“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

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“X-MEN” Movies Ranking

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Below is my ranking of the movies I have seen from the “X-MEN” film franchise.  Warning: many may not agree with it:

“X-MEN” MOVIES RANKING

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1. “X2: X-Men United” (2003) – Bryan Singer directed this film about Army colonel William Stryker’s plans to use Professor Charles Xavier to destroy the world’s mutant population once and for all. As you can see, this is my favorite in the franchise.

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3. “X-Men: First-Class” (2011) – Matthew Vaughn directed this tale set in 1962 about the first meeting between Charles Xavier “Professor X” and Erik Lensherr “Magneto”, their creation of the X-Men and their efforts to prevent mutant villain Sebastian Shaw from using the Cuban Missile Crisis to acquire world domination. Despite the questionable costumes and a few plot holes, this was a big favorite of mine.

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3. “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) – Brett Ratner directed this tale about the X-Men overcoming tragedy to deal with the resurrected and more powerful Jean Grey and Magneto’s continuing war on non-mutant humans. Many fans hated this film. I enjoyed it, although I found the pacing a bit too rushed. Enough said.

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4. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) – Gavin Hood directed this movie about the origins of James Howlett aka the Wolverine and his relationship with his murderous half-brother Victor Creed aka Sabertooth and his first class with William Stryker in the 1970s. Another movie hated by the fans. And again, I enjoyed it, although I consider it lesser than the 2006 movie.

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5. “X-Men: Days of Future Days” (2014) – Directed by Bryan Singer, this movie is a time-travel adventure for Wolverine, who must convince a younger Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr to prevent Mystique from murdering a anti-mutant scientist, whose work will prove deadly for mutants within a half century. Great premise, but shaky execution. Too many plot holes, but still enjoyable.

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6. “The Wolverine” (2013) – James Mangold directed this atmospheric tale about Wolverine, still grieving over a recent tragedy, traveling to Japan to meet the Wolverine heading to Japan for a reunion with a soldier named Ichirō Yashida whose life he saved during the Nagasaki bombing at the end of World War II. He ends up defending Yashida’s granddaughter from the Yakuza and her avaricious father. Great Japanese atmosphere and interesting beginning, but it nearly fell to pieces in the last half hour.

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7. “X-Men” (2000) – Bryan Singer directed this first movie in the franchise about Wolverine and a young Marie aka “Rogue”’s introduction to the X-Men and their efforts to defeat Magneto’s plans to transform the entire population into mutants against their will. Enjoyable, but it felt like a B-movie trying to disguise itself as an A-lister. Also, too many plot holes.

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8. “Deadpool” (2016) – Ryan Reynolds starred in this reboot of the Deadpool character about the comic book hero’s origins and his hunt for the man who gave him an accelerated healing factor, but also a scarred physical appearance. Despite the sharp humor and fourth wall cinematic device, the narrative struck me as sloppily written and mediocre.

“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART II” (2015) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART II” (2015) Review

Some five or six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios began a new tradition when its executives made a decision to split its adaptation of the last “HARRY POTTER” film into two novels. A year later, Summit Entertainment continued this tradition by splitting its adaptation of the last “TWILIGHT” novel into two films. And now Lionsgate has done the same by adapting Suzanne Collins’ last novel in her “The Hunger Games”trilogy with two movies. The studio ended the movie franchise with the release of “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II”.

This last film, which is based upon the second half of Collins’ 2010 novel, picked up where the 2014 movie left off – with Katniss Everdeen aka “The Girl on Fire” recovering from being attacked by her close friend, Peeta Mallark, after he had been brainwashed by the Capitol into regarding her as an enemy. After being attacked by a supporter of Panem’s President Snow during a propaganda campaign in District 2, Katniss is frustrated by rebel leader Alma Coin’s insistence that she stay away from the battlefields. Fellow tribute from the 75th Quater Quell Games, Johanna Mason, quietly suggests that she sneak aboard a supply ship leaving for the Capitol, where Commander Paylor is planning an invasion, during the wedding of former tributes Finnick Odair and Annie Cresta. Unable to control Katniss, Coin decides to assigned her to the “Star Squad”; along with childhood friend Gale Hawthorne, Finnick, and documentary director Cressida and her team. Led by Katniss’ former bodyguard, Boggs, the squad is order to remain in safety behind the actual invasion of the Capitol and provide video clips of their incursion for propaganda purposes. But Katniss and her fellow combatants encounter a great deal of danger from Capitol soldiers, explosive pods and mutated animals. Coin also assigns Peeta to the squad, despite the fact that he has not completely recovered from his conditioning. What starts out as a propaganda campaign for the squad, eventually becomes a dangerous and bloody mission that ends in tragedy and a great surprise.

This last “HUNGER GAMES” movie received a great deal of praise. But at the same time, these same critics expressed dismay that the last novel in the franchise had been split into two films. Surprisingly, I had no problems with how the adaptation of “Mockingjay” resulted in two films. Unlike the last “HARRY POTTER”and “TWILIGHT” adaptations, the two-part adaptation for this particular movie seemed to break at the right moment – namely the rescued Peeta Mellark’s attack on protagonist Katniss Everdeen. However, I did have a few problems with “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II”. I wish the screenwriters and director Francis Lawrence had featured a few scenes of Panem citizens rebelling against the Capitol . . . just as they had done in “PART I”. In fact, I wish they could have featured a few scenes of the rebels inching towards the Presidential mansion, before Katniss and close friend Gale Hawthorne had reached it. The movie seemed so fixed upon Katniss’ point-of-view (POV) that the entire sequence featuring the massacre of the Capitol citizens, Peacekeepers and rebel medics from bombs seemed slightly disjointed and confusing. I also wish that the screenplay had included a scene from the novel in which Katniss and her mother, Mrs. Everdeen, said good-bye to each other over the telephone. I never understood why they did not include that scene in the film. It would have been a great moment for both Jennifer Lawrence and Paula Malcomson.

Quibbles aside, I must admit that I really enjoyed “MOCKINGJAY, PART II”. I thought director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig did a very good job of adapting the second half of Collins’ novel. I had worried that Lion’s Gate Studios would insist that the screenwriters and Lawrence drastically change the story by giving it a less bittersweet ending. Lo and behold, no such thing happened.“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” – especially its ending – literally wallowed in moral ambiguity. More importantly, story allowed its heroine, in the end, to succumb to her worst instincts in a way that made sense to the saga that began in the first chapter. I believe it took balls for Suzanne Collins to end Katniss Everdeen’s struggles against the Capitol on that note. And I can say the same for Lawrence, Strong, Craig and the film’s producers.

