rushed for time, or revealing that Magneto has unheard of Irish lineage?
Going back in time manages to open up all sorts of possibilities for the X-Men franchise. There could be a whole slew of sequels that play around with the rich, complex back stories of the X-Men without having to serve the aging stars of the original trilogy. Vaughn keeps the proceedings amazingly fluid, stylish without being overtaken by visual artifice, and the swinging 60s provides a groovy backdrop. The action delivers when needed, the smart script doesn’t downplay the clash of ideas to go along with the clash of fists, and the special effects are relatively up to snuff as summer escapism goes. The movie is not without its misses, including a cadre of lackluster junior mutants. But Vaughn has re-energized a flagging franchise and given hope for a future (past?). In the pantheon of X movies, I’d place X-Men: First Class as an equal to X2, the best in the series. It may not be at the head of the class, but this superhero flick earns is stripes with a solid effort and strong potential. Just get rid of January Jones when it comes time for the age of feminism.
Nate’s Grade: A
In the summer of superheroes, you’ll be excused for feeling some fatigue when it comes to men in tights. Captain America: The First Avenger is a surprisingly enjoyable sepia-tinted action film that flexes enough might to pleasantly hark back to the days of 1940s adventure serials. Taking place almost entirely in the era of World War II, the film, and its hero, and unabashedly square and earnest. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) begins as a 90-pound weakling determined to fight for his country and gets transformed into a behemoth of beefcake by the Army. Captain America is devoid of the dark brooding that has come to encapsulate modern superhero movies, but it’s also playing its B-movie silliness straight. The flick has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Sky Captain than most other superhero product. Better yet, the movie finesses the in-your-face patriotism of the title character. I mean the guy is called Captain America. Yet the film finds a way to resonate a sincere nationalistic pride without falling back into Michael Bay-level jingoism. And who’s going to make for better villains than Nazis? Director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park 3) turns out to have been the perfect choice to helm this rah-rah retro enterprise. The pacing is swift, the acting is engaging, the special effects are terrific particularly Evans’ transformation into a weakling, and the film is unexpectedly emotional at points. This is a comic book movie that would appeal to an older generation not normally interested in superheroes, namely people like my dad.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Wolverine solo films have not been good movies. The 2008 first film was widely lambasted and while it made its money it was an obvious artistic misfire. The second film, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold was an improvement even though it had its silly moments and fell apart with a contrived final confrontation. The Wolverine movies were definitely the lesser, unworthy sidekick to the X-Men franchise, and this was a franchise that recently suffered from the near abysmal Apocalypse. Mangold returns for another Wolverine sequel but I was cautious. And then the cheerfully profane Deadpool broke box-office records and gave the Fox execs the latitude needed for a darker, bloodier, and more adult movie that’s more interested in character regrets than toy tie-ins. Thank goodness for the success of Deadpool because Logan is the X-Men movie, and in particular the Wolverine movie, I’ve been waiting for since the mutants burst onto the big screen some seventeen years ago. It is everything you could want in a Wolverine movie.
In the year 2029, mutants have become all but extinct. Logan (Jackman) is keeping a low profile as a limo driver and taking care of an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) south of the border. Xavier is losing his mind and a danger to others with his out-of-control psychic powers that need to be drugged. Caliban (Stephen Merchant) is also helping, a light-sensitive mutant with the ability to innately track people across the globe. Logan is ailing because his healing power is dwindling and he can’t keep up with the steady poison of his adamantium bones. A scared Mexican nurse tries to convince Logan to help out the little girl in her care, Laura (Dafne Keen, feral and a better non-verbal actor). She’s an angry, violent child and built from the DNA of Logan. She too has unbreakably sharp claws and a healing ability. Bounty hunter Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is trying to recapture the runaway merchandise/science experiment, capturing Caliban and torturing him to track his prey. Logan goes on the run with Xavier and they try to make sense of what to do with Laura, a.k.a. X-23. They’re headed north to Eden, a hypothetical refuge for mutants to sneak over into freedom in Canada, and along the way are deadly hunters who aren’t afraid of leaving behind a trail of bodies to get their girl back.
It feels like it shouldn’t haven taken Jackman’s reported final outing for the execs to realize that a guy with freaking knives attached to his hands might be a concept that would work in the more grisly, more adult territory an R-rating creatively affords. It’s about time this man got to fully use his claws, and it was a joyous explosion of violence and gore built up for fans such as myself for a long time coming. It feels like Fox has been planning for this event as well, as if they stationed a production lackey to devise all sorts of grotesquely fun ways that Wolverine might skewer his competition in bloody beauty (“Finally, your preparation will not be in vain, Ronald”). There’s one scene in particular where a bunch of armed henchmen are psychically frozen in place and Logan struggles to move past each, and we get to anticipate just how each one will be viciously stabbed. For a series that has shied away from overly gory violence, Logan certainly celebrates its new opportunities with bloody glee. The fact that the first word spoken is an f-bomb and there’s a gratuitous moment of drunken sorority girl boob flashing is like the producers trying to directly communicate to the millions of ticket buyers and saying, “Hey, we’re sorry it took so long. Hope it was worth the wait.” Oh dear reader, it was worth the wait.
It’s not just the action that’s invigorating but the emotional core of the film is deeper and more compelling and ruminative than ever before, and finally these great actors are given material to deliver great performances worthy of their talent. Stewart and Jackman have never been bad in their respective roles even if and when the movies have been. They just have never been called upon for much more than genre heroics, anguish, and pained moral dilemmas. With Logan, both actors are finally given meaty material that affords nuance and ambiguity, and they are excellent. Charles Xavier is losing his battle with Alzheimer’s and ALS, which is a major concern when his mind is considered a weapon of mass destruction by the government. He’s going through his own end of life deliberations (“You’re waiting for me to die,” he groans at Logan) and it brings out a far different Xavier than we’ve ever seen, even with the youthful cockiness from James McAvoy. This is a cranky, defiant, and doddering Xavier, someone who is barely outpacing his sense of grief, guilt, and depression. There’s a tragic back-story we only get a glimpse of but it’s suitably devastating for a man who has devoted his life to others. He’s looking for a few last moments of grace and looking to hold onto something by journey’s end.
Thanks to his healing ability and the star wattage of Jackman, there was little fear that anything serious would ever befall Wolverine in his many previous film appearances. Sure bad things happened to him and he lost plenty of female love interests, but you never feared that he wouldn’t be able to ultimately handle himself. That’s not the case in Logan, which opens with a Wolverine who has clearly lost more than a step or two. He’s tired, rundown, and his adamantium skeleton is slowly poisoning his body. His healing powers are slowing down and he’s not as berserker fast and agile as he used to be. For once there’s an uncertainty attached to the character and a vulnerability. This turn greatly increases the intensity of the fight sequences and the greater stakes of the drama. The comparisons of the samurai were rife in The Wolverine and now the comparisons to the aging, lone gunslinger are ever-present in Logan. He’s drawn into a conflict that he was not seeking and he’s found a little bit of his remaining humanity and compassion to do right in the face of overwhelming odds and near certain destruction. There’s a subtle moment that the film doesn’t even dwell on that stuck with me. It’s after an accident, and in the thick of confusion, Logan is trying to save his mentor but he’s also worried that Xavier will think he betrayed him. “It wasn’t me,” he repeats over and over, not wanting this man to suffer more. It’s a small moment that doesn’t get much attention and yet it really spoke of their relationship and the depth of feeling during these fraught final days. This is the first Wolverine movie that feels like the characters matter as human beings just as much as purveyors of punching and kicking (now with gruesome slashing at no extra cost). Jackman showcases more than his impressive physique this go-round; he delivers a wounded performance that’s built upon generations of scars that he’s been ignoring. It’s the serious character examination we’ve been waiting for.
I also want to single out Merchant (Extras) who gives a performance I never would have anticipated from the awkwardly comedic beanpole. He even gets a badass moment and I never would have thought Stephen Merchant would ever have a badass moment in life.
Mangold’s film plays as a love letter to Western cinema and uses the genre trappings in ways to further comment on the characters and their plight. This is a bleak movie. It’s not a dystopia. In fact it resembles our own world pretty closely with a few technological additions; automated machines and trucks, the common knowledge that mutants have been wiped out like the measles. Knowing that it’s reportedly the end for Stewart and Jackman playing these characters, I was anticipating the film to strike an elegiac chord. His past and legacy are catching up with Logan. He becomes an unlikely guardian to Laura and explores a fatherhood dynamic that was never afforded to him before. The unlikely partnership, and it is a partnership as she’s a pint-sized chip off the block of her tempestuous father, blossoms along a cross-country road trip for a paradise that may or may not exist, while desperadoes and powerful black hat villains are out to impose their will upon the weak. This is explored in a leisurely pit stop with a working class family (welcome back, Eriq La Sale) that welcomes Logan and his posse into their home. We get a small respite and learn about greedy landowners trying to pressure them into giving up the family farm. It’s completely reminiscent of something you might see in a classic Western of old, just transported to a new setting. There’s even an extended bit where Laura watches 1953’s Shane on TV, and when those final words come back in expected yet clunky fashion, I’d be lying if they didn’t push the right emotions at the right time.
But when it comes to action, Logan more than satisfies. The action is cleanly orchestrated by Mangold in fluid takes that allow the audience to readily engage. The film doesn’t go overboard on the Grand Guignol and lose sight of the key aspects of great action sequences. There’s a refreshing variety of the action and combat, and the action is framed tightly to the characters and their goals. It makes for an exhilarating viewing. If there is anything I would cite as a detriment for an otherwise incredible sendoff, I think the movie peaks too soon action-wise. The emotional climax is definitely where it ought to be (tears will be shed whether you like it or not) but the third act action doesn’t have quite the pop. Also, while Holbrook (Narcos) is an entertaining and slyly charismatic heavy, the villains in the movie are kept relatively vague as is their overall plan. The vacuum of villainy is kept more one-dimensional, which is fine as it allows more complexity and character moments to be doled out to our heroes, but it is a noticeable missing element.
One of the best attributes I cited from last year’s Captain America: Civil War is that the full weight of the character histories was felt, giving real emotional stakes to all the explosions and moralizing. When our characters went toe-to-toe, we felt a dozen films’ worth of setup that made the conflict matter. Logan carries that same emotional weight. We’ve been watching Wolverine and Professor Xavier for almost two decades and across nine films. These characters have gotten old, tired, and they carry their years like taciturn gunslingers looking for solitude and trying to justify the regrets of their lives. It’s a surprisingly emotional, serious, and altogether mature final chapter, one that provides just as many enjoyable character moments and stretches of ruminative silence as it does jolts of gritty, dirty, hard-charging action and bloody violence. It’s as much a character study as it is a superhero movie or Western. I cannot imagine this story as a watered down, PG-13 neutered version of what I saw on screen. This is a movie for adults and it pays great justice to the characters and the demands of the audience. The final image is note-perfect and can speak volumes about the ultimate legacy of Wolverine and by extension Xavier and his school for gifted youngsters. Logan is the second-best X-Men movie (First Class still rules the roost) and a thoughtful and poignant finish that left me dizzy with happiness, emotionally drained, and extremely satisfied as a longtime fan.
