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Gemini (2018)

Dear reader, I want you to know upfront that I’m writing this review for one major purpose, and that is to complain about its ending. Had this movie ended differently, I probably would have simply postponed writing about it. Then writer/director Aaron Katz (Land Ho!) went with his ending, and now we need to talk about Gemini, a neo-noir set in the world of movie stars, paparazzi, and sycophantic hangers-on in the city of angels.

The beginning thirty minutes do a fine job of establishing a world and perspective. We follow the day-to-day of Jill (Lola Kirke), a personal assistant to a popular actress, Heather Anderson (Zoe Kravitz). She deals with pushy directors, invasive press, and boundary-blurring fan interactions. She’s Heather’s support and one of her best friends. Katz does a very effective job of establishing Jill’s world of responsibilities as well as her confusing sense of where she fits in this equation. Is she more hired-help or BFF? Heather backs out of a movie and talks about starting her own production company, with Jill and her developing projects that appeal to them. That night, Heather is fearful that someone has been following her and asks for a gun. Jill gives her one, loading the bullets. The next day, Jill comes back to Heather’s palatial home and finds her dead on the floor and the growing realization that she is the number one suspect (her fingerprints are on the gun).

That’s the first third of the movie and it works well. Katz’s screenplay slowly builds, organically establishing the complicated world of Jill and her general sense of being an outsider wherever she goes. Once the murder takes place, Gemini becomes more recognizable with its film noir elements, as Jill adopts a disguise and investigates a series of suspects that could have killed the starlet, including the director she spurned and an old boyfriend who has trouble letting go. This is also where Katz introduces a new threat in the presence of Detective Edward Ahn (John Cho). He’s a calm, empathetic man but he always seems to know more than he lets on, asking probing questions that Jill doesn’t feel comfortable answering. Each new trip to a suspect presents a different mood and aim. Jill’s visit with the director becomes a humorous sit-down where the guy theorizes who is guilty if it were a movie, finally concluding it would probably be Jill as a twist. Jill infiltrates the ex-boyfriend’s hotel room and has to avoid detection and it is an efficient small-scale suspense sequence. All the while the detective appears to be circling something.

The are several merits of Katz’s film that are worth mentioning. The acting is generally good all around, especially from Kirke (Gone Girl, Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle). She’s a natural screen presence while still radiating a sense of relatability. There’s a lot going on behind those saucer-eyes of hers and I wish the movie served her better by the end. Kravtiz (Rough Night) and Cho (Star Trek Beyond) are both unpredictable in different ways, making the audience glean extra subtleties from their guarded performances. The sleek cinematography by Andrew Reed (Cold Weather) deals in cool teals and purples, creating a hazy, 1980s-esque atmosphere without becoming annoying omnipresent like in a Nicolas Refn film. It’s style without being eaten alive by it (Neon Demon broadside?). The musical score by Keegan DeWitt (Hearts Beat Loud) is suitably moody, working in typical noir elements like brass instruments with a modern ambient sensibility. Under Katz’s direction, the movie has fun with introducing classic noir tropes and giving them a twist, as well as diverting from them, like our heroine being an ordinary outsider.

And now comes the part where I must discuss the ending to Gemini and, in doing so, will spoil the movie significantly. If you’d like to continue reading and understand the bulk of my grievance, please proceed ahead with spoilers. This has served as your warning, dear reader.

As the film is nearing its end, it looks like Heather’s secret bisexual fling is being presented as the most likely candidate. The two of them were caught smooching by a late-night paparazzi and this could present some career problems. Jill sneaks away from the supposed lion’s den and heads out to a cabin in the California woods, the spot the fling was talking to. She enters the cabin and finds… Heather there alive and well. You see the dead body in Heather’s home was not her but the super eager fan they had encountered earlier, a look-alike made more obscured with parts of her brain missing. Apparently Heather killed her because she was stalking her and she feared for her life, or so she says. She hid out and waited for everything to die down. Jill is understandably very angry especially since she became the prime suspect. Heather is sorry but not that sorry. Do the crime scene investigators not take fingerprints? Blood samples? I’m uncertain of the timeline of Gemini but this fake-out could only last a couple days, charitably. It creates suspicion that there’s more than Heather is willingly admitting.

