Rocketman Soars, Dark Phoenix Stumbles

I saw two movies in the theater this weekend. One of them was really great, the other was just okay. Let’s talk about ‘em.

First up is Rocketman, the critically acclaimed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary singer. I enjoyed the heck out of this movie, the musical sequences were exhilarating and the songs were so well done that the first thing I did when I got home from the theater was hop on iTunes and buy the soundtrack.

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The film charts Elton’s life from his childhood, where he was born as Reginald Dwight, to his rise to the heights of fame and his perhaps inevitable fall to the depths of substance abuse and depression, to his attending rehab and getting the scattered fragments of his life put back together. It’s a familiar arc, and this kind of story has been seen before in other biopics, musical or otherwise.

But it’s told with skill, great acting and awesome music. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Elton John’s music, and the film paints a compelling portrait of his life. The movie even finds creative ways of incorporating the songs into the dialogue and the story, making them an integral part of the film. The movie takes a fantastical approach to the music, frequently turning the songs into elaborate musical numbers.

It’s a very effective approach to the material, and I loved how the filmmakers were able to use the songs to help tell the story. It’s not exactly a realistic film in that sense, it’s more of what you might call a musical fantasy. It works like gangbusters and is also thematically appropriate given that Elton’s drug use sometimes turns his life into a blur.

It also doesn’t shy away from the more sordid aspects of Elton’s life. I don’t know how much the movie’s story deviates from the actual details of Elton’s life, I’m assuming it takes some liberties simply because movies based on real events and people often do. Regardless, the movie’s story is very cohesive and easy to follow. Scenes of Elton’s drug abuse and other addictions can be hard to watch, but the movie treats the material with respect and never descends into hopelessness.

Taron Egerton is terrific as Elton, and he does all his own singing. I can’t imagine how intimidating it must have been to take on the role of such a beloved entertainer, and not only to sing well but to sing like Elton John. I thought Egerton did a terrific job, and I sincerely hope he’ll get some Oscar buzz once awards season rolls around.

The sets and costumes are fantastic and the movie ends with a montage showing pictures of the real Elton in some of the over-the-top costumes he wears in the movie. It shows respect and love for Elton while also showing how faithfully the movie reconstructed the details of his life. The movie isn’t always easy to watch but the experience is very enjoyable and the music, of course, is excellent.

Much less enjoyable was Dark Phoenix, the latest (and last, for now) entry in the long-running X-Men series, which has been going for nearly two decades now. Unfortunately, the series goes out on a low note. Dark Phoenix isn’t a completely terrible movie, but it’s certainly not very good.

Basically, a rescue mission to space goes awry and Jean Grey gets blasted with some kind of terrible cosmic power, and she starts to manifest dangerous and unpredictable abilities, leading her friends the X-Men to attempt to save her. If the story seems familiar, it’s probably because the X-Men series has told it before, in thee 2006 movie X-Men: The Last Stand. The Dark Phoenix storyline was one of several subplots in that much-maligned movie, and never got much time to breathe, so here it is again. And while it is nice that one of the most acclaimed storylines in all of superhero comics now gets an entire movie to itself, I just wish that the results had been more satisfying.

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This movie has some very basic problems. The first is that the Phoenix Force or whatever it is that’s possessing Jean is given very little explanation. There are some shape-shifting aliens who want to capture Jean so they can use the power for themselves, but these aliens are given virtually no background and it is never clear who they are or what they want. They’re a vaguely evil presence that shows up periodically. It’s impossible to give a damn about them. One of the greatest sins of this movie is that it casts Jessica Chastain as a shape-shifting alien and then gives her nothing to do except glower. These villains, if you can even call them that, are a complete bust.

The other problem is that Jean never does anything evil enough. Pretty much all she does is (spoiler alert) accidentally kill Mystique and then flip a few cop cars. I haven’t read the Dark Phoenix comics, but the internet informs me that in the comics the Dark Phoenix destroys a solar system and kills five billion aliens. In the movie, all Jean does is accidentally kill one X-Man, and that’s about it. The movie doesn’t do nearly enough to sell her as a galaxy-destroying threat.

It also doesn’t have any idea what to do with most of the characters. Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver, who was so much fun in previous X-movies, has maybe half a dozen lines of dialogue. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique gets killed off early in the movie, and I can’t help but wonder if she wanted her character to be killed off so she wouldn’t have to make any more X-movies. That’s pure speculation on my part, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it.

