Michael Fassbender

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men are among my favorite movie superheroes and always have been. I’ve loved every edition in the series, with the exception of X-Men 2. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men: Days of Future Past) has infused the franchise with fresh energy by adopting a sort of prequel format established in the last two or three movies. By introducing us to a younger Magneto, Mystique, Xavier, and company, Singer cleverly extends the life of the franchise. The only constant character is the perennial Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Eddie the Eagle). Boasting additional new young iterations of our favorite characters, X-Men: Apocalypse did not disappoint.

The movie begins in ancient times, as the Egyptians engage in religious ritual. Their apparent ruler is a strange behemoth with purplish, leathery skin called En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina). He will eventually come to be known as Apocalypse, and his existence proves mutants were around long before Professor X (James McAvoy, X:Men: Days of Future Past) became aware of them. Apocalypse and his followers attempt a supernatural energy exchange with another person, which is disrupted by dissidents seeking to overthrow his regime. Apocalypse is buried alive, left undisturbed until the Egyptian ground shifts and he is awakened thousands of years later in 1983.

After his epic snooze, Apocalypse awakens to a world dominated by humans. He doesn’t like mutants’ stature and seeks to upset the proverbial apple cart by encouraging them to take their rightful place atop the food chain. He quickly assembles a team, including (a much younger) Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Straight Outta Compton), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs), and newcomers Angel and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Zoolander 2). Religious themes ran throughout the movie, with Apocalypse displaying god-like abilities as he actually makes his team of mutants better. He enhances their powers and shows them how to maximize their gifts. For example, we know Magneto controls metal objects. If there’s no metal readily available, one might think he’d be powerless in that moment. However, there are metals and minerals in the ground. Magneto can literally move mountains if he wanted.

Professor X learns of Apocalypse, whose powers are nearly insurmountable. Meanwhile, enrollment at Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters increases as Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud) joins the fray. It was fascinating to see younger versions of the familiar characters we’ve come to know and love. It was particularly cool to see the first meeting between Cyclops and Jean (Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones), who will go on to have quite a love affair, albeit an intermittently one-sided one. I also enjoyed the barrage of 80’s pop culture references, from Thriller jackets to Tab soda. The film establishes the clear ideological dichotomy between mutants that runs throughout (chronologically) later films. Xavier is a pacifist almost to a fault, recognizing the importance of educating his students in a classroom, but leaving them woefully unprepared for battle and unequipped for self-defense. Apocalypse forces him to open his mind to a new approach, turning the tables on the benevolent professor and setting the stage for a showdown between good and evil.

A summer day at the movies should be entertaining, action-packed, and fun. With spot-on casting and a strong yet simple plot, X-Men: Apocalypse was all that and much more. I can’t wait to see what Marvel Studios has in store for us next. Grade: A-

 

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Whether it’s foolish or not, I’ve always shown brand loyalty. When I decide I like something, it takes me a while to turn my back on it, even if the quality declines. I’m also a sucker for advertising. Hence, I will probably have an iPhone for the rest of my life; I don’t care if the Samsung Galaxy is superior. I’m loyal to my favorite movie franchises too. Quite simply: I like X-Men. I’ve seen every installment in the franchise, and I can admit that a few were subpar (X-Men 2) – but that’s not going to stop me from seeing the latest entrant upon its release. I enjoyed 2011’s X-Men: First Class and eagerly anticipated a return to the prequel format that showcased the likes of a young Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender, The Counselor).

Director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) returns to helm the latest iteration of the popular franchise, and I thought his efforts were mostly successful. The familiar themes are present, yet they felt more relevant than trite. The mutants have always been characterized by the juxtaposition of ostracism and duty, with some vehemently loyal to protecting a species that welcomes them with one hand, yet pushes them away with the other. However, Magneto and his ilk have a darker ethos, perennially mistrustful of the so-called benevolence of mankind. They know that fear defeats loyalty and love nearly every time, and would rather not give humans an inch, lest they take a proverbial mile.

