He SAID: Apocalyptic Fail

Scott F. Evans

Can we all just finally admit that the X-Men franchise isn’t very good?  This is the eighth film in this way-past-its-expiration-date series. Of that eight, maybe two of them are decent.  Maybe.  Fox has been cranking these things out since the beginning of the century with spin-offs and even a midway reboot followed by another reboot which basically did away with the previous films.

The studio started with the first three X-Men films, X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand in 2000, 2003, and 2006 respectively.   Director Bryan Singer jumped ship before Last Stand started shooting and was replaced at the last minute by Brett Ratner.  The fourth film, X-Men: First Class was released in 2011 with Matthew Vaughn directing and a completely new cast of younger actors.  First Class was set in the 1960’s and served as a reset to the series.  This was followed in 2013 with another Wolverine sequel titled, simply, The Wolverine.  The Wolverine takes place directly after The Last Stand and doesn’t reference First Class at all.  Singer returns in 2014 to helm X-Men: Days of Future Past.  It was designed specifically to straighten out the franchise’s confusing timeline.  By the film’s end, it had basically erased the first three X-Men films and both Wolverine solo projects.

Or created a separate timeline.

Or something.

Point is, this franchise is a mess and needs to be put down.

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Singer returns with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, a few of the First Class cast, and several new faces for X-Men: Apocalypse. Even with the new additions, it’s become painfully clear that everyone involved has run out of things to say. Magneto, played for the third time by Michael Fassbender, has the exact same character arc from every X-Film he’s been in.  This time he gets a family in an attempt to switch things up, but the result is the same old story. To Fassbender’s credit, he’s such a great actor that I can’t tell if he’s just phoning his performance in or really trying to elevate the stale material he’s been given.

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James McAvoy, in his third outing as Professor Xavier, is also an excellent actor.  But you can see him desperately fighting to make something out of this exhausted screenplay.  He always seems to be just on the verge of tears. Honestly I’m not sure if the text calls for such emotion or if McAvoy is just that frustrated.

Conversely, the top-billed Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through this.  This is also her third time playing Mystique and it’s clear that Lawrence is over it.  She’s rarely in the character’s signature blue appearance and delivers her dialogue with the least amount of effort possible.  As bored and detached as she is, you’d think that Singer and Kinberg would either recast or write the character out. Nope! Instead, Mystique is shoehorned into this plot and about as useful here as Wolverine was in Days of Future Past.

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Evan Peters, who stole the show in his initial appearance in Days Of Future Past, is back with more to say and do. While his function is no different than it was the first time, his scene is longer and still as enjoyable.

Poor Oscar Isaac bows as the evil Apocalypse. If ever there was a disservice done to a stellar actor, it is this.  Buried under pounds of prosthetic makeup and hobbled with hackneyed comic book dialogue, Isaac is criminally miscast as the titular villain. The role could have been played by a bodybuilder with his lines dubbed in by any voice actor and it wouldn’t have mattered one bit.

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Final thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse… it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before. The story is painfully simplistic and filled with superfluous emotional flourishes that want desperately to  be significant.  None of the performances stand out enough to justify investing two and a half long hours of your time. The spectacle, which features more destruction than all of the past superhero movies combined, is so common now that it’s become tedious.

Just like this entire franchise.

RATING: Cable

 

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He SAID: War of Marvels

Scott F. Evans

Marvel Studios continues its winning streak with Captain America: Civil War.  If nothing else, Marvel/Disney knows how to pick its talent.  After triumphing with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russo Brothers return to helm what may very well be the best superhero movie ever made.  They’re assisted by returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.  This cinematic dream team seems to have taken the Marvel formula and redefined it, to make two of the best entries of the genre.  Forget Nolan.  Forget Whedon.  Forget Singer.  This squad has the superhero thing down to a science.

Civil War somehow manages to pull triple duty. It functions as the third in the Captain America franchise, addressing situations created in The First Avenger and continuing through The Winter Soldier.  It can be seen as the third Avengers film, following through on scenarios created in both of those earlier editions.  Civil War also works as a fourth Iron Man movie, with Tony Stark evolving beyond just Cap’s foe.  It also introduces two new major characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Black Panther and the studio’s version of Spider-Man.  These two heroes will headline their own solo films in the next couple of years.