And here’s something that bugs me: the movie takes place in 1992. Characters like Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast were in X-Men: First Class, which took place in the 1960’s. They would now have to be in their fifties at least, yet none of them look like they’ve aged a single day. Heck, X-Men: Days of Future Past took place largely in the 1970’s, and Quicksilver, who was in that movie, looks exactly the same. He should be in his mid-30’s. He looks like he’s about eighteen. The movie didn’t even try to make any of its characters look older. Maybe I’m making a mountain out of a molehill by complaining so much about this, but this lack of respect for basic continuity drives me nuts.

Dark Phoenix is a competently-made and well-acted movie. The climactic train battle was quite a bit of fun and gave all the X-Men creative ways to use their powers. Sophie Turner is also quite good as Jean, and does very good work here. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are actors that I don’t think are capable of giving bad performances, even if Fassbender is underused.

I like the X-Men film series overall, even though it’s had it’s share of ups and downs. Dark Phoenix, sadly, is one of the downs. I prefer to think of 2017’s Logan as the conclusion to the X-Men series, since that movie had the emotional heft and strong sense of closure that Dark Phoenix sorely lacks. This was the directorial debut of longtime X-Men movie producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and his film has its moments but ends up being a disappointment.

Disney now owns the X-Men film rights, so it’s entirely possible that we’ll be seeing different versions of our favorite mutants in future MCU movies. Some of the henchmen in Dark Phoenix wear armbands that say MCU on them, which I’m pretty sure stands for Mutant Containment Unit, but I couldn’t help but think of Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s nothing more than a coincidence, but it’s one that I found amusing.

The next movie I’m excited about is Spider-Man: Far From Home, but that doesn’t come out until July 2nd, so I’ll have to think of something else to write about until then. Maybe I’ll bring back the Roger Moore Bond movies, or ooooooh! Maybe I’ll write about Netflix’s Punisher series, starring the always-excellent Jon Bernthal. Exciting possibilities!

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Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

2016: The Year in Villainy

So much quality villainy this year! Let’s get to it.

Ajax and Angel Dust in Deadpool

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Revenge is always a strong motivator, and few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of it this year as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool. Ajax (whose real name is Francis, what a dweeb) and Angel Dust both possess superhuman strength and Ajax feels no pain, which makes both villains quite the handful. They’re a potent villain/villainess duo who prove that being evil isn’t just for men anymore. Angel Dust deserves the Henchwoman of the Year award and I’m not just saying that because Gina Carano is a total badass and could easily kick my butt. Not saying that I wouldn’t be okay with that, mind you. Seriously Gina, call me.

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Akan in Hardcore Henry

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You know how I said a second ago that few movie characters were as single-minded in their pursuit of revenge as Deadpool? Well, Henry the cyborg is right up there with him. Vengeance is literally the only thing that this mute tornado of death and destruction desires, and he will stop at nothing in his ultraviolent quest to reach the despicable Akan. Akan is a telepathic douchebag in charge of an army of henchmen, and in addition to his air of jackassery he has also captured Henry’s wife, and is awfully smug about it. Jeez, this guy is such a tool. Or should I say was such a tool, since he’s on the receiving end of one of the most hilariously brutal and over-the-top villain deaths of the year. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, though. Jerk.

Lex Luthor and Doomsday in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Zemo in Captain America: Civil War

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The villain is usually the character the heroes spend the most time fighting, but in the case of the year’s two biggest superhero team-ups, that’s not quite the case. In both films, the heroes spend the majority of their time fighting each other because there’s a villainous figure secretly manipulating them. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre portrayal of Lex Luthor, but I did like Zemo, who was a more understandable character. Any time a villain can get the heroes to do the work for him, that counts as a win in the Big Book O’ Villainy, and for that, Zemo and Lex deserve some evil kudos.

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I was not overly fond of Doomsday, an ugly CGI beast who menaces Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. But I can give him credit for being strong enough to require three heroes to defeat him, and his resilience earns him (it?) a mention on this list. And when you’re tough enough to (spoiler alert) KILL THE MAN OF STEEL, then you kind of have to be a badass.

Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse

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Apocalypse is an ancient mutant, thousands of years old, who awakens in Cairo, Egypt in the 1980s and is not pleased with the way the world has developed during his several-thousand-years-long slumber. He promptly recruits some followers (because Apocalypse has to have his Horsemen, naturally), gaining their loyalty by enhancing their mutant powers and giving them a sense of belonging, while the rest of the world has cast them out. He then initiates a diabolical plot to destroy modern society and reshape the world the way he wants it to be. The previous X-film, Days of Future Past, was less black and white with its villains, but suffice to say the X-folks have their work cut out for them with Apocalypse.

The Alien Queen in Independence Day: Resurgence

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Resurgence was a mediocre film, but the Alien Queen was cool. Basically a roided-up version of the Independence Day aliens we’ve seen before, but massive and equipped with her own personal shield generator, which throws the film’s heroes for a loop. It takes a lot to bring her down, and she and her legions of alien henchmen (henchaliens?) cause untold mass destruction and millions of human casualties before she is defeated. The movie’s blatant sequel-bait ending strongly implies there are more of her kind in the universe, so we might be seeing more like her before too long, assuming the less-than-stellar reception Resurgence received didn’t put the kibosh on future installments.

Enchantress and the Joker in Suicide Squad

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Ironically, the movie that was all about the villains is probably the hardest movie to write about when it comes to said villains. The primary antagonist of the film’s ragtag bunch of miscreants was the Enchantress, basically an evil spirit possessing the body of a young doctor. She caused all kinds of trouble, although she was still pretty forgettable. Slightly more memorable was Jared Leto’s punk-rock Joker, who suffered from a similar lack of characterization but benefits from the weight of 75 years of comic-book history. He was relegated to the sidelines for most of the movie, but every time he showed up you knew some shit was about to go down, which is as it should be with the Joker.

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Kaecilius in Doctor Strange

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Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favorite actors, especially when he’s evil. The Danish actor brings the evil to Marvel’s latest franchise-starter, providing a compelling dark sorcerer to battle the Sorcerer Supreme played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The final showdown between the two is a sight to behold, as the opposing masters of magic square off against the backdrop of time moving backwards, and a destroyed city repairs itself. The only problem with Mikkelsen playing so many villains is that he tends to get killed off a lot, which means he won’t appear in the sequels. Oh, well. Beggars can’t be choosers.

Shere Khan in The Jungle Book

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It was a good year for Idris Elba playing villains. He provided the voice for Shere Khan, the evil tiger in Disney’s smash-hit live-action adaptation of The Jungle Book. Although it was more of an animated film since the entire movie was shot in front of green screens with only one live-action actor, but that’s beside the point. Despite being a special effect, Elba’s Shere Khan was sleek and scary, and may even have been a bit too scary for very young members of the audience. But scariness is one of the hallmarks of a great villain, and Shere Khan fits that description nicely.

The Shark in The Shallows

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It was also a good year for evil animals in the movies. A bloodthirsty Great White shark spends 86 minutes relentlessly trying to dine on the nubile flesh of Blake Lively in The Shallows. The film is a remarkably effective thriller, and although I have no idea if the movie’s portrayal of shark behavior is scientifically accurate, I don’t much care when it makes for such a watchable movie. The Shallows is similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece Gravity in structure. It’s short, technically masterful, and mostly concerned with the trials and tribulations of a single female character. It’s an intense piece of work, and the toothy shark will be enough to make you afraid to go in the water all over again.

Krall in Star Trek Beyond

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Hey, it’s Idris Elba again! This time he’s playing Krall, a menacing alien creature who manages to completely trash the beloved starship Enterprise. He causes all kinds of trouble for Captain Kirk and his intrepid crew. Elba is mostly unrecognizable buried under layers of makeup and prosthetics, and his voice is sometimes hard to understand. Krall is basically an intergalactic version of Batman’s enemy Bane, and although Krall’s motivations turn out to not be anything unique (his motivations are quite similar to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness), but he remains a fun and intriguing villain.

John Boy in The Nice Guys

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You mean like John Boy from The Waltons? No, not like John Boy from The Waltons. Shane Black’s third directorial feature may have been a comedy, but John Boy was a brutal mob assassin who took no prisoners. He gunned people down with no remorse and even tossed a thirteen-year-old girl through a window, so you knew he meant business. The Nice Guys is a fantastic movie that is chock-full of memorable characters, even though not all of them are as likable as the hapless heroes played by Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling.

