Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Spanish helmer Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed Liam Neeson in “Unknown,” “Non-Stop,” “Run All Night,” and has plans for another film with Neeson entitled “The Commuter,” must have felt that pitting his favorite Irish actor against a ferocious Great White shark would be unfair to it.  Instead, Collet-Serra has “Age of Adaline” actress Blake Lively contend with this colossal Carcharodon carcharias in “The Shallows” (*** OUT OF ****), an entertaining, often suspenseful, but largely improbable B-movie survivalist saga.  Summer movies are typically sprawling, impersonal, and larger-than-life blockbusters, about clashes between titans and extraterrestrials, such as “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Warcraft,” and “Teenage Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.”  Although Collet-Serra’s film boasts a pugnacious predator roughly the size of a medium-class submarine, “The Shallows” remains more personal in scope than traditional summer fare.  The exploits depicted in this Sony/Columbia Pictures release do not pose a threat to civilization as we know it.  Indeed, the events occur in relative anonymity without television networks broadcasting commentary about them as they unfold.  Ultimately, nobody knows what is happening until the narrative concludes.  Aside from Blake Lively, “The Shallows” features only seven actors, six relatively unknown males and one female confined to supporting roles.  Not only does Lively play a sympathetic character, but also you cannot take your eyes off her while she is locked into life-and-death combat with a tenaciously toothy terrornaut that doesn’t know when to quit.  Comparably, “The Shallows” reminded me of the grim finale in Ridley Scott’s classic, 1979, sci-fi shocker “Alien.”  Virtually the entire crew of the ill-fated, space merchant vessel Nostromo had died in a fight with an indestructible space monster whose blood was as corrosive as acid.  The last survivor, sexy Sigourney Weaver, had slipped into something comfort to go to sleep for the long voyage home when she discovered to her horror that she was sharing her escape spacecraft with that fearsome fiend.  Similarly, after about fifteen minutes of watching shapely Blake arrive at a remote stretch of scenic beach, strip down to a bikini, and plunge into the bay for a little surfing, the infamous shark shows up without fanfare and turns out to be quite the scene stealer for the remaining 72 white-knuckled minutes.  Essentially, what Jaswinski and Collet-Serra have wrought amounts to a synthesis of “Jaws,” “Blue Crush,” and “Soul Surfer.” 

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively of “Savages”) has just withdrawn from nursing school.  The gruesome experience of watching her long suffering mother succumb to cancer has devastated her.  Nancy just wants to retreat and ponder her future.  She remembers her pregnant mother told her about a secret stretch of beach in Mexico that she had gone to while she was carrying her.  A friendly native gives Nancy a lift in his battered pick-up truck through the jungle to the beach, and the beach looks like a dream with its azure skies, creamy surf, and faraway islands forming a barrier against the ocean.  Initially, Nancy came with a girlfriend, but her girlfriend left her for a cute guy.  Alone but content, Nancy swims out into the secluded bay and encounters two other surfer dudes.  Their English is as inadequate as her Spanish, and they share some waves before they hang it up.  Afterward, Nancy spots a gigantic rotting whale carcass adrift and investigates it before making her final surf for the day.  As she is riding the crest of a wave, a Great White shark smashes into her like a torpedo and topples her off her surfboard.  The shark chomps on her left thigh, but Nancy finds sanctuary on a small outcropping of rock fewer than 200 yards from shore.  This sinister shark cruises in circles around her like a war party of Apaches rampaging around a wagon train of pioneers in the Old West.  Nancy uses pieces of jewelry to stitch up her chewed up thigh, but she fears the onset of gangrene if she isn’t rescued soon.  Soon, however, isn’t going to be soon enough, and she is trapped at the mercy of the shark.  Talk about a tight-spot!

