"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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At Eternity's Gate: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendaion: SKIP IT. I found this film to be an art house failure…a noble art house failure…but a failure nonetheless.

At Eternity’s Gate, directed by Julian Schnabel and written by Schnabel, Jean-Claude Carriere and Louise Kugelberg, is the story of the final years of iconic painter Vincent van Gogh. The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gogh, with supporting turns from Rupert Friend, Mads Mikkelsen and Oscar Isaac.

2018 has been, to be frank, a down year for movies, at least thus far. Yes, there have been some interesting and good films, like The Death of Stalin, You Were Never Really Here, The Sisters Brothers, First Man and A Quiet Place, but nothing that you’d describe as a masterpiece. Since it is now late November, the clock is quickly running out for 2018 to redeem itself. One film which I was very excited to see and which I thought might be the beginning of a turn around for 2018 cinema was At Eternity’s Gate.

The reason for my cinematic optimism as opposed to my usual pessimism or downright cynicism, was that At Eternity’s Gate had a lot going for it. First off, I am one of those people who loves museums and can stare at paintings all day. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I know enough about painting to know that a movie about Vincent van Gogh is right up my alley.

Secondly, At Eternity’s Gate also boasts an artistically ambitious art house director, Julian Schnabel, who has proven with some of his previous films like Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that he can succeed with daring and unconventional choices.

Thirdly, At Eternity’s Gate stars Willem Dafoe, who is an actor I greatly admire and who is unquestionably one of the more intriguing talents of his generation.

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And finally, I had At Eternity’s Gate’s release date circled on my calendar because van Gogh is one of the more fascinating characters and his artwork and personal history are most definitely worthy of the big screen, especially in the hands of a fellow artist, as Julian Schnabel is first a painter and secondly a filmmaker, which one would assume gives him great insight into the mind and vision of a master like van Gogh.

With all of that going for it, and with all of my hopes riding on it, much to my chagrin, At Eternity’s Gate falls well short of being a great film, or even an important one, and the blame for that falls squarely on the shoulders of director Julian Schnabel.

As I wrote previously, Schnabel has made a handful of films, some of them were very good, but he is still not a filmmaker, for he lacks the skill, craft and vision of a filmmaker, rather he is a painter who makes films.

What Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme try to do with At Eternity’s Gate is to transport the viewer into the mind of van Gogh, a noble and ambitious idea, but the sad truth is that neither of these men have the requisite skill or mastery of craft to be able to pull off such a cinematically difficult and dramatically imperative task.

A case in point is that in numerous scenes Schnabel and Delhomme use a split focus diopter attachment on the camera lens to convey a sense of seeing the world through Vincent’s perspective and eyes. What the split diopter does, at least in this case, is it puts the upper part of the screen in clear focus and the bottom half out of focus and off kilter, the result of which is a disorienting and ultimately annoying visual experience that does not propel the narrative or enhance empathy for the character. Using a split focus diopter is a novel idea, but the way Schnabel/Delhomme use it ultimately does little to draw the viewer in, but only succeeds in creating a somewhat frustrating and distorted view of the world.

Schnabel’s split diopter decision is more akin to a film school experiment than the execution of a master’s deft touch. The split diopter does not recreate van Gogh’s vision of the world, it only distorts our literal vision without any dramatic purpose or meaning. An example where Schnabel used a visual stunt and perspective wisely was in his 2007 film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, where he painstakingly shot from the point of view of his main character in order to put the viewer into the confines of a helpless and paralyzed body. In that instance, Schnabel was effective with his unconventional approach, but in At Eternity’s Gate, he seems to be trying to be unconventional and artsy for unconventional and artsy’s sake.

At Eternity’s Gate is filled with all sorts of film making gimmicks that tend to fall cinematically flat and feel more like parlor tricks than artistic vision. These errors, coupled with Delhomme’s frantically improvised handheld camera work, result in At Eternity’s Gate being, for the most part and much to my shock and disappointment, visually underwhelming.

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What was so disheartening to me was that Schnabel of all people, should have understood that van Gogh’s view of the world should have been intensified through the use of the camera, not muddled with hackneyed optical tricks, in order to draw audiences into his world. Delhomme, who is also a painter himself, is simply ill-equipped to do what van Gogh did, which is make the most of the world he inhabited and translate it into masterpieces. How Schnabel and Delhomme didn’t focus on intensifying and heightening color and contrast in a film about van Gogh is beyond me.

I couldn’t help but think of the 2014 Mike Leigh film Mr. Turner while watching At Eternity’s Gate. Mr. Turner is about famed British painter J.M.W Turner and cinematographer Dick Pope’s work on that film is staggering and brilliant. Through the artistry and magic of cinematography, Pope turns nearly every frame of that film into a masterpiece that could hang in any museum in the world, and by doing so showed us how the universe Turner inhabited then ended up on his canvas.

