X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

Apocalypse poster

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

SLOW WEST (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence and brief Language

SlowWest poster

Directed by: John Maclean

Written by: John Maclean

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius & Rory McCann

The western is a cinematic genre that has died a sad death. There were decades when John Wayne and Clint Eastwood owned theater screens. However, the western has gone the way of the musical in being the kind of film that’s occasionally brought back for a short spurts from certain filmmakers who want to do something out of the ordinary, but mainly resides in past decades. SLOW WEST is a western that was clearly was made on a budget by someone who really wanted to tell a much bigger story. That comes across in its short running time and uneven pacing. You get the sense that New Zealander John Maclean wanted to write and direct a longer film, but didn’t have the funds to do so. The end result is an oddball western that’s worth a watch if you’re bored, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to catch it.

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Jay Cavendish is a young Scottish lad who’s made his way to America in search of his lost love, Rose Ross. Through a passing encounter, Jay has his life saved by tough-as-nails bounty hunter Silas Selleck. The two join forces and make their way across the deadly landscape of the wild west. While Silas mentors Jay on survival, Jay tries to mentor Silas on what it means to live. Their journey becomes more difficult when they run across a violent band of rival bounty hunters who intend to collect a reward on Rose’s head with extreme prejudice.

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SLOW WEST has good ideas in its script. Through their journey Jay and Silas bond in an unusual way that seems slightly clichéd, but is fun to watch nonetheless. They encounter various threats from desperate robbers to arrow-shooting Indians to a few dishonest travelers. However, all of these encounters only seem to last for two minutes each. That’s partially because of the ridiculously short running time (just over 80 minutes) and a script that seems like the condensed version of a much bigger story. This all being said, John Maclean demonstrates a knack for weaving drama with a quirky sense of humor. The way in which some of the more violent points of the film are handled make for a refreshing balance of darkness and a somewhat light-hearted spirit. The violence is never the punchline and it never reaches graphically excessive levels. The main problems with this movie come from its short length. It simply doesn’t leave much of an impact as a result.

SLOW WEST, from left: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, 2015. ©A24

As far as performances are concerned, Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as the main character. He’s a naïve teenager who’s traveling some very dangerous areas. You also get the sense that this Scottish teen is a hopeless romantic. While Kodi Smit-McPhee started off strong in THE ROAD, he hasn’t really received any meaty roles since that film (with the possible exception of lending his voice to PARANORMAN). He was a bit of a throwaway kid character in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and couldn’t do much to save the last year’s woefully misguided YOUNG ONES. Jay Cavendish is a refreshingly fleshed-out character who carries a sense of innocence along with an annoying streak of being too gullible for his own good. It could be argued that the latter is a direct quality of the character that drives the plot forward, but it does get a little silly at points.

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However, McPhee is not the main draw here. That comes in Michael Fassbender’s Silas. Playing the character as a bit of a John Wayne type with a sarcastic sense of humor and a bad attitude that occasionally rears up, Fassbender is the best thing in SLOW WEST. He’s a bad-ass from the first frame we see him and has the most believable story arc in the whole damn film (as clichéd as the finale might wind up being). Acting opposite Fassbender is Ben Mendelsohn (who’s usually playing creepy bad guys in films like BLACK SEA, ANIMAL KINGDOM and KILLING THEM SOFTLY) as a fur-wearing bounty hunter with a dark streak. Mendelsohn is having a blast as the character, but feels underused as we only get about three memorable scenes with him. That’s no fault of his own, but rather a script that simply doesn’t paint him as the villain that he probably should have been.

SLOW WEST, from left: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, 2015. ©A24

SLOW WEST feels like the short skeleton version of a longer, far better film. Characters enter and exit as mere set pieces. Kodi Smit-McPhee is given a meatier role than he’s received recently as the main character and Fassbender is definitely the best part of the film. While John Maclean seems like a good director, he needed to better flesh out his script in order to make this unconventional western feel more complete. SLOW WEST isn’t bad. It suffers from a short running time and uneven pacing, but this is still a decent western…albeit a not fully satisfying one.

Grade: B-

YOUNG ONES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Violence and Language

YoungOnes poster

Directed by: Jake Paltrow

Written by: Jake Paltrow

Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Elle Fanning, Michael Shannon, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alex McGregor & Aimee Mullins

YOUNG ONES is yet another film that I was interested in possibly catching at this year’s past Sundance film, but I never got to it for one reason or another. It’s a good thing too, because much like LIFE AFTER BETH and THE SIGNAL, I possibly might have hated this film even more had seen it in a festival environment (full of long lines and expensive tickets). YOUNG ONES is a low-budget science-fiction tale mixed with a classic Western style. While there’s definitely a lot of ambition in this project, it ultimately crashes and burns due to poor writing and bad directing.

YOUNG ONES, from left: Aimee Mullins, Kodi Smit-McPhee, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett

In an apocalyptic future ravaged by severe drought and violence, Ernest is a farmer trying to make ends meet in taking care of his two children (Jerome and Mary). Conflicts with nearby folks have intensified after the water near their land runs dry. Ernest finds himself at odds with his daughter’s punk boyfriend/young neighbor Flem Lever. As circumstances look more dire, Ernest, Jerome and Flem are forced to make decisions that no one should ever have to make (let alone someone in their teens).

YOUNG ONES, Nicholas Hoult, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett Collection

The best thing I can say about YOUNG ONES is that it’s remarkably well shot. The cinematography spanning across patches of desert looks beautiful. This futuristic world (brought to life by clever minimalist sets) is also somewhat clever in many respects. There are good ideas on display, but they’re executed with mediocrity that one can’t help but wonder how solid this film would be if a young Ridley Scott or James Cameron were tackling the material. A thread-bare screenplay puts a damper on the whole affair from the opening, but it’s the overconfidence from second-time filmmaker Jake Paltrow that really makes everything close to unbearable. There’s a sense of pretentiousness and a “Look what I can do!” mentality through the movie. Scenes go on for far longer than they need to, especially a confrontation in the final 20 minutes. These cumulate in making YOUNG ONES into a tedious poorly made bore rather than a mature sci-fi flick worth anybody’s time.

YOUNG ONES, Elle Fanning, 2014. /©Screen Media Films/courtesy Everett Collection

Not that the shoddily constructed characters allow for much in the way of performances, but the robotic donkey-like machine actually emits more emotion than any of the human performances on display. The acting varies to different degrees of bad. Michael Shannon is phoning it in as a weary, tired father (who’s also a recovering alcoholic to throw another cliché on top of it). He’s the best actor here, but he’s not given anything to do with his throwaway role. Nicholas Hoult is over-the-top with an obnoxious attempt at a bad Southern accent that comes and goes (depending on what scene you’re in). Kodi Smit-McPhee (who was stellar in THE ROAD) lacks a single discernible emotion as Jerome. Meanwhile, Elle Fanning is just plain annoying as the love-stricken teenage daughter who hates her family. A good screenplay might have expanded on her and made the viewer sympathize with where she’s coming from, but instead she’s pretty much regulated to being the bitchy sister (who can be argued as a catalyst for most of the bad things happening in the story).

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YOUNG ONES sounded very intriguing on paper. However, the result is a massive disappointment that possibly might have been an excellent film in the hands of a better director and screenwriter. The characters are bland, some of the overly dramatic scenes are unintentionally funny, and the desperate sense of trying to make this film feel like a classic kind of movie comes off as more pretentious than earnest. It’s clear that director/writer Jake Paltrow’s reach exceeded his grasp by a few miles. The cinematography is impressive, but that only counts for so much when everything else ranges from mediocre to terrible. The biggest problem is that a lot of the story feels underdeveloped and lazy, as if throwing big concepts at the viewer will make up for the lack of a compelling plot. YOUNG ONES is one to avoid at all costs.