“The Shallows” never wears out its welcome.  “Kristy” scenarist Anthony Jaswinski and Collet-Serra observe all the standard conventions of vintage suspense thrillers.  They isolate our valiant heroine and subject her to one frightening predicament after another, and she must rely on her own savvy and stamina.  Occasionally, when Nancy cannot outwit her adversary, the filmmakers create obstacles that the shark cannot overcome in its ravenous lust to make her into mincemeat.  For example, a steel hook embedded in its jaw gets snagged on a buoy, and the Great White wallows turbulently before it dislodges itself and renews its feverish attack.  At other times, the shark deals with marine life such as a school of jelly fish and the craggy underwater terrain that thwarts its momentum.  The irony is that our heroine is--as the title indicates-- in shallow waters instead of far out in the briny blue deep.  The Great White shark appears sufficiently menacing, and computer-generated visual effects are top-notch.  The predator’s initial appearance through a wave is ominously dramatic.  If you’ve seen the trailer, the scene where the Great White lurches above the waves to gobble a surfer is sensational stuff.  The whale carcass that our heroine initially takes refuge on until the shark forces her to abandon it looks pretty realistic, too.  The shift into tone and atmosphere from dream to nightmare for Nancy is very palatable, too.  Although this woman-in-jeopardy nail-biter is set Mexico, the filmmakers lensed it on location in sunny Australia.  Of course, “The Shallows” doesn’t surpass Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” with its atmospheric music and its charismatic ensemble male cast.  In a scene reminiscent of the “Jaws” finale when Roy Schneider fires a rifle at the shark that kills it, our heroine appropriates a flare pistol and fires it at the marauding shark.  Characterization remains on the lean side since Blake Lively’s solitary surfer is the only three dimensional character on display.  Nevertheless, just as “Jaws” exploited our anxieties about splashing around in the sea without a second thought, “The Shallows” may make you think twice about wading into surf.

Monday, June 20, 2016


No, I’ve never played the video game World of Warcraft, but I’ve seen the $161-million dollar, PG-13 rated, Universal Pictures’ extravaganza.  What “Source Code” director Duncan Jones, “Seventh Son” scenarist Charles Leavitt, and “Warcraft II & III” video game scribe Chris Metzen have wrought is a larger-than-life, adventure fantasy inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic “Lord of the Rings” and C.S. Lewis’ “Narnia” novels.  This sprawling sword & sorcery saga pits terrestrial humans against marauding extraterrestrial Orcs in a cornucopia of striking computer generated images.  If you’ve seen either the trailers or publicity photos for “Warcraft” (**1/2 OUT OF ****), you know those intimidating Orcs resemble Goliath-like humanoids, possess massive limbs, and have a Frank Frazetta look.  Tusks bulge improbably from their grim mouths as if they were colossal warthogs.  Indeed, these belligerent invaders emerge as mighty gruesome.  They wield humongous hammers that would make Thor crap in his drawers, and they abide by a staunch code of honor.  Namely, Orcs don’t fib.  Once they promise something, they adhere to their word.  Of course, the Orcs are avatars that unseen but seasoned thespians such as Toby Kebbell, Rob Kazinsky, and Clancy Brown portray in motion capture outfits.  Meantime, the humans resemble Arthurian knights adorned in elaborate suits of armor with massive glittering swords.  Whereas the Orcs gallivant around on gigantic wolves, the humans cruise the skies astraddle giant Griffins when they aren’t riding horses.  Aside from Travis Fimmel’s sympathetic protagonist Anduin Lothar and Dominic Cooper’s noble King Llane Wrynn, “Warcraft” relies largely on hundreds of CGI characters.  What these characters lack in depth, Jones and his special effects wizards compensate for with ghoulish countenances.  The filmmakers are not interested in diplomacy as much as they are fascinated with the pugnacious warriors and warlords as they engage in a battle to the death for a little over two hours.  This above-average, cinematic adaptation isn’t as abhorrent as many critics have claimed, and the narrative ambiguities in “Warcraft” actually provide it with some surprising depth.  Neither Orcs nor humans are entirely either evil or heroic.

“Warcraft” chronicles a merciless clash between two vastly different races of warriors.  First, director Duncan Jones and his scribes introduce us to the mighty Orcs.  Hailing from a dying planet named Draenor, they set out to conquer the planet Azeroth where King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper of “Need for Speed”) of Stormwind presides over a human population living in comparative peace.  Those rugged, mesomorphic Orcs march to the orders of a wicked warlock, Gul’dan (voiced by Daniel Wu of “Europa Report”), who resembles the spawn of Satan with an elaborate thicket of antlers bristling from his back.  Gul’dan mobilizes the Orc tribes into an army called the Horde, and he conjures up a colossal trans-dimensional portal.  The Orc shaman practices a noxious form of Black magic called the Fel.  He deploys the Fel to make the portal operational.  The portal derives its power from the life force of captives that the Orcs have imprisoned and transported to Azeroth.  This mysterious Fel depletes life energy of those prisoners and their life energy maintains the portal.  This portal is reminiscent of the gateways in the vintage sci-fi film “Stargate” and the television series it spun off that transported individuals from one world to another.  The murky green Fel is so toxic that it corrupts anybody and anything, and this malignant force has warped Gul’dan so dreadfully that some of his own kind have come to abhor it.  