The Asset in Jason Bourne

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Every Bourne movie features at least one CIA asset sent to dispatch Jason Bourne, but the Asset in Bourne’s latest adventure, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, is particularly troublesome. It turns out that this asset has a personal grudge against Bourne, and his and Bourne’s histories are inextricably intertwined. This leads to an absolutely brutal showdown in Las Vegas, featuring quite possibly the most brutal hand-to-hand fight scene in a series known for brutal hand-to-hand fight scenes. Jason Bourne was a movie with a lot of flaws, but it delivered on the action sequences.

Bartholomew Bogue in The Magnificent Seven

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With a name like Bartholomew Bogue, you’re pretty much destined to be evil. Peter Sarsgaard plays the thoroughly ruthless and despicable industrialist who holds the town of Rose Creek hostage. This guy is one Grade-A son of a bitch, a character the viewer despises from the moment he sets foot onscreen. It’s an effective performance from Sarsgaard as an absolute bastard, and as is the case with many absolute bastards, he turns out to be a coward once his power is taken away from him. One of the most detestable villains of the year.

Orson Krennic in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) Ph: Jonathan Olley �Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

Rogue One was an action-packed thrill ride that I enjoyed the heck out of, but the main villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, was a bit boring. There’s nothing really wrong with Mendelsohn’s performance, but his character is basically a bureaucrat and isn’t terribly interesting. Fortunately, another evil presence is waiting in the wings, and its name is…

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DARTH FREAKING VADER!! Holy crap, it was good to see Darth Vader on screen again. He doesn’t get a lot of screen time but he makes the most of his limited appearance in Rogue One, and gets the chance to kick some rebel ass in the process. It just makes me so happy that one of the most iconic villains in cinematic history is once again on movie screens, even if it is just briefly. The fact that he’s voiced by James Earl Jones is icing on the cake.

So there you have it, the best of the best of cinematic villainy. There’s another good slate of movies scheduled for release in 2017, so I’ll see you all again for another roundup before you know it.

Capsule Reviews, Vol. 1

Here are a couple movies I’ve seen recently that I had some thoughts about, as well as a couple of other random topics.

X-Men Apocalypse

When a movie starts in the year 3600 BC, you know it means business. The latest installment of the X-Men series sees the film debut of Apocalypse, an important character in the comics whose origin begins in ancient Egypt. In the film’s opening he gets buried under a pyramid and eventually reawakens after about 5000 years in modern-day Egypt. By “modern-day” I actually mean some time in the 80’s, which is when the movie takes place.

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The X-Men series has the most convoluted timeline of the major Marvel franchises, and I’m still not sure exactly how the time travel shenanigans in the previous film, Days of Future Past, effected the overall X-Men universe. But I just decided to roll with it, and found Apocalypse to be an enjoyable ride. The plot is messy but not incomprehensible, and the cast and special effects are top-notch.

Movies with as many characters as the X-men movies tend to have can start to feel bloated, and Apocalypse is no exception. Still, it’s nice to see the return of characters like Storm and Nightcrawler, as well as expanded roles for Seminal X-men characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey. There’s even a cameo from everyone’s favorite clawed mutant, whose third solo flick is due out next year and is reported to be R-rated, which is exciting.

Apocalypse is the fourth X-flick to be directed by Bryan Singer, and he has a really good grasp of what makes these characters tick. The movie is both a sequel and a sort of reboot, and could easily have been a mess. The mixed reviews would certainly suggest that the film is a sort of catastrophe (48% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, as opposed to 91% for Days of Future Past), but as usual I feel like the critics have vastly overstated it. Apocalypse is far from perfect but is still plenty enjoyable and chances are good you’ll enjoy it if you liked the previous films.

And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t give a special mention to the movie’s absolutely stunning slow-motion Quicksilver scene. I didn’t think Singer and co. could top the slow-mo sequence from Days of Future Past, but damn if they didn’t knock it out of the park with this one. The sequence where Quicksilver saves the occupants of the X-Mansion from a massive fireball, scored to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”, is a showstopper.

