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Review of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade: A-
Entire family:  No, a little violent for young children
2016, 133 min., Color
Fantasy adventure
Rated PG-13 for some fantasy action violence
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+/A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

Anyone unconvinced that J.K. Rowling is a brilliant storyteller needs to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That she was able to expand what was essentially a book written to sate the appetites of Harry Potter fans into her first screenplay is amazing enough. That the book was nothing more than a plotless, encyclopedic “field guide” to beasts she imagined for the magical world of Hogwarts and beyond is proof positive that this woman knows how to spin a yarn. Or in this case, a prequel to the Potter books set well before the Second Wizarding War.

Eddie Redmayne is perfectly cast as Newt Scamander, a British wizard who is dedicated to convincing fellow wizards that fantastic creatures are not as dangerous as everyone believes, and that they should no longer be banned or hunted. Newt disembarks from a steamer in 1920’s New York City with a suitcase so deeply magical that it puts Mary Poppins’ valise to shame. Once you enter that suitcase you enter a veritable zoo filled with fantastic beasts he has collected.

It wouldn’t be a Rowling story without some questions or convolutions, and we think (but aren’t really sure) that maybe Newt was in New York on a collecting mission. After all, about this time a mysterious unseen creature has been terrorizing one section of the city. But while Newt is lugging around that magical zoo-in-a-suitcase, several of his creatures—including a platypus-like critter that’s a kleptomaniacal sucker for coins and jewelry and anything shiny—escape, and part of the plot involves Newt trying to recapture them.

The beasts themselves are indeed fantastic (and another marvel of computer generated images), but the charm of this adventure comes from Rowling’s application of a time-honored convention: the suitcase swap. In this case, a No-Maj (pre-Muggle term) named Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) is lugging a suitcase full of baked goods that he had whipped up to try to convince a bank officer to loan him the money to open a shop. That suitcase mix-up leads to a variation on the buddy adventure, and Fogler and Redmayne make an entertaining team. Their interaction and antics are almost as fun as the creatures themselves—so much so that you wonder what some of the Potter books and films would have been like if a Muggle had been given a more prominent sidekick role.

Other plot points pale by comparison. There’s Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), a temperance-style No-Maj who leads a society that aims to warn the public that witches and wizards really do exist and pose a menace to society. The beasts, of course, give credence to her cries. Then there’s an Auror named Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) who sees in Newt the chance to make a “bust” and win favor with the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Along the way a scene plays itself out at the Central Park Zoo, Newt is brought before to MACUSA headquarters and accused of conspiring with rogue wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), Jacob confronts a darkly destructive Obscurus, and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), Auror and Director of Magical Security, gets involved in tracking a murderous Obscurus that always finds a host in a child.

Although the main characters are adults rather than children, Fantastic Beasts is as close to the world of Harry Potter as it gets. The film was so warmly received by fans that five installments have been announced, with the second volume already in pre-production—not bad for an expansion of a plotless nature guidebook. One suspects that the insertion of a missing wizard—Gellert Grindelwald—is both a way of connecting this film stylistically with the others, giving Rowling and director David Yates (a veteran of four Potter films) the chance to splash animated newspaper headlines across the screen, and also a Voldemort-style twist for them to work out in future films.

Language: A few buggers and hells, but that’s it
Sex: n/a (unless you count kissing or hugging)
Violence: Bloodless but still graphic violence, as much as in the final Potter movie
Adult situations: A woman almost dies, a mother beats her son, a boy is punched in the face, and a speakeasy scene features drinking and smoking in the background, with “giggle water” being the only intoxicant highlighted
Takeaway: Harry Potter lives! This series is just as well done and so far equally addictive

Review of COLLATERAL BEAUTY (Blu-ray)

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Grade: C+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
2016, 97 min., Color
Drama
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital HD UltraViolet
Trailer
Amazon link

A feel-good movie about death?

Sounds crazy, but that’s what Collateral Beauty tries to be. It’s a message film that wants audiences to appreciate the beautiful moments that can accompany a death—whether it’s a final shared conversation, an act of generosity, or a small kindness that helps someone cope.

If you’re no big fan of message films . . . or contrived plots . . . or melodramas where you know the whole point of a film is to make viewers feel something, then you probably won’t care too much for this 2016 drama starring Will Smith. And if you are a fan, you won’t appreciate that most viewers will be able to see the plot twists coming long before the turn.