The Orc warrior Durotan (voice of Toby Kebbell of “Fantastic Four”) rules the Frostwolf Clan.  As one of the many Draenor tribes, the Frostwolf Clan has joined Gul’dan’s Horde.  Durotan wants his people, particularly his pregnant wife Draka (voice of Anna Galvin), to thrive as prosperously as they once did before their planet began to deteriorate.  Durotan’s clan takes its name from the enormous wolves that they ride.  Meantime, Durotan doesn’t completely trust Gul’dan or the terrible green Fel magic that destroys everything it touches.  This generates considerable friction between Durotan and war chieftain Blackhand (voiced by Clancy Brown of “Highlander”), especially after the latter discovers that the former is plotting treason behind his back.  Durotan calls a truce and has words with King Wynn, but Blackhand surprises the two and attacks them.  During this wild melee, Stormwind’s sorcerer Medivh, (Ben Foster of “The Mechanic”) the legendary Guardian of Tirisfal, saves King Wynn’s life by deploying a shield to thwart Blackhand’s warriors from slaying him.  Unfortunately, King Wynn’s army commander Sir Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel of “Vikings”) loses his son,  when the young warrior is caught on the wrong side.  Not only does Lothar suspect that the Fel has corrupted Medivh, but he also believes that Medivh and Gul’dan may have been conspiring with each other.  

Anybody who isn’t thoroughly acquainted with the mythology of Warcraft may find themselves bewildered by the byzantine stratums of the story.  Painstaking research enabled me to clear up who was who in the complex line-up of characters.  Indeed, I talked with a seasoned “Warcraft” gamer who has been playing the Blizzard Entertainment game for over a decade.  I watched “Warcraft” twice before I gained a clear understanding of the hierarchies for both the Horde and Stormwind Alliance.  If you’ve never played Warcraft, the best way to enjoy “Warcraft” the movie is to savor it simply for both its breathtaking computer generated imagery and interesting combatants.  The grotesque Orcs are extremely ugly, while the Stormwind warriors reminded me of King Arthur’s knights from the classic movie “Excalibur.”  “Blood Diamond” scenarist Charles Leavitt and “Warcraft” game author Chris Metzen gloss over some salient points in the Warcraft universe.  Miraculously, director Duncan Jones doesn’t let the plethora of exposition take the edge off the savage, testosterone-laden action.  He plunges audiences into the stunning CGI imagery with its adrenalin-laced action sequences without drenching us in gallons of blood and gore to compensate for the plot.  “Warcraft” lives up to its title without wearing out its welcome at 123 minutes.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


“Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller has defied probability and made a sensational sequel, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), that surpasses its above-average predecessor.   Nevertheless, the second “Neighbors” movie serves up some rather risqué humor.  Seth Rogen delivers the best example.   When he introduces a Semitic couple to an American couple, Rogen points out that the pregnant Hebrew woman has “a Jew in the oven.”   This qualifies as the most controversial line in an otherwise empowering comedy of errors.   The lead couple’s young daughter forms an attachment to her mother’s vibrator and goes everywhere with it.  The parents are as imbecilic as the Greeks.  At one point, the sorority launches an artillery barrage of bloody tampons at the house inhabited by the thirtysomething married couple.  A couple of days ago before I saw “Neighbors 2,” I watched “Neighbors” on DVD for the first time.  I split my sides laughing at all its subversive shenanigans.   The “Neighbors” movies revived memories of “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”   Fans of the first “Neighbors” should relish the sequel, but the producers have broadened the demographics with the sequel to empower women.   Furthermore, Stoller’s riotous sequel succeeds because he has made few changes to the surefire farcical formula that coined “Neighbors” $270 million globally back in 2014.   
Some things, however, have changed in “Neighbors 2,” but most of the original cast return for cameos, including Officer Watkins (Hannibal Buress) the traffic cop.   Aside from the “Neighbors’” alums, Selena Gomez and Kelsey Grammer appear in bit cameos.  Gomez plays a sorority president, while Grammer is the father of the heroine.  Like the original movie, the plot is simple, shallow, and swiftly paced, but with a better ending.   Although all six scenarists are guys, they have made the women appear more sympathetic than slutty.  The estrogen-driven plot positions these female-friendly characters in the forefront of the action, something that “Neighbors” never had.  Basically, the loutish Delta Psi fraternity constituted the bad guys in “Neighbors,” while the Kappa Nu girls appear far less antagonistic.  Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz of “Carrie”), Beth (Kiersey Clemons of “Dope”), and Nora (Beanie Feldstein of “Fan Girl”) are college freshmen.  They attend a sorority rush party.  Audacious Shelby fires up a joint.  Phi Lambda President Madison (Selena Gomez of “Spring Breakers”) reprimands our heroine and stipulates that their sorority tolerates neither alcohol nor drugs.  Worse, Shelby learns the Greek sisters aren’t allowed to throw parties.  The trio make tracks and form their own off-campus sorority so they can party as they please.  Predictably, since it is the sequel, they buy the house that the Delta Psi brothers once occupied, much to Mac and Kelly’s chagrin.
Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne encore as the foolish, parenting-impaired, married couple. Miraculously, Mac Radner (Seth Rogen of “Knocked Up”) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”), survived the escapades of the Delta Psi fraternity.  They have a second child on the way, and they plan to leave the neighborhood.  Just when everything appears promising for the sale of their house, the Kappa Nu sorority shows up.  Mac and Kelly have sold their starter home to an interracial couple with an infant child.  However, the Radners’ real estate agent, Wendy (Liz Cackowski of “The Watch”), reminds them that the buyers have a 30-day escrow period to ponder their purchase.  When Mac and Kelly discover that Shelby and company have bought the house next door, they cringe at the prospect of what will occur if the new buyers drop by at a bad time.  Worse, they encounter an old adversary.
Adonis-chiseled Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) returns along with some of his former Delta Psi Beta brothers, but things have changed with them, too.  You may recall from watching “Neighbors” that Teddy Sanders was the Delta Psi president and his closest friend Pete (Dave Franco of “Superbad”) was vice-president.  After the debacle in “Neighbors,” Pete graduated and got a good job, while poor Teddy became a bare-chested model for Abercrombie & Fitch.  Unfortunately, Abercrombie & Fitch has decided they no longer need a shirtless model.   Not long afterward, Teddy learns that Pete plans to marry, but Pete isn’t going to wed a woman.  Instead, he decides to marry another ex-frat, Darren (John Early), and they ask Teddy to vacate the premises!  Teddy goes to the place of last refuge--the house next door to the Radners.  He happens to be around when shady Kappa Nu real estate agent Oliver Studebaker (Billy Eichner of “What Happens in Vegas”) sells Shelby and her friends the house.  These gals don’t have a clue about how to finance the house, much less recruit sorority members, but Teddy has all the answers.  Moreover, Teddy sees this as a way to pay back the Radners.  When Mac and Kelly meet him again with Shelby and company, they know that their dreams are swirling the drain. 
If you remember anything about “Neighbors,” you may recall it opened with Mac and Kelly getting intimate in a chair.  Mac got flustered because their infant daughter Stella was eyeballed them innocently during the sex act.  Similarly, “Neighbors 2” begins with Mac and Kelly at it again, but Kelly has a bout of morning sickness and barfs on Mac.  Remember, “Neighbors” and “Neighbors 2” qualify as lowest common denominator comedies that thrive on offensive, gross-out gags galore.  Not-surprisingly, Zac Efron has a difficult time wearing his shirt.  Stoller and his writers exploit Teddy’s bare-chested antics to propel the plot forward, especially during a zany marijuana heist scene.  As improbable as the “Neighbors” movies are, I find the premise credible.  One of my close friends experienced a similar predicament.  They went through what the thirtysomething married couple dealt with in “Neighbors” after a bawdy college fraternity brought the house next door and complicated their lives.  Apart from its outrageous humor, “Neighbors 2” not only serves to empower women, but it also refuses to ridicule gays.  Anybody who loved the original “Neighbors” will laugh their butts off at the randy sequel.


Walt Disney Studios should have changed the title from “Captain America: Civil War” (** OUT OF ****) to “Captain America: Stalemate” since none of the heroic combatants die.  Co-directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who helmed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” have the two rival divisions, led by Captain America and Iron Man, knocking the shenanigans out of each other in this contrived, drawn-out, 147 minute epic.  Nevertheless, the worst thing that happens is War Machine loses control of his Iron Man style armored suit and makes an emergency crash landing in an open field.  Although he suffers spinal damage, Lieutenant James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is back up and walking around with some difficulty before fadeout.  Mind you, “Captain America: Civil War” amounts to a letdown when nobody puts anybody away permanently.  Ultimately, the two fractions emerge evenly matched.  Nobody like S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson is around to die and make a dramatic impact like in “Marvel’s “The Avengers” (2012).  At least the recent DC Comics movie “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” pretended to destroy one of the two title characters.  Of course, anybody with a grain of sense knows the adversary that perished in “Batman v Superman” isn’t dead.  Furthermore, the DC Comics extravaganza staged a funeral, and the characters engaged in a period of mourning. 

Although the premise that Captain America and Iron Man would clash is certainly provocative, the movie pulls its punches because the superheroes emerge with little more than either bruises to themselves or scratches on their respective armor.  Despite several competently orchestrated physical confrontations, “Captain America: Civil War” rarely generates a modicum of suspense.  Basically, the Russo brothers stage one spectacular smackdown at an evacuated airport, resolve the mystery behind the demise of Tony Stark’s parents, and introduce a new costume-clad crusader to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Black Panther makes his debut, but he seems rather tame compared with the other Marvel champs.  At one point, “Captain America: Civil War” seems more concerned with rebooting the “Spider-Man” film franchise than doing something with its protagonists that its PG-13 rating would condone.  Sadly enough, the characters that stand out here aren’t the title characters.  Essentially, Spider-Man and Ant Man make a greater impression than any of the other Marvel titans, and Black Panther looks like Mardi Gras was his destination until he paused to participate.

Approximately five characters die on-screen in “Captain America: Civil War,” but are super heroic. United at the outset, our heroes descend upon Lagos and tangle with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Brock Rumlow, (Frank Grillo of “The Purge: Anarchy”) a.k.a. Crossbones and his thugs.  These dastards want to hijack a deadly biological weapon.  Crossbones tries to kill Captain America with an explosion that obliterates his own life.  Miraculously, the telekinetic Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen of “Godzilla”) contains the blast and shifts it elsewhere to detonate.  Tragically, the blast demolishes a nearby building, killing many unseen, innocent bystanders.  The collateral damage fallout from this incident gives the Avengers some bad publicity.  Afflicted with a guilty conscience about the death of an African-American lad in Lagos, Tony Stark advocates the Sokovia Accords that the United Nations have drawn up.  Basically, the Sokovia Accords establishes a panel to oversee the Avengers.  Apparently, the indestructible Avengers may be responsible for killing more people than their own adversaries owing to the collateral damage that they have wrought during their escapades.  Captain America (Chris Evans of “The Fantastic Four”) abhors the Accords, and he refuses to ink the pact.  The death of Agent Peggy Carter solidifies his negative attitude toward the Sokovia Accords.  Longtime Avengers adversary U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt of “Dark City”) now enjoys a position with more prestige than power over them.  Ross, you may recall, hated the Hulk because the big green machine was in love with his daughter. 

Matters grow even more critical.  Steve Rogers’ World War II pal Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) is suspected of a igniting a deadly blast in Vienna where the Accords were being signed.  Surveillance cameras show that Bucky was in town when the incident occurred.  The blast kills King T'Chaka of Wakanda (John Kani of “The Wild Geese”), and his acrobatic son T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman of “42”) dons a black bulletproof suit, a mask with cat ears, and gloves with retractable claws and embarks as The Black Panther to avenge his father’s death.  One of the many problems with “Captain America: Civil War” is that it bristles with far too many characters who do far too little to each other.  Mind you, T’Challa will soon have his own stand alone movie, but he looks shoehorned into this film with nothing memorable to do.  Worst, the chief villain is a bland family-guy-turned-vigilante, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl of “Rush”), who is a rather dreary adversary compared with previous Marvel villains.

Anybody familiar with the Marvel Comics graphic novel will tell you “Captain America” scenarists Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely have taken liberties with the source material.  In the Mark Millar graphic novel, lesser costume clad warriors destroyed an elementary school while a reality-TV crew photographed their endeavors.  This wholesale destruction prompted the President of the United States to enact the Superhero Registration Act to make superheroes more accountable for their actions.  Furthermore, the law required these costume-clad crusaders to divulge their true identities.  Now, these heroes face the prospect of serving as Federal employees or facing arrest.  Iron Man supports the act. “Becoming public employees makes perfect sense,” he proclaims, “if it helps people sleep a little easier.”  Captain America opposes it, “Super heroes need to stay above that stuff or Washington starts telling us who the super-villains are.”  Later, Iron Man tricks Captain America and his Secret Avengers into responding to a petrochemical plant fire where hundreds people could perish. Ultimately, Captain America surrenders after Iron Man batters him into submission.
Altogether, “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t half as good as the previous two “Avengers” movies.


Although it isn’t coining the box office receipts that “Captain America: Civil War” commanded, “X-Men: Apocalypse” (**** OUT OF ****) surpasses “Captain America” with lavish spectacle, brinksmanship suspense, and fertile fantasy.  Part of the reason is that Twentieth Century Fox produces the “X-Men” movies, while Walt Disney Studios handles the “Captain America” franchise.  The “X-Men” franchise displays greater edge and paranoia than the formulaic, facetious, Disney Marvel franchises.  For example, the body count in “The Usual Suspects” director Bryan Singer’s latest Marvel Comics adventure “X-Men: Apocalypse” is double, perhaps even triple that of “Captain America.”  “Sherlock Holmes” scenarist Simon Kinberg and Singer have no problem with liquidating some X-Men characters.  Meantime, Disney produces Marvel sagas where few super-heroes suffer permanent injury.  The divide and take sides “Captain America: Civil War” concluded in a stalemate with Cap and Iron Man playing patty-cake.  The inescapable problem that Singer and Kinberg face in the ninth “X-Men” franchise entry is predictability.  The original “X-Men” trilogy charted the story of Xavier’s mutant super-heroes along chronological lines.  The second “X-Men” trilogy, starting with “X-Men: First Class” (2011), then “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014), and finally “X-Men: Apocalypse” ventures backward in time, examining the origins of various characters.  “X-Men: First Class” dealt with the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” unfolded at the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, and “X-Men: Apocalypse” transpires in the 1980s.  “X-Men: Apocalypse” makes several allusions to “X-Men: First Class” about Professor Xavier’s romance with CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert.  Since the second “X-Men” trilogy occurs before the original trilogy, we know the principal characters are in little danger of annihilation.  Nevertheless, Simon Kinberg’s screenplays for those three films have all been imaginative, audacious, with the X-Men taking things to the brink.  Clocking in at an extensive 144 minutes, “X-Men: Apocalypse” doesn’t wear out its welcome, and Singer doesn’t short-change his packed ensemble cast.  Furthermore, the malevolent Apocalypse in his first full-blown cinematic incarnation proves to be a challenging opponent.  “X-Men: Apocalypse” qualifies as a larger-than-life but slam-bang, sci-fi supernatural saga staged with considerable intellect, wit, and panache.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” opens during a pharaoh’s burial ceremony in ancient Egypt in 3,600 B.C. Naturally, Singer relies on spectacular CGI special effects galore to conjure up this vast, sprawling, ceremony as the first mutant, Apocalypse, finds himself betrayed by a duplicitous cabal.  They trap Apocalypse in a pyramid, and the structure vanishes into the earth for 5,600 years until the 1980s when CIA Agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne of “Bridesmaids”) stumbles onto it.  She finds a passage that leads to Apocalypse’s burial chamber.  A cult has been struggling to resurrect the notorious lord, and Apocalypse emerges from captivity to find the world greatly altered from his day.  Dark and sinister, with tubes curving out of the back of his head, Apocalypse emerges as an ominous figure in a bizarre outfit.  He saves a Cairo street thief, Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp of “Straight Outta Compton”), from two vigilantes.  Eventually, Ororo will become Storm. He recruits a fallen angel, Angel (newcomer Ben Hardy), and Apocalypse transforms Angel’s wings into steel so he has the ability to hurl razor-sharp metal feathers which are comparable to machetes.  The most important recruit that Apocalypse attracts is Magneto, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender of “Prometheus”), who is in no mood to love mankind.  Erik has suffered another great personal tragedy.  During the intervening ten years since the events in “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” Erik has maintained a low profile as a factory worker in Poland.  Sadly, he is forced to reveal his mutant ability to manipulate metal when he saves a fellow factory worker from certain death. Unfortunately, the local authorities descend on him with bows & arrows.  Magneto flees and joins Apocalypse. Apocalypse is appalled at everything that has transpired during his protracted absence, and he decides to change everything with the help of Erik, Storm, Angel, and a “Wonder Woman” lookalike warrior Psylocke (Olivia Munn of “Ride Along 2”), who boasts both telepathic and telekinetic abilities and dresses like a dominatrix. The collateral damage that Apocalypse and his henchmen create overwhelms the entire Disney Marvel Universe.  Impudently, Apocalypse prompts all of the superpowers to launch their nuclear warheads into space where the ordinance will be useless and civilization will depend on the intervention of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy of “Wanted”) and the X-Men that are a lot younger than their predecessors.  Happily, Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Raven, and Nicholas Hoult returns as Hank McCoy aka Beast.
As exemplary as “X-Men: Apocalypse” is, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” still tops it, but the two movies differ in terms of scope.  Director Bryan Singer isn’t as enamored with the 1980s in “X-Men: Apocalypse” as he was with the 1970s in “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” He cuts back and forth between the heroes and the villains as they clash.  This extravaganza serves up one good scene after another.  Two of the best occur when Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters of “Kick Ass”) aka Quicksilver and Wolverine demonstrate their respective skills. Quicksilver embarks on a rescue mission at Xavier’s School for Gifted Children after the building comes under attack. Quicksilver darts about like a wraith snatching somebody here and seizing somebody there, before the house collapses in a pile of smoking rubble.  This scene provides some genuine levity in the middle of Apocalypse’s devastating plans to renovate planet Earth. Without divulging too much information, Wolverine’s solitary scene is as savage as it is sensational. The grand finale between Charles and Apocalypse is a drawn-out, but exciting exercise that drums up white-knuckled suspense. The evil first mutant intends to freight his consciousness into Xavier's body and then appropriate Xavier's gift to connect with everybody’s mind on the planet. While Charles and Apocalypse tangle like maniacs, the X-Men have their hands full with Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen.