I was also impressed by the movie’s portrayal of Peeta Mallark in this chapter of the saga. As many know, Peeta had spent most of “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART I” as a captive of the Capitol. He had been tortured and brainwashed via a tracker jacker venom into making an attempt on Katniss’ life. The filmmakers could have easily ignored Collins’ story and allowed Peeta’s recovery to be a quick job before he joined Katniss’ squad in the Capitol’s streets. Instead, they decided to follow Collins’ story and allowed Peeta’s recovery to be slow. By doing this, they allowed Peeta’s presence in the squad to not only endanger everyone, but have an impact on Katniss’ relationship with the Rebellion’s leadership.

More importantly, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” continued the saga’s theme of the impact war has human beings. After all, this theme has been present since Katniss and Peeta found themselves in 74th Hunger Games arena in the first movie. But in these last two movies, audiences see how war impacts everyone and not just a group of tributes coerced into playing out a lethal war game for the sake of television ratings. The war eventually has an impact upon Katniss’ various relationships – especially with Peeta, her best friend Gale Hawthorne, her family and the Rebellion’s leadership . . . and also upon her psyche. What I found interesting in the combat featured in this film is that Katniss and her fellow combatants not only have to deal with the traditional weapons of war, but also the muttations and other technical wonders usually reserved for the Hunger Games. The most harrowing examples of the Capitol’s use of muttations were the flood of black tar on the Capitol’s streets and the lizard mutts’ attack upon the squad inside the Capitol’s sewer system. I found this sequence rather difficult to watch, due to the scary images, the level of violence and the devastating impact upon the squad. But I must say . . . I thought it was one of the most frightening scenes in the entire saga. And due to Lawrence’ direction, the cast’s performances, the editing team of Alan Edward Bell and Mark Yoshikawa, cinematographer Jo Willems, and the special effects team; I also found it very effective.

Speaking of the performances, there is not enough I can say about them. I could not find a misstep made by any member of the cast. “MOCKINGJAY, PART II” featured some really solid performances from the likes of Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury, and Meta Golding. Natalie Dormer continued her excellent portrayal of television director Cressida. Patina Miller gave a more subtle performance as District 8’s Commander Paylor, who ends up playing a major role at the end of the rebellion. Although her screen time was somewhat limited in the movie, Jena Malone continued to give a colorful performance as former tribute Johanna Mason. Actually, she was not the only one whose screen time was limited. I could also say the same about Woody Harrelson, who portrayed Katniss and Peeta’s mentor Haymitch Abernathy; Jeffrey Wright as former tribute and the Rebellion’s tech man Beetee Latier; Elizabeth Banks as Katniss and Peeta’s escort Effie Trinket; Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ delicate mother Mrs. Everdeen; Willow Shields as Katniss’ quiet and highly determined sister Primrose; and Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. Thankfully, they were all top-notch, as usual.

There were cast members who given opportunities to strut their stuff in one or two scenes. There was an excellent moment for Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, who as Rebellion commander Bogg, tries to warn Katniss about President Alma Coin’s true goals in a heartbreaking scene. Sam Claflin continued his excellent performance as former tribute Finnick Odair – especially in two scenes. One of them featured his character’s wedding to another former tribute Annie Cresta. And other featured his attempts to placate the still hijacked Peeta. One scene that featured an intense performance by Michelle Forbes, who portrayed Boggs’ second-in-command, Lieutenant Jackson. However, Donald Sutherland and Julianne Moore received a good number of opportunities to showcase their talent. As President Coriolanus Snow of Panem and President Alma Coin of the Rebellion, the two performers gave interesting, yet contrasting takes on presidential villainy. Sutherland’s performance struck me as verbose, but with a slight edge of desperation, as his character struggle to deal with the possibility of defeat. On the other hand, Moore’s performance seemed a good deal more subtle . . . cool. I got the impression of observing a personality that proved to be a lot more manipulative than Snow’s and just as murderous in the occasional flash in her eyes.

The movie also featured superb performances from the three leads. Liam Hemsworth gave an interesting performance as rebel Gale Hawthorne. Very interesting. Hemsworth skillfully expressed Gale’s fervent aggression against Snow’s administration, but also a disturbing willingness to resort to any means necessary to end the war in the rebels’ favor. But for me, his best scene featured that moment when his character was unable to verify whether one of his weapon designs was used in an attack in front of the Presidential mansion. Hemsworth barely said a word, but his stark emotion is perfectly clear on his face. I think Josh Hutcherson had the most difficult role in this movie. He had to take the Peeta Mellark character on a journey from the murderous and brainwashed young man to someone who managed to find some semblance of peace in the wake of two Hunger Games and a violent war. Thanks to the screenwriters and Hutcherson’s performance, Peeta’s journey was not rushed into some futile effort to resume his old relationship with Katniss as quickly as possible. And this journey resulted in a beautiful scene in which Peeta finally told Katniss how she was needed to end this war against Snow – a scene that Hutcherson not only acted his ass off, but also brought tears to my eyes. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen seemed a bit more subtle than usual in this movie. I found this surprising, considering her role as the movie’s lead. I suspect that Katniss’ unusual subtlety came from having the brainwashed Peeta in her midst. I also suspect that Katniss’ unease toward Gale’s “by any means necessary” attitude toward the use of violence may have contributed to that unease. Lawrence really kept her performance under control in this film. But there was one scene in which Lawrence’s performance blew me away, when she openly expressed Katniss’ rage and grief against the tragedies she had experienced during the war.

I understand that “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY, PART II” made less money than the previous three movies. Personally, I do not see this as a reflection of the movie’s quality. Sure, it had a few bumps in the narrative and the production. But so did the other three films. Frankly, I thought it was an outstanding conclusion to one of the best movie franchises I had the good fortune to see. And one can thank not only Suzanne Collins’ imagination and talent, but also Francis Lawrence’s first-rate direction, a well-written script by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, and a talented cast led by the always superb Jennifer Lawrence that brought Collins’ story to life.

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

(This review features spoilers of the 2014 movie, “SERENA” and the Ron Rash 2008 novel from which it is adapted. If you have not seen the movie or read the novel, I suggest you do not read this review.)

 

“SERENA” (2014) Review

Seven years ago, author Ron Rash wrote a novel about a young socialite’s effect upon the lives of her new husband, their North Carolina timber business and the Appalachian community that relied upon it during the early years of the Great Depression. The cinematic adaptation of Rash’s novel hung around development for a while, before it finally became the 2014 movie, “SERENA”.

“SERENA” begins during the late fall of 1929, when the New England-born timber tycoon, George Pemberton, is forced to travel to Boston and secure more funds for his lumber business in western North Carolina. While attending a horse show with his sister, George meets Serena, the daughter of a businessman who had owned his own lumber business in Colorado. After a quick romance, the newlyweds return to Waynesville, North Carolina. There, Serena and George clash with the latter’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who regards the young bride as an interloper in his relationship with George. Serena also discovers that George had conceived a child with a local servant girl named Rachel Hermann. Although George reassures Serena that the infant boy means nothing to him, she discovers otherwise after she suffers a miscarriage. Deadly antics follow as the Pembertons deal with legal threats and grow apart over George’s illegitimate child.