Grade: D-

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Strong Language

DawnApes poster

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Written by: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Starring: Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Andy Serkis, Judy Greer, Toby Kebbell

I never loved the original PLANET OF THE APES series. Originally based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle and scripted by TWILIGHT ZONE creator Rod Serling, the 1968 film may be a noted classic in the science fiction genre, but plays out like a feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. Plenty of sequels followed and a slightly underrated remake by Tim Burton attempted to jump-start the franchise again. When Fox announced a reboot/prequel in 2011, it seemed like this project was doomed from the start. After all, how can you make a solid story out of a scenario that we all know ends in such a nihilistic fashion? RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES surprised everyone and was one of the best films that the 2011 summer season had to offer. DAWN has the same end result. Not only is this one of the year’s best summer blockbusters (so far, it’s on the same level of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST for me), but one of the best films of 2014 so far. Who knew it could happen?

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

A decade after the Simian flu (released in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) has wiped out most of humanity, Caesar and his fellow apes have formed a civilization of their own. Contact with humans has been nonexistent, but that’s about to change. A group of survivors in the crumbled remains of San Francisco are desperate for a power source to communicate with the outside world and their only hope lies in a dam near the ape village. A man named Malcolm and a small group try to form a peaceful co-existence with the apes to get the power supply running in a few days’ time. Forces on both sides push things in negative directions. Tensions rise between and within both simians and humans. Needless to say that you already know where things wind up in PLANET OF THE APES and this is one step closer to that horrible fate.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, from left: Kirk Acevedo, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, Kodi

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a story that doesn’t follow any specific formula that could be considered predictable from frame one, but has just enough familiarity to make everything being viewed play out in an enjoyable “I think I know where this might be going” way. The entire experience is a blast a kin to something like (it’s already been mentioned in plenty of other reviews and there’s definitely a strong case to made for it) the original STAR WARS trilogy. Running at just over two hours, not one solitary moment drags or is included for merely being filler. DAWN is exciting and (for me, at least) the best APES film so far in the franchise. Effort, care and heart was thrown into every frame on the screen. That’s what brings out true cinematic gems (not cashing in on the brand name of some nostalgic toy/cartoon from the past, trying to launch a new series to sell toys, or treating your audience like idiots). DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has the stuff to go down in film history as a phenomenal summer blockbuster that will delight future generations to come.

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Obvious parallels and power struggles are viewed in both the ape and human societies. I liked the inclusion of this and that it wasn’t too understated either. It showed that both sides in this ongoing battle have their faults. In the human society, the struggle is between Malcolm (played very well by Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (the ever-talented Gary Oldman). Though this battle of wills isn’t necessarily given a huge amount of screen-time, the main focus is where it should be: the apes themselves. That’s part of what made RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES so unexpectedly amazing. Returning to the front lines is Andy Serkis (reprising his Caesar role) and it’s been said everywhere else, but I’d just like to echo the sentiments that this man deserves an Oscar nomination. It’s a motion capture suit performance, but you can see his work in the body language and facial expressions of Caesar. A welcome addition is Toby Kebbell (who I mainly know as Johnny Quid in ROCKNROLLA) as the menacing Koba. Koba appeared in the first film as a memorable part of Caesar’s revolution and has a huge part to play here.

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The effects of the apes themselves (which was quite good in the first one) is even more stunning this time around. These CGI-animated animals look very real and in some cases, frightening. The action scenes don’t fill every minute of running time. In fact, there are a handful of them (a few of them lengthy), but every second has meaning behind them. The terrifically exciting finale has upped stakes to huge degrees as everything plays out in an exhilarating way. DAWN is made of compelling storytelling with spectacular effects, solid acting, and I felt like watching it all over again the minute it ended.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, Andy Serkis, 2014. ph: David James/TM and ©Copyright Twentieth

The closing minutes of DAWN aren’t necessarily filled with hope, as we all know where things eventually wind up, but turn out infinitely satisfying nonetheless. I can’t find a single complaint that I can level at DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It’s one of the best movies of the year. I’m also glad that this is going to bank and that another film is due in 2016. It fills me with joy when films like DAWN and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST do well at the box office. It’s a sign that intelligent, carefully constructed summer blockbusters still have a place in the movie scene. They always will. Fox packed a surprising one-two punch with X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES in 2011. They did with the same this year and hopefully, will deliver with another knockout in 2016. Films like DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES will last in the same way that the original STAR WARS trilogy, BACK TO THE FUTURE, E.T., and other celebrated summer blockbusters have stuck around. This is a perfect movie all around!

Grade: A+

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