It’s a trippy movie (part of the final battle is a sort of mental duel between Apocalypse and Professor X) and it gleefully embraces its comic-book roots. The costumes are more colorful and the whole movie has a slightly surreal feel to it, which may be turn some people off but I for one found quite enjoyable.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

This is the rare Michael Bay movie that actually stayed with me after I watched it. I don’t hate the Transformers movies as much as many people seem to, they’re decently entertaining but evaporate from your mind the second they’re over, including the fourth film which is nearly three hours long.

13 Hours has more staying power. The film tells the story of the September 11, 2012 terrorist attacks on the US State Department Compound in Benghazi, Libya, and the American security operators who fought back.

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The movie is full of shootouts and explosions, filmed in hyperkinetic Michael Bay style, but the shootouts and explosions have more dramatic weight than any of the robotic carnage of the Transformers movies. It’s nice to see that Bay can still make an engaging action film that doesn’t overly rely on flashy computer effects.

One word I would use to describe this movie is mature. Bay tends to give in to his worst impulses as a filmmaker and indulge in some really stupid stuff. The Transformers movies (and many of Bay’s other films) are full of broad racial humor, cheesy romance stories, and frequently-ogled nubile young women, and it’s a relief that 13 Hours is devoid of that kind of crap.

The movie is a compelling portrayal of men at war, and it’s one of my favorite modern-combat movies, right up there with Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down. It’s easily one of Bay’s best films and if you’re a fan of the genre you should absolutely check it out.

Ignominious Endings

Okay confession/rant time. I’ve been a fan of the TV show Castle since it started, but by the end of the show’s eighth and final season, I just felt burned out. It was one of the worst endings to ANYTHING, EVER, I HATED it, and here’s why.

The main problem is that, once the show brought its two main characters (writer Richard Castle, played by Nathan Fillion, and NYPD homicide detective Kate Beckett, played by Stana Katic) together, the writers clearly had no idea how to create drama, and resorted to increasingly stupid lengths to try to wring some dramatic tension out of the show.

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Once Castle and Beckett actually got together and became a romantic pair, there was this contrived nonsense about the lengths they went to in order to try and prevent their families and colleagues from knowing about the relationship, for some reason. Eventually they gave up on that and decided to get married, which resulted in the appallingly stupid plot twist that Beckett married some guy in Vegas years ago and then forgot about it, which makes no sense and is completely out of character for her.

Once that insipid bullshit was dealt with, the show pulled the rug out from under the feet of its loyal viewers yet again by having Castle get abducted on the way to the wedding, only to reappear a few months later with, you guessed it, the hoariest of hoary plot contrivances, amnesia. That’s right, he had no memory of where he had been or what he had done for the previous couple months. Groan.

At some point later on, not content with the number of previous rug-pulls, the show made up some excuse to get Castle and Beckett mad at each other and separate them for a while, resulting in Castle’s determination to win his wife back, basically sending the show back to square one and the “will they/won’t they” stage of TV character relationships.

Once THAT even MORE insipid bullshit was dealt with and Castle and Beckett got back together, the show tried to make a big deal out of introducing some scary mysterious villain who was operating from the shadows, or something. This plotline made no sense to me and I did not give one holy hand grenade about it, hence my inability to describe it in detail, since whenever the show got back to this storyline I automatically started to tune out.

All of this led to what turned out to be the series finale. The shadow villain turned out to be some random chucklehead who had only been in one previous episode, and in the last scene, Castle and Beckett are celebrating their victory when they both get shot. As they’re lying there on the floor bleeding, the scene fades out, only to fade back in with the subtitle “Five years later” at the bottom of the screen (maybe it was more, I forget) and shows Castle and Beckett horsing around with a few little kids. Then it ends.

Wait, what?

The most obvious explanation for this abrupt conclusion was that the show got cancelled by ABC before the season was over, so the writers had to tack on an extra scene at the very end for what ended up being the series finale. The transition from “Castle and Beckett get shot” to “Castle and Beckett happy with their kids years later” is sudden and startling and not remotely satisfying, and it’s emblematic of the show’s storytelling problems as a whole.

The show always struggled with balancing the requirements of the case-of-the-week stories with the larger overall storylines, and in the end it just fell apart. It makes me really sad to say all this, because I still like the show’s earlier seasons, and it’s a shame the writers couldn’t think of more compelling storylines once the early ones were resolved. I’m glad the show is over though, since Stana Katic said before the show got cancelled that she wouldn’t be back for another season, and if the showrunners had tried to continue the show without her it wouldn’t have been the same.