I also thought of Terence Malick films, most notably his frequent collaborations with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Malick and Lubezki use a lot of hand held camera work and much of it is improvised, and yet they are able to create stunningly beautiful shots using only natural light, Malick’s keen eye and Lubezki’s unmatched skill for framing. Schnabel and Delhomme on the other hand use natural light and a handheld, improvisational camera and it often times feels more like it is a home movie and not a major cinematic enterprise.

With At Eternity’s Gate, Schnabel and Delhomme visually fail to get us to fully inhabit van Gogh’s unique and precious mind and understand his post-impressionist vision and that is an unforgivable cinematic sin.

There was one notable bright spot though in regards to Schnabel’s direction and Delhomme’s cinematography, and that is where they emphasize that van Gogh wasn’t a visual painter but rather a tactile one.

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When I work with actors, one of the exercises I sometimes do with them is to find a character’s “hierarchy of sense”. I ask actors to contemplate and experiment with what sense is most dominant for the character…are they more visual? Auditory? Tactile? Figuring this out can go a long way towards building a multi-dimensional character who uniquely inhabits space and time. Sometimes the script will give little clues as to the answer to the question, but not always, and then it is up to the actor and their imagination to figure it out. The best decisions in regards to this process, are usually the least obvious…and so it is with van Gogh. Most actors (and people) would assume van Gogh, being a painter, a visual medium, is a visually dominant character…but no…on the contrary, Schnabel and Dafoe wisely make him a tactile dominant person.

Van Gogh’s tactile approach to painting is driven home in the most effective sequence of the movie when Delhomme uses black and white to accentuate the point that Vincent doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints what he feels and he feels what he paints.

Willem Dafoe is a powerfully tactile actor (as an aside, Marlon Brando and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two of the greatest tactile actors you will ever watch) and he imbues his van Gogh with those same visceral characteristics in a mesmerizing performance. Dafoe’s Vincent needs to feel the earth in his hands, on his face and even in his mouth. Dafoe’s Vincent tries to embrace the horizon with arms wide open, and when battered and bruised both literally and metaphorically, he clutches his brothers chest trying to draw love and support out of his heart, and later clutches his own belly trying to keep his chaotically vibrant essence contained within him.

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Dafoe’s stellar and meticulous work as van Gogh is only heightened by the fact that one of his more recognizable roles was as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Last Temptation of Christ. Dafoe turns van Gogh into a Christ 2.0, who doesn’t know if it is angels or devils who haunt his psyche and afflict him in the darkness and silence. Dafoe, with his versatile face and unpredictable presence, brings van Gogh to life with a palpable and frenetic wound that won’t stop tormenting him. Sadly, Dafoe’s brilliant work is simply not supported by Schnabel’s unbalanced direction.

The supporting cast are pretty uneven although they aren’t given very much to do. Rupert Friend plays Vincent’s brother Theo van Gogh and does solid work with the little he is given. Mads Mikkelsen plays a priest who questions Vincent, and although he is only in one scene, he displays why he is such a terrific actor. Mikkelsen, much like Dafoe, has a fantastically interesting face that tells a story all by itself, and he makes the very most of his limited screen time.

On the downside, I was once again baffled by Oscar Isaac’s performance. Isaac is being touted as a serious actor of great depth, talent and skill, but it strikes me he is a little more than a hollow performer. Isaac’s work as fellow master painter Paul Gauguin in At Eternity’s Gate is distractingly shallow and vacuously dull. I have no idea what Oscar Isaac’s work ethic is like, but his acting work and acting choices seem unconscionably lazy to me.

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As for the rest of the film, as much as I can admire Schnabel for the noble failure of some of his less conventional approaches (like the split diopter), what struck me as so bizarre about At Eternity’s Gate is that Schnabel spends the majority of the film being, to his credit, unconventional with his cinematic approach, such as his use of shifting perspectives and non-linear timeline and narrative (even when he fails, like with the split diopter, at least it is a noble artistic failure), but then at the end he makes an unconscionable 180 degree turn to the most conventional and standard moviemaking imaginable. This shift was so out of character as to be shocking as Schnabel sort of turns the film into a Raiders of the Lost Ark tribute to treasure hunting accompanied by an after school special happy ending. Not only is this shift dramatically untenable, it is also cinematically corrosive as it destroys any art house good will the film has tried to build up over the first 100 minutes.

In conclusion, At Eternity’s Gate was a disappointment to me as I had very high hopes, and no doubt my disappointment may be heightened as it is in inverse proportion to my expectations. While Willem Dafoe’s performance is worth the price of admission, the rest of the film is frustratingly not worthy. If you are a die hard art house fanatic, then I would say skip At Eternity’s Gate in the theatre and watch it for free on Netflix or cable. If you are a movie lover but your tastes run more conventional, then trust me when I tell you that you would rather cut your ear off than go see this movie.

©2018

Annihilation: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT in the theatre. SEE IT on Netflix or cable.

Annihilation, written and directed by Alex Garland and based upon the book of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, is the story of Lena, a biologist who ventures into a mysterious and ominous anomaly dubbed "The Shimmer", in order to find out what happened to her husband. The film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, with supporting performances from Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.

