This week's picks involve mutants, nice guys, men on a mission, and demonic possession.
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)
There's a moment in X-Men: Apocalypse where a group of teenage mutant characters come walking out of a theatrical screening of Return of the Jedi (the film is set in 1983) debating which was the best entry in the original Star Wars trilogy. Cyclops prefers A New Hope, while The Empire Strikes Back was Jubilee's favorite. Jean Grey chimes in that at least they can all agree that the third movie is always the worst. The conversation is presented as being about Star Wars, but some viewers may get the feeling that the scene primarily exists to slam the third X-Men movie, X-Men: The Last Stand, which (along with X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is so looked down upon by the creative forces behind the X-Men franchise that it led to the series being retooled with the 1960s-set X-Men: First Class and the continuity being completely rearranged and retconned by the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time travel adventure that cut back and forth between the future and the 1970s.
The problem is, and director Bryan Singer may well have been in on the joke, that conversation can also be used against X-Men: Apocalypse, because it is the third movie in the First Class / Days of Future Past branch of the franchise. If the filmmakers were nodding to that, it should be evident that Apocalypse was striving very hard to overcome that "curse". But it doesn't seem to be trying hard at all. In the end, Jean Grey is right, the third movie is the worst in the First Class trilogy.
Which isn't to say that I thought it was bad, I just found it to be underwhelming in comparison to its predecessors.
The story begins thousands of years ago, when the first mutant ever born, En Sabah Nur, rose to power in Egypt with four enforcers at his side, exhibiting a power so great that he may have even been written about in the Bible - he and his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Occasionally, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse will transfer his consciousness into another body, and during one of these transfers he was betrayed by his followers and trapped beneath a crumbling pyramid.
Jump ahead to 1983, when C.I.A. agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne reprising the role from First Class) witnesses the resurrection of Apocalypse by a group of his worshipers. This event brings her back in contact with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, rocking fashions that imply Xavier is going to love Miami Vice when it premieres the follow year), a man she doesn't remember interacting with, and helping form the X-Men with, twenty years earlier, since he used his telepathic powers to wipe her memory.
As we catch up with the characters, we come to realize that this film has put no consideration into timelines, either from the movies that were purposely wiped out of continuity or even within this retro trilogy. Characters introduced in other films are younger than they should be in 1983, even though the events of Days of Future Past would have altered time after they were already born, so that can't be used as an excuse for why their ages changed. Singer even invalidates his own movies by having characters meet in Apocalypse that he previously showed meeting in X2. And don't even question why none of the First Class characters appear to have aged only five years since that movie, as the actors have, instead of twenty. They had their cast in place and no interest in showing these people age.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become an underground hero to mutants, and in a scene mirroring the introduction of Wolverine in the first X-Men movie she finds Angel - Ben Hardy playing a version of the character born long before the Angel Ben Foster played in X-Men: The Last Stand would have been - and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) participating in a cage fight, although against their will. She rescues them, and while Nightcrawler follows her on the path of righteousness, Angel ends up being recruited by Apocalypse as one of his Horsemen, his wings turned to steel and given the ability to fire out metal feathers, making him Archangel from the comics.
Apocalypse's other Horsemen are Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has spent the last ten years trying to live a quiet life as a family man in Poland. When his cover is blown, the authorities come after him and his family is inadvertently murdered, leading him back to the dark side.
As seen with Angel/Archangel, Apocalypse is able to enhance the powers of other mutants, and he seems to do so with Magneto, making him so powerful that he is able to use his magnetic powers to wreak havoc all over the world while standing still (well, levitating) in Egypt. The destruction on display in this film plays out on a much larger scale than it ever has in any previous X-Men movie. We don't just have a bridge or stadium being destroyed, this is a worldwide disaster like you'd see in a Roland Emmerich movie (Independence Day, 2012, etc.)
As Apocalypse we have Oscar Isaac, one of the most interesting actors working today, a guy whose career has skyrocketed in just the last few years. I first saw him in Drive and The Bourne Legacy, and now he's everywhere, including Star Wars. Why Isaac took this role is a head scratcher, because he is totally wasted here, buried under makeup and given typical supervillain lines to deliver in a whisper.
For the first hour of X-Men: Apocalypse, there feels like very little is actually going on. We see Havok (Lucas Till) bring his younger brother Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) to Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters to get the plasma blasts that come from his eyes under control. Cyclops meets future love interest Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Mystique brings Nightcrawler to the school and catches up with Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler go to the mall and watch Return of the Jedi with Jubilee (Lana Condor). Meanwhile, Apocalypse is going around recruiting his Horsemen and Magneto is living out a revenge movie subplot that gets disrupted. None of this was particularly engaging to me, especially since so much of it felt like we were just retreading old ground and being re-introduced to characters we already know, who weren't having interesting interactions.