This sets up an exclusive interview with a big journalist, the first point in re-branding Heather after the news came out, and trying to push the narrative in the direction they want. Then all of a sudden Detective Ahn shows up at the taping and asks if he can watch as a favor. Jill considers this, confirming the case is closed, and allows it. All right, it’s at this point where all the major players are together in a crucible of secrets. Something good is going to happen, because why else bring these characters together in this moment? And then as the interview begins and Katz’s camera slowly pans over to the L.A. skyline and slowly zooms in, and this is where I started yelling at my screen. This is not an ending. This is five minutes away from an ending. The comeuppance of a starlet thinking she can get away with anything and put upon her vulnerable and faithful assistant is all set. The instincts of our wily detective will be proven right. Jill will have become a stronger character, able to suss out the truth and cut off a destructive force. Justice will be had, the truth will come out, and it will feel like a natural climax of the entire 90-minute movie. And then none of that happens. Nothing happens. It’s all setup and then the L.A. skyline (end spoilers).

Gemini is a frustrating movie with good acting, a dash of style, and some potently moody moments to tickle a neo-noir enthusiast. Until the ending. I was flabbergasted. Katz delivered a cop-out of an ending, and subsequently makes his overall film one that I don’t even think I can recommend, even to neo-noir acolytes. Gemini, I wrote this review because of your ending and I’m still waiting on one. I’ll be here if you need me.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Rough Night (2017)

As the girl power counterpart to Very Bad Things, the rowdy comedy Rough Night follows a group of broadly characterized friends through a night of mishaps, but the strangest development is that the funniest moments all center around the men. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) and her gal pals (Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz) are celebrating her bachelorette party when they accidentally kill a stripper. From there the ladies have to try and dispose of the body while not getting caught. The movie is rather slow to get started, establishing broad character types for each of the bachelorette partiers. It’s once things get criminal that the movie enters more solid comedic ground. The acting ensemble is rife with terrific comedy stars that know how to hit their material in stride, in particular the boorish Bell and the goofy McKinnon. And yet it’s the asides with Jess’s fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs, co-writer) where the movie hits its highest marks and delivers inspired comedy. At first the wild atmosphere of the girls’ night out is contrasted with the quaintly tame boy’s night out. Soon after Peter is worried something troubling has happened and is determined to travel nonstop to reach Jess. His traveling moments produce the most unexpected comedy, like a badass montage about something very uncharacteristically badass. It just kept going, trying to maintain the same demeanor, and I was almost in tears from laughing so hard. There’s a sequence at a gas station that could be taught in comedy classes for how well structured and developed it plays out, tying together characters and conflicts and even ending on a sweetly jocular moment. It got to the point where I wanted to check back more often with Peter. I chuckled throughout Rough Night and the energy level of the actors keeps things eminently watchable but it plays it too safe for something so apparently transgressive. The sentimental moments don’t feel earned and the dark comedy doesn’t feel dark enough. Still, when it gets to be weird and unpredictable, Rough Night can be a delight.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

MM-Main-Poster Allow me to begin with a confession. I had to see Mad Max: Fury Road again. I knew minutes into the film that my appetite would not be quenched and I needed to see it again, which I did less than 12 hours later. A week later I saw it a third time in the theater. The reason I did this is obvious in one regard – it’s a highly enjoyable, pulse-pounding, amazing spectacle of first-class stuntwork and mad genius so rarely accomplished on such a large, splendid scale of destruction. The other reason, from a writing standpoint, is that I needed to see the movie again or else my review of Fury Road was going to consist of nothing but an unending stream of positive adjectives vomited upon the page in excitement. And for you, dear reader, I wanted to do better. Also, I wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road again and I honestly wouldn’t mind in the slightest seeing it again.