When “SERENA” first reached the U.S. movie theaters, it sunk at the box office amidst negative reviews from the critics and fans of Rash’s novel. I have never read the novel. But I have read its synopsis after seeing the movie. And I have also read the reviews. There seemed to be a mixed reaction to the novel, despite its success. But the reaction to the novel seemed a lot more positive than the reaction to the film. Many have criticized director Suzanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle’s changes from the novel. Serena’s point-of-view was reduced in the film. Bier and Kyle added a background in the timber business for the leading character. They removed an early scene featuring a clash between George and Rachel Hermann’s father Abe (Harmon in the novel). They removed the Greek chorus of loggers and changed the ending. And you know what today’s moviegoers and television viewers are like. If a movie or series is going to adapt a novel, these fans usually insist or demand no changes. This is a very unrealistic or dangerous attitude for any filmmaker or television producer to have. To produce a film or a television movie, series or miniseries takes a great deal of money. And a producer needs to consider so much – especially in creating an adaptation of a literary source.

There were some changes made by Bier and Kyle that did not bother me. I felt more than relieved that they had decided to drop that violent encounter between George Pemberton and Abe Hermann (Harmon) at the Waynesville train station. While reading about it, I felt that such a violent encounter happened too soon in the story and it struck me – personally – as ridiculously over-the-top. Perhaps other fans missed it. I did not. According to some criticism of Rash’s novel, the Selena Pemberton character came off as a one-note monster with no real depth. Some have lobbied the same charge at George Pemberton. Since I have never read the novel, I do not know whether they are right or wrong. But I am grateful that the movie did portray both characters with some emotional depth. This was apparent in the couple’s intense regard for one another and the emotional breakdown that occurred, following Serena’s miscarriage. I also have no problems with Kyle’s decision to add a background in lumber in Serena’s back story. I thought her familiarity with a lumber camp gave credence to her ability to help George deal with the problems that sprang up within his camp. On the other hand, both Bier and Kyle managed to find time to focus on the Pembertons’ willingness to exploit the natural beauty around them for business and George’s penchant for hunting panthers. I also found the clash between the Pembertons’ efforts to maintain their business in the Appalachian Mountains and the local sheriff’s desire to preserve the surrounding forests for a national park rather interesting. I had no idea that the clash between those who wanted to exploit the land and those who wanted to preserve it stretched back that far.

I was surprised to learn that had been filmed in the Czech Republic and Denmark. However, looking into the background of the film’s crew and cast members, I found this not surprising. With the exception of a few, most of them proved to be Europeans. I have no idea which Czech mountain range where “SERENA” was filmed, but I have to give kudos to cinematographer Morten Søborg for his rich and beautiful photography of the country. But thanks to Martin Kurel’s art direction, Graeme Purdy’s set decorations and Richard Bridgland’s production designs did an admirable job of transporting audiences back to early Depression-era western North Carolina. As for the movie’s costume designs, I thought Signe Sejlund did a top-notch job. Not only did she managed to re-create the fashions of that period (1929 to the early 1930s), she also took care to match the clothes according to the characters’ personality, class and profession.

I never read any of the reviews for “SERENA”, so I have no idea how other critics felt about the cast’s performances. When I first learned about the movie, many bloggers and journalists seemed amazed that Jennifer Lawrence would be cast in the role of the emotional and ruthless Serena Pemberton. Personally, I was not that amazed by the news. The actress has portrayed ruthless characters before and she certainly had no problems portraying Serena. I thought she did a top-notch job in capturing both the character’s ruthlessness and the intense emotions that the latter harbored for her husband. There is one scene that truly demonstrated Lawrence’s talent as an actress. And it occurred when Serena discovered that George had been secretly keeping an eye on his illegitimate son. I was impressed by how Lawrence took the character from surprise to a sense of betrayal and finally to sheer anger within seconds. Bradley Cooper, who had co-starred with Lawrence in three other films, portrayed Serena’s ruthless, yet passionate husband, George Pemberton. Cooper not only conveyed his character’s businesslike ruthlessness, but also the latter’s moral conflict over some of his actions. My only complaint is that I found his New England accent (his character is from Boston) slightly exaggerated.

“SERENA” featured solid performances from the supporting cast. Toby Jones did a good job in portraying the morally righteous sheriff, McDowell. Ana Ularu also gave a solid and warm performance as Rachel Hermann, the young woman with whom George had conceived a child, when he used her as a bed warmer. Sean Harris was very effective as the conniving Pemberton employee, Campbell. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Charity Wakefield, and Blake Ritson. But the best performances amongst the supporting cast came from David Dencik and Rhys Ifans. Dencik gave a surprisingly subtle performance as George’s partner, Mr. Buchanan, who resented his partner’s marriage to Serena and her increasing impact on their lumber business. In fact, Dencik’s performance was so subtle, it left me wondering whether or not his character was secretly infatuated with George. Equally subtle was Rhys Ifans, who portrayed Pemberton employee-turned-Serena’s henchman, Galloway. Ifans did an excellent job in infusing both Galloway’s emotional ties to Serena and ruthless willingness to commit murder on her behalf.

Contrary to what many may believe, “SERENA” has its share of virtues. But it also has its share of flaws. One aspect of “SERENA” that I had a problem with surprisingly turned out to be the cast. Mind you, the cast featured first-rate actors. But I was not that impressed by the supporting cast’s Southern accents that ranged from mediocre to terrible. I could blame the film makers for relying upon European (especially British performers). But this could have easily happened with a cast of American actors. Only two actors had decent (if not perfect) upper South accents – Rhys Ifans and Sean Harris. I have no idea how Bruce Davidson, one of the few Americans in the cast, dealt with an Appalachian accent. He barely had any lines. Another problem I had with the movie turned out to be the score written by Johan Soderovist. First of all, it seemed unsuited for the movie’s Appalachian setting. Worst, Susanne Bier and the film’s producer failed to utilize the score throughout most of the film. There were too many moments in the film where there seemed to be no score to support the narrative.

At one point of the film, Kyle’s screenplay seemed to throw logic out of the window. When George committed murder to prevent Sheriff McDowell and the Federal authorities from learning about his bribes, a Pemberton employee named Campbell who had witnessed the crime, blackmailed him for a promotion. Yet, later in the film, Campbell decided to tell McDowell about the murder and the bribes. The problem is that Kyle’s screenplay never explained why Campbell had this change of heart. It never revealed why he had decided to bite the hand that fed him. And I have to agree with those who complained that the film did not focus upon Serena’s point-of-view enough. The movie’s title is “SERENA”. Yet, most of the film – especially in the first half – seemed to be focused upon George’s point-of-view. I have no idea why Bier and Kyle made these changes, but I feel that it nearly undermined the film’s narrative.