Nate’s Grade: A-
“We all know the third movie is the worst,” says young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) in a curious moment that is too meta for its own good. It’s meant to be an in-joke, and possible a jab at 2006’s heavily derided X-Men: The Last Stand, but it ends up summarizing more than one X-Men movie. Easily the weakest of the prequel series, X-Men: Apocalypse is a muddled super hero movie that marginalizes its interesting characters, lacks a thematic linchpin, pushes a new batch of boring and often superfluous new mutants, and feels like everyone is running through the paces of what they think an X-Men movie should be. It’s not Last Stand, the near franchise-killer that Days of Future Past had to wipe out of existence, but this movie is a dull and clear example of the lousy mediocrity of compounded missed chances suffered at the expense of loyalty to formula.
In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for gifted youngsters, a.k.a. mutants, and has a new class of students including Jean Grey, Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan), Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kurt Smit-McPhee). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a simple life and exclude himself from a larger fight between humans and mutants. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is crossing the globe and discovering new mutants to rescue. Everything changes when an ancient mutant is awakened in Egypt. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is thousands of years old and is rumored to be the first mutant. He collects four mutant helpers he deems his Horsemen, and in 1983 it happens to be a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto. Apocalypse promises a world built for only the strongest mutants and will wipe the planet with those found lesser.
Let’s start with the empty void that is the titular super villain; Apocalypse is a complete waste and a complete bore. Oscar Isaac is a terrific and soulful actor who can be so malleable to roles as diverse as misanthropic Llewyn Davis to dreamy X-wing pilot Poe Damaron. He is buried under pounds of purple makeup that limit his expression, coupled with a heavy costume that also limits his movement. Apocalypse should have probably been a motion capture performance. Andy Serkis has proven that mo-cap performances can exhibit tremendous emotive qualities and the technology can support it. Mo-cap would have been better than staring at Ivan Ooze lumbering around. Then there’s his haphazard characterization. Apocalypse is both too all-powerful and shackled with powers that are too vaguely ill defined. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that needs an entourage for support despite the whole snazzy “Four Horsemen” backing band name. Apocalypse should be the solo act; he doesn’t need a backup band. You could have written Storm and Psylocke out entirely and had no impact on the plot whatsoever. My pal Eric Muller even jokes that Psylocke literally walks off the movie. Allow me to indulge my X-Men fandom a moment and just say how Apocalypse is my favorite X-Men villain and Psylocke was one of my favorite X-Men way back when I was reading the comics consistently in the 90s. I loved the psychic blade of Psylocke, though in this movie it’s pretty much just a laser arm sword, which is a underwhelming. Seeing both of these characters completely wasted is particularly disappointing to 90s me.
But back to Apocalypse, he seems too powerful to need to seek out a select group of super lieutenants and part of this is also because of how poorly the movie explains the specifics or limitations of his powers. He absorbs the powers of his host mutants but what are those powers exactly? The movie never specifies beyond the weird shifting-humans-into-walls thing that looks a bit too silly to be truly terrifying. Every time he displays a new fancy power we just have to accept it, but if he keeps unleashing powers we never know about then why does he even need assistance? We already see Apocalypse turning the world into dust clouds, so why does he need Magneto to, I believe, rip the metal core out of the Earth? It’s not like he has a meaningful relationship with Magneto, the only Horseman who truly matters. Apocalypse should be the mutant equivalent of a god, and credit to my pal Ben Bailey on this assertion, and the world of mutants should be forced to make a choice to follow this god who genuinely wants a new world consisting only of his “children.” Instead he’s just a bloviating and boring demagogue that makes a terrible lead villain. For a guy who might be the “first mutant” and inspire the Bible, it sure seems like squandered potential.
The trio of the core characters of the prequels (Professor X, Magneto, Mystique) is largely sidelined and you can certainly tell that the actors are eyeing the exit door, no more than Lawrence. These are the characters we’ve gotten to know and the ones we’ve built up an emotional attachment to, so why not just push them to the outer edges of your story and shove some new even younger X kids in place to dominate the narrative? Lawrence and Fassbender especially are given the least to do. When Mystique has to become a de facto X-Men leader and teacher, you can feel like everyone is just going through the motions. They just look bored or at least unable to hide their ambivalence with the muddled screenplay. The new X kids are also fairly bland with little charisma. I think there’s an actual scene where Nightcrawler is walking around a mall in plain sight. The X kids are here to take over for the Magneto/Xavier/Mystique unit and provide a bridge to the original X-Men series. It is here where I must now gripe because First Class was set in 1961 and Apocalypse is set in 1983 and nobody looks like they’ve aged. Maybe that’s a mutant ability plot device but then Rose Byrne’s human character hasn’t aged much either. Her character is also completely pointless in this movie. She might not be as badly shoehorned into the action as Lois Lane was in Batman vs. Superman, but then again there still isn’t anything as terrible as anything in BvS.
The X-Men franchise from the beginning has been a super hero saga with subtext and social commentary. It might not be completely subtle but it was effective and brings greater relevance and emotional power to the struggles of our mutant heroes. The first prequel was about a core philosophical divide between Xavier and Magneto; the second movie was about the individual versus society and was personally exemplified by the moral crisis of Mystique’s hunt for vengeance that would lead to the downfall of humanity. This third movie has none of that. Magneto is suffering from a personal tragedy caused by prejudice and fear but the basic theme is the same from First Class just not nearly as well articulated. Here it’s more just blunt “kill ‘em all” vengeance, and he’s made to be a practically mute cipher until called upon at the very end for some tidy plot work. I haven’t even talked about the tacky return to a concentration camp. The characters are either fighting the bad guy or fighting with the bad guy. That’s it. There isn’t any major personal or philosophical conflict that is highlighted by the subtext of the plot. It’s all just more grist for world-ending CGI nonsense.
Apocalypse at best is a series of moments, and the overall quality level rarely rises beyond competently acceptable, not exactly a ringing endorsement. The movie’s action sequences are rather dull and visually repetitive, making poor use of geography and development. The entire third act is a blandly extended action sequence in the dusty ruins of Cairo. Things just sort of happen and then more things just sort of happen. The opening action sequence in Days of Future Past is better than 99% of the scenes in this movie. The clear highlight that everyone will rightly cite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) showcasing the amazing potential of his super speedy powers, but even this is a repeat of a highlight from a previous movie. It’s like the producers decided to take the moment everybody loved and do it bigger and better. It was a real fun surprise in the first time, and now it’s become the newest part of the X-Men formula. Still, it’s a fantastic sequence with great visual panache and a lively sense of humor. When the world slows down and Quicksilver steps into the frame, it’s almost like a hero moment for the audience to cheer. He saves a school of mutants, and a dog, from a colossal explosion, but it too is just another moment that could have been cut from the movie entirely. It’s a fantastic moment, the obvious highpoint, and yet it’s still superfluous. The other highpoint is an extended cameo at Alkali Lake, and again it is superfluous and calls into question greater franchise continuity.
Speaking of continuity, there are some major events in Days of Future Past but especially Apocalypse that make me question how the events in the 2000s X-Men still stand. According to the events of the prequels, Mystique “outed” herself to the world and proved the existence of mutants to the wider public when she tried killing Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) and infiltrated the Nixon White House. Cut to 1983 and Apocalypse broadcasts a message to every human and mutant on the planet. He launches the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons into space. That seems like a big deal, the kind of deal that would dramatically alter the events in the 2000s to the point that a mutant registration act would seem hilariously quaint and far too late. The character relationships in the first X-Men movie must also be reassessed with the events of Alkali Lake. It’s hard for me to reconcile the earlier films matching up with these prequels at this point.
The studio execs and producers behind the X-Men series have already gone on record speculating that their next movie will take place in the 1990s and have Mr. Sinister as its chief villain. I think they’re getting a little too ahead of themselves with the larger franchise vision much like what happened to Sony after their 2012 Amazing Spider-Man reboot. They started plotting two sequels, a spin-off, and lost sight of simply making a good movie with characters you care about and memorable action sequences. They lost track and had to reboot their Spider-Man franchise yet again, this time with an assist from the Marvel bigwigs. I don’t need an X-Men-a-decade adventure. I just want good movies. Out of six movies, half of them are great and the rest are acceptable to terrible. Apocalypse won’t kill its franchise but I think the negative and indifferent response from the public, as well as less-than-robust box-office returns, will give the studio caution. Don’t just throw out an X-Men movie in order to lay the tracks for the next two X-Men movies. Make a compelling and entertaining X-Men film that stands on its own. If you can’t do that, then there won’t be too many more X adventures, period.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ever since Marvel’s Avengers destroyed the box-office in 2012, every studio with super hero franchises has been looking to follow suit. It’s not just about comic book franchises; it’s about building a comic book universe. It’s been a long dark period for the X-Men ever since the regrettable 2006 debacle The Last Stand, which callously killed characters, butchered others, and botched the most famous storyline in the history of the comic. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn proved there was still life to be found in the franchise with his terrific 60s-era prequel, X-Men: First Class. Now, post-Avengers, Fox is salivating at combining the past X-Men and the present X-Men into one colossal movie with a colossal budget. Back on board is director Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men films and the man who helped kickstart the modern superhero era. If that wasn’t enough riding on the film, X-Men: Days of Future Past also follows the second most famous storyline in the history of the comic.
In the horrible future, killer robots known as Sentinels hunt down mutants. These are the invention of Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), a military scientist who was killed back in 1973 by the vengeful shape-shifting mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The murder convinced humans to subsidize Trask’s killer robot plan of defense. Thanks to experiments replicating Mystique’s mutant ability, the Sentinels have the ability to adapt to any power, turning them practically indestructible. In the future, the Sentinels are eradicating all mutants, mutant sympathizers, and eventually human beings. Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) have teamed up with a small band of surviving mutants, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Thanks to the phasing powers of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they can send Wolverine’s consciousness back to 1973 so that he can prevent the Trask assassination. The only ones who can help Wolverine is the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), former mentors to Mystique. Except Xavier is a recluse and strung-out on drugs to dull his powers and Magneto is locked away underneath the Pentagon.
The X-Men films have always had a topical advantage to them that provided a weightier sense of drama than your typical story about a reluctant soul blessed with amazing powers. The mutant allegory automatically applies to any sub-group facing oppression mostly through fear and ignorance. What other superhero franchise has two opening scenes in a German concentration camp? The stakes are even larger with this movie because of the Horrible Nightmare Future that must be prevented. Now we all assume said Nightmare Future will be avoided by film’s end, so the movie provides a proverbial reset button that the filmmakers can have fun with, and they do (look out future mutants). Excluding the Nightmare Future framing device that becomes an unnecessary parallel storyline, the majority of the film takes place in 1973. If X-Men: First Class tapped into the groovy optimism and “take me for what I am” sense of social justice of the time, then this film certainly taps into the disillusionment of the 1970s, where the promise of reform and hope morphed into anger and cynicism (hey, that’s like us today!). This loss of innocence is typified in Mystique, who becomes the central figure of the movie in many ways. Her seething desire for vengeance is what animates her, as well as the pain of betrayal from the men closest in her life, as well as the world who once held such promise. Also, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) has become one of the biggest female stars on the planet, so it makes sense to bolster her role. The central conflict is stopping an assassination, one domino that leads to many others, but it’s emotionally about Mystique having to confront her feelings of hate. It’s another platform for the ongoing conflict of perspectives between Xavier (restraint, tolerance) and Magneto (strong defense, eye for an eye). But as I found in First Class, it’s hard not to agree with Magneto as human overreaction leads to rash and thoughtless actions, like Horrible Nightmare Future.