Smith plays Howard, a New York ad agency exec who shows up for work every day but is no longer engaged in day-to-day operations. He’s not retired—he’s grieving. He lost a six-year-old daughter to cancer, and now all he feels like doing is stacking elaborate domino structures in his office. He wanders through each day numb with pain and at one point rides his bicycle fast as he can against traffic on a one-way street.

Now here’s the biggest plot contrivance: Unable to participate in a therapy group for parents who have lost children, Howard writes letters to three abstract concepts and puts them in the mailbox. Dear Death . . . Dear Time . . . Dear Love . . . .

It’s a film about “threes,” as there are three of his associates who are begging him to snap out of it before they lose all of the accounts he personally landed: Whit (Edward Norton), the partner who built the company with him; Claire (Kate Winslet), one of the firm’s top account executives; and Simon (Michael Peña), another top account exec. Each of those people has problems of his/her own, of course, and the deus ex machina that sets everything right—or as right as anything can ever be again, when death is involved—is the trio’s plan to enlist three actors to play those abstract concepts and confront Howard. At first their intentions seem sympathetic—maybe it will shock him back to reality?—but then it’s clear that they put money ahead of feelings. They hope to film Howard losing it as he talks to these abstractions, and thereby take a page from Miracle on 34th Street and commit poor Howard to an institution.

That’s the whole plot, right there, and the character development you get is just as contrived because plot drives this narrative, not characters. People are just along for the ride—but that won’t matter to viewers who like “big picture” movies and crave answers as much as Howard does. And the performances are decent. Helen Mirren is only slightly heavy-handed as Brigitte, an actress-director of a local theater company who accepts a deal to play Death, Time, and Love in exchange for funding their newest production. She is the oldest and so she volunteers to be Death. Amy (Keira Knightley) plays love, while Raffi (Jacob Latimore) takes on the role of Time.

As the three actors confront Howard, he has extended conversations with them, but those conversations are frankly less interesting than a sideplot involving grief support group leader Madeline (Naomie Harris), who tells those in her group that have lost children that the pain will never go away. Yet, they can learn how to deal with it. That kind of honesty feels refreshing, especially when everything else about this film feels so artificial.

A Warner Bros. summary of the film says that it’s not until Howard’s letters to Death, Time, and Love “bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.” That sounds a little tidier and a lot more ontologically satisfying than the film really is. You aren’t going to learn the meaning of life by watching this film, or even the meaning of death. Religion doesn’t even enter into the equation. In fact, I was wondering, as I watched, how the film would be received by people who are religious, or who are facing death themselves, or grieving like Howard, or still far removed from death’s ravages. Collateral Beauty was released in mid-December, and almost every scene has holiday decorations in it—so many that you can’t escape the implication. It’s a different kind of holiday film, for those who feel alone in the world, or who need even the slightest package of positives to unwrap. But be warned: Collateral Beauty is the kind of film that can affect people in profoundly different ways, and I’m guessing that not all of them will be beautiful.

Language: Scattered minor swearwords and one F-bomb uttered, appropriately, on the F Train
Sex: Nothing really, except an implied affair
Violence: n/a
Adult situations: The whole concept is and the implied metaphysical argument is adult, so much so that I can’t imagine children getting into it
Takeaway: Playing Death, Time, and Love isn’t easy, but it’s still easier than making a film about those three abstract concepts

DOCTOR STRANGE (3D Blu-ray combo)

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doctorstrangecover

Grade:  A-/B+
Entire family: No
2016, 115 min., Color
Marvel Studios/Disney
Action-Adventure
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Best Buy link

Who knew that Earth had a Sorcerer Supreme protecting it from outside magical and supernatural threats? Or that Marvel still remembered how to produce a straight-up origin story without feeling the need to overpopulate it with Marvel Universe heroes and villains? Some fans accustomed to crossover confusion may wish for a more complex plot than we get in Doctor Strange, but I find it refreshing to be able to focus on a single character’s journey from supreme jerk to Sorcerer Supreme.

doctorstrangescreen1Benedict Cumberbatch might not fit the leading man profile, but he wears the Doctor Strange uniform well. In the early going he’s especially perfect as an arrogant neurosurgeon who has a career-ending accident and, embittered, travels to Nepal to seek a mind-over-matter healer that would help him get his career back. As is often the case in life, when one door closes, another one opens . . . only this portal opens into the astral dimension and time-space continuum.