My biggest gripe with “SERENA” proved to be the ending. If I must be honest, I hated it. I also thought that it undermined the Serena Pemberton character, transforming her into a weeping ninny who could not live without her husband. Kyle’s screenplay should have adhered a lot closer to Rash’s novel. I am aware that both Serena and George loved each other very much. But Serena struck me as the type of woman who would have reacted with anger against George’s lies about his illegitimate baby, his emotional withdrawal and his attempt to strangle her. She reminded me of a younger, Depression-era version of the Victoria Grayson character from ABC’s “REVENGE”. Both women are both very passionate, yet ruthless at the same time. And if the television character was willing to resort to murder or any other kind of chicanery in retaliation to being betrayed, I believe that Serena was capable of the same, as well. Rash allowed Serena to react more violently against George for his betrayal, before sending her off to Brazil in order to start a lumber empire. Yet, both Rash and Kyle seemed determined to kill off Serena. Kyle did it by having Serena commit suicide by fire, after George was killed by a panther. I found this pathetic. Rash did it in his novel by having a mysterious stranger who bore a strong resemblance to George to kill her in Brazil. In other words, after surviving Serena’s poisoning attempt and an attack by a panther, George managed to hunt her down in thirty years or so and kill her. I found this ludicrous and frankly, rather stupid. I would have been happier if Serena had killed George and left the U.S. to make her fortune in Brazil. She struck me as the type who would get away with her crimes. If the murderer in“CHINATOWN” could get away with his crimes, why not Serena Pemberton? I feel this would have made a more interesting ending.

It is a pity that “SERENA” failed at the box office. Unlike many critics, I do not view it as total crap. I have seen worse films that succeeded at the box office. I suspect that many had simply overreacted to the film’s failure to live up to its original hype, considering the cast, the director and the novel upon which it was based. But it was not great. I regard “SERENA” as mediocre. The pity is that it could have been a lot better in the hands of a different director and screenwriter.

“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

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“DIVERGENT” (2014) Review

Ever since the success of the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise, movies based upon teen fantasy and science-fiction novels have been hitting the movie theaters in the past decade or so. The latest teen Fantasy/Sci-Fi to be released is a dystopian post-apocalyptic tale set in futuristic Chicago.

Based upon the first of Veronica Roth’s literary trilogy, “DIVERGENT” tells the story of a 16 year-old girl named Beatrice “Tris” Prior lives in a society in post-apocalyptic Chicago that is divided into five factions based upon human virtues and personalities. They are Amity (peaceful), Candor (truthful), Erudite (intelligent) and Dauntless (brave) and Abnegation (selfless). Tris has grown up in Abnegation, though she has always been fascinated by Dauntless. Her father, Andrew serves on the ruling council along with the head of Abnegation, Marcus Eaton and the head of Erudite, and Jeannie Matthews, head of Erudite. Along with other 16 year-olds, Tris undergoes a serum-based aptitude test that indicates the faction into which they would best fit and informs their choice at the Choosing Ceremony. When Tris takes the test, her proctor, a Dauntless woman Tori, reveals that she has the attributes of all five factions meaning she is Divergent. Tori records Tris’ result as Abnegation, and warns her to keep the true result secret, since Divergents can think independently and the government considers the latter threats to the social order. In the end, Tris chooses Dauntless at the Choosing Ceremony, and her brother Caleb chooses Erudite, taking their parents by surprise.

Tris leaves her home and meets other initiates, including – her new best friend Christina, her other friends Will and Al, and an enemy named Peter Hayes. After they past a series of initial tests, they engage in a long training session conducted by Tobias “Four” Eaton and the brutal Eric in order to become members of the Dauntless faction, which seemed to serve as some kind of law enforcement organization. Although both Tris and Christina struggle at first, they eventually manage to rise in their class standing. During her training, Tris falls in love with one of her trainers – “Four”. More importantly, both of them stumbles upon a plot by Jeannie Matthews, Erudite and Dauntless for Matthews to become “the” leader of Chicago, which includes ridding the community of those considered to be Divergent.

Hmmm . . . what can I say about “DIVERGENT”? I thought it was a decent movie. Its theme seemed to challenge the idea of society being divided by superficial reasons – in this case, human traits. The movie also benefited from Neil Burger’s direction, who kept the movie’s pace energetic, despite its narrative. More importantly, Burger did a great job in creating some first-rate action and dream sequences. I was especially impressed by the last action sequence that featured Tris and Four’s efforts to prevent Jeannie Matthews from forcing Dauntless members to execute those who are Divergent. More importantly, the dream sequences that reflected her fear simulations took my breath away. And I feel that Alwin H. Küchler’s cinematography and Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing really contributed to those scenes.

“DIVERGENT” also benefited from some excellent and solid acting from its cast. Tony Goldwyn and Ashley Judd were excellent as Tris’ parents – Andrew and Natalie Prior. Unfortunately, they were not in the film long enough to have any real impact upon most of the film, except in the last 20 minutes or so. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Stevenson, who portrayed Four’s father Marcus Eaton; Maggie Q as Tori; Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Christian Madsen as Tris’ friends Will and Al; Ansel Elgort as Tris’ brother Caleb; and Mekhi Phifer. Kate Winslet, Zoë Kravitz and Jai Courtney all gave good performances as Erudite leader Jeannie Matthews, Christina and Eric. But I got the feeling that their performances were hampered by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay. Winslet’s subtle performance was undermined by her character’s ham-fisted goals for Chicago – a society in which emotions are eventually eradicated. The screenplay did not give Kravitz much opportunity to display her acting skills (unlike her appearance in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”), except in a scene in which she found herself dangling over a ledge, thanks to Eric. The screenplay only allowed Courtney, who portrayed Eric, to sneer a lot, nearly reducing him to a one-note villain.

In my opinion, the movie featured three first-rate performances. One came from Miles Teller, who portrayed Tris’ antagonist, Peter Hayes. Unlike Courtney or even Winslet, Teller was given the opportunity to portray a more well-rounded character. And he certainly made the best of it. I also enjoyed Theo James’ performance as Tris’ trainer and love interest, Tobias “Four” Eaton. Granted, his character struck me as a typical leading man in a production that featured a female as the lead character. Think Angel from“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” or Edward Cullen from the “TWILIGHT”movies. But I also liked how James balanced Four’s growing feelings for Tris and his dread of his abusive father. The star of the movie is, of course, Shailene Woodley. In fact, I believe she gave the best performance as the complex, yet youthful Tris Prior. I am not surprised that she managed to carry this movie on her shoulders with ease. I had seen her in the 2011 film, “THE DESCENDANTS” and knew she had the talent and presence to do the job. Some have been calling her as “the next Jennifer Lawrence”. I disagree. Woodley is not the next anyone. She is her own self. And I would love to see her and Lawrence in a film together, considering how talented both are.