That’s not to say that X-Men: Days of Future Past fails to deliver when it comes to the popcorn thrills and action highs we crave in our finest summer blockbusters. The action set pieces are large without dwarfing the characters, playful and imaginative without losing a sense of edge and danger. I loved how the character Blink (Bingbing Fan) would utilize her mutant power of opening portals as a fighting strategy. It makes action sequences so much more inventive and visually exciting to throw a series of portals. The pacing is swift short of the second half of Act Two, gearing up for the climactic showdown in D.C. that dominates Act Three. The time travel story starts with a lot of exposition but it gets smoothed out as it goes, the rules of the story fall into place. Every action sequence hits, some admittedly better than others, but it’s the small touches that Singer injects that made me smile most. I enjoyed Magneto pointing a gun, being toppled, but still using his power to have the gun fire in midair. I enjoyed the animalistic nature of the Beast/Wolverine brawl. Jackman is looking even veinier than usual in his bulked out form. Thankfully the fish-out of-water timeline jokes are kept to a minimum. Wolverine is the perfect glue to hold both timelines together. And then there’s that standout Pentagon prison break sequence (more on that later). Singer might not have the most natural instincts developing and staging action, but the man is a surefire talent when it comes to staging eye-catching visuals (I would say the same about Christopher Nolan). Even his unfairly maligned Superman Returns is proof of the man’s cinematic gifts. As far as entertainment value, this is right up there with X-Men 2. I still view Vaughn’s savvy First Class as the best X-film of the bunch, which has only gotten better the more I’ve watched it.
And if that wasn’t enough, Singer’s new film does what every fan has been hoping for: (spoilers) it erases all the crummy X-Men movies, namely 2006’s Last Stand and the first Wolverine solo effort, from the official timeline. It’s time to start anew, toss out the old stuff nobody liked, and forge ahead with a new unified timeline. There can be two parallel X-Men franchises, one present/future and one with the prequel casts, and they can go on forever as desired, or until the prequel cast prices itself out. In one fell swoop, Singer and company have reset the mother franchise and given fans new hope about the possibilities. Make sure to stick around to the very end of the credits for a scene that indicates directly who the next major villain will be in the 2016 sequel.
Let me take time to single out just how expertly Evan Peters (TV’s American Horror Story) steals the entire mutant-heavy movie. First, he’s the most comically attuned character, which is a nice break from how serious, and rightly so, every character is so often. Quicksilver provides a whole new jolt of entertainment, and when he checks out after the prison break sequence you’ll dearly miss him. The character is a rapscallion (as my late grandmother might have termed) that enjoys using his super speed powers to mess with people, to test his limits, to see what he can get away with, and a Pentagon jailbreak is right up his alley. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit and ignore what initially seems like Peters’ smirking self-involvement from trailers and ads. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever. It is definitely an applause-worthy moment and my audience responded in kind. Quicksilver is a perfectly utilized supporting player in a movie stuffed to the gills with characters.
The time travel geek in me has a few quibbles with the parallel lines of action from past and present. Wolverine’s consciousness is sent back in time but he film plays out like it’s happening simultaneously to the events of the future. So if Wolverine is pulled out in the middle of the movie, he’ll have failed his mission to change the future, even though by going back in time he’s already, blah blah blah butterfly effect. Anyway, I understand how they want to make the future story have a sense of urgency but it’s not like waking Wolverine from a dream; the times are not happening concurrently. He’s in the past, meaning that the moment he goes back there, the future will already be altered due to the consequences of his actions, for better or worse. There is no race against time to keep his consciousness back in time until he complete his mission. I can see why they went this route for a summer blockbuster, but that doesn’t quell the quibbles.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a time-hopping, unabashedly fun time at the movies; well as fun as preventing nightmarish futures built from the consequences of oppression and prejudice can be. With Singer back in the saddle and the bridging of the two X-Men universes, the series is back on track and once again the promising font of stories and characters. The newest X-film is one of the most entertaining, funny while still being dramatic, and while burdened with the largest cast of any super franchise, finds notable moments for its characters big and small to remind us that these people matter. While less philosophical and funky than First Class, this is one of the best films in the franchise, on par with X2. The action sequences and visual eye-candy are great fun with some inventive and memorable touches. It’s also nerdy fun getting to watch the past and present interact, and for many this is their first return since 2006’s crappy Last Stand. It’s not a perfect movie; I wish there was more early Sentinel action, I wish Dinklage had much more to do, and I wish that the plot didn’t so transparently hinge on Xavier not having his powers. The slate is clean and all X-Men fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The future is once again rosy. The X-Men, and not just Wolverine, are relevant once again.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.
12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):
Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”
This brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.
There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.
With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.
From a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.
The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.
Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.
To criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.
Nate’s Grade: B+
For a character universally beloved by comic and movie fans, Wolverine has fallen on some hard times. It’s hard to find too many supporters for either 2006’s X-Men 3: the Last Stand or 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He had a fun cameo in 2011’s retro X-Men First Class, but other than that we’ve gone almost a decade without a respectably good movie starring Wolverine. It looked like Darren Aronofsky was going to be the answer to that drought of quality. The Black Swan director, who worked previously with Jackman on the intensely personal The Fountain, spent six months developing a Wolverine film set in Japan. Then Aronofsky dropped out, making this the second superhero franchise he missed out on (he was tapped to reboot Batman before Christopher Nolan landed the job). James Mangold (Knight and Day, Walk the Line) stepped into the director’s chair and now we have the directly titled semi-sequel, The Wolverine. It’s a step up quality-wise but even that comes with qualifiers.
Many years after the events of X-Men 3, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living a solitary life amid the Canadian wilderness. He’s looking to lay low and he’s haunted by visions of his lost love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he was forced to kill to save the world. Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant with the ability to foresee people’s deaths, finds him for her employer. He’s invited to Tokyo at the request of a wealthy and dying businessman, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Back during World War II, Logan saved Yashida’s life, shielding him from the atomic blast that wiped out Nagasaki. Yashida has an offer for Logan. He can make him mortal again and take away his advanced healing ability. Thanks to a sketchy mutant, Wolverine loses that ability and goes on the run to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from gangs and rival businessmen.
Benefiting from low expectations, The Wolverine is a solid summer superhero tale that’s more interesting in its divergences from… summer superhero movies than it is when it follows that basic script. I appreciated that here is a superhero movie that actually doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall action. It allows a story to take place. Now, that story has its problems most certainly, but at least it has room to breathe. Also, there are barely any mutants in this movie at all. Excluding the title character, we get two super-powered mutants though neither really has a power that lends itself well to combat. I appreciated that there was hardly any gunplay at all in the movie. Mangold allows the hook of Wolverine, the hand-to-hand combat, to flourish amidst teams of adversaries following the ways of the samurai. I also appreciated the lack of familiar faces. While Jackman and Janssen will be recognizable to fans, I doubt too many others have a deep familiarity with a wide selection of Japanese actors. Then there’s an excellent post-credits scene that sets up the forthcoming X-Men universe crossover, Days of Future Past, arriving summer 2014. For all of these reasons, and some decent action, I’d say The Wolverine is worth seeing especially by fans burned by the character’s last two starring ventures.
With that said, this is a movie that still feels like it has problems that stop it from reaching its potential. The crux of the plot hinges on Wolverine losing his healing ability, thus becoming mortal. I understand that it’s hard to make an indestructible man vulnerable, but his friends and loved ones aren’t. The loss of powers doesn’t seem to raise the stakes because there isn’t a noticeable difference in the dude’s actions. He still acts the same except he recoils a bit longer from punches. The guy gets shot a bunch of times and stabbed and even clings to dear life atop a bullet train (more on this later), but he never really seems fazed. There’s also the nitpicky comic book nerd criticism that, if removed of his healing ability, there’s no way his body could sustain an entire skeleton made of metal. I’ll overlook it. This storyline seems even weaker when Wolverine (spoilers) gets his powers back for the third act (is that really a spoiler?) so he can fight the giant bad guys. The movie needs him back at full strength. It doesn’t feel like much was accomplished narratively or with the character to rob him of his invulnerability. That storyline could work, as it has in the comics before, but it just doesn’t seem like the ramifications are really explored beyond the surface.
Then there’s also to the issue with how cluttered the plot is with characters. There are far more characters in this than necessary, many of whom contribute very meagerly or could have been combined. The entire Yashida corporate storyline is just overburdened. There’s Mariko’s gruff father, there’s her mysterious boyfriend, there’s her would-be fiancé who works as a justice officer, there’s a snake-like mutant who really doesn’t add anything but poison samples. And you don’t really care about any of them. Whenever the story takes too many steps from its core (Wolverine protecting Mariko, getting his power back) is when the movie loses your interest. The final showdown and the participant involved should also be obvious, especially since Yukio point blank tells the audience about a red herring. Speaking of Yukio, I think she was easily the best addition to the movie. She forms a buddy relationship with Wolverine, a notorious loner, and watching them spar is just fun. Plus she’s a badass with a soul. Her mutant power also curses her with knowing how every loved one, every dear friend, every family member will die. She must see it, live it, all the while knowing what is to come. And that’s all you ever see – people’s deaths. That is some heavy stuff, and the movie treats it with sincerity, showing how haunted Yukio can be with these unsolicited peaks into the future. I would have greatly preferred more screen time for Yukio, who ducks out for far too long for my tastes. Plus the actress has a very striking, unique look to her. I don’t know if there are plans to continue her character into Days of Future Past, but I hope they do.
Then there are moments that strain credibility even for a summer superhero movie. It’s funny, because if you’re being entertained, your brain will ignore these moments. Well there’s one action sequence that stands out that seems to break every law of physics. I know we’re dealing with mutants, I know we’re dealing with superheroes, and I know it’s a summer action movie, but my God this bullet train sequence just does too much. There is a fight scene between Wolverine and a standard Yakuza thug atop the speeding top of a bullet train zipping by at 300 miles per hour. It’s actually the most memorable action piece in the film, but it’s also memorable for wrong reasons. Wolverine is using his claws to pin himself to the top. The Yakuza thug is using a standard knife. Are the tops of the bullet train this easily penetrable? I’d worry, Japanese commuters. Then they hop over signs and ledges, still landing atop the train. This isn’t a Western with a locomotive that one could feasibly keep their footing atop. This is a train going 300 miles per hour. You think you can jump onto something going that speed and keep your balance? Think you can hold onto something while you speed at 300 miles per hour? How can a human arm maintain that sort of physical exertion? It’s too ridiculous to enjoy. If the rest of the movie had a similar over-the-top tone, then this sequence would be acceptable. However, The Wolverine plays itself so seriously that moments like this truly negatively stand out.
Jackman (Les Miserables) is a perfect fit for this character. I agree with my friend and colleague Ben Bailey; while the X-Men movies have faltered in quality, Jackman never has. He’s played this role six times now and it’s still a pleasure to watch. There is a question of how much longer the man can keep this up, though. Even at 45, the man can still get jacked with the muscles; just look at Stallone, or don’t. The real problem is presented in the mythology of the character developed in the first Wolverine solo outing, namely that the man is close to immortal. He doesn’t stop aging; he just ages very slowly. This is the same problem with twenty-somethings playing vampires, or Arnold as a timeless robot (why would they make slightly older looking models?). Age catches up to all of us, though Jackman’s own constricts the use of the character in the future. Regardless, this man can play this part until he’s in a nursing home and I’ll be happy.