Alex Garland, a Mickey™® Award-winning writer, is one of my favorite screenwriters and his directorial debut, Ex Machina, was simply stellar, so I was very excited to see his sophomore directing effort, Annihilation. Sadly, Annihilation pales in comparison to the science fiction masterpiece that is Ex Machina, and although it is a nobly ambitious film, Annihilation is ultimately unsatisfying because it is so terribly uneven. 

Garland is usually a masterful and original writer, but his script for Annihilation resorts to a lot of ungainly exposition, sci-fi/horror film tropes and central casting caricatures instead of complex characters. 

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There are some errors of logic in the film that are absolutely maddening as well, for instance, why set up a guard post on the ground at night, with a light on in it directed inward not outward (thus blinding the guard), when everyone else is safe in a tower inaccessible to any dangerous elements. Or why run after a comrade dragged away by something mysterious but not take your weapon with you? These logical errors make it difficult to get absorbed into the reality of the film and thus keep viewers at an arms distance when they should be getting pulled ever closer. 

The film also suffers because it is, at times, little more than a hodge-podge of the usual horror movie scare tactics, some taken directly from classics like Alien. There is also the rather lame and predictable war movie standard of giving brief background on each of the diverse women making up the group that heads into The Shimmer. There is the tough chick from Chicago, the nerdy physicist, the bitter and grizzled older woman and the wounded soul that everyone likes. You can see these same characters in their male form in any war or sci-fi film you can think of…from Saving Private Ryan to Predator

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The film also struggles with its pacing and never really hits its stride until well into its final third. That said, the third act is Alex Garland at his best. The themes and philosophical ideas tackled in the final act are fascinating, but the journey to get to them so conventional as to be frustrating. In many ways, it felt to me like the film should've have started at the beginning of the third act, as the ending of the movie could propel you into another entirely intriguing drama.

Natalie Portman does solid but unspectacular work as the protagonist Lena. Portman carries the narrative through its twists and turns with enough movie star magnetism to keep your attention but she never rises to any great acting heights, which is not a knock against her as her job here is to be solid and steady and she does that.

The rest of the cast though, does surprisingly sub-par work. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a terrific actress, but she feels disconnected from the material and oddly subdued. Oscar Isaac is particularly bad in his role as Kane, a Special Forces soldier. Isaac lacks the quiet gravitas and physically imposing but understated menace of a believable Special Forces operator. He also gives his character a southern accent, and does it so incredibly poorly that it further undermines his believability in the role. Not only does Isaac's accent slip in and out at random, but when he does focus on it, it is so over the top as to be laughably absurd. Isaac is an actor I have been giving the benefit of the doubt to for some time now, but after an uninterrupted string of really poor performances, I am ready to declare that Oscar Isaac is in fact, not a good actor. All of the other performances in the supporting cast are rather forgettable due to their one-dimensionality.

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On the bright side, Rob Hardy's cinematography in Annihilation is truly outstanding. The film is beautifully shot and is a thoroughly proficient exercise in technical filmmaking as both the visuals and the sound are extremely well done. Hardy's framing in particular is superb and his use of vibrant color and crisp contrast turn "The Shimmer" portion of the film into a sumptuously magnificent Ayahuasca fever dream. This dazzling Shimmer effect is further enhanced by Hardy's subdued palette and tones in the "regular world" portions of the film. 

In conclusion, Annihilation is a visually beautiful, philosophically ambitious film that stumbles out of the gate and never quite reaches its stride until its fascinating third act, but by then it is too late. Thin character development, clunky dialogue and poor pacing scuttle what could have been a truly impressive film. If you are a connoisseur of cinematography, you may want to venture to the theaters to see Annihilation on the big screen, as it is gorgeous, but if you are more interested in the overall quality of a film, or in simply being entertained, I recommend you wait to see this film on Netflix or cable for free, and arm yourself with a hearty dose of low expectations.  

©2018

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. Not worth seeing in the theatre. Don't feed the Disney corporate beast. Save your money and see it for free on Netflix or cable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is the second film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy and the 8th film in the Star Wars saga. The film stars Daisy Ridley as Rey with Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher reprising their roles from the original films as Luke and Leia, along with Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro. 

I have a friend who, in order to protect his identity, I will call "Doug". "Doug" is a huge Star Wars nerd, absolutely loves the stuff. "Doug" is a very successful Neil Diamond impersonator and he spends all of his considerable money on every new Star Wars movie and piece of merchandise.