Doctor Strange looks great in standard Blu-ray, but if ever a film was made for 3D, it’s this one. Unlike some 3D movies that look as if the filmmakers occasionally threw in some effect so it looks like it’s flying at you, Doctor Strange features mostly remarkable depths of field in plot-grounded scenes that are so mind-bending it’s hard to describe. As the sorcerers do battle they rearrange buildings, roads, and whole cities as if they were Tetris blocks, turning them sideways, upside down, and creating fields of battle that keep shifting. Amazingly, it only seems to shift for those in attuned to the supernatural. Streets and cars and people seem to carry on even as their world is turned sideways or upside down. In 3D it’s especially “marvel”ous, though it’s still pretty awesome on 2D Blu-ray.

doctorstrangescreen2By contrast, Stephen Strange’s journey is surprisingly straightforward: he arrives at the door of Kamar-Taj and, refused, sits there until the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) decides to take him under her wing and teach him mystical powers and the secrets of being able to access and manipulate other dimensions, like the Mirror Dimension or the Astral Plane. Strange is no stranger to hard work and studying. After all, he made it through med school. A quick study, he always wants more than he’s allowed—especially when it comes to the sorcery books in the Ancient One’s library. Along the way he learns that the only thing keeping Earth safe from other dimensions is a spell involving three buildings in New York, London, and Hong Kong. When a former pupil (it’s always a former pupil, isn’t it?) named Kaecilius steals pages from the book detailing the most powerful secrets of time and immortality and returns with a force of underlings, the sorcerers must stop them—whether Doctor Strange feels ready or not. Much of it—even the idea of turning back time, which we saw in GalaxyQuest and other films—is old news. But it works.

doctorstrangescreen3Strange is an interesting hero because he’s a fence-straddler. He’s much too selfish to be a true superhero—at least at first—and he has an arrogant streak in him that drives him to do what he wants to do, thinking that rules don’t apply to him. So when he secretly studies the book that Kaecilius read and learns the language that would reveal its secrets, and when he takes the Eye of Agamotto and uses it to bend time, he’s actually going rogue rather than following the Sorcerer Supreme’s—the Ancient One’s—instructions. Yet he also understands the stakes and seems ready to take up the Cloak of Levitation and protect Earth.

Swinton and Cumberbatch are both “large” characters, but Kaecilius doesn’t really stand out as a villain. That’s less the fault of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting than it is the limitations of the role. Despite the inevitable battle, the character frankly seems like part of an ensemble, no more or no less significant than Strange’s surgical colleague Christine (Rachel McAdams), mystic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), or mystic arts master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Regardless, Doctor Strange is a successful film and a worthy addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. Look for Thor to pair up with him the next time around, as the ending and credits sequence reveals. And in the spirit of that pairing, Disney has released a fun Thor YouTube video and a clip that reveals how they came up with the end tag for Doctor Strange.

Language: There’s so much action that foul language takes a back seat. Only once does a swearword (a-hole) stand out; otherwise it’s the cursing version of fecal matter
Sex: Nothing at all
Violence: Not as violent as some Marvel Universe films; surgeries can seem gruesome, and there are several shots of a beating and the aftermath of an impaling; otherwise, it’s all grand-scale sci-fi battling, with more buildings crashing than blood
Adult situations: The depiction of the surgeries and car accident are the “real” situations in a fantastic world; some children may find it disturbing when Strange encounters the ultimate evil in a different dimension
Takeaway: Doctor Strange may not be as well known as other Marvel characters, but this excellent cinematic adaptation should help raise his profile considerably

SULLY (Blu-ray combo)

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sullycoverGrade: A-/B+
Entire family: No
2016, 96 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: A-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

For the first 30 minutes or so, Sully is a little like the film’s namesake, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Understated and unassuming. it’s a quiet one-man show, the kind that star Tom Hanks pulled off in Cast Away. In fact, in the early going it feels a little ordinary—just a well-crafted character study that capitalizes on an actual news story.

Then something surprising happens. As the tension builds inside the pilot who made headlines and became a national hero for successfully landing a full passenger jet on the Hudson River, so does the tension build in this film by director Clint Eastwood.

sullyscreen2Before you know it, you’re wrapped up in the drama as Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have their actions questioned and must appear in front of a hearing panel of the National Transportation Safety Board. Could two men lauded as heroes for saving 155 people have put them needlessly in danger by choosing to land on the Hudson rather than returning to LaGuardia?