Even as it juggles a massive supporting cast (every character gets at least one shining moment) Civil War is Cap’s story.  Markus and McFeely boldly present the character with a situation so personal, that he behaves in an uncharacteristic but completely believable way.  The film tackles some weighty issues: responsibility, duty, friendship, loyalty… and has a fair amount of pathos.  But it never becomes ponderous. Even with a run time of two and a half hours, it never drags.  Civil War is a serious film that knows it’s still a comic book.  The Russo Brothers keep the pacing breezy, and pepper in enough action to more than satisfy fans of the genre.

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The cast is key. Most of the players from practically every Marvel movie make an appearance.  Chris Evans turns in another excellent performance as Captain America.  He nails this character each and every time.  Robert Downey Jr is (as always) so good as Iron Man, that you almost forget that he had a decades long career before landing this iconic role.  Maybe it’s the script, but he feels even more dialed in than before.

Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson once again lend their expert support as The Falcon and Black Widow.  This is the fourth time both have played these characters so it’s no surprise that they handle the roles with aplomb.  Johansson has shined as Black Widow since her debut in Iron Man 2, with her best performance coming out of Winter Soldier.  She’s just as good in this one but isn’t afforded as much screen time.  Mackie absolutely resonates as Falcon. He was good in Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.  But in Civil War, the filmmakers give Falcon much more to do, and Mackie relishes every moment of it.  Returning as Bucky Barnes, Sebastian Stan finally gets to show off his acting chops.  He’s been good in all of the Cap movies, but this time he gets to show that he’s more than just an action figure.

Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland nearly steal the show, bowing as Black Panther and Spider-Man respectively.  Boseman brings a fierce nobility to the role.  And even with his limited screen time, Holland already shows signs of being a better Spider-Man than previous iterations.

I could continue to gush about Captain America: Civil War, but I think you get the point.  On its own, it’s a great film.  As part of a specific genre. it’s easily in the top five.  As the last of a trilogy, it makes the Captain America series arguably one of the best, most consistent franchises in recent cinema history.

RATING: Theater

He SAID: Dawn of DC’s Demise

Scott F. Evans

I’ll try to keep this short.

Batman v Superman is a nearly three hour, joyless, anti-romp filled with unlikable characters with confusing motivations spouting clunky dialogue.

But it looks pretty good so… yay?

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Director Zack Snyder is back with the not-quite sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, and awkward prequel to 2017’s The Justice League.  Snyder’s background is music videos and commercials.  It shows.  Much of the film is beautiful. Gone is the messy, handheld documentary style he and cinematographer Amir Mokri incorporated in Man of Steel, replaced instead by the cleaner imagery of frequent collaborator Larry Fong.  Snyder’s action scenes (and there are plenty) are much more legible this time as well.  He’s thankfully jettisoned most of that blurry, too-fast-for-the-camera effect so overused in Steel.

And that about does it for what’s good about Batman v Superman, because the rest of this film is an absolute mess.  The main problem is (are we really surprised?) story. Like a lot of mega-budgeted genre films these days, this one manages to be both too long and too short.  It overreaches, and even with a laborious two and a half hour run-time, it still fails to properly tell the story.  But that’s the result of trying to adapt several long-form comic book stories into a bloated feature film. If that’s not bad enough, it also attempts to shoehorn a handful of other themes, plus deliver the thrills expected from films of this nature. The end result is a muddled, disjointed piece that crumbles under its own weight.    This film has been in the making for three years, and it still feels like they shot a rushed first draft.

Screenwriter Chris Terrio (brought in to rewrite David Goyer) penned a ludicrously convoluted plot that desperately seeks mature significance, but is hamstrung by a deeply immature core.  It’s a given that the titular characters have to slug it out before the credits roll.  A smarter film would’ve crafted a journey where, by the end of it, there’s no other choice but for these heroes to go at it.  But in this film, the entire conflict could have  easily been avoided by these two men having a fairly simple conversation like adults, instead of a pair of overgrown toddlers.