Oh, well. I can still enjoy the early seasons while choosing to ignore the mistakes of the regrettable later seasons, and part of me will still miss the show now that it’s gone.

R.I.P. Anton Yelchin

Speaking of missing things that are gone, it saddened me deeply to learn yesterday of the death of 27-year-old Anton Yelchin, who died in a bizarre accident. He was a very talented young actor that left us far too soon, and I’m going to re-watch some of his movies. I haven’t seen his recent film Green Room yet, which was a brutal indie thriller where Yelchin played a member of a punk-rock band whose band comes under attack by vicious Neo-Nazis, the leader of which is played by Patrick Stewart. Green Room got great reviews and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it becomes available, and will be sure to post a review when I can.

I will always fondly remember him for his wonderful portrayal of Pavel Chekov in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films (the third of which comes out next month) and especially his delightful pronunciation of “Vulcan” and “Victor Victor.”

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R.I.P. Anton.

2014: The Year in Villainy

Another year, another roundup of cinematic evil. Join me, won’t you, on this delightful whirlwind of dastardly deeds, evil acts, and cinematic scumbaggery.

Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire

2014 villains artemisia

One of my two favorite villains of the year, Artemisia was smart, tough, and determined. Hell hath no fury, as they say, like a woman scorned, and Artemisia is ample proof of that. Eva Green played her with ferocity and more than a little charm, which made her somewhat likable in spite of being evil. She’s the kind of villain you love to hate, and she’s my pick for best villainess of the year. It was a good year for Eva Green playing sultry comic-book villainesses, she was also deliciously evil in the new Sin City movie, so give her an honorable mention for that one too.

The Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014 villains winter soldier

Few movie characters in 2014, good or evil, were as straight-up BAD ASS as this sonuvagun. Holy CRAP he was cool. A kind of Darth Vader to Captain America’s Luke Skywalker, he’s a cybernetically-enhanced super assassin who’s skilled, fast, and lethal. The fights between him and Chris Evans’ Cap were some of the best cinematic fights of 2014. Actor Sebastian Stan is under contract for (I think) nine films with Marvel, so you can be almost sure that he’ll show up at some point in the future. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing him again.

Jeanine Matthews in Divergent

2014 villains jeanine

You don’t usually see Kate Winslet being evil, but I thought she was pretty good at being bad in Divergent. You knew she would turn out to be evil (especially if you read the books), but she didn’t overdo it, which I thought worked to the film’s advantage. Expect to see her again soon, since the film did well enough at the box office that the sequel was fast-tracked to March of 2015.

Electro, Rhino and the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2014 villains spiderman

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a bit of Spider-Man 3 syndrome, in that it had maybe one too many bad guys. Although only two of them had character arcs, since Paul Giamatti’s Rhino was basically a glorified henchman, but still, the film as a whole was definitely a bit overcrowded. And I guess that some of their motivations for being evil were maybe a bit thin, but…oh, well. At least Electro’s flashy blue-white bolts of electricity were cool to look at. Sony is planning on making a whole movie devoted to Spider-Man baddies, so who knows what we’ll see from Spidey’s colorful rogues gallery in the future.

The MUTOs in Godzilla

2014 villains muto

I didn’t think of Godzilla as the bad guy in the latest movie that bears his name, he’s more of an antihero. The real villains were the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, otherwise known as MUTOs. Godzilla stops them from mating and making horrible horrible MUTO babies, which is something I think we can all be thankful for this holiday season. Thanks, Godzilla!

The Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 villains sentinel

I debated with myself a bit over who the real villain was in the latest X-Men flick. Was it Magneto? Mystique? Bolivar Trask? You could make a case for any of them, but for my money the only indisputably evil characters in the film were the Sentinels, which were so badass and so good at their job of mutant-killing that they pretty much ended the world, and it doesn’t get much more evil than that.

The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow

2014 villains mimic

How do you defeat an enemy who can simply reset the day to prevent itself from being defeated in the first place? That’s the question posed by Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi epic. The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow were frightening and very, very original in appearance and design. Kind of like giant, robotic-looking, time-manipulating squid-creatures. I thought they were very cool, and they had a lot to do with making Edge of Tomorrow one of my favorite movies of 2014.

Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy

2014 villains ronan

Ronan the Accuser is an evil blue space warlord. Even if I had left out the word “evil” in that description and juts said that he was a blue space warlord, I’m sure you would have been able to fill in the “evil” part on your own. One of the things I liked most about Ronan was his Alan Rickman-esque way of saying things…very…slowly. I guess he’s not really all that much different from other cosmic warlords you may have seen in other sci-fi movies, but if you’re evil enough that it takes five protagonists to bring you down, then you’re doing something right. I mean, you know, from an evil perspective.

Conrad Stonebanks in The Expendables 3

2014 villains gibson

Say what you will about Mel Gibson as a person, I still think he’s a damn fine actor, and he looked like he was having a great time being evil in the third Expendables movie. I thought the movie as a whole was a bit dull to be honest, but Gibson was easily the best part of the movie for me. With a name like Conrad Stonebanks, your career options are pretty much limited to either professional wrestler or professional supervillain. Conrad Stonebanks made the right choice in Expendables 3, and we connoisseurs of cinematic villainy can be grateful for that.

President Snow in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

2014 villains snow

Donald Sutherland’s President Snow deserves a shout-out for being reliably evil for three movies now. He seems to delight in inflicting psychological torture not just on the heroine of the movies, but on the nation he lords over as a whole. I always think he looks like a white-haired Satan, I mean just look at those arched eyebrows!! Downright devilish.

Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

2014 villains shredder

The Michael Bay-produced 2014 version of TMNT was certainly no masterpiece, but to be honest I still thought it was pretty damn entertaining, and I really liked the knife-shooting shredder. There was some evil plot to disperse some kind of chemical weapon over New York which was pretty inconsequential, I watched the movie yesterday and I’ve already forgotten the details, but hey, I can appreciate a cool character design when I see one, and I thought that Shredder was really fricking cool.

So there you have it, the cream of the crop of cinematic skullduggery in 2014. There are a lot of big-franchise movies due out next year, so we aficionados of evil have a lot to look forward to.

See you then!

Hope… and Mutants!

In my preview of 2014 movies a few months ago, I said that X-Men: Days of Future Past was probably my most-anticipated movie of 2014. And now, having finally seen the film, I can say that it’s a hell of a movie.

A word of warning:  I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the new movie as much as I can, but there may be spoilers for earlier movies in the series. I don’t think that’s too big of a deal, since the first X-Men movie came out all the way back in 2000, but since people are super-sensitive about spoilers these days, consider yourself warned.

Days of Future Past is based on an X-Men comic series from the 80’s involving time travel and multiple timelines.

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Right off the bat this presents problems for any attempted adaptation. Time-travel stories are incredibly difficult to pull off convincingly, and messing around with previously-established continuity in a popular film series is an equally risky proposition (just look at Spider-Man 3. I’m still pissed about how stupid that whole “a different guy really killed Uncle Ben” thing was).

Days of Future Past (I’m going to call it DOFP from here on out) is the seventh X-Men related movie since the original was released in 2000 (by comparison, since 1978 Superman has had only six movies). There’s a lot of previously-established continuity from the previous six films that DOFP has to deal with, and one of my biggest questions going into the new movie was how well director Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies but hasn’t directed one since, would pull it off.

Well…he succeeded. Mostly.

x-men dofp poster

But let’s step back for a second and take a look at the plot of the new movie. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants and humans who carry mutant genes are hunted by Sentinels, vicious mutant-exterminating robots with the ability to adapt to fight mutants with different powers. A small group of mutants is able to evade the sentinels thanks to Kitty Pryde, who is able to project a person’s consciousness back in time to deliver warnings to past versions of themselves.

They meet up with Storm, Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto and decide to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to inhabit his body in 1973 to try to prevent the war with the Sentinels from ever happening in the first place. Wolverine is chosen because his healing factor allows him to be the only one whose mind would be able to withstand the stress of being sent back in time such a long way. Once back in 1973, he seeks out the young versions of Professor X and Magneto in order to enlist their help in preventing the apocalyptic future.