The movie begins in an apocalyptic future, where the tenuous bond between mutants and humans has been irrevocably broken. The powers that be have crafted a method of ruthlessly efficient eradication of mutants, and the species is essentially helpless, barely staying one step ahead of their predators. A government scientist named Trask (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones) has enabled the reverse engineering of Mystique’s DNA, creating an adaptable killer who can snuff out mutants easily. The only way to ensure mutant survival is to go back in time and change the events of history so that the government does not develop this deadly technology.

The movie’s plot was entertaining and relatively simple, which I appreciated. McAvoy and the remaining cast were compelling and demonstrated great chemistry. Jennifer Lawrence added complexity to her role, humanizing her mutant character and making her a sympathetic figure in the face of persecution. There are always deeper psychological underpinnings at work in this franchise, if one chooses to explore them. Again, I find it interesting that so many mutants crave acceptance from the very institutions that seek to destroy them. I thought this was a fine addition to the franchise, and I wasn’t disappointed. Writer Simon Kinberg (This Means War) crafted a clever script that will allow an infusion of new life into the series, opening up tons of creative possibilities that were previously non-existent. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but since the movie involves changing the events of the past, it means that history can be re-written: for the X-Men and for everyone. Solid, fun movie. Grade: A-

Dallas Buyers Club

My quest to see the Oscar nominees continues, as I decided to check out Dallas Buyers Club last week.  Matthew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street) stars in the semi-biographical account of AIDS activist Ron Woodroof, a patient who sought alternative means of procuring medication after being frustrated domestically by U.S. pharm laws and their attendant bureaucracy.  McConaughey is enjoying a career renaissance, having recently shed his image as a rom-com mainstay in favor of more complex, challenging roles.  In Dallas Buyers Club, his career continues its surprising divergence as he gives a tour de force performance.

Woodroof is a hard-living rodeo rider, depicted as the macho, archetypical cowboy. He is diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and given 30 days to live, facing the unbelievable realization that his life is over.  His friends ostracize him, believing that he is homosexual.  Now a pariah, Woodroof’s options are limited.  When his doctors suggest that he participate in an AZT trial, he signs up in the hopes that he won’t receive the placebo.  He feels helpless and at the mercy of his doctors, as he’s unable to guarantee that he’ll receive AZT in the trial and unable to purchase it out of pocket due to FDA regulations.  Jennifer Garner (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) co-stars as Eve, a doctor who finds genuine friendship in the ailing Woodroof.

Desperate for life prolonging drugs, but unable to secure them from American doctors, Woodroof begins to obtain AZT illegally from a source inside the hospital.  This routine transaction leads to a connection in Mexico, and soon Woodroof is smuggling drugs into the U.S. and selling them out of the trunk of his car to other patients, many of who were in the AZT trial.  Only these drugs are different.  While in Mexico, Woodroof meets the rogue Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, Broken City), who educates him about the deleterious effects of AZT and administers a cocktail of various supplements and vitamins that will be more effective.  The components aren’t FDA approved for usage in the U.S., but as a man on borrowed time, what does Woodroof have to lose?  Soon he is smuggling the product back to Texas and selling it to patients as an AZT alternative.  As clientele and profits grow, he decides to form a club where the black market drugs are given freely with the cost of membership.  If you aren’t a member of the Dallas Buyers Club, he can’t accommodate you.

During a previous hospital stay, Woodroof reluctantly befriended a fellow patient and trial participant named Rayon, a sensitive transvestite beautifully portrayed by Jared Leto (Chapter 27).  Initially Woodroof’s homophobia prevents any real connection, but eventually they bond through the futility of their shared condition and warmth of companionship.  The film takes us on an emotional journey as Woodroof grapples with his own fateful mortality, while becoming a cult crusader in the field of healthcare reform.  Why should it be illegal for him to improve what little life a dying person has left?

The filmmakers explore our notions of morality and justice, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit and will to survive.  McConaughey’s dedication and preparation for the role cannot be denied.  The physical transformation he undertook resulted in the gaunt, haggard appearance of a dying man.  I can’t imagine the wealth and depth of emotion it takes to convey the despair and frustration of impending death, and then to reveal a flicker of hope and passion as you fight for a larger cause.  Bravo.

Everything I just said about Matthew McConaughey can be applied in equal measure to Jared Leto, who gave a performance that shows he can hold his own with anyone.  It was beautiful and courageous, and I have a hard time deciding if he or Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) is more deserving of an Academy Award in their supporting category.  Dallas Buyers Club was poignant, but inspiring.  It will challenge your perceptions about disease and how you treat others; it will connect you with your own humanity.  Although certain aspects of the film were draining to witness, I thought it was meaningful and deserving of its critical acclaim.  Grade: B+

The Counselor

Have you ever left a movie theater and asked yourself what the hell just happened?  Ridley Scott’s The Counselor left me confused and disappointed, despite a red-hot cast and seemingly entertaining plot.  The ingredients were top-shelf, but the final dish left me unsatisfied.  Let’s examine briefly why I thought this would have been a good movie, that way if you were intrigued by the same factors – I can save you the trouble of buying a movie ticket or even watching the bootleg.

Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) is a very talented actor.  He has the versatility to do mainstream movies like those of the X-Men franchise, but also the gravitas to take on movies like Shame, where he blew me away with a raw, intense performance.  Penelope Cruz (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) and Javier Bardem (Skyfall) are Academy Award winning actors, and Cameron Diaz has plenty of hits under her belt.  Brad Pitt is, well…Brad Pitt.  The cast clearly pulled me in, but I also like movies of this type.  Crime-themed, maybe a little on the violent and sexy side.  Check, check, and check.  Imagine my dismay when it became clear to me that The Counselor was a turd.

Fassbender stars in the title role, and we never get his real name.  Everyone annoyingly refers to him as “Counselor,” which stops being clever relatively quickly.  Cruz is featured as Laura, his adoring fiancé who is naïve to her lover’s questionable legal ventures.  Presumably to keep his beloved in the lifestyle to which she is accustomed, or perhaps just due to good old-fashioned greed – the Counselor decides to participate in a questionable transaction with a high-level drug kingpin.  Javier Bardem is Reiner, the client who helps broker the unseen deal.  Cameron Diaz (Bad Teacher) smolders as Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina, contrasting sharply with Laura.  Brad Pitt makes an appearance as a middleman for the deal.  And this is right about where I got lost – shortly after the movie began promisingly enough with an introduction to the main players.

The chief problem with The Counselor was not one of the performances.  The cast was powerless to elevate their roles above the source material, though Fassbender certainly gave it a go.  Actually, they were all rather alluring characters, in their own way.  But the movie was all over the place.  It’s almost like some scenes were deleted and we got a rough cut.  I’m talking plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon.  The script lacked cohesion, which led to illogical things happening.  I went to a late showing, so I wondered if maybe my eyelids got heavy at one point and I’d missed something.  Nope, the consensus is that it sucked.  Perhaps this movie will air on cable one night and you can laugh at the unintentional comedy.  That’s the only recommended viewing for this stinker.  Grade: D

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave conflicted me greatly before I ultimately mustered the mental fortitude to buy a ticket.  Strength of content aside, I knew the film would be a difficult watch probably requiring ample Kleenex.  Based on the biography of the same name, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Salt), a free Black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.  Director Steve McQueen (Shame) expertly crafts a horrific glimpse into a very ugly aspect of our shared American history.  The graphic depictions of abject cruelty rocked me to the core, but the film is undoubtedly an amazing piece of work.

When the movie begins, we see Solomon as a slave already.  Through flashbacks we learn that he was happily married with two children and that he owned his own home.  He maneuvered through his environment with independence and comfort, which must’ve been a rarity for the day.  A gifted violinist, Solomon often played his fiddle for White audiences at parties and other small events.  His talents drew the attention of two transient musicians who claimed to be seeking an addition to their circus show.  They convince Solomon to make a short trip to Washington to discuss the matter further.  After dining with the pair and having a few glasses of wine, Solomon awakes a short time later to find himself shackled and chained.  Overwhelmed with horror and disbelief, Solomon screams out for help, to no avail.  He has been sold to a slave trader, and a frightening new reality is revealed.  His life as Solomon Northup is over; he is now a fugitive slave named Platt and any reference to his former life will be met with swift and brutal consequences.

As a viewer, my sensibilities were assaulted throughout the course of the film.  The indignities Solomon suffered after being sold into slavery were unfathomable.  Any notions of modesty or basic human pride were stripped immediately, and I’ve never witnessed such a graphic depiction of the evils of the institution.  It was difficult to watch humans treated as property or animals, and I had to avert my eyes several times.  Children ripped from their mother’s arms, physical torture, psychological degradation and verbal humiliation were a daily way of life.  Solomon in particular must have been decimated psychologically, having tasted freedom and knowing nothing of the perils of subjugation.

The film is sweeping, covering Solomon’s life as he is sold from a slave trader to a relatively benevolent plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), and ultimately as he ends up in the hands of a slave master named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).  Epps was a man so evil that I imagine only Lucifer himself could have a soul any blacker.  Fassbender was a monster, literally and figuratively.  His cruelty is particularly highlighted in his treatment of Patsey, a striking young slave woman who has unfortunately garnered his sick affections.  She is a thing to be possessed, perversely favored yet singularly tortured.  Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o marks her silver screen debut in the role, and her performance was a revelation.

12 Years a Slave is an overwhelming film.  I was overwhelmed watching it, and it is nearly impossible to dissect or encapsulate in a small blurb.  Should you see it?  Well, it’s an outstanding piece of cinema, but it’s not for the faint of heart.  Chiwetel Ejiofor gave the performance of a lifetime.  It was wrought with emotion and I believe that the actor laid himself bare, displaying astounding cinematic vulnerability.  The psychological transformation he brought to life was mind-blowing.  When we stand around the water cooler talking about movies and the actors “making noise” right now, his name needs to come up more frequently than it does.  This was a tour de force performance.  Director Steve McQueen has demonstrated an ability to elicit raw, soul-baring performances from his lead actors.  He did it in Shame and he’s done it again.  Aided by stark, austere cinematography and a visceral score, he brought the horrors of slavery to life in a manner heretofore unseen.  Grade: A.

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

 

Prometheus

This ain’t gonna be my best review, cuz I wasn’t feelin’ it. Glad to have that disclaimer outta the way.

I don’t care about the backstory of Prometheus.  I know it’s the latest effort by the acclaimed Ridley Scott (American Gangster), but other than that I know nothing about it.  I later discovered that it was intended as a prequel to the Alien franchise, Scott’s hit science fiction offering starring Sigourney Weaver as a space traveler who becomes infected/possessed by an alien.  I wasn’t particularly intrigued by the trailer, but the buzz around Prometheus began to swell, so I thought – why not check it out? The cast looked good, if nothing else.  I’m a fan of Noomi Rapace (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Charlize Theron (Hancock), and Idris Elba (Thor).  Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class) was another noteworthy addition.

Rapace stars as Elizabeth Shaw, one of a cadre of intergalactic space travelers who are heading across the galaxy in a quest to uncover the secrets of the universe.  She is joined by Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green, Devil), who shares her rabid curiosity.  In total there are about seven or eight crew members, and their ship is piloted by Elba’s character Janek.  After landing on a foreign planet, two members of the crew discover a mysterious black goo.  They also learn that the human race descended from some early alien species bearing slight resemblance to humans now, only much larger.  Elizabeth is fascinated by the idea of learning about the inception of humanity and wants badly to know who or what created the human race and why.  They think the key to learning this will be instrumental in helping their home planet.  Elizabeth’s curiosity is premised on the idea that we were created by benevolent beings for a meaningful purpose.  This reminded me of the tenets of Christianity, as Christians believe that they were created with love by God in His own image.  However, the crew soon learns that our distant intergalactic ancestors were not so magnanimous in their creation of mankind.  When they encounter one in their exploration, he seems like he doesn’t appreciate being disturbed.  Meanwhile, the two members of the crew that discovered the black substance have been infected by it.  One is dead and the other barely alive.  Charlize Theron’s character is the leader of the crew, and she refuses to let the infected member return to their ship.  Unbeknownst to her, Elizabeth has also been infected, much like Sigourney Weaver was in the previous Aliens movie.  Elizabeth manages to oust the creature from her body, but it is still contained on the ship.

That was a very basic plot synopsis.  I really don’t know what else to say about Prometheus, other than I didn’t care for it.  It was not a bad movie, but it just didn’t do anything for me.  I probably got some of the finer points of the plot incorrect; but it doesn’t really matter, it’s close enough.  I was drawn in the by cast, and I did find them capable – but that was about it.  I asked others what they enjoyed about the film and they mentioned Noomi Rapace’s resilience.  I agree that her character was a strong one, and I do think she is a wonderful actress.  However, it wasn’t enough to say that the movie was ‘good.’  Charlize Theron’s role was almost entirely inconsequential.  No big deal.  Neither was Idris Elba.  His American accent was horrible.  I should have listened to my first instinct and avoided this movie, mainly because Sci-Fi movies are not my preferred genre.  I don’t like the average Sci-Fi movie; I only enjoy the very high concept ones like Inception or Avatar.  I usually give letter grades for movies, but I think I should abstain in this case, because it wasn’t a bad movie; I just didn’t care for it.  Remember those pass/fail classes you took in college, where no letter grade was given, you simply just pass or fail?  Prometheus gets a pass.

Haywire

When I saw the trailer for Haywire I was instantly hooked.  This was my kind of movie.  I love watching a believable female lead do damage, a la The Bride in Kill Bill.  No weak “chick” fights, I wanna see something real.  To that end, Haywire seemed like it would deliver.  It stars Gina Carano, a real-life world champion MMA fighter.  If nothing else, the scenes promised to be authentic.  When I saw Michael Fassbender drop her with a sucker punch, I was sold.

The man behind the lens is acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Thirteen, Out of Sight), and his imprint is clear.  Haywire was slick and stylish, even when the action turned nasty.  The non-linear storytelling is another common feature of Soderbergh’s movies.  Haywire opens with our heroine outlining a mission gone wrong.  Carano is Mallory Kane, a covert operative who does freelance work for the government.  I think.  She was sent on a rescue mission to recover a hostage, a Chinese journalist.  When he winds up dead, Mallory learns that her superiors have attempted to frame her for his murder.  The storyline wasn’t too complicated, but there were little things that didn’t add up here and there.  One minute it appears that everyone is in on the betrayal, the next minute it seems as if key people are unaware.  Also perplexing was the fact that no reason for the betrayal was ever presented.  Mallory hadn’t acquired any new enemies and was admittedly an asset to her employer.  So why was she set up?  I guess I can just go along with the idea that she was expendable, but there were a couple of problems in the details for this flick.

Despite its flaws, I found Haywire to be enjoyable largely because of Carano.  It’s still odd to see a man and woman fight on screen as equals, and I couldn’t help rooting for Mallory to prevail.  For an inexperienced actress, I thought Carano gave a capable performance, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she reprised the role in the future.  It looks like this movie died relatively quickly at the box office, despite its noteworthy cast.   Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), Michael Douglas (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Antonio Banderas (Puss in Boots), and Channing Tatum (The Eagle) round out the cast nicely, though they aren’t given great material to work with.  Usually Soderbergh’s movies are better than this, but fortunately Carano’s deft fighting ability was enough to sustain the film, for the most part.  Less talking, more fighting please.  The format of the movie was intriguing in the beginning, but as the movie progressed, more implausible things started to happen with the plot development.  Mallory’s ability to fight her way out of any situation was actually more plausible than the whole frame-up scenario.

I liked Haywire, but there are too many other choices in theaters right now for me to give it a strong recommendation.  Wait for the DVD.