The Snowman, Tomas Alfredson’s (Let the Right One In) adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian best-seller of the same name, is an icy cold movie. Frigid to the touch, there is no spark of life to be found in this desolate frozen tundra of a film nor is there anything resembling a mere flicker of intelligence. A detective joint that cannot stand up under the slightest bit of scrutiny, this mindless slog tries to follows in the footsteps of films like Seven or The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, what with its random explosions of grizzly violence and salty procedural backbone, though nothing of that sort ever comes to pass. Instead we’re victim to a mopey, faux-edgy, pseudo-gritty, sulking, snow-blasted post-mortem noir impersonating smarter, sexier, more engaging entries from the often beloved genre. To call it freezing cold garbage is only the icing on this frosty cake of shite. Read More
One thing’s for certain, Alien: Covenant is a Prometheus sequel. Ridley Scott doubles down on the 2012 prequel’s cerebral but ultimately sloppy storytelling, reveling in yet another cast of characters who make stupid decision after stupid decision in a misguided attempt to hoist ideology above character. In essence a film about discovering meaning, Prometheus failed to define its own, collapsing under the weight of its admirable ambition by throwing too much at the screen and having too little stick. By the end of that venture, everything remained a bit of a head-scratcher but Scott, for what it’s worth, attempts to make up for such here in Alien: Covenant. For its faults, Covenant brings the message of this deeply intertwined prequel series into focus here and its irreverent thesis is far darker than we might have anticipated: creation is nasty business. Our makers can be monsters. Gods and Devils are one and the same. Read More
With The Light Between Oceans, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) fancies himself both a ballerina and a first responder. The fine line between drippy sentimentality and earnest adult drama is a tightrope that Cianfrance tip-toes with all the testy bravado of Philippe Petie, loading his screen with moody tableaus of bereaved faces and decadent sealand landscapes. With great finesse, he probes the dour depths of the human spirit, framing a lurid moral no-no within a heartrending saga of romantic turmoil. Bottling the melancholy and adding pathos-laden Mentos until it erupts into a geyser of emotion, he applies the jaws of life to his audience, breaks open the collective chest cavity, steals your heart and tap dances all up on it. Read More
“Everyone knows the third one is always the worst,” a young Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) ironically reports, exiting a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi. She’s right of course: Jedi is the lesser of the original Star Wars trilogy. But to her larger point: the culmination of trilogies often results in some degree of disappointment, sometimes even sullying the good name of that whence came before it. Take Godfather: Part III, The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Revolutions, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, ALIEN3, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Terminator: Rise of the Machines and of course, Brett Ratner’s quite bad X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean’s remark, planted as it is in what is the third film of this newfangled X-Men trilogy, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps both a potshot at Ratner’s derided 2006 entry to the franchise and a preemptive snarky parlay to the film’s inevitable detractors, because believe me when I say, X-Men: Apocalypse proves Jean Grey’s point. Read More
Macbeth, an extremely well-made adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most revered tragedies, boasts inspired cinematography and voracious performances though is unlikely to win over anyone who’s not already a ravenous student of the Bard’s distinctly tricky prose. The film from director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) is Shakespeare for Shakespeare buffs, one that – not unlike The Snowtown Murders – will inevitably shed casual viewers for the sheer indecipherableness of its composition. Read More
A sweetly sour punch of cinematic vitality, Steve Jobs is alive, it’s kinetic and it’s an intellectual kick to the shins. With a soaring foundation in Aaron Sorkin’s lively script, the dramatic biography hums along in real time, deconstructing the mythology of a recently controversial figure, the eponymous Steve Jobs, as he navigates his way to the top of the personal computer heap. From top to bottom, no detail has been spared as Danny Boyle’s signature aesthetic doddlings add a certain touch of magical realism to the affair while Michael Fassbender’s award-worthy central performance grounds the film in a degree of stone-washed, near-robotic cynicism. It’s an odd marriage of misanthropic megalomania and surprisingly salty sentiment that works for almost every minute of its run time. Read More
Michael Fassbender is a welcome addition to any film marque – independent or otherwise. From the jaguar-like way he carries himself to the silky, chop salad baritone of his voice, his dangerous presence is inimitable and essential (even through a paper-machie helmet.) Like the great Western heroes of lore, he saunters on spurs, a meaty cigar never far from his tobacco-stained mouth. He’s a gunslinger even when he’s not armed. In Slow West though, he is. He’s very armed, and deadly cool. Read More
The X-Men franchise has always confronted big themes: tolerance, shame, homosexuality, even genocide. At its greatest hours, the series has relied on ideas of deontological ethics and ideologies of self-worth winning over flashy spectacle – although the vast display of superpowers were always welcome icing on the cake. Even the much derided Last Stand shoulders a message of coming together to defeat a greater enemy – about differences paling under the looming shadow of fascism – but that’s hardly something new to a series that juggles laser sight in with race extermination. Days of Future Past takes its place in the crossroads between bold ideas and blockbuster pageantry and though maybe it’s not the most outright fun X-Men film to date (that honor goes to First Class), it might be the most important.