Henry Cavill returns as Superman. Of all the actors involved in this, he’s the one I feel the most sorry for.  Not only is he a guest-star in his own movie, but Cavill is stuck with the most depressive, insecure, unpleasant, immature asshole version of Superman ever brought to the screen.  Terrio and Goyer have drained all of the charm and life out of this classic character.  I’m pretty sure that Snyder hates him too. There is not a scene in this film where Superman isn’t made to look inept, or bungles the simplest of superhero actions.

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Amy Adams is also back as Lois Lane.  True to form, she retains the magic ability to get herself involved in every dangerous situation (and put everyone around her at risk) as she waits to be rescued by her bulging, brainless boyfriend.  Adams is serviceable, but not especially memorable. That’s interesting only because she’s given nearly as much screen time as the two leads.

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Jesse Esienberg debuts as the latest – and worst – version of Lex Luthor.  This is a film-killing misstep.  This Luthor is so lacking in… everything… it’s insulting that the filmmakers want us to consider him dangerous.  You keep waiting for Lois to just slap the shit out of him and make it all stop.  He can be given credit for taking the character in a different direction, but his performance is so overly affected and phony that you count the seconds until he is offscreen.  The worst part about that is, he’s all over this film.

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Gal Gadot appears as Wonder Woman.  She’s featured heavily in the film’s marketing but her screentime ends up being mostly a lengthy cameo (and an advertisement for her own feature in 2017).  She’s adequate, but since she’s not given much else to do outside of the fight scene (you could cut her out entirely and it would barely affect the plot), it’s hard to determine if Gadot is going to be able to carry a feature on her own.  She certainly looks the part and clocks in for the climactic fight, so there’s hope for her solo project.

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Ben Affleck takes over the cape and cowl as the latest rendition of Batman.  He’s good, but not especially better than previous versions.  Affleck is refreshingly the most physical Batman we’ve ever seen. But he turns in such a dour, one-note performance that it’s hard to tell how good he’ll be going forward.   The character has always skirted the razor’s edge of insanity with his obsession with fighting crime. Here he’s full blown psychopath, racking up an impressive body count and causing nearly as much property damage as his co-star.  It’ll be interesting to see what Affleck does with this character with a more restrained director and cohesive script.

That lack of restraint and cohesion is what ultimately sinks Batman v Superman.  It’s a hollow film that’s too long, too loud, and tries too hard.  It focuses too much of its energy in the wrong places with turgid plotting, try-hard atmospherics and forgettable action scenes.

RATING: Cable

He SAID: Of Monsters & Men

Scott F. Evans

As you take your seat in the darkened theater for a showing of… check that. As you prepare to leave for the theater to see 10 Cloverfield Lane, I urge you to remove any and all expectations about what this film might actually be. Expect nothing beyond good writing, directing, and acting. Go in with a clean slate.

If you can.

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is on the run from a failed relationship. She’s knocked unconscious when her car is sideswiped and flips off the road. She awakens in doomsday prepper Howard’s (John Goodman) underground shelter. Emmitt (John Gallagher Jr.), partially incapacitated with a shoulder injury, is also locked in with them. Howard tells Michelle that she can’t leave because the country has been decimated… by something. The apocalypse is here, but they’re all safe as long as they don’t go topside.

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In his feature film debut, director Dan Trachtenberg has crafted a taut, enjoyable little thriller. 10 Cloverfield Lane is set primarily in a small underground bunker and Trachtenberg uses the location to its fullest potential. His camerawork is interesting, but never splashy. He finds ways of framing his restrictive set and cast of three in ways that don’t distract, but are never dull. He subtly builds clever visual clues into his film that all end up paying off by the climax. Trachtenberg’s a neophyte, but he shows such great potential that I look forward to his next project.

His top notch cast certainly helps. Winstead does exemplary work as film lead Michelle. She plays the character almost perfectly for this genre. She’s vulnerable, but has mettle to spare. Goodman steals the film as Howard, Michelle’s captor (savior? both?). Goodman is always a likable presence and Trachtenberg uses this to keep viewers guessing about his true intentions. Gallagher is given the thankless role of Emmitt, who is so amiable that he ultimately ends up undercutting some of the film’s tension. The character’s only real purpose seems to be to provide Michelle with a friend to talk to.