And yet . . . I do not love “DIVERGENT”. I believe it is hampered by too many flaws to make it a personal favorite of mine. One . . . I found the movie’s setting a little . . . questionable. A society that is divided by human virtues? Huh? It is possible that author Veronica Roth had used this division to expose how human beings judge others, based upon superficial reasons. But humans have judged each other for reasons more shallow than personality traits – class, race, gender, religion, nationality, region, etc. I wish that Roth had considered another means to divide her society, especially since selflessness happened to be one trait. And I do not believe that selflessness exists or that human beings are capable of it. And what the hell is up with the younger members of the Dauntless faction running, jumping and leaping all over the damn city? One of the movie’s characters – Christina – viewed these actions as crazy. Perhaps. But it struck me as a stupid and immature way to prove one’s courage. And why would the more adult members of Dauntless allow this? Why would Roth? As much as the screen chemistry of Woodley and James impressed me, I was somewhat taken aback by their on-screen romance. In the novel, Four was an 18 year-old. I read somewhere that his character aged by six years in order for the role to fit James. If so, I think it was a mistake. By allowing Four to be older, his sexual tryst with Tris transformed into an act of statutory rape. It smacked of the Buffy/Angel romance from “BUFFY” and I have always loathed it. Unless sex between an adolescent and a young adult is considered legal in Roth’s literary world. And I was less than impressed by the movie’s narrative structure. At least three-fourths of “DIVERGENT” focused on Tris’ training with the Dauntless faction. By the time the conflict against Jeannie Matthews’ efforts to take over Chicago manifested, the movie had at least 20 to 30 minutes left of running time. And the whole conflict struck me as pretty rushed.

What really bothered me about “DIVERGENT” was its lack of originality. Many have compared it to “THE HUNGER GAMES” saga, created by Suzanne Collins, due to both stories featuring an adolescent girl in a dystopian post-apocalyptic society. But“DIVERGENT” seemed to borrow from other literary/movie/television franchises. Mind you, there is no law that a story like this have to be completely original. One would be surprised at how many novelists and moviemakers borrow from other source materials. But . . . Roth’s efforts to put her own twist seemed to fall short. And the movie’s screenwriters seemed incapable of improving her flaws. It is bad enough that the movie setting and leading character strongly reminded me of “THE HUNGER GAMES”. We have the psuedo-Buffy/Angel romance between Tris and Four. The Choosing Ceremony for Chicago’s adolescents strongly reminded me of the Hogwarts School Sorting Hat (which should have been burned) from the “HARRY POTTER” series. And Jeannie Matthews’ goal of suppressing human emotions makes me wonder if the character was a fan of “STAR TREK” and a Vulcan wannabe.

“DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. It featured energetic direction from Neil Burger, some decent performances, and especially an outstanding one from lead actress, Shailene Woodley. But it failed to impress me, due to some unoriginal and flawed writing, along with a great lack of originality. Like I said – “DIVERGENT” is not a bad movie. But I find it hard to regard it as a very good movie, let alone a great one.

“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” (2014) Review

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“THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” (2014) Review

The producers of “THE HUNGER GAMES” movie franchise decided to follow the examples of the “HARRY POTTER”and “TWILIGHT” franchises and divide its adaptation of the last novel in Suzanne Collins’ literary series into two movies. The first of these two films is the recent “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I”.

Based upon the first half of Collins’ 2010 novel, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” picks up a few days or so after the end of the second film, “THE HUNGER GAMES – CATCHING FIRE”. After being rescued by her mentor Haymitch Abernathy and Head Gamemaker of the 75th Hunger Games Plutarch Heavensbee, Katniss Everdeen finds herself as a resident at the underground rebel facility hidden underneath the ruins of District 13. Fortunately, her sister Primrose Everdeen and mother Mrs. Everdeen had been rescued by her close friend Gale Hawthorne before President Coriolanus Snow had ordered the bombardment of their home, District 12. Unfortunately, Katniss learns that her other close friend and fellow District 12 tribute/victor Peeta Mallark, District 7 tribute/victor Johanna Mason and the wife of District 4 tribute Finnick Odair have all been captured by the Capitol and are now prisoners being tortured.

Both Heavensbee and leader of the rebellion Alma Coin want to use Katniss as a symbol of their rebellion. It seemed Katniss’ actions in the 75th Games arena – helping District 3 tribute/victor Beetee Latier bring down the arena forcefield in the last movie – spark and riots against the Capitol. Katniss refuses to become the rebellion’s suggestion, because they had left Peeta behind in the arena. But after visiting the ruined District 12 and seeing Peeta being used by the Capitol state television to end the rebellion, Katniss reluctantly changes her mind. She agrees to become the rebels’ “Mockingjay” symbol on the condition that Peeta and the other captured victors will be rescued at the first opportunity and pardoned.

When I had first learned that the producers of “THE HUNGER GAMES” franchise had plans to divide the adaptation of Collins’ last novel into two movies, I groaned with dismay. The last thing I wanted to experience was watching divided film adaptations of one novel. I have mixed feelings about how Warner Brothers and Summit Entertainment divided the adaptations of the last “Harry Potter’ and “Twilight” novels respectively. And I feared that I would experience similar feelings with this divided adaptation of Collins’ last novel, “Mockingjay”. After all, I have been more than satisfied with the adaptations of the first two novels. I adored them.

I have no idea how I will feel about the franchise’s last movie. Must I must say that I liked “MOCKINGJAY – PART I”very much. Well . . . actually, I enjoyed it as much as I did the first two films. And I did not expect that to happen. Unlike“THE HUNGER GAMES” and “CATCHING FIRE”, “MOCKINGJAY – PART I” did not focus upon a Hunger Games competition in which tributes engage in a lethal survival struggle. Instead, “MOCKINGJAY” shifts into the very premise that was foreshadowed in “CATCHING FIRE” – a deadly civil war. This shift in premise was one of the reasons why I had doubts about this film in the first place. I see I had nothing to worry about. Collins’ novel and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig did excellent jobs in conveying how the events of the first two chapters impacted the characters and the narrative of this last story – especially the actual outbreak of the rebellion, Katniss’ role in that outbreak, her role as the rebellion’s public face, her relationships with both Peeta and Gale, and Peeta’s position as a prisoner of the Capitol.