Like any good courtroom drama, Sully moves back and forth in time as everyone tries to piece together what really happened. Based on Sullenberger’s autobiography, this film doesn’t start at the beginning and build to the Miracle on the Hudson. Just the opposite. We join Sully soon after his January 2009 emergency landing as he is still obviously suffering from a mild form of post-traumatic stress syndrome and still trying to process what happened . . . all while dealing with the media spotlight. By film’s end—told from Sully’s point of view—you’re thinking that the real miracle was that this ordinary man was still able to keep his wits under such extraordinary circumstances in the bureaucratic crisis that came in the aftermath of the crash landing.

sullyscreen1In the tradition of disaster movies, we really don’t get much in the way of character development outside of Sully. His relationship with his family isn’t much scrutinized, and the clips we get in flashback only give us the most basic idea of his background in aviation. Mostly, the film stays with the forced landing, the aftermath, and the hearing . . . and it turns out to be plenty satisfying. That’s due, in large part, to Hanks—an actor my teenage son said he’d love even if he played a villain.

But Eastwood also knows how to craft a film, and just as he builds tension he brilliantly diffuses it with one of the best closing lines in Hollywood history. Some dramas have very little replay potential, but ones like Sully—in which you know the outcome already, which puts an added burden on the acting and directing—rise to the occasion. Years from now, when people have forgotten about the Miracle on the Hudson, the film will only grow more powerful than it already is. Now or then, it’s also a reminder for younger viewers that well-crafted and tense movies can be made without a lot of pyrotechnics and action. And yes, the way to see it is on Blu-ray, with its superior resolution and soundtrack and great bonus features.

Language: One f-bomb and maybe a few dozen milder swearwords
Sex: Squeaky clean
Violence: Apart from bleeding on one character, there isn’t anything besides the crash landing itself and the obviously panicked passengers
Adult situations: Sully has a drink at a bar, but there is no intoxication
Takeaways: Clint Eastwood sure knows how to make a film, and Tom Hanks can still carry one

SUICIDE SQUAD (Blu-ray combo)

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suicidesquadcoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
2016, 123 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action throughout, disturbing behavior, suggestive content and language
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

 Suicide Squad is a high-concept film that asks, What if you plug characters from the DC Universe into the old Dirty Dozen plot? Instead of having a bunch of badasses tackle a war mission, have these imprisoned supervillains agree to work together to foil what is presumably a super-supervillian named the Enchantress in exchange for reduced sentences.

suicidesquadscreen1Sounds fun, right? But while it’s imminently watchable, Suicide Squad isn’t as fun of a ride as Guardians of the Galaxy. It could have been, with more performances like Jared Leto’s and Margot Robbie’s as The Joker and his henchwoman/partner-in-crime, Harley Quinn. Those two really go over-the-top with their roles and push their characters from celluloid right back onto the pages of a comic book, while the rest of the supervillains are played a little straighter . . . perhaps because they weren’t given as meaty (and savory) roles. But I suspect that these two just found inspired ways to play their characters.

As superhero movies go, Suicide Squad is entertaining enough to add to the family video library, but it has one big flaw. The PG-13 rated film takes a full 40 minutes to introduce the characters and basic set-up, and after that, as if making up for lost time, zips along at breakneck speed through the mission itself. What that means, of course, is that family members might squirm a bit in the early going and then sit there with raised eyebrows for the remainder of the film. It can get a little confusing. Then again, so can the set-up. You’ll want to rewatch it just to get a better handle on what’s going on, and to look for things you missed the first time around.

The action takes place after Superman’s death, when Col. Rick Flag suicidesquadscreen2(Joel Kinnaman) takes charge of a team of supervillains assembled by an intelligence officer named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). What’s to keep them from bolting after they’re released? A micro-bomb injected into their necks that can be detonated if they even think about going rogue. But here’s where it gets confusing: one potential recruit is an archaeologist (a girlfriend of Flag) who is possessed by the witch-goddess the Enchantress, and faster than you can drag race a car she turns into a destroy-the-world threat. Meanwhile, The Joker finds a way to disable Harley’s bomb and springs her loose. In a confusing turn of events she ends up joining the original group as they battle the Enchantress . . . though this is no simple good vs. evil confrontation.

Honestly, though the Task Force X team of supervillains includes the pyrokinetic El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), the mutated Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), assassin Slipknot (Adam Beach), and superthief Captain Boomerang, Suicide Squad is the Batman and Harley show. Some will say it’s hard to top Heath Ledger’s Joker, while others will be suicidesquadscreen3fans of Jack Nicholson or even TV’s Caesar Romero. That’s the way it is when you have multiple actors playing iconic roles. To be able to add something new and still believable to the character is a real feat, and that’s what Leto does here—same with Robbie. You are mesmerized whenever they’re onscreen, and because of them and the action and special effects you don’t mind as much that the plot can seem muddled. In fact, that’s all the more reason to watch it again—though this one is definitely only for teens and older. The Blu-ray comes with an extended cut that adds 11 minutes of mayhem.