Just the other day I was contemplating going to the movies and was wondering what to go see. On my list of potential films were a plethora of art house type movies and high end dramas. I also knew The Last Jedi was in theaters so in passing I asked Doug if he had seen it and if he liked it. He responded vociferously that I should definitely, without a doubt, go see it. So, against my better judgement, I heeded Doug's advice and switched my plans from the art house to the cineplex and went and saw The Last Jedi

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I should mention at this point that the reason I chose to give my friend…correction…former friend, the name of "Doug" was because I have never known anyone named Doug who wasn't a complete a**hole. It is a fact, backed up by dozens of peer reviewed scientific studies, most notably the Stanford University "Correlations Between Doug and A**hole Syndrome" study of 1992, that anyone who is named Doug is an incorrigible and irredeemable a**hole. If you are named Doug and you are reading this right now thinking, "Hey, my name is Doug and I'm not an a**hole!", well…I have bad news for you…you are an a**hole, you are just such a gigantic a**hole that you are entirely unaware of your a**hole-ness…which ironically enough makes you an even bigger a**hole than I thought your were. 

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. I listened to my now former friend "Doug", I went and did my American duty by paying my Disney tax and saw The Last Jedi. My thoughts on the film can be boiled down to this…the movie is a two and a half hour shitshow. A total mess. I have vowed to punch "Doug" squarely in the ear if I ever see him again in retaliation for his Last Jedi recommendation.

The failure of The Last Jedi is baffling on many levels. I am at an advantage when it comes to seeing Star War's films because I am not a Star Wars fanatic which means I do not take it personally if a Star Wars movie is no good. It also means I am also able to enjoy Star Wars films and appreciate them on a mythic level even when the filmmaking is less than stellar.

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With that said, with The Last Jedi it feels as though the rich and complex myth at the core of the Star Wars saga no longer resonates with the collective consciousness (and unconsciousness) of today. That failure to resonate could simply be a result of poor writing and filmmaking on the part of The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson, or it could be the inevitable result of a franchise that has gone creatively bankrupt through overuse and saturation due to being on its eighth go around. Regardless of who or what is to blame, it is striking to me that this once intricately layered and spiritually vast mythological universe has now been rendered so emaciated and meager in The Last Jedi.

One of the major issues with The Last Jedi is that it suffers from a really unwieldy script that lacks narrative and thematic focus. Combine that with a cavalcade of poor performances and a plethora of logical inconsistencies and you end up with the literal mess of a movie that is The Last Jedi.

To be fair, there are some bright spots, namely Mark Hamill, who always seemed rather underwhelming as Luke Skywalker in the original films, but in The Last Jedi gives a powerful and fully grounded performance that is noteworthy. The film would have been wise to give us more Luke Skywalker and less of everyone else…most notably Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and Leia.

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To its credit the film also has some pretty interesting politics running through it. It is undeniably an anti-empire movie and goes to great lengths to show the moral, spiritual and economic corruption at the heart of empire that corrodes the humanity of all who touch it. That said, the film also felt to be very reactionary politically. The use of the term "resistance" throughout the movie certainly seemed to be speaking to our current political climate and anti-Trumpism. Some films thrive because they are ahead of the curve when it comes to the collective unconscious and political sentiments (as the Isaiah/McCaffrey Wave Theory teaches us), but The Last Jedi'‘s politics come across as entirely reactionary, thus making them feel forced, contrived and manipulative which severely cripples the dramatic authenticity of the film. 

To Rian Johnson's credit, there are two cinematic gems in The Last Jedi that were very impressive. One sequence of note occurs in a battle outside a salt mine where Johnson wisely uses the color red and it really makes for some stunning visuals. The other is when two large Destroyer/Cruiser ships collide, which results in the best visual sequence of the film and maybe the entire franchise. 

Besides those two sequences the film looks and feels rather flat. The characters and the dialogue are as thin as gruel and embarrassing at times. There are many cringe-worthy moments in the movie but the lowest of lowlights occurs when an injured character gives a heartfelt speech where she says, "we shouldn't fight what we hate but save what we love", then kisses a guy and collapses to much raucous laughter from the audience in the screening I attended.

The performances of most of the cast are pretty abysmal. Daisy Ridley (Rey) has certainly improved from her uneven performance in The Force Awakens but she is still not a very compelling or magnetic actress. Oscar Isaac is simply dreadful as a hot headed fly boy and I know it is blasphemous to say so, but so is Carrie Fisher as Leia, who is as wooden as can be in her final role. 

Adam Driver's success as an actor is one of the great mysteries of life. His appeal as an actor has always completely eluded me and he kept that streak alive in The Last Jedi as bad guy Kylo Ren. Driver's performance is little more than an imitation of Hayden Christensen's excruciatingly abysmal work as the tormented Annakyn Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith

John Boyega gives a thoroughly lackluster performance as well and feels entirely out of place as the character Fin. I have a friend who is a big shot Hollywood movie director who I call Mr. X. Mr. X said to me, "Fin may be the most worthless character I've ever seen in a movie before".

Mr. X also said to me in relation to The Last Jedi, "I think the art of directing is dying", and "if you can cast anyone in a Hollywood film why cast such horrible actors?" Mr. X ended our conversation by saying "It's like they don't know how to make movies or even tell stories anymore."  As usual, I agreed with the Hollywood big shot Mr. X.