Whew. I may have left out a few details, but without giving too much away, that’s the plot setup in a nutshell. If any part of that confused you, then this movie might not be for you. DOFP is very much a comic-book movie in that it assumes a lot of familiarity with the stories that preceded it. Little time is spent setting up the plot, as the movie starts, the world is in chaos. No time is spent recapping the events of the previous movies, which ultimately works to the movie’s advantage.

Most of the movie takes place in 1973, with periodic interludes to the future. So for all of its futuristic trappings, one of the biggest movies of the year is also largely a period piece.

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One of the most enjoyable things about 2011’s prequel X-Men: First Class was how it had fun adapting historical events to fit within its fictional universe. DOFP also has a lot of fun with this, and I’m sure there are references to historical events that a kid like me who was born in 1988 probably wouldn’t notice, but someone who grew up in the 70’s probably would.

I’m also okay with this because it lets Jennifer Lawrence wear 70’s outfits, which, as she so capably demonstrated in American Hustle, is something she does extremely well.

x-men dofp jennifer lawrence

Lawrence plays shape-shifting mutant Mystique, aka Raven Darkholme, who is crucial to the plot. Her assassination of the lead designer of the Sentinels and subsequent capture by the US government are the events that lead to the apocalyptic future, and are subsequently the events which Wolverine must enlist Professor X and Magneto to help prevent from happening in 1973. It’s fitting that Lawrence plays a shape-shifter, since she’s something of a shape-shifter herself. I mean really, is there any role this woman can’t play?

The movie is tremendously well-cast all around, which is particularly impressive considering the sheer number of characters.

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I count seventeen in the picture above, and there are even a couple who aren’t pictured there. Given the sheer number of characters and the movie’s epic scope, I think it’s really nothing short of a minor miracle that the movie works as well as it does. This could easily have been a train wreck, but for the most part it works like gangbusters.

A good part of this, I think, is due to the movie’s running time. The movie runs a brisk 131 minutes, which I think is just about perfect. It seems like a lot of blockbusters these days have bloated running times, frequently in excess of two and a half hours. And while I don’t have a problem with long movies per se, I admire the makers of DOFP for keeping the film at a reasonable length. There’s easily enough material in the story for a two and a half hour-plus movie, but Bryan Singer clearly realized the movie just didn’t need to be that long. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, with a minimum of excess. Everything in the movie feels like it belongs in the movie, which gives it a very streamlined sort of feel.

There are sacrifices, however. Some of the characters don’t get much to do except have cool fight scenes, and while I also don’t have a problem with cool fight scenes, it would have been nice to learn a little bit more about some of the characters, especially the ones in the future storyline who hadn’t appeared in any other X-Men films.

But at the same time, I don’t think that the lack of development of some of the supporting characters hurts the movie very much. The characters the movie spends the most time with are the characters who are most important to the story. Halle Berry’s Storm, for example, has maybe three or four lines of dialogue, but she’s not very important in the overall scheme of things, so it doesn’t really matter.

From a storytelling perspective, the whole movie is a study in what is important to the plot versus what isn’t. What I mean by that is that there are quite a few unanswered questions in this movie that frustrated me a little bit, but, as with the less-important characters, they don’t hurt the movie too much overall. Spoilers ahead.

For example: How is Professor X alive in the future when he was obliterated in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Magneto have his powers in the future when he lost them in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Wolverine have his metal claws back in the future when he lost them at the end of The Wolverine? No explanations are given for these questions, which I’ll admit frustrated me a little. Even just a few lines of dialogue would have sufficed. But ultimately, I was able to forgive these minor annoyances once I realized that they didn’t really matter. It’s enough that these things are the way they are, how they came to be isn’t really important.

These quibbles certainly don’t keep DOFP from being a really great movie. The acting is solid across the board, the special effects and action setpieces are exciting and look fantastic (I saw the movie in 3D, which was really fun) and the movie ends on a very hopeful and positive note. It left me with a hopeful feeling, and there’s never a bad time for that. It balances exciting action with genuine emotion and heart, although it might be a little confusing for anyone not familiar with previous X-Men movies. Still, this is easily one of the best entries in the series, and it’s that rare kind of summer blockbuster which is extremely entertaining and will also stay with you after it’s over. There are some aspects of the ending in particular (that I won’t spoil) that I am still pondering nearly a week after seeing the movie. The movie does have flaws, but they don’t prevent it from being a smart, sleek, finely-crafted piece of summer entertainment.