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10 Cloverfield Lane is a contained, relatively quiet film until a late third act shift. The change feels like an unnecessary studio-mandated addition, like the executives decided not to trust the audience. Though tonally jarring, it mostly works. That’s because by now, we’re completely invested in the two lead characters.

Coming in at just under two hours, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a fun little ride and definitely worth a watch.

RATING: Theater

He SAID: The Force Awakens

Scott F. Evans

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan. The original film way back in 1977 stoked my interest in both science fiction and cinema. I grew up with the franchise. The second film, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is a much more mature entry than the first. It has a darker tone that’s almost chilling in some scenes. Unfortunately by the third film, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, creator George Lucas was clearly becoming more influenced by merchandising than by story. Half of the film is pretty good, but you can see the infantilism, creeping to the surface.

Then came the prequels, all of them written and directed by Lucas himself. These three disappointing releases, beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, followed up in 2002 with Attack of the Clones and finally ending with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, are almost textbook examples on how to destroy a popular series. Each entry was poorly written, barely directed and overly concerned with FX technology. Lucas got three strikes and I was done with Star Wars.

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When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and announced a new sequel coming in 2015, I was underwhelmed. Between the prequels and constant barrage of kiddie cartoons, my interest in the franchise had waned. Star Wars was still one of my favorite films, but I’d been burned too many times by this property. So I maintained a healthy skepticism. J.J. Abrams being hired to direct didn’t help to assuage my apathy either. Abrams is an adequate director, but after rebooting the Star Trek franchise with wildly uneven results, he seemed an uninspired choice. He wasn’t bringing along his usual cadre of screenwriter collaborators so that was a positive, but I remained fairly indifferent. I was of course going to give the movie a fair watch. I am a professional after all. But it was going to take a lot to win me back to this series.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment. As an apology/course correction from the prequel trilogy, it’s brilliant. As a sequel to Return of the Jedi it’s a definite improvement. On its own, it’s no game changer. That moment passed thirty-eight years ago. Star Wars was the only thing of its kind back in ’77. In 2015, The Force Awakens has to compete with its own offspring. Every superhero film, and action oriented sci-fi/fantasy flick owes its existence to Star Wars. So after almost four decades of larger than life heroes, incredible creatures, and amazing technology, there’s nothing new here. However, it is a good film that works on nearly every level.

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I may be lukewarm on Abrams as a director, but he brings some badly needed elements back to this series and introduces a visual freshness sorely needed for the aging property. First and foremost, he and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt bring some genuine humor to the film. Not the cheap, juvenile humor based on slapstick and casual racism introduced in Menace, and not the forced comic moments in both Clones and Sith. The lighter moments here grow organically from character interactions and dialogue.  Abrams was also unafraid to inject a vital dose of maturity into the mix and he pulls it off with assurance. There’s real poignancy here. He’s willing to put his characters through emotional wringers. To be fair, Lucas tried, but it came off unauthentic and contrived.

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Visually, Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel nail it. These two are frequent collaborators and it shows. They bring modern cinematic language to The Force Awakens. Abrams likes to move his camera, but not so much that it disconnects this film from its predecessors. Thankfully, the intrusive handheld work and lens flares are not present. Unfortunately, Abrams still tends to edit his scenes too quickly. There are several beautiful shots here that deserved longer takes that end up looking like cutaways.