But there were two aspects of this movie that I found very interesting. First, I found it interesting that the willingness of both sides of the rebellion – the District 13 inhabitants under Alma Coin and Panem (the Capitol) under Coriolanus Snow – to use Katniss and Peeta for their respective causes. Coin and the rebellion exploits Katniss and the Mockingjay symbol via prepared speeches and televised visits to other rebellious districts. And Snow exploits Peeta to convince the public not to join the rebellion via televised interviews with Hunger Games master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman. It is interesting how different political beliefs can merely end up as two sides of one coin, so to speak. Another interesting aspect of the movie . . . at least for me . . . proved to be Katniss Everdeen. I noticed how Katniss is described as some kind of heroine in many articles on the Internet. This image was certainly solidified in the District 8 sequence. But while watching the film, I found myself wondering if Katniss was on some kind of slow journey toward a nervous breakdown. Superficially, she seemed tough . . . sure of herself. But there also seemed to be minor hints of a breakdown, especially in the film’s second half.

Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Jo Willems continued their visual expansion of the world of Panem in“MOCKINGJAY – PART I”. The movie featured scenes of both Districts 13 and 8, along with parts of the Capitol never seen in the first two films. I thought Willems did a solid job with his photography of the locations that stood for the two districts in rebellion. But if I must be honest, I do not recall any mind blowing scenes in the film – aside from the Capitol’s bombing of District 8. Philip Messina’s production designs did an excellent job in conveying the contrasting looks of the bombed out districts, the Capitol and Coin’s headquarters beneath District 13’s ruins. “MOCKINGJAY – PART I” proved to be the first film in the franchise that did not feature any over-the-top and memorable costumes designs, aside from the suit worn by Josh Hutcherson in his character’s interviews and Katniss’ Mockingjay battle outfit:

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Otherwise, Kurt Swanson and Bart Mueller’s designs seemed more casual and utilitarian, especially for the costumes worn by the rebels led by Alma Coin. I suppose this was due to most of the story told from Katniss’ point-of-view. And for once, she never visited the Capitol.

The performances were top-notch. Once again, Jennifer Lawrence knocked it out of the ballpark in her portrayal of “the Girl on Fire” Katniss Everdeen. Only in this film, Lawrence’s Katniss seemed even more on edge, torn between her hatred of Coin and the Capitol, her wariness toward Alma Coin and her deep concern for Peeta’s fate. Many have commented upon the District 8 scene in which Katniss openly expressed her anger over the bombing. But my favorite scene featured the moment in which Lawrence reminded audiences that Katniss is still an adolescent. I refer to the scene in which Katniss, which adolescent discomfort gives Coin and Heavensbee ultimatums in exchange for agreeing to be their “Mockingjay”. Great Lawrence moment. Because his character spent most of the film as a prisoner, Josh Hutcherson had lesser screen time in this film. No matter. He still managed to give a great performance as the tortured and exploited Peeta, forced to act as the Capitol’s mouthpiece. There were two moments in the film that truly displayed Hutcherson’s talent. One featured Peeta’s last interview in which he seemed to be struggling between cooperating with the Capitol and longing to express a warning to Katniss and the rebels. Anyone could see the extension of the abuse Peeta had suffered. The other moment was . . . well, that would be spoiling the film. All one has to do is watch Hutcherson’s performance in the film’s last ten to fifteen minutes. Liam Hemsworth’s character, Gale Hawthorne, was expanded in this film. In fact, he had more scenes that Hutcherson. Which is good news, for the actor finally had a chance to display his skills as an actor. I was impressed by how Hemsworth conveyed Gale’s struggles and failure to contain his jealousy of Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. I thought he was more effective in displaying this aspect of Gale’s character in this film than in the last two flicks. I was also impressed by Hemsworth’s performance in a scene in which Gale recalls the destruction of District 12.

I read somewhere that the Effie Trinket character did not appear until near the end of Collins’ novel. Thankfully, Strong and Craig did not reduce her character in this film. And audiences got a chance to see Elizabeth Banks give another delightful and crowd pleasing performance as the publicist/chaperone. I especially enjoyed watching Banks convey Effie’s dismay at the lack of fashion sense among the District 13 rebels and contempt toward Coin and Heavensbee’s handling of Katniss. Woody Harrelson was equally entertaining as Katniss’ alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson seemed to have less screen time in this film, due to his character being forced to undergo detoxication and being on the outs with Katniss. But Harrelson was colorful as ever. And I especially enjoyed his interactions with Banks. Donald Sutherland was creepy as ever in his portrayal of Panem’s head-of-state, President Coriolanus Snow. One of the aspects of Sutherland’s performance that I enjoyed so much is how he manages to effectively convey such subtle menace in his portrayal. This was especially in one scene in which Katniss made a personal plea to Snow to spare the lives of Peeta and the other prisoners.

Jeffrey Wright returned as District 4 tribute/victor Beetee Latier. Although there was not much in his character development, Wright had one particularly interesting scene in which he skillfully conveyed Beetee’s concerns over his use of technology to support an important military mission within the Capitol. Sam Claflin reprised his role as District 4 tribute/victor Finnick Odair and did an excellent job in portraying the character’s emotional vulnerability regarding his concern for wife and fellow victor Annie Cresta. I was really by Claflin’s performance in one scene in which Odair revealed his past experience in being forced into prostitution for his fans in the Capitol. Philip Seymour Hoffman returned as former Head Gamekeeper and the rebellion’s publicist Plutarch Heavensbee. In some scenes, Hoffman seemed smooth as ever as the manipulative Heavensbee. But there were interesting moments in which the actor revealed Heavensbee’s occasional bouts of fear and doubt. Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci and Willow Shields all returned to reprise their roles as Mrs. Everdeen, Caesar Flickerman and Primrose Everdeen. All gave solid performances, but I was especially impressed by Shields, who conveyed in increased maturity in her role. Mahershalalhashbaz Ali and Natalie Dormer joined the cast as Alma Coin’s right hand man/Katniss’ bodyguard Boggs and Capitol film diretor-turned-rebel Cressida. Both gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by no-nonsense attitude conveyed by Ali. Julianne Moore also made her debut in the film franchise as leader of the rebellion, Alma Coin. In many ways, Moore’s Coin seemed just as subtle and manipulative as Sutherland’s President Snow. Moore was also effective in conveying Coin’s somewhat cold-blooded pragmatism that strangely reminded me of Katniss.

Did I have any qualms about “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I”? Well . . . as much as I found Katniss’ angry speech during her visit to District 8 rather stirring, I was also a little put off by it. I got the feeling that the screenwriters and Lawrence wanted to include a “macho/heroic moment” for Katniss, considering the minimum number of action scenes for the character in compare to the previous two films. I do not know if this scene was included in the novel. But it seemed a bit over-the-top to me. And there was the scene in which a rebel demolition team manages to blow up the dam providing the Capitol with electricity. There seemed to be a certain lack of reality in the rebels’ attack upon the dam that did not seem right to me.

But as far as I am concerned, “THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART I” proved to be just as first-rate as the previous two films. It is already one of my favorite films of 2014. Francis Lawrence continued his marvelous job as the franchise’s director. And I believe he was also damn lucky to work with a superb cast led by Jennifer Lawrence and utilize an excellent screenplay written Danny Strong and Peter Craig. I hope . . . and pray that the last entry in the film franchise will prove to be just as superb as the first three films.