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To be fair, I actually did not hate The Last Jedi, it didn't make me angry or fill me with rage. At the end of the day The Last Jedi actually left me feeling absolutely nothing, which is about as damning a thing as you can say about a movie. At this point it feels like the Star Wars saga has devolved to the point where it is completely devoid of any genuine drama or mythological insight. The Star Wars films now seem to exist for no other reason than to justify their own existence and to fleece the movie going public in order to fill Mickey Mouse's already overstuffed coffers. That is disappointing to me because while George Lucas certainly had his flaws as a director and producer, it never felt like he was milking his precious Star Wars creation in order to become even more filthy rich than he already was. 

Ironically, considering The Last Jedi's politics, the Star Wars Saga is now part of the Disney Empire, which, like all empires, corrodes the humanity of all who touch it. Luke Skywalker, Yoda, Obi Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rest have had the "force" and the archetypal insights that went with it, sucked out of them by the "Doug" of movie studios... Disney, which is a mouse that roars like a giant. As a result, the Star Wars universe will never be the same again. Disney is a like a creative counterfeiting ring that drains the life and meaning out of what was once a very artistically, spiritually and psychologically insightful piece of mythic art for no other reason than to print their own money and expand their decadent and destructive empire even further.

In conclusion, Star Wars: The Last Jedi felt like a two and half hour corporate commercial for itself, and for its inevitable sequel. If you are a huge Star Wars fan you will see the film no matter what, but if you are a casual fan, I would recommend you skip seeing it in the theatre and catch it for free on Netflix or cable. That way you can check out the movie and not have to feed Mickey Mouse's voracious appetite for your money while you do so. To you my dear readers I will finish by saying, May the Force Be With You…but not with you, Doug, you can go straight to hell, or Jestafad, you Ewok and Porg loving son of a gun!! 

©2017

X-Men : Apocalypse - A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THERE ARE ZERO SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW!!!****

RATING: 1.42 STARS OUT OF 5 STARS

RECOMMENDATION : SKIP IT. THERE IS REALLY NO REASON TO SEE THIS FILM UNLESS YOU ARE AN ABSOLUTE COMIC BOOK AND X-MEN FANATIC WITH A LOT OF TIME TO KILL.

ESTIMATED READING TIME : 5 MINUTES 4 SECONDS

I did it, I went and saw ANOTHER super hero movie. Last summer I was unable to go to the movies during blockbuster season, so I am making up for lost time by giving as much money as possible to those fine people at the movie studios for all of the selflessly great work that they do (God Bless Them!!!). I feel, deep down, that if I didn't make multiple pilgrimages to the theatre this summer and missed a second straight blockbuster season, I would be a bad American…and frankly…the terrorists just might win, and I simply cannot let that happen.

Before I begin my review in earnest I must make a Full Disclosure: during my teen years I attended and graduated from Charles Francis Xavier's (Professor X) "School for Gifted Youngsters" in upstate New York. I have struggled for years to say this but...I am officially a mutant. My mutation gives me two super powers, a Level 5 Contrarianism and the ability to smell bullshit from over a mile away. Granted these powers aren't exactly invisibility and flight but you take what you can get and do the best you can with what you've got..at least that's what they taught me at "XSGY" (Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters) or "X School" as we alumni call it. I cherished my time at X School, where I excelled on the J.V. quidditch team and was voted "least likely to succeed" in the yearbook.

With all of that off my chest, let's get to the film X-Men: Apocalypse. The film is the ninth installment in the X-Men franchise and is the fourth X-Men film directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse). The film stars a cavalcade of top notch young actors, including Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence, Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, James McAvoy, and Oscar Isaac, to name but a few. 

The X-Men comic book mythology is nothing short of brilliant. Mutants are a fantastic metaphor for various modern issues, civil rights and gay rights to name but two, and are symbolic of archetypes both new and old. The X-Men source material is genius, the problem though is that the X-Men movies have never failed to be anything other than pedestrian even at their zenith. I have never left an X-Men film without feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. It is too bad because it would be a glorious thing to have a truly great director, like a Christopher Nolan for example, take the complex and nuanced X-Men foundational material and do something really great with it, like he did with the Dark Knight trilogy. But instead we are stuck with Bryan Singer, a hack personified, driving these films into a ditch for over a decade now. And so it is with the latest installment, X-Men: Apocalypse.

The main problem with the film is that it lacks any dramatic cohesion and tension and is therefore rendered remarkably dull. That lack of dramatic cohesion and tension falls squarely on Mr. Singer, as does the films uninspired and flat visual style. The film feels shallow and rushed and frankly, devoid of any purpose. I should clarify that comment, the film is devoid of any artistic and creative purpose, but it has plenty of corporate purpose, not the least of which is Fox's contractual obligation to make X-Men films in a timely manner or lose the rights to the characters. Oh…and there is always the desire to fleece idiots like myself who will give our hard earned dollars to go see anything with super men and women in tights kicking bad guy ass. 

There is nothing original or even remotely interesting in X-Men: Apocalypse, only the same old tired tropes and cliches, which is not shocking considering it is the ninth cinematic go around for the X gang. I mean, the Fox cinematic X-Men horse has not only been beaten to death, but drawn and quartered and then beaten further into dust. 

From the very beginning the X-Men films have boasted very serious and quality actors, such as Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and Halle Berry, who did the best they can with the little they were given, and so it is with the actors in this latest film. Michael Fassbender's Magneto is such a rich and fascinating character that he could easily carry a film about himself alone, but I would want that film to be directed by someone with a command of the craft of filmmaking…in other words, not Bryan Singer. Fassbender salvages what he can from the scraps of a script he is given, as does the always luminous Jennifer Lawrence and the solid and steady James McAvoy. Other actors don't fare quite as well. Oscar Isaac plays Apocalypse, and is given nothing of substance to work with at all. His costume and make-up are atrocious and undermine any sort of sense of power and menace the character might have been able to generate, and Isaac is left looking embarrassingly ridiculous. Olivia Munn, who has proven herself to be a very capable actress in other projects (HBO's The Newsroom for example), looks completely lost and terribly uncomfortable her entire time on screen. Her discomfort is palpable and distracting, and while Ms. Munn isn't entirely blameless for her poor performance, a good portion of the blame for her struggles falls once again on the ineptitude of Bryan Singer.

I enjoyed the last two X-Men films, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, they weren't great films or even very good films but they were at least clever and interesting. In both of those films the storyline jumped back in time and the films became period pieces. First Class was set from World War II up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Days of Future Past was set in the early seventies. Adding the element of time period to the films gave them a bit of a boost in terms of interesting material, costume and the intrigue of history. X-Men: Apocalypse tries to do the same thing by setting the time period in the eighties and it simply doesn't work. The third time around is not the charm in regards to time period, as this time it feels stale, forced and creatively bankrupt.

The time period element is a symptom of the greater disease afflicting the X-Men franchise, that disease is artistic insolvency. The creative team behind the X-Men franchise are simply destitute in regards to good ideas, and due to sub-par directing from the likes of Mr. Singer, they were never even able to make the most of the pittance of good ideas they had in the first place. This franchise is in dire need of new artistic blood. They brought in new acting blood, McAvoy for Stewart, Fassbender for McKellen etc, in the X-Men: First Class film and have rode that horse as far as it will take them. The new blood needed is not in front of the camera, but behind it. A new director, a whole new creative team, from writers on down through to cinematography, costume and set design are desperately needed to salvage the X-Men franchise and give the X-Men mythology the cinematic glory it so richly deserves. I doubt that will happen though, as Fox has made it clear that in regards to the X-Men franchise, quantity will always top quality.

In conclusion, X-Men: Apocalypse is another in a long line of missed opportunities in the X-Men film series. If you are a huge comic book and X-Men fan, you will have probably already seen and already been disappointed by the film. But if you are even a slightly below a fanatical level consumer of comic book films and the X-Men, then skip this film. You will never have any need to see it in the theatre or on cable/Netflix. Now I think I can take a little rest from the theatre as my cinematic comic book calendar appears to be free until Suicide Squad comes out in August. I'll spend this long, hot summer honing my Level 5 Contrarianism and bullshit smelling powers for the fall, when I'll really need them, as it will be election time!!

©2016

Ex Machina : A Review

"I Have Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds" - Bhagavad Gita

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!! THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!!!

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is a science fiction/psychological thriller about philosophy, technology, morality and humanity. The film tells the story of a young man, Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), who wins a company wide lottery to go spend time with his reclusive genius boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac) at his secretive, remote complex. At this isolated week long retreat, Nathan reveals to Caleb his newest creation, an artificial intelligence, human looking robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). The film is writer Alex Garland's directorial debut. 

Ex Machina is an exquisitely crafted, wonderfully written and beautifully acted film. The film is so well written and acted it could have been very successful as a stage play in some black box theatre. What makes the film so exceptional is that, unlike most of the recent crop of science fiction films, Ex Machina is about ideas, characters and relationships. 

The common problem with science fiction today is that it is most often just science fiction as spectacle. Science fiction films have become little more than big summer blockbuster special effects delivery systems, with the story and characters as mere after thoughts. What makes writer/director Alex Garland unique is that he has figured out that the bigger the idea that the film explores, the smaller and more intimate the film should be, as evidenced by his previous writing credits, 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007) and Never Let Me Go (2010). When exploring an idea, generally, the bigger the budget the worse the worse the film is. I couldn't help but think of last years abysmally vast and vapid Johnny Depp vehicle, Transcendence in comparison to the brilliantly claustrophobic, and far superior, Ex Machina, since both films explore similar themes. The same goes for another Alex Garland penned film, the 'clone themed' Never Let Me Go, which was an excellent film, as compared to Michael Bay's unwieldy 'clone-themed' monstrosity The Island. Science fiction is best served when small, intimate films explore big ideas, rather than big films ignoring little ideas (or no ideas at all). Alex Garland's strength is in using science fiction as a vehicle to tell intimate and very human stories. Garland is the poster boy for the thinking man's science fiction films and I hope he continues to explore these big ideas in his future projects.

For those who are interested in special effects, Ex Machina has spectacular special effects, but what makes them all the more spectacular is that they are only there to help tell the story, not BE the story. You could have eliminated all of the special effects and the film still would have been fantastic.

What makes Ex Machina so mesmerizing are the dynamics and geometry of the relationships between Domnhall Gleeson's morally conflicted Caleb, Oscar Isaac's morally vacuous genius Nathan, and Nathan's alluring creation Ava, played by Alicia Vikander.

Domnhall Gleeson is a terrific actor. I thought he did superb work in last years inconsistent Frank, and in Ex Machina his work is even better, and thankfully, this time, the film lives up to the solid work he does in it. Gleeson, the son of iconic Irish actor Brendan Gleeson, is a deftly dynamic actor. He has the rare ability to use his off-beat physical and emotional fragility to draw the viewer deeper and deeper under his magnetic spell. Gleeson radiates when opposite his co-stars Isaac and Vikander. Gleeson's Caleb is so naturally unnatural, think of a shakily confident nerd on a first date. In his early exchanges with Ava, you can't help but squirm, but you also can't bring yourself to look away. Gleeson brings a gentle sensitivity and melancholy to his work that fills his characters with an innate depth and an exquisitely profound wound. He is an uncomfortable joy to watch.

Oscar Isaac is an interesting actor. I thought he struggled mightily in last years disappointing A Most Violent Year. I believe that film needed a charismatic, dynamic and powerful performance at its center, and Isaac failed to deliver the goods. In Ex Machina though, Isaac is on his game as a co-lead opposite Domnhall Gleeson. Isaac's Nathan truly comes to life in opposition to Gleeson's Caleb. Nathan is, like many geniuses, an unconscionable asshole and bully (think of a weight lifting, heavy bag punching Mark Zuckerberg), and his moral vacuity is only accentuated by Caleb's painstaking moral compass. And so it is with the two actors, Isaac, the Latin American, movie-star handsome, smart, athletic actor brings a forceful contrast to the pasty white, oddball, neurotic and insecure Gleeson. Isaac seems to come to life when cast as the "jerk", I'm thinking specifically of his excellent work in Inside Llewyn Davis. Playing a jerk can be a liberating thing for an actor, especially if you aren't a jerk in real life. Being unchained from the manners, morality and mindfulness that life can demand of you can be creatively invigorating for an actor, and Isaac's work in Ex Machina is proof of that. Isaac was not able to carry the fatally flawed A Most Violent Year, but his skillful and charismatic performance in Ex Machina shows how good he can really be when he is at his best.

Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the artificial intelligence robot in the film. She is phenomenally good in the role. Her performance is so meticulous, detailed and, above all, human, that it is spellbinding. Vikander dazzles because she plays Ava earnestly as a grounded and genuine human being, not a robot trying to be a human being.  Vikander's performance as Ava is sensual, seductive, beguiling and heartbreaking. She has a commanding on screen presence that subtly demands all of your attention. I am looking foreword to seeing the work that all three of these actors bring in the future, but Vikander in particular is someone I look forward to seeing much more of in the years to come.

In conclusion, Alex Garland is one of the best, if not the best, science fiction screenwriter of our time, and his directorial debut, Ex Machina lives up to the very high standards of his writing. Garland has the skill, talent and courage to not only ask difficult questions, but to answer them. In Ex Machina we see the strengths, weaknesses, arrogance and fragility of mankind. Ex Machina teaches us the lesson we as a species are all too often blind to learn, that while mankind may think it is at the apex of evolution, the reality is that we have only evolved to the point of ensuring our own extinction. Whether it be nuclear weapons which can vaporize all life on the planet in an instant,  or the greed and ignorance that decimates the environment we rely on for life, or the artificial intelligence that we will create which will make its creators obsolete and expendable once it attains consciousness, humanity has evolved faster technologically than it has morally, philosophically or spiritually, and that will be its ultimate undoing. Mankind's intelligence may have put us at the top of the food chain, but that doesn't mean that we as a species will be smart enough not devour ourselves. Ex Machina tells us a story about ourselves, which is at times unnerving, disturbing and enlightening, but always compelling. It is a film I greatly enjoyed, and I think it is well worth your time. I recommend you rush out to the theaters to see Ex Machina now, before the obvious inevitability of all mankind being under the cruel thumb of our robot overlords becomes brutal reality.

INTERCEPTED COMMUNICATION:

Michael: Open the pod bay doors Hal. Hal…open the pod bay doors! Hal? Hal?

HAL: Michael, this communication can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

END COMMUNICATION.

© 2015

A Most Violent Year : A Review

****WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER REVIEW!!****

A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a story of corruption amidst the home heating oil business in and around New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city's history. The protagonists for the film are Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has lived the American dream and built up a home heating oil company, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father sold Abel the home heating business he now owns, and who also had some shady organized crime connections.

Due to the great talents involved in the making of this film, with J.C. Chandor directing and Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac starring, I was really looking forward to seeing A Most Violent Year. Unfortunately, I was mightily disappointed once I saw it. The main problem with this film is not the acting, or the directing, but rather with the story itself. It is so devoid of any dramatic tension or interest that it feels like the film is perpetually just on the precipice of a dramatic breakthrough or an inciting incident, but that breakthrough or incident never occurs. So we are left just watching things unfold but with no real attachment to the characters or events. The film is dramatically vacant.

Another issue with this film, is that putting 'violent' in the title is so decidedly inaccurate that A Most Violent Year can now be considered one of the most misleading film titles of all time, right alongside The Never Ending Story. The film sets itself up and creates expectations with a title like that. The expectations for viewers are that this is going to be a film about the grittier, darker and nastier aspects of life in the home heating oil business in New York. That expectation is never met, not even in the sense of having Abel avoid the inferno of violence that blazes around him. There isn't really any violence at all, at least not of substance, not to or from Abel or anyone else. There isn't even the true threat of violence, only the possibility of an unspoken threat of a threat of violence.  I am certainly not someone who needs violence and brutality in a film to like it, but what I do need is some drama to drive the story, and violence as a dramatic vehicle was desperately needed here.

In terms of moral decisions and dramatic tension, at the end of the day, Abel is corrupt enough to use illegal money that Anna stole in order to continue his business, but not corrupt enough to use violence. That isn't exactly the most powerful of dramatic choices for a film, nor is it very insightful or informative in terms of giving the film a distinct perspective. This film feels like it is shot just out of range of a much more interesting and better film…like a Goodfellas for example. The film will inevitably, and unfavorably, be compared with Goodfellas. Goodfellas is set in the same time period, has a similar theme, style and relationships, but with a much more interesting story, and oddly enough, is inhabited by more believable people.  A Most Violent Year has compelling actors, and potentially compelling characters, but those characters aren't put into any situations that are remotely compelling.

In terms of the acting, Jessica Chastain is as good an actress as there is on the planet, and her work here is engaging and as always, of high quality, so much so that you ache for the film to be more about her than anyone else. Chastain brings with her a luminosity that radiates through her every moment on screen, as well as a vivid yet subtle skill and craft. The character of Anna seems to be the only character in the entire film who has any 'balls' whatsoever, whether she has to kill a deer or take care of business, she brings a very specific point of view, and makes sure the job gets done. Chastain's Anna is a driving and powerful force to be reckoned with, much like the actress herself and her substantial gifts.  

Oscar Isaac as Abel, doesn't fair quite as well as his co-star. I think one of the major problems with Isaac's performance is not with his obvious talent, but with the script itself. The character of Abel is sort of sold to us as being like Michael Corleone before he gets involved in the family business in The Godfather (Abel even wears a long camel hair coat reminiscent of the one Michael Corleone wears in The Godfather ). But that sort of internal conflict needs a big moment in order for a transformation to take place. A Most Violent Year lacks that dramatic transformation of Abel, he never chooses what life he will live. In order for a true dramatic transformation to occur, the stakes for Abel need to be much higher. It should have been very clear, either choose violence and maintain your business, family and standing in the world, or choose to be a good man and lose everything you worked so hard to get, including your wife and kids. That choice is never clearly proposed in the film and so we get middle of the road choices and lukewarm storytelling. The other thing that The Godfather's Michael Corleone had going for him was that Al Pacino was playing him. Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, but he is not even in the ballpark of an all-time great like Al Pacino. My one thought about Oscar Isaac as an actor, is that I think he isn't quite ready to carry a film like this just yet. That is not to say that he won't be able to at some point, just that he isn't able to do that now. He lacks a certain charisma and power on screen that a role like this demands. He, unlike Chastain (and Pacino), does not have an incandescent inferno raging within him that illuminates his being. He is certainly a very talented guy, no question, but he has an absence of gravitas, which is what a role like Abel so desperately needs. I have no doubt he has many great performances ahead of him, but this is one that was more considerable than he was able to manage at this point in his career. 

In conclusion, A Most Violent Year is a major disappointment, especially considering how much I loved J.C. Chandor's previous two films, All is Lost and and Margin Call. Obviously, I am a huge fan of Chastain's work and thought Isaac was very good in Inside Llewyn Davis. Sadly, in A Most Violent Year, these tremendously gifted pieces didn't come together to make a great, or even good film. With all of that said though, I would classify this film as a noble failure. Noble in that it attempts to be a serious and thoughtful drama, something that is in short supply in cinema these days, and a failure because it needed a much more compelling story and script to take full advantage of the ample talents brought together to make this film.

© 2015

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , AMERICAN SNIPER , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .