Incredibles 2 (2018)

   Director: Brad Bird  With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick.  Release: Jun 15, 2018 PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Director: Brad Bird
With: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Brad Bird, Bill Wise, Isabella Rossellini, & Barry Bostwick. 
Release: Jun 15, 2018
PG. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

14 years since the first film, the family of supers has returned to the cinema in a way that feels inherently natural to the first story, but may not pack the same perfect punch. Brad Bird’s “Incredibles 2” is worth a watch though, and another one after that. Pixar continuously swings hard and hits big with their films, as “Incredibles 2” scored $180 million over the weekend, not to mention the film's sheer exceptionality. It picks up where the first film left off, with the underminer merging from the undergrounds of the city to launch an attack on the bank. These heroes jump into action though, not fearing the repercussions of breaking the law for enacting themselves into the scene. 

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) run in head first, leaving Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) to be watched by both Dash (Huck Milner) and Violet (Sarah Vowell). The two kids fight over babysitter duty while the adults attempt to stop the crazed mole of a man. He inevitably gets away though, and the mining vehicle turns into a vehicular weapon designated on destruction. 

But our heroes save the day, only to be held at gunpoint as their escorted to the police station and warned to stay out of the light. Their governmental ally, Krushauer (Phil LaMarr), attempts to do what he can before he retires, but politicians don't understand those who desire to do good. They just needed an excuse to keep these heroes dead for good it seems. Given two weeks stay at a local motel, these heroes have a brash spurt of dialogue about subjects such as governmental treatment, fair laws, and the societal effects of legislation. 

It’s all done without a beat missed though, an exceptional feat to consider from a kids movies about superheroes. The heroes are at rock bottom with Bob (Craig T. Nelson) and Helen (Holly Hunter) discussing who should take the brunt of the load this time around, seeing as Bob (Craig T. Nelson) worked at a miserable Insurance firm for twenty years. To their surprise, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) was approached by someone after the heroic events of the day, someone with a lot of money and an extreme passion for superheroes. 

Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) is that man; he comes from a background that formulates him like that of a renaissance man. Aimed at bringing back the bright and bold past of heroism, Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister, Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener), are two kids who took their father’s business and personal ideals to manifest a fantastic opportunity for heroes to return to saving the day. He doesn’t choose the big and robust Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to lead the way though, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is their elected leader since her calamity costs seem to be the lowest. This comes to the surprise of Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), attempting to cope with someone being chosen over him, and being happy for his wife at the same time. He’s internally conflicted in that way, but he decides to be brave and become the stay at home father while mom brings home the bacon. 


This is something that Brad Bird’s screenplay exemplifies with flying colors. He examines this constant fret of manhood under attack from women being the ones responsible for making money, something that has been examined before, but continuously seems to be abnormal for our society. It’s rare to see women in the front, especially when their husband casts a long shadow that they’ve been buried underneath continuously. Bird recognized that ideal in the first film, making Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) the calm and far more achievable hero of the pair, he carries that notion to new heights with the sequel. He takes her character to the point of legitimacy that examines that internal conflict that men seem to face, in which they seem to confuse the idea of leadership with an occupation. 

It takes Bob (Craig T. Nelson) a while before he makes this distinction, as well as the importance of it. He seemingly forgot how great it is to be a dad, and he faces far more extreme hardships than most fathers when he learns Jack Jack (Eli Fucile) has not one, but seventeen powers, and counting. He’s a character that seems to be more powerful than anyone and everyone as if he’s the Matt Malroy of the “Incredibles” universe. Luckily Edna Mole (Brad Bird) assists in fabricating something to make babysitting this omega level mutant-like child a bit smoother. 

This fatherhood challenge leads to some of the film’s most enchanting moments, like a conversation between Violett (Sarah Vowell) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) in which he apologizes for his actions involving the boy she’s crushing on and admits how he wants to be a good father. With the look of a man that feels as if he’s failed at that role, his daughter reminds him of the love she has for him. It’s a heartwarming moment that evoked the most emotion from myself and the audience around me during my screening this morning. 

The emotion isn’t the only benefit of the screenplay; there is also some fantastic action and superhero fun to be had. With a villain known as Screenslaver, who hacks into anyone’s screen and hypnotizes them with a white and black circulating loop. Forcing people to forget how to fly helicopters and taking over broadcasters to get across his message, it's all so predictable though. From the get-go, you can spot out the villain behind the mask; it’s almost worth spoiling for just how obvious it seems to be. 

The narrative doesn’t rely on that action-packed story as much as it does it's emotional investigation of fatherhood though, the visuality of it all doesn’t hurt either, maintaining that sixtyish, bond-like, and Kirby comic book style that the original film excelled with. Bird designs the film to look so bracingly out of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby comic book, as well as a Sean Connery style Bond film, but there's no womanizing to be had. The film treats all of its characters with a sheer amount of integrity and authenticity, not only with Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) but Violet (Sarah Vowell) and newcomers like Voyd (Sophia Bush) as well. 

Bird doesn’t treat the men wrongfully either; they stand in the spotlight just as much as the ladies. Working together to save the day, which is something that the “Incredibles” franchise continues to excel at. Displaying unity, bravery, and societal relevance at a cinematic rigorousness that deserves a trilogy or a tv show or whatever Pixar wants to do with it. 

"Incredibles 2" is an example of a filmmaker who patiently waited to return to his toy box, a toy box he made famous 14 years ago. His toys aren’t old or rusty; they’re just getting started it feels, exemplifying importance and fun in a coordinated attack that Bird and Pixar designed masterfully. What more can this studio achieve?
 

TAG (2018)

   Director: Jeff Tomsic  With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress. Release: Jun 15, 2018 R. 1 hr. 40 min.

Director: Jeff Tomsic
With: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, LilRel Howery, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, & Hannibal Buress.
Release: Jun 15, 2018
R. 1 hr. 40 min.

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Comedies are meant to be not only funny, but some of the best of these films have a heart to them. There like the little movies that could, they challenge these big boy films with witty humor and a little emotion to create that sense of resonance. Jeff Tomsic’s “Tag” exemplifies this notion, almost perfectly. The film follows a simple narrative, a group of adult men, who have been friends since childhood, gather around during May to play a game of “Tag.” It’s silly, but its core message isn’t something that is worth laughing at. 

Walking the line between embracing your childhood and moving on from it, “Tag” has a message that we all feel, but don’t get to wrap our head around completely. It gets lost in the transitions of this twisting narrative that takes competitivity to an outrageous extreme, especially when it comes to the one who remains tagless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner). He’s a guy who grew up to become someone of exceptional talent when it comes to this game, almost making it seem that he should have been involved with the military or something. Nonetheless, Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is one of the best parts of the film, both filmatically and narratively. 

His sequences of action in which the group attempts to conquer the impossible are narrated by himself. Providing a Sherlock Holmes-like design in which he predicts every moment for the audience. Breaking down his friend's movements and the psychological weaknesses that he exploits to his benefits. Narratively speaking, the character provides an amount of heart to the film for what he stands for as if he’s the last stitch of childhood. 

One that has played the game so well, and so competitively, that he finds himself symbolizing the one who has been absent the most from these men’s lives. Helms’ character discusses this when he talks about how the game is a way for them to stay apart of each other’s lives. Keeping them together, except for the man who seems to be untaggable. 

It becomes a game worth watching though, with some extreme sequences that lack believability entirely, which is where some film viewers will draw the line. I couldn't help but find this over the top essence of it all so humorously delighting though, it becomes both action-packed, while continuously being funny. Not only with discovering just how good Jerry (Jeremy Renner) is at this game but the little banter that seems filled with hopelessness and reliant optimism from his friends. Each of them has their successes in life, like Bob (Jon Hamm) whose CEO of a fortune 500 company.

At the beginning of the film, he’s being interviewed by a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. In the midst of this conversation about the integrity of his company, Hoagie (Ed Helms), whose disguised himself as a janitor by getting hired by the Bob’s (Jon Hamm) company, interrupts their discussion by obnoxiously cleaning the office. Loudly banging trash cans and erupting with noise, till finally Bob (Jon Hamm) politely asks him to leave, only to learn that his friend is “it.” The game begins from there on, and our journalist acts as our expositional vacuum in which we are fed the backstory through her. The secrets, the stories behind specific character interactions, and the constant feed of information from the shared childhoods of these men. 

It’s a wild story that is based on one from reality, broken down in an article by the Wall Street Journal in 2013. The exposition is on the nose, and the film takes it sequences to an illogical extreme, but that's what comedy is right? It’s making something relatively mundane feel extreme in a way that is clever and authentic, which is where “Tag” strides. The authenticity of a group of lifelong friends interacting with one another in a way that is believable. The performances assist in this no doubt, but Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen’s screenplay manifests that naturalistic dialogue. It's not on par with something of a James Ivory, but it has a sense of earnestly that reminds me of his style. 

I wish I could discuss the style of the director, but comedies seem to be lacking in that department continuously. Few continuously stand out with their visual treatments or cinematic language, but every genre has inherent burdens to bear, I guess comedies is dull cinematography. If it wasn’t for the brash screenplay and unapologetic ridiculousness of it all, “Tag” may not have been at the receiving end of high praise from myself, but it all works. It’s funny, bold, and unexpectedly brilliant at times, it's a good comedy movie, something that seems to be in short supply these days. 
 

The Incredibles (2004)

   Director: Brad Bird With: Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee Dominique Louis, Eli Fucile, Maeve Andrews, Spencer Fox, & Sarah Vowell. Release: November 5, 2004 PG. 1 hr. 55 min. 

Director: Brad Bird
With: Craig T. Nelson, Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee
Dominique Louis, Eli Fucile, Maeve Andrews, Spencer Fox, & Sarah Vowell.
Release: November 5, 2004
PG. 1 hr. 55 min. 

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Pixar is a studio that always seems to do no wrong, and they always seem to remain ahead of the curve. Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” is a prime example of that, a film that exemplifies a level of maturity and sincerity while exhuming the entertainment and sheer fun that a family of superheroes inherently possesses. So the film does no wrong, but it also showcases Pixar’s ability to stays ahead of the curve in that many think the sequel that will hit theaters in a matter of days is a movie that feeds of the recent sweeping movements of female prosperity in both film and society. 

That is not the case, Brad Bird’s screenplay is one that follows superheroes in the traditional 1950’s mold that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made famous during the golden age of comics. These are heroes seemingly existing in the same time frame as the civil rights movements, and a time period that presets the women and peace movements of the 1970’s. It’s a film that parodies the age of heroism and patriotism coexisting with one another while supporting that notion in the most progressive of mannerisms. 

It focuses on one man, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). He’s the prime example of that kind of superhero; he’s brave, super strong, and dashingly handsome. The film opens with him, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) being interviewed on what it's like to be a superhero, being asked questions like: "do you reveal your secret identity to other heroes, or do you keep it secret?"  That kind of questioning that is meant to be more fun than anything else, as Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) delivers the most charismatic interview of the rest, because he’s that guy, until one day he’s not. 

After he rescues a man attempting to commit suicide by catching him mid-air and spearing him through a building window, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) finds himself on the end of a hefty lawsuit. One that blames him for saving someone that didn’t want to be saved, whose rescuing attempt led to this man being broken physically. This act inspired many others to go after superheroes, blaming them for unlawful rescuing and inadvertent damages, costing the government millions, and sending every hero into the superhero relocation program. 

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), now going around as Bob, finds himself living in the suburbs, working at an insurance agency. He married fellow superhero Elastigirl/Helen (Holly Hunter) and had two superpowered children and a newborn: Dashiell (Spencer Fox) who can run fast, and Violet (Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and manifest force fields, and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) whose superpowers haven't revealed themselves just yet. They attempt to blend in with everyday citizens by going to school, showing up to work every day, and continually keeping their powers hidden away from the public.

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is someone who feels the weight of that burden, emotionally. He’s a metaphorical representation of the dad who’s lost himself to boredom and unfulfillment; he misses the glory days of heroism. He does what he can here and there, teaching his clients the in’s and outs of insurance policies, providing them with every loophole possible. 

That’s not enough though, he and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) go out on Wednesday nights and listen to the police scanner to find somewhere to intervene, to relive the glory days and do some low-profile superhero work. Placing a lot of hardships on his wife, who stays at home and takes care of the kids. She’s continuously burdened with the responsibility of cleaning, cooking, and parenting more often than her husband. Everything seems to be a struggle to fit in until Bob (Craig T. Nelson) is brought back into the life by a woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Pena), who gives him a mission to stop a massive, self-thinking, and an impenetrable robot named Omnidroid 7. 

After this successful venture, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) finds himself with a gig that pays lots of money, forces him back into shape, and towards the life he once knew. All of this is unbeknownst to his wife though; she’s kept in the dark, fearing that her husband is having an affair. Bird’s screenplay sets up that family dynamic brilliantly, in which Violet (Sarah Vowell) is a girl struggling to be a superhero going through puberty. She wants to be normal, but how can you be ordinary when you can make your head disappear? Dash (Spencer Fox) wants to play sports but knows he could beat everyone without even trying, but he doesn’t care, he just wants to be apart of something.  

Which seems to be the core theme of these children’s admirations, they want to be apart of something. Someone who wanted that same thing as a kid was Syndrome (Jason Lee) who, as a boy, would follow around Mr.Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) attempting to become his sidekick, dubbing himself with the name “Incrediboy.” He just wanted to be apart of the club of heroes, but he wasn’t gifted with superpowers, and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) wanted nothing to do with him because he works alone. All of this comes to ahead when Helen (Holly Hunter) learns everything that has taken place, and Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) finds himself tricked by this child turned supervillain. 

His past is no longer something he looks on with benevolence, but now with great regret, because he inadvertently fabricated a villain who has spent his life creating weapons and killing off every superhero. His plan? To bring superheroes back to their glory by fooling everyone into thinking he is one of them. He plans on accomplishing this by fighting off a robot that he constructed himself, and with no superheroes left to stop him, he’ll teach everyone that you don’t have to be super to be a hero. Everyone can be a superhero after that, making superheroes unnecessary. It’s a plan that you understand and get behind, and one that argues the core message of Bird’s screenplay. 

Exteriorly, “The Incredibles” is a satire of superhero comics. Underneath that, Bird is critiquing the reality of American uniformity, which back in 2004, was as prevalent as ever. He’s arguing against that notion that we’re all equally special, which as Dash says at one point “that just another way of saying no one is.” It’s arguing against a society that “celebrates mediocrity” as Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) states. It’s not that no one’s unique, but some of us are more special than others, which shouldn’t spark a negative feeling, it should inspire us to try harder. 

Visually, he borrows much more from the Bond films of the sixties and the comic book panels of the fifties. There are secret entrances, giant robots, and flying jets that look like something out of a detective comics book panel. Everything has that touch of a time we’ve all seen before, and one that echoes with the vibrancy and energy of that time, a time where life was always on the brink of change it seems. The red matching suits are also something fun to watch as well and look a little tight to fit in to.  

They seem to be latex fabricated tights, created by their very own fashion designer, Edna Mode who’s voiced by Brad Bird himself. She lectures Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) on why capes lead to accidents far more often than acts of heroism, and she hilariously inspires Helen (Holly Hunter) to find her husband later on in the movie. 

She’s that one essential character to make a Pixar movie feel right, like a Marvel movie with its levity. Alongside the talented ensemble, Bird brings these animated figures to life, whose animated texture has not aged near as badly as I would’ve thought. 

In the end, Helen (Holly Hunter) has to come to save her husband, even doing the whole hero thing better than he did, which wasn’t something done on accident I think. 

She was purposefully designed to say that women can do whatever the man can do, even saying at the beginning of the film when she’s asked if she’d ever considered settling down she responds: “Settle down, are you kidding? I'm at the top of my game! I'm right up there with the big dogs! Girls, come on. Leave the saving of the world to the men? I don't think so.” So, her saving the world alone, while the super strong man stays at home should be nothing surprising. She’s been wearing the pants in this family since the beginning. 

It shouldn’t be surprising to see a Pixar movie that does that, with films like “COCO,” “Inside Out,” and “Up” residing on their resume, it should come to no surprise that Pixar created a film that underlies societal relevance and forward thinking with the entertaining spectacle of superheroes, which was kind of ahead of the curve as well. It begs the question, did Pixar foresee the superhero golden age that we reside in today? If so, what will Pixar do next? How do they stay so far ahead of everyone else?
 

Ocean's 8 (2018)

   Director: Gary Ross  With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, & James Corden.  Release: Jun 8, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 50 min. 

Director: Gary Ross
With: Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Richard Armitage, & James Corden. 
Release: Jun 8, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 50 min. 

 

In the midst of Gary Ross’s, not Steven Soderbergh's (though he was a producer), “Ocean’s 8” there is a scene in which our family made crook, Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock), is browsing through possible additions to the crew with her confidant Lou (Cate Blanchett). Lou (Cate Blanchett) pulls up a headshot of a rather handsome fella, and Debby (Sandra Bullock) turns him down stating “A him gets noticed. A her gets ignored.” This scene is where I began to catch on to the con being fronted by “Ocean’s 8,” and it's one worth watching. 

The film sets itself as a sequel, instead of a reboot. Taking place years after the heyday of Danny Ocean (George Clooney) who has passed away, at least we assume he has, and his younger sister has seemed to have learned all of his best moves and made them even better. Opening with a scene that harkens back to “Ocean’s 11,” quite literally, in which our feminine lead crook is attempting to earn parole. She says she wants the simple life, that her days as a thief are done, she even gets choked up discussing how her brother’s legacy has not inspired her, but we all know that’s a crock a shit. She, in fact, is playing a con, something that seems to be as natural to her as breathing air. 

Why is she playing a con? To get out of prison right? I mean, obviously, but it's not that simple. Nothing is ever that simple with these movies though, as expected she’s been planning something big. A job that involves robbing the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but not the museum itself, but rather a particular item that is persuaded its way around the neck of the beautiful Daphne Kluger (Anne Hathaway). Known as the Toussaint, an infamous necklace painted with a French history that is fabricated with six pounds of diamonds and is valued at $150 million. With a crew of eight, that splits the prize at about $16.5 million each, a substantial enticement for anyone who needs anymore persuading beyond the challenge that lies ahead of them in this big, grand, con of the century. 

The money is great, but that doesn’t seem to be the only incentive because these women all seem to share that same appetite for thievery that Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock) and her family seem to have inherited almost organically. Lou (Cate Blanchett) is an old friend who's been with Debby (Sandra Bullock) since the start; she also shares some of the same connections she does to the old Soderbergh crew of swindlers. Amita (Mindy Kaling) is someone who can fake the jewelry but also lives with her mother whose constant harassment can be quite an enticement to try and steal your way to something better. 

Constance (Awkwafina) and Nine Ball (Rihanna) are the two utility and necessary tools, one is that sleight of hand smuggler, and the other is the hacker. How they learned their trade or who they are beyond that is not very important to “Ocean’s 8,” as Rose Well (Helena Bonham Carter) and Tammy (Sarah Paulson) or any of the other members of the crew that aren’t Debby Ocean (Sandra Bullock) seem to be overlooked and treated as unimportant. It’s a glaring flaw in the middle of “Ocean’s 8” that showcases the lack of style or nuance presented by Gary Ross, who also assisted Olivia Milch in writing the screenplay. The cast feels consistently mishandled, which for a film that is meant to use the sly socio-political messages of feminism to be the little jabs underlying this brash but familiar story, this misuse of the cast seems to be something that directly refutes the notions presented. 

Sister-hood is supposed to be something of pride, and it's something that is never heavily focused upon. If you're reading closely though, you may have noticed that the film is called “Ocean’s 8,” and I have only named seven members of the crew. Well, the eighth member is a bit of a surprise, that’s all I’ll say for now, but it's one of the many surprises that is fantastic. It’s one of the great things that Gary Ross borrows from the past four films in that the wonders that the heist includes, or the hidden cameos and twists of the narrative can be predictable, yet still feel invigoratingly enjoyable.

 It’s almost like a mainstream horror movie in that way, in the sense that the film has twists that are predictable due to the expectational assumptions that are brought to a movie about stealing stuff. You know what’s coming next, but you still want to be a part of the ride, despite the predictability of it's best parts. It’s one of the aspects of “Ocean’s 8” that I was already signed up for, so, to no surprise, it was one of the many things that made me grin during my screening. 

The other things that made me grin were the powerhouse of performances brought to the table by this ridiculously talented ensemble of women. Anne Hathaway plays this ditzy girl in hiding, whose obvious sex appeal, and pretty but dumb persona lends to her performance being one that is multi-faceted. Both in the way she is directly trolling her critics and in how she keeps you guessing as to what her importance is to the screenplay. Is she just the butt of the joke, or is she apart of the fun? 

Sandra Bullock is magnificently charming and cunning. She has the dose of calmness and sternness that makes her seem as if she’s sleeping through her performance, but that’s the whole point of her character. This con isn’t her first, nor is it her last. She’s not going to have those rookie jitters; she’s a veteran and one of the best at what she does. Cate Blanchett shares remarkable chemistry with that facade of her character, continually dispensing her charisma all over the screen in a way that makes her feel like she’s giving far more to the role than the role is giving back to her. Rihanna and Awkwafina are the two comic reliefs of the group, something they excel at, and Sarah Paulson and Helena Bonham Carter are given roles that allow them to feel necessary, but never unique. 

Someone who feels completely underused is Mindy Kaling, she’s such a talented actress, and one that deserves some more opportunities because she leaves a lot of her fingerprints on this film, unlike Gary Ross. Not only is his screenplay rather dull in that of the meat of what makes this story tick, but the visual language presented is something of mundane quality as well. He’s continuously showcasing these wide shots of New York City as if we forgot where this film was taking place, and his edits feel more like he’s mimicking Soderbergh, instead of making this franchise his own. 

He plays second fiddle, not to these exceptional women, but to the man that made these films famous. At least the woman look incredible though, thanks to some impeccable costume design from Sarah Edwards who works alongside top designers such as Valentino and Naeem Khan, to name a few. She allows these women to embrace that feminine side of glitz and glamour, something that alongside the constant jabs of feminist pride, can become quite special to watch. 

It’s a long con, pulled off by both the cast and the filmmaker behind them. “Ocean’s 8” is presenting itself as a female-led reboot of a film, one that has no unique attachments, but in all reality, it's just that. It’s a female-led film that has a unique touch because of its womanhood, something that doesn’t get brought to light enough by the “man” behind the camera. If only this film had a director with a woman’s touch, I might not be describing this film as almost great. I guess that might be the great con of it all, a movie about women, with no woman behind the camera, such a shame. 

Hereditary (2018)

   Director: Ari Aster  With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro. Release: Jun 8, 2018 R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

Director: Ari Aster
With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

 

Curled up in my seat, grasping my arms, breathing heavily, and struggling to not look around me at all times. These are the traits of an experience that a great horror film can manifest from its viewer, traits that I exhibited tonight at my screening for Ari Aster’s feature film debut, “Hereditary.” It’s a horror film designed to produce something different from the guessable and unimpactful mainstream horror that audiences are accustomed too, in fact, it's hard not to say that this film isn’t original. From it’s story to its use of the camera, “Hereditary” maintains this sense of unique and nuanced storytelling. 

A brilliantly written story that builds from something slow and dramatic that lingers with an atmosphere that chills you to the bone, to something off the rails with unexpected twists and shadowed silhouettes that are sure to haunt my dreams when I lay my head down later tonight. However, it’s also a story that is easy to spoil and ruin for someone unaware of the brilliance that they're about to witness. Ari Aster structures this story in a way that makes it that way, continually blending expected reality with that of horrific fiction making sure that if you give away the surprise, the party's ruined. 

You're never sure if the events your witnessing are occurring or just another figment of a nightmare though, like that of Annie’s (Toni Collette) sleepwalking, a habit of hers that once led her to drown her children and herself in paint thinner one night. Waking herself out of the numbified trance with the sound of a match being lit. It’s a story that explains this disruption in the family, well one of them that is. It all takes place after the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, a woman whose dominating personality estranged them away from each other. We learn her family has a lineage littered with tragedy, a father whose depression drove him to death from starvation, and a brother whose schizophrenia drove him to suicide by hanging. Leaving behind a suicide note that blamed his mother for letting them inside him. 

Annie (Toni Collette) doesn’t become stricken with grief, but somewhat guilt. Fearing her mother’s behavior would somehow become her own, tearing apart the family she loves. To deal with this fear, she articulates small figurines. Building a little three-dimensional portrait of her life, from the birth of her children to the recent loss of her mother. She crafts a small glance into the shell of her life, one that begins to haunt her when her family begins to struggle with inexplicable things. 

Her youngest daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), ticks with creepiness and behavioral perplexions, like her deadly allergy to nuts. Yet it seems she’s chosen to eat them before, as we see her eating a chocolate bar during the funeral of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Her father asks if it has nuts in it as if she willingly ate them before, well aware of her allergic liability. 

Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is someone attempting to understand his mother. Unable to forget her sleepwalking occurrence, he’s hard on her and always butting heads. They exchange a passive-aggressive tone of dialogue in a scene in which Peter (Alex Wolff) is asking to borrow the car to attend a friend’s party, a conversation that haunts our story later on. 

The husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a man of rationality and one that seems to be the backbone of the family, constantly reeling his wife back in. 

All of this is as much of the story that I am willing to give you in, why the fear starts or how it starts is something you’ll have to discover on your own. These are merely foregrounds for the characters, to allow you to understand the inherent emotion found in the horror that develops a sense of naturalistic realism. Realism that is maintained even when the story jumps from lingering articulative atmospheric fear to in your face and strangely believable events that are handled with a level of mastery from Aster. 

Aster in his first feature film has earned that definitive description of mastery because he continuously berates the story with nuance and sense of organized erratic behavior. Unable to predict what’s coming next, and feeling uneasy while you try to be two steps ahead of both Aster's visuals and his screenwriting. They work hand in hand, barely placing pressure on the strain of the audience until they suddenly reveal an image in which you see something lurking in the shadows. Something is remaining entirely still, staring back at you. The camera lingers, staying wide, steady, and calmly placed. Your eyes darting across the screen, and your hands gripping the theater chair, expecting to see something sporadically move, but Aster is not that simple. 

Aster keeps you on your toes in that way, always peeking around every corner of the story with this unsure sense of confidence, unable to predict the outcome. It’s unlike horror to do such a thing; we’re supposed to go in a be able to say “wait for it, here it comes,” as a loud screeching noise jolts through the surround sound, convulsing your friend out of their seat. Aster doesn’t do that though; he begins the film with slow, lingering, and depthful camera movements. They methodically meander throughout the frame, never in a rush to get to a scare or the next scene. He manifests an atmosphere; one the exemplifies something worth experiencing in a theatre. 

It’s worth that ten dollar ticket, if not to see the magnificent fright that awaits you, then to see Toni Collette throw her name out in front of the pack for the best female performance of 2018. Her facial expressions, her movement, her subtle smiles and twitches, and her constant evocation of emotional outrage is something worth a lot more than ten dollars. She grasps every drop of attention from the audience, pouring out her emotions on to the screen. Never shying away from going all-in, and knowing when to hold back. 

Milly Shapiro isn’t far behind though, in her first performance she inhabits a character that dispatches shivers. Manifesting a sound that is sure to be mimicked and replicated for years to come, one that merely involves you clicking your tongue. It becomes a dreaded noise in the film, one that when it occurs, it automatically riddles your body with goosebumps in anticipation for what could be lurking in the shadows. 

Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne are the backboned performances that could make or break this film. They remain tethered to reality, being the two representatives of those afraid of the events they witness. Not curious, not inspired by, just merely scared. Their performances hold the film together when it needs it most, being those utility tools that every filmmaker needs to craft something of this magnitude because they are essential to “Hereditary” becoming what it has been dubbed as, a masterpiece. 

It’s not this generation's “Exorcist,” nor is it the twenty-first century’s “Psycho.” “Hereditary” is something of its own, and it's insulting to call it something otherwise. It’s original; it’s the most prolific attribute that is worthy of the most praise. Ari Aster is a genius and one that has a bright future ahead of him. His direction of the actors, of the cinematographer, of the production team, and his pure manipulation of the audience is something exceptional from any director, let alone a first timer. Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, Colin Stetson's music, and the array of impeccable performances can’t go unmentioned, and now, neither can “Hereditary” when discussing the best of the horror genre. 

Upgrade (2018)

   Director: Leigh Whannell  With: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Christopher Kirby, Simon Maiden, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne, Clayton Jacobson, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster, Linda Cropper, & Roscoe Campbell.  Release: Jun 1, 2018 R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

Director: Leigh Whannell
With: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson, Christopher Kirby, Simon Maiden, Benedict Hardie, Melanie Vallejo, Richard Cawthorne, Clayton Jacobson, Sachin Joab, Michael M. Foster, Linda Cropper, & Roscoe Campbell. 
Release: Jun 1, 2018
R. 1 hr. 40 min. 

2.5_4 stars.png
 

Indie filmmakers have a particular talent for extending a clever logline to its absolute limit. Leigh Whannell shares that same talent; he takes a familiar and almost bad-shit crazy idea like that of a man being given a chance at revenge by being given a small computer chip implant called STEM (Simon Maiden) to its absolute limit, and then he strides past that barrier. A technological innovation that allows this violently made quadriplegic and technophobe Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) to gain access to his limbs once again, STEM (Simon Maiden) does that for him, as well as becoming a new friend that only he can hear. One that speaks into the drums of his ears and provides a vaster sense of knowledge and ability to himself, but also an inherent danger. 

It’s a “Blade Runner” meets “RoboCop” kind of tale, a man turning to technology to return to life but also to hunt down the men that took that life away from him as well. It takes place in a world that feels apart of that noirish world of “Blade Runner,” almost feeling mimicked even. The grungy technologically advanced future that feels far more disconnected, despite the lack of available connectivity, which is not a nuance theme by any means. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), is a technophobe with a wife who works for a tech company. He’s a grease monkey that fixes manually driven cars, while she rides in a car that drives itself home. 

After dropping off one of his renovated projects to a wealthy technological innovator, Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), who introduces him to his newest prototype known as STEM (Simon Maiden), this self-driving car goes haywire. Driving off the road and an accelerated speed before crashing and flipping upside down. The droned recording devices for the Police arrive promptly to watch a group of men come and kill Grey’s (Logan Marshall-Green) wife and paralyze him completely. These droned footage finders are unable to assist in finding these murders though, seeing as they removed some kind of chip that allows them to remain escapable from the reach of the law because criminals always find a way, don’t they?

Drenched in grief and unable to overcome his lack of physical ability, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) finds himself unable to desire to live. Being offered a reset on his life by Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), he states “I’m not looking for the reset button kid, I’m looking for the off switch.” He gives in though, reminiscing on the idea of what his wife would want for him. The procedure goes all-too-well, and he soon finds himself with a technological “Upgrade” that pushes him towards vengeance in a sequence made famous by the trailer in which he gives STEM (Simon Maiden) permission to take over his bodily functions. Making for some exceptional acting from Logan Marshall-Green in which he delivers facial expressions of surprise and third-person perspectives because his body is now a separate entity from his mind. 

It makes for Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde kind of character, but a character that was never brought to light enough to evoke resonance from me. He hates technology and something terrible happened to him is about all we learn about the man controlled by a machine, but the action and surprisingly hefty themes attached to his character’s journey provide that extra boost that the film needed which harkens back to an indie filmmaker stretching an idea as far as possible. 

Written and directed by Leigh Whannell (“Saw” & “Insidious”), “Upgrade” is an expected action flick with no heart and no ambition, but becomes an action film hidden inside of a sci-fi drama discussing the dangers of technology and our desire for self-happiness over human prosperity. Whannell stretches this story way farther than expected, writing something that continuously maintains a constant state of investment in this world, despite his characters never making me fret for their well being. 

There is some insane ingenuity that makes for sheer cinematic momentum like that of a gun for an arm or sneezing razor-wired germs. This is a world that weaponizes the limitless potentials of technology, and one that remains to feel both original and reprinted from fellow sci-fi masters. It’s not just the world-building, or the ingenuitive writing that becomes too big for its own good, Leigh Whannell also visualizes this story exceptionally. 

The camera movement is especially interesting because it's both frustratingly cutting while maintaining childlike excitement. The camera snips and snaps in some fight scenes, but in others, it moves with our hero, like that of something out of a video game or a comic book. It pushes the limits of camera maneuverability while allowing the flaws of the quick cutting of the action genre to remain prevalent. It’s as if Leigh Whannell got lazy on some days, and was caffeine filled excited on others. 

Someone that remains consistent is Logan Marshall-Green, who is the only actor worth mentioning because everyone else plays the stereotypical bad guy or necessary girlfriend. He provides a performance that gives his character far more emotion that it deserves, he delivers one of his best performances yet, but his character noticeably limits his reach at times. 

Unlike that character though, Leigh Whannell surpasses the limits of this fun-filled logline of a screenplay. He goes further and more profound than expected, but that third act finale is a bit too much. He slams on the gas pedal towards something ambiguous and thought-provoking when he should have steadily applied pressure towards the finish line. 

He’s expanding “Upgrade” past my expectations, and he helms it remarkably, but like every other compliment I can give him, there is a fair critique to be stated. Constantly pushing the film too far, and not far enough. He extends it to the point that is sheerly remarkable that it all makes sense that we went from a man on a path of vengeance to a philosophical glimpse on our desire for happiness. Our mind has limits, and this film does too, I just hope Leigh Whannell didn’t pull anything while stretching “Upgrade” to it’s stumping finale.  
 

Zombieland (2009)

   Director: Ruben Fleischer With: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, & Bill Murray.  Release: Oct 2, 2009 R. 1 hr. 28 min.     

Director: Ruben Fleischer
With: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, & Bill Murray. 
Release: Oct 2, 2009
R. 1 hr. 28 min. 

 

 

Zombies are apart of a subgenre of horror that can be entirely predictable. The human focus, the virus spreading, the massive amounts of weaponry, and the overabundance of gore are all common expectations within any film that becomes apart of this flesh-eating genre. Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” is no different, but like Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland” doesn’t exactly fit into the niche of the genre like you would expect. Instead, the film grasps the core essence of the genre and adds a humorous amount of normality with a young man being our narrator, as if this zombie-filled world is now something of comfort and expectation. With zombie kill of the week awards, rule lists, and makeup covered celebrities, everyone seems to have embraced this world that has been overtaken by the undead. 

Its an unusual perspective on the narrative of zombies right? Add in the facet of a narrator like Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), a germaphobe, anxiety polluted, and little spit f*$k of a man. He’s the one who fills us in on how the world has gone to shit; the mad cow turned mad person disease that causes you to have a high fever, induced vomiting, and an extreme case of the munchies. He gives us advice on how to survive as well with a long list of rules, but four core guidelines give you the best chance of survival. 

Cardio, because the fat people were the first people to go when the world became a run for survival. Always double tap your attacker, because you don’t want to be that person who assumes you re-killed the undead flesh eater, only to learn that they’re now feasting on your corpse. Beware of bathrooms; zombies are not completely stupid; they know when your most vulnerable like in a bathroom with your pants down. And finally, always wear a seatbelt. You have enough things trying to kill you, so don’t be dumb and die because you got flung out of a car when attempting to escape from a group of cannibals. 

These are the four rules that Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg)  tells us to live by, but the list doesn’t stop there. It also includes guidelines such as limbering up, traveling light, and most importantly, don’t be a hero. These rules are challenged when Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg) runs into the ass-kicker known as Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). (By the way, none of these names are real but are actually their destinations, because you can’t trust anyone anymore, so their names remain hidden) He’s a man that lost the only thing that kept him sane and now spends his life enjoying the little things and finding happiness by killing as much of these flesh-eating assholes as he can. He’s a gun loving, banjo playing, and hedge clipping killing machine that not only inspires Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) but teaches him along the way. 

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has some lessons to teach Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) as well though, meeting Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Two girls who even before “Zombieland,” have spent their time bamboozling guys with their looks and with emotions. Tricking both Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the man desperate for companionship, and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the man desperate for a family, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) play these guys with ease, and take all of their weapons as well as Tallahassee’s (Woody Harrelson) Cadillac. From there, our story gets jolted into this exciting, slick, and fun-filled ride. 

That’s not to say that genius screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick don’t include the expected emotional struggles that would arrive with a world filled with zombies. Each character has their struggles, like Wichita (Emma Stone) just trying to allow her little sister to feel like a kid again, or Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) just wanting to be that nice guy turned hero for one lucky girl. There is plenty of emotion included in the screenplay, but never enough that it overshadows our witty comedy, which is the genius of Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick’s work in “Zombieland.” 

Ruben Fleischer provides a lense to the story, which is not his shining point as the director of “Zombieland.” The way he directs these actors is where Fleischer stands out, his ability to give these stars a sense of correlating direction. Driving Jesse Eisenberg to use that quirkiness he's known for to formulate a character that only he could depict, and giving Woody Harrelson this self-proclaimed badass who's actually a man trying to run away from his past. Add in the brilliance of a kid stuck in “Zombieland” in that of Abigail Breslin, and a big sister like Emma Stone trying to let her little sister feel like a kid once more, and you'll find a cast deserving of a sequel. This is where comedy directors shine, rarely is it the visual language that evokes the brilliance of a comedic filmmaker, but the way he’s able to direct his actors is where the best of em’ stand out. 

Ruben Fleischer displays that ability with “Zombieland,” a film that reminds us of our own ability to adapt. When things go wrong, even as wrong as zombies eating their way to our extinction, we continue to find a way to live with it all. Whether it's traveling to theme parks, invading celebrities million dollar homes, finding ways to make killing fun, or even making up a bunch of rules to keep us feeling safe. We can find a new home, a new family, and a new way of life. It’s one of our best qualities as human beings and one that “Zombieland” weaponizes into this comedic awesomeness of a zombie movie. 

Cloverfield (2008)

   Director: Matt Reeves With: Marlena Diamond, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, & Odette Yustman.  Release: January 18, 2008. PG-13. 1 hr. 25 min. 

Director: Matt Reeves
With: Marlena Diamond, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, & Odette Yustman. 
Release: January 18, 2008.
PG-13. 1 hr. 25 min. 

 

J.J Abrams has become a king of marketing. Exploiting the use of surprises, mystery, and trailers in a far superior format than almost anyone else. One of his most significant feats of marketing was Matt Reeves 2008 film, “Cloverfield.” The “Godzilla” and “Blair Witch” crossover that took the film community by storm in its inaugural trailer drop that occurred during the opening night pre-show for Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” The trailer was mysterious and sent all of us film fans into a frenzy of research and obsession on the IMDB pages of the internet, but we would soon be even more surprised that the found-footage subgenre of Hollywood had manifested a surprisingly frightening thriller that answers the question: What would it be like to witness a monster attacking your city? 

Providing a lensed perspective for our journey, literally, Director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” & “War for the Planet of the Apes”) joins Screenwriter Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods” & “The Martian”) as they team with J.J Abrams’ Bad Robot Studios to provide an answer to that question. 

The film opens with a seemingly normal state of living as we are introduced to our first camera operator, Rob (Michael Stahl-David). He’s just awoken from a beautiful night out with the girl he loves, Beth (Odette Annable). She is his college crush and one that he finally got to spend a night with, and it leads to a setting that the camera continuously flashes back to when it becomes faulty, as if to say to the audience and whoever is watching this footage: “Remember when things were normal?” The footage fast-forwards by a month as we meet Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) brother Jason (Mike Vogel) as they are shopping for supplies for Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) going away party, as he’s been awarded a vice-president position at a company in Japan. While this party is being put together, Jason (Mike Vogel) hands off the camera to our chief camera operator, Hudson (T.J. Miller). 

He’s the best friend of the party’s star, but he’s that guy whose best friend with the most important guy, not necessarily friends with everyone else. He’s awkward, and constantly interrupting private conversations with the excuse that he’s “documenting.” Luckily, he continues documenting when the city comes under attack from something, as in the midst of some party drama, Manhattan shakes and quivers. As off the shores of the New York Harbor, an Oil Rig was surprised to unlock a crevasse that unleashed an organism of some sorts that is believed to have suffered from the scientific theory of deep-sea gigantism. Unlike a giant squid though, that may grow to be as big 13m in length, this monster is the size of buildings. It's lurking, carries multiple appendages, and has small arachnid/arthropod-like creatures descending from its outer shell. It's a reptilian-like arthropod creature that seems to be incredibly hard to kill. 

With missiles, machine gun fire, and massive caliber weaponry from tanks and fighter jets being unable to put a dent in its rampage. Our camera holder catches its fearsome arrival, but it's rarely shown in full view. No wide shots or steady frames are to be found, which can be quite frustrating as a filmgoer, but in that same frame of mind, it's the logicality behind the filming that bothers me. 

I can get past the shaky camera movements because this inexperienced photographer isn’t going to set-up a tripod to film, he going to carry it and point it to see what’s happening, he's not going to give the viewer a visual language to follow. But the idea of the camera surviving nuclear fallout, multiple drops to the concrete floor, or that its battery lasts this long is something hard to believe. This is a cheap 2008 camera being used in the midst of firefights; I doubt it would make it as far as it does. 

Nonetheless, the film does maintain a sense of realism that overcomes that one aspect of implausibility. Its perspective lensing provides for some incredible sequences that would never be shot by some random dude, but a talented cinematographer like Michael Bonvillain (“Zombieland” & “American Ultra”) could definitely fabricate them. His mastermind direction from Matt Reeves leads to a multitude of scenes that are exceptionally thrilling, one that continues to send shivers down my spine takes place in the subways tracks of New York City. 

Our group of everyday joes head back into the city, after losing a few friends, to help Rob (Michael Stahl-David) save the girl that he loves. On their way back into midtown, they are bombarded by a fleet of U.S soldiers launching another attack on the gargantuan beast, the sounds of war drown out our characters' dialogue, a realistic use of the sound design that warrants some applause. Stuck down in the subways, they wait for the war zone to move on, but after a few hours pass they attempt to take the trails of the subway to her apartment. While in the midst of awkward conversation made by our doofus camera operator, rats begin to flee between their feet. 

Lily (Jessica Lucas) states “They’re all running in the same direction,” Rob (Michael Stahl-David) calmly suggests “Yeah, like they’re running away from something.” Moments later an eerie growl echoes through the tunnels, as Rob (Michael Stahl-David) shows Hudson (T.J. Miller) how to use the night vision. Once it comes on, we see those same small creatures walking on the ceiling, staring into the lens of the camera. Their growls and rumbles begin to overwhelm the audio as they attack our group, even biting one of them as she risked herself by saving our camera holder. 

It all feels too cinematic to be believable as someone’s lost footage from the event known as “Cloverfield,” but it lends to some frightening sequences nonetheless because it's doesn’t carry too much of Hollywood’s fingerprints to seem implausible. It sucks you into the story as if your there alongside them, watching all of this as it occurs. The use of shielding the identity of the monster, the performances from relatively unknown actors, and the constant barrage of shaky cam assist in the film feeling naturalistic or like the legitimate dose of realism that found-footage is designed to be. “Cloverfield” is one of those films that alongside its brilliant marketing, uses it's filmmaking techniques to assist it's storytelling past the hurdles that if filmed otherwise, would be seen as mundane. 

The camera operator, Hudson, depicted by T.J. Miller in his first acting gig, is someone that assists in that believability. Many see him as kind of douche who is continually sticking the camera in his friends face instead of consoling them or making conversation about flaming homeless men in the midst of an already stressful situation. If a monster attacked your city though, wouldn’t you find some way for your brain to comprehend everything? What if talking out of your ass was your defensive mechanism? Things become weird when were placed in those sort of life or death situations, it just so happens that this is how Hud (T.J. Miller) dealt with it all. I can’t blame him for that, which is just the icing on the cake for a film that uses all the tools available to become something far more legitimate than you’d expect. 
 

No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Which is what “No Country for Old Men” is at its heart, it’s a noir western in which the cynicism of the world that our gunslingers inhabit is no longer something worthwhile, but rather something to be feared.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

   Director: Bryan Singer With: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Mark Camacho, Ian McKellen, & Patrick Stewart. Release: May 23, 2014 PG-13. 2 hr. 12 min. 

Director: Bryan Singer
With: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Mark Camacho, Ian McKellen, & Patrick Stewart.
Release: May 23, 2014
PG-13. 2 hr. 12 min. 

 

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a grand finale to a spec of storytelling. Like that of “What If” or “Marvel: The End,” Marvel likes to look at it's universes as monuments of reality. They're spectacles of opera-like drama that can be torn down and restarted at will. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the same event for 20th Century Fox’s cinematic universe of mutants, but the allegories for puberty, sexuality, and racism have all gone away.

This time around, the focus is climactic, set in the distant future in which shape-shifting and mutant absorbing Sentinels have launched a war upon mutantkind and the few groups of humanity that stand alongside them. Mutant versus all is the setting, but it's a war that hasn’t gone well for the evolved versions of humankind. Nearly wiped out, the benevolent Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and former foe Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) are left with no choice but to rewrite history. They gather a team of young mutants with familiar faces like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty (Ellen Page) and new faces like Bishop (Omar Sy) and Blink (Fan Bingbing).

Needing someone who can heal at a constant rate, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only choice to make the trip. Sent back to 1973, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has to convince a younger and distraught Charles (James McAvoy) to reconcile with a younger Erik (Michael Fassbender) and stop Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) whose death would send mankind on a fear mongered obsession to halt mutant kind from ever-evolving past them. It’s a mouthful of a story, but one that is handled with a surprising amount of consistency and emotional heft.

The best moments of the film is when we are allowed to glimpse into these heroes motives and resolves. Like that of the younger Charles (James McAvoy) whose losses have amounted to so much emotional grief that it has driven him to a drug obsession. It’s not an ordinary drug though, it's a type of medicine that Hank (Nicholas Hoult) manifested to allow Charles (James McAvoy) to walk, but his self-guilt and self-hatred consumes him too much. Always taking too much, so much that it dwindles his powers completely.

It’s an emotional subplot that carries his character to the film’s most captivating moments, one in which he looks into Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) mind to seek advice from himself in the future. In the process, he gains recognition of Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) pain, stating “I don’t want your suffering. I don’t want your future!” It’s a remarkably crafted scene that is carried by another captivating performance from James McAvoy that gives Patrick Stewart a run for his money.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) kind of fades into the background in an attentive manner. Though Hugh has another decent outing as the character, he carries the plot instead of himself, rarely given any moments in which his character grows. The writers (Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman) have so much on their plate that they forgot to give one of their most popular character any growth. We don’t learn more about him, but instead, see things happen to him. He grows to the same extent that the film’s runtime increases with every minute passed.

The massive array of character lends to a blend of worlds that is almost seamless. Bryan Singer carries this film with a remarkable outing as director. The visual can be spectacular at times, and the characters gain heft from the emotional conflicts they face. It’s like a lesser version of “Infinity War” in which the losses are felt, but are never earth-shattering. The camera remains quite colorful, and the seventies atmosphere gives the X-men a Watchmen-esque taste that evokes excitement. We lean into the screen, ready to be taken on a journey.

One of the most exciting moments of that journey is when we get to meet Quicksilver (Evan Peters). One half of the Maximoff twins (watch “Avengers: Age of Ultron” if this confuses you or read some comics, obviously), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is a charismatic and charming individual that is given an magical sequence that has Jim Croce’s enchanting “Time in a Bottle” set as the background theme. He zooms past in slow motion, fabricating comedic slapstick set-ups, and saving his newly found friends. Singer earned a directional nod for me with this one scene, a tough act to follow up. Yet, he finds a way with both the bombastic finale and the snippets of action involving these frightening Sentinels in this worthy and grand culmination.  

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is 20th Century Fox hitting that reboot button that opens up questions surrounding it's newest films, creating a rippling effect that can manifest more confusion than you would think. One example, does “Deadpool” take place in the same universe? Or is this like a comic book in which “X-Men: Days of Future Past” took place in the reality of Earth 616 and now the universe lives in the existence of Earth 821?

Either way, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” has a lot of stories to tell, and it handles all of them in a fair balance. Some fade into the background and arrive without impact, and the time traveling of it all can become a bit of a burden, but Singer’s return is met with emotional heft and a challenging narrative that is brought to life by superb performances and exciting direction. It may take awhile for it to sink in, but go read “Final Crisis” or “Flashpoint” and understand where these kinds of superhero stories stem from. It’s a lot to digest, but it's incredibly riveting nonetheless. It’s explosive, consequential, and tiring. Watching the Rogue cut of the film can be especially exhausting, but “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is still one of the best depictions of this world of mutants, if only there were some Avengers to back them up.

The Wolverine (2013)

   Director: James Mangold With: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, & Brian Tee. Release: July 26, 2013 PG-13. 2 hr. 6 min. 

Director: James Mangold
With: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, & Brian Tee.
Release: July 26, 2013
PG-13. 2 hr. 6 min. 

 

James Mangold (“Walk The Line” & “3:10 to Yuma”) once stated, “In a way, Roger Ebert helped make 'The Wolverine.' 'Why should I care about this guy?” Mangold finally provides an answer to that inquiry that like Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” or Raimi’s “Spider-Man 1&2” gets to the heart of what makes the character memorable. Deconstructing the charisma and providing a resolve to the comic book legend that in accordance with a Japanese centric location crafts an isolated film that showcases the best and a bit of the worst of comic book movies. 

Slipping into the psychological territory of storytelling in which Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) immortality is challenged. He can feel pain and not be able to heal it away, the blood continues to pour, and the aches from the wounds of the past won't stop because the scars of his grief are not merely pulled back together by his mutation. Taking place months removed from the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” we see Logan (Hugh Jackman) as a long-haired and burly man that has taken a vow never to take another life. His grief and guilt for killing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) have riddled him with emotionality, and after a drunken hunter shoots a large bear with a poison-tipped arrow, the bear rips his fellow friends to shreds. Logan (Hugh Jackman) hears their screams and goes to see if he can help and discovers the bear collapsed, he states “don’t make me do this” as the bear makes one last attempt to survive and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) places the beast out of his misery, breaking his promise to Jean (Famke Janssen). 

He then goes into to town, confronting the hunter in a bar. While there, he is joined by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young mutant with the ability to see people’s deaths before they happen. From there the story resembles Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s “The Wolverine” comic from 1982, taking place in Japan in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is poised with the question: “do you want to live forever?” What if you could grow old and start a family, settle down, and live in peace? This topic becomes the focal point of our character as not only do we spend time getting to analyze these complexities that he's confronted by but Mangold crafts an action-centric thriller around the character as well. Allowing the character to push the story, instead of the other way around, Mangold provides an emotionally compelling look at the character that wouldn’t be followed up until 2017. 

Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are responsible for the screenplay given, and they even spend providing commentary on the atomic bomb dropping of Nagasaki in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) states “I was here when it happened.” Like that of an American soldier realizing that he may have been on the wrong side of a horrendous event, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) eventually has to figure out how to become the animalistic beast once more so that he can save the young Mariko (Tao Okamoto). In a spellbinding sequence that ends with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) fighting off a greed driven father whose samurai abilities are unable to conquer the healing skills of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). 

A climax that is far better than the actual final battle we receive in which a giant adamantium robot challenges our clawed hero, yes you heard that right. It’s like “Wonder Woman” in which the first two acts of the film are nearly perfect, and the final battle feels like a studio forcing a filmmaker to craft something for the masses that doesn’t correctly meld with the story being told. The digital animations aren’t exactly handled the best either, in which this giant samurai resembles something from a PS3 graphics card (at least it's updated from a PS1). 

The helming of this climax is handled well like the rest of the film, the action scenes from the first two acts are far superior though because they underline themselves with grit and emotion. We’re not just watching Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) swing his claws because it looks cool, but we’re providing reasons for him to do so which makes each puncture feel far more impactful. Mangold and his cinematographer, Ross Emery, give a very vibrant look that is digitalized but also can deliver portraits that resemble comic book panels at times. Some of the images are merely epic though, like that of a shirtless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) standing in the moonlight as he fights a samurai in the rain. How does that not excite you? 

Marco Beltrami also provides a score that stands out more than most; it’s not the x-men overtones we’ve heard before, their far more subtle than that. Rarely overstepping its welcome, the score works better than past X-men scores because it carries the story, much like Hugh Jackman’s performance. He’s gritty, resolved, challenged, and emotionally captivating. His second best performance as the character in which Jackman’s iconic growls and screeches depict his animalistic tendencies, but Mangold’s added resolve to the character allows for Jackman to finally invest himself into the character in a far more resonating fashion. 

His fellow Japanese actors are overlooked far too often though, Hiroyuki Sanada is exceptional as the crazed father. He compels the viewer like a great villain in which you understand his reasoning, but despise him nonetheless (why wasn’t he the main antagonist again?) Tao Okamoto, and Rila Fukushima are outstanding as well and share genuine chemistry with Hugh. Both are charming and even have resonating emotional subplots attached to them, like that of Tao, a girl dealing with the expectations of a family that she continues to disappoint due to their selfish desires. Rila is a mutant whose ability is a curse like Logan’s (Hugh Jackman), seeing the death of everyone you meet. It takes a toll, much like the film’s story does when it hits you with punches that carry more weight to them than you’d expect. 

“I see you on your back, there’s blood everywhere, your holding your heart in your own hand.” It's lines like that one that after viewing the unofficial sequel begin to carry extra weight, as Logan (Hugh Jackman) no longer seems to be a character whose claws make him unique. He’s tortured, symbolized as a suffering man from those very claws that others confused as a gift instead of a burden. Yes, it’s a PG-13 rendering in which you don’t get the full effect sometimes, but inherent Eastwood characteristics in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) could care less if you like him or not carry the film to a particular poignancy. We’re watching the character evolve right before our eyes; I’m glad Mangold realized that Ebert was right. 
 

X-Men: First Class (2011)

   Director: Matthew Vaughn With: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, & Kevin Bacon.  Release: June 3, 2011 PG-13. 2 hr. 11 min. 

Director: Matthew Vaughn
With: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, & Kevin Bacon. 
Release: June 3, 2011
PG-13. 2 hr. 11 min. 

 

Relaunching the universe, “X-Men: First Class” analyzes the foundational building blocks of the mutant team of heroes. Beginning in 1944 Poland in which the young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) anger surges his mutation to the surface as his parents are tragically taken away during the great tragedy known as the Holocaust. Ripping out Bryan Singer’s opening scene from “X-Men,” the beginning of the film lends to a dark tone for Erik (Michael Fassbender) in which his anguish is only driving force behind his mission. 

While on his mission for vengeance, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) walks onto the scene as someone who desires to reach out to other mutants and let them know they are not alone. Meeting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) as a child in which he catches her trying to steal food and says “I knew I couldn't be the only one. We have plenty of food, take whatever you’d like. You don’t have to steal anymore, in fact, you never have to steal ever again.” 

It’s a Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X origins story in which their beginnings drive their ideologies in which Erik’s (Michael Fassbender) violent inception forces him to become a weapon, while Xavier (James McAvoy) has an origin of choice in which he chooses to become a beacon of hope for mutant kind and a guiding hand. A heartfelt start to our film that quickly turns into nothing but action, as our characters are met head-on by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). A mutant whose can harness any energy and then reproject that energy onto others, Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants to light the match that leads to the downfall of humankind and the rise of mutantkind.  His plan? He wants to persuade the Russian and United States world leaders towards the brink of nuclear war, a.k.a the Cuban missile crisis. 

With historical fact being surrounded by comic book lore, a C.I.A agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), attempts to persuade her commanding officers to place their faith in the idea of fighting fire with fire. She urges her hire-ups to trust in Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the young team of mutants he brings together. The cadets involve Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones; a man who shouts), Havok (Lucas Till; Cyclops older brother who projects the same concussive beams outside of his body), and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult; a man with crazy feet who eventually mutates into a blue furball beast). 

All of these mutants are given enough time to become recognizable and even memorable, Hank (Nicholas Hoult) is even given a meaty role in the narrative in which he shares the same desire that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) does. To be normal, to fit in with society, but it's not until Erik (Michael Fassbender) states “you shouldn’t try to fit into to society, they should aspire to be you.” Hank (Nicholas Hoult) goes farther than her, knowing he has the chance at an ordinary life and in reference to Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he attempts to cure himself, but only makes everything worse. Transforming from a man with animalistic feet to a literal blue-haired beast that is not precisely rendered believably. The prosthetics don’t correctly work, but Vaughn’s styling of the characters does. 

Vaughn blends that timeless sixties essence with the comic book imagery of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Even directing an entire sequence with the panel like transitions that exploit the best of his talents as a filmmaker. Going from “Kick-Ass” to this film was quite obtuse though, seeming as if it's missing a heavy dose of maturity, “X-Men: First Class” seems never to surpass the bombastic shrouds of its blockbuster style. 

Scared to cross that mature barrier once again, since the landscape had changed with the development of the levity driven MCU in its phase one prime, “X-Men: First Class” is directed like a comic book blockbuster in a good and bad way. Some of the scenes maintain that extra heft of escapism and others feel that there missing an integral puzzle piece. I needed that extra push, but I continued to get lost in the sixties scenery and the charisma injected into this comic book universe that once desired to wear shoes too big for its feet to fill. 

The performances are all around exceptional, but Fassbender and McAvoy share a dose of chemistry and skill as actors that makes them stand head and shoulders above their fellow x-men. I couldn’t help but feel that they were raising the bar for their castmates, but they were unable to match their talent. Lawrence has some resonating scenes that are carried by herself, but the writing behind her isn’t exactly the best. The rest of the actors are supportive of the story, but they don’t exactly stand out. Either because of the writing or the lack of attention, every other character fades into the background and becomes stigmatic plot devices to carry our main characters motivations. 

“X-Men: First Class” matches the brilliance of “X2,” and also suffers from the same flaws. Hinting at the mutational struggles that marginalize and stigmatize these characters, but choosing to focus on the action of it all. Though the action is handled masterfully and the screenplay is well done, “X-Men: First Class” is the stereotypical comic book movie that becomes absent of its emotions. Everything is done well, there are even yellow and blue uniforms, but mutants are symbols for us. 

They’re emotional; they're powerful, they're inspiring. They remind us of all the stigmatizing struggles that we continue to face as a society, but why these ideals remain outside of this franchise is beyond me. They've attempted it before, but it seems the franchise is as extreme as it's main characters. Either it's all dour or all action, never a blend of the two. 

“X-Men: First Class” is the “comic book movie” that is quite a turn of tone from Bryan Singer’s take on the mutant heroes. The inherent emotionality of the 1960’s comic fades into the background as the confidence and abilities of our characters become the focus. The mutant versus man storyline only grows present in the films harsh finale in which consequences emerge and reality conflicts with fiction, but the remainder of the film is fun, loud, and bombastically entertaining.