If you haven’t kept up with the “X-Men” cinematic universe, you may find its plot difficult to follow.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


The George Clooney & Julia Roberts hostage yarn “Money Monster” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) turns up the heat on Wall Street, but its uneven shifts between comedy and drama make it difficult to take seriously.  Mind you, any movie that skewers the financial services industry is welcome because these opaque institutions need more transparency than they have offered for their enigmatic machinations.  One day, perhaps, we may know what the money brokers are actually doing with our hard earned dollars.  Meantime, Wall Street has always struck me as a crap shoot.  Either you run huge risks to reap huge rewards or your audacity pays off in dirt rather than pay dirt.  “Home for the Holidays” director Jodie Foster and scenarists Jamie Lindon of “Dear John,” Alan DiFiore of TV’s “Grimm,” and Jim Kouf of “National Treasure” make this problem a glaring point in “Money Monster.”  Unfortunately, most of us already know this because we’ve watched either Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (1987) or his belated sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (201o).  As for the claustrophobic hostage crisis that unfolds for three-fourths of “Money Monster” in the studio of a financial news network before the plot propels the characters out into actual New York City streets, you’ve seen it covered in more compelling movies like Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) or Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” (2006).  Superficial, uneven, but above-average, two-time Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster’s fourth film as a director suffers primarily because the male characters are anemic.  For a change, the guys qualify as airheads, while the gals are pretty astute.  George Clooney, Jack O’Connell, Giancarlo Esposito, and Dominic West amount to nothing less than nitwits.  None of the guys have an inkling about anything, but the women know what to do.  At fade-out, the dames rise above the dudes.  Neither the Wall Street skullduggery nor the logistics of outsmarting an unstable, naive gunman furnish any surprises.  Indeed, the hostage drama is more compelling than the lackluster Wall Street mystery that triggers the gunman into action. If you missed the Oscar-nominated movie “The Big Short,” it details real-life Wall Street chicanery, but it is a far more complicated film to follow.  Nevertheless, despite its toothless nature, “Money Monster” emerges as a suspenseful saga, until certain revelations undercut the tension in the third act.