Language: One f-bomb and frequent uses of other swearwords and a mention of that term President-Elect Trump used that no one seemed to mind; additional sex talk
Sex: A strip club features dancers in the slightly blurred distance, while Harley gives a tame lap dance to someone and kisses another woman; Deadshot is shown butt-naked in a darkly lit room only briefly
Violence: Shootings and mass destruction, mostly, along with prison torture and plenty of hand-to-hand fighting; the most extreme are a character whose head is blown off and others who are shot in the head point-blank, but with no blood to speak of
Adult situations: Drinking and implied smoking
Takeaway: Letto and Robbie make this film fun to watch, and a little more of that from the other characters and a few more lighter lines would have been a welcome balance to some of the more violent and serious scenes

THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) (Blu-ray combo)

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legendoftarzancoverGrade: B+
Entire family: No
2016, 110 min., Color
Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, some sensuality and brief rude dialogue
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Legend of Tarzan adds a nice infusion of originality and energy into an old, familiar story.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape man, Tarzan, has been featured in some 200 films since Elmo Lincoln first donned the loincloth in 1918, so any filmmaker would be crazy to think that he or she could come up with anything new. Yet that’s exactly what writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and director David Yates have done. They’ve thrown off the loincloth, abandoned the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” talk, and turned the inarticulate noble savage into an action hero who prefers to be called John Chapman.

Calm down, purists! We still get the story of Tarzan embedded in flashbacks that are seamlessly and artfully inserted into a homecoming narrative. The premise is this: Tarzan and Jane have been living in London long enough for him to have lost all traces legendoftarzanscreen1of his wild African upbringing. Opening story tiles tell us that King Leopold II has nearly gone bankrupt trying to mine the riches of his portion of the Congo Basin claimed by Belgium, and that he needs to finance more infrastructure projects with mythic diamonds rumored to be the property of an isolated tribe. To secure those diamonds and turn his Congo venture around, the King has entrusted his envoy Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, who plays the role a lot like Kurz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

Waltz is a wonderful villain who discovers that the tribe will give him the diamonds only if he will deliver Tarzan—who killed the chief’s son many years ago. So in what amounts to an elaborate trap, he sends Tarzan and Jane an invitation on behalf of King Leopold asking them to revisit Boma and give him a report on the Congo. Complicating matters is that an American envoy named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) tells Tarzan/Chapman that he wants to accompany him to investigate what he suspects might be the enslavement of an entire population by the Belgians. It’s a risky, politicized overhaul of a time-honored tale, but our family thought the changes made an almost too-familiar narrative more fun and interesting to watch.

Parents, be warned: enslavement and slaughter aren’t exactly topics for the timid, and The Legend of Tarzan is every bit a PG-legendoftarzanscreen213 movie. Inexplicably, Jackson’s character provides some comic relief in an otherwise serious film, but that’s about the only glaring inconsistency. As for other negatives, three of four family members thought the CGI apes were just fine, but our teenage son said he thought they took a furry backseat to the ones from the more recent Planet of the Apes creatures—especially the eyes, which he thought were more lizard-like. It’s amazing, though, to see what filmmakers can do with animals completely created on the computer, and a scene in which Tarzan and his party leap from a cliff into the jungle canopy and then start running on a labyrinth of limbs will have Tarzan fans thinking of Disney’s animated feature. It’s a fun homage/allusion, and the visuals in this film are dramatically detailed, especially in 1080p HD.

The Legend of Tarzan also surprises with the level of acting, which is a cut above what viewers usually see in an action movie. Alexander Skarsgaard is totally believable as Tarzan, and Margot Robbie manages to portray Jane as both warm and strong—someone that the villainous Rom will learn is as tough to tangle with as her husband. The three main performers are nothing short of charismatic, and that elevates the film considerably.

There are sad moments in The Legend of Tarzan and tough scenes to watch, if you have any sensitivity whatsoever, but overall it’s an adventure well worth taking.