The Force Awakens main strength is with its casting. The old crew is (mostly) back. Carrie Fisher, reprising her role as Princess Leia, is ok, but looks a little bored. To her credit though, she’s not given much to do beyond stare at screens and give pep talks. Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo and he gives one of his best performances in recent years. He’s present and seems enthusiastic, like he’s genuinely glad to be back. But our three newcomers really carry this film. Adam Driver stars as Kylo Ren and although he’s styled similar to the classic villain Darth Vader, that’s where the similarities end. Driver infuses Ren with a faux swagger that recalls Vader but hides immaturity and a deep seated petulance. John Boyega shines as Finn, the heart and soul of the movie. Boyega’s having a ball here. He dives fully into the character. Sometimes the script takes Finn to the brink of being the standard black comic relief character, but pivots just before crossing that line. Instead, they give him agency and he’s an essential character. But newcomer Daisy Ridley owns this movie. She’s perfect as the defacto lead Rey, giving the character more energy and spirit than any other female lead in this series. She’s definitely molded after the original trilogy’s Leia but is far more active and miles ahead of the drab Princess Amidala of the prequels.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It satisfies older viewers by resuscitating many of the elements we fell in love with from the originals, while not completely alienating the youthful fans of the prequels. It hits straight down the middle by being neither too adult or too childish. I was skeptical of Abrams, but he brought me back. It didn’t make me feel like a kid again, and I’m glad for that. I’ve passed that time in my life. But it did entertain me as an adult and former die-hard fan. I’m looking forward to the next one.

RATING: Need I even say it? Theater.

He SAID: There’s a new (Super) Girl in Town…

Christopher M. Enis
Unless you’ve been living in a galaxy far, far away, it’s been impossible to miss that the Geeks have inherited the Earth (well, Hollywood and Television. Same difference).  These days, you can’t swing a Streaky The Super Cat  in any direction, without hitting a Superhero movie and/or television series. Despite this, there hasn’t been many with a lead female character (ABC’s Agent Carter and The CW’s iZombie are the notable exceptions).  But as we close 2015, change is on the horizon… and her name is Supergirl.
The first episode of CBS’ Supergirl aired on CBS. Even with its typically older viewership, the series might be right at home at a network with a long history of female-empowered storylines (Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Alice and, more recently, The Good Wife & Madam Secretary).
Based on the DC Comics character (created in 1959 by Otto Binder and Al Plastin43d4f1c7352b0e244413e1f916af6075o), Supergirl is Kara Zor-El a.k.a. Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist). She and cousin Kal-El (Superman) were the last survivors of the doomed planet Krypton.  Kara and Kal were sent on their way in separate rockets to Earth, but a cosmic mishap literally changed the course of both of their lives.
In a stunt casting move that only nerds will appreciate, once Kara finally makes it to earth she is taken in by Eliza and Jeremiah Danvers… who are none other than former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain. Kara begins her life on Earth like any country girl who e39b3d6b58850791165a9aace73184d5ends up working in the big city… under a painful interpretation of The Devil Wear Prada’s chief villian, played by Calista Flockhart. Shall we just pretend that she doesn’t resemble husband Harrison Ford’s frozen facade circa Return of the Jedi about the eyes and face? Yes? Okay. I kept sitting there waiting for her face to move into some sort of … expression. Alas, nothing. But we’re pretending not to notice! Back to the story…
Kara may be the second most powerful person on the planet but there seems to be more than a few reasons why she’s decided to hide out and pretend to be ‘normal.’ An unexpected emergency causes her to shed her doubts, and go up up and away… fueled by all the Girl Power cliches that CBS can muster in a single episode. It’s alma7a35b1f367bf382057e436bb3fd8e0aost too much. But I get it. So even though the story so far is full of plot holes large enough to drive a semi through, it’s all for the good of the Girl Power. Supergirl doesn’t exist to add to the deep, dramatic angst that is the norm for most of the superhero series/movies. It’s meant to show that ‘anything you can do I can do better’ for the real life up and coming SuperGirls of our time. The male characters on the show take a back seat in the first episode (I’m working to ignore the fact that Jimmy Olsen is way too damn old), and there’s a pretty good chance their supporting status won’t change much as the show progresses.

The best thing about Supergirl is likely Supergirl herself. Benoist is on point in a star-making role.  She makes Kara likeable, believable and worthy of rooting for. She is a breath of fresh air in a superhero universe dominated by men… not to mention the vanguard of a number of series/movies with women in prominent roles (Jessica Jones on Netflix, the Wasp in the upcoming Ant-Man sequel, and Wonder Woman in Batman vs Superman).  d18efb7dc9cd33986220dac9bf30a556Supergirl is a great and long overdue start to the Superhero Ladies Revolution, and she should soar for years to come.