“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” (2014) Review

 

“X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” (2014) Review

When the news reached many fans that Bryan Singer would be helming the next film, fans rejoiced. As far as they were concerned, the best movies from the franchise had been directed by Singer. And since he had served as one of the producers for 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”, that particular film is highly regarded by fans as well.

The latest film in question, “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” seemed to serve as a sequel to both “FIRST-CLASS” and the 2006 movie, “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. Adapted from Chris Claremont John Byrne’s 1981 storyline, “Days of Future Past”, for comic book, The Uncanny X-Men, Issues #141-142; “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” starts in the 2020s in which robots known as Sentinels are exterminating mutants, humans who harbor the genes that lead to mutant offspring, and humans who help mutants. A band of mutants led by Charles Xavier “Professor X” and Erik Lehnsherr “Magneto” manage to evade the Sentients and eventually find refuge in China. Realizing that the Sentients will finally catch up with them, Xavier and Magneto, along with fellow mutant Kitty Pryde, come up with a plan to prevent the events that would kick-start the creation of the Sentients.

Using Kitty’s ability to project an individual’s consciousness through time, they instruct her to do the same to Logan’s “Wolverine” consciousness back to late January 1973 (over ten years following the events of “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” – to prevent Raven Darkhölme “Mystique” from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels. Following the assassination, the U.S. government captured Mystique and allowed Trask’s company to use her DNA to create Sentinels that are near-invincible due to their ability to adapt to any mutant power. Xavier and Magneto advise Wolverine to seek out both of their younger selves for aid. When Logan finally arrives in the past, he learns that the younger Xavier has become an embittered man over the premature closing of his school for mutants and addicted to a serum created by Hank McCoy “the Beast” to suppress his mutation. Logan also learns that the younger Magneto has spent over 10 years imprisoned for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

I might as well lay my cards on the table. I love time travel movies. It is the reason why I am such a big fan of the“BACK TO THE FUTURE” franchise and especially 2012’s “MEN IN BLACK 3”. The return of Bryan Singer as the director of an X-MEN film was not the reason why I had anticipated this film so much. It was the story’s theme of time travel. Only in this case, the movie’s time traveler, Logan, does not bodily travel back through time. Instead, his 2020s consciousness is sent back to his 1973 body. I found nothing wrong with that. After all, the 2011 movie, “SOURCE CODE”used a similar method. And the 2000 movie, “FREQUENCY” featured the communication between father and son – across a period of thirty years via a shortwave radio. When I realized what the plot was about, I suspected “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” might prove to be the best film in the franchise.

The movie certainly featured a great deal that made it memorable. Unlike “FIRST CLASS”, “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”did an excellent job in re-creating the early 1970s. One has to thank John Myhre’s excellent production designs, along with Gordon Sim’s set decorations, the special effects team and Newton Thomas Sigel’s superb photography. I was especially impressed by Sigel’s photography and the special effects in the following scenes:

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More importantly, Louise Mingenbach did a much better job in creating costumes that adhere correctly to the movie’s setting (especially the early 1970s) than Sammy Sheldon did for the early 1960s costumes for “FIRST CLASS”.

“DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” also featured some excellent action sequences that left me feeling slightly dazzled. I especially enjoyed the two battles fought between the mutant and the Sentinels in the movie’s first five minutes and its last ten to twenty minutes, Mystique’s rescue of her fellow mutants from an Army base in South Vietnam, the rescue of Magneto from a Federal prison and especially Mystique’s attempt to assassinate Bolivar Trask at the latter’s meeting with North Vietnam generals, following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.

But action scenes, cinematography and special effects do not alone make a good movie. Thankfully, “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” featured some excellent dramatic scenes and a decent narrative – with some flaws. I must admit that I was impressed at how screenwriter Simon Kinberg carried over the early Xavier-Magneto relationship from “FIRST CLASS” in two scenes – Xavier greeting the recently imprisoned Magneto with a punch to the face and their embittered quarrel aboard Xavier’s private plane, as they fly to Paris. He also did an excellent job in carrying over the same for the two men’s relationship with Mystique. The first meeting – actually, I should say Magneto’s first meeting with Wolverine proved to be interesting. It did not take long for the animosity between the two to immediately spark. One of the best dramatic sequences proved to be – ironically – in the middle of the film’s last action scene that was set on the White House lawn. I am speaking of that moment in which Xavier tried to talk Mystique out of carrying out her plan to assassinate Trask. As for the sequences set in the 2020s, I cannot recall any memorable dramatic moments. But there is one unforgettable scene that linked the two time settings that I will never forget. It featured a conversation between the young and old Xavier, thanks to a psychic link set up by Logan. A great, dramatic and emotional moment.

I read on the Wikipedia site that “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” is regarded as the best film in the X-MEN franchise and the best reviewed. I feel that it had the potential to be the best in the franchise, thanks to its time travel theme. But . . . I am afraid it did not achieve that goal. At least for me. What tripped up this movie? Simon Kinberg’s screenplay. However, I cannot solely place the blame on him. As one of the producers and the director of the film, I believe Bryan Singer deserves most of the blame.

I read somewhere that Josh Helman had originally been hired to portray a younger version of Juggernaut, who was portrayed by Vinnie Jones in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But the filmmakers changed their minds, dropped the Juggernaut character from the script and gave Helman the role of a younger William Stryker. And this was the biggest mistake that Singer, his crew and the rest of the producers made. A big mistake. The 2009 film, “X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE” made it clear that Stryker was the leader of a group of mutant mercenaries hired to help him develop his Weapons X project. Stryker was portrayed by the then 46-47 year-old Danny Huston, who portrayed Stryker as someone in his late thirties or early forties. I recall that Stryker had recruited both Logan and his half-brother, Victor Creed “Sabretooth” in Vietnam. Later, Logan had left the group in 1973. But there was no sign of Sabretooth and the other mutants working for Stryker in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. And we are also supposed to be believe that a Stryker portrayed by a 26-27 year-old Josh Helman, was the son of a 10 year-old boy. Are they kidding? When I had pointed out this problem on the Internet, I was told that the audience was supposed to dismiss the 2009 movie as part of the franchise. What the hell? Was this really Singer’s idea of handling the continuity problem of William Stryker in this movie? If so, this is sloppy film writing at its worse.

The William Stryker character proved to be a problem in other areas of the story. In the movie, he is supposed to be Boliviar Trask’s Army liaison. Okay, I can buy that. But would an officer of the U.S. Army stand by silently, while Trask meets with a group of Communist military generals (especially from an army that had just been at war with the United States) in order to sell his Sentinel program? I rather doubt it. Even if Congress was not interested in using Trask’s program, I doubt it or Stryker would be so cavalier about Trask selling his program for combatant robots to military armies they would deem enemies of the U.S. The movie also featured a scene with President Richard M. Nixondiscussing the chaos and violence caused by Mystique’s assassination attempt in Paris with his political and military advisers in the White House’s Oval Office. Nixon and his advisers are suddenly surprised by Trask and Stryker’s appearance, who were there to push the Sentinel program again. Guess what? I was also surprised. How did Trask and Stryker gain entry into the Oval Office without an appointment or security agents stopping them? How was it even possible?