There are elements that work, particularly Wolverine’s thematic relevance to the samurai of old and the feudal system of honor, and I enjoyed his buddy relationship with badass-in-training Yukio. The action is serviceable, there are some sweeping visuals with referential touches to Kurosawa, and Jackman is still a strong and capable hero. There’s just so much more this film could have been. The setting could have been fleshed out, the characters pared down to essential storylines, and the plot of Wolverine losing his powers could have actually mattered rather than just play out like a momentary setback. There’s just as many things I enjoyed as I didn’t, so this is a tough call for me. The Wolverine is clearly a step above the previous two movies, but those were both fairly bad films, the solo one poisoning the well for future X-Men solo bids. If you enjoy the character and want something slightly different but recognizable, then The Wolverine will pass the time acceptably. It’s hard for me to work up much passion for this film, and I’ll be surprised if any hardcore fans feel otherwise. Here is a superhero movie that lands right dead center between bad and good. I suppose most would call that mediocrity, but given how poor X-Men 3 was and Origins, I think I’ll call it progress.
Nate’s Grade: B-
No movie this summer has had such a dark cloud of bad buzz like Brad Pitt’s World War Z. Based upon Max Brooks’ 2006 novel, it’s a global zombie action adventure that Pitt, as producer, has developed for years. He hired director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball) and after a very protracted shoot, according to reports, neither was on speaking terms. A Vanity Fair article highlights the fascinating challenges World War Z endured, the biggest being a third act that, while filmed, did not work. The movie’s release date was pushed back twice, from summer 2012 to December 2012 to finally summer 2013. That sort of talk usually raises critic hackles, anticipating a bomb that all parties are trying their best to salvage some investment. It’s something of a small miracle then that the finished film actually kind of sort of mostly works. It still feels lacking and under developed but World War Z is not the fiasco many had feared.
Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) is an ex U.N. inspector pulled back into the field to do nothing less than possibly save humanity from the undead. The world is under siege by a new sort of pandemic, one that reanimates the dead. Gerry and his family barely escape Philadelphia alive and find refuge on a U.S. aircraft carrier offshore. Gerry bids his family goodbye and zips around the globe looking for Patient Zero. If he can crack the mystery of how it all began perhaps mankind can develop a cure.
For fans of the book, it’s best to come to terms with the fact that the only thing World War Z has in common with its source material is the fact that there are zombies. There is one reference to Israel’s response to zombie rumors, but that’s it. Believe me, I know the book is excellent but allow me to play devil’s advocate here. Would a strict adaptation of Brooks’ book work as a movie? Perhaps, but it takes place years after the titular World War Z. I understand the producers’ wishes to set the movie in the middle of the crises, adding urgency and an immediate sense of suspense. Once you go that route, there are certain limitations to your storytelling. Unless you were going to go the Crash-style ensemble route, you’re going to need a central character/hero to tie it all together, and that too limits your storytelling options. Gerry can hop around the globe but we’re still only following one man’s personal experiences. While in the air, we see in the distance below a mushroom cloud rising. Who detonated an atomic bomb and why? We never know, and it’s that sort of in-the-moment fog of war madness that helps the movie operate. I enjoyed watching the small moments of society breaking down. Factoring in all that, I’d say that the big-screen edition of Brooks’ book is a passable starter, an appetizer that gets you hungry for more.
This movie is one of the first global-scale zombie outbreak films I can recall. Usually the zombie subgenre is told in confined spaces, remote locations, intimate settings. Danny Boyle had some larger London set pieces with 28 Days Later but that was still a film about dark corridors and small places. The scale of World War Z is what sets it apart. There is a degree of fascination watching the world come apart, and watching it fall apart in so many places adds to that. Gerry hops from one hotspot to the next in his quest and we watch as each new location goes to hell. It gives a greater sense to the dire threat out there. In the information age, and with Gerry’s U.N. connections, he can get global reports, and to learn that nowhere is safe helps maximize the pandemic threat and sense of urgency. I didn’t even mind Forster’s decision to present the teeming armies of the undead like there were a swarm of bees, rolling and tumbling over one another, forming formidable human pyramids. It’s a fairly spooky image and relates back to the nature-undone alchemy that makes zombies tick, plus it gives an extra sinister edge to the zombies. High-walled structures are not the sanctuaries we might have assumed. The true terror afforded by zombies, beyond the fact that the monster is us, is its inevitability; it doesn’t matter what you do, they will get you. There are more of them, and they don’t require food, water, sleep, and have only one goal. Adding to that sense of doom I think is a good move, and the raging sea of human bodies also helps Forster keep the PG-13 rating the studio dictated. I didn’t really miss the blood/gore, though one sequence where Gerry slices off a soldier’s infected arm seems a bit too clean and precise.
I criticized Forster’s skills directing action after 2008’s deeply disappointing Bond misfire, Quantum of Solace. The man showed no real feel for action sequences. Perhaps the man found a greater appeal to World War Z because there are some genuinely thrilling action and suspense sequences here and Forster deserves credit. The Israel sequence degenerates at a horrifying speed, and I loved the touch of caged passageways being erected through streets as a last-second defense from falling zombies. The initial stop in South Korea is at night and in the rain, thwarting Gerry and his team from seeing too far into the distance. It makes for a rather suspenseful sequence that makes good use of darkness and cover. The zombie actors in this movie deserve some recognition. They really get into all their clicks and clacks and add some creepy authenticity to the proceedings. Then there’s the airplane attack, zombies on a plane, that is all over the film’s advertising blitz. It’s a rather entertaining sequence, though one can’t help but provide some class subtext when the first class passengers barricade themselves while the coach passengers are torn apart. I still think Forster would be more at home with smaller dramas but he shows much more prowess for larger material.
The reshot third act, thanks to added writers Damon Lindelof (TV’s Lost, Prometheus) and his pal Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), drastically scales down the scope of the pandemic. After two acts of all-out global chaos, we retreat back to the zombie film roots: a small, secluded place. The third act is almost like its own little separate movie. Partly because it’s something different, more horror/suspense than action, as well as being in the confined space, but also because Lindelof and Goddard do a fine job of structuring this concluding chapter. When Gerry gets to a World Health Organization outpost in Wales, he has a simple goal: get from one end of a lab to another. Oh, there are zombies all over the lab. Its narrative simplicity, as well as the clear focus, is a satisfying way to close out a movie that was sort of all over the place. Forster seems to really enjoy the suspense setups that he gets to have fun with in the third act, things like ducking around corners, avoiding zombie detection. The very end provides a ray of hope for humanity… until you fully think out what the consequences are for that hope (the first line of defense shall be hookers). Anyway, it sets up a sequel where mankind can begin fighting back. How do I know this? None other than Gerry’s closing lines are: “This is only the beginning. This war isn’t over.” A bit of hope on Pitt’s part as well there.
And yet with the world falling apart and Pitt our savior, I found myself from the outset very emotionally unengaged with the film. Pitt’s performance is perfectly suited for the material. It’s just the whole family man angle that doesn’t work. I understand it gives Gerry some personal stakes in doing his job but wouldn’t, I don’t know, saving the world be enough when it comes to motivation? It’s your standard reluctant hero’s tale, but the family stuff just kept dragging down Gerry’s character. To begin with, a man looking like Brad Pitt who voluntarily makes pancakes for his kids every morning… sounds like the stuff of fantasies for many. However, it almost keeps him away from his mission, the greater good, and there’s actually a sequence in South Korea where his family literally endangers Gerry’s life by making a phone call. Then the movie keeps cutting back to their existence on an aircraft carrier like I have equal interest in this storyline. One storyline involves Gerry flying the world over and escaping zombies. The other storyline involves whether Karin and the kids will be kicked off the ship. Which would you rather spend time with an as audience member? I didn’t really care about Gerry’s sad wife, played by Mireille Enos from the sad TV show The Killing. I had more invested in the Israeli soldier (Daniella Kerteesz) Gerry teams up with. My father even wanted them to run off together by the end and ditch Karin. I won’t even speak to the awkward storyline where Gerry’s family unofficially adopts a Hispanic kid after his parents die. If only those poor souls had listened to the knowledgeable white man who they took care of.
The big-screen version of World War Z bears little resemblance to the book of the same name, and that’s okay. Some adjustments are necessary in adapting, like bringing the actions of the story into the present, centering on a major character. As a book fan, I was somewhat disappointed in the unfulfilled potential presented, but as a movie fan I’m more disappointed by the film’s overall execution. There’s a lot of money in this production, the most expensive zombie film of all time, and a lot of talent on both sides of the camera. And yet after even pulling off a mostly effective ending, World War Z is more middling than it ever should be. Brad Pitt is saving the world from zombies; that should be enough, but it’s not. The movie shows flashes of intelligence, of socio-politico commentary, of something greater, but those moments are fleeting and ground down to make way for a mass-appeal action blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with those sorts of movies (Roland Emmerich does them exceptionally well), but World War Z doesn’t have the brain-headed flair to pull it off. It’s thrilling, in spurts, interesting, in spurts, and entertaining, in spurts, but it fails to coalesce into something truly worthwhile. My allegiance to the book, as well as zombies in general, guarantees I’ll be there for more if World War Z spawns sequels. Hopefully there will be more because there are so many great stories from the book yet to be told (namely, everything).
Nate’s Grade: B-
Given the explosion in zombie culture and the avalanche of zombie movies, it was only a matter of time before a studio pitched the romantic possibilities. They may be dead but they still have needs. Based on Issac Marion’s young adult novel, Warm Bodies attempts to tell a love story from a zombie’s perspective. Writer/director Jonathan Levine, so skillful with tone in the comedy/drama 50/50, tackles an even trickier balancing act, making a zombie romantic. With some visual flair, an eclectic soundtrack, and a winning onscreen pair, Warm Bodies is a sweet love story that does enough right to leave you smiling.
In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, R (Nicholas Hoult) is a zombie who spends most of his days shuffling through an airport. Occasionally he has a series of conversations with his pal, M (Rob Corddry), which mostly amount to grunts. R can’t remember who he was before he became a zombie, or even what life was like before it all went to pot, but there is one thing that will make him feel alive again – human brains. You see, this tasty delicacy allows zombies to relive the memories of their victims. It’s a nice release from, you know, decomposing. The zombies that have completely given up all sense of self peel off all their skin, becoming the Bonies, a wraith-like band of creatures that will feed off anything, even the dead.
This is R’s life until his chance encounter with Julie (Teresa Palmer). He’s smitten instantly and feels something weird in his chest. His heart has started beating again. He doesn’t want to eat her, just protect her. Of course he did also happen to eat her now-ex-boyfriend (David Franco). R whisks her to safety to his home in an airplane cabin. They listen to records and he instructs her on ways to pose as a zombie. She’s cautious but grows fond of her zombie protector (zombie Stockholm syndrome?). But R is proof that the zombies can change and that humanity can be saved. There’s just the matter of convincing Julie’s father, General Grigio (John Malkovich), who had to shoot his own wife after she turned. He wants them all dead and will do whatever it takes to protect the last bastion of the living.
Levine has found what may be one of the only optimistic zombie films out there. Usually these movies end one of two ways: 1) everybody dies (the preferred option), or, 2) the heroes manage a final escape but are most likely doomed beyond all hope (just pushes the inevitable off screen and into our imaginations). Tethered to a genial but winning romance, Warm Bodies is a zombie movie with a genuine sense of hope, revival, and even finds way to carve out a happy ending that, while predictable, feels right tonally.
The twee romance has a lot more in common with indie stylings than it does, say, Twilight, which will likely be invoked by many a critic and ticket-buyer alike. It’s not so much the brooding, sullen, exasperating kind of “romance” Twilight has primed people to expect when monsters date young girls. Thanks to the helpful voiceover, we see R as a thoughtful (being generous here considering his peers) guy who, like most teens, is trying to battle his inner urges and sense of awkwardness. He may be a zombie but Levine and Hoult have found a way to make R relatable and a likeable dead chap to root for. It also helps that he and Palmer (I Am Number Four) have above average chemistry together. Sure it’s a little weird that she takes the whole guy-crushing-on-me-kinda-ate-my-old-boyfriend, but like any relationship, there are just obstacles you’re going to have to overcome together. And as my pal Eric would attest, any Franco had it coming (his big bro did lead to the end of mankind in 2011, so maybe he’s responsible for the zombie apocalypse).
I appreciated that even with a PG-13 rating the movie still has a bite to it. Premise-alone, there is plenty room for some intriguing mismatched comedy. I enjoyed the aspect that consuming human brains unlocks that person’s memories. I like that R saves brains for later snacks. I liked that he used this absurd plot device to help him get closer with Julie and makes him feel guilty. Warm Bodies finds a way around the whole bodies decomposing issue, which is important since we don’t want our Romeo to be too disgusting for the teen girls. It refrains from overt gore, relying on implied carnage and preferring a chaste smearing of blood on lips, like he just got carried away eating a cherry pie. Honestly, I didn’t miss the gore. While the concept of a completely putrid corpse, with its flesh rotting and falling from its face, finding romance would be darkly comical, I think Levine chose the savvier path, forming a romance that doesn’t overdose on irony, which it would if the dead-boy-meets-girl romance were more grotesque. That’s the reason the Bonies exist, to provide a more grotesque and more evil foe that can provide perspective on the nobility of the not-all-the-way-dead people.
Levine works enough comic angles that the comic possibilities feel explored, although much like the horror and romance could have been pushed even further. As is, I found R’s musings wryly enjoyable, and his undead bromance with M provides some of the funniest moments in the film. Corddry (TV’s Children’s Hospital) is terrific in the movie and even finds what little room he can to add a touch of poignancy with his character. Often the humor, like the horror elements, is pretty relaxed but effective, refraining from oversized wackiness. You seriously would think that the movie would go bigger with its comedy considering everything at play.
Hoult (X-Men: First Class, TV’s Skins) does a credible job as a zombie, let alone an American zombie; it’s not all shuffling and caveman monosyllabic grunts. The actor is adept with communicating the awkwardness of his character in physicality. It’s funny how much you end of empathizing with a character that is dead. Hoult is also a pretty hunky guy, Vulcan eyebrows and all, but his amiable demeanor and young love clumsiness will win over as many guys in the audience as ladies. Palmer, also sporting an American accent, gets the blood pumping. Julie is underwritten but rises above just being a typical damsel-in-distress. It’s nice that later in the movie, when R breaks into the human camp, the roles are reversed, and Julie gets to protect him with her wits and will. Malkovich (R.E.D.) gets the worst of it just because his character is so rote.
I suppose I could lambaste the movie’s love-conquers-all logic with a dash of critical cynicism, but I feel like its low-key yet unfailingly romantic side is another of the movie’s charms. Sure, the idea that teenage love changing the world one beating heart at a time sounds like someone took the lyrics from an 80s power ballad and had it come to life (I’m reminded of the Patton Oswalt bit about the music video of an 80s hair band against the police: “He’d deflecting the bullets with the power of his rocking!”). There’s no real explanation why the zombies are getting better, though the concept of reclaiming their humanity appears to be contagious. I guess you could make some mild commentary on the healing power of human connection, but I don’t think Levine goes too far with any sort of subtext/social allegory, though there are enough slipshod Romeo and Juliet parallels. To the audience members who rankle at the unexplainable zombie cure, I would like to draw attention to the fact they are ignoring the fantastical logical puzzle of corpses coming back to life in the first place. If nobody minds why the zombie virus/crisis starts, then I don’t see why I should be sweating over what solves it.
Warm Bodies is a return to horror for Levine. Before his Sundance breakthrough The Wackness, the man got his start directing 2006’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. He’s made what may be the only zombie movie that I can say is “cute,” and that’s perhaps the best word for Warm Bodies. It’s a cute movie, perfectly pleasant, charming in its low-key sweetness while still managing to be clever. It’s dark but not too mordant, and sweet but not sappy. The last act doesn’t feel like it has the proper balance that the rest of the movie coasts with, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the film. At its core, it’s a cute love story, a zom-rom-com that’s much better than being relegated as “Twilight with zombies.” Yes it could have been darker, more macabre with its humor, and there are plenty of gloomy opportunities afforded by the premise of an undead boyfriend, but Levine and his actors have conceived a film that manages to be many things, chief among them enjoyable. It’s a zombie movie that might make you feel squishy but under completely different circumstances.
Nate’s Grade: B
Nate’s Fassbender-Sized Wrap-up of 2011’s Highs, Lows, and Everything Between
Well well, here we are again. It’s you and me movies, my old friend. These end-of-the-year wrap-ups keep getting later and later. I saw over 120 movies again this year, and yet I kept dragging my feet when it came time to rank the very best. I know it’s become a cliché of film critics, but this year really felt like a rather down year for movies as a whole. There were several good movies, even a few great to terrific movies, but honestly few raised my passion like previous years. I began a tradition three years ago to revise my Ten Best list after another year of deliberation and catching certain movies that were lagging or did not find a theatrical release. I’ve looked back and feel that my Top Ten list for 2010 stands. I would not alter a placement. In fact, I think any one of my top four films from last year would easily be my top movie of this year (those movies, for the curious few, would be The Social Network, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, and Inception). Enough griping; time for my awards.
PART ONE: THE 10 BEST AND WORST FILMS OF 2011
BEST MOVIES OF THE YEAR
10) The Adjustment Bureau
The Adjustment Bureau is a sometimes corny but often deeply satisfying movie. It may distract with some efficient and just-smart-enough sci-fi leanings and magic tricks, but it’s really a unabashed romance at its core. Not just that, it’s a good romance, once that flutter the heart and causes the ends of your mouth to do that thing, you know – smile. It helps when you have movie tars as gorgeous as Emily Blunt and Matt Damon, and are such good actors that they can fill their roles with dangerous amounts of charm, but let’s credit writer/director George Nolfi (The Bourne Ultimatum, Ocean’s Twelve). He takes a fairly routine concept (powerful forces control our lives and choices) and turns it into a finely tuned character-driven romance. The Adjustment Bureau, on paper, should not work. A sci-fi fantasy that’s unapologetically grounded in romance. A tone that nestles firmly in a safe, bubble-wrapped whimsy. And those magic hats, need we forget them? On paper this should be one overly silly, dumb, tonally disjointed, cornball movie worth venomous mocking. And yet it works; it does better than “works,” it succeeds. Blunt and Damon are terrifically charming together and imbue the movie with a sense of cheerful optimism in the face of uncertainty (and perhaps heaven itself). You desperately want these two crazy kids to get back together; they’re good, decent, charming people, winning personalities apart and even better together. What might have fallen apart in other hands becomes this endearing, fizzy piece of studio entertainment that fulfills and exceeds most expectations. I was really taken by this movie, won over by its effusive charm offensive, and left buoyant with happiness by the time the tidy, perhaps too tidy ending, came rolling. The Adjustment Bureau is hooey but it’s my kind of hooey.
50/50 is an unsentimental film that manages to be moving and genuinely entertaining on its own terms. It can be rude but that doesn’t mean it lacks sincerity. Instead of hitting cheap sentiment and milking cancer for easy tears, the movie, thanks to writer Will Reiser’s sharp script, forgoes false feelings and finds something more rare and true. There’s no real playbook for something as unexpected as a person in their 20s being diagnosed with terminal cancer. The characters and their dilemmas feel all too relatable, even the ones we hope don’t become us. The 50/50 production has followed a subdued edict, forgoing sappy melodrama and easy pathos. These emotions are earned the old fashioned way, through characters we care about and drama that feels truthful. The mixture of the course and sweet gives the film a decidedly Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) flavor even though his name is nowhere to be seen. 50/50 also treats its characters with a bittersweet sense of reality; these people are flawed and relatable. They are not instantly made into self-actualized saints thanks to cancer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who at this point can do no wrong in my eyes, gives one of the best performances of his already accomplished career. The comedy, lead by Seth Rogen’s obnoxious best friend, keeps the movie from being bogged down in melodrama. It’s the only way to stay sane, and 50/50 recognizes this and delivers a film that earns its tears and laughs.
8) Tuesday, After Christmas
This movie is something of a small miracle in how naturalistic it plays. The dialogue is splendid, reverberating with the rhythms of real speech but also giving weight to the characters, fleshing out personalities, relationships, and penetrating subtext. I was luxuriating in the dialogue and its nuances. To some people Tuesday, After Christmas will be a boring movie, but for me I was on the edge of my seat thanks to the dialogue and characterization. If ever Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) were to make a Romanian film, it would be this. Like Linklater’s Before Sunset, watching these actors speak such truthful, personable, revealing dialogue is like listening to birds sing. It’s such a pleasure for the ears. I know “Romanian relationship drama” probably doesn’t sound like a rollicking night out at the movies, but Tuesday, After Christmas is such an expertly crafted film, carefully observed, impressively acted, gloriously naturalistic in dialogue and direction, and even humorous. Yes, for a movie about infidelity and the possible explosion of a marriage, there is plenty of humor to be found naturally. You may feel stirring of romantic happiness with Paul and Raluca, so much so that you too share in Paul’s guilt. You’ll feel the disquiet during that meeting of mistress and wife. You’ll feel the ache when Adriana really lays into Paul, a deserved and withering attack. You’ll understand where every person is coming from. But mostly you’ll feel like you’ve watched a really good movie. Tuesday, After Christmas is richly attuned to the subtleties of human joys, conflict, and reactions, and a movie that will linger with the ring of truth. Don’t be a stranger to Romanian cinema. Start here and work your way back. The rewards are worth it.
It’s Chinatown remade with anthropomorphic desert creatures. It’s a Western by way of Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a loving parody of cinema’s wide canvas. It’s one of the most wild, anarchic, oddball animated films to ever be released by a major studio, and it is stupendous. Steeped in weirdness and bravado, Rango has a playful and occasionally macabre sense of humor that kept me in stitches. Director Gore Verbinski (the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks) translates his visual verve into a animated movie that dazzles the eyes with its magnificently drawn features as well as the pointed personality in every stroke. This is a movie with character, not to mention some pretty entertaining characters (including talking road kill). Johnny Depp delivers an idiosyncratic vocal performance for a household lizard that finds himself pretending to play sheriff for a town in need of a hero. When you think Rango will fade into familiar territory, or easy moral messages, the film keeps surprising, forging its own unique path. This is a lively, peculiar, and overall enchanting animated film that’s suitable for families but may well play better for adults with eccentric tastes. I’m still scratching my head, and celebrating, how something like this slipped through the system.
6) The Myth of the American Sleepover
This movie is about teenagers grappling with emotional connection and personal identity, but it never drags out a soapbox or breaks from its verisimilitude. Every single character in this movie, even the ones meant to be seen in a questionable light, is deeply empathetic. Being an ensemble, you’ll gravitate to different characters and their pursuits, but the movie balances a nice mixture of storylines, cutting back and forth to build a graceful picture of the uncertainty of adolescence. The Myth of the American Sleepover is a sincere, observant, insightful, gentle, and overall wonderful little movie, brimming with life and the rocky experiences of growing up, but mostly it will make your heart sing. The details and small gestures feel completely believable; building an ode to youth that feels earnest without being sentimental and knowing without feeling like a know-it-all. There wasn’t a moment in this movie that didn’t leave me smiling, chuckling to myself, and feeling immersed in this innocent, heartfelt, exuberantly youthful world. The pleasures of Sleepover are small but numerous, and I don’t mind admitting to tearing up at several points, shaking in anticipation, and celebrating the personal triumphs of the cast of characters. The Myth of the American Sleepover made me feel like a teenager all over again, nervous, anxious, excited, and beguiled by the imprecise negotiations into adulthood. I’m sure some people will find this movie boring or too embryonic, a coming-of-age tale crystallized in dewy emo-earnestness. For me, I fell in love with this movie. It filled me with joy. I know it will do the same for others; Sleepover just needs a little tenderness and an open heart. The movie and its homespun magic will do the rest.
5) Young Adult
Young Adult is a dark comedy of squirm-inducing, uncomfortable bleakness and a drama of surprising poignancy and depth. Much of its humor, and it is very funny, is built around the pained awkwardness of Mavis’ self-involved, self-destructive mission. My friend was nervously fidgeting in his seat the entire time (he may have just had to go to the bathroom). The sense of dread is palatable; we’re watching a slow-moving car crash, waiting for the inevitable to hit. Every scene carries the apprehension of, “What is she going to say/do next? Is this it?” And yet Diablo Cody’s sharp, pointed writing makes the film compulsively watchable. It’s the good kind of uncomfortable, the kind where you can’t look away or leave the vicinity of your seat. The dialogue and characters are eerily recognizable, miles away from the cuteness of Juno‘s sunny, optimistic fairy tale inhabitants. Young Adult is a more nuanced, droll, mature work that deserves as much recognition as Juno and cements Cody, in my mind, as one of the most thrilling writers today (I can almost forgive her for Jennifer’s Body. Almost). Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt are fantastic. Cody’s gift with words, teamed up with Jason Reitman’s gift with actors, makes a beautiful combination even when the end product is charting the misery or a miserable person. The measured tone is kept from start to finish, meaning even when the movie appears on the precipice of life-lessons and Mavis might turn her life around, it pulls back. There will be no hugs and gained wisdom with this movie, a crackling comedy that’s also one of the best pictures of the year. Take that, popular girls who never gave me the time of day.
4) Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Hollywood movie with a soul. Finally late in the summer a major studio movie emerges that has the right balance of brains, brawn, and thrills. It’s an exciting action movie, a poignant drama from an animal’s point of view, a tour de force of special effects that manage to make the film more emotionally involving, and a sci-fi prequel that’s actually worthy of its name. Andy Serkis’ gifts for physical performance are invaluable to the emotional core of the movie. By going back to its DNA, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has given new life to a franchise whose best days were 40 years ago. I don’t see where the series can go from here. A prequel to the prequel seems superfluous. A sequel would only really showcase the waning days of humanity and also seem superfluous. Then again, until the moment I was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes I would have said this very movie was superfluous too. Instead this is the finest summer spectacle of the year and destined to make my top ten list for the year. If you can’t beat them, join them, damn dirty apes and all.
Bridesmaids is a terrific gross-out adult comedy told from a distinct feminine point of view. They can be just as crude as the dudes. But what really sets it apart is that it’s even more so a story about the dynamics of female friendship and the pain of growing apart due to the circumstances of life. Much like the joyous male camaraderie as one of the hallmarks of an Apatow film, we get to witness an entirely female dynamic that feels authentic. These women, their troubles, their friendships, all feel real and deeply felt. Even the supporting characters get a chance to be fleshed out with added dimension rarely seen in mainstream comedies. The movie expertly lays out setups, finds satisfying payoffs, and ties up its storylines in worthwhile ways. Bridesmaids is a comedy, and it is one hell of a comedy. It may no be the best movie under the ever-expanding Apatow banner, but it is easily the funniest film yet. Yes, I said it. Bridesmaids is funnier than Knocked Up, The 40-Year Old Virgin, Superbad, and all the rest. Wiig deserves to become a star, and so does McCarthy. This movie left me sore from laughing and giddy with happiness. It’s funny, touching, and genuinely entertaining, and destined to become a modern classic worth revisiting. I foresee this becoming a word-of-mouth sensation this summer, particularly from appreciative female ticket-buyers who feel like they finally have a worthy, relatable, very funny comedy that they can call their own. It’s kind of like the old slogan for female deodorant: strong enough for a man, made for a woman.
2) The Descendants
Alexander Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family above adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism.
And the best film of 2011 is…..
This is very likely the most nerve-racking, tense, dread-filled film I’ve watched since 2009’s Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) masterfully lays out the particulars of his tale. Even the family drama has some nicely constructed tension. There are some terrific standard thriller moments, like some well-calculated jump scares and many nightmare fake-outs, but the film’s real skill is drawing out tension to the point where you want to shout at the screen. This is a deliberately paced thriller knotted with unbearable tension. There’s a moment toward the climax, where a storm door needs to be opened, and I simultaneously was dreading every second leading up to that door opening and silently screaming in anticipation. Every part of me wanted to see what was going to happen next and I could not guess where Nichols would take us. I was a nervous wreck. The dread was so heavy, so all consuming, and not just from an apocalyptic standpoint. Curtis understandingly thinks he may be nuts, especially since his own mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. The threat isn’t just the strange apocalyptic signs but also Curtis himself unraveling and lashing out. He worries that he’ll become a danger to his own family, and if he cannot discern the difference between reality and fantasy it’s only a matter of time before he jeopardizes his loved ones. Take Shelter is an intelligent, expertly constructed, suspenseful drama with powerful performances and a powerful sense of dread. Michael Shannon’s coiled intensity nicely fits the mounting tension. Nichols has created a taut thriller, a fiercely felt human drama, and an involving character-piece attuned to the talents of its cast. Take Shelter is a commanding, unsettling film that puts the audience in the unreliable position of the main character’s point of view. You may almost hope for some actual apocalypse just to validate the guy’s struggle. When was the last time you secretly hoped for the end of the world just to give one person a sense of relief? And for some extra pride, the best film of 2011 was shot in my state of Ohio.
Honorable mention: Attack the Block, The Muppets, Submarine, Warrior
WORST FILMS OF THE YEAR
10) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is such a misguided, crass venture that’s also extremely shameless and incredibly cloying. The main character is unlikable, exasperating, and portrayed by a rather amateurish child actor. Stephen Daldry’s hackneyed direction will settle on treacle and contrived sentiment whenever possible, but the emotions never feel properly earned. He’s pressing buttons and forcing tears, and several viewers will be unaware of how efficiently they were manipulated into having a moving experience at the theater. I know I can’t be alone is seeing through the manipulation and feeling indignant about the ordeal. I’m not against tackling the difficult subject of 9/11 in movies (I declared United 93 the best film of 2006). Here’s a good question for you filmgoers out there: is there that big of a difference between this movie and 2010’s unpleasant teen drama, Remember Me? Both use the 9/11 attacks to cover narrative and characterization deficiencies, vulgarly exploiting our feelings of the events to engender feeling, and both don’t belong anywhere near an awards stage.
9) The Change-Up
The Change-Up is a mean-spirited, objectionable, classless, clueless comedy that’s tonally all over the place. The characters are unlikable, the comic setups are cartoonishly drawn, and the dramatic shifts are flatly false. After being a distasteful cartoon for so long, the film wants to be dramatic. It wants to be emotional. Tough break, Change-Up, because you cannot have it both ways. The dramatic parts ring resoundingly false, a last-ditch attempt to class up what is a deeply unclassy picture. The tonal shifts are jarring and land with crashing thuds. It’s mostly because these characters are deeply unlikely, particularly the Ryan Reynolds persona. He’s not just some brash, rude individual who sidesteps social mores, no this guy is downright sociopathtic. What’s even worse is that the movie just seems downright hostile toward women. Just because it has a scene where Leslie Mann gets to vent the frustrations of the put-upon wife/mom doesn’t mean women are given a fair shake. I’d be more forgiving if the vulgar comedy was ever funny. The Change-Up erroneously believes that having characters say dirty words or inappropriate remarks is the same as comedy. It can be a component of comedy but rarely does it work as a whole substitute. The jokes fall flat, the drama feels forced, and the characters range from nitwits to jerks to deviants and back to jerks once more for good measure. Why would anyone subject themselves to nearly two hours with these people? I just felt bad watching this movie. The Change-Up makes humanity look like a species that deserves an extended time-out.
8) Meek’s Cutoff
The early frontiersmen lead difficult, backbreaking struggles as they migrated west to start anew. The pioneers had a perilous journey, and judging from Meek’s Cutoff, they had a hard time asking for directions. We follow a wagon train hopelessly lost in Eastern Oregon, blindly hoping they are getting ever closer to water. This awful movie feels about as adrift as the characters. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) recreates pioneer life in obsequious detail, which means that for most of the interminably long 104 minutes we’re watching characters walk. And walk. And walk. Hey, now they’re doing something, nope back to walking. Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) has the most personality of this taciturn bunch, but I couldn’t have cared less about her lot. The movie is practically indignant about the narrative demands an audience has for its movies. This is not some arty examination on the treacherous nature of the human spirit, or some conceited claptrap like such. And in a growing trend of 2011 Sundance films, Meek’s Cutoff ends absurdly abrupt, just as the characters appeared at a crossroads and on the verge of mercifully doing something interesting. Instead, Reichardt ritualistically kills the movie on this spot, robbing the audience of any payoff after 104 minutes of fruitless and tiresome artistic masturbation. If I wanted to watch a recreation of frontier life without any regard to character or story, I’d watch the History Channel. This is an exasperating, maddening, crushingly boring movie that makes you feel trapped on that misbegotten wagon train.
7) Passion Play
You would think that a movie where a jazz musician (Mickey Rourke) gets in trouble with a mobster (played by Bill Murray!) and while on the lam he discovers a girl (Megan Fox) with angel wings working in a circus sideshow would be interesting. How could you go wrong with all those interesting elements? Mobsters, circus freaks, angels, Mickey Rourke! Well Passion Play found a way, a triumph of failure. This would-be parable just sleepwalks from scene to scene, rarely making much of its fantastical sci-fi elements. Fox swears she’s no angel, just a girl born with bird wings, and people let this be a conversation ender. Rourke’s character is a pathetic coward who nets little empathy. Not reverent or weird enough, Passion Play was the passion project of writer/director Mitch Glazer but the movie feels devoid of anything approaching passion. The actors seem bored, the romance between Fox and Rourke is a non-starter, and the lame ending borrows a page from An Occurrence at Owl Creek as a last-ditch attempt to interject some meaning into this unholy mess. The only reason I can foresee (sober) people watching this is for the mistaken belief that they might glance upon some heavenly nudity from Fox. Sorry boys, the gal keeps her purity. The entire production is just so wrong-headed and listless; I can’t even work up a good dose of bile to proclaim its utter inanities. This is a terrible, silly, puzzling, dopey movie made even worse by its pseudo-intellectual twist ending.
6) The Smurfs
What a smurfin’ terrible movie. This big screen debut for the little blue commune dwellers is a painful experience, magically transporting the little creatures to New York City. They find themselves in the care of Patrick (Neill Patrick Harris), an ad man who’s pretty much a jerk, especially to his doting, pregnant wife. At one point, in his ad man frenzy, he yells, ” I never wanted any little people running around here!” Oh no, what a bizarre outburst that somehow cuts directly to his fears of being a father. The movie spends so much time with the human characters, who are shrill, exasperating, and dull form the get-go. The comedy is a mixture of slapstick and insufferable kiddie wordplay, replacing “Smurf” for just about any word in a sentence for a miserable attempt at humor. It’s like the screenplay was a Mad Libs page (Am I being too generous crediting a whole page to the script?). The Smurfs is clearly designed for a 3D audience, hence there is crap flying at the screen at every turn. Yeah, another stupid thing thrown at the screen. Hank Azaria plays the thankless role of Gargemel, the man who created Smurfette (voiced, not too badly actually, by pop singer Katy Perry) but schemes to capture Smurfs for their… smurfness. I don’t know. If this guy could create his own Smurf, why doesn’t he just keep doing this? Instead, Azaria runs around New York speaking in an arch manner, falling down a lot. I suppose the real question is whether this piece of blue excrement could entertain children, its target audience. Perhaps the youngest of tykes will be tickled by the Smurf adventures, but I think most kids will be puzzled and bored and weirded out by the movie, wondering what they had done wrong to deserve watching this dreck.
5) Red Riding Hood
This is a disaster of epic fairy tale proportions. Red Riding Hood attempts to reshape the oft told tale into a palatable mix of sex and violence for today’s pre-teens (teenagers will surely be bored by this), somehow forgetting that the original tale is filled with macabre violence. This youthful infusion of hollow artifice and misplaced attitude, as well as a fumbling attempt at ill-conceived edge, makes the movie a metaphorical bratty teenager. You get tired of its taxing nature and empty posturing. It’s trying to be cool with last year’s catalogue. Red Riding Hood is a tragic misjudgment on the part of just about everyone involved. The screenwriter thought he must have been making a serious allegory, Hardwicke thought she was making a wild and witchy cousin to Twilight, and the producers thought they were making a film that had genuine appeal. They were all categorically wrong. The reworking of the fairy tale elements is mostly mundane. She gets a red cloak from her granny but otherwise this story might as well just be about a girl and a werewolf. It’s not an imaginative update or a clever reworking, this is just a dumb werewolf story with extra dashes of Twilight for seasoning. The key to unlocking the Red Riding Hood story is not by introducing a sterile love triangle. This hyperactive hodgepodge mistakes setting for atmosphere and a high number of characters for mystery. I was astounded as I sat and watched this movie; turn after turn it veers wildly in tone and execution. I haven’t even talked about the special effects for the wolf, and there’s a reason I am leaving that unsaid. Red Riding Hood is a movie 12-year-old girls might fawn over. If you find yourself outside that marginal demographic, then you’ll likely find this movie to be an irritating, nonsensical, dopey, pitiful bore. You can stuff that in your picnic basket, Red.
Leaden puns, obvious jokes, clueless pacing and comedic construction, tiresome one-liners, incessant yet flaccid sex jokes, a desperation to be shocking, Blubberella is a bizarre and staggering failure even by Boll standards. The lingering problem with Blubberella, besides its overwhelming incompetence and inexplicable existence, is that it feels more like a gag reel accrued for the cast and crew of Bloodrayne 3. This doesn’t feel at all like a movie or even an attempt at a movie. I’m of a mixed mind when it comes to actress Lindsay Hollister. The central Ohio native (represent, girlfriend!) is probably not going to get many starring roles, though she has shined in guest roles on numerous TV shows like My Name is Earl, Big Love, Law and Order: SVU, and Scrubs, so I can’t blame her for jumping at the chance to be the lead star, the headliner (she’s also listed as a co-writer). Hollister is actually a pretty nice actress and has strong comedic instincts; however, that doesn’t mean she will rise to the occasion if left to her own devices by Boll’s paucity for scripted jokes. Boll isn’t exactly the most creatively nurturing collaborator. It’s all one big fat mess. You want the most telling moment? It occurs during the dull outtakes peppered throughout the end credits. One of the actresses, little seen in the flick, remarks astutely, “It’s not working. It’s not funny.” In six short words, she has summarized Blubberella better than I could ever hope to.
3) Atlas Shrugged: Part One
Maybe Atlas shrugged because he got tired of how unbelievably boring this movie is. Oh my goodness, I was rolling my eyes and checking my watch every five minutes. The vast majority of this film involves ideologues disguised as characters talking about esoteric business practices. A full 80 percent of the dialogue has to be about railways and steel and this manufacturing and ore mines and… I’m sorry I fell asleep in the middle of writing that sentence. Seriously, this movie could be a cure for insomnia. It’s so crushingly boring that it makes you wonder how anyone could ever pick up Rand’s novel and think, “This deserves to be a film.” Atlas Shrugged the film seems almost like an unintended ironic statement on Ayn Rand’s belief of the superiority of the individual. That’s because movies are a profoundly collaborative medium, where many hands toil away to create a work of art. It is not the result of one man or woman but the results of hundreds of men and women working together, each knowing their role, playing their part, and working toward something greater than individual self-interest. Huh, how about that? It pretty much doesn’t matter that Atlas Shrugged is a powerfully boring, braying, incoherent, tedious chore that is merely a message disguised as a movie. The intended audiences will more than likely hail the final product, ignoring “details” like the talky exposition-heavy dialogue, horrible acting, laughable special effects, and plodding pacing, and overall poor production. The Rand faithful are not going to this movie to be entertained, they are going to see their beliefs reflected upon the big screen. The overall quality of Atlas Shrugged is an afterthought to them. I just wish it wasn’t an afterthought to the people making the movie.
2) Love, Wedding, Marriage
I keep wanting to mistakenly refer to this movie as Love, Marriage, Divorce since that seems like a more prevailing plot element in this abysmal rom-com. Mandy Moore plays a couples counselor who’s a newlywed herself, having just gotten hitched with Charlie (the Twilight Saga’s Kellan Lutz). Her life is great, that is, until she learns her parents (James Brolin, Jane Seymour) are splitting up. Their pain will soon be felt by every person watching this wretched movie. Incompetently directed by actor Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding), the movie’s tone approaches something like spastic cartoon. Mulroney frames everything in uncomfortable close-ups, which magnifies the exaggerated gyrations and facial expressions of his cast. It looks like every person onscreen is suffering a stroke at one point. The acting is so shockingly terrible. It’s like the actors have been replaced with the amateur dinner theater versions of themselves. Moore’s character is too shrewish and self-involved to be compelling, and Lutz, whose name rhymes with putz, is so wooden you’d swear they carved him out of a chunk of balsa right before cameras rolled. The sitcom plot suffers from every cliché imaginable in the rom-com genre. This is the worst case of bad drunk acting since 2006’s The Black Dahlia, where actors over-do just about every action. The funny part is that it’s only a slight difference from the ay the characters are behaving sober. Criminally unfunny, I have only one theory how Mulroney was able to get this movie made because clearly the screenplay wasn’t reeling investors in. In the end credits are many producers and executive producers, several of them with Slavic surnames. There’s also a Slavic model with in a key role. Mulroney turned to the only people who would finance Love, Wedding, Marriage – the Russian mafia. If you see Mulroney in a wheelchair from an “accident” in the near future, you heard it here first.
And the worst film of 2011 is….
To call this movie low-rent is a disservice to grungy pornographers, exploitation peddlers, and inept amateur filmmakers. This movie is pathetic on just about every conceivable metric of filmmaking. 11/11/11 is a date that will live in infamy, birthing this laughably awful, painfully ridiculous, atrociously inept movie, even by low-budget direct-to-DVD standards. The only entertainment you’ll find with this movie is the derisive sort, yukking it up over the unintended comedy bonanza that awaits. If 11/11/11 was just a supremely dumb movie it might work as camp, but it’s also inept as a scary movie. I don’t think director/co-writer Keith Allan could find an interesting looking shot if it held up a giant “11” sign. There is nothing scary about this movie whatsoever. All the shots of things with 11, it just doesn’t work, yet Allan keeps hitting it ad infinitum, mistakenly believing that while not effective on attempt 51, perhaps it will become effective on attempts 52-68. The movie is vague, silly, and overwhelmingly dumb, beholden to an inane numbers conspiracy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I know my expectations should be kept at the minimum when dealing with this kind of movie, but that doesn’t mean I just ignore and excuse every artistic blunder, especially when I feel assaulted by them. 11/11/11 did bring on the apocalypse, and every audience member has left to go to a better place – the bathroom. Bousman should take some comfort knowing that the production house behind this movie, The Asylum, is somewhat notorious for rip-offs. I give you The Asylum releases: Battle of Los Angeles, Paranormal Entity, Transmoprhers, and The Day the Earth Stopped. 11/11/11 can hold one more numerical distinction: it’s the worst film of 2011.
Dishonorable mention: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, Season of he Witch, The Hangover: Part II, Breaking Dawn: Part One
PART TWO: VARIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES
Best titles of the year: Hobo with a Shotgun, Cowboys & Aliens, The Devil’s Double, Red State, The Skin I Live In, Martha Marcy May Marlene
Worst titles of the year: Gnomeo and Juliet, Mars Needs Moms, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Columbiana, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Titles that could be confused with porn: Big Mammas: Like Father, Like Son, Bad Teacher, 30 Minutes or Less, Young Adult (I will not grab the low-hanging fruit that is A Good Old Fashioned Orgy or The Beaver)
The Best 10 Minutes of 2011: The “Diary of Anne Frankenstein” segment on Chillerama. The absurdity of its premise and the assured demented sense of comedy of its creator, writer/director Adam Green (Frozen, Hatchet), had me laughing until I was in physical pain. Hitler creates his own Jewish Frankenstein-like creature, though a missing film reel reveals his true motivation for reanimating this corpse (and he sings!)
Runner-up: Snappy fake-out opening of Scream 4; the climax to Warrior.
Breakout Star of the Summer: After this Transformers: Dark of the Moon and X-Men: First Class, the breakout star this summer is archived footage of JFK (man did he have a full plate, mutants and robots, and the man still found time to bang Marilyn Monroe)
Best Film I Saw in 2011 (that wasn’t released in 2011): Piranha 3D
Biggest Disappointment: The Hangover: Part II. Because the same joke is just as funny the second time around, right? This empty enterprise gives its audience exactly what they want, which is precisely the same experience they had with the first film. But so much of comedy is predicated on surprise, so how can you recreate the experience of discovery that people so heartily enjoyed with the first film? The Hangover: Part II is like a cheap comedy Mad Libs game: it reuses the same gags and just fills in the blanks. Hey, if Joke A worked before, why couldn’t we just have Joke A in this different location (instead of two guys walking into a bar, they walk into a different bar)? It’s like somebody copied and pasted the screenplay from the original movie, changed the locations and minor details, and cashed a check.
Weirdest “Feel Good” Ending of the Year: Crazy, Stupid, Love is an all right film that’s entertaining but still chiefly exists in that Rom-Com universe, so the cliches are all there. But one storyline involves Steve Carell’s 13-year-old son crushing big time on his 17-year-old babysitter, who, incidentally, is crushing on Carell. Before you can say “awkward” the babysitter (not taking a page from the babysitter’s club, unless there was a book I missed and the series went in a radical new direction) takes naked pictures of herself to send to Carell. You can imagine there are hilarious misunderstandings. The end of the film involves the babysitter handing the pictures to Carell’s son, kissing him, and it’s supposed to be a moment of triumph. This is the dissemination of child porn! Doesn’t anybody feel weird that we’re meant to cheer this?
Wanted to Like it Better, But Couldn’t: The Artist, Hugo, Drive, Super 8, Shame
My Week with Skepticism: Allow me to question the voracity of author Colin Clark’s account of his tryst with Mairlyn Monroe, which became My Week with Marilyn. He waited until 1995 to publish his film set diaries, and then after his first memoir of his time with Monroe sold well he published another one in 2000, this one filling in a nine-day gap he says was that fateful week with the sex icon of the twentieth century (eat it, Clara Bow!). The second memoir was written fifty years after the fact and from the nostalgic perspective of an old man looking back to his youth. I feel that the particulars have been smoothed over and romanticized. The fact that surviving actors from The Prince and the Showgirl cannot verify any sort of relationship, and that several sources say that Monroe and her new husband Miller were inseparable at the time, cause me to doubt the validity of this personal account. In his first memoir, Clark even criticizes Monroe’s physical appearance (“Nasty complexion, a lot of facial hair, shapeless figure and, when the glasses came off, a very vague look in her eye. No wonder she is so insecure.”). Yet in the second book he becomes her defender. So which is it? Who wouldn’t, with sixty years of hindsight and a best-selling first memoir, embellish their one-time dalliance with a star like Monroe? The most desired woman in the world and he, a 23-year-old nobody, was the one to become her confidant? Aren’t we full of ourselves? And he crawled into her bedroom and was asked to stay the night and didn’t consummate that relationship? If this is the relaxed standard for getting a movie made, then I look forward to the eventual film adaptation of my soon-to-be-released novel titled, My 28 Hours of Incredible Sex with Angelina Jolie.
I’ll Take the End of the World Half, You Keep the Tedious Wedding Half: Melancholia
Somebody Explain to Zack Snyder What “Feminism” Means: You can tell with Sucker Punch that Snyder was trying to crowbar in a meek message about female empowerment, but I ask you: is it female empowerment when the women have to be reduced to pretty play things that still operate in the realm of male fantasy? Just because women fight back does not mean that you are presenting a feministic message. Baby Doll’s mode of power is erotic dancing? And her main outfit looks like a grown replica of Sailor Moon’s, which should be a dream come true for just about every male fan of the animated series. You think having characters in short skirts and names like “Baby Doll,” “Sweet Pea,” and Sucker Punch is no more about female empowerment than some ridiculous women’s prison movie where they all fall into long lesbian-tinged shower sequences.
Why Didn’t Anyone Suspect the Horse?: War Horse. After all the people end up meeting unfortunate ends, why doesn’t anyone look at the one common factor they all shared – the horse?! Maybe the horse was responsible for World War I.
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2011: Bridesmaids. Seeing this with a packed theater, a crowd that was so involved, created the kind of moviegoing atmosphere you tell your pals about.
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2011: Digital nudity. The Change-Up has the single most bizarre moment of any film this calendar year, and it has nothing to do with the metaphysical mechanics of body swapping. Wilde (Cowboys & Aliens, TRON: Legacy) at one point gets rather frisky and takes off her clothes, the last piece her brassier. Mitch’s hands cover her breasts for most of their onscreen freedom except for a handful of side angle shots where Wilde’s breasts are out and ready to greet the audience. Except those are and are not Wilde’s breasts. The in-demand actress was topless but had pasties to cover her nipples, which has always befuddled me why this is more acceptable (“I’ll let everyone see 95% of my breasts but if it comes to nipple that’s too far.”). The pasties were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced with CGI nipples. Let me repeat that for the slower amongst you – CGI nipples! It was some guy’s job to spend weeks painting nipples onto Olivia Wilde’s breasts. That’s the greatest assignment for an animator ever since a breast fondled itself in 2000’s Hollow Man. But why was any of this necessary? Wilde’s done nudity before in 2007’s Alpha Dog. Granted the actress has a much higher profile now but why must we go through this dastardly trickery? Jessica Alba started this “digital nudity” trend by in Machete, but how far does this madness go? To make matters even worse, Leslie Mann (Funny People) has hinted that her own nudity in The Change-Up was also digitally altered, giving her a larger set of breasts (where is the media’s feminist outrage when it’s needed?). My libido doesn’t know what to trust anymore. When I see nudity, can I trust that it’s real, or was it doctored by some computer technicians who are laughing at me the whole time? What is happening to this world when it makes me distrust the very sight of breasts, normally a point of internal celebration now a confusing mystery again?!
Runner-up: The fact that the robot is sentient and nothing happens with that, Real Steel; the buddy cop theme of Season of the Witch; alien rocks in Apollo 18.
Trapped in the Closet: J. Edgar
Thora Birch Award for Hottest Actress in 2011: Jennifer Lawrence. Whether it was as a high school valedictorian (The Beaver), a stateside love interest (Like Crazy), or a shape-shifting blue mutant (X-Men: First Class), Lawrence was dreamy. And in X-Men, she got to prance around in what is essentially a scaly blue bikini. Lawrence is a beguiling young actress who has the talent to be around for decades.
Runner’s-up: Emily Browning in Sucker Punch; Amber Heard in Drive Angry.
Thanks for the Help: The Help‘s mixed message on race relations reminds me of a similar situation with 2009’s beloved The Blind Side. That movie wasn’t so much about the triumph of a black athlete so much as a glowing picture to how great rich white people can be. And Sandra Bullock got an Oscar for it; that’s how great a white lady she was. The Help is another example of Hollywood taking a story primarily about minorities and having white people necessary to tell that story. Why are white people always necessary to tell some other race’s stories? Skeeter (Emma Stone) is an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South. That’s how she starts. By the film’s end, she’s now… an open-minded gal that speaks her mind and stands up to the Jim Crow South and now she has a publishing career. Good for her! Good for heroic white people! They had so much to lose back then.
Didn’t I Already See This Movie?: The Hangover Part II, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Final Destination 5
Great Message for Girls: In Breaking Dawn: Part One, Edward and Bella finally, after three movies of moping, get to have sex. He doesn’t kill her but he does leave bruises all over her body. Bell assures her new husband that he’s not to blame, arguing, “You just couldn’t control yourself.” What kind of irresponsible message is that sending to teenage girls? But after enduring three movies of “save it until marriage,” the message is made even clearer when Bella, after one bout of sex, gets pregnant. Boom. Bella breaks the news by saying, “The wedding was 14 days ago, and my period’s late.” Edward stares dumbfounded and replies, “What does that mean?” Apparently, after graduating from high school 200 times just for kicks, Edward must have been absent every damn time for sexual education (“Condoms go OVER? Oh! This whole time I thought they went UNDER, you know, to hold everything in.”).
Best Onscreen Death: “On the count of three, I’m going to move the coin,” in X-Men: First Class. Very satisfying end for a pretty evil Nazi.
Best Villain: The horrible bosses (Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey) of Horrible Bosses.
Runner’s-up: Loki in Thor; Hilly in The Help; Jerry in Fright Night; Abin Cooper in Red State.
I Am Number ODD: The point that caught my attention, and was scantily mentioned but once without nary a rejoinder from any character in I Am Number Four, was the fact that the big bad evil aliens are killing the alien teens in order. No reason is ever attempted. There are nine super alien teens but for some reason these interstellar killers are uncontrollably anal-retentive (“We may be vicious monsters, but we respect the value of numerology”). It makes little strategic sense to stick to the doctrine of taking out your enemy one at a time and in a pre-determined order that everyone knows about. It also means that presumably Number 9 will be the hardest to vanquish since they will have the longest time to master their super power. Later on, Number 4 gets an added boost from a sexy, slinky Aussie who happens to be Number 6. My first thought: “What the hell happened to Number 5?” Then I figured that Number 5 has to be locked away somewhere in a protective safe house at an unknown location. Because that affords Number 6 to do whatever the hell she wants; the evil aliens would just have to stop and say, “Look Number 6, we’d really, truly love to vaporize you right now, but first we gotta go find and kill Number 5 first. See ya later.” If that’s the case then Number’s 7-9 need to get off the bench and team up. Number 4 can’t keep this up forever, guys.
They Nominated THAT?: Look below and you’ll find the 30-40 something movies I felt were better, and more deserving of Best Picture nominations, than actual nominees, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, War Horse, The Help, The Tree of Life, The Artist, and Hugo.
PART THREE: OVERALL MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies, and I invite readers to check them out at PictureShowPundits.com for further details.A — Bridesmaids The Descendants The Myth of the American Sleepover Rango Rise of the Planet of the Apes Take Shelter Tuesday, After Christmas Young Adult A- — 50/50 The Adjustment Bureau Attack the Block Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol The Muppets Submarine Warrior B+ — A Dangerous Method The Debt The Future Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two Horrible Bosses The Ides of March Insidious Margin Call Midnight in Paris Moneyball Paul Rubber Senna Source Code Tucker & Dale vs. Evil Win Win X-Men: First Class B — The Artist Beginners Captain America: The First Avenger Cave of Forgotten Dreams Cedar Rapids Chillerama Contagion Coriolanus Crazy, Stupid, Love Drive Fast Five Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Hanna The Help Hobo with a Shotgun Hugo I Saw the Devil Limitless The Lincoln Lawyer Martha Marcy May Marlene Super Super 8 Tabloid Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Thor The Trip B- — Circumstance Cowboys & Aliens Friends with Benefits The Green Hornet The Guard Happythankyoumoreplease J. Edgar Melancholia My Week with Marilyn Red State War Horse Unknown C+ — Battle: Los Angeles The Beaver Cars 2 Immortals In Time Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Transformers: Dark of the Moon C — Bad Teacher Columbiana Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop The Dilemma Drive Angry The Eagle Final Destination 5 Green Lantern Hall Pass I Am Number Four The Mechanic Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides Real Steel The Robber Scream 4 Shame Sucker Punch Take Me Home Tonight The Thing The Tree of Life Water for Elephants C- — Apollo 18 Bloodrayne: The Third Reich Breaking Dawn: Part One Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close The Hangover: Part II In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds Just Go With It Priest The Zookeeper D+ — The Change-Up Season of the Witch D — Atlas Shrugged Blubberella Dylan Dog: Dead of Night Meek’s Cutoff Passion Play Red Riding Hood The Smurfs D- — Love, Wedding, Marriage F — 11/11/11