Language: Just minor swearwords, and not all that many
Sex: Nothing much here; just kissing and cuddling
Violence: Soldiers fight tribal people, apes and crocs attack people, and people are shot, strangled, and held under water;
Adult situations: Hippos pose a threat in one frightening scene, and there are other intense scenes as well; no smoking, but there is a dinner scene where wine is served
Takeaway: Just when you thought you’d seen it all, along comes a variation that’s as convincing as it is original

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (Blu-ray combo)

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x-menapocalypsecoverGrade: B+/A-
Entire family: No
2016, 144 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Trailer
Amazon link

The Marvel Universe is a complicated one, and the X-Men movies are among the more demanding. Viewers are expected to juggle a lot of different characters in various incarnations, and to remember each complicated film as it builds upon the others—nine now, in all. That takes a memory better than mine, which is why I waited to review this until my son took a weekend off from college to visit home again. He’s a big fan and does manage to keep it all straight. We both enjoyed the film, though his verdict was that X-Men: Apocalypse wasn’t as good as X-Men: Days of Future Past—a B+/A- rather than a solid A or A-. Why? Because it did require even more recollection of details from previous films, and the narrative also jumps around more.

I came at it from a slightly different angle. What I do tend to remember are basic plot types, and X-Men: Apocalypse recycles a familiar one: an ancient Egyptian dark force of a “man” is resurrected and seeks to destroy x-menapocalypsescreen2the world and start anew. Whether it’s world conquest or revenge, we’ve seen variations on this theme ever since the first black-and-white presentation of The Mummy way back in 1932. Only this time it’s a mutant, the first mutant, that’s unleashed. As with a film like The Matrix, you may not understand every little nuance of exposition, but Apocalypse proceeds so confidently that you feel assured that it all fits together and makes perfect sense, even if you’re not getting it in the instant. Plus, it’s easy to tolerate any momentary confusion because you’re soaking in the inventive special effects that, conceptually, rank among the best in this series. That’s something my son and I agreed was a major strength, and the sort of thing that will make you want to watch this film over and over. This X-Men is more violent that some of the previous installments, with one of the most brutal scenes the result of a surprise appearance by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, the telepathic genius who started a school for “gifted” teens—that term a euphemism for the catch-all phrase “mutants.” Among those also returning are Michael x-menapocalypsescreen1Fassbender as metal-manipulating Erik/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as shapeshifter Raven/Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as the super strong Hank/Beast, Evan Peters as the Flash-like Peter/Quicksilver, and Lucas Till as plasma-blasting Havok. Replacing other actors this time around are Lana Condor as Jubilee, Tye Sheridan as Scott/Cyclops, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, and Ben Hardy as Angel. But it’s the new people that will please fans. Oscar Isaac makes a darned good villain as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, while also new to the series this outing are Kodi Smit-McPhee as the slightly humorous Kurt/Nightcrawler, the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and super-tracker Caliban (Tomas Lemarquis). On a side note, fans will delight in seeing Stan Lee actually turn expressive in his traditional cameo.

The set-up is, as my son suggests, confusing, but things come more sharply into focus after Apocalypse recruits some mutants—Magneto among them—and begins causing major disruptions around the world. He then kidnaps Xavier, and that launches annother explosive chain of events (pun intended). There are battles in the external world, and battles inside the mind. Through it all, the production values that have helped to make this series so successful are as slick as ever. It’s a long movie, but it doesn’t feel long.

Though Days of Future Past was an unqualified hit with fans and critics, Apocalypse received mixed reviews, mostly because some were wanting director Bryan Singer to make a different film than he did. This is a special effects movie first, and a superhero movie second. But Singer (X-Men, X2, X-Men: Days of Future Past) does a nice job of enhancing the visual effects that drive the film with near-perfect pacing and shots that often mirror character mindsets—as when he launches into a 360 POV shot to capture the aftermath of chaos. And yes, it looks spectacular on 1080p Blu-ray and sounds fantastic with a 7.1 soundtrack.

Ultimately, as with any franchise that has such rabid fans, individuals will have their own favorites. My son liked X-Men: Apocalypse more than X-Men First Class (2011), but not as much as X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). And that sounds about right to me.

Language: One f-bomb that I can recall and only a handful of other swearwords
Sex: n/a
Violence: Multiple decaptiations are partially obscured by a cloud of dust, but there are numerous scenes of combat, a broken leg, psychological paid, and mass destruction of cities seen from a distance
Adult situations: Pretty much everything, including individuals entombed, Han Solo style, as a result of Apocalypse’s power to command sand (an ingredient in concrete)
Takeaway: Marvel and 20th Century Fox really know their audience and continue to crank out installments that please

 

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