X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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twostar

I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-Brandon Ledet

Adult Beginners (2015)

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three star

Not every film is greater than the sum of its parts. Case in point: the cast for last year’s indie dramedy Adult Beginners is just oozing with talent, but the film itself if a little mushy & muddled in a way that can’t help but underwhelm. A Duplass Bros production starring Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Jane Krakowski, Jason Mantzoukas, and Bobby Cannavale sounds like a perfect formula for a lowkey drama with real emotional & comedic staying power, but Adult Beginners struggles to be much more than light entertainment with a promising premise & a failure to launch. The film is serviceably entertaining as decent Sunday afternoon romcom viewing fare, but I expected a little more out of it considering the level of talent involved. It’s an enjoyable film, but not a particularly efficient or memorable one.

Nick Kroll begins Adult Beginners as a cocaine-addicted sexual deviant with an endless appetite for greedy monetary gains, displays of power, and notoriety among his sycophant peers. In other words he’s a run of the mill NYC business man (in movie speak, at least). When his empire inevitably crumbles & he becomes a business world pariah, he has to move back home under the roof of his somewhat estranged sister (Byrne) & her increasingly emotionally distant husband (Cannavale). In order to pull his weight & learn humility, Kroll’s heartless business prick must care for the stressed couple’s hyperactive child Teddy,. He treats Teddy like a monstrous terror, but the truth is the kid is just a perfectly normal toddler. Not much changes once this comedic set up is established. The family learns to adjust & become comfortable with its unexpected shift in household dynamic & Kroll’s broken protagonist learns to become comfortable acting like a decent, empathetic human being. Throw in a third act crisis to shake things up a bit & a rapid resolution to that last minute monkey wrench and you have your basic outline of a typical romcom-style dramedy with an exceedingly charming cast.

Part of the reason why Adult Beginners is so frustrating is that it could’ve been so much more than that kind of charming, but ambitionless middle ground. I smelled trouble as soon as the opening scroll announced a “Story By” credit for three different writers (Kroll among them). At Adult Beginners‘s worst moments it feels like it was compiled from a Frankenscript of several half-cooked stories that didn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Byrne’s stressed out mother has troubling alcohol addiction & workplace politics issues that threaten to complicate her livelihood & her pregnancy, but never amount to any clear kind of narrative conflict. Kroll’s business douche protagonist never really shows any personal growth or epiphany within the film other than growing increasingly comfortably with his role as a “manny” (man nanny). Cannavale’s gloomy husband admits his mistake in growing distant, but the couple’s reconciliation is never on public display. Worse yet, the film’s central/titular metaphor about an “adult beginners” swimming class is lazily introduced & referenced only briefly, never materializing into anything too significant or incisive. It’s tempting to think of these half-cooked ideas as intentionally understated narrative & character beats, but the film never really earns enough confidence to warrant that kind of patience & understanding. It’s a messy movie that only remains endearing through the sheer will of its talented cast. It’s not something I’d recommend as a greatly orchestrated, highly impactful small scale drama, but it’ll do as light viewing when you’re in need of this kind of cinematic comfort food. The letdown is that there are germs of two or three much better movies lurking just right under the surface of that mediocrity.

-Brandon Ledet