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SIFF ’18 Capsule Review: ‘AMERICAN ANIMALS’

Bart Layton’s audacious feature debut uniquely tacks together documentary and narrative styles to tell the stranger than fiction tale of a notorious art heist gone horribly wrong. Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters are strong as apathetic, bored college students who fall victim to glamorized fables of the perfect crime in Layton’s white-knuckle exploration of young white male entitlement and the dubious nature of truth and memory. This slick caper boasts a unique storytelling approach and gripping moments of high tension but struggles with pacing and periphery character development. (B) Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘X-MEN: APOCALYPSE’

“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

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Out in Theaters: THE LAZARUS EFFECT

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There are some movies that are actively bad and others that are actively nothing. The Lazarus Effect falls in the later category. The tripping-over-its-own-feet script from Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater is a hodgepodge of horror movie tropes that fails to deviate from the path most traveled. In following that oh-so-familiar road to nothingness, they prove they came prepared without anything new to say, much less add to the genre.

The characters within Lazarus are fine, more too-well-defined horror cliches, and are notably bolstered by a quartet of compelling actors including Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters and Danny Glover all giving the DOA material a faint jolt of life. As the bands research into coma patients and DMT begin to prove viable to reanimate animals from beyond the grave, the lazarus serum is born and a series of one-location events are set in motion.

Before long, the ragtag team of scientists – followed on camera by student documentarian Eva (Sarah Bolger) – are able to bring a pooch that had been put down back to life through the Frankensteinian power of electricity and potassium. Yay bananas. As its heart starts beating again, the dog’s aggression levels spike as does its ability to pull a Lucy and control 100% of its brain – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Psychic shit happens.

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As you’ve probably gathered, the experiment goes even further awry and Olivia Wilde’s Zoe is killed by a surge of electricity because she (awwww) forgot to take off her engagement ring. Unable to resuscitate her, hubbie-to-be Frank (Duplass) slaps her on his science slab and demands the group assist in injecting her with their very much still-in-development serum. As one would anticipate from a mile away, his shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to science has some nasty, horror-moviesque implications when Zoe wakes up and doesn’t quite feel like herself.

Up to this point, The Lazarus Effect has only committed the horror cardinal sin of, well, not being very scary. It has a few thing-appears-out-of-nowhere moments to surprise the crowd into a yelp or two but absolutely nothing actually scary or even worthy of note. But as the movie continues, it’s as if it actively tries to disarm its own internal sense of spookiness. Themes of science and the divine are explored in the context of hell but that plot-thread is all but abandoned before anything of worth comes from it. As for the inevitable kills, there is nothing imaginative or memorable in the slightest of ways, just a series of underwhelming, ashen disposals seemingly at the hands of a real pacifist .

The PG-13 horror movie hasn’t had a hit in a long while and with the MPAA stamping The Conjuring with a R-rating simply because it was deemed “too scary”, these all audience entries into the horror genre such as The Lazarus Effect and last year’s much worse Ouija make me question whether it’s even truly possible to have an effective PG-13  horror flick. Because if the bloodless, scareless nature of The Lazarus Effect serves as any indication, it surely doesn’t seem like it.

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In the annals of horror past, the greats stand out in large part because of their inventive spirit. Something that Lazarus has almost none of. It’s Hollow Man (Hollow Woman) means Reanimator (ReanimateHer) and if the film didn’t have the good fortune of Duplass, Wilde and co. working for it, it would be even more dismissible and dopey. David Gelb was able to do something truly special within the documentary world with Jiro Dreams of Sushi making it just that much more of a shame to see him fail so acutely with his dull attempt.

Exiting the theater, one man turned to another and said, “It was alright but I can’t imagine paying $10 to see it” and that pretty much hits the nail on the head. At only 83 minutes, The Lazarus Effect is filmic premature ejaculation embodied, suffering from creative ED and hardly able to justify even half of its theatre asking price. For the real h-buffs, there’s nothing here worth seeing on the big screen so if you’re inevitably going to gobble it up, make sure you do so at home.

D+

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Out in Theaters: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

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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.

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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.

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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.

A-

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