Days of Future Past starts with a bang. A dazzling cold open sees a new pack of mutants coming to head with the iconic sentinels – giant mutant-killing robots hunting down the last of the surviving supers – and sets the table for the stunning special effects goodies in store. With the sentinels knocking on their door and no international borders or mutant powers strong enough to stop them, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his tattered band of X-Men devise a plan to right the events of the past. Harnessing her ability to travel through stuff, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) sends a battle-weary Wolverine back in time to the 1970s iterations of the characters that we met in First Class.
Charged with stopping the assassination of Boliver Trask, the man responsible for the sentinel project and who’s death was the catalyst for its expansion, Wolverine must get the band back together to change the events of the future and prevent the sentinels from ever getting the green light.
If X-Men was about coming out of the closet, X2 about unity, X3 about fear mongering, and First Class about brotherhood, X:Men Days of Future Past is all about course correction. Can we change the path we’ve been set on? Are people fundamentally good or evil, or does the gray area in between win out every time?
With much more of a centerpiece role than before, the story is essentially a battle for Raven/Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) soul. Not saddled with her ho-hum lines from Matthew Vaughn‘s First Class script and seemingly more dedicated to this all blue role, Lawrence provides depth to a character that’s always been cloaked in mystery, showing off her penchant for ambiguity under the gun. In a movie filled with intriguingly unstable character conviction, hers is the most shaky.
Considering that the characters in the story rarely conform to absolutes, there’s something undefined about who the villain actually is. Surely some might think Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) is the one to single out – and Tywin Lannister won’t forget you did – but he’s really just a scared little man doing the best he sees fit to protect his race against an invading species. If you hold a mirror to Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Trask is but a counterpart, his human alter-ego using full measures to fight the emending species war between homo-sapiens and homo-superior.
If there’s really one enemy in the film, it’s fear. Fear leads us to fight, to kill, to close down borders and look uneasily on our differences. It’s fear that governs the deeds of the villains here, that pollutes their senses and poisons their potential.
As has always been, Professor X champions compassion and acceptance, believing good deeds can cause immutable ripples through time, while Magneto sees the world in two colors: black and white; mutant and human; us versus them. In the midst of the film, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen share a touching moment that really puts the James McAvoy/Michael Fassbender timeline in perspective. “I wish we had spent less time on different sides,” McKellan’s weathered Magneto admits. Stewart just dips his head and you know he feels the same way. In the end, they’re just two outcasts who don’t want to live in fear.
Social commentary is a mainstay of the X-Men franchise and, when done right, is what makes the series more than just a popcorn cruncher. All the issues of the past installments are present and expanded upon in thoughtful brushstrokes now with Singer behind the helm again. Holocaust allusions ripple through the narrative as much as ever before, now joined to themes of drug abuse, free will and destiny. With so many ideas and timelines floating around, the narrative could have easily gotten fuzzy, or worse yet, pretentious but Singer manages to keep the high-minded ideas in check with brilliant displays of blockbuster showmanship.
A scene introducing Quicksilver (Evan Peters), aside from alluding to the fact that he’s probably Magneto’s offspring, provides one of the most innovative set pieces since bullet time and still manages to be stuffed with laughs. It was Singer’s ability to mix comedy in with superheroes and social issues that put X-Men on the map in the first place – and for all intents and purposes, proved that a superhero movie could be excellent – so it’s no surprise that he’s done it here again. 14 years later though, he’s even better at his craft.
For the many Last Stand haters out there, Singer’s own course correction will be much appreciated. With the events of Days of Future Past, he’s scrubbed away the mistakes of Brett Ratner – like rot from an otherwise living patient – and left only the portions that mattered most: Wolverine’s emotional anchor of pain and regret. He’s an evolving character, one we’ve now seen in seven films, and unlike anything else in movie franchise history.
Now present in not one, but two timelines, the question remains: how many more does Hugh Jackman have in him? Although he’s a tremendous dramatic actor (just look to Prisoners for proof of that), so long as the future installments are as great as this, I guess I wouldn’t mind seeing him ride this train until retirement. Especially alongside a cast this bed-wettingly good.
“12 Years a Slave”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson
Biography, Drama, History
12 Years a Slave opens somewhere around a decade into Solomon Northup’s enslavement. He’s mushing blackberries to a paste, attempting to write a letter home using a whittled mulberry stick. Scribbling like a fugitive to the crackle of candlelight, this is the first time he’s put pen to paper in years, and must do so under the cover of night. For all the horrors he’s suffered and witnessed, the most impossible task is keeping his true identity, and intelligence, under wraps. For a learned slave is a troubling slave and a troubling slave is a marked man – a truth he’s seen manifested many times before.
More than a decade gone for something as simple as not being allowed to produce his “free papers,” Solomon’s journey draws empathy from the audience like water from a well. More than just a story of the horrors of slavery, this is the story of a man who knew a better life – he abided the law, owned a house, had a family, and was a respected part of his Saratoga, New York community – and yet, down in the bowels of the hellish South, was stripped of his humanity like tattered clothes from his back.
Director Steve McQueen is a particular type of dark visionary. Employing patience and human degradation as a litmus test of how much we can emotionally bear, McQueen peels back all the curtains of our collective American history, revealing the inky black turmoil stirring in the human soul. But torture is no new game for McQueen.
In his first film, Hunger, McQueen explored a prison-bound hunger strike but his craft was not yet refined, too raw, cold, and indulgent to raise the welt he was hoping for. In Shame, he arm wrestled sex addiction out of romanticized glamor and into a pit of emptiness and human despair. Although fantastic acting and gruesome body horror prevailed, it continued the same dour tendencies that make his films so hard to sit through. In his third go around, he’s perfected his art, making a film that’s both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.
However difficult 12 Years a Slave may be to watch, it’s absolutely necessary watching. It’s long been positioned that it’s our American duty to process, or at least understand, slavery. As a means to sift the political hand of slavery from those participating in it, McQueen demands you to think long and hard about what you would do in a similar situation. Even the good men in this film, such as Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Ford are stained by the cultural pollution manifest in slavery. It may just be impossible to be a moral man in a land drained of morality, McQueen’s film says.
As Solomon adopts his new name and role as Platt, he holds onto hope – however tucked away in a dark corner it must remain; hope that someday he’ll be reunited with his family, hope that one day he’ll meet a white man who wants more for his than a closed mouth and fast working hands, hope for freedom. In a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, Solomon becomes Platt, his days transformed from living to surviving.
Despite the barbarity of Solomon’s unlawful enslavement, the mentality intact in the age is a scourge most difficult to stomach. Packaged in caravans like sardines, sold stripped nude, and man handled at every turn, there is little to distinguish slaves from live stock.
Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a sensational cast that brings Solomon’s true story to the screen with deadly seriousness. As our guardian through this hellish descent, Ejiofor is stunning from start to finish. His decision to play Solomon as a stone gradually pared by the tide of slavery rather than a thistle bending at the first breeze will cement an Oscar nomination. His final heart-rending scene will secure the win. Michael Fassbender is similarly committed to his role as devilish plantation fiend Edwin Epps. Despite his character’s despicable traits, he’s an equally complex man, torn by his own sinful passion for Lupita Nyong’o‘s Patsey. Expect Oscar nominations, if not wins, all around.
Wowing cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) is haunting yet beautiful. Gorgeous waterfront properties impose their menacing statue – demonic in their association with America’s great shame. Captured under Bobbitt’s lens, the land itself takes on a stifling quality. No matter how scenic the willows peppering the plantation are, they always seem to weep – graves of the crushed souls haunting the confederate flag-totting South.
12 Years a Slave will make you want to run the retributive justice of Django Unchained but the sad truth is, this is more fact than fiction. Even when freed, American blacks were paid the respect of subhumans. You want Solomon to strap dynamite to his prison, to rip it down to the studs and burn it but you know that it’s not that type of movie. No, it’s too gravely serious for that, for this is an epitaph to American slaves, penned centuries late.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only one of the most anticipated superhero movies in the foreseeable future, it’s also an experiment in what’s to come for world building cinematic universes. Marvel had hopes that The Avengers would soar financially but even they failed to see just how successful their franchise would become. After essentially using their standalone films to promote an eventual team-up movie, interest in seeing separate films eventually come together is a market essentially untapped. Since the one-piece-at-a-time tactic has not been the explicit approach for Days of Future Past, director Bryan Singer and Fox Studios are living in a bit of a Petri dish for all to see if their approach to building a cinematic universe on the fly is a box-office success or a flop. If this first trailer, and the internet’s stunned reaction, is any indication, I’d say we’re looking at a winner.
Although this first look is notably light on action set pieces, it properly outlines the very basics of the plot – a time traveling Wolverine must warn 1970s versions of Magneto and Professor X of a coming disaster involving mutant slaying robots. But instead of selling us on the spectacle, it mostly functioning on an emotional, nostalgic level. Stirring our nerdy desire to see the characters from the past six X-Men films share the screen, Days of Future Past looks to fulfill that promise of culmination, or, at the very least, suggest that we have lift off.
One narrative issue that the trailer suggests is that characters of the future and the past may not share many physical scenes. At least, that appears to be the case for the time being. If that approach is doubled in the film, with each set of characters condoned off into their own “present,” thusly not interacting together as a whole X-Men collective, then the promise of team-ups could come off as deceptive and insincere.
The more likely scenario is that Fox and its constituents are not going to blow that revelatory reunion moment on this first run of a trailer. If anything, it’s a trial run to gauge reaction to the concept. But if the film does end up jumping between narratives of past and present, us audience members might not be getting quite what we want. While keeping the stories largely separate could just work, it does set up a potentially disjointed narrative while also squandering the excitement of having all these actors share the same screen. If Wolverine proves to be the only connective tissue between the two subsets of X-folk, the whole trend towards character acceleration – the propulsion towards more, more, more – may prove to be too little, too late.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is directed by Bryan Singer and stars Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Ian McKellen, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Anna Paquin, Shaun Ashmore, Omar Sy and Evan Peters. It hits theaters on May 23, 2014.