Since I am on a roll, there are other matters in the script that I find questionable. For example . . . did anyone notice any similarities between the plot for “X-MEN UNITED” and this film? In the 2003 movie, Magneto hijacked William Stryker’s plans to use the kidnapped Xavier to kill all mutant in order to use his old friend against non-mutants. And in“DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Magneto (again) hijacked Trask’s Sentient robots that were created to kill mutants in order to bump of President Nixon and his advisers. Hmmmm . . . how unoriginal. And how was Magneto able to reprogram the prototype Sentinel robots in the first place? He had never displayed any technological skill or talent in the past. I read in Wikipedia’s recap of the movie’s plot that Magneto had intercepted the Sentinels that were in transit by rail and laced their polymer-based frames with steel, allowing him control of them. What the hell? I have never heard of such contrived bullshit in my life. I take that back. I just realized more contrived bullshit in the plot. When did Kitty Pryde acquire the ability to send a person’s consciousness back through time? Her ability is to phase through objects like walls, doors, etc. How did she acquire this second ability, when it was non-existent in the comics? According to Bryan Singer, Kitty’s phasing ability enables time travel. Hmmm. More bullshit to explain vague and bad writing. And speaking of the future segments, could someone explain what was going on the movie’s first action sequence that involved the younger mutants fighting Sentients . . . and nearly being wiped out? And yet, the next thing I know, all of them rendezvous with the older mutants in China – Xavier, Magneto, Ororo Munroe aka Storm, and Logan. So . . . could someone please explain in full detail what the hell was going on?

And could someone please explain why Storm ended up as a background character in this movie? All she did was stand around, while others around her talked . . . until a few minutes before her death. I read that actress Halle Berry was pregnant at the time of the movie’s production. All I can say is . . . so what? Rosamund Pike (her co-star from the 2002 Bond movie, “DIE ANOTHER DAY”) was pregnant during the production of “JACK REACHER”. She was not treated like a background character. And Berry could have been provided with a great deal more dialogue than she was given. There was no need for her to be involved in mainly action sequences. Also, I am at a loss on how Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka Cyclops ended up alive and well in the altered timeline. How? How on earth did their fates have anything to do with Trask’s Sentinels? It was Stryker’s actions in “X-2: X-MEN UNITED” that eventually led to Jean’s “death” in this movie and eventually hers and Scott’s actual deaths in “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. And I do not recall Stryker’s Army career being affected by Trask’s downfall by the end of this movie. Some fans claim that the post-credit scene of “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” explained how Xavier was resurrected, following his death at the hands of Jean. Uh . . . it did not explain anything to me. And you know what? Neither “THE WOLVERINE” or “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. Am I to assume that Xavier’s resurrection in the franchise’s movieverse will always remain a mystery?

The movie eventually revealed that the younger Magneto had been imprisoned for Kennedy’s assassination. As it turned out, Magneto was trying to save Kennedy’s life. Why? Because according to Magneto, the 35th President was a mutant. What was the point of this tidbit? To give Kennedy a reason for his . . . so-called liberal politics? Why was that necessary? Speaking of Magneto, I noticed in one scene that was dressed in this manner in order to retrieve his uniform and telepathy-blocking helmet:

Mind you, Michael Fassbender looked good. But honestly . . . why did his character, a forty-something year-old man who was born and raised in Europe, had to channel “Superfly” in order to retrieve his old uniform? I have one last quibble. This movie is supposed to be set around late January to early February, 1973; during the time when the Paris Peace Accords to end the Vietnam War were signed. Could someone explain why the weather conditions – for locations in the State of New York; Paris, France; and Washington D.C. – in the movie made it seem this story was set during the spring or summer? No one wore a heavy coat. Nor did I see signs of snow, blustery weather or trees with dead leaves.

Before one thinks I hate this movie, I do not. I believe “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” has a great deal of flaws. But it does have its merits. I have already commented on them, earlier in this review. But I have not touched upon the performances. Personally, I have no complaints about them. Sure, Halle Berry barely had any dialogue. Ian McKellen was slightly more fortunate, which I found surprising. Anna Paquin as Marie aka Rogue, Kelsey Grammer as the older Hank McCoy aka the Beast, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, and James Marsden as Scott Summers aka Cyclops all made ten (10) seconds or more appearances at the end of the film. What a waste. However, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde and Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake aka Iceman gave solid performances. So did Josh Helman , who made a very effective and scary younger William Stryker. Evan Peters gave a very entertaining and crowd-pleasing performance as supersonic mutant Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver. I enjoyed Nicholas Hoult’s quiet, yet intense performance as the younger Hank McCoy. Hugh Jackman gave his usual intense and deliciously sardonic portrayal of the time traveling Logan aka Wolverine. However . . . I sense that he is getting a bit too old to be portraying a mutant that barely ages. And his physique looked extremely muscular . . . even more so than he did at the age of 31 in 2000’s “X-MEN”. In fact, his body looked downright unnatural and heavily veined.

However, there were outstanding performances in the movie. Patrick Stewart did an excellent job in conveying the many aspects of the older Xavier’s emotional reactions to the war against the Sentients. Also, both he and McKellen continued their first-rate chemistry as the former foes who had renewed their friendship. Both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continued their strong screen chemistry as the younger Xavier and Magneto. I was especially impressed by their performances in the scene that featured their quarrel aboard Xavier’s private plane. And remember the rapture I had expressed over the scene that featured the two Xaviers? Well, one should thank both Stewart and McAvoy for making it so memorable. Peter Dinklage gave an outstanding performance as the intelligent mastermind behind the Sentient robots, Bolivar Trask. But the best performance, I believe, came from Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the younger Mystique, who seemed hellbent upon assassinating the man she perceived as a threat to the mutants’ future. She was all over the place . . . and in the right way. I found her performance a lot more impressive than the one she gave in “FIRST CLASS”.

Unlike many other fans of the X-MEN movies, I was not particularly impressed by the news that Bryan Singer had returned to direct this latest film for the franchise. I was more impressed by the movie’s theme of time travel. “DAYS OF FUTURE” had a lot to offer – colorful visual effects, great dramatic moments, superb action sequences and some excellent performances by the cast. But the inconsistencies that popped up in the movie’s plot were too many for me to dismiss. And I believe that in the end, those inconsistencies prevented the movie from achieving its potential to be the best in the X-MEN franchise. Hmmm . . . too bad.