After trudging through all this, the action finally starts to kick in a bit, coinciding with the arrival of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) at the Xavier mansion. The most crowd-pleasing scene in Days of Future Past belonged to Quicksilver, and that is also the case with Apocalypse - while I prefer the Quicksilver showcase in DoFP over the one here, it's still the most fun part of the movie.
Quicksilver is a welcome presence not just because he gets these awesome scenes, but also because there is a palpable enthusiasm to Peters' performance that makes him standout among the bland, underwritten characters and actors that don't seem to want to be there that he is surrounded by. While so many of the people around him are dour, Quicksilver is lively. For the next X-Men movie, I say phase out some of these over-used characters who seem to be spinning wheels and make Peters/Quicksilver one of the main characters. Let him grow from a loser to a leader.
Along the way to the climax, there's a pit stop at the Alkali Lake location first seen in X2, a setting visited to allow for a cameo that was spoiled by trailers and TV spots. I had no idea Wolverine would be showing up in this movie until the ads gave it away, but it's a fast and cool appearance, with the character in "Weapon X" mode, basically a feral animal. Hugh Jackman stopped by the set just to scream in berserker rage and tear into unlucky soldiers with his character's newly adamantium-encased claws.
It's certainly more entertaining than the big ending battle, where Mystique, Beast, Quicksilver, Nightcrawler, Cyclops, and Jean take on Apocalypse, Magneto, Psylocke, Angel, and Storm, with the fates of both Professor Xavier and the world hanging in the balance. These characters are running around, flying through the air, hitting each other, and yet I didn't feel engaged in the action at all. It's pretty lackluster stuff, it just wasn't exciting to me.
Before seeing Apocalypse, I was hearing comments that it had a "been there, done that" feeling to it, and after watching it I would agree. It feels stale, like a movie that's going through the motions. A lot of the actors and their characters feel tired, it's not very exciting because I don't think a lot of people involved with the making of it were excited about it. The X-Men series could use some new blood in front of and behind the camera, to bring in talent with fresh perspectives that could reinvigorate it. X-Men: Apocalypse is fine, but you don't want to risk dipping below this level. It needs to rise back up.
THE NICE GUYS (2016)
It has gotten overshadowed at the box office, coming out in the midst of all the summer blockbusters, but The Nice Guys was one of the most important releases of the year for me. Why? Because it was directed and co-written by Shane Black. Black has done the summer blockbuster thing himself, with Iron Man 3, but The Nice Guys is the sort of movie we really need Black around to deliver, an action/comedy buddy movie that harks back to the hard-boiled detective stories of the good old days. This takes him back to his roots of writing movies like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (his directorial debut). His co-writer on this one was Anthony Bagarozzi, and while this is Bagarozzi's first produced screenplay he did get a special thanks on the Black-scripted 1996 film The Long Kiss Goodnight, so he's obviously been in the Black picture for a while.
Lead characters Jackson Healy and Holland March make for the oddest pair of "nice guys" you've seen lately. Healy, played by Russell Crowe, gets paid to beat people up, and March, played by Ryan Gosling, is an alcoholic private investigator who will take money from people even when he knows the case is absurd. They both get caught up in the search for a young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley) for different reasons and are forced to team up to find her, even though Healy recently broke March's arm.
With an unexpected assist from March's young daughter Holly (Angourie Rice, delivering a very impressive performance), the guys try to figure out what's going on with Amelia and why everyone associated with her is turning up dead.
The Nice Guys isn't an action movie on the scale of Lethal Weapon or The Last Boy Scout, but Healy and March do find themselves in a number of violent situations with bullets flying all over the place. While Healy handles himself like a capable tough guy, March is in way over his head, and Gosling's reactions to the things around him are hilarious. Who knew Ryan Gosling could do a dead-on Lou Costello?
The dialogue is just as well written and fun as you would expect from a Black film, and there are solid dramatic elements along the way as well. Basically, The Nice Guys has it all and did not disappoint at all - in fact, it may have even exceeded my expectations. It's a great film.
Black's next directorial effort will be a sequel to Predator, for which he's teaming up with his collaborator from The Monster Squad, Fred Dekker. As hyped as I am to see a Black and Dekker Predator movie, I do hope that Black will never stray too far away from making movies like this one.
THE WILD GEESE (1978)
Inspired by the epic 1960s all-star World War II films The Guns of Navarone and Where Eagles Dare, producer Euan Lloyd embarked on making his own all-star action film a decade later. He and director Andrew V. McLaglen managed to assemble quite an impressive cast for their take on the concept, with leads including Richard Burton, future Dumbledore Richard Harris, and then-current James Bond Roger Moore. Moore's character even shares some traits with Bond, namely an overactive sex drive; it's mentioned that he is dating nine women at the same time.
Unlike those earlier films, The Wild Geese is not a World War II movie. Instead, the heroes are a group of modern day (in the '70s) mercenaries who are hired by a London banker to rescue South African political leader Julius Limbani from being executed by the military dictator who has deposed him.
Burton's character leads a team of fifty men, a team quite a bit larger than you usually get in "men on a mission" films, on a daring raid of the camp where Limbani is being held, with one member taking out guards with crossbow skills that would put The Walking Dead's Daryl Dixon to shame. Then the men use cyanide gas to kill more guards while they're sleeping, not the most pleasant scene I've ever seen in a movie.
As you would expect from a mission devised by a banker, there is a double cross at around the halfway point, which leaves our heroes stranded in the African desert with an army on their trail, allowing for a lot of action to transpire. In the midst of this, The Wild Geese offers an answer to racism: have every racist carry someone of the race they hate on their back through a desert. That's what happens here, with Limbani riding on the back of a racist mercenary, and the men soon develop mutual understanding and respect.
A good movie with a questionable theme song (which plays out over a title sequence designed by Maurice Binder, the man behind the dazzling title sequences of many a Bond film), The Wild Geese lures you in with a frequently light tone and funny lines scripted by Reginald Rose, then occasionally slaps you in the eyes with some disturbing imagery when the action kicks in, like the aforementioned cyanide scene, bloody shootouts and knifings, and burning corpses left by bombings.
It's not exactly a classic, but worth checking out if you want to watch some cool actors and fun characters play war for a couple hours.
The following review originally appeared on ArrowintheHead.com
THE OFFERING (2016)
The Offering stars Elizabeth Rice as Jamie Waters, an award-winning journalist based out of Chicago. When she gets the devastating news that her sister Anna has committed suicide in Singapore, an act recorded by her webcam, Jamie catches the next flight to Malaysia. Not satisfied with the answers authorities have for her, she starts using her professional skills to dig further into this personal mystery.
With the help of her brother-in-law Sam Harris (Matthew Settle), Jamie is able to find out that her sister was just one of several people who have killed themselves in this area recently, each in a way directly related to some kind of medical issue they had. And each of them claimed they would be back from the dead in seven days.
This a claim that Jamie's niece Katie takes very seriously, and the little girl anxiously awaits the return of her mother, even learning Morse Code in an attempt to communicate with her mother's spirit. It was Katie's desire to contact the dead that I found to be the creepiest aspect of this movie, with the performance delivered by young actress Adina Herz, making her screen debut here, being one of its strongest assets. The other actors do fine work in their roles (although Rice doesn't convey much emotional range as Jamie), but Herz is a highlight.
While the Waters/Harris family piece together the puzzle of the suicides and unearth dark secrets involving murders and séances, there's also a subplot going on with two priests who believe that recent cyber attacks have some kind of connection to events in the Old Testament. This story angle is the most unique thing The Offering has going on, and it would have served the film well if writer/director Kelvin Tong had expounded upon it even more rather than just making it a lesser element in a story packed with familiar scenarios.
Tong had some very interesting ideas when putting together The Offering. Ideas involving an ancient demon, binary code, and the Tower of Babel. There are problems with this, however, one being that the film doesn't get across just how dire things would be if the evil forces accomplished their goal. Sure, what it's doing is terrible, but what's the point? It really doesn't matter, because the movie ultimately squanders this aspect completely.
As intriguing as certain aspects are, they're irrelevant in the end because The Offering crumbles in the third act, becoming just another possession movie that lifts things from previous horror movies that involved exorcisms like The Conjuring and The Exorcist. In fact, the lift from The Exorcist is so obvious that it's inexcusable. You can't recreate that moment and expect viewers to take you seriously, it's going to take them right out of the moment.
The disappointment of the final moments aside, The Offering is a decently horrific ride for the majority of its running time. You might not care about the characters all that much, you might not understand exactly what's going on, but it's dark and creepy while the characters are going through the supernatural scenarios. It should also be noted that the quality of the film's visual effects were much higher than expected, and much better than you would usually see from a movie of this type and on this modest budget level.
If you're looking for a new classic or a new favorite, this isn't likely to deliver for you, but if you want to kill 95 minutes with a horror story, you can do much worse.