Lee Gates (George Clooney of “Gravity”) is a cynical Financial News Network commentator, reminiscent of CNBC’s “Mad Money” pundit Jim Cramer, and he cavorts about his studio like a carnival barker.   Meanwhile, Lee's veteran producer & director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts of “Erin Brockovich”), orchestrates the colorful graphics that enliven his on-camera antics as he dispenses stock tips for investors.  Basically, Lee relies on his savvy insights to make educated guesses about monetary matters.  Sadly, Lee’s expertise about all things Wall Street backfires on him.  Before he realizes what has happened, Lee finds himself eye-to-eye with a pugnacious goon poking a pistol in his face.  This intruder, who slipped stealthily past distracted security guards and invaded the FNN studio while the show was ‘live’ on-the-air, demands to know why Lee gave him such appalling information.  Just about everybody in this 98 minute, R-rated thriller gets caught off guard at one point or another.  A discontented, blue-collar, delivery man from Queens, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell of “Unbroken”), knows zilch about the financial industry except what Lee Gates predicts.  He prompts Lee at gunpoint to don a vest packed with enough explosives to flatten a city block.  Kyle brandishes the detonator in his other fist and warns everything about the consequences if he loses his grip.  The only individual in the studio with a clue about what to do is Patty.  She produces and directs Lee’s stock tips show.  She gives Lee his cues and instructs the crew where they must be whether they are operating cameras or loading graphics.  Patty galvanizes not only Lee, but also her crew into action to contend with Kyle as the N.Y.P.D. swarms into the studio with their sniper response unit.  Eventually, Patty convinces Lee that he should play along with Kyle.  Lee sheds his anxiety and struggles to mollify Kyle.  Poor Kyle, it seems, squandered his late mother’s entire nest egg—some $60-thousand—and invested it in Ibis Clear Capital stock.  Lee had hyped Ibis with such enthusiasm that Kyle sank every penny into it.  According to Ibis, a computer glitch occurred, and the company lost $800 million, cleaning Kyle out.  Kyle throws a temper tantrum and threatens to shoot anybody and then possibly blow Lee to smithereens while Lee and Patty scramble to unravel the secret behind Ibis’ meltdown.  Unfortunately, nothing that Lee does satisfies Kyle.  At the same time, the rest of the world has tuned into Lee’s show and is savoring the ‘live’ showdown. 
If Kyle weren’t enough of a nuisance for Lee and Patty, the N.Y.P.D. poses another problem that generates white-knuckled suspense.  When the police aren’t quietly evacuating the FNN staff, they are sneaking into position to end the confrontation with their snipers.  As it turns out, beleaguered Captain Powell (Giancarlo Esposito of “The Scorch Trials”) is stunned when his men want to shoot at the bomb vest that Lee is wearing rather than at Kyle!   The snipers assure Powell that they have an 80 percent chance of success at blasting the detonator off the bomb.  Eventually, word reaches Lee, and he wields Kyle as a shield.  Powell rejects their strategy as outrageous.  Meantime, the globe-trotting, duplicitous, Ibis CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West of “300”) makes the foolish mistake of flying into New York to present his side of the story.  During this chaos, the N.Y.D.P. coaxes Kyle’s wife Molly (Emily Meade of “Trepass”) on-camera in the hope that she will persuade Kyle to put down his pistol.  Instead, an irate Molly berates Kyle without mercy for being asinine.  Altogether, while “Money Monster” provides nothing new about Wall Street’s treachery, but Foster compensates with taut suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat. .