In the post-apocalyptic future, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is an aging warlord with his own fiefdom. He controls the water supply and has an army of gearhead warriors to enforce his rule. His trusted driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), is leading a caravan for supplies when she goes rogue, driving off into the desert. Furiosa has taken Immortan Joe’s “property,” namely his five wives. Enraged, Immortan Joe gathers a posse of death vehicles and riders and heads off to reclaim his “property.” Max (Tom Hardy) is a drifter thrust into the middle of this conflict when he’s strapped to a car and driven out into the desert, part of the Immortan Joe rapid response forces.

maaaadThere are few things more exhilarating in the realm of motion pictures than a well-executed, well-developed action sequence, and Mad Max: Fury Road is a blistering, awe-inspiring masterpiece of brilliant carnage. What director George Miller has achieved onscreen is visionary. The level of execution is so rarely seen at such a large scale, and with so many moving parts, that I was delighted and curious how something this extraordinary could escape the risk-averse studio system. I’m trying my best to restrain myself from sheer hyperbole, but this is an instant classic in the world of action cinema and a definite top five all-time action film (for those keeping track, I would say last year’s Raid sequel would also qualify for that status). The movie provided me a font of joy that did not let up until the end credits ushered me out of the theater. The action sequences are epic in their scale, with dozens of different vehicles in hot pursuit, and yet Miller brilliantly orients his audience to every moment of his symphony of demolition. There are so many different parts to the action but the audience knows everything that happens. The sheer sense of momentum and pacing is overwhelming and giddy. The action sequences develop organically, with new consequences throwing our characters into different and dire directions. There’s also a startling amount of variety with the action sequences. Fury Road has been described as a two-hour chase film, and that’s accurate to a degree, but there are breaks in between the sequences, small moments to catch your breath and learn more about our characters and their hostile world. Each sequence is different enough that the action doesn’t ever feel redundant, even when the third act literally requires the characters to backtrack. The adrenaline just doesn’t turn off from the get-go, and Miller keeps throwing out new tricks, new stunts, and new cars to astound and amaze. Simply put, Fury Road shames other American film releases.

The stuntwork is another facet that just raises the bar when it comes to action movies. Miller emphasized practical effects whenever possible, and the emphasis pay off with a heightened sense of realism onscreen. It’s real cars being smashed to real bits, real stuntmen being tossed around. In an age of CGI over saturation, it’s all too easy to become numb to big screen spectacle because of how hollow it all comes across visually. Just this past month with the Avengers sequel, I knew that all the fight scenes were mostly CGI or actors against green screens, and it eases off the enjoyment of the moment. Don’t even get me started on the deluge of CGI carnage in the last Hobbit film. Real physical objects and physical interaction offer so much more believability in an age of increasing disbelief with special effects. With Miller’s focus on practical effects first and foremost, it brings that sense of crazy excitement back and it ensures that Fury Road will hold up better over time.

DG fury roadI also appreciated just how much thought Miller and his team put into crafting their world. Every detail feels like it adds to the overall richness of Miller’s vision. The designs of the cars, the use of scrap, the fact that a pulley system is operated with children running up giant wheels, it all contributes to making the world better realized and more alive. The level of thought put into weird and deadly concepts in this movie is fantastic. Once the main characters pass through a bog of land, we see people dressed in cloaks traversing the land on stilts, and it’s little passing details such as this that make the movie feel more complete. I enjoyed that one of Max’s heroic attributes is that he’s specified for his blood type, being O the universal donor. The fact that Miller finds a satisfying way to bring this attribute back as a payoff is also appreciated. I also enjoyed how Miller expands upon the family of Immortan Joe, with his bevy of freakish sons and brothers and peculiarities. I enjoyed the fact that Miller isn’t afraid to embrace the weird of his dystopia, symbolized best by a blind guitar player attached to a roaming wall of speakers who can shoot flames out of his instrument. Every time the movie cut back to this guitar playing pace setter, I smiled, and I smiled a lot during this movie.

Some have grumbled that Max is a supporting player in a movie that bears his name, but I would argue he is a co-lead and the real star is rightfully Imperator Furiosa. Max is not replaced with Furiosa, rather they have an inter-dependant relationship where they’re both vulnerable and they both come to trust the other but without a romantic mingling. These are both wounded, shaken, mistrusting, and volatile people, and to watch their shared sense of teamwork and the gradual opening and reliance upon one another, it is itself an affecting and emotionally satisfying relationship. But back to Furiosa, it’s really her story because she is the one with the personal connection to the mission. Max has always kind of been a wandering warrior who finds himself in other people’s battles. Consider him a post-apocalyptic Man with No Name. Furiosa is the leader who has planned and implemented the escape from Immortan Joe, and it’s she that deserves our attention. I enjoyed the fact that Miller doesn’t even have to explain her past. We know she’s suffered trauma, physical and likely sexual, and he assumes the audience does not need Furiosa’s past abuse spelled out specifically for them, or seen in grisly flashback. She’s a strong woman who is far from helpless with one arm. This is a story about women liberating themselves from sexual slavery under a corrupt patriarchy (more on the thematic relevance below). Theron is our leader and the ferocity in her eyes is all you need to believe that this woman will do whatever it takes for freedom.

The other aspect that’s very clear is that Fury Road is a decidedly feminist film but it never stoops to preaching or even directly calling attention to its efforts. It’s a ruined world where men with unchecked power have exploited the vulnerable, where women are treated as “property” and valued for breeding purposes. Our heroes are by and large women who have rejected their roles in this society or are fleeing their impositions. And with Furiosa as lead, it paints a more than convincing picture of women being just as capable and badass in the post-apocalypse (I want to go as Furiosa for Halloween). It’s a movie that portrays women struggling against an unjust system that devalues them but Fury Road doesn’t wallow in their suffering. It doesn’t have to in order to get its points across. It also treats the wives in a manner that lacks being sexualized. Immortan Joe has treated them as property but Miller treats them as human beings, even going as far as to give them distinguished personalities. They play a role in the action rather than damsels in need of saving. I’m not saying they approach three-dimensional characters but they’re certainly not just eye candy. There’s a sequence where they wash each other with a hose, and you could see the myriad ways this moment would go tawdry for some cheap titillation, but the film steers clear of that and moves on to the bigger picture. What the Men’s Rights Activists (sadly this is actually a thing) seem to have lost in their caterwauling is that feminism is not a zero-sum game; one person gaining stature and opportunity does not mean it’s taken away from another. Just because Furiosa is strong it doesn’t make Max weak. Furiosa being a compelling lead character does not diminish Max. It makes him an even better character because he recognizes her value and his own limitations, like a scene where he voluntarily hands over a rifle because he knows she’s the better marksman. No one has to explicitly point and say, “Girls can do it too.”

theronhoultThere’s also a fascinating commentary on the danger of religious fundamentalism with the war boys. These powder-white young men are Immortan Joe’s armed forces and they are promised a swift appearance at the gates of their paradise if they die in battle (“Witness me!” is their exclamation before sacrifice). They spray paint their faces chrome (“Eternal, shiny and chrome”) and then go in for the kamikaze kill. Again, the theme is ripe and obvious but without requiring characters to comment. Nux (Nicholas Hoult, wonderfully deranged and then sincere) actually has the closest thing to a character arc, going from hopeful martyr to independent thinker. He begins as a clumsy yet determined antagonist and becomes a resourceful and unexpected ally.

This is practically a flawless film on a technical level. The cinematography by John Seale (Cold Mountain) is bright with lush colors that pop on the big screen. We’ve been treated to far too many color degraded films, so it’s nice to view a movie that wants to use all the colors at its disposal. The musical score by Junkie XL (300: Rise of an Empire) is stirring and pulse-pounding with its heavy percussion, but there’s a languid melody that returns again and again that is emotionally resonant. It’s surprising how the score will punctuate the bombast and wailing guitars with a lovely string arrangement, like when we rush into the sandstorm and a car is blown into the sky. The editing is outstanding by Margaret Sixel (Happy Feet) and she keeps the audience informed with every new twist and turn, and with so many moving parts and changing dynamics, that is a miracle itself. The production design by Colin Gibson beautifully expands and informs this strange world. There isn’t a department in Fury Road that wasn’t at the top of their game.

If I had to quibble, I could accept the argument that Mad Max: Fury Road lacks the substance to be considerably more than an exhilarating action ride. The dialogue can be a bit on-the-nose, Hardy mumbles through a majority of his miniscule lines, and the characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be and the plot is rather bare bones. However, I view its narrative economy as a virtue, as there isn’t a moment or scene wasted in telling this breakneck tour de force of post-apocalyptic demolition. Rarely does an artist get to work at this level in the studio system let alone succeed with a final product that still manages to be strange, mordant, uncompromising, and completely riveting. This is a near-perfect action movie and a thrilling high-wire act of practical filmmaking bravado. Mad Max: Fury Road is the standard I am going to judge all summer movies by for the rest of the year, and I imagine many will be found wanting. I could continue to heap praise on the movie but the most persuasive stance I can make is that if you fail to see Fury Road on the big screen, you will always regret this decision. I am a disciple of Fury Road and witness my brethren and me. This movie was made for the biggest screen, the loudest sound system, and an endless bucket of popcorn.

Nate’s Grade: A

Divergent (2014)

MV5BMTYxMzYwODE4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE5MzE2MDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_High school for many was a personal version of hell, with its class system and pressure to conform. Divergent built a whole future dystopia around this relatable concept. The problem with the movie is that the source material doesn’t think that much further.

In the future, 100 years after a great war that scarred the world, the survivors have holed up in the remains of Chicago with a large fence as their protection. The government decided to split off into five different factions, each with their important purpose. The five factions (Abnegation, Candor, Erudite, Amity, and Dauntless) work in harmony. Tris (Shailene Woodley) comes from a family of Abnegation, the selfless ones who run the government, though Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the head of Erudite, would like her faction to be on top. At the choosing ceremony, a candidate can select which faction they wish to live within. However, if rejected, that person will be factionless and on the outskirts of society. Rather than choose the comfort of her boring life, Tris decides to join Dauntless, the faction in charge of the security of the city. Before she can say goodbye to her family, she’s off joining a new one, but Dauntless has many tests to weed out the weak. Paramount in her mind is the fact that Tris is told she’s a divergent, one who doesn’t fit neatly into any one of the factions. Divergents are being singled out and executed because they are feared; they can’t be so easily controlled. Tris has to prove herself against tough competition in Dauntless while hiding her true divergent nature.

divergent-movie-stills-tris-maggie-qHaving not read the best-selling Young Adult books, I went into Divergent and walked away entertained enough though questioning the larger appeal. My movie partner told me that the adaptation hews closely to the book, fitting in all the major plot beats; she even said it was a better adaptation than the first Hunger Games, so fans should be relieved. What the movie came down to was one long plot about Tris getting through the Dauntless tests. It’s like a post-apocalyptic Full Metal Jacket, just minus the war half. With this tight focus, the film actually plays better and is easier to digest. The stakes are made clear and the hurdles are easy to understand. In a way it reminded me of the Ender’s Game film where we watch a recruit move up the ranks of their sci-fi training, though Ender’s was better at establishing dimension to its world. I did like the small touch that the Abnegation people won’t allow themselves to see their reflection because they see it as vain. I could have used more touches like that.

There are simple pleasures watching Tris, the plucky underdog, rising to the challenge and besting her snobby peers. The games get more intense and Tris learns from trial to trial, eventually learning how to hide her divergent nature by blending in against her nature. There’s also an intensity to this world that’s appreciated; people will die if they can’t keep up (there is one shocking sequence where a batch of jealous recruits literally try and kill Tris). The physical trials are fun but the mental ones are even more entertaining because they function around the candidate’s fears. It’s a tad lazy to simply broadcast a character’s fear for them to confront in a dream, but it provides some creepy imagery and new wrinkle for Tris to master. Even the requisite romance that every YA property has to have is handled respectfully without overdoing it. The mentor/teacher relationship with Tris and Four is a natural conduit for their budding romantic feelings, though James (Underworld: Awakening) looks way older than Woodley (The Descendants). In reality, he’s 30 and she’s 22, though she’s supposed to be… 17? 18 years old? I don’t know but it just didn’t sit right.

SHAILENE WOODLEY and THEO JAMES star in DIVERGENTWhere the movie gets into problems is the larger world outside those Dauntless camps. It feels too ill defined and purposely vague. What’s on the other side of the giant electrified fence (hopefully dinosaurs)? I suppose that’s what sequels are for (they’re already filming the second Divergent for March 2015). The world just feels too small even for one city, and the history doesn’t feel integrated into the cultivations of this society. In a sense, the movie doesn’t give you enough to go on with its world building and spends far too much time dragging out its story. At a hefty 142 minutes, a time frame becoming de rigueur with YA adaptations, the film feels laboriously padded. I kept thinking the movie was going to check out at any moment, robbing me of some semblance of a complete ending. Fear not, there is an ending, though one that feels far too definite to continue a franchise. The bad guys are so obviously guilty, that even while still being at large, it’s hard to fathom a scenario that doesn’t unite everyone against the common threat. Does every YA post-apocalyptic mold eventually lead to unlikely heroes becoming the focal points of revolutions? I’m being facetious, but also highlighting just how derivative this movie is. Divergent borrows from its larger influences liberally, having enough story sense to know how to construct a satisfying tale of heroes and villains. It’s a well-polished film thanks to director Neil Burger (Limitless) but it’s also lacking necessary elements to distinguish it from the glut of dystopian imitators and predecessors.

I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud. The world of Divergent also feels strangely unfulfilled, with too many lingering questions about the logistics of how this future Chicago is able to function. There’s a confusing aura around this world and it doesn’t get explained because we spend so much time in Dauntless boot camp.

There was a weird motif I kept noticing throughout the film and that’s the future’s unsafe disregard for medical safety. The Dauntless kids are all about the running, jumping, punching each other in the face, but it all begins at their choosing ceremony. The candidates walk to the front of an auditorium, slice their palm with a ceremonial knife, and then squeeze blood into a bowl representing the faction they select. Of course they reiterate “faction before blood” so it’s a little strange that the ritual involves their blood. Anyway, what I picked up was that every candidate was using the same knife, only with he most perfunctory of wiping the blade. That is just unclean and a way for blood-based disease to spread. Then later during the mental round of testing, Four injects Tris and himself with the same needle. Clearly these post-apocalyptic people have forgotten all about AIDS and other deadly diseases. Why else would Jeanine be so calm as her hand is covered in someone else’s blood? I’m surprised she just didn’t lick it for effect.

divergent-movie-fan-reviewThe actors are all well cast for their parts, with Woodley again proving herself as one of the best young actresses today in Hollywood. Her part isn’t anywhere as complex or demanding as her terrific turn in The Spectacular Now, but she’s able to slide in emotion where possible, expressing much through the power of her eyes. She’s a heroine you want to root for, and when she goes into badass mode it feels earned. James is suitably hunky while still being mysterious and broody. Interestingly enough, Miles Teller, Woodley’s onscreen beau in Spectacular Now, is here as a bully and Ansel Elgort, who plays Tris’ older brother, will soon play Woodley’s onscreen beau in The Fault in Our Stars. It’s like this weird cross-section of Woodley’s film history of boyfriends. The adults do fine jobs with their limited time, with Winslet (Labor Day) being a better realized version of what Jodie Foster was possibly going for in Elysium. My favorite adult actor was Jai Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard, Jack Reacher) who hasn’t found the right fit for his talents, until now (he was great on Starz’s Spartacus TV show).  As a no-nonsense Dauntless captain, he’s imposing in many respects and also intriguingly devious. He’s a grade-A heavy and adds a jolt to the scenes he’s in.

Poised to be the next YA breakout franchise, Divergent will likely be a hit with its target audience and reap the rewards at the box-office, though I think its flaws will hold it back from being embraced by a wider audience with no affiliation with the books. It’s an entertaining story with good actors and enough well constructed payoffs, but it’s also confusing, vague, and lacking enough urgency, class conflict, and developments to parlay into a more interesting story once Tris graduates from the Dauntless ranks. As a standalone film, Divergent works enough and duly entertains, thanks again to Burger’s visual sensibilities and the strength of Woodley. I’m just not invested at all in this world or its larger characters to compel myself to find out what happens next. I ravenously tore through the Hunger Games books, but to each their own. As a big screen sci-fi film, it’s strange that Divergent would work best in its smaller moments and settings. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t diverge enough from the pack of YA-modeled adventures. Well there is one thing to look forward to: I’ll see if I get my wish for dinosaurs in March 2015.

Nate’s Grade: B-

X-Men: First